Supernatural: "99 Problems"
B+

Supernatural: "99 Problems"

While we still don't have a clear sense of a world under siege by the forces of darkness, "99 Problems" at least gives us a sense of moderate progression. That this progression is arguably undone by the mid-point reveal doesn't mean it isn't effective. After all, the fake-Leah wouldn't be able to do her job nearly so well if the locals weren't so eager to find meaning in the unfolding horror of their lives. This is another doom-and-gloom episode, for obvious reasons, and it ends with a decision nearly made. Before we get to that end, we get a great demon-hunting action sequence, some consideration of the lengths people will go to ensure their place in Paradise, and a drunken Cass. Some tears, some laughter, everybody's going to hell.

I'm a big fan of starting a story in the middle of the action, and "Problems" wastes no time, throwing Sam and Dean into a demon attack, and then getting them rescued at the hands of holy-water-fire-hose wielding Lutheran militia-men. Once the Winchesters realize what's going on, they decide they want in, which seems more like a plot-necessary decision than an immediately sensible one. One of the things preventing this season from having a sense of progression is its approach to character arc. In every episode, we'll get Sam and Dean arguing with each other about how miserable they are, and about how they're doomed and there's nothing to stop the forces of darkness, etc. But at the same time, this sense of hopelessness rarely affects their actions. While both have done their part in trying to stop the Apocalypse, I don't have a clear sense of how their approach to their situation now is different from what it was back in September. Character development shouldn't be reliant on characters simply saying how they feel to each other. If Sam and Dean are desperate, okay, I can believe them wanting a team-up, but too many scenes (especially from Sam) play out like they would during any other standalone. There's no push from either of them, and if that's being done purposefully, it would be nice if we could have a clearer sense that yes, all avenues are exhausted, instead of just having Dean say that.

Thankfully, Dean does show some progression this week, even before he grabs his car and goes to check on an old flame. For once, his depression clearly changes how he approaches his job, and it's striking enough shift to make his intention to give in to Michael justified. Sam is as Sam as ever, and I don't know how smooth Dean's transition from fighter to vessel will look if we view the season as a whole. But at least his change of heart makes some sense, and it may be an omen of brighter days ahead. The unfortunate thing about the grim tone of most of the episodes we get now is that it mutes or even ignores the show's big strength: the chemistry between the brothers. Even during its clunky, repetitive first season, that chemistry clicked, because whatever their relative strengths and weaknesses as actors, Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles acted like two guys who'd known each other for a long time. Now, it's just two guys who've been frustrated and angry with each other for a long time, and there's not a lot of fun in that. I'm hoping we'll get some kind of resolution by the end of this season that brings some of the lightness back to the series, by finding some way to make these brothers friends again.

As for the episode itself, the Leah twist was a good one, and a nasty one. The Whore of Babylon took the form of a holy man's daughter and starts preaching prophecy, telling people where to find demons and how to exorcise them. But it's all a sham (the exorcism, according to Cass, translates to "You breed with the mouth of a goat.")("It's funnier in Enochian."), and soon enough, the false Leah is turning people on each other, insisting they have to follow the rules of the "angels" if they want to make it to Heaven, and the providing a list of folks who need to be put down for the good of the community. It's a plan that nearly works, and it's responsible for at least one damned soul, as Leah convinces the mother of a murdered demon hunter to shoot a bar-owner. The psych-out here is some dark, dark stuff, but it's not really distinctive. That's another problem with the Apocalypse so far--the monsters are all into head games, and dammit, sometimes you just want to see something nasty with really sharp teeth.

There were enough flashes of humor to keep this from being a slog, and once again, Cass does a fine job of comic relief. And the ending at least offers the chance that bad may finally slide into worse. (As I didn't expect bad was going to improve to meh, I'm just happy for a change.) I'll give Supernatural credit for staying true to its convictions, but convictions aren't always enough. I can accept the soap opera; as a matter of fact, I signed on for it. And it was great having some continuity when Dean visited Lisa, asked about her son, told her how much she cared for him. I feel kind of like Lisa at this point myself, though, because all I really want to do is get these guys to sit down, have a beer, take a load off, and get some perspective on things. Just because it's the end of the world doesn't mean you have to go around acting like... well, okay, maybe you do. Crap. I just hope we get some fireworks soon.

Stray Observations:

  • Funny is Cass casually calling Sam an "abomination." Funnier is Sam's terribly hurt look.
  • After hearing Leah's new rules for getting in God's grace: "Dean, they basically just outlawed 90 percent of your personality."
  • I wonder if people were getting married just so they could have sex without sinning? (Also, since everybody was arms, I guess that was a shotgun(s) wedding. Ha!)
  • "I found a liquor store." "And?" "And I drank it." (I wish we could just have a whole episode about Cass.)
  • Well, no "bitch" this week, but we did get a slight over-use of the word "Whore." Partially justified, but Dean's "On a good day, you get to kill a whore." line was lame.

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