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November 26, 2014

'Supernatural' Farewell: Thoughts on 'Death's Door,' the Road So Far and Where I Stop Off

by Maureen Ryan, posted Dec 6th 2011 10:00AM
['Supernatural' - 'Death's Door']

Hello 'Supernatural' fans! Long time no see.

There's obviously been some recent news about Castiel's upcoming return (and you can read Misha Collins' reaction to that here), but today's piece was in the works before that development came to light. I wanted to offer a few thoughts on the Dec. 2 episode of the CW show, which was a terrific showcase for Jim Beaver, among other things. I bet I'm not alone in thinking it was one of the best Bobby-oriented episodes the show has ever done or in thinking it's among the best 'Supernatural' outings of 2011.

It feels good to be going out on a high. Me, that is. Not the show. This will be my last weekly review of 'Supernatural.' But this is not a farewell to the fandom -- merely an au revoir.

Where's all this coming from? Well, let's do a quick "Previously on Mo's 'Supernatural' Reviews."

The last episode I reviewed was 'The Mentalists,' and, as has been the case with several of my posts on the show this fall, all hell broke loose in the comments section. I don't think I was accused of causing global warming and/or kidnapping the Lindbergh baby, but things got pretty heated in there. The 'Mentalists' post is currently at 348 comments and counting.

Normally, I love to see hundreds of comments on a post. That's often the kind of thing makes my day, if not my week. But things are not currently all that normal (or what passes for normal) in the realm of 'Supernatural.'

I've said several times, this fall especially, that I think the show is off track in many key respects (the condensed version of my current overall critique is here). It's not that it's incapable of producing a good episode (and I'd call 'Death's Door' a great episode), it's that the show used to be a model of consistency. It never really strayed outside of certain quality parameters. It might occasionally have a clunker or a stratospherically excellent episode, but most episodes were at the very least competent, if not above average. Most episodes were just plain good.

That's often not been the case, for the last few months especially. Since about the middle of Season 6, the show has been wildly inconsistent and has lacked focus, rigor, ambition and a clear sense of where the characters are going and why. Part of the reason I'm giving up weekly reviews is that I want to give that dead horse I've been beating a break. I've told you what I've thought in my Season 7 pieces (the highlights are here, here and here), and if you think these pieces have often been repetitive to read, they're no less repetitive to write.

So that's Reason No. 1 I'm putting an end to the weekly reviews: I don't want to bore you or me with the same old, same old. As I said, the show still can come up with the goods -- I liked 'How to Win Friends and Influence Monsters' and loved 'Death's Door' -- but there have been more bad episodes than good this fall, and the bad ones have, frankly, made me angry and frustrated as a fan of the show. It's hard not to get riled up when you think something isn't living up to its potential, when individual episodes are often weak and derivative and when the season as a whole has lacked a consistent drive.

I won't offer many thoughts on 'Season 7: Time for a Wedding,' given that Stacey Kade did a brilliant job of taking apart everything that was wrong with that episode here. Suffice to say, I thought it made a (bad) mockery of the show's penchant for meta episodes, and a show that's often on the ropes creatively should not be in the business of ridiculing its remaining fans in heavy-handed and vaguely unpleasant ways.

That may sound a little harsh, but, the thing is, I react emotionally to what I see on the screen, and so do you. That's fair, that's to be expected -- a big part of the reason we're fans is that the show gets us emotionally invested in what's going on. What wasn't particularly pleasant about the comments on 'The Mentalists' review was the way some people assumed they had figured out my hidden agenda. A certain vocal subgroup decided that I was anti-Dean, because that I wrote that the Dean in that episode was a dick.

Here's what I meant by that, which I thought was obvious but perhaps not: When I care about a character a lot, it bothers me when that character is written poorly. And as I said in that review, in my opinion, Dean was being written badly -- he was dickish in ways that didn't ring true for me at all.

The particular brand of dickishness on display was exactly the problem. This did not seem like the guy who had been through all the experiences we've witnessed in the past seven seasons. This was a crude, rudimentary version of that guy, with all the hard-won maturity hacked off. It bothered me that the character was written with such a lack of finesse much of the time, just as it bothers me when Sam is written with a lack of finesse and complexity. When characters' potential and experiences are simply tossed aside or dumbed down by the show's writers, it's annoying. That's what I was saying.

I know that by taking on this subject again, I run the risk of making the comment area fill up again with arguments about various characters, but that's not my intent. Honestly, for me, that kind of discussion is kind of beside the point (and let me stipulate here that I care a great deal about both characters, and given what heights Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles can scale as actors, I always want them to get material worthy of their range and talents and I get quite cranky when that doesn't happen).

Here's my point, and this is another one of the reasons I don't want to do the weekly reviews these days: The lack of consistency in the writing is leading to more arguments among fans. We are the hardcore folks, the people who are still watching well into the show's seventh season, and many of us are so deeply committed to the positions we've taken on the show and the characters that arguments can get hostile more quickly.

Sure, individuals who can't converse about these matters kindly and politely are partly to blame (of course, the vast majority of you are civil, and I thank you for that). But in my mind, the powers that be behind 'Supernatural' are partly responsible for the current state of affairs. Even if an episode here or there is solid, overall, the writers are doing such an inconsistent job of delivering strong emotional, thematic and storytelling arcs that we as fans often have to fill in the blanks and supply our own interpretations of what's happening. We have to supply the complexity and connective tissue that the show is too often failing to give us.

Because the Winchesters' stories, as individuals and as brothers, have been all over the map, every single fan comes up with "their" backstory and interpretation, and each can come up with a rationale for his or her likes and dislikes. Because the narrative is so diffuse and so often consists of sloppy cover versions of songs we already know, people can and do impose a any number of interpretation on characters and story. It can all be a recipe for chaos.

The end result is that, as I noted, people often appear to be even more attached to their interpretations of events, and when people disagree, the conversation can get unpleasant, even when all parties are well-intentioned. However, when some parties assume bad faith on my part or on the part of other fans, when people assume I have an agenda beyond interpreting this show the same way that I'd interpret 'Mad Men' or 'Game of Thrones,' that's when things begin to spin out of control. When that happens, it can just be exhausting to contend with.

There are always going to be a range of interpretations, ideas and theories in any fandom. That's all to the good, in general. But, specifically speaking of 'Supernatural,' what we've got right now is a road with some broken traffic signals, too few stop signs, and guide posts in 10 different languages. We're all traveling to an uncertain destination, with no clear sense of whether the road beneath our feet is the right one. We're often arguing the whole way about which route is best, instead of looking out the window and enjoying the view, and that's partly because the navigation from on high is sometimes out of whack.

So all of that is not a ton of fun, for me as a fan or as a comment-wrangler. One of the things I was proudest of, as a fan and a critic, was that the comment areas of my 'Supernatural' posts were usually extremely polite, even when people disagreed with each other. And, like I said, most of you are still thoughtful, pleasant and civil, and I'm so grateful for that. But there's an element of fans who interpret criticism of bad or inconsistent writing as unwarranted criticism of individual characters or the show itself, and that's a wrestling match I don't have the mental energy for just now.

There are other concerns, I hasten to add. I have growing personal commitments that make it increasingly difficult to give half a weekend day (or more) to the writing and comment moderation of a 'Supernatural' review. That's a significant part of this.

But I'm not going to stop watching or writing about 'Supernatural,' I promise. I'm still going to watch the show and weigh in when I have something to say about it. The fact is, I still have a great deal of affection for the show, and I think taking a break from weekly reviews will allow me to have a different perspective on it. I don't want to keep trotting out the same criticisms, given how much I have enjoyed 'Supernatural' over the years. In a weird way, I'm giving up the weekly reviews out of affection -- for the show, for the fans, for myself.

Now, if you're still with me (and thank you, if you are), here are a few thoughts on 'Death's Door.'

The episode, to me, showcased what 'Supernatural' does best. It effectively used an ambitious structure, clever dialogue and terrific character development to tell an emotionally infused story that kept me guessing even as it drew me deeper into the suspenseful tale it was telling. It was a pleasure to watch it twice.

I could say that giving us two Bobby cliffhangers in a row (in both 'How to Influence' and 'Death's Door') was pushing it a bit, but I can't even convincingly list that as a real quibble. 'Death's Door' was just a great hour of television that got a pass on that front because it earned one.

We already knew that Jim Beaver was a terrific actor, but this episode put his character through the wringer and then some, and Beaver just knocked every scene out of the park. So many of his best moments were silent: The tortured look he had as his wife sobbed, the ferocious look he had as his father beat his mother, the love that shone on his face when he watched Sam and Dean argue about Chuck Norris vs. Jet Li, the loyalty and devotion he wore proudly when he called Sam and Dean his adopted sons. I don't only have negative things to say about 'Supernatural,' honestly, and I'm glad I'm able to say this: The show should be commended for giving this hard-working actor such a top-notch and varied showcase for his skills. Kudos all 'round.

It was a great hour for Steven Williams also; the banter between Bobby and Rufus was one of the best things about the episode. This is the reason I thought it was a bad idea to kill off Rufus in the first place; he's not only a great character and a wonderful foil for Bobby, it's often illustrative to see how a supporting character views the pain of a main character. We didn't just see Bobby face down his deepest pain; we saw Rufus watch him do that, and the experiences and the emotions had more resonance because they were shared.

Another excellent thing about the episode is that gave us new perspective on the Winchesters. They were at Bobby's bedside, drinking stale coffee, but it wasn't really about them, and that was refreshing, in a way. Sometimes, the indirect path is more effective. I know the show has tried hard to convince me that Dean carries a black, weighty sadness in his soul, but at times, 'Supernatural' has been too crude and blunt in how it has portrayed that weight. When Dean muttered, "We've been through enough," that brief moment was worth its weight in emotional gold. Sometimes, more is less.

What worked most about the episode was its message, which evoked the show's themes beautifully. It made the case that our pain is not worthless and is actually quite valuable at times. Pain and loss can define us and motivate us, and not always in bad ways. Sometimes pain and anger are what get our heads back in the game, and the hour, especially the scenes with Bobby's wife, quietly demonstrated that we can't feel awful pain unless we've felt real love.

I've been complaining since the last season that the show was too bleak, so it was good to see an episode that explored wounds -- psychological and physical -- and showed characters not hiding from them, but accepting them and in some cases, beginning to treat them like badges of honor. There was so much suffering on display, but it was suffering that meant something; it brought Bobby back to life. What an intrinsically 'Supernatural' story: Death or the well-played Reaper weren't the enemy -- the enemy was the fear of what's inside your own soul and memory. And to vanquish that fear -- or at least come to terms with it -- is a beautiful thing.

Having said all that, it seems telling to me somehow that the two 2011 'Supernatural' episodes I found most effective and emotionally moving ('The Man Who Would Be King' and 'Death's Door') were not primarily about Sam and Dean. I don't want to think that the show has run out of new ways to tell profound and moving stories about their dilemmas, but I do wonder at times if the show has gone to those wells too often. I did, during 'Death's Door,' think: "I want Sam and Dean episodes that move me this way."

Maybe we'll get those. I'll be watching, along with the rest of you. And I'll weigh in about what's happening on the show when it feels right.

My final thought is this: The community of commenters that has existed here has meant a great deal to me. Even if I didn't respond to your comment, know that I read every one, and I'm grateful for every second you spent here.

I'll be back one of these days to talk all things Winchester (and Bobby and Castiel). Follow me on Twitter if you want to know when that happens.

Thanks.

Follow @MoRyan on Twitter.

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74 Comments

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clemeklee

I am going to miss your reviews. I seem to usually agree with your thoughts on the episodes and have found comfort in the knowledge that "I'm not the only one". I know that we (the Supernatural fandom) can be a little passionate about the show and our favorite characters, but all in all, we are a pretty good bunch of people. I think that it's only human nature that makes us think that our point of view is the only "right" one. For a long time Supernatural has been a great base for intelligent discussion and debate on a abundance of issues that most of us wouldn't have even thought about otherwise. Thank you for sharing your reviews with us all this time and I look forward to your next review, whenever that may be.

January 21 2012 at 9:17 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Emma

Oh I will miss your reviews!! It's always so much better to read a review by a fan, and I for one have always enjoyed your take on episodes, I like to have alternate POV's offered up about particular episodes. I have to agree that the fandom has been left to fill their own blanks for a while now., and this has caused a lot of head canon arguments that are essentially pointless in many ways anyway. The show will do as it does. And ret con what it wants at times too. I love the fandom, but not so much a lot of anti-sentiment amid the ranks lately. It's depressing. Bobby SInger will be missed, but hopefully we will see him again. I sincerely hope you will share your thoughts on the eps coming up with Misha's return (not sure if it's as Cas or not so won't tempt fate)-though Jared's latest interview actually seems to go in the face of what so many of us feel about SPN, that it's about more than the brothers, he says its not about an angel or a demon chick as they come and go, and we watch because of the human struggle of the boys. Which kind of bums me out, because as a SF fan, for me as a viewer, the exploration of the human condition has always been vastly more intriguing when approached through a fresh perspective and the excellence of S4 & 5 attest to this fact-but it would appear this idea is not a shared one. Thanks for all your reviews, your insights, and here's hoping SPN inspires you again to share your thoughts sooner rather than later.

January 18 2012 at 3:01 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Sheri

"... the writers are doing such an inconsistent job of delivering strong emotional, thematic and storytelling arcs that we as fans often have to fill in the blanks and supply our own interpretations of what's happening. We have to supply the complexity and connective tissue that the show is too often failing to give us."

Thank you for clarifying your position on the show, Mo. Particularly, I share you frustration with the above statement. I'll watch the show until the end; but, actually, I watch for Jensen only these days. I like Jared, but Sam's character has been lost since S4 and I've given up on finding anything but the glimpses we see of him ever so often.

As far as Death's Door, in pointing out the theme and use of pain in this episode. I didn't catch that, but what I did catch was the same as you; thinking that I wished that we would see Sam and Dean displayed in this way. Jim Beaver did do a fantastic job, and I love Steven Williams. My problem was two-fold: that I know now more about Bobby's character than I know about the Winchesters (and I don't want great stories given to support characters) and that all that we now know about Bobby is really meaningless, because either his character will die or he'll be put out of commission for most of the rest of the season. The only connection to the brothers was that he loved them and they love him. We already knew that. Perhaps it will give some Dean his mojo back, and isn't it sad that Bobby's injury/death would do that, but Cas breaking Sam's wall and giving him a lifetime of pain wouldn't?

I also find it very sad that the current showrunner and writers seem to have lost interest in the Winchesters and/or the show. They seem consumed with hubris and are giving themselves what they want without thought to what the fans want and like. Sure, the season hasn't been horrible (like S6), but it's not compelling or all the interesting either. The CW closing their message boards confirmed this for me. This is no longer TV to talk about...because they obviously don't want us talking in-depth about the show. A Facebook or Twitter "awesome" or "awful" just doesn't do it for the 'in for the long haul' fans.

Last comment. What was the value in giving Bobby a two-part 'will he die' cliffhanger and a week later changing that conversation to 'oh, Cas is coming back!' That little tidbit sure took the wind out of the sails of the cliffie.

I'll look for any further comments you have on the show. I share your feelings of the show, often learned more about each episode from your reviews, and sometimes didn't agree with you, but I will miss your weekly reviews. See you on the flip side, then.

December 19 2011 at 7:53 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
hwhitlat.hwhitlat

I thought that this was a beautiful episode when looked at singularly. However, it raised in me the concern you so eloquently voiced in your review of the finale of last season - it feels like the writers are systematically removing all Sam and Dean's support systems. It makes for fantastic heart wrenching episodes (Abandon All Hope, anyone?), but makes me worried as to where the series as a whole is heading. When the series ultimately ends, I would hate for "the boys" just to drift off and become jaded old hunters with nothing beside fighting monsters to live for,

December 18 2011 at 3:01 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
KathyB

Mo, I understand your need to take a break from the weekly SPN focus. It was a tasty episode and we will also continue to watch. End of year is a busy time. Happy to see that the Huff Po thing is an AOL shift and not a change of job for you. Will keep following on twitter and checking in on your columns.

Don't like the thought of Bobby being gone, but tv shows and tv characters are ephemeral by design. So it goes.

December 15 2011 at 1:06 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
yim_happy

This was a beautiful episode. I had an almost high from the warm feelings that Bobby was able to beat his upbringing, and the love of the Winchester family.

But then...
I discovered I was in a minority in believing that child Bobby's killing of his father was metaphorical. I assumed it was a inner battle with violent imagery. But so many others believe that patricide was Bobby's worst memory. I think that the child abuse was enough to remember. Bobby doesn't need to kill his dad to be a hero.

Jesus, please, don't let Bobby have killed his dad. I don't think "mean drunk" is reason enough to execute a human being. Bobby's dad looked like he needed AA & anger management courses, not a bullet in the head. Bobby & his mom had a decent house, food on the table. Abusers often love their families but don't know how to handle their anger or addiction issues. I've known 2 abusers who got better with time.

If it was self defense, SPN didn't make it clear enough that Bobby or his mom's life was in danger. Also, Bobby's speech to his younger self is all the more cold & heartless if it's about a real killing. It seems like Bobby agrees with patricide, no regrets.

December 15 2011 at 11:17 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
tracysanzs

I've tried to start the first season a few times and couldn't get into it. Is there another entry point in a later season that's worth trying?

December 13 2011 at 7:13 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
3 replies to tracysanzs's comment
anchorworm

Farewell Mo,
I will miss your weekly reviews of this show, but I am sad to say that I agree with your reasons for stopping them. The show has really fallen in the last two seasons. I have reached the point where it is not "appointment television" for me anymore. As a matter of fact, I just got around to watching Death's Door on DVR this morning. The episode made me ask the question where was this quality all season long? I was going to give up on the show last season when they threw me for a loop with the man who would be king episode. This kept me on for a little while longer, but, now more often than not, I will skip an episode and not feel bad about it. I will probably tune in for the episodes when Cas returns, but, I will not be making a point of looking for the show in the future.

December 10 2011 at 11:36 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
lily

Goodbye Mo! While I disagreed with you at times, especially concerning the Amy storyline, I do respect your views and I will miss your column on Supernatural. I agree SPN does at times have some issues, but I love this show and I hope it will go on for a few more seasons. I understand your concern, but as a previous commentator said,” when the going gets tough, the tough get going. “I wish you would have continued to write. Maybe you’ll change your mind just like you did in season I after watching Bloody Mary. Take care, and Happy Holidays!

December 09 2011 at 5:50 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Nitewoman

I will miss you terribly Maureen. Your reviews were the first place I went to anxious to read what you thought about an episode.

Most times I was in complete agreement with you, a few times not so much. I respected your opinions and always thought you wrote your reviews eloquently. I too enjoyed most of the comments, especially after I got to see commentators I recognized. It was fun to see where we all stood.
I completely understand why you are stepping away but truly appreciate you taking the time and effort to tell us. Have I loved seasons 6 and 7 NO! Have there been some terrific episodes YES!

For me I love this show so much and just don’t want to say good-bye to it just yet, so I’ve overlooked some glaring mistakes.
This October I checked off #1 and #2 off on my bucket list: attending a SPN convention (in my hometown of Toronto no less!) and meeting Jensen ( I got the private meet and greet with him) Dean girl here) and Jared love him too but Dean cranks my chain  and talking with them and getting photos fulfilled my dreams above and beyond ( young at heart 59 year old here but hey I’m not dead I can still dream.) I’m attending next year’s con and I hope there is a season 8 cause it’s wonderful to talk to the boys when they have just started filming.

Thanks so much for all the wonderful times and thanks for all your hard work.
As to “Death’s Door” well all I can say is A++++ . everything you said it’s just ditto from me. This episode is in my top five episodes. I cried through the whole thing and there was a whole in the pit of my stomach which wont be fixed or destroyed until January 6. I’m praying with all my might that Sera is smart enough NOT TO KILL BOBBY! Last comment I have to wonder if Sera, Ben, Robert and rest of writers read our comments and pay nay attention to how we feel about the show and are trying to bring it back on track. I wonder how Eric feels about what has happened to his show and if he can give any guidance. Good bye Mo.

December 09 2011 at 2:38 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
4 replies to Nitewoman's comment

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