But nothing is more devastating than its latest foe: Supernatural's own writers.
As I wrote last May, Supernatural's last season was problematic at best despite high-point episodes in "Just My Imagination," "Baby" and "Red Meat." But the final minutes of the season 11 finale in which the Winchesters' beloved mother, whose death is the reason they became hunters, was resurrected; and Sam was shot by a nasty representative of the British Men of Letters, a secret organization dedicated to collecting and archiving information on the paranormal, were promising.
As teased for months, season 12 finds Sam (Jared Padalecki) in the clutches of a British psychopath named Toni Belville, and Dean (Jensen Ackles), with their mother in tow, is determined to track him down. Dean, the consummate badass, even channels his inner Liam Neeson with a "Taken" style threat to Sam's kidnappers and yet it ends with more shark abuse than bad guy thumping. How did it all go so horrifically wrong?
“Keep Calm And Carry On" is actually a striking season opener that competently capitalizes on Supernatural’s trademark blending of imagination, horror, dark comedy and action. As told in a slick and bloody sequence, the British Men of Letters have all but eradicated monster-related deaths in England, and want to out-source their ways in America by any means necessary. This includes utilizing Lady Toni's penchant for violence and witchcraft as Sam endures with Toni's grisly torture (that blowtorch ain't for marshmallows, y'all) to protect hunters who rarely have shown him anything but distrust and ill will. Meanwhile, Dean and Cas's get their collective asses handed to them in an awesome brass-knuckle battle with a British Lady of Letters that make Jason Statham a little edgy.
Even though the premiere is the stronger of the two episodes, it fails to truly capture the emotional heft of the Winchesters' predicaments or take advantage of its own characters. Castiel is an angel whose grace has failed him for years with no explanation. So when he's accosted by a Lady Toni's bulldog, his angelic powers are circumvented by warded brass knuckles, and he succumbs to punches like a human, and a wussy one at that.
Despite the heart-stirring emotion of Mary and Dean’s reunion, the mother who died suspended over her infant son's crib never once asks about Sam.
Sadly, those minor infractions are merely jumping off point for what is the most tragic episode in Supernatural's history. For the show with no fourth wall, Supernatural often cracks jokes about its own shortcomings, especially ill-advised episodes like "Bugs" and plotpoints such as Sam's horrendously written romance in the season 8 ("I went to Purgatory; Sam hit a dog"), and yet the show has no self-awareness going into episode 2. “Mamma Mia” tanks the season average from compelling and emotional to confusing, underwhelming and shark-jumpingly awful. Somehow the latter happens in an episode involving Rick Springfield as the devil and a Winchester family reunion 33 years in the making.
After physical pain and drugs don't break him—"I've been tortured by the devil himself. What can you do to me?”—Lady Toni opts for witchcraft, magicking Sam into a candle-lit hallucination where they are lovers, and she coaxes intel out of him. Not only is this the same stomach-turning and unnecessary trope the writers forced on Dean and Amara, whom he first met as an infant, last season, it's also not the first, second or even third time Supernatural has toyed with the idea of Sam being sexually assaulted by his captors. You don’t need to be Olivia Benson to know that even spells that remove your consent are in fact rape. But because Supernatural's second tagline, after "saving people, hunting things" has always been "no chick-flick moments," they will never delve into the real-life trauma that accompanies it no matter how genuinely scary it may be.
When Sam wakes, Toni sneers, "Was it good for you?" and Sam can only avert his eyes. As a viewer of nearly 10 years, I'm extremely tempted to do the same. This smacks of last season’s gleefully poking fun at Sam being forced to rescue and live with Lucifer even though he tortured him for centuries. It also ignores fans’ accurate criticism of Supernatural's tendency to put Sam in the most excruciating situations while completely ignoring emotional and physical recovery.
The episode continues to unspool into series of cringe-worthingly stupid events, each more ridiculous and infuriatingly out-of-character than the next. "Keep Calm And Carry Own," which ends in a depressing montage over Black Sabbath's "Solitude" as Mary, Dean and Castiel seemingly drive the battered Impala to Sam's general location in Missouri. Yet "Mamma Mia" confusingly finds Mary lavishing in a bathrobe back at the bunker, and Dean "No One Lays A Finger On Sammy And Lives" Winchester griping to Castiel about being uncomfortable around his mom.
Where’s the urgency to recover Sam who’s been missing for days? Where is the Dean Winchester who's so protective over Sammy that his pitbullish reputation is infamous with hunters AND monsters? Where is the Dean Winchester that sold his soul in order to save his little brother? Where is the Dean Winchester who went full-Neeson and snapped a cell phone in after threatening Sam's abductors in the premiere?
It's as if he's been abducted by fairies again, and they left a husk with Jensen Ackles stunning face and none of Dean's tenacity.
It's Castiel who scouts ahead to Missouri, and pins down Sam’s location to an abandoned farm that's so warded that he can’t get near it, let alone smite anything. So he has to wait until Dean and Mary drive the hours to his location. Don't bother asking why the angel can't teleport them there and back. The writers don't bother explaining that either.
Even worse, the epic Winchester reunion 12 seasons is as moving or poignant as doing your taxes. What should be the biggest and best chick-flick moment of Supernatural's history never actually happens. Instead after a bizarre fight, in which Dean believes that killing someone won't negate the power of a spell but knocking them unconscious will, yet another Brit arrives with Castiel in tow. It's not the shadowy and sadistic Mr. Ketch, who frightens even Lady Toni, but someone else named Mick who explains that Toni's has gone rogue and offers Sam an apology for the torture and mind-rape. There's never a moment in which Sam and Dean collectively look at their mother and rejoice in her presence or when Dean seems thrilled that Sam’s still alive or marvels at all that he survived.
The inaugural Winchester family dinner also a disappointing bust. Sam is magically healed and totally fine, because while Castiel can't disappear a van and a dead body or teleport or power-down supernatural traps, he apparently can heal Sam off-screen so completely that he's totally chill after days physical, emotional and sexual abuse.
"Mamma Mia" proves that Superantural is its own worst enemy on a Trumptonian scale, and overshadows the rare instances of good, namely Rick Springfield's debut as Lucifer. I've been waiting for the devil to embrace his inner evil, and doing so in a vessel of an aging, grieving rocker Vince Vincente with guyliner in tow is a great way to do re-imagine the character that has gotten clowish in the last few seasons. I'm also convinced that Vince's resemblance to Sam, Lucifer's one true vessel, may hint at something deliciously creepy down the road.
The saving grace is Jared Padalecki's performance as Sam. In a sweet scene, he awkwardly offers Mary (a game Samantha Smith) tea and kindness. "I know what it's like to come back and not feel like you really fit," he says. Mary wants to know "mother stuff" about her boys to fill in the blanks. Sam tearfully explains that "For me, having you here fills in the biggest blank" and they finally hug. It's not enough to repair the earth this terrible episode has scorched, but it at least puts out some of the fire with Sam tears.
It's been proven a thousand times over that Supernatural has an excellent cast and this summer's Entertainment Weekly cover proves that it is maintaining and possibly even growing in popularity, so it's truly disappointing that its quality is dwindling faster than a blueberry pie in Dean's clutches.
Supernatural needs to exorcise its own demons that are destroying the strange, terrifying, lovely world it created over the last decade, because if this trend continues, it will make for a long, torturous season. And unlike Sam Winchester, even diehard fans like myself can't endure that much pain.
What did you think of Supernatural's first two episodes? Do you think the show will ever #GiveSamAVoice? What do you think about Mary Winchester so far? Sound off below.