TV reviews

Supernatural 14×01 – ‘Stranger in a Strange Land’ – TV Review

After twenty-one agonising weeks the boys are finally back! Supernatural fans saw the end of the summer hellatus (a fandom term for the hiatus) last week with the premiere of season fourteen and once again we are back experiencing the trials and tribulations of Sam (Jared Padalecki) and Dean Winchester (Jensen Ackles)… sort of.

At the end of season thirteen, we saw Dean say yes to becoming the vessel of the Archangel Michael, something he had been actively avoiding since season five. Fearing for his brother and Jack’s (Alexander Calvert) lives he said yes so that he could face off against Lucifer (Mark Pellegrino), working under the agreement that when the fight was done Michael would release him. That didn’t happen and we saw Michael abscond in Dean’s body.

As is usual for a premiere we are treated to a fast-paced recap of the last season along to the classic rock stylings of AC/DC, the recap ends with us seeing Sam driving alone in the Impala and killing the song on the radio. Sam is sporting what has already been named as his ‘grief beard’ by the fandom and the hurt at Dean’s absence is very noticeable.

Next, we shift to a Muslim man (Shafin Karim) who is woken by his phone calling him to prayer, and part way through his prayers Michael appears. Other than the fact he is dressed in a style you’d expect to see on Peaky Blinders, Jensen Ackles plays Michael in such a way that there is no doubting that this is not Dean. Unlike Jared Padalecki who has had the chance to play multiple characters over the years, this is the first time Jensen hasn’t been Dean. Yes we saw ‘Mark of Cain Dean’ and then ‘Demon Dean’ but they were still the eldest Winchester at the core, albeit over exaggerated versions. From the way he carries himself to the way he pronounces every word he says we know we aren’t seeing Dean and kudos to Ackles for this. He’s been playing the eldest Winchester for the past thirteen years and he is proving he is still more than capable of doing something else. Although it’s hard having an episode of Supernatural with no Dean in it, I am hoping that we get to see Michael for a little longer and that the ball isn’t dropped by the writers like it was with ‘Demon Dean’ who only featured for three episodes of season ten.

Michael, we learn, has been spending the last three weeks visiting a variety of people from leaders, to holy men, to criminals, asking the same question and now he is here to ask it to Jamil: “What do you want?”

Jamil gives the answer of Peace and Love but Michael pulls him up on it, telling him that if he had truly wanted either he wouldn’t have fled from Syria and abandoned the fight and his friends, and if he had wanted love he wouldn’t have cheated on his wife. Michael then goes on to berate humanity for being weak and not worth saving in a way very similar to how Lucifer was back in season five, and you wonder just what sort of relationship this Archangel had with God in comparison to the Michael from this world. When the question is turned back on Michael he responds with what he has always wanted, “a better world”. The screen then cuts to this season’s title card. In the past, there have often been debates as to what hidden meaning the title card might contain, but I don’t think there’s anything too unclear here. We see a mixture of holy oil, angel’s grace and a pair of wings.

We then find ourselves in the Bunker and whereas before it had always been a quiet place with only the brothers as the permanent residents, it is now heaving with all the refugees from the Apocalypse world. On one hand, it’s good as we get to see Sam (and hopefully Dean if/when he returns) being in charge of a network of Hunters, one of the men goes as far as calling Sam “Chief”, but on the other it does feel strange. It no longer feels like the Winchesters’ home but more of a workplace, which harkens back to how Sam described it when they first moved in during season eight. At any rate, all hands are working hard on either trying to find Dean or taking part in active Hunts, and it is nice to see Sam stepping up to the plate, but it’s clear he is pushing the limits of trying to hold himself and everyone else together.

Castiel is meeting a demon called Kipling (Dean Armstrong) in Detroit at a bar, and from the moment the demon walks in I shared Cas’s ‘Oh god’ reaction. Everything about Kip screamed Crowley, or more accurately someone trying their hardest to emulate Crowley but failing as they aren’t anywhere near as good. Cas wants to know if any of the demons has seen Dean. The innuendo that Cas and Dean are joined at the ‘everything’ is mildly amusing, but Cas looks as weary of it as I’m sure a lot of viewers also felt hearing it. We get to see some ‘Badass Cas’ but then he finds out he’s walked into a trap when it is revealed that every other person in the bar is also a demon, who promptly beat the angel up and take him prisoner. This scene once again raises the question of just how powerful Cas/angels is/are these days? At one point angels could see demons for what they were, and obliterate them with ease but maybe now it needs more concentration or perhaps it’s simply plot dependent depending on the need. Cas is also unable to break free from the rope he is later tied with, maybe this is magical in origin but as it’s not made clear it all feels a little off-kilter. This episode was written by Andrew Dabb, one of the showrunners, and you still sometimes hope for a little more consistency when it comes to things like this but, after ten years of angels running around on Supernatural, it doesn’t seem to be the case.

From Detroit, we jump to Duluth, where the angel Anael (Danneel Ackles) is still masquerading as Sister Jo the faith healer. With Heaven still in dire straits, and Lucifer no longer around, the rebellious angel is back to looking out for herself and has no problem with exploiting the faithful and needy. As she leaves the church, walking alone at night while counting a large roll of cash, Michael is the one who shows up rather than any would be mugger and puts the same question to her as he has to everyone else. What does she want? Once again Michael isn’t given the answer he wants and deems Anael just as worthless as Jamil, he had considered helping Heaven and the very few angels that are left but states that they are just sad lost fallen things. He’s not wrong.

Jack is also feeling the same about himself, now powerless since Lucifer’s theft of his grace, after a sparring session with the Apocalypse World version of Bobby Singer (Jim Beaver). It has yet again reminded him that he no longer has his incredible Nephilim powers, and he’s feeling insecure and useless which is why he jumps at the chance to prove himself once the news reaches the bunker that Castiel is being held by demons. Alexander Calvert continues to impress with his portrayal of Jack, a one-year-old being who has all the naivety that you’d expect from his young age, whose power loss is as frustrating to him as a toddler who is trying to extend beyond their capabilities.

Sam recognises that Jack needs to feel useful, to be involved, especially in the rescue of one of his father-figures and agrees to take the Nephilim along. Both Bobby and Mary Winchester (Samantha Smith) are concerned about this decision, but Mary is more concerned about how her youngest son is holding up. There’s a touching conversation between Mary and Sam in which he criticises her blind optimism toward their finding Dean. Mary tells her son she knows full well there is a chance that they will not be able to save him but she can’t think like that, the moment she gives into doubt she will no longer be able to hold it together. With Mary mostly absent from the boys’ lives during the last two seasons and a budding relationship teased with Bobby Singer, I wonder if Mary will be able to redeem herself more in season fourteen, having become somewhat unpopular for her previous decisions?

The last scene of the episode is what turns into a big fight between the Hunters and the demons who have Castiel. The acting within this scene is superb, we have Jack attempting to do what he isn’t capable of anymore, but still being brave and selfless, we have Kipling the demon losing control of his Crowley facade and showing the true side of himself from when he used to run with Genghis Khan, and we also have Sam being defiant and not taking the deal put on the table by Kip. When Sam fakes being incapacitated and then gets in the killing blow on Kip, what comes next is truly breathtaking. Sam, once destined to be the Boy King of Hell, addresses the other demons in the bar, bringing the fight to an end, and making them all flee simply by his force of charisma without the need of an exorcism. He states quite clearly that there will be no new King of Hell and that if anyone wants to attempt to take the position, they’ll have to go through him. Although this doesn’t make Sam the King, he is effectively the gatekeeper, putting both brothers as close to being the champions of Heaven and Hell as they have ever been. It raises so many questions and possible fan theories for how the rest of this season might go. I also felt that the declaration of no new King was a good move, as it hopefully removes any more characters attempting to be poor versions of Crowley, a role that cannot be reproduced by anyone.

Despite all of that good though, I felt the scene was let down by how they chose to display the fight, resorting to slow-motion finishing moves and acrobatics. It felt unnecessary and brought a comedic tone to some parts of what would have been a good fight scene had they left those out.

The episode ends with the Hunters back home safe but with still no clear path to finding Dean until a phone call from Anael tips off how bad things are. We see Michael having finally found someone who he believes when they answer his question, which marks them as worth saving. The issue is that the individual is a vampire and Michael labelling them as pure is exceptionally troubling.

I have saved one part of the episode for last, as I know it is causing the most ripples amongst the fandom on social media, and that is the reveal that Lucifer’s vessel, Nick, is still alive. Sam is informed that he’s awake, having been given a makeshift room in the bunker, and goes to see him. Jared’s performance here as Sam is so well done, the unease and fear at having to look at the face of his abuser are almost tangible. He has to actively focus on the fact that this isn’t the Devil, but a broken man who made a bad mistake all the way back in season five. There is nothing wrong with the scene and it is so well played between both men, with Mark Pellegrino not displaying the usual swagger that comes when he’s being Lucifer, the issue is once again continuity. In the minds of a lot of fans Nick shouldn’t be here, popular opinion is that his soul should have departed at some point back in season five from the stress of housing Lucifer, but if that wasn’t the case then surely when Crowley and cohorts magically repaired the body they wouldn’t have kept the soul of Nick trapped within as well? Either this is another issue with continuity, after several changes of showrunners, or the writers have an unrevealed explanation for it, as the one proposed in the episode feels rather weak. Either way, you have to wonder what Nick’s return means, will we be seeing Lucifer again despite his death and will he come back to roost in Nick’s form?

Overall a fairly good start to the season, but with a few weak moments let down by poor continuity that comes from such a long-running show and some poor cinematography choices in fight scenes. Although of course, I cannot wait to see what comes next.

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