Supernatural: Season 5
Author’s note: this review contains plot spoilers for seasons one through five of Supernatural.
Against all odds, Supernatural won me over. What I initially wrote off as a teen-centric slice of “horror lite” is actually a well written (and occasionally scary) show that delves into the darker corners of (primarily American) folklore. It was smart, stylish and had a great duo (both the characters and the actors that play them) at its heart that managed to the anchor the show. As much as I liked the Supernatural in its early seasons, though, it’s hard not to be wary when season four rolls around. It’s difficult for a long running drama to sustain interest and continue with fresh ideas. Either due to writer’s fatigue or a cast simply bored and ready to move on, many a show has fizzled out after a few strong seasons.
Is Supernatural still super, or has the magic finally faded? Let’s turn the key and see if the engine that fuelled this beast still has a few laps left in it.
At the end of the fourth season, Sam (Jared Padalecki) had been tricked by Ruby (Genevieve Cortese) into breaking the final seal on Lucifer’s prison and starting the apocalypse. Although Dean (Jensen Ackles) attempted to stop Sam he was too late and Lucifer was successfully released. Season five beings right after this moment with the brothers miraculously whisked away from Lucifer’s tomb and waking up on an airplane. There can be little doubt as to who, or what, is responsible for this miraculous lifesaver but an answer to the question “why” is still elusive. The crack in the brother’s relationship Ruby caused is wrenched wide open by Sam’s inadvertent betrayal. To make matters worse, Bobby’s (Jim Beaver) self-inflicted injuries while possessed have him confined to a wheelchair and Castiel (Misha Collins) feels his powers disappear as he is cut off not only from his angelic brothers but from heaven itself.
Finally free, Lucifer quickly acquires a vessel (Mark Pelligrino) while his presence causes the world around him to be thrown into utter chaos. He begins gathering all the resources he needs to end our world, including a half-human, half-demon boy (Gattlin Griffith) whose thoughts materialize into the tangible. Meanwhile, Michael tries to circumvent Dean’s unwillingness to act as his host by possessing Sam and Dean’s half-brother, Adam (Jake Abel).
When the boys are warned off from seeking God’s help to stop Lucifer, they come across a new way to open Lucifer’s prison and send him back: they must defeat the four horsemen of the apocalypse and steal their rings. When combined, the rings form a key that can send Lucifer back to hell and stave of the apocalypse. The only problem is how to force Lucifer through the porthole when he very clearly won’t want to go. The solution forces the brothers into making a devastating decision: Sam will sacrifice himself and act as Lucifer’s vessel. Once possessed, Sam will try and force Lucifer back into hell, trapping Sam along with him.
Like I said before, I was very pleasantly surprised by the first season of Supernatural. While it had some issues, they were of the type almost unavoidable with a new series. Even with its inherent weaknesses, I thought season one laid a really strong foundation on which to build a potentially fantastic series. Slick production values, a soundtrack loaded with classic rock tracks, stories that explored unfamiliar and arcane lore and a wonderful repartee between the two leads were some of the greatest assets the show had going for it.
Supernatural really seemed to hit its stride in season two: the writing was better and the pace, both of the individual episodes and the larger, season long narrative, was tighter. The writers seemed to really get a grip on what worked and what didn’t and they started capitalizing on the success of the first season: they obviously had more money to play with and consequently were able to have a lot more episodes set in urban environments. My only concern was that, in wrapping up the story of the yellow-eyed demon so quickly, the writers set themselves up for failure if they didn’t effectively introduce a new larger narrative properly. Still, I was positively giddy wondering where the series would go from here.
Then came the nearly disastrous third season. Cut short by a writer’s strike the series seemed to be spinning its wheels at this point, falling back on a more episodic structure and relying on gimmicky, themed episodes of the “aren’t we clever?” variety. This type of complacent, cutesy cleverness is what always prevented me from getting into the Buffy the Vampire Slayer series. To be fair, it did have its moments and a ballsy, shockingly gory season finale that I was 100% sure the writers wouldn’t have to sack to follow through with, even a bit...
...and I was 100% correct. Minute one of the fourth season completely retcons the ending of season three with a literal Deus Ex Machina plot development. The fourth season introduces the apocalyptic plotline that the bulk of season five is concerned with: a battle between heaven and hell with the fate of the entire world supposedly in the balance, but it’s still just a series of confrontations with monster of the week enemies. For such an epic story the series still feels small and cramped, having imploded from the larger, more epic feel of season two. The 66 seals of the apocalypse feel like a way to prolong the episodic nature of the series thus far, rather than becoming allowing the series to grow into a full-on, serialized drama. The biggest liability: dispatching potentially interesting characters and plot devices almost as soon as they’re introduced.
It was clear at this point that the promise of a fantastic series that the first two seasons made was never going to be fulfilled. That’s not to say that the series is bad, it’s really quite good for the most part, but that’s almost in spite of itself. There’s still too much reliance of cheesy gimmick episodes, like a 30’s monster movie and even a Halloween episode (which is at least more appropriate than season three’s Christmas episode).
Which brings us to season five ...
I wasn’t really encouraged by the first episode. From minute one, the writing seems off-point from the series usually high quality scripts. Dean’s typically convincing tough guy dialogue is traded in for wannabe tough guy quips (“Cram it with walnuts, ugly!” Uh, say what?). They writers also opt for immediately splitting the brothers up. Considering that their chemistry and banter is the only thing keeping the show afloat during the weaker patches, this is a horrible mistake (and one they’ve made before, too, so there’s really no excuse for it this time around). Luckily they don’t stick with it for more than a couple of episodes. The writers also invoke, once again, on a literal Deus Ex Machina plot device to kick off the season. It just feels lazy to write a season finale without at least having a decent way to start the next season without calling a mulligan. Luckily, around the sixth episode, season five finds its footing, gets back into the season two groove and, rocky start notwithstanding, winds up being the best season since the second.
While God is not technically outside the scope of Supernatural, it felt like the writers had bit off more than they can chew by introducing the story arc of a Christian apocalypse. Introducing an omnipotent, all powerful being into the mix negates any potential tension; there’s no event so horrible that can’t be undone by divine intervention and with such an awesome force at play nothing short of a transcendent ending is going to be a satisfactory capper for the story. It was smart of the writers to, midseason, remove God from the equation and frame the apocalyptic confrontation as a family squabble between brothers. It does two things: it grounds the situation in a defined set of rules that we’re already familiar with and it ups the stakes knowing that there isn’t going to be an 11th hour miracle save. Moreover, the way that Lucifer and Michael’s contentious, yet still oddly loving, relationship echoes that of Sam and Dean is a nice touch. Scaling down the scope of the apocalypse is the single smartest decision the writers make all season and season five improves exponentially from that point on.
I appreciate the guest appearances of Canadian genre regulars like Emily Perkins and Crystal Lowe, but the episode in which they appear is, overall, too jokey, campy and geek pandering for my taste. Paris Hilton’s cameo in episode five, on the other hand, was genuinely clever instead of the kind of cheap gimmick that too often passes for wit. Playing a demon that imitates people who are objects of idolization, Paris is all smirk and smarm while she comments on her own stardom. There’s also a House of Wax reference thrown in for good measure and Paris haters can rest easy knowing that, by the end of the episode, she meets a fate as grisly as she did in that movie.
When first introduced in season four, Castiel felt more like a plot device than an actual character. This season, however, he is really allowed to develop as a character. When he loses his powers and begins to embrace his humanity, his bewilderment and surprise at simple things is hilarious and wholly credible. Of course there’s the obligatory scene where he gets drunk and visits a brothel, although how that turns out is not quite as predictable as the set up would lead you to believe. It’s not the most original plot thread, shades of Arnold learning to be human in T2, but it’s entertaining without ever crossing over into full blown camp.
The series also continues its reputation for surprisingly graphic and harrowing gore. I remember the first time I saw RoboCop 2 and how shocked I was at the graphic brain surgery aftermath. I was equally shocked, though for slightly different reasons, by Episode eleven’s brain surgery sequence; that scene would give any R-rated flick a run for its money. Hard to believe that commercial TV is permitting violence and gore as graphic as any R-rated film from my childhood.
Time travel plotlines and alternate realities are lazy devices for writers who are unable or unwilling to push the series mythology and overarching plots forward. Episode thirteen is an homage to the Terminator: traveling back in time, we meet Sam and Dean’s parents, yet again, and a plot is introduced to kill Sam’s mother, Mary, so that Sam will never be born to be the devil’s host. The first time we met the young versions of Ma and Pa Winchester, the episode ended with a surprising, emotional punch. The well is a little drier this time around, though the episode still winds up being far better than it has any right to be. Employing time travel plots has ruined more than a few genre shows and it’s disappointing to see them used at all, even when done sparingly. It’s time to stop bouncing back to the elder Winchester’s past.
On the other hand, I really appreciated the introduction of gods from other world religions in episode nineteen. One of the best aspects of the first couple of seasons was the writer’s willingness to explore and experiment with lesser known creatures of folklore. As the show started to focus more heavily on the coming apocalypse it became centred on Judeo-Christian mythology. It was nice to see the series open up for a bit and mix in elements from other cultures again. If there’s one thing that disappointed me about this plot line it’s the implied cultural superiority of Judeo Christian mythology; the series would have benefitted from elements from other religions being more well woven into the fabric of the entire series rather than acting as fodder for a one-off episode, even one that’s as well done as episode nineteen is.
The season finale is a bittersweet moment. At first, it seems to have managed the impossible: resolving the apocalyptic storyline without cheating. There was even a fair amount of emotion as the brothers prepare for their final showdown and start saying their goodbyes. It also seemed like the writers built in a clever way to continue the story without having to cheat. That all this was accomplished so deftly, is what makes the last shot of the episode is so infuriating. Eliminate that last shot and call it quits and you’d have one of the most satisfying series caps I’ve ever seen. It’s a bittersweet ending that’s totally earned; shame that the writers couldn’t help but screw it up. Season five really feels like it was intended to be the last season and, as far as I’m concerned, it is. I mean really, once you’ve defeated the devil and staved off global apocalypse, where is there to go from there?
Warner is pretty consistently excellent in the presentation of their TV series, and Supernatural season five is no exception on this front. Detail is fantastic and blacks are spot-on. There is really little to complain about: there’s some occasional edginess to high contrast images and I did notice one glaringly awful instance of stair-stepping in episode nineteen. Complaining about one brief moment in one episode out of a twenty two episode season represents the ultimate in nit-picking. This is a consistently excellent presentation and fans will be more than pleased.
Still no hi-def soundtrack provided this season and yet still very little to complain about beyond that. It’s tempting to criticize it for what it’s not rather than praise it for what it is, what it is: one of the best Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks I’ve ever heard. The show is expertly mixed and the audio represents this fantastically. Check out the scene in episode four where the army is mowing down the zombies: there’s dialogue, sound effects and music all blaring at the same time, yet every bullet hit is intelligible and the audio never feels clipped or cramped. I can only speculate how a hi-def track would improve on this, but I have a difficult time imagining how it could. Great stuff.
A good portion of the supplements for season five will be familiar to fans that have been collecting the series on Blu-ray, although the usual features have been pared down for a single, elaborate feature on disc four. First things first, though…
On disc one there is a commentary on episode four (“The End”) with producers Eric Kripke and Robert Singer, as well as the writer of the episode, Ben Edlund. This is the only commentary for this season and is typical of what you’d expect from a creative team that’s been with a show for five seasons. Although they try to go more into the creative aspects of the episode they don’t have a lot of new insight to offer. Still, it’s breezy and entertaining enough. On a more technical note: unlike previous seasons, you cannot access the commentary on the fly and subtitles for the show will be disabled while listening. It’s odd and kind of annoying that they’d change the options drastically so late in the game.
Disc two has an “Unaired Scene” (2:11) from episode nine (“The Real Ghostbusters”). It’s not really a scene but a collection of short out takes of actor Rob Benedict riffing on stage. If you’ve watched a line-o-rama from one of Judd Apatow’s DVDs, then you get the idea. This feature probably would have been better served had it been incorporated into the actual gag reel on disc four.
There are no features on disc three.
The majority of features find their home on disc four. First up is the Ghostfacers Web Series (31:34). A collection of ten web-isodes, it tells the tale of recurring guests Harry Spangler (Travis Wester) and Ed Zeddmore (A.J. Buckley) (har har, I see what you did there) as they and their team investigate the ghost of an actress that haunts a rundown theatre. I’m sure these guys have their fans but their contribution to the series is not really to my taste: the acting is broad, the humour self-conscious and obvious, at times bordering on slapstick. On the plus side, Mircea Munroe as Ambyr is not at all hard on the eyes and makes the feature worth watching at least once.
The usual Gag Reel (10:18) is included, a bit longer this time but still consisting of the usual collection of flubbed lines and mugging for the camera. It is what it is. Oddly, while the profanity has been bleeped out and Jensen Ackles flipping the bird is blurred out, shots of him humping the air or pantomiming a bj are included completely uncensored.
The meatiest supplement is the interactive video collection Supernatural: Apocalypse Survival Guides – Bobby’s Exclusive Video Collection. It starts with Bobby’s library, which acts as a point and click interface from which you access the video supplements. If you’ve viewed the Nightmare Encyclopedia in the Nightmare on Elm Street DVD set from 1999 then you’ll instantly know what to do.
The interface works fine but it feels decidedly last-gen, especially when compared to the interactive map included on the Blu-ray of season one. The interface for The Survival Guide is tiresome and doesn’t really take advantage of the truly interactive experience Blu-ray technology can offer. It would have been nice if some sort of index or “play all” option had been included for those not interested in navigating through the convoluted menus.
There’s a little less than two hours of clips in this section. Included among them is parapsychologist Barry Taff talking about the Doris Bither case (which inspired both the book and movie version of The Entity). There times when it looks like footage has been appropriated from other sources, yet other footage looks pretty clearly staged (the clip with the priest discussing Lucifer and Michael, for instance). It’s an oddball assortment of mostly interesting stuff and though it’s supposed to be background information to support the entire series, more of the material should have been more directly relevant to season five and given the meta, in-show nature of most of the clips, the behind the scenes and interview clips feel really out of place. Still, the substance of the supplement is substantial (even if only tangentially related to the show) and in the final analysis, that’s what really counts.
Despite some caveats, the fifth season of Supernatural still ranks as one of the strongest in a line-up of almost uniformly solid seasons. The audio and video quality is typically top-notch and fully exploring the supplemental package adds hours of entertainment value. While you’re going to need to brush up on the first four seasons before diving into seasons five, the Blu-ray set of Supernatural : The Complete Fifth Season is highly recommended.
*Because of the quality of the HD format, the clarity, resolution and color depth are inherently a major leap over DVD. Since any Blu-ray will naturally have better characteristics than DVDs, the rating is therefore only in comparison with other Blu-ray titles, rather than home video in general. So while a Blu-ray film may only get a C, it will likely be much better than a DVD with an A.
Excellent review. I've managed to catch exactly zero episodes of season 5, looks like I need to pick it up.
Also, I never realized that the lackluster season 3 coincided with the writers strike. So THAT'S why it was crap! :D
A great season that ended a fantastic 5 year storyline. I kind of wish they had ended it with season 5 as originally planned, as season 6 hasn't been that great!
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