So, apparently, there's a war going in in Heaven right now. Apparently, Cass is fighting the good fight (maybe) against some crazy angels, and there's probably some bad stuff going down in Hell, and Eve, the Mother of All, presumably has plans just full of bad news. Apparently. See, thing is, we've spent most of the season hearing about this, in between Winchester focused storylines, and very little of it has any meaning to us beyond the occasional inconvenience/assignment for Sam and Dean. We've been down this road before. Last season was the Apocalypse, but there wasn't much in the way of rivers of blood or cities on fire--it was more of an Armageddon by implication. Which was unfortunate, but understandable enough; this is a TV show, and TV shows have budgets after all. Occasionally the obvious work-arounds became a little too obvious, and the season's reach exceeded its grasp by a fair margin, but on the balance, it was a success. The good outweighed the clumsy.
I'm not sure I'll be able to say the same about this season which, even with the occasional bright spot, is looking more and more like a show in search of any reason to keep going. There's not much in the way of cohesion here, and so much of the jokes and story ideas lately seem to come from ripping off movies and treating it like an homage. Like tonight's episode, "Frontierland," whose nods to Back to the Future Part III want past riffing and straight into outright line swiping. A character is obsessed with Clint Eastwood, and wears inappropriate clothes! (Clothes which lead to what sounded an awful lot like a gay joke, which is a road Supernatural really has no business going down.) And of course the ending, which has Sam Colt mailing a package a hundred and fifty years into the future. The delivery man even mentions that he and the guys at the office had a bet whether or not anyone would be at the address Colt had provided. Admittedly, that's a joke from Back to the Future Part II originally, but it's part of the same storyline.
This is nitpicking, I realize, and normally, I enjoy it when the show winks at whatever source material it's stealing from, but those winks only really work if they aren't the only thing holding the episode together. "Frontierland" sounds like the sort of ep that's almost impossible to screw up: the Winchester travel back in time to the Old West. There's some plot mumbo-jumbo about them needing the ashes of the Phoenix (we'll get to that) to help them fight the Mother (I think I'm going to just call her that from now on, in case anyone forgets how kind of fucked up this all is), but really, the point here is to get the boys into a Western, so Dean can get all giddy about re-enacting his favorite movies, right up until the moment when he realizes that those favorite movies were, y'know, made up. That's not breathtakingly original, but it's the sort of solid concept that Supernatural usually handles well, because it's clearly self-contained, and because there's room to goof off and have fun.
And there are parts of the episode which are fun. Jensen Ackles has a knack for inappropriate enthusiasm, and it was nearly worth the price of admission (which was, after all, free) just hear Bobby reference his old hunting grounds, Deadwood. (How much cooler would this ep have been if Bobby had gone back in time as well, though?) And on the less fun, but still effective, side, learning that the Phoenix was just a guy named Elias Finch who'd been deeply wronged by the locals was actually something of a twist for this show, and not a bad one. Dean's conviction that they still had to kill him could've thrown an interesting moral light on the situation. After all, Elias had been dead for a century and a half by our time, and Mother needs to be put down (although I keep forgetting she's around except for when people mention her). And yet, the man was wronged, monster or no, and how willing should the Winchesters be to shoot someone just to further their own ends? It's not like they've done that much research on demonic matricide, after all. A single montage at the beginning of the ep is hardly enough to hang a life on.
The episode didn't have to be about this--if they'd wanted to do a goofy time travel lark, that's cool, I'm not asking great drama from the show. But the larking was iffy for too much of the running time, and there's too little thought put into any of this. Throughout this season, I've had the unpleasant sense that Supernatural was flailing for a purpose. There've been good arcs here, like Samless and... well, Samless, but at this point, while we're heading into the home stretch, there's little in the way of tension or suspense, and the laughs are starting to wear thin. Now, it's not like we haven't had experience with occult MacGuffins before; remember all that crap about rings from last year? (Note to genre writers: telling the hero they need to find "four rings" or "seven horcruxes" or whatever is almost never a good idea, because you're essentially telling them the structure of the story in advance, which takes the suspense out of individual conflicts, and makes each adventure feel like a checkmark in box instead of a running plot.) But this seems particularly half-assed.
It doesn't help how boring the Phoenix turned out to be, and how little time we got to spend with Sam Colt, who really should've been the heart of the episode. The Phoenix was just a guy who burned people alive, which, while I can't think of any immediate examples, certainly seems like something we've seen before. (Also, the Phoenix's defining characteristic is that it rises from its own ashes. Not much of that happening here.) And Colt gets a decent introduction, a decent scene with Sam, but then is entirely absent from the episode's climax. That climax wasn't so hot, either. Yes, of course we were going to have a draw-off, and Dean would get a chance to show his stuff, but it doesn't make any sense that Elias would still be in town at this point, and there's no twist to the shooting itself. We saw Dean standing against the guy in the cold open, and when we finally catch up to that cold open in the episode proper, the confrontation plays out exactly as you'd expect.
I was hoping for better than this. The one liners still land with gratifying frequency, and the cast is still game enough, but concept isn't enough alone to make an episode work. This needed better plotting, a clearer sense of place, and it especially needed more reason to exist than "Hey, that Michael J. Fox movie with the train was on last night, maybe we do an ep like that?" It passed the bare minimum of what I want out of Supenatural, but not by much.
- All right, so we introduce another good guy female character, Cass's lieutenant Rachel, only to have Cass kill her halfway into the ep? I'm curious as to what they were talking about before the right--sounds like Cass is making some questionable calls--but seriously, this is ridiculous. I have to believe at this point that the writers are just screwing with me. (Plus, there was Darla, the depressing town bar's best whore, clearly suffering from a bad case of herpes and never brushing her teeth. It's not a terrible joke, but seeing as how she was basically the only other woman in the episode with dialog, there was some uncomfortable subtext going on.)
- Credit where it's due: the new title sequence, a Bonanza nod, was very clever.
- "We'll Star Trek IV this bitch." "I only watch Deep Space Nine."
- "Well, the answer to your question can best be expressed by a series of partial differential equations."
- "You know what that is?" "Yeah, it's horse-" "Authenticity."
- "I'm a posse magnet. I love posse."
- Blazing Saddle reference: "Telegram for Mongo!" (See, this is the kind of gag the show does well, because it's Dean making the joke, not just the writers. When they lift bits whole-cloth from other movies, it's not nearly as successful.)
- "'Gank'? What's 'gank'?"
- "Well, we can't just strand those idjits in Deadwood, can we."