Last night was the premiere of Supernatural season 6 - the season that show creators swore would never happen. So it's no surprise that the monster-hunting family reunion felt a little rebooty. And a bit rough around the edges.
In "Exile on Main St.," a whole year has passed since the season finale, when hunters Sam and Dean Winchester were at the center of war between Heaven and Hell. If you recall, Sam was Lucifer's meatsack, and Dean had to shove him back down to Hell with his Satanic payload. So after all that trauma, and the brothers' angel buddy Castiel shooting up to Heaven to restore order, Dean is left to pick up the pieces. He's gone back to his beloved Lisa and her son Ben, working a construction job and living in the suburbs. Obviously haunted by the constant state of war he's lived with his whole life, Dean has plastered their house with hidden symbols to ward off demons and still has his cache of weapons in the back of the Impala.
And it's a good thing too, because in between backyard barbecues and taking care of his kid, Dean has been seeing monster sign. Claw marks, blood stains, traces of sulfur. And then his old nemesis, the yellow-eyed demon Azazel, attacks him in his own garage! Except it's not Azazel - it's just a hallucination caused by some local Djinn, who have it in for Dean for killing their father.
Which we only find out after Sam rescues Dean, and admits that he's been back from Hell for a whole year without so much as a text message. He's even teamed up with their hunter grandfather (who I keep calling Grampa X-Files in my head, since he played Mulder and Scully's boss), who was pulled out of Heaven for reasons nobody understands. Sam has also teamed up with three distant cousins on their mother's side, a gothy girl and two flinty guys, who are introduced so clunkily as "new characters" that I was instantly bored by them.
It was at this point, when Sam reveals himself and the new Scoobies, that the episode started to feel like it was zooming along with one flat tire. Three good tires, but one . . . very flat.
First of all, the whole "OK I'm here now yeah I was gone for a year but it was because I wanted you to lead a normal life but now I don't anymore oh and by the way here are some new characters" deal with Sam felt just too hand-wavy. As Dean points out, he was completely miserable thinking that Sam was trapped in Hell. He wasn't leading a normal life at all, and he wasn't happy.
The show has done a lot of this kind of character flip-floppery before, and usually I just roll with it because I love these characters and it's part of their nature to be a little nuts and melodramatic. But the problem was that wadding it up with all this other rebooty stuff - grandpa is back, we have three new cousins, oh and by the way all the monsters are acting really weird and you need to come back to hunting now Dean - was too much infodump and not enough action.
But unfortunately the action recalled some of Supernatural's season 1 throat-clearing. The Djinn weren't very compelling monsters, given that their main power seemed to be having poisonous 1990s-esque modern primitive tattoos. Probably the most intriguing part of the Djinn shenanigans was that Grandpa and one of the cousins kidnap a Djinn "while the boys are away," putting the monster in a very Abu Ghraib-esque getup and driving off with her to a secret lair. Monster torture? Monster experiments? Is Grandpa evil?
Dean's further hallucinations about Azazel feeding blood to Ben and killing Lisa were way too long, and didn't have much emotional resonance - even for a fan like myself, who watched Azazel's original murders with horror. I wound up feeling like the episode was half fan service (remember the traumas of seasons 1-3?) and half clumsy reboot (welcome to the new cast of season 6!).
I understood the parallels that writer Sera Gamble was trying to draw - Dean is being snatched from the promise of a normal life the way his father and brother were in previous episodes. Still, I think this story could have been told through action in the present, not muddy fantasies. There's an incredible, moving sequence at the beginning of the episode where we see Dean waking up with his family and going to work - each domestic moment is intercut with a flashback to some horror from his past. That scene deftly did the emotional work we needed to see Dean is haunted. Everything in his daily life reminds him of a trauma that is hardly over. After that sequence, the Azazel scenes were overkill.
Still, we don't understand why Sam would go to such lengths to hide from Dean and give him a normal life, only to yank Dean away from it. Grandpa mumbles something about how the monsters are acting strange - werewolves are coming out at half moon, and strange new creatures they've never seen before are acting like humans who live in the suburbs - but it doesn't feel like there's something urgent here. Also, why were Sam and Grandpa brought back from Hell and Heaven? There's a half-hearted gesture at "we have to find out why," but again, the urgency feels muted. What's the Big Bad Thing that has brought Sam and the new Scoobies back into Dean's orbit?
Obviously the whole season is about to be the answer. And it's hard to reboot a whole show, plus give us a taste of what's to come, all in one episode. Still, I was left wishing the story had moved along more quickly, and pulled us forward into a sense of terrifying danger. Instead, it felt sort of like the first day at a new job - "meet your new office mates - here's where the printers are" - rather than HOLY CRAP IT'S MONSTERPOCALYPSE GET YOUR SHIT AND LET'S GO!
But I'm not getting all judgey just yet. First of all, the whole section of the episode about Dean's new life was spectacularly good. And like I said, it's hard to reboot gracefully. I want to know what's up with the monsters. Plus, as the episode ends, we discover that Dean wants to stay in normal life mode. So now we've got a struggle between the natural and supernatural going on in Dean's already-intriguing domestic life.
All the ingredients are there for a solid emotional arc, punctuated by some cool monsters of the week. Hopefully, those cousins will become interesting too.