The opening credits for this season of Supernatural are quiet, subdued: No splatter hitting the screen or bands of ravens flying into your face. They set a tone for an opening hour that feels familiar but inconclusive. If you’ve ever loved this show, chances are you’ll find some pleasure just from seeing the boys regroup and, as they say on Alphas, do their thing, taking to the road, driving through and holing up in familiar settings between tense stand-offs with intimidating figures and the occasional beheading. But—wow, they’ve been doing this a while now, haven’t they? And with each passing season, Supernatural always strives to build to a scarier, more nearly apocalyptic finish, with the need to vanquish an even gnarlier big bad than the last one. I used to think the challenge for the show’s creative team was to top themselves every time the 22nd or 23rd episode mark came around again. But now I’m starting to think that the bigger challenge is just restarting the engine after each narrow escape from the end of the world.
Last season ended with the heroes triumphant, except that Dean and Cass were blasted to Purgatory, which looks like a survivalist training camp after the cabins have burned down. You could describe my knowledge of the gradations of the Christian afterlife mythology as “under-informed” (if you wanted to be nice about it), but I had this vague idea that Purgatory was mostly boring, a sort of waiting area where people who hadn’t committed any mortal sins but who had too many unpaid library fines had to cool their heels until they were deemed ready to enter the kingdom of Heaven. I may have confused it with Limbo. At any rate, Supernatural’s Purgatory is a marshy swamp where the condemned run around fighting each other to the death, or whatever they call it when you’ve already died but somebody lops your head off anyway. Dean says that he found the whole experience “very pure.”
Having had enough purity to do him for a while, Dean escapes back to our world, after a year spent “knee-deep in God’s armpit, killing monsters.” He keeps it to himself that, in order to make it back, he had to cut a deal with a demon named Benny (Ty Olsson). Having landed in Maine’s Hundred-Mile Wilderness, Dean then heads to Clayton, Louisiana and releases Benny into our world by cutting his own arm, bleeding what looks like radioactive lava over the demon’s remains, and saying, “Anima corpori everit corpus totem returgent,” which is Latin for, “If Anna Faris and Rupert Everett made a sex tape, I would totally regurgitate.” Benny materializes, thanks him, and waltzes off, with the words “YOU WILL REGRET THIS!” flashing above his head in neon lettering a million feet high.
Meanwhile, in Kermit, Texas, Sam is sneaking out of a house, taking a moment to pet a dog and give the woman pretending to sleep in the bed a look that seems to say, “You’re okay, sister, but I’ve had Rory Gilmore!” He then drives to the shack in Whitefish, Montana, where Dean is waiting to sandbag him. By way of a greeting, Dean douses Sam with various fluids and cuts his arm, to establish that Sam isn’t a demon or shapeshifter. He then demands that Sam also douse him and cut his arm, which, coming so soon after the scene with the lava-blood, may cause you to wonder if maybe Dean has developed a cutting problem that he’s trying to rationalize. But Sam won’t do it; he doesn’t need proof that the brother who disappeared for a year and was presumably dead has returned to him. Dean was gone; now, it’s fall, and Dean is back, pretty much on schedule. What’s the big whoop?
This makes Sam seem like the only person here who actually watches this show, or has at least paged through one of the spin-off novels. Supernatural has a bit of a problem trying to decide just how big a deal it is for Dean to have returned from Purgatory, since both brothers have not only returned from the dead before, repeatedly, but have both been literally sprung from Hell itself. The one thing everyone can agree on is that Sam, who has apparently been retired from hunting and enjoying some kind of domestic bliss—just like Dean during the year that Sammy himself was in Hell—could have done a better job of taking care of Kevin Tran, the Prophet of the Lord who was drafted to translate some sacred tablet last season and wound up being abducted by the King of Hell, Crowley. It seems that Kevin has long since escaped from Crowley’s clutches, but Sam never heard his cries for help, because he’s been too busy petting that dog to check his messages. This was never do, so the brothers hop in the car and head for Centreville, Michigan, a real nice place to raise your kids up.
When the brothers reconnect with Kevin (Osric Chau), they learn that Crowley has another tablet containing the word of God that he wants him to translate. Dean has his own peanut gallery moment when he asks incredulously, “How many words of God are there?” But a little later, he has to put on his Charles Bronson straight-shooting tough-guy voice and tell Kevin, “The sooner you get this, the better. You’re in it now.” Kevin has been the tetherball hanging on the devil’s pole for the better part of a year now, he’s had to turn his life upside down and lost his family and his girlfriend, but he can take satisfaction in knowing that Dean now thinks he’s finally in the game. There’s also an appearance by Mark A. Sheppard’s Crowley in which he gets to flaunt his usual ever-unpredictable range of powers—he can make someone drop a knife just by snapping his fingers, but if the heroes can make it to their car and peel out, he can’t do anything to, say, make the tires blow out—and one of those trademark Supernatural fistfights that’s shot so close in that not only can’t you tell what’s happening, it seems a miracle that the camera operator escaped without a concussion. Now that everybody is back from the dead (or, in the case of Cass, left with an ambiguous fate that may or may not allow for a special guest appearance come sweeps week), Supernatural is ready to start trying to once again build a mighty, steadily escalating end-of-the-world scenario that will reach to the skies. But I’d settle for a few decent monster-of-the-week episodes along the way.