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Review: Supernatural 14×01 “Stranger in a Strange Land”

With Dean off fulfilling his destiny as host to the archangel Michael, as was foretold by Zachariah way back in Season 5, Supernatural‘s fourteenth premiere was very much focused on Sam Winchester. Sam is no stranger to losing his brother, whether to death or Purgatory or demon possession, but this is the first time we’ve seen him surrounded by a support network. As well as Mary, Jack, and Castiel, Sam currently has a band of Apocalypse World survivors camping out at the bunker (including Bobby Singer 2.0), so on top of searching for intel which could help him find Dean, Sam was dealing with being the leader of a small army.

Jared Padalecki managed to convey a new found maturity to Sam in this episode, as well as a certain world-weariness. Unshaven and exhausted, he wasn’t the single-minded robot we’ve encountered before, not the demon-blood addict mired in despair, and not the resigned Sam who tried to rebuild a life without Dean and lived to regret it. This Sam was methodical and determined but hollow, trying his best to do right by other people while readying his heart for the blow of potentially losing his brother. It’s often remarked that Supernatural is more concerned with Dean’s POV, so it was refreshing to see so much screen time given over to Sam coping without his brother. The show has a history of wrapping up season finale cliffhangers a little too quickly in the interest of seeing Sam and Dean back on the same side and hunting together, but it feels as though it’s committed to pushing the angel possession story arc this year, perhaps even setting Michael up as the Big Bad. Whether he will be occupying Dean’s meat suit for the duration remains to be seen, but while the brothers are apart, it’s interesting to see how Sam is handling their separation.

While locating Michael was number one on Sam’s to-do list, he also had his hands full with other matters back at the bunker. Jack, now without his angelic powers, was feeling useless as a mortal boy, Ketch was running into dead-ends in his efforts to find a way to force Michael out of Dean, a nest of vampires was stirring, Lucifer’s vessel, Nick, had somehow survived Lucifer’s apparent death and had regained consciousness, and Castiel had managed to get himself kidnapped by a demon looking to step into Crowley’s shoes. Most of the action in the episode centered around Sam, Mary, Bobby, Jack, & Maggie on a rescue mission to free Cas from ‘Kip’ and a gang of demon followers. As far as episodic plots go, this was pretty basic and served to remind us that Hell is in disarray, only Mark Sheppard could pull off Crowley’s particular brand of high camp without it becoming grating, Sam Winchester can orchestrate an excellent double bluff, and poor old Cas is still as naive as ever.

Meanwhile, Michael was walking about in Dean’s fine body, clad in some rather stylish togs, looking like an honorary Peaky Blinder, and asking people what they truly wanted in life. It’s not really clear what his aim is at this point, or what fates met those whose answers disappointed him. Sister Jo survived his questioning, odd given that she immediately went and called Sam, which was either all part of Michael’s plan or a very large oversight on the angel’s part. It was strange having Dean absent for the entire episode, as previously Jensen Ackles has always played some iteration of Dean, even when he’s a demonic version of him. This was something new and Ackles did a great job imbuing the angel with a sense of detached malice, although I dearly wish he’d been given a stronger script to work with. Michael expressed his exasperation with humans and the few remaining angels, declaring them not worth saving. Instead, he saved his admiration for a young vampire, drawn to the purity of the creature’s all-consuming desire to feed.

A major criticism I’ve had of the show in recent years is that some plot lines don’t have space to breathe and develop, and that important events are often rushed and glossed over. This season opener took its time, but actually felt a little dull for it. It served as more of a recap – a snapshot of where the characters landed after the fallout of last season’s finale. It’s good to see Supernatural finding new ways to spin familiar scenarios after fourteen seasons, but I worry that the ensemble cast, many of whom are characters who served their purpose a long time ago, detract from the heart of it: Sam and Dean. Both leads have stepped up to the challenge of stepping out of their comfort zone brilliantly, and I love the idea that the boys are always fated to end up vessels on opposite sides of holy war (anyone else pick up on the Detroit reference?) But I hope we get a lot more focus on the Winchesters and less on the wider group, who dilute the intense dynamic there has always been between the boys.

Final Grade: C

+ Loved Sam being the badass who can make demons smoke out with a few choice words.

+ Michael’s wardrobe is a thing of absolute beauty.

+ Castiel’s heart-to-heart with Jack was incredibly sweet.

– Nick being able to survive Lucifer’s death by archangel blade is either a bluff (i.e. Lucifer is still alive in there) or else a device by which Dean can be rescued down the line. If Michael is stabbed with the blade, Dean can survive. Either way it seems like a sacrifice of continuity for the sake of keeping Mark Pellegrino around. Nick’s body was rotting years back because he wasn’t a true vessel, so it seems a real stretch that he’d survive everything that’s happened since, even with magical reinforcements.

– While I loved Bobby as much as the next person, having his alternate version back complete with catchphrases cheapens his loss somewhat. I wish we could have new, enduring supporting characters instead of bringing back fan favourites time and time again.

– There were some strange dialogue choices in this episode, and the clunky script detracted from some of the more touching or tense moments.

Extra Thought: Sam’s declaration that any pretender to the throne of Hell, and Dean finally becoming host to Michael made me wonder if we’re headed towards some final showdown between Heaven and Hell…

What did you think? Did this episode deliver what you want, what you really, really want? Or was it as lackluster as Jack minus his grace? Sound off in the comments or over on Twitter!

 

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Katie Young

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