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Saturday, 31 of October of 2020

DVD First Watch: Supernatural – “All Hell Breaks Loose”

We got work to do.

The Devil's Gate

Certainly appears to be better security than the Hell Mouth in Sunnydale.

I really enjoyed season 2 of Supernatural, in case you couldn’t tell from the previous posts (for thoughts on earlier episodes, you can click here). It’s been a season that actually concludes (in a rewarding fashion) its on-going story arc without dragging it out too much. Its finale sets up new and interesting plot threads for future seasons in a subtle and elegant way while still telling strong episode-by-episode stories. It balances serialization without allowing the serialization to consume the series. Episodes remain both self-contained and able to provide forward momentum on seasonal plot arcs without feeling tacked on.

In short, season 2 of Supernatural is a remarkable well-rounded and well-executed season of television. Sure, they are some clunkers in the mix, but they don’t weigh down the season very much, or stand out as examples of what Supernatural shouldn’t do. I think that’s what impresses me the most about this season is that is very consistent in its quality, which is a claim that even the best of shows can’t necessarily make sometimes.

As promised, I have thoughts from both Charlotte Howell and Cory Barker after the jump. My thoughts are first since they come from a newbie’s perspective on the series (and without much knowledge of what’s to come; but damn do they hype up season four!). Charlotte’s thoughts will be after mine, and then Cory will bring us home.

While I loved the season as a whole, a little bit of me wasn’t super-crazy about the finale. (Aside from the “OMGWTFBBQ” moment of Mary recognizing Azazel. Seriously. OMGWTFBBQ.) But I’m okay with this because, really, it’s the show closing the book on the past two seasons’ stories and going on to new ones. I like that I’m not left with an intense cliffhanger like in season 1, and instead with both Sam and Dean coming to some degree of peace with their roles as hunters. It allows the series to continue with new stakes, both in terms of narrative and character.

And that stuff, the new stakes, is what excites me as I go forward with the series. How does Mary recognize Azazel? What does the demon’s blood mean for Sam beyond his visions, and will the visions continue? How are the boys going to get Dean out of his crossroads deal? Did Dean resurrect a 100% pure Sam? Will Bobby ever take his trucker cap off? In many ways, the finale feels more like episodes 0 and 0.1 of season three, and I like that look to the future.

Putting that aside: the episodes. I think one challenge the first part of the finale faces is that the psychic children story hasn’t been all that great or fleshed out. While I liked “Simon Said” and “Hunted”, both episodes were still a little on the weak-ish side (particularly “Simon Said”) with the season now finished. Which makes an episode devoted to them kind of uninteresting (and Ava’s turncoat ways were easy to predict).

Yellow-Eyed Demon AzazelBut I do like that the episode solves the majority of the show’s big mysteries, and in a pretty economical way. Having Azazel just explain things (“Oh, I’m going to win anyway. Might as well explain most of master plan to you.”-type of situation) should violate lots of “show don’t tell” rules, but he does both, and it furthers larger questions about the show in the process, which is why it works so well.

The second of the half of the finale is stronger, and pays off some other aspects of the show, in particular the colt. I really love that colt wasn’t just a weapon that could kill any demon, but is the key that unlocks a gate to hell. It helps explain even further why Azazel wants it.

I was little frustrated by the off-screen board clearing of the roadhouse, (and Ash’s unceremonial death), given how it offered great opportunities to keep Supernatural‘s world a little more open beyond Sam, Dean, and the Impala. Has me wondering what’s next for Ellen, as well as her relationship with Jo. It’s a minor quibble in an otherwise strong episode.

Dean’s crossroad deal nicely brings his desire to preserve his family full circle (well, fuller circle after “What is…”), and Sam’s overkill killing of Jake makes clear that Sam isn’t out of the wood yet when it comes to his demonic blending. Both beats lock these in as key concerns of the show. Indeed, now that John has finally moved on and Mary has been avenged, the costs of hunting are now squarely on Dean and Sam’s shoulders. They’re doing this not out of obligation or revenge, but because it’s what they want. And that’s a good place for the show to be as it moves to its next stage.

Charlotte Howell blogs at Thinking Television, though not as often as any of us who reads her blog would like. She’s in the final stages completing her Master’s thesis on fantastic religion in television at University of Texas, Austin, which I can only image includes a chapter on Supernatural. She’ll start her PhD at Georgia State University (where all the writers here at Monsters of Television received much or all of their academic training (we like to keep it all in the family here at the blog, what can I say?)) this fall.

Supernatural rewards patience.  I realize this is a rather boring opening to my thoughts on “All Hell Breaks Loose” and season two in general, but I enjoy the cleverness with which these final episodes continually recall and revise/reveal past elements of the show’s narrative.  Among the legitimately awesome ghost towns, cowboy graveyards, and damned doors to hell, it’s the smaller moments of circularity that stand out even on the tenth viewing.  I’m going to try to write this without revealing any spoilers for future seasons, but there will be some vague gesturing to how long it takes the show to reap the narrative seeds it sows.  In “All Hell Breaks Loose, Part Two” we find out that the Yellow-Eyed Demon (YED) didn’t include the Colt in John’s deal merely for spite or self-preservation but to open the gate to hell.  There are plans within plans on this show, and one of its greatest storytelling strengths is its ability to take its time in revealing these structures. When Mary says, “It’s you!” in “All Hell Breaks Loose, Part One,” it’s a huge deal for the overarching narrative (that won’t get resolved until two years down the road–see, patience!), but it’s also instantly glossed over to focus on Sam’s demon blood, which itself is an explanation for the “how” and “why” questions or the special children that have been simmering since season one.  Supernatural employs a kind of directional spiral structure, returning to certain scenes (e.g., Baby Sam’s nursery) or character beats (e.g., Dean’s issues of self-worth) and using them to build on the past and move the plot forward, and season two is perhaps the tightest example of this.

Sam and Dead with the corpse of AzazelThis kind of structure also allows for the show’s operation in the tension between expansion of the narrative world and contraction around the theme of family.  Season two gave us a cavalcade of psychic children, the roadhouse and the resulting widening of the hunter community, and the impending cosmic war.  Yet these expansions also got fold into the more contained concept of family.  The YED saw the psychics as his children and acted fairly paternalistic toward Sam.  The roadhouse gave us more hunters, but it also ultimately took away everyone but the lone maternal figure in the Winchesters’ lives, and the cosmic war was also a set-up for the resolution of the Winchester family revenge plot.  John fades away and Dean gets to tell the corpse of that poor janitor, “That was for our mom.”  Supernatural‘s never hidden that its main concern is family, and even the resolution of the raison d’etre for the first two seasons doesn’t cause that to waver.  Dean is the anchor of this theme, building his whole identity around family, for good or ill, but now it’s Sam’s turn to save his brother.  It’s the second time in the series that Sam vocalizes his devotion to Dean (in season one, he says he would die for Dean, and in the final moments of season two, he says there’s nothing he wouldn’t do for his brother), and it’s a wonderful look from Jensen Ackles, conveying a bit of wonder and a bit of indulgence.  The standard brotherly dynamic is still firmly in place with the declaration of “We’ve got work to do” framed by the trunk-shot revisiting the final scene of the pilot.  It’s both a return and a revision of that moment, giving a different–but still family-oriented–purpose to the hunt as we shift to season three and Dean’s expiration date.  It’s a small reward for the viewer’s patience and memory and a reminder to trust in the story (if not in the Winchesters who really like to lie).

For more from Charlotte, I recommend these excellent posts:

Cory Barker blogs at TV Surveillance, and is a master of compiling ranked list of episodes. He’s currently working on Master’s degree in Bowling Green State University’s Department of Popular Culture after receiving his Bachelor’s from Indiana University. His thesis will deal with USA’s brand identity (which means he won’t be talking about Supernatural!).

Just so you know: I’ve been watching Supernatural since the beginning. I was there in the fall of 2005 and oddly, I can still remember the context of the viewing experience (which I won’t share with you here because it’s not remotely relevant or interesting), even though I wasn’t supremely blown away by what Supernatural had to offer in that initial effort.

John

Nevertheless, because I’ve been watching the series since its inception, I’ve spent the better part of four years trying to get friends, family, colleagues, undergraduate student newspaper readers and randoms on the street to watch it. But I want to emphasize the number; you’ll notice I didn’t say five years, I said four.

That’s because outside of a half-dozen episodes, the first season of Supernatural is not vital to the viewing pleasures that come in season two and onward. While season one provides some generally necessary foundational content, it is season 2 that makes Supernatural, Supernatural. It is, without a doubt, the most important season of the series and after going back over the final few episodes and the season as a whole for this little aside, I’m very close to deciding that is the best as well.* The final stretch of episodes, really dating all the way back to 2.12 “Nightshifter,” is so strong and the storytelling much more confident than the series had been in season one.

*I always go back and forth between season two and season four and usually stick with season 4 because of the exciting and effective change in direction in storytelling.

Second seasons should be about two things: 1.) Deepening the mythology and 2.) Expanding the world that the characters inhabit. Supernatural nails both of those points hard throughout season two, which makes the final few episodes even more satisfying. When Dean gets zapped into a “better” version of what his life could have been, we feel his initial joy and his ultimate pain because the last 18 episodes have done a wonderful job of beating him down.* And when Sam gets transported to the abandoned town in South Dakota, the return of all the other “special children” is a welcome one because their individual episodes were mostly well-executed.

*For those uninitiated, the series continues to only get better at this as it goes along. Sam and Dean are suffocatingly miserable from about the middle of season four onward.

Sam killing JakeWhat is so fascinating (and great) about “What Is and Shall Never Be” and the “All Hell Breaks Loose” two-parter is how well they acknowledge the series’ biggest thematic questions: Is Sam evil? Will Dean have to kill him? Do either of them have a choice or are their paths so clearly pre-determined? When life and death are really no obstacle (with crossroad deals and more to help you), what are Sam and Dean’s ultimate purpose? Throw in some manly Dean wallowing and irrational self-sacrifice and these three hours basically provide the audience with everything Supernatural can do well.

Moreover, the finale is particularly adept at answering questions and reaching conclusions to what were really the biggest plots happening at the time, something that should be heralded more than it is. Although certain things linger, many of the plot points introduced in the pilot episode are at least somewhat addressed in “All Hell Breaks Loose”: What Yellow Eyes wants, why he killed Jessica, what Sam’s powers are for, it’s all here, basically in one relatively short scene. By the end of it, Sam and Dean not only stop Yellow Eyes’ current plan, they dispatch of him and get the one final moment with their father that they had been searching for since “In My Time of Dying.” Series like Supernatural don’t usually solve most of their biggest mythology questions in season two and although it would take the series until season four to retrench into wider storytelling, it doesn’t make the answers and moments here any less enjoyable.

Season two is the season that Supernatural became a great series and by my count, episodes 20-22 are the series at its highest highs up to that point.

For more from Cory, I recommend these excellent posts:

—————–

There’s going to be a break in the Supernatural watching, so I won’t be catching up on season three in the immediate future. One reason is that I need to do seasons two and three of Breaking Bad before season four begins. The second reason is related to Supernatural though. As you may or may not be aware, there’s an anime of Supernatural. 22 episodes of animated adaptations from seasons one and two, plus some original materials.

The DVD set is released at the end of July, and I’ll be picking it up. After I’ve watched it and written about it, I’ll start on season three. Or maybe I’ll just slip to season four, since it’s apparently so good.

I want to thank Charlotte and Cory for providing these excellent thoughts on a show that they both love (particularly Charlotte, who wrote her contribution while being suck with a summer flu (which is the absolute worst kind of flu, by the way)). Hopefully we’ll engage one another in the comments, and you, dear reader, will join us.


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