There’s a weird disconnect now between Supernatural’s mythology and its treatment of the main characters. Normally, in a show like this, the protagonists are the strongest element, submerged under the weight of a massive, overly complex mythology. That makes sense—the heroes are usually well-developed, interesting characters, while the mythology gets bogged down in unnecessary crap that ends up consisting in uninteresting answers to interesting questions. That was certainly the case for the first couple of seasons after Eric Kripke left. But this season has flipped that dynamic on its head. Now, pretty much everything but the Winchesters on this show is awesome, while their personal stories are just so, so annoying.
Let’s talk about Winchester guilt and when it does and does not work. Tonight’s cold open, in which Dean destroys the Men Of Letters library in a fit of rage, was the best Supernatural has been with Winchester internal torment in years. The short, wordless sequence (compellingly directed by executive producer Robert Singer) plays on Dean’s connection to Kevin and the understandable guilt he feels without subjecting us to pointless moping. If Supernatural were like this every week, I’d be totally fine with it being the Guilty Winchester Show. Sadly, the end of “Road Trip” is the most frustrating the show has been in a long while. (Don’t worry we’ll get there eventually.)
Thankfully, pretty much everything else about this episode is great. Dean, Cas, and Crowley’s titular road trip is absolutely delightful—Cas’ car alone is just pure, sugary fun. Crowley’s NSA plant (topical!) is a really fun guest star, and it’s really too bad that she’s killed by Abaddon, intolerant of disloyalty even though she’s dealing with demons. Heaven and Hell remain in enjoyable, dizzying disarray, centered on Crowley, who turns out to be the highlight of the episode. Sheppard is just great throughout, from his admiration at his underling’s ability to play the game to his attempt to call shotgun in the car, and his work in the scenes when he first goes into Sam’s head to free him from Gadreel and then starts a demonic election between himself and Abaddon (!) might be the best he’s done on the show. I know not everyone is a huge Sheppard fan, but give the guy some credit for making his general hammy quality work like gangbusters in this episode. When Abaddon shows up, Crowley sends the Winchesters on their way, claiming: “I’m the goodest guy you’ve got.” He’s not wrong.
On the angelic side, Gadreel and Metatron continue running down the names on the list. This storyline serves to flesh out Gadreel’s motives and make him a more complex character beyond “twist villain.” In the process of taking out his old torturer, we learn that Gadreel has a “boyfriend,” Abner, who of course is the next name on Metatron’s list. Abner is now in customer support (“It’s like answering prayers”) and has a family. From their conversations, we get the sense that they were merely close friends (angelic love would have been pretty interesting, though), which maybe makes it a little easier for Gadreel when he kills Abner. I appreciate the show’s attempts to make him a real character in anticipation of his betrayal of Metatron (I assume, because come on), but it’s tough to really get attached to or understand him at all when he’s played by a couple of different actors—and Padalecki’s limitations are really, really apparent in these scenes. “Road Trip” even gets in some quality Cas time, as he first punches Gadreel in the face (one of several nice visual flourishes beyond the cold open) and then shares a nice moment with Dean reflecting on their “trusting” propensities. Somehow, this conversation leavens Dean’s stupidity, which has been the biggest problem with this season—the only reason that the Winchesters are in this position is because Dean has acted like a total idiot, and yet somehow he sounds more grizzled than dumb.
But Crowley gets Sam to cast Gadreel out, and here we are at the end of “Road Trip,” the best and worst of Supernatural side by side. On one hand, Crowley and Abaddon finally get to share the stage, making campaign speeches for the not-hearts and minds of the average demon. A demonic election (such as there can be one) is so, so exciting. I can only hope the rest of the season is filled with demons betraying each other left and right, switching sides from Abaddon to Crowley and back. It’s too bad that the war in Hell, the most compelling the mythology has been in years (especially combined with the war in Heaven) is combined with such a terrible story for our heroes.
Sam remembers everything Gadreel has done (including killing Kevin), and blankly expresses horror at what “he” did. Crowley tries his best to tell Sam that it wasn’t really him, but it doesn’t seem like he’ll be convinced, which is too bad. The Winchesters’ guilt trips are truly the worst thing about Supernatural at this late date, and Padalecki and Ackles know it—neither of them seems to be acting at all, going through the motions. And now the Winchesters are separated again! (Maybe the weirdest thing about this scene is the way Cas just kind of stands in the background.)
Now we can take stock of all the guilt on display here: Dean feels guilty for acting like a complete idiot for the entire season and letting Gadreel kill Kevin. Sam feels guilty for killing Kevin even though he was possessed (Crowley and Dean try to talk him out of feeling responsible, but it doesn’t seem to take even though they deal with this situation all the time). Dean leaves because he does more harm than good, because he’s totally done this time, seriously. (Did anyone actually feel anything when he said that? Anyone? Bueller?).Now the Winchesters are separated, which they’ll in turn continue to feel guilty about for an episode or two at least. Ugh.
Look, I know that Winchester guilt is part of the DNA of this show, but it’s been on the air for so long that doing the exact same beats the exact same way is starting to get kind of old and, frankly, a bit embarrassing. Would any fans actually get mad if the Winchesters didn’t have a contrived split? If they spent a season just kinda getting along and killing monsters? (Maybe they would—please tell me so if I’m wrong.) Mainly, it’s frustrating because this episode is phenomenal otherwise, and I’m trying not to let the guilt stuff bog down how fun the rest is. It looks like at the very least Supernatural will be making good use of this separation and the pairings it apparently creates. Next week, Dean and Crowley will go hunting together (!), and I imagine Cas and Sam will have a lot to talk about re: possession-related angelic atrocities. Hopefully their hijinks will earn how annoying this story has become, in what’s otherwise such a fun, refreshing season.
- I know it’d be almost impossible, and probably not as compelling as I’d like to think, but it’d be great to get an episode or two of just angels and demons, going at each other. As far as the Winchesters’ personal stories go right now, I just don’t care.
- Watch out guys, the people at the NSA are dem—oh, I get the joke now.
- Tahmoh Penikett returns!
- Bet on how many episodes before the brothers are back in the car? I say two.
- And let’s give another hand to Singer, because this episode is really phenomenally directed.
- Happy new year! I’m excited for the second half of the season.