Supernatural Season 9: A look back

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Season 9 of Supernatural, while uneven in spots and with pacing that often dragged when it meandered from its main arcs, also hit plenty of high notes and landed with a strong set-up for Season 10. Despite its flaws, Supernatural has proven itself an enduring mainstay genre show, both creatively and in the ratings. Season 9 further expanded its canvas around the two central figures of Sam and Dean Winchester, while also being an intense examination of the strengths and troubles of the brothers’ relationship.

Here are some thoughts looking back over season 9.

10371710_1430143963922650_5561384361799413022_nDemon Dean

Many viewers, including myself, suspected that the season might land at demon Dean, so this twist wasn’t nearly as shocking as the show probably hoped it would be. It was striking, though, and rather than feeling predictable, arrived with a sense of tragic inevitability. This is something Supernatural has been telegraphing not just in season 9, but for years. Dean’s confrontation with his demon self in season three’s “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” which exposed his deepest insecurities and fears, has been a present shadow ever since. Dean went to Hell at the end of season three, and nearly fulfilled season 3 demon Dean’s promise that “this is what you’ll become.” It was averted then, but Dean’s struggle with identity and his lack of self worth lingered and grew worse with further trauma. This twist is a logical next step in the Dean/Mark of Cain arc, and I think it will provide great material for exploring Dean’s character, allowing him to regain a sense of self and realize that he’s more than he believes he is.

 

Sam and Dean: progress or more of the same?

10357236_1430143913922655_466279894348929623_nThere was some advancement here, with season 9 examining the nature of the brother relationship and each brother’s issues more thoroughly than we’ve seen in a while. If season 9 hadn’t given me some sense of evolution in the relationship, I wouldn’t feel as interested in season 10, but that didn’t turn out to be the case. In the season 9 premiere, Dean made a deal to save Sam’s life, a deal that had far-reaching consequences and took away Sam’s agency as he’s possessed by an angel via dubious consent. That’s a hard regression, and while it takes a while for the shape of the arc to emerge clearly, it ends up being the catalyst for some long-running issues being brought into the light. While Season 9 was an unusually rough journey for the brother bond, the underlying connection stayed strong, and featured a much-needed shake-up.

Love isn’t a contest, and the way Dean shows love isn’t how Sam shows love, but they both love each other deeply. It was never in doubt to me that Sam would try to save Dean; the question is how – and even though Sam will go far for his brother, experience has given Sam some awareness. In 9.01 Sam was not only ready to die and be at peace, but firm in wanting “no one else hurt because of me.” While we can see Sam’s awareness of consequences to others, his hurt over Dean’s decision and the repercussions of it blinded him somewhat to the real nature of Dean’s motivations and issues. We also didn’t see much self-awareness from Sam in season 9 regarding how he feeds the very situation that frustrates him. His reliance on Dean’s good opinion and on knowing that he’s the little brother, the protected one, as well as the affirmation of knowing how far Dean will go for him, is something that Sam still falls back on even while he seeks to become his own person. But Sam wants to be partners, not the protected object or “problem child.” Circumstances keep throwing the brothers back into the same roles, and lack of understanding drives them further apart.

Once the Gadreel possession is over, we see Sam as a competent, smart, badass hunter. We have glimpses of how he was affected by the Gadreel possession, and even a callback to the time he spent being soulless (Sam releasing the kidnapped souls from their jars was a resonant moment), how he views his role as a hunter, and insight regarding his relationship with Dean (troubled as it is right now), and with Castiel. After the mid-season break, Sam – with some outside help – takes back his sense of self by kicking Gadreel’s grace out of his body. But Supernatural needs to linger more inside Sam’s head, and stop relying on making Sam the object to be saved due to something being wrong with him or him being possessed. The unusual reversal in dynamics that demon Dean brings is an opportunity to further explore Sam’s character as well as Dean’s.

Late in the season, when Dean declares the family a “dictatorship” that he’s leading, is under MoC influence, but it taps into many of their underlying issues and some innate tendencies in Dean to make unilateral decisions out of a need to keep his family safe. Despite his insecurities, Dean does know deep down that he’s more than just the protector, worth more than the bloody sad ending; he’s not just the “blunt little instrument.” These hang-ups keep him from being able to treat Sam as an equal – he’s so afraid of losing Sam, of failing, that he can’t see Sam any more clearly than Sam can see Dean.

Dean’s death scene in the finale works as a poignant culmination of the season-long arcs for Sam and Dean, although it isn’t a resolution to the problems in the relationship. In keeping with the worried and protective Sam we kept seeing in the back half of Season 9 – despite Sam’s insistence on emotional distance because the “brother” part has gotten so messed up, Sam repeatedly takes Dean being in peril very personally – Sam races to get to Dean in time. He draws an angel blade, prepared to face off with Metatron after Dean falls, not seeming to care how much the angel outpowers him, but Metatron flies off to confront Castiel. Sam tries to get medical attention for his brother, but it’s too late, and we’re left with Sam sobbing over Dean’s body. But Dean’s final words, “I’m proud of us,” advance his character arc and bring the brother relationship to better ground. Dean not only acknowledged Sam as an equal, but his own worth as well.

The stage is set for season 10 to further the growth and insight. The question is, will Supernatural pull it off, or will it fall back to familiar ground again?

 

10447623_1430144027255977_6024139599970971303_nDean and Castiel

Castiel began the season separated from the Winchesters, stranded hundreds of miles away with his grace gone. Although Dean and Cas have no in-person scenes together in the season premiere, the “profound bond” between them plays a large role, as does Castiel’s affection for both brothers and “Team Free Will” as a family unit. That set the pace for a lot of the Dean and Castiel dynamics in season 9: although they are frequently separated, the bond between them is an important part of the season.

The season premiere showed Dean’s concern that the newly depowered Castiel get to safety, while Castiel refused, determined to get to Dean anyway. We see Dean, frantic as Sam lies in a coma, reaching out to Castiel with a prayer, not realizing yet that Castiel can no longer hear him. The scene not only displayed Dean’s worry over Sam, but showed how much Dean personally relies on Castiel – not as a useful “tool,” but as a source of comfort and support, the familiar rope he reaches for in a crisis. This calls back to late Season 8 when Dean prayed to Castiel, effectively asking him to share co-protectorship with him of Sam, which was a major gesture of trust. In 9.01, when Castiel doesn’t answer, Dean put out an APB to “all angels,” offering a deal. Gadreel, posing as Ezekiel, answered the prayer, but other angels attacked the Winchesters. When they threatened Sam to get Dean to give up Castiel’s location, Dean refused to give up either of them, and instead tricked the angels, protecting both Sam and Castiel.

9.03 has a nod back to season 8’s Purgatory dynamic, with Dean frantically searching for Castiel, willing to go to great lengths to get to him in time and save his life. The episode culminates in Castiel’s (temporary) death scene, which gave a revealing look at how much Dean cares for him. But the two are immediately separated again due to the deal Dean made with the angel Gadreel. The two are seldom together in season 9, but when they are, we see the fruition of all they’ve been through together and the connection they’ve formed. There are many points in season 9 where we see how they steady, reassure, or advise each other, along with the conflicts that still exist between them, but they reach a shared understanding that helps them with past hurts as well. Their season 9 communication also seems unusually direct. Dean even outright refers back to the events of season 6, when communication between them fell apart. Castiel’s horrified concern when he finds out that Dean has taken on the Mark of Cain is also a significant moment. It’s not only an important note for Dean and Cas, but it’s part of the flip in dynamics among Dean and Sam and Castiel, as Dean becomes the crisis point, the one falling apart and taking desperate measure to transform himself to fight the bad guys, while the others are the ones who worry.

Castiel has his own independent arc that sets off his character growth and what he’s learned from past mistakes, as well as a recurrent reluctant leader theme. Dean takes on the Mark of Cain, turning himself into a weapon; Castiel makes a similar decision, stealing the grace of a combatant angel. Both make the decisions out of desperation, knowing they need the extra firepower. Dean is spiraling down, seeing no role for himself outside of that, while Castiel is wary of letting his role as a warrior define him, and therefore actively looks for some way – other than killing – to stop the angel conflicts. Castiel once told Dean that Castiel wasn’t just a hammer, rejecting the narrow role his father assigned him; Dean struggles to see himself as more than just the “blunt instrument” role assigned to him by his father. They are both more than single-minded warriors and protectors, but in season 9 Castiel seems more aware of that than Dean, although before he died Dean confessed to Sam that the Mark of Cain was turning him into something that he didn’t want to be. So the awareness is there for Dean, even if it’s not as prevalent as it is for Castiel.

In 9.22, Castiel chooses Dean over the loyal army of angels he needs to take out Metatron, which is something that Dean outright acknowledges afterwards: “you just gave up an entire army for one guy.” It’s one of the few (possibly the only) times Dean has directly spoken to Castiel regarding his awareness of how Castiel feels about him. (In season 6, Dean verbalized his awareness of Castiel’s loyalty to their family unit, addressing Sam and Bobby, but he didn’t know that Castiel was eavesdropping in “invisible mode”, and Dean also wasn’t merely referring to himself). In this and many other ways, season 9 continued to reveal and build the Dean and Cas bond, even while they were distanced.

After Castiel gave up his army, Metatron told Gadreel that “Castiel is in love…with humanity.” In 9.23, Metatron taunted Castiel and placed a more specific label on his motivations. “To save Dean Winchester…ultimately it was all to save one human, right?” Metatron tells Castiel that Dean is dead, and pulls out the angel blade that Metatron used to kill him, Dean’s blood still on it, intending to kill Castiel with it. Castiel’s shock and grief for Dean is plain.

Controversies over “canon destiel”, the show’s intention, and shipping aside, these are key moments in both the mytharc and emotional plots for season 9. Whether this was an intense friendship and brother-like bond, or all of that plus undercurrents of something else beneath, the “profound bond” has been an important part of Supernatural’s story for years, and here it gets a pronounced neon sign. We’ve seen Dean react to losing Castiel – most extensively in season 7 – and now we’re seeing Castiel react to losing Dean.

Castiel tiredly tells his second-in-command, Hannah, “I just want to be an angel.” His grief for Dean and loss of sense of purpose is obvious, and it’ is reflective of how Dean floundered in season 7 in the wake of Castiel’s betrayal and apparent death.

 

10455457_1430143927255987_5757845955754269225_nTeam Free Will

While this season featured both the distancing and the furthering of the bond between Dean and Cas, there was also more of Sam and Cas working together as a team. These two characters have a lot of commonalities, and it was good to see Supernatural finally develop their friendship. They also joined in their worry for Dean. I was sorry that unlike season 8, season 9 didn’t really have all three working a case together, but Sam and Dean and Castiel were still there for each other and watched each others’ backs, despite the problems and despite how much further they have to go to understand and learn how to work together. The bond between these three “found brothers” will endure the strains season 10 puts on it. Like Sam and Dean, and Dean and Cas, this patchwork family of damaged soldiers has become an entity itself, and has become one of the most appealing aspects of Supernatural. In season 10, along with Dean’s plight bringing out different shadings on the brother bond and the profound bond, I expect we’ll see more of how the three of them are linked, as well as Sam and Cas relying on each other in a crisis and teaming up in order to find a way to save Dean.

 

Supporting characters

In season 9, Kevin Tran continued to be a bright spot, although he was underused until Gadreel murdered him and set things in motion for the major arc of the second half of the season. I was sorry to see Kevin Tran go after he endured for 3 seasons, as his character evolution has been among the best of the recurring characters. His mother Linda, as resourceful and tough and poignant as ever, made a welcome return for an episode when she has a reunion with her now ghostly son. I can only hope we’ll see more of both in season 10, and I also hope we’ll see Charlie Bradbury again. Her one season 9 episode was engaging and a little outside the box, ending with her going off to Oz with Dorothy Gale, but it seems likely she’ll return.10404360_1430143920589321_8260968617413492072_n

My favorite “monster of the week” episode this season was “Alex Annie Alexis Anne,” which acts as a great character study for Sheriff Jody Mills and introduces “Alex,” a compelling and complicated female character. The themes touched on in this episode, including those concerning family, making the right choices, and identity, are resonant with Supernatural as a whole. The character of Alex also offers parallels for the pressures put on both Dean and Sam. The bond that forms between Jody and Alex is well drawn, and a rarity, as Supernatural doesn’t usually depict female relationships (Jo and Ellen Harvelle are a notable exception). I hope we’ll see a lot more of Jody, who has been on the show since season 6, and more of “Alex” as well.

The angel Gadreel emerged as a memorable, believably gray area character. It was hard to forgive him after he obeyed Metatron’s order to kill Kevin and after he manipulated Dean, but we also saw his genuine quest for redemption. I’m sorry that Supernatural killed him off because ultimately I was moved by his story.

Crowley played a key role this season, and his scenes with Dean are compelling to watch as he tried to entice Dean down a darker path. His sly, snarky observations and outlook make him a fun character, along with his, well, evilness. While season 9 delved somewhat into a less demonic part of Crowley, he works best as a gray character but also as a ruthless adversary. His role in awakening demon Dean in the finale should play intriguingly into season 10. The real scene-stealer, however, was the demon Abaddon, whose poise and ambition made her seem like a shoe-in to become Queen of Hell. She was killed off far too soon, but since she made a comeback once before, after her host body was burned, maybe she can do so again.

Do you have thoughts on the strongest – or weaker – aspects of season 9, and where season 10 may take the characters? Feel free to sound off in the comments!

Author: Dot R

Dot has been bouncing around various fandoms for many years now writing essays, episode reviews, commentary, and reporting news and conducting interviews, among other things. Along with being a Marvel, DC, Star Wars, and Supernatural fangirl, she’s also a fan of fantasy and science fiction television shows, everything from Farscape to Killjoys to 12 Monkeys to X-Files to Wynonna Earp. Currently Fangirl at Large covering numerous geek culture related topics, convention news, casting spoilers, show news, and interviews.



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