Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Review catch-up: Supernatural

415: 'Death Takes A Holiday'

Wr: Jeremy Carver
Dr: Steve Boyum

Synopsis: Sam and Dean seek help from Pamela, who sends the brothers to the spiritual realm. They discover Alastair attempting to break the seal causing mayhem in the mortal world by stopping death from occurring in a small town.

Review: A return to the season-spanning narrative after several stand alone hours, 'Death Takes A Holiday' benefits greatly from a highly sophisticated script by Jeremy Carver that manages to sustain a prominent level of unpredictability while also advancing several character arcs and tugging at the heartstrings in more ways than one. Pamela's death is certainly unexpected but it's an absolute corker: the scene is shockingly gruesome and, better still, pays off as more than simply the casual slaying of a dangling plot thread by tying the whole thing into the advancement of Sam's (presumed) descent to the dark side. On the flip side of this sudden departure is the prolonged death of the 'limbo child', which becomes progressively more morbid as the episode progresses. Kudos to casting for an inspired choice here - the kid does a highly commendable job of invoking our sympathies while remaining believably flawed, never traversing into the mawkish. And on top of all this, let's face it, the central premise is just damn cool. Another corker to add to a season chock-a-block full of them. Scary, gripping, moving and fecking epic. They don't come much better than this. 9.4

416: 'On the Head of a Pin'

Wr: Ben Edlund
Dr: Mike Rohl

Synopsis: Someone has killed seven angels, and Castiel and Uriel recruit Dean to interrogate their prisoner, Alastair, to learn who the killer is.

Review: What was I saying about it not getting any better? Jeez Supernatural, you're so far ahead of the game with this one, the competition needn't even show up. Where to begin? 'On the Head of a Pin' is probably just about as perfect a marriage of emotional investment and narrative progression as you are likely to get. The developments here are colossal, changing the face of the forthcoming battle considerably by exposing Uriel's betrayal, which is a shocker in itself, and opening Castiel to the possibility that blind obedience may not be the most optimum course of action. In this, Misha Collins gets a chance to step up and boy, does he. Every word, every nuance, is loaded with the pain of his struggle between head and heart, and the subsequent inclusion of the still-excellent Julie McNiven as Anna only accentuates matters. And then, of course, we have the other gargantuan revelation: that Dean initiated Lillith's plan, that his was the first step along the rocky road to Armageddon. This is an exceptionally clever plot device as, not only is it a completely logical explanation for the angels' choice of the Winchester boy (and therefore immensely satisfying for the viewer), but it also gives Jensen Ackles the opportunity to play some of the most complex emotional beats of his career. The scene at episode's end in which he rejects his destiny is so well written, it almost hurts to watch... which, it must be said, is something that characterises about 50% of the rest of the episode too. The torture sequences between Dean and Allister are positively horrific; so much so, in fact, that there are several incendiary critiques in reviews on TV.com from offended viewers who 'no longer have the stomach to watch the show'. This is a shame, of course, as the violence is never gratuitous. It almost always cuts away at the gory details, stopping short of showing the actual event, but then, it is the implication that we receive from agonising squeals, short spurts of blood and facial expressions that makes it all the more harrowing. And, at the end of the day, it is completely necessary for the progression of the plot: when faced with the man that made him maim innocents for thirty years, would Dean really just sit down and chat? No, he'd gut the bastard. It helps, of course, that the guy that plays Allister in his new form - Christopher Heyerdahl - is deliciously weird and eerie, giving the discourse between the two parties an extra lick of horror. All this and I haven't even mentioned Sam's little secret, his dirty demon blood fetish, which continues to linger in the background, threatening to explode into a game-changer the likes of which we have never seen, and is responsible for one of the best deaths I've seen all year in Allister's 'comeuppance'. Honestly, I thought Supernatural had reached its peak with that phenomenal season opener but this? This is actually better. In fact, 'On the Head of a Pin' is probably the best Supernatural episode yet produced. A near perfect example of what this show can be. Unrelenting, harrowing and f-ing brilliant. 9.7

417: 'It's A Terrible Life'

Wr: Sera Gamble
Dr: James L. Conway

Synopsis: Dean and Sam now lead ordinary lives. Dean works in the corporate world at the Sandover Bridge & Iron Company along with Sam who works as a Tech Support. Both have no idea who the other is until their colleagues start killing themselves.

Review: Supernatural's done a retcon episode like this before in season two's 'What Is and What Never Should Be' but that certainly doesn't negate the impact of this one. Sera Gamble's script is decidedly well written, veering from satisfying character witticisms and self-referential humour (the sight of Dean in his three piece suit and general business gear is one to cherish) to introspective realisations that further advance Sam and Dean's respective character arcs while also reminding us all, for the first time in quite a while, as to why the brothers work so gosh damn well together. Let's face it, we could all do with having that one explained to us again after so many weeks of butting heads and the continued unravelling of the long road to opposing sides. And while it is obvious from the get go that the brothers are not going to remain working at Sandover Bridge & Iron Company for the rest of the season, that's hardly the point. Sensibly, Gamble has this 'alternate life' actually be real: this is not a dream or a separate reality but the removal of memories. This validates the narrative, making it seem less superfluous, and brings the whole thing to a logical and satisfying conclusion. Granted, the supernatural element of the plot is hardly original, but then, it doesn't have to be. 'It's A Terrible Life' is less about saving the employees of Sandover Bridge & Iron Company and more about saving Dean... and in that, it succeeds admirably. Oh and some of those 'suicides' are deliciously gory. Yum. 9.0

418: 'The Monster at the End of this Book'

Teleplay: Julie Siege
Story: Julie Siege & Nancy Weiner
Dr: Mike Rohl

Synopsis: Sam and Dean come across a series of novels called Supernatural depicting their lives as demon hunters in detail. The brothers meet the author of the comics, Chuck, who explains he has visions of Sam and Dean in action then puts their adventures in his novels.

Review: An episode so metatextual, Dean and Sam might as well turn to camera in the last moments and scream "We are in an episode of Supernatural!", 'The Monster at the End of this Book' has to win the award for most creative plot premise of the entire 2008/09 television season. Okay so, Dean and Sam, who are characters in a television show called Supernatural, meet up with a guy in the programme called Chuck who has written a series of books called Supernatural that feature the two characters and depict their adventures. These books are all named after actual episodes of the show, leading to a hugely satisfying fangeek moment in which the author wishes he'd spent more time on the 'Bugs' and 'Ghost Ship' stories, implying that they were somewhat underwhelming, which is the general consensus in consideration of those particular instalments. So, as a result of this intertextual, self-referential craziness, all sorts of questions about the nature of reality and identity are addressed as Dean and Sam are forced to consider the possibility that they may be figments of Chuck's imagination and completely under his control. The events that he conceives of, or rather dreams, all unfold as he states they will, despite the duo's best efforts to prove him wrong, leading to a further contemplation of the concept of free will. Of course, the ultimate explanation is rather less philosophical but it certainly doesn't nullify the impact that the first thirty minutes or so has on the viewer. This is weighty stuff, giving us considerable food for thought, all of which is most welcome. On top of this, the episode actually manages to be thoroughly engaging, benefitting greatly from turning on the head of a pin from smirk-raising humour in Sam and Dean's efforts to prove Chuck wrong, to all-important mythology progression in Sam's encounter with Lillith. The motives and responses of the players are interestingly unpredictable here as Dean actually considers the evil one's offer to have potential, whereas Sam rejects it. Further evidence that the writing staff are deeply invested in their characters, allowing them to make the less obvious decisions but for the most logical reasons. 'The Monster at the End of this Book' is a wonderfully creative, thoroughly original hour of television that dares to do something a little different and tie it into the on-going narrative to boot. This isn't just a throwaway curiosity, it's an absolutely crucial moment in the arc of the season and as such, it's unmissable. Oh and it helps that it's freaking awesome too. 9.6

419: 'Jump the Shark'

Wr: Andrew Dabb & Daniel Loflin
Dr: Philip Sgriccia

Synopsis: Sam and Dean are on a hunting trip when they receive a call from an Adam Milligan, who is trying to find John Winchester. They discover that Adam was conceived 19 years ago when his mother fell in love with John Winchester.

Review: Or 'the episode that had Supernatural fans crapping themselves in the fear that their show would be forever ruined'. I guess 'Jump the Shark' was a snappier title. It's fitting, of course, that Dabb and Loflin choose to name their second episode of the season, after the similarly introspective 'After School Special', after the phrase given to the moment that a television show abandons its credibility and is no longer as good as it was, since it shows an awareness of the danger inherent in what they're doing here. The inclusion of a third Winchester brother veers dangerously close to the lamentable concept of 'retcon', re-writing the mythology of the show to suit a desired narratalogical twist (in most cases, something that acts as a last ditch effort to pump shock and surprise into a show), and when poorly handled, it spells disaster for everyone. Thankfully, this highly talented writing duo, who have an excellent handle on the motivations of the Winchester brothers (something that was a stand-out characteristic of their earlier episode), avoid this problem by handling the issue delicately and logically, presenting the viewer with something that is completely believable and ties in well with the history already established within the show. Another brother does not denigrate John Winchester's character in any way as he was without a partner since his wife died when Sam was a baby... and his reasons for not informing his other boys are utterly, painfully obvious. It's a deft narratalogical touch to have Adam Milligan be unaware of the concept of 'hunting', to show another side to John, a side that is able to be a standard dad and shows a considerable amount of compassion, given that he clearly wanted to spare the kid from the life that the rest of his family has had to lead. This, in turn, leads to some fantastic emotional interplay between Sam and Dean as they grapple with how to deal with their new brother and Jensen and Jared both rise to the occasion yet again. It's almost a shame that Milligan is written out of the show so fleetingly. I understand that this is the most sensible course of action, since the disturbance of the central structure is what cripples so many shows (two's company, three's a crowd... I'm talking to you, Scooby Doo - Scrappy?! Please!), and that this is executed in the best way possible by incorporating the kid into the supernatural element of the hour, but there's a whole wealth of possibility that is lost by laying him to waste. Plus, Jake Abel does an excellent job of displaying shades of Winchester determination, that allows you to believe him as the brother, while also making the character considerably different to Sam and Dean. And he's rather hot. Still, credit to Dabb and Loflin for surprising us all here: the initial reactions bemoaned the transformation of a two into a three, and they are proved wrong. The level headed determined that, given the episode's title and the show's track record, this would turn out not to be a third Winchester brother and that things would be okay. Wrong. Adam Milligan exists, he lived, he is a reality for Sam and Dean. And in that, the writing staff give us the best possible outcome of this most dangerous of plot devices. 8.8

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