Here's what we think we know: last season, Sam took Lucifer back to Hell, and Dean quit the hunting life, returning to the only family he had left that wasn't tainted by stakes and salt and sulfur. It would've been a sad ending for the show--Dean's fate was a happy one, but Sam's damnation wasn't, and it's doubtful Dean was going to get much pleasure out his fresh start knowing his brother was suffering eternal torment--but it would've been an appropriate one. This is, after all, a horror series. Strip away the gooey fan service and meta-commentary, and this is a show about good guys who devote all they have to holding back the darkness. Sadly, darkness doesn't ever stay away for long.
Last season wasn't the end though, happy to say. It was the end for show creator Eric Kripke, who left after telling the story he'd wanted to tell, but Supernatural was renewed again (probably for the last time), and that meant the writers had to find some way to bring Sam back, and reunite the Winchesters. See, that's something else we know: whatever may have happened, this series is about the brothers fighting demons, and if you don't have both of them on board, you don't have a show. It doesn't matter that Sam gave his soul up to save world, and it doesn't matter that Dean found true love and the son he always wanted. We've seen this sort of thing before, and we know, sooner or later, the lights will flicker, and that's when the screaming starts. The question wasn't "if." The question was "how," and "when." The premiere episode of the season had to find away to reunite everybody that didn't seem cheap, but also didn't take too long to start delivering on the goods.
Does "Exile on Main St" succeed? Not entirely; the monsters of the week are pretty dull, and off you guessed that Dean would get all emotional and shouty at Sam in this episode, have a cookie. But the episode succeeds enough, and the things it does get right are so right that I'm even more excited for the rest of the season than I already was. Kripke did some great things, but one of the remarkable things here is how different the show feels under slightly new creative control. Sera Gamble, who's been with Supernatural from the start and is now stepping into Kripke's shoes, keeps Sam and Dean's strong dynamic, but tweaks it enough to feel new, and there's a maturity here that helps make the lunge towards the reset button more palatable. It's too early on to speculate too wildly, and, again, this isn't perfect. But it's so much better than it could've been.
Dean's still with Lisa and Ben, and from what we see in the opening montage, which blends shots of Dean's morning routine with clips from his and Sam's work as hunters, he's happy enough. He's got a job, a lovely wife, a great kid, and even a sort-of best friend. But when he hears a woman screaming of in the distance, he can't help but investigate, and the signs he finds--which are thin, but suggestive--set his teeth on edge. He starts digging, he sees some more weird stuff, and then the yellow-eyed demon attacks him in the garage. This isn't something that should happen, because the yellow-eyed demon is dead. The attack seems real enough, though. Right up till the point when Sam jams a syringe full of white goo into Dean's chest.
It's djinn poison, and Sam is working with a new team of hunters to track them down: relatives of his and Dean's dead mom, as well as Samuel Campbell, their grandfather. Who's actually supposed to be dead too, come to think of it, and wait, wasn't Sam in Hell? Turns out, nobody knows exactly what's going on, but Sam's been back from the underworld for going on a year now. He didn't get in touch with Dean because he wanted to give Dean a chance to have a "normal" life. Only, ha-ha, that isn't really something that guys like them can have.
At first, the lack of reason behind Sam's resurrection, when combined with Samuel's, seems lazy. We've played the "Something brought me back, I don't know what" card before, when Dean came back from Hell, and at least then, we got a great sequence of him struggling to come to terms with what happened. Here, it's all old news. Sam is surprisingly restrained throughout the episode, letting Samuel take the lead, and there's a lack of urgency to him now. He did his best to figure out who brought him back, he failed, so he's moved on. It's not "Patrick Duffy in the shower" bad, not by a long shot, but if that's all there was, some half-hearted shrug, and the introduction of a host of new regular hunters, well, that would be a bad sign.
It gets more interesting, though. While Sam and Dean are preoccupied elsewhere, Samuel and his sons grab one of the djinns and spirit her away. It's a quick scene, but important, because it's the only clear indication in the episode that something is wrong with the Campbells. If Samuel is up to something, if he's maybe not the bad-ass hunter he lets on (Mitch Pileggi is great here, because even when he's trying to sound friendly and sincere, he's kind of creepy. I think the main reason he worked so well on The X-Files was that he just acted pissed off all the time), that means his resurrection isn't so cheap, and, most likely, neither was Sam's. Plus, there's a great scene between the Winchesters when Sam tells Dean he'd rather hunt with him because Dean actually cares about the people they're trying to save. Makes you wonder what's going on with the Campbells, if they aren't the right kind of compassionate; and it makes you wonder what happened to Sam, who was always so touchy feely, to make him so cold.
This is all well and good, but what really sold me on "Exile" is how the episode treats Lisa and Ben. These are characters begging to be written off. They get in the way of giving us what we want, holding Dean down when he should be out racing the roads and shooting monsters in the face. Also, it's not like this is a series with a history of treating its female characters well. I didn't think they'd go so far as to kill the two of them straight away, since, in addition to being overly predictable (Dean even hallucinates Lisa meeting a similar end as his mother and Sam's fiancee), it would've set too grim a tone for the rest of the season. But I was assuming that, once Sam returned, Dean would bolt. He'd say something like, "I'm putting your lives in danger by being here," and then he'd run. Again and again we've seen the Winchester's abandoning possible relationships because they knew what could happen to unprotected loved ones. One more time would've been annoying, but not a shock.
For a while, it looks like "Exile" is headed in that direction. Then Dean tries to give Lisa the brush-off, and she basically tells him, "I signed on for this, you're the man I want in my and my child's life." It's a sweet moment, and it means that, in the end, Dean can't leave. These people will be in danger wherever he is, and he owes it to them to stick around. Who knows where this will lead in the coming weeks; obviously the show is going to have to find reasons to get Dean to meet up with Sam, and it's very possible that will get old, fast. What's great right here, though, is that this feels new. For the first time, there's something in Dean's life that's as important as his relationship to his brother, and it doesn't look to be going away any time soon.
- The title of this episode is taken from the Rolling Stones' best album--and yet, there wasn't a lot of rock 'n' roll on the soundtrack, unless I missed it. We didn't even get the traditional AC/DC "Previously on" montage.
- "Because it'd be me and that goat, all over the Internet!"
- "Possums carry rabies." "I did now know that!" "Possums... kill." (It's funnier in the delivery.)
- Corin Nemec, aka Parker Lewis (the One Who Cannot Lose), plays one of the new cousins, Christian. So far we don't know any of them very well, but I expect that will change soon.
- Dean offers Sam his car, and Sam passes. ("Thanks, really, but I already got my car set up the way I like it.") I think this is may be the first time since the start of the series that both brothers have established identities separate from each other.