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So, during the summer hiatus I came to the conclusion that Supernatural no longer warrants the kind of energy and commitment that goes into my episode reviews, and so I decided to just let it go and switch to casual viewing. However, I seem to have underestimated the difficulty of breaking an eight year long habit. I guess it is fair to say that, as long as I am watching the show, I am going to have thoughts about it, so I might as well write them down. Still, I intend to make some changes. Generally, my reviews will be less extensive, and I will not address Castiel, Crowley or the angels in any significant capacity – sorry, angels and demons bore me to tears nowadays – unless their story is in some way relevant to Sam and Dean’s. It is entirely possible, though, that my motivation to write reviews fizzles out at some point, just like it did at the end of last season, but I guess we will just have to wait and see. Now, onto the review!

As one would expect from a season opener, Jeremy Carver’s I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here looks at the aftermath of the S8 finale and sets the stage for the main plotlines of the first half of the season. My emotions while watching the episode ranged from being genuinely moved (Sam) to boredom (Castiel and Hael) to intrigue (Dean and Ezekiel) to angry disbelief (Dean’s choice), so at the very least I can say that the premiere did not leave me indifferent. In fact, if it was not for the unexpected last-minute turn of events, I would have said the season opener surprised me positively, mainly because it continues the exploration of Sam’s emotional state. Insight into Sam’s inner workings is always a plus in my book. However, the disturbing resolution to Sam’s dilemma casts a very dark shadow over the episode, and my acceptance of that resolution will largely depend on how the writers will handle the long-term consequences of it.

You know, last season I very much disagreed with Jeremy Carver’s definition of 'maturity', and it seems that, this season, I am going to disagree with him about what constitutes as novel storytelling. At ComicCon, as well as in various interviews, Carver prided himself of taking the story into a new and fresh direction in S9, but so far all I can see is the same repetitive storytelling that already informed the majority of S8. I mean, Sam’s physical and/or mental integrity being compromised by a supernatural influence is basically Sam’s storyline in every season of Supernatural, ever. And Dean making damaging choices when faced with Sam’s imminent death and keeping vital information from his brother – well, we have been there and done that as well. It seems that Sam and Dean’s story in S9 will be a mishmash of S2&6, just like their story in S8 was a condensed version of S4&5, and that leaves me with the impression that the writers are at their wits’ end, creatively, where the brothers are concerned. Their refusal to let Sam and Dean grow forces them to hit the same character beats over and over again, which ultimately renders them meaningless. Now, I am not going to deny that it makes me happy when Sam and Dean demonstrate their undying devotion to each other – that is why I am watching, after all – but it troubles me that the writers seem absolutely incapable of coming up with new and original scenarios for that to happen. There are dozens of other, more positive ways to illustrate the brothers' deep and abiding love for each other, but instead the writers just resort to more and more extreme measures to tell the same story, thus damaging the characters and negating previous character development. It is all very frustrating.

Sam: "If I go with you, can you promise that this time it will be final? That, if I am dead, I stay dead. Nobody can reverse it. Nobody can deal it away. And nobody else can get hurt because of me."
Death: "I can promise that."

I guess it comes as no surprise that Sam’s inner struggle with the question if he should fight his impending death or if he is supposed to let go is by far my favourite part of the episode. It does not happen very often that we get two episodes in a row that explore Sam’s state of mind, so I am revelling in the (relative) abundance of it. Now, I think it makes perfect sense that Dean, who is Sam’s main reason to live, represents the part of Sam that wants to fight, while Bobby, who was Sam’s closest friend with personal insight into the repercussions of refusing to accept one’s own death, represents the part of Sam that is ready to let go. In this context, I think it is important to note that Sam states right away that he does not want to die. On the contrary, he stopped the trials because he genuinely wished to live. It soon becomes clear, however, that Sam is unsure if he is even supposed to resist what is happening to him. Maybe it is just his time to go and fighting his death will only result in unforeseen consequences, again. After all, as Sam’s subconscious in form of Bobby rightly points out, going against the natural order has only ever brought them (and the world) severe grief, so maybe it is time for him to accept his own mortality and move on. By the way, I love how this internal argument ties back to Sam’s characterisation at the beginning of S8. I think it is save to conclude that Sam’s decision not to try and bring Dean back from the dead was rooted in the same kind of reasoning, so it is only consistent for Sam to apply it to himself as well.

The impression that Sam’s choice to accept his death is not rooted in a suicidal state of mind, but mainly in his concerns for the consequences should he choose to fight the natural order, is further substantiated in his later conversation with Death. Sam’s insistence that he will only go with Death if he can promise him to make Sam’s death final, i.e. that he cannot be brought back by any means and/or used again to hurt anyone, basically hits the same thematic note as his opening argument with his inner 'Dean' and 'Bobby'. The first time Sam was brought back from the dead (Dean’s deal), he became instrumental in the raising of Lucifer, and the second time he was brought back (Castiel’s interference), his soulless shell wreaked havoc on Dean and countless innocent civilians, so it is understandable that Sam considers his (final) death the safest choice in his current situation. However, I think that is not the only reason for Sam’s acceptance of his own death. In Sam’s conversations with his inner 'Dean', it is frequently emphasised that he has no plan of how to get Sam out of his dilemma, which suggests to me that Sam has no idea how to fight or what to fight for. I find that interesting, because last time Sam was in a coma (The Man Who Knew Too Much) he had no such doubts; he knew exactly what to do and why to do it, namely try everything in his power to get back to Dean, because his brother depended on him. At present, though, he is willing to let go because he does no longer believe that to be true, and I think that ties back to Sam’s emotional breakdown in Sacrifice.

In their conversation at the church, Sam allowed his brother an unfiltered look into his feelings of self-loathing and guilt, and while I think that Sam has a number of personal issues that are entirely independent from Dean’s perception of him, Sam’s breakdown illustrated clearly that a considerable part of his sense of inadequacy, failure and guilt is bound to Dean’s disapproval and (seeming) lack of faith and trust in him. The impression that Sam’s self-worth issues have little to do with a general inability to see his own value – unlike Dean’s, for example – is further cemented by Sam’s internal conversations with 'Dean' and 'Bobby' in the current episode. Sam is perfectly able to acknowledge the good he has done and take pride in his general achievements – he saved the world, he saved innocent people, he saved Bobby. However, the one person he seems to constantly let down is his brother, and while Dean tried to assure Sam of his love in Sacrifice, he did little to disabuse Sam of the notion that he is a failure, who repeatedly disappointed Dean and cannot really be trusted. I think those lingering accusations play a significant part in Sam’s conviction that Dean does not really need him and hence in his willingness to accept his death. I think that is also the reason why, despite his firm determination to go with Death, Sam almost instantly changes his mind when Dean, the real Dean, steps in at the last minute and appeals to his sense of brotherly commitment. He cannot let Dean down, again. ♥

Ezekiel: "I cannot promise – but there is a chance that I can fix your brother. From the inside"
Dean: "The inside? So what? You’re going to open him up? [Ezekiel shakes his head] What? Possession? You want to possess Sam? No way!"

I have to say that Dean’s decision to save Sam’s life by tricking him into an angel possession and then mind-wipe him leaves me deeply disturbed and upset. Now, let me be clear about one thing, I like my brothers a little messed-up and irrational when it comes to each other, I like them somewhat co-dependent and damaged, but there are lines that cannot be crossed if the writers still want me to believe that Sam and Dean’s relationship is to their mutual benefit. And Dean’s disregard for Sam’s right to self-determination and bodily autonomy really calls that into question for me. Dean knows that Sam would never agree to a possession, not least because of his past traumatic experiences, but he forces it on him anyway. Okay, so it is not exactly news that Dean loses any and all perspective whenever Sam’s life is in danger, and that he has very few limits as to what he would do to save his brother. However, Dean’s means of choice has always been self-sacrifice; he never deliberately set someone else up to pay the price for his choices, least of all Sam. When Dean made his crossroads deal for Sam’s life, for example, he was convinced that he would be the only one to bear the consequences, and even when he mind-wiped Lisa and Ben – his most reprehensible act up until now – he genuinely believed it would only hurt him and protect them. This time, though, he has no such illusions; he knowingly puts Sam at the mercy of someone whom he has no real reason to trust and whose kind has screwed them over time and again. It is entirely possible that Dean not only put his brother at risk, but, depending on Ezekiel’s agenda, also innocent civilians, and since he listened in on Sam’s conversation with Death, he knows for a fact that that is the exact opposite of what Sam wants.

Ultimately, Dean commits the same act of cruelty against Sam that Azazel, Meg, Lucifer and Castiel committed before him, namely taking away Sam’s choices and violating his physical and mental integrity. Dean’s decision is not even really about Sam – about protecting or loving or taking care of him – it is about him. It is a choice rooted in his deep-seated abandonment and self-worth issues, as well as his guilty conscience for contributing to Sam’s emotional breakdown by withdrawing his faith and trust in his brother. The thing is, instead of making a unilateral decision on his brother’s behalf and then tricking Sam into compliance, Dean could have let Sam make the choice himself. I mean, in the final scenes of the episode, where Dean enters Sam’s mind to convince him to live – whether it is actually Dean himself or Ezekiel-as-Dean (with instructions from Dean what to say) does not really matter in this context – he could have just told Sam the truth and asked him to accept Ezekiel’s proposition, even if it was only for Dean’s benefit. However, Dean chooses to deceive Sam instead, because he is afraid that Sam will deny him his request. The same applies to Dean’s rationalisation for mind-wiping Sam after the fact. His first impulse is to tell Sam the truth, but in the end he is too afraid of Sam’s reaction to risk it. In both instances, Dean violates Sam’s right to self-determination simply because he might not like Sam’s choices. Dean loves Sam, I have no doubt about that, but the lack of respect he shows for Sam as his own person really unsettles me at times.

So, now we are looking at half a season (probably) of Dean keeping yet another secret from Sam, which would be upsetting in and of itself, but it is even more disconcerting coming on the heels of the S8 finale, in which Sam broke down and openly showed his brother how much it hurts him when Dean does not trust him. Dean seemed genuinely shocked and distressed by Sam’s confession, clearly unaware of how deeply his brother is affected by his words and actions, so the fact that he just turns around and lies to Sam on the next opportunity – no matter how good his intentions – is just another slap in Sam’s face. Dean may tell Sam at the end of the episode that he meant what he said in the church, but ultimately his actions belie his words, and I cannot see that ending well. On the whole, I can only see two possible outcomes to this situation, and neither is particularly satisfying in my opinion. I mean, either Ezekiel proves to be untrustworthy and uses his control over Sam for his own agenda, thus causing more suffering for Sam and more guilt issues for Dean, or Ezekiel is exactly as trustworthy as he appears to be, thus providing yet another miracle fix for one of Sam’s traumatic experiences and validating Dean’s morally reprehensible choice. The first will undoubtedly create yet another heap of angst, and I just do not want any more burdens on the characters, and the latter would frustrate me greatly, especially considering that, last season, Sam was crucified by Dean (and fandom) for actually trying to make better choices than in the past.

Overall, I find it regrettable that the writers thought they had to resort to this kind of extreme characterisation for Dean to set up their story, mainly, I think, because I have no faith that they created this particular situation with narrative intent. I mean, one could make the case that, at this point, Sam and Dean are too damaged to truly overcome their issues or that their traumatic experiences these last couple of years not only cemented their co-dependency, but pushed it further into a darkly disturbing territory, and those would be valid narrative options to take. However, such a step would not only require a serious examination of the characters’ psychology, but also a sensitive and nuanced exploration of the issues at hand, like consent or self-determination, and I do not think the current creative team is capable of that. On the contrary, my impression is that the writers are blind to the alarming implications of Dean’s choice to allow a sentient being to possess his brother and then mind-wipe him. Not that I am surprised about that, the writers have shown little awareness for consent issues in their storytelling before, like in Wishful Thinking, for example, or in Time For A Wedding. But, hey, if I am wrong and Sam’s current situation will trigger a meaningful exploration of themes like possession, consent and bodily autonomy, and maybe even allow Dean to take a long, hard look at his choices and what motivates them, I will be the first one to apologise to Carver and his team.

Random Notes:
  • I think Jared’s Ezekiel is fantastic. There is really no trace of Sam left in his acting; he even walks differently than Sam. I have no doubt that we will see quite a lot of Ezekiel-as-Sam, and since Jared loves to play different versions of his character, I am happy that he has once again the opportunity to prove his versatility. From the perspective of someone who is deeply invested in Sam’s character, however, the prospect of spending a significant part of the season without the real Sam, again, is not that thrilling. It is not like we get much Sam point-of-view in the first place, and having Ezekiel in Sam’s place will not help with that, unless the writers use Ezekiel to explore Sam’s thoughts and feelings. But what are the chances of that actually happening?

  • Speaking of, I really liked Ezekiel. A lot! His (seeming) sincerity, humble demeanour and somewhat antiquated speech patterns make for an engaging and entertaining character. However, it is entirely possible that my love for Ezekiel is just one of those weird cases of emotional transference. I mean, Tahmoh Penikett’s character on Battlestar Galactica was one of my absolute favourite characters of the show – an honest, decent and loyal man in even the most adverse of circumstances – so, really, I may just see Helo when I look at Ezekiel, especially since I had a full Battlestar Galactica rewatch not six weeks ago.

  • Ezekiel’s statement that there are still angels who believe in Castiel made me laugh out loud. Really? They believe in Castiel of all people, who betrayed the angels when he sided with the Winchesters? Who allied himself with the king of hell and opened purgatory, raining destruction on earth and heaven alike? Who slaughtered countless angels in the pretentious belief that he is their new God? Who fell for Metatron’s manipulations and thus enabled him to cast the angels out of heaven? Twice now, Castiel’s misguided attempts to 'fix' heaven resulted in disastrous consequences not only for his fellow angels, but also for humanity. Seriously, the body count resulting from Castiel’s actions, directly and indirectly, has to surpass that of Lucifer by now. Yeah, it makes total sense for some angels – or Sam and Dean, for that matter – to still trust/believe in Castiel!

  • I am sure that anyone trying to make sense of the vessel/angel mythology at this point is going to suffer from an aneurism. It really feels like the writers are not even trying to adhere to past canon anymore.

  • The show really knows how to make artsy opening credits. I have got to give them that, even though I cannot help but groan about the angel centricity of it all. What happened to Supernatural’s diverse universe full of weird and terrifying creatures? Nowadays it feels like it is all angels, all the time. I really miss the leviathans. At least they were fun!

Okay, this turned out longer than I expected. I guess I still have to work on the whole 'keeping it short' thing. But well, reviews for season premieres (and finales) tend to be more extensive anyway.
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