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October 23, 2014

'Supernatural' Season 7, Episode 4 Recap

by Maureen Ryan, posted Oct 17th 2011 11:15AM
['Supernatural' - 'Defending Your Life']

You might say that things got lively in the comment area of of last week's 'Supernatural' review. More than 200 comments have been left on that post, and while I don't expect that many to flow in for 'Defending Your Life,' as always, I welcome your thoughts on this episode and on the state of the show in general.

Obviously I had big problems with 'The Girl Next Door,' and though it wasn't in the jaw-dropping realm, I found 'Defending Your Life' pretty frustrating as well.

Part of me had half-hoped it would make the missteps of 'The Girl Next Door' worth it, or at least less galling, but, all things considered, the execution of 'Defending Your Life's' central premise drained much of its potential away.

One of the biggest problems with 'Defending Your Life' had to do with the conception of Osiris as the villain of the week. So he looks in to people's hearts and sees if they have more than a feather's weight of guilt? If that's the case, then why hasn't every sentient adult on the planet been killed by him? Everybody except sociopaths feels guilt about things they've done in their past. It's just the way of the world, and it's no different for the Winchesters. The outcome of the trial was a foregone conclusion.

I would have loved an episode that questioned why Dean (or Sam, or any hunter, for that matter) has the right to play judge and jury for all supernatural critters and kill them at will. Sure, they're saving lives, but is that justification enough? Probably, but there are a lot of grey areas that surround what they do, not least of which is the question of collateral damage. As I noted last week, I don't think Dean was fully justified in killing Amy; if only Osiris had called Amy's son as a witness and asked him how exactly he was getting the human pituitary glands he needs to survive.

In any event, exploring the morality of what the Winchesters do week and week out could have been interesting, but the question Osiris asked here was, "Does Dean carry more than a feather's-weight of guilt?" Well, we knew the answer to that well before the sentence was rendered in the god's decidedly unimpressive-looking kangaroo court. Despite Sam's spirited defense, the whole affair was a lot less suspenseful than what usually takes place on 'The Good Wife.'

Adding to the sense of anti-climax was the fact that Osiris never explained his reasoning. Why does Dean have to pay with his life? Because Osiris said so, and that's that. But again, where's the suspense in thinking Dean's going to die? There isn't any, because the show would never kill him off. All things considered, I couldn't help but compare 'Defending Your Life' to 'On the Head of a Pin' and find it wanting.

As many of us discussed in comments last week, the themes being thrown around in season 7 feel more than a little threadbare. There are secrets between the brothers, and Dean feels the weight of the world on his shoulders and feels culpability for the way Jo and Sam's lives turned out. Truth be told, I would have perked up a little if one of the other characters had called Dean on his "it's all my fault" routine a little more emphatically. I don't doubt that he feels real pain for what happened to Jo and Sam, but at some point, it's unrealistic and a little narcissistic for him to think that he had such a huge degree of control over their choices. He didn't. At least the episode gave Jo and Sam opportunities to tell Dean that they chose their own paths, but the ideas and topics the episode explored -- well, much of it felt like well-trodden territory.

The best part of the episode was the scene in which Jo visited Dean in the motel room. Jensen Ackles and Alona Tal have always had nice chemistry together, and the pain in Dean's eyes just before she disappeared was positively palpable. Having said that, I have to be honest -- I truly don't see how Dean could blame himself for her death. She chose her occupation as a hunter and she chose how she wanted to die, and while Dean no doubt feels terrible about what went down, I found it difficult to imagine that he thought it was really and truly his fault. And I'm such a fan of Jo that to retroactively take away her agency and go along with the idea that Dean was her puppetmaster felt as though it would do a disservice to one of the show's (increasingly rare) cool female characters.

Aside from the lack of tension in the main story, there was a sloppy element of the episode that I found irritating, if not insulting. Red dirt just showed up at all the crime scenes, because ...why? Because an Egyptian God (who has to hang out in bars to find victims, by the way -- that's how god-like he is), or those who've had dealings with him, conveniently left it lying around. And where does that red dirt lead? To the apple farm that the Winchesters found ...how? I honestly felt that there was a scene missing where the brothers found out why that red dirt could only come from that particular area or farm -- that's how jagged and frankly silly that part of the story felt.

But things are feeling jagged in general this season, I have to say. Whether or not you think Dean was justified in killing Amy in 'The Girl Next Door,' after reading the comments on last week's review, I'd venture to say that a lot of you thought the episode was structured weirdly, at the very least. Amy was presented in a very sympathetic light, and Sam's relationship with her was presented as a sweet respite from his grim life. And, speaking of abruptness, Dean just strolled into her motel room and killed her, delivering a gruff warning to her now-orphaned son on the way out the door. If the episode was supposed to be a culmination of a particular story line about the darkness that has built up inside Dean over six seasons -- and many of you have argued that --- I very much have a problem with how that's being presented this season.

The thing is, when characters have six seasons of backstory, a show can go back and cherrypick whatever it wants in terms of justifications for various actions. But the challenge isn't whether 'Supernatural' can find theoretical justifications for a particular arc or action -- the challenge is to take me inside a character's choices as he makes them. The challenge is to make even choices I disagree with emotionally and morally compelling in each episode. I disagree strongly with every choice Walter White has made on 'Breaking Bad,' but the show is so suspenseful and tautly constructed that I can't look away from what he's done, ever.

'Supernatural' hasn't made Dean's darkness feel similarly compelling. It hasn't made me feel, this season, in these episodes, that what Dean did to Amy was a reflection of what he felt about Sam, about Cas or about anything else he's been through. For both characters, to be honest, what they're going through hasn't felt like a series of natural and organic progressions; events and developments often feel abrupt and not particularly well set up. I want to emphasize the fact that I think the idea of exploring Dean's "just plain heavy" feelings of depression is potentially very interesting. I don't think that potential (with either Dean's sadness or Sam's post-Hell recovery issues) is being realized.

Mary Dominiak (a.k.a. BardicVoice) is a terrific and heartfelt chronicler of 'Supernatural,' but I feel in her writeup of 'The Girl Next Door,' she did a far better job of getting into Dean's headspace than the show itself has done of late. I have to very respectfully disagree with Mary and say that, in my opinion, the show has only gestured at or sloppily shorthanded emotional issues it should be delving into with discipline, creativity and compassion. I'm getting irritated at the way the show keeps putting a bottle in Dean's hand instead of exploring in depth the reasons the bottle is there.

All in all, I guess I was hoping that 'Defending Your Life' would somehow make up for 'The Girl Next Door's' shortcomings but I generally found the villain of the week less than compelling and the episode generally lacking in tension and overall impact. And I find myself wondering if both of these episodes would have been better placed later in the season.

Speaking of 'Defending Your Life,' I am betting many of you are wondering why I'm not delving into Sam's defense of his brother, but that element of the story just served as a reminded that Dean is keeping a secret from his brother. Even as Sam counseled Dean to let go of the guilt that he feels, Dean was probably feeling extra-guilty about what he was hiding from Sam. That secret will inevitably come out, but it's hard not to feel like the arguments that ensue will feel like something we've heard in previous seasons.

As for Sam's declaration that he doesn't feel guilt any more, well, that's great for him, but that felt as though it came out of left field. By the way, what of the fallout of the wall falling? That was supposed to be a big cataclysm, but the fallout appears to be negligible at this point. (As I said to a friend, "The wall fell in Sam's head, and I guess that whole experience was kind of like getting a colonic.") Sam's seeing Lucifer, allegedly, but we saw no evidence of that in this hour. He seemed just fine. And the idea that he's been able to let go of whatever guilt he felt about his past is interesting, but how did that happen? The show itself didn't really walk me through how he'd gotten to that place -- it just wanted me to accept it because the show declared it to be true.

Let me be clear, I don't need 'Supernatural' to hold my hand and over-explain everything, I really don't. But not should it fail to explain or examine important developments in the brothers' emotional and moral development. Whether they feel guilt regarding their past actions, whether they feel cleansed or damaged by their time in Hell (and afterward), whether they think they can change or have in fact changed -- all of those things are fertile grounds to explore. I hope that as season 7 continues, the show finds more compelling ways to explore those ideas.

The past few episodes haven't filled me with confidence on that score, but we'll have to see.

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'Supernatural' airs 9PM ET Fridays on the CW.

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