Last week's preview for tonight's episode, "Family Matters," gave us a little more than was probably necessary, but I'll give them this much credit: Cass's line about Sam not having a soul happened very early on, and there were much weightier and more surprising revelations to come. After all, given what we already knew about Sam's condition, soullessness seemed the most likely cause. This is always a weird metaphysical area for any show because it's not really something anyone has experience with. We don't even know if the soul actually exists. So we get a new Sam who doesn't really feel much—except he does show the occasional emotion, which I think is less Padalecki's fault than it is the impossibility of having a character be completely flat and not turn into a robot. We also have ourselves a new goal for the season, and by the end of "Matters," we know exactly what accomplishing that goal is going to entail.
I enjoy Supernatural's serialized nature; the last two seasons, in particular, have played heavily on connecting each week directly to the next, and it helps give a sense of rising action. The only drawback is that you get episodes like tonight's. It was solid, and the climax was terrific, but it also didn't really have much of an identity on its own. There was no hook here, beyond Dean trying to figure out what had happened to his brother, and while the big reveal of Crowley's involvement in all of this promised interesting ramifications down the road, it didn't tie together the pieces of the rest of the episode into a strong whole. So reviewing this is sort of like reviewing a chapter in a novel; it wasn't exciting or funny enough to stand on its own (as I'd argue some of the episodes of the show are), but it also did what it needed to do with comforting reliability.
Plot-wise, after a short interlude with Cass (and yes, I'm going to go on spelling that with two esses, because that's what the closed-captioning says, and because "Cas" just looks unfinished to me), Sam convinces Dean to help him get his soul back, and their first stop is going to see Samuel, the only person they can think of who might have answers about the hole in Sam's heart. Samuel isn't forthcoming, but he does have good news: The Campbells have managed to track down the Alpha Vampire we learned about a couple weeks back, and they're making a play for him tomorrow. The assault on the vampire compound goes well (and we get to see a little more of Gwen, probably the only member of Campbell's inner circle who's not a complete tool), but Dean sees Samuel, Sam, and the others loading the Alpha into a van, instead of just chopping off his head like good hunters.
There's some wandering around and discussion and a nice fake-out after Dean tells Sam to either do things his way or leave, and what it eventually comes down to is this: Crowley is pulling the strings. He's running Samuel, he's the one who pulled the two Sams out of Hell, and he's holding on to Sam's soul as a bargaining chip. The reason he wants all these Alphas kidnapped? He's looking for the location of Purgatory. Here we have new a addition to the series' mythology, the place where monsters go when they die. Crowley wants it because he wants to expand Hell—or so he says. This whole situation is a little fuzzy currently, but not in a bad way. Crowley was one of the best characters introduced last season, and I'm a fan of anything that gets him more screen time. He's a demon who isn't just spewing malevolence or trying to seduce you; he's a clever bastard who knows all the angles. For once, the Winchesters are facing a villain who actually seems as smart as they are and probably smarter. That's good for drama.
Also good is the morally ambiguous sight of the Alpha Vamp being tortured. Now, he doesn't suffer, and there's never any doubt that he isn't evil, but it's still weirdly uncomfortable to watch. (I liked how, by the end, the "torture" was less about getting anything out of the vampire, and more about the torturer being pissy.) Add that to the idea that Crowley has a whole warehouse full of stored baddies that he's most likely running through the mill to get the information he needs, and it's hard to know exactly where to stand. The show is always more interesting when it doesn't give us easy answers. Last season, the Winchesters were fighting against the impending Apocalypse, but now? Crowley's requests don't seem that unreasonable, and Sam's still missing his soul. Dean's still a moral absolutist, and odds are the show will fall squarely back on his side soon enough. For right now, though, the up-in-the-air vibe works very well, and, given Sam's more sedate outlook, it lacks the sometimes overblown angst of earlier seasons. "Matters" wasn't the series at its finest, and I could have used a few more jokes, but it got the job done. Next chapter, please.
- I'm not sure how long Sam will be without his soul (I assume it'll be a season long issue, but who knows), but I think I almost prefer him this way. There's something fascinating about characters who have to make an effort to be human.
- I was surprised when the Alpha snapped Christian's neck—Corin Nemec isn't a huge name or anything, but we've hardly seen the character at all this season—but it turns out he's possessed, so that's okay.
- "Dean." "Hello, Newman."
- "My true form is approximately the size of your Chrysler Building." That's our Cass!
- Dean, to Gwen: "Well, you do speak your mind." Yes, and seeing as how it's the 1950s and all, it's such a shock when a woman does this! Er, wait. (I know, I know. It was just a weird moment, is all.)
- "So, me Charlie, you angels."