On Tuesday, CW’s brothers-hunting-evil-demons-and-whatever-else drama Supernatural began its ninth season, fourth since show creator/head writer Eric Kripke left to start a Revolution on NBC. In the season premiere, entitled “I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here,” one Winchester was once again on death’s door while the other did everything in his power to save his brother. In this particular instance, it was Sam (Jared Padalecki) doing the dying and Dean (Jensen Ackles) doing the praying. The specifics are not particularly important, and horribly complicated (there were a series of literal trials which lead up to this). It’s the solution the writers reached that warrants discussion.
By the end, Dean makes a deal with an ailing angel (did I forget to mention this is the type of show that has angels walking around on Earth?) to possess Sam and heal him from the inside. The catch? The angel is so weak (again, it’s complicated) it will take quite some time to complete the healing process. However, he can complete his work without Sam’s awareness, receding into the background of Sam’s consciousness. If Sam becomes aware that he is possessed he may reject the intrusion, at which point the angel will be forced to vacate the body without having done enough to ensure Sam’s survival. An incredibly pained Dean agrees, even to the angel’s follow-up offer to erase portions of Sam’s memory so that he’ll not even recall how close he came to death. The episode ends, as so many Supernatural episodes have, with Sam and Dean sharing a conversation in their signature Chevy Impala, en route to wherever fate (or, more accurate, the writers) take them next. Dean keeps up the agreed-upon charade and lies to Sam, not letting on about Sam’s now-forgotten trip to the hospital or that an angel of God is now his co-pilot.
So, we begin the show’s 9th season by establishing what has become the show’s unfortunate signature: a multi-episode/season-long arc in which one Winchester brother keeps a secret from the other. In the early days of the show, this was captivating stuff. However, at this point if these characters are still following the same pattern does that mean they haven’t grown at all?
Let’s look back at this:
At beginning of the second season, Papa Winchester (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) sold his soul and life to a demon in order to save a comatose Dean. Before he went, though, he whispered something in a newly revived Dean’s ear – something so monumental Dean couldn’t share it with Sam, and the frustration was causing him to lash out violently. We finally found out, 10 episodes later, that Papa Winchester had informed Dean that if he couldn’t save Sam he would have to kill him, with no explanation as to why. This turned out to be because Sam had been made part demon while still a baby as part of demonic plot to eventually unleash hell on Earth, though the characters and audience would not find that out for a while after that.
By the end of the third season, Dean died, his soul becoming trapped in hell as part of a deal he made with a demon to save Sam’s life at the end of the second season. When Dean was inevitably rescued from hell, he returned a broken man who had eventually agreed in hell to torture other souls rather than continue to be tortured himself. Moreover, Dean grew to actually like his role as torturer, having almost completely lost touch with his humanity. Meanwhile, in the absence of his brother’s paternalistic influence Sam engaged in a relationship with the nefarious demon Ruby (Genevieve Cortese), who taught him how to use his part demon side to exorcise demons with his mind.
Did either brother immediately come clean to the other about what they had been up to while separated? Of course not! Dean only found out Sam and Ruby because the angel Castiel (Misha Collins) told him around 4 episodes into the season, but Sam’s agreeing to stop was a lie as he continued working with Ruby in secret for the majority of the season, unaware that Dean was on to him. For Dean’s rather hypocritical part, he didn’t admit what he had done in hell until the season’s mid-season finale, and storyline-wise it was only because the demon that tortured Dean in hell/mentored his run as a torturer encountered the brothers while possessing a podiatrist.
At the beginning of the sixth season, it was Sam’s turn to return from hell a shadow of his former self. In this case, both the audience and Dean were kept in the dark on Sam’s secret for six episodes, which ended up being that Sam’s soul was still trapped in hell. So, the reason that Sam had seemed far more callous and emotionless was because he literally had no emotions, unable to feel anything other than physical pain.
The secret-keeping spilled over to the supporting characters at this point, with Castiel acting mysteriously for the entirety of the sixth season before revealing in the 20th episode that he was the one who rescued Sam from hell, unaware at the time that he rescued the body but not the soul. Moreover, he was engaged in a civil war in heaven which had forced him to side with the new de facto devil in hell for leverage. A season later Bobby (Jim Beaver) would die, but refuse to go to the other side, staying back as a ghost following the brothers in secret to look after them.
The brothers got back in on the act in the seventh season when Sam began suffering hallucinations from his time in hell, with Lucifer (Mark Pallegrino) frequently appearing to him. On the other end, Dean killed a sympathetic antagonist named Amy (Jewel Staite) who Sam had spared, both since she was a childhood friend of his and also because he believed she wouldn’t harm anyone anymore. Dean kept that secret for 3 episodes, and the two briefly went their separate ways once Sam found out. Once they reconciled, did Sam admit that he was still suffering from increasingly debilitating hallucinations? Of course not! It was only when Sam had to be admitted to a hospital that Dean realized how bad things had become with his brother.
Last season, they really upped their secret-keeping game. It began with a one-year time-jump in-between seasons to establish that Dean had been trapped in purgatory for a full year and Sam had quit his life as a hunter, settling down to a normal life with a serious girlfriend. Does Dean tell Sam what happened to him and Castiel in purgatory? Of course not! Does Sam tell Dean everything about the girlfriend he still desperately loves and would prefer to just go back to, leaving a life of hunting forever? Of course not! Instead, the show experimented with a rather divisive, Arrow-like structure where every episode contained flashback sequences charting what exactly Dean did in purgatory and the arc (meet-cute, dating, sex, co-habitating, him leaving) of Sam’s relationship with a cute female veterinarian. By mid-season, everything was eventually out in the open just in time for Sam to start keeping a new secret from his brother, specifically that a series of ritualistic trials he was undergoing to become worthy of closing the gates to hell forever was literally killing him.
So, after all that, of course the new season would begin with yet another brother-keeping-secret-from-brother storyline. Sam and Dean are American male-types, the latter more so than the former, who simply do not discuss their emotions…ever. Plus, they come from a family of secret-keepers, the father who didn’t let them know everything he’d discovered and a mother they only discovered was a hunter herself until many years after her death. It is perfectly fitting, then, for them to be so unwilling to openly communicate with one another about anything other than the latest monster-of-the-week.
From a storytelling point of view, Supernatural only has the two full-time cast members, with any supporting characters eventually killed off as a way of emphasizing the dramatic stakes of the situation. As such, there has to be some tension between the brothers as a way of generating drama, and unlike the show’s spiritual predecessor, The X-Files, placing an emphasis upon sexual tension is not an option (although there are certainly many fans who have picked up on the homoerotic undertones even though the characters are brothers). The show’s preferred method of generating such tension has clearly been to have the brothers keep secrets from one another, which sometimes the audience knows about, sometimes not and will sometimes involve a woman (the Winchesters often behave more like jilted lovers than brothers when the other finds a woman). This also allows the writers to slowly weave serialized story arcs across rigidly formulaic monster-of-the-week episodes.
But after 8 full seasons of this crap what had once been so compelling seems now to be a storytelling crutch designed to stretch out story and play far too familiar emotional beats, forever denying the characters the opportunity to display any real meaningful and long-lasting character growth. However, maybe asking more from Supernatural misunderstands the type of show it is. This is not Vampire Diaries. They do not plow through storylines at record-breaking pace and grow their characters in unexpected ways (who would have ever guessed that Caroline and Tyler would become such awesome characters?). For better or worse, Supernatural is the show where one brother asks the other, “Come on man, I can tell you’re hurting. Let me know what’s going on,” the answer will be multiple episodes if not an entire season of shrugging before a begrudging, “You were right, Sammy/Dean.” Frankly, though, I’m sick of it.
What do you think? Is the only good Winchester a Winchester who is keeping a secret as far as you’re concerned? Or have you already checked out on Supernatural, bored by the constant stretched out stories or for reasons not even discussed above? Let us know in the comments.