Season Nine’s “Character Development” and “Multi-Layered Storytelling”
So let’s talk for a moment about Season 9 of Supernatural.
Going into the season, we were promised great things:
Regarding the “broken landscape” that season 8 left behind, we were told by Jeremy Carver to expect “A lot of players this year and a lot of players for the throne of who’s going to rise to the fore here, and there’s a lot of really juicy options that we’re going to be introducing, so we’re excited.”
What we have seen, though, is a broken king of Hell in a bunker cell and the trunk of a car, posturing with a rarely-seen Abbadon. We’ve seen Bartholomew once, and he was flat and generally uninteresting. We’ve seen Malachi once. We’ve seen Metatron once, same episode. None of these interactions really made a massive impact on the viewers, save Metatron outing Ezekiel/Gadreel. For the most part, the plot of the season has been put by the wayside in favor of one-off “funny” episodes.
And as for these new, individual angels. . . “I think the angels that have fallen are not a monolithic force, in that we treat them for the most part as individuals. And in that way, we’re really able to dig deeply into these individual characters, who are these angels.”
Well, I don’t feel I’ve gotten to know any of them particularly; and the ones we do are killed rather quickly, before we can truly care.
We had Carver telling us that we’re going to be getting a new look at these characters, a fresh understanding of them, in interviews saying “I think, especially after nine years, we all tend to put our brothers and the various supporting characters into certain boxes that we tick off: “This is who they are, this is how they would act,” and I think any time we can find a piece of the past that maybe makes us look twice at our characters, and maybe adds a couple extra layers of complexity, is always fun.”
What we’ve seen though isn’t development of these characters, it’s either regression or out of character. New layers implies that they build upon past ones, not slather over them to blot out what we already know. It’s one thing to think outside of that ‘box,’ and another thing to take these characters we love and render them unrecognizable.
And there’s the perpetual commentary about how character driven the season is:
Carver: “So we’re always trying to turn over a new dimension and new sides to our characters. I think we’re all really excited about taking a really strong character approach.”
Singer: “We left so many balls in the air and we have so many great characters that we haven’t paid off that we’re kind of telling a … I hesitate to say ‘soap opera,’ but that kind of character-driven, multilayered storytelling.”
But what have we seen of our characters this season so far?
From the very first episode, Sam is whumped. He’s dying, and within his own head his conversation isn’t necessarily a terribly flattering depiction of this man we know has defeated the Devil. He’s immediately then non-conned into being an angel condom by Dean, and then lied to. This is where he sits the entire season.
If we look at Sam as a character, rather than both roles played by Jared, what has Sam been able to do this season?
Well, nearly die a lot. Honestly, we were all making jokes about how much Ezekiel had run around saving Sam, weren’t we? When did this man, one of the best hunters in the world, get so sloppy? What happened to the Sam that waded solo into that mess of Croats with Bobby staring at his back in pride and awe?
Additionally, when did he get so gullible? Sam is intuitive: it’s one of his great strengths, both as a hunter and as a human being. He’s intelligent, great at reading people, and not exactly easy to fool. So how is it that these lies Dean tells are being missed and shrugged off? Why didn’t he catch on? Why did it take another Veritas (whoops, sorry, Vesta!) scene to tell him something was off?
Sam has let Dean’s avoidance lies go in past seasons (think Hell), but not because he was oblivious to them.
But apparently this is the new interpretation of Sam. I mean, this guy’s been missing things like his brother “going missing on hunts” for months since he was 9 (or 12… math is hard!) when there was no hunt, and no conceivable way that smart kid we saw in past eps would buy that.
So. There’s our “new layers” for Sam. He has been robbed of agency, transformed into a barely-present puppet to an angel who perpetually interrupts his conversations (that’s gotta be annoying!) and erases his importance in favor of a gimmick that we were once told kept Castiel from being a main character; taking the hunt and the war and the fight out of the hands of the Winchesters and making it too easy to get out of situations they write them into.
Where is he now: Well, according to Gadreel, there is no Sam (Only Zuul).
Dean Winchester is a lying liar who lies. No, really. His entire role this year is to hold on to this ‘big secret’ of the fact that he sold his little brother to be vessel to an angel. I seem to remember this being a major plot point for several seasons, how they didn’t want that. They’re Team Free Will, after all, because they were fighting against being vessels.
So, this season has been one clumsy lie after the next to explain why they’re suddenly out of whatever situation they were in (because of convenient!Ezekiel interventions).
We’ve talked about Dean’s codependence since Season 1, and this season rather than changing that or giving us a new angle or even appreciation of it (for those keen on the idea), Dean is being held hostage by it. His codependence is a loaded gun held to his temple, telling him to lie to his little brother, kick his best friend out to be hunted without assistance, and generally alienate everyone he cares about.
This isn’t a positive no matter what side of the codependence issue you’re on: if you’re pro-codependence, you’re watching that relationship be twisted into something to hurt Dean and Sam both. If you’re pro-independence, you’re watching this be trotted across the screen perpetually in exactly the way you dislike. It’s a tiresome, repetitious plot device.
Like Sam, Dean is also being damseled this season. How often have Ezekiel, Charlie, Jody, Sam etc had to save Dean this season? How often has Dean actually been a decider, considering Carver discussed him “driving the mytharc.” Honestly, we haven’t seen it. What we’ve seen is Dean being a pawn to someone else’s manipulations from the very first episode (Gadreel/Ezekiel) and then having to MAKE himself seem like the big damn hero after the fact to explain what Ezekiel’s done.
Now let’s talk a little bit about character assassination. Dean Winchester is not stupid. Dean is intelligent, actually; he is clever, tactically-minded, mechanically-minded, has hunted and researched on his own, and he has a head for obscure facts that extends beyond just his pop-culture references. Sam is more educated than Dean, but Dean’s raw intelligence is not insubstantial. So why are we so often getting him written as “dumb for laughs”?
Dean’s also not skeezy: he likes sex plenty, and he’s a hell of a Casanova, and he will privately objectify women or do so with an audience he feels comfortable around (“Gumby Girl,” Busty Asian Beauties) but when Dean goes to pick up a chick, he does it with charm, a compliment, and an open offer. He may give a false name and job because of his line of work, but he goes in offering ‘a good time, one night only’ and will walk away when it’s not wanted.
He accepted Jo’s “self-respect” line on her last night on Earth, when if he’d pushed after seasons pining over him she might have gone for it. He didn’t demean Nancy in Jus In Belo for being a virgin or offer her a roll in the hay to disqualify her from Ruby’s spell. He walked away when Kali said she wasn’t interested. The argument for “Rock and a Hard Place” seems to be that Dean’s hot, so of course any woman would! Well, Dean’s hot, and there are plenty of willing women who aren’t in chastity groups, so why would he push?
This season has been problematic in its portrayal of Dean in many ways. His ‘new layers’ are either stripping away past development, or slathering on a thick glaze of caricature interpretation of his personality. Dumb, lecherous, lying one-dimensional Dean!
Honestly, how has either Winchester lived through the mess of their own lives if this interpretation is true to their past selves in any way?
Where is he now: Well, his little brother is purportedly gone because of his lies, his best friend is being hunted and going to war without him because of his lies, and his surrogate son figure is dead at his brother’s hands because of his lies.
This season began with a lot of promise for Castiel. Many fans believed for years that it was necessary for Cas to fall in order to better integrate him into the lives of the Winchesters or bypass the deus ex machina potential now being abused with SamZekeGadreel. His transformation into a human was something heavily promoted in the hiatus.
And from the start, rather than use this opportunity to have Castiel be the fresh eyes on humanity that he was lauded to be in the “Angel Warrior” featurette of Season 8, Castiel’s humanity is a running gag. An ancient creature who has been watching humanity since before it finished evolving, who’s fallen to (mostly) human before, lived an (inexplicable and understandably ignored) married life with Daphne, who has followed the Winchesters around from about a foot away for the past several years, and is unfathomably intelligent in many ways is written as an idiot because he’s in his meatsuit more permanently.
The transformations are jarring: this is no longer Castiel the warrior. It’s bumbling Cas in a way he’s never been: not when crazy, not when fallen entirely in 2014, not when tilting his head and declaring he doesn’t get a reference, and not even when he was the unwitting straight-man for jokes because of his unfamiliarity with humor or humanity.
His storyline has become about sex and laughs and torture; and almost ONLY sex and laughs and torture. From bouncing boob shots to dubious sexual consent with a creature who tortures and murders him after taking his virginity, to ‘is it a date or not,’ and on to backslaps and high-fiving over the hotness of chicks (. . . if Reapers are suddenly angels, was the April thing incest as well as dubcon/non-con of both parties? Lord only knows) the way Castiel is being written this season is probably more suited to a sitcom (well, minus the torture) than Supernatural, and feels disrespectful of his past and his capability.
Like Dean, like Sam, Castiel is now the frequently-damseled former hero as well. Castiel is gullible, canonically, but the repetition of him being duped and then tortured (down to torturing him in the exact same way in half the episodes he’s been in this season) by no means helps develop his storyline.
Rather than actually develop this humanity aspect they promised, they had Castiel inexplicably take to vamping other angels for Grace. Either this is his demon blood (repetition) or this is him stealing souls for power for the greater good (repetition), but either way it drops him back into sort-of angel with powers that may or may not work when you need them to (status quo).
These are our new layers for Cas: sex, lols, and humanity derp.
Where is he now: Tortured again. Dumped by his only friends again. Cutting ties to go to war again. Homeless still. Kind-of maybe an angel again (I figure season 5 inconsistencies of abilities).
Kevin had great growth and character development last season: Season 8 took the character from being a kid they had to chase after, to being one of the family. The end of last season challenged him to buckled down into his role as the prophet.
Unfortunately, the plot can’t have him figuring out that angel tablet too soon! So instead of contrivances like broken tablets, they suddenly had to render Kevin inept at tablet translation (you know, that thing he was specifically born for and fated to do). He’s translating to cuneform, he’s headscratching and lost, and generally he’s a lot less efficient with this whole tablet of Angel than he was his partials of Demon.
And when he’s not that, he’s written out in stupid ways: few too many shots the night before, going on vacay to a warded hotel room, he is handwaved away in absurd ways in order to explain his absence at the Bunker.
And then they do to Kevin what they tried to do several times to Castiel: they wrote him off of the show because they couldn’t figure out how to use the power they gave him. The writing put itself in a corner, the solution they built in was too powerful, and so they axed it.
New Layers: Dumbed down.
Where is he now: Shock value death in order to place guilt on both main characters (how original, Supernatural!)
So, given we know that not all of the season is written yet. . . where did these ideas of character driven and developing story come from? Where’s the exploratory season we were promised? Is this what we were meant to perceive as that?
What we have so far is a mess of broken characterization, choppy scripts that jumps from episode to episode and often scene to scene without creating a united narrative, juvenile humor, problematic consent issues, and little to laude about the current story arc. Canon facts like reapers, like their childhoods, like their capabilities, like how angelic possession works (if it’s THAT easy for a vessel to throw out an angel, they just undermined their two strongest seasons–4 and 5–almost entirely) are being torn apart, with the requirement that the audience rather than the storytellers find ways to fit these breaks into a new canon for the show.
I’m finding very little to look forward to in January as we leave the first half of Season 9 behind us.