Apparently this is what happens when an episode (8x10) leaves me making my bhuz face and saying, “Really?” at the TV.
ETA: since I wrote most of this, RL intervened (in the inconvenient and sleep-depriving form of a 2 am pediatric ER visit and general sickness and then general sickness again) and I wasn’t able to post this until now. With the airing of 8x11, 8x12 and now 8x13, it seems like things are looking up for this season, but I think some of this may still be relevant or, at the least, provide something to think about for what not to do for half a season of an established TV show. So here are some thoughts on why I think the first half of S8 felt weird. How brother conflict was (accidentally?) turned into Brother Conflict, how audience loyalty relies on a sense of familiarity, emotional consistency, and acknowledgement of a rooted, established history. And paradoxically how all these must be balanced with the demand for new, fresh, and exciting ways to repackage essentially the same emotional story season after season—the Epic Love Story of Sam and Dean, yo.
All stories have been told. It’s not the plot that’s exceptional; it’s how it’s told, who and what hold it up—the characters, their relationships—and the emotion that drives the story. It’s all about execution. And when it comes to execution, the details matter. That’s the problem with the first half of SPN’s S8. The heart of the story that was sold to us 8 years ago was Sam and Dean, brothers against all else. And that’s what we expect to see this season. On a surficial level that’s what’s parading across our TV and computer screens—Sam and Dean working cases, driving around in the Impala—but the heart of this season’s story, the details, what’s underpinning the emotional story isn’t Sam-n-Dean, brothers. It’s Sam with Dean or Dean with Sam, two guys who ride around in surly silence in a car and are pissed off at each other off most of the time. Add to that some seemingly dead-end plot loops concocted to account for Sam and Dean’s year apart and a different flavor of drama (a la love triangle) that had most of fandom scratching its head and looking for a twist that has yet to materialize, and it’s easy to see why SPN seems like foreign terrain this season.
Don’t get me wrong, I think the writers and the rest of the SPN team are working hard, doing their best to keep the show fresh, bring us new stories, create new shades of brother conflict, and perhaps add nuances and relationships we haven’t seen before, but in doing so I think a vitally important part of what SPN has been accidentally sidelined for the first half of the season: Sam and Dean’s Epic Love. Once upon a time it saved the world. Remember that?
And that’s the conundrum. As viewers we want new stories, excitement, a fresh take on the characters, a different, novel spin on … everything, but simultaneously we want continuity, familiarity, acknowledgement of what’s come before, and the core of Sam and Dean’s relationship to fundamentally not change (brothers who are conflicted but care about each other over all else forever and ever amen). It’s easy to see why we seem so hard to please. But really all we want are for Sam and Dean to love each other (in a PG-13 fraternal way acceptable for the general viewing public, of course *wink*) and have some kick-ass adventures with guns and dangerous, pokey objects in a noisy black car that goes fast.
The issue I’m having is that all of these things can operate together. We can see new relationships, new dimensions of Sam and Dean, an unearthing of new conflict between them, but it doesn’t have to be done at the expense of their underlying feelings for each other. I argue that the push-pull of their feelings strengthen the drama because, in the past, it’s been the tug-of-war of emotion vs. action vs. I love you vs. I don’t understand why/what you’re doing vs. I’m gonna save you vs. I’m not worth saving that’s been the emotional cornerstone of SPN and, I think, vastly responsible for the show’s success. Which brings us to the messy issue of conflict and the tenuous balance between too much, too little, and where it’s sourced.
“Conflict is the basis of good drama and there’s more storyline to play when there’s static between them and they don’t completely trust each other. I’ve always felt, even when I was writing the show, that the seasons where Sam and Dean were in agreement the whole time weren’t as interesting as when we gave them a conflict.”
--Eric Kripke (interview 1/23/13)
Yes, conflict is the heart of drama and SPN wouldn’t be the same show without it. But it feels like this season, at least in the first half, the brother conflict was amped up (maybe in an attempt to up the stakes from the previous 7 seasons of brother conflict) to such a degree that the conflict itself wasn’t just surface issues over Dean’s socks in the sink, questionable alliances, or the grey areas between good and evil, but instead it became a conflict rooted in who Sam and Dean are. It was as if brother conflict had been hollowed out to be Brother Conflict—Sam and Dean at odds not only in terms of the plot and surface elements but also in conflict over their basic feelings for each other.
In previous seasons the conflict was about what Sam and Dean wanted—and, yes, that’s about who Sam and Dean are—but deeper than that, fundamentally, Sam and Dean still cared about each other (except for the S6 soulless-Sam period when Sam wasn’t capable of caring). Their love wasn’t the conflict—it created the conflict. It was the opposing force that was at war with what they wanted and how they approached/dealt with things, their worldviews, and was almost a separate entity beyond who they were as individuals. But it seems what we saw in the early part of S8 was that Sam and Dean’s feelings for each other became the conflict. Instead of their Epic Love being an independent, static force driving everything else in motion around it, the opposite happened, everything else (plot, wants/needs, who the characters are, how they operate) pushed Sam and Dean’s fundamental feelings for each other to the periphery, making their love for each other—or the seeming lack thereof—the conflict. The lies, mistrust, manipulation, suspicion and resentment during the first 10 episodes made the story of Sam and Dean’s Epic Love a hard sell. And for a show that’s hinged upon the strength of the brother relationship since day one, it felt unfamiliar and unsettling, as if the first half of S8 got stuck inside out and backwards.
So let’s step back for a second and play a little logic game. If it’s correct that Sam and Dean’s established feelings for each other could be summed up as “family trumps everything and everyone” and if the conflict during the first half of S8 was the brothers’ feeling for each other, then it would follow that the conflict should revolve around attachment, loyalty, the familial bond, and/or love. This isn’t to say that the conflict should be non-existent because it’s about warm fuzzies, but simply that the conflict should be rooted in overall positive feelings even if the resulting actions aren’t productive, healthy, rational, or without negative impact (refer to Sam and Dean’s motivations and resulting actions for pretty much the last 7 seasons).
But this isn’t what happened. Not only did brother conflict, which was previously sourced from their positive feelings for each other, get turned into Brother Conflict, it wasn’t at all apparent that attachment, loyalty, the familial bond, and/or love were motivating Sam and Dean’s actions. Based on Sam and Dean’s long and tumultuous emotional history, it would’ve been easy to slip a line in about how Sam didn’t trust Benny because he was worried about Dean falling into the a similar situation that he, Sam, found himself with Ruby, rooting Sam’s suspicions in his concern for Dean. In those first 10 episodes, it would’ve been easy for Dean to sympathize with Sam’s feelings for Amelia being that he had Lisa (and Ben) while Sam was presumed dead and not use Sam’s fear that something had happened to her in such a callous way. Instead we got two guys arguing at every turn, who said hurtful things, committed emotionally cruel acts, and seemed like they genuinely couldn’t stand to be around each other. But more troublesome was that all of this was sourced from some mysterious black hole void of attachment, loyalty, the familial bond, and/or love, making it feel like the Sam and Dean on screen were hollowed-out facsimiles themselves.
Not making the brothers’ bond the mainstay emotional storyline for the first half of the season was responsible for a show that looked like SPN but felt strangely unfamiliar. Because so many other elements were in flux: new characters, a new (old) plot, new (old) conflicts, some attempts at what looked like character growth (Dean) and some attempts to reveal what looked like new aspects of characters (Sam), something rooted and familiar with major emotional traction needed to hold it all together. For the last 7 seasons (except for the soulless-Sam period) that has been the brother’s love for each other. It’s messed up, dysfunctional, and broken, but it’s the intention of doing what they think is best born out of love that redeems Sam and Dean’s actions and hurtful words. And the undisputed intention of love motivating actions is something we didn’t see until “Time Goes By”, twelve episodes into the season, when Dean insisted on saving Sam. And that’s why we got brothers begrudgingly together but deeply unhappy at the end of “Torn and Frayed” (8x10), which gave a sense of dead-end entrapment and sent fandom into a groaning tailspin of “Where did my Show go?!” and caps lock entries full of declarations along the lines of “I’d quit this show if I could! AKJADFJKL!” So for the first half of this season not only did we get Sam and Dean in conflict over their feelings for each other rather than in conflict as a result of their feelings for each other, we didn’t see their love for each other, as has been very evident in the past, as a motivating factor for their actions.
In addition to those two factors affecting how foreign SPN felt for the first 10 episodes, I think there was also an issue with matching current characterization with past context and the brothers’ emotional history. The main problem being that Sam and Dean’s actions, words, and motivations didn’t make sense in the context of their history. On a show that consists of two brothers and their Epic Love and coupled with the two previously mentioned issues, the degree to which Sam and Dean lied, manipulated, refused to trust each other, and used each other as emotional punching bags didn’t make sense from what we know of them previously. Instead we got Dean who used Sam’s greatest fear and vulnerability against him (planting information that falsely suggested somebody Sam cares about was in danger) and Sam who somehow refuses to trust Dean for something Sam himself did in the past (trusting a vampire, Lenore in S2), and both of them refusing to see each others’ viewpoints even though they themselves once held them (more articulate thoughts from galathea_snb about this here, in particular the first two paragraphs). Substitute any other characters and maybe this would fly, but not with the Sam and Dean we’ve come to know over the last 8 years.
So just as we want consistency with the heart of Sam and Dean’s emotional story, we also crave familiarity and a semblance of character continuity, but at the same time we want the characters to change and grow and become better, more complex. And that’s what we saw in S1-5: a progressive evolution of Sam and Dean’s relationship (even though at times it was painful). I think that’s what the writers may be trying to manufacture now, moving Sam and Dean as individuals into discovering new facets of themselves. But that evolution can’t be at the expense of who the characters were to begin with. It’s building upon a foundation, not blasting away everything and starting new.
And finally a little foray into a related idea and one of the most common reasons why the first half of the season felt foreign: Sam, Amelia, and Don. Let me first say that characters and relationships can look great on paper but they don’t always translate to the screen or resonate with the audience. And I think this was the case here. Sam and Amelia were portrayed two deeply bruised souls who found comfort with each other. Realistic, sure. So why didn’t it strike a chord with the audience? We’re not looking for realism; we’re looking for familiarity. Most of us involved in fandom watch for Sam and Dean and their relationship. This is a Sci-Fi/Horror, show about two vigilante brothers, angels, and demons, where everyone dies grisly, horrible deaths, including the main characters. This is a show where Death eats deep-fried pickle chips, parallel universes and time travel happen on a semi-regular basis, and Sam and Dean are healed in no time from grievous injuries that would kill or permanently land anyone in real life in the hospital or mental ward or both. If we wanted something that approached realism we’d be watching docudramas or reality TV (even though reality TV approximates RL as much as Barbie is a realistic stand-in for a living, breathing human being). Supernatural is meant for an audience that wants dramatic escapism, not dramatic realism or dramatic … drama-ism (ha, I made that up, but, you know, drama for the sake of drama based loosely on reality that isn’t fantastical and fantasy-based—shows like Gossip Girl or Grey’s Anatomy). Couple that with the fact the established mo of SPN has never been based on meandering love interests, let alone love triangles, and it makes sense why we balked at the possibility of a subplot based on a pissing contest between Sam and Don over Amelia. The latter two being characters we weren’t emotionally invested in because we weren’t allowed to get to know them in a way that made them more than one-dimensional as their appearances were either too brief, emotionally monochrome, or—with the exception of the last moments of 8x10—lacked relevance and urgency in the present time of the story.
It’s hard, no doubt (and this is where I start to feel bad for blabbing about all that is “bad” with this season). Not only do the writers have to maintain a balance between character growth and consistency while simultaneously keeping an eye on the emotional underpinnings of the character motivation, they have to root the current story to its history—or at least not contradict or entirely ignore it—while maintaining forward momentum, keeping the story fresh, and giving it a new spin. They have to pay tribute to what has come before, giving the story a sense of depth that is familiar and new at the same time. Use new events, new characters, new situations to tell old stories that reveal new things about old characters that reflect their history and growth. And do this all on a network TV deadline. But that being said, I don’t think fandom’s reaction is unwarranted. I think it’s borne out of a familiarity and protectiveness and standard of consistency that should be demanded. SPN is a show where love hurts, but ultimately it’s the underlying driving force—no matter how misplaced, twisted, or misguided—for pretty much everything the Winchesters do. And that should be the thread that holds every season together.
To sum everything up: writing is hard, we, the audience, demand lots of seemingly but not necessarily contrasting stuff, and conflict can be a good thing, but only if Sam and Dean love each other deep down. We watch for dramatic escapism and to sit down with a show that feels like an old friend. Comfort in familiarity resonates with fandom (why else would we stick with a TV show for 8 years?). So keep the core elements of SPN and dress it up with exciting, kick-ass adventures and novel, colorful supporting characters that make sense in the context of the show’s history. But ultimately this is the story of Sam and Dean’s Epic Love. And it should remain as such.