Supernatural: “Torn and Frayed”
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Supernatural: “Torn and Frayed”

Supernatural has been trying to keep a lot of balls in the air this season, and some of them slice through the air more gracefully, and more excitingly, than others. The show generally strives to have a lot going on, but the different pieces of previous seasons have tended to fit together more naturally than the pieces of this one. The biggest, most inert hulk is the part that seems meant to serve as the framework holding it all together—this year’s apocalyptic danger posed by Crowley and his search for the conveniently limitless supply of tablets bearing the word of God.

Tonight’s episode manages to squeeze in token references to everything that’s kept the Winchesters occupied since the fall: Dean’s bromance with Benny the vampire, Sam’s yearning for a normal life with Amelia, the bewildered return of Castiel, Kevin scribbling away in his translation journal, and the latest intriguing wrinkle that’s appeared in the tapestry: Naomi (Amanda Tapping), the blue-eyed, bunhead angel CEO figure who appears to be secretly controlling Castiel. But the main purpose of the episode is to kick-start the big enveloping storyline by revealing that, just as there’s a “demon tablet” that would make it possible to consign all demons permanently to Hell, there’s also an “angel tablet,” which Crowley would obviously love to find in his Cracker Jack one day. Theoretically, it’s not a bad gimmick. In practice, it means a lot of over-familiar scenes of Crowley and his current Mengele squatting inside a warehouse, taunting and interrogating an angel who’s tied to a chair with a Bloodsucking Freaks torture helmet strapped to his head, while Sam and Dean scurry though dark hallways, stabbing extras and spray-painting sigils.

None of this connects with what’s become the emotional core of this season: The split between the brothers, both of whom have found people they seem to be happier spending time with. Sam’s situation is the more hackneyed; the show already played out something similar with Dean a couple of seasons back. But in their sexy reunion scene tonight, Liane Balaban and Jared Padalecki have stronger chemistry than he’s had with most of the actresses who’ve been called on to melt all over his puppyish pout, so it does feel as if there’s something at stake. It’s easier to believe that Sam might be happier leaving hunting in the rearview mirror than it ever was to picture Dean hanging up his silver bullets and holy water for good. If anything, Dean’s friendship with Benny has reenergized his love for the game; the two enjoy tracking monsters together, which must remind them of their great bonding adventure together in Purgatory. Benny’s only the latest in a string of macho hunting buddies who have managed to give Dean someone to lean on, the supreme example being Castiel. None of them has ever threatened to break up the band before, but none has ever been a vampire, and done anything as confusing as make Dean appear soft on monsters.

This conflict is expressed about as plainly as it ever could be in an early scene that’s weird in a way that I hope is at least partly intentional. Dean barges into the cheap motel room where Sam is holed up, and the two of them have it out over their respective attachments to the beautiful woman and the gnarly-cool running partner. “Where the hell do we go now?” asks Dean. “That depends,” says Sam. “That depends on whether or not you’re done with him.” “Well, honestly, I don’t know,” says Dean, and as the music swells on the soundtrack, the brothers sound unnervingly like a couple of betrayed lovers trying to decide whether their marriage is salvageable. At the end, they make the supreme sacrifice—Dean has a phone conversation with Benny in which he tells him they’re through, and Sam doesn’t show up for the appointed time and place to run off with Amelia.

And, in the final image of the brothers sitting down together, to eat dinner in front of the TV in their lonely motel room, the show itself seems just miserable about this. Presumably at least one of these forsaken characters will be back before season’s end, probably when Crowley needs to mess with the brothers and grab them by the short hairs. But the long-term potential of either of these relationships may be dictated by the fact that The CW seems committed to more Supernatural, and so wants to keep the brothers together and on the road. The ads for this season show Dean and Sam on a country road, flanked by Crowley and Castiel on either side of them. The show itself feels like it’s Benny and Amelia who are looking over their shoulders, but the rush of the plot may not be able to accommodate that to the degree that some of us would like.

Stray observations:

  • The opening “our story so far…” montage plays out to Bob Seger’s “Katmandu,” a smart choice in that it’s hard-driving and makes for a funny contrast to the images that accompany it. But it made me realize that my dream road trip with Dean probably wouldn’t go that well, considering that it may well be the first song that’s appeared on the show’s soundtrack in the course of eight seasons that I myself have ever listened to of  my own free will.
  • While we're on the subject of music, new rule: Any episode that takes its name from a song on Exile On Main Street automatically gets its grade improved by a notch.
  • Most of the work in writing this episode may have gone into coming up with the insults that representatives of Heaven and Hell throw back and forth at one another. Dean’s “Hell monkeys” and “Hell mooks” narrowly take the edge over Crowley’s “this heavenly pile of filth.”

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