Fair warning! If you've never tuned into Supernatural before, don't read this review. I'm trying to step around spoilers for season five, but it's kind of tough to talk about what's going on without giving away a lot of what happened in the first few seasons.
Now-ish, at least. ...or if you prefer your pop culture nods to lean on the radio instead, I guess this is about the time to start humming "It's The End of the World As We Know It". The final seals have been broken. After being imprisoned for millenia, Lucifer has been unleashed upon the earth. Satan thirsts to snuff out every last trace of humanity. The armies of Heaven, seemingly no longer guided by the hand of God, just want an epic battle. The angels envision a new paradise emerging from the smoldering rubble, but most of mankind will be wiped out in the process. Regardless of who wins, billions will die in this clash between Heaven and Hell, and standing somewhere in the middle...? Two brothers, a '67 Impala, a fallen angel in a trenchcoat, and an ornery hunter who
This fifth season of Supernatural is set during the...I dunno, the pupal stage of the Apocalypse. Earthquakes. Swine flu. Remote little towns hacking each other into bloody chunks. To an outsider, it might just look like a very unfortunate string of catastrophes. To those in the know, it's very clearly the End of Days. The season opens with the chess pieces still being shuffled around the board. Lucifer can't achieve his full power until he's seized control of a proper vessel. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse -- War, Famine, Pestilence, and Death -- are just starting to mount their first assaults. The armies of Heaven are seeking out a sufficiently powerful weapon: one that will not merely imprison Lucifer but destroy him once and for all. Sam and Dean Winchester want to cut the angels and demons alike off at the knees, but the prophecies insist that the two brothers both play far more integral roles in the Apocalypse than that. They're destined not to halt the destruction of the world as we know it but to serve as weapons in the final battle. The stakes have never been higher, and not only do the Winchesters struggle against the armies of both Heaven and Hell, but they're soon battling free will...destiny...not to mention each other.
Some jaded viewers may roll their eyes that you never see the planet split clean down the middle. No seventy-foot tall demons stomp their way out of Hell. The body count doesn't creep into the tens of millions. Supernatural doesn't have that kind of Roland Emmerich disaster flick budget to throw at the screen, and honestly, that sort of spectacle would've overwhelmed what the show is ultimately about in the first place. "It's the fun Apocalypse," as creator Eric Kripke put it. That's always been one of the most infectious things about Supernatural, really: it's a thrill ride. A neverending parade of monsters and ghosts, buckets of splatter, impossibly gorgeous women (and, well, impossibly gorgeous guys too, if you're in that demographic), the single most bad-ass car on television, a cacklingly demented sense of humor, breakneck twists and turns...sure, critics' eyes may always turn to Mad Men, Breaking Bad, or whatever's on HBO these days, but there isn't a show on TV I look forward to watching more than Supernatural. This season's focused on the Apocalypse that's looming just off on the horizon, sure, but it isn't unrelentingly dark and bleak either. Supernatural's writers strike a perfect balance between setting the stakes -- ensuring that the sheer scale of what's happening hits the mark as best they can on a network TV budget -- without it ever feeling depressingly hopeless either.
That's one of the reasons why I wasn't all that keen on season four my first time through. It definitely had its share of fun episodes and all, but the season was bogged down by a lot of angst, I felt kind of overwhelmed by the "demons! demons! demons! angels! angels! angels!" march, and the rhythm just didn't feel right to me. Here's a mytharc episode. Here's a cartoonishly goofy one to break up the drama. Here's another reminder that in the Supernaturalverse, angels are dicks. It's as if the writers knew the broad strokes of the story and had some pretty brilliant ideas for one-off episodes to toss in between, but the pacing and flow wound up feeling erratic. I didn't really warm up to the fourth season until my second time through, but season five...? Fell in love from word one. Now that the conflict between Heaven and Hell has been established, it's able to step away from the demons and angels to draw in new nemeses to square off against the Winchesters. Supernatural thumbs through Revelations to find new antagonists for several episodes, most memorably the Four Horsemen. If Supernatural were a video game,
The role of family has always been an essential part of what makes Supernatural function, and that is more important than ever this season. The angels are lashing out after being abandoned by their father. It doesn't matter to them if God is dead or has just left the building. The overwhelming majority of the angels took His existence on faith anyway; their father did not reveal Himself or directly communicate with all but the tiniest handful of His warriors. Though they do take some definite liberties with the text of the Bible in the process, Supernatural's writers take pains to draw comparisons between Sam, Dean, and their father with the tumult in Heaven. Parallels are revealed that explain why these two brothers play such key roles in the Apocalypse; it could never be any other way. As was the case last season, the armies of both Heaven and Hell alike are portrayed as villains. Continuing an interesting turn, the angels are every bit as manipulative and destructive -- maybe even to a greater extent -- than the demons are. It's a strong contrast to the way Supernatural approaches Lucifer. He may be known to most as the Prince of Lies, but Lucifer here is far more honest and straightforward than the majority of the angels we meet. Much like the figure in the Bible, one of Lucifer's greatest powers is his seductive thrall. He knows how to twist the truth in a way that seemingly makes sense...to draw others into his fold. No bombast. No threats. No moustache-twirling or cackling about his nefarious schemes. The weapon Lucifer wields most readily is his complete, unwavering confidence. Supernatural is also careful to use Lucifer sparingly. He doesn't rear his head often, so every one of his appearances makes that much more of an impact. It's such a seemingly impossible role to play, and yet the casting of Mark Pellegrino (Dexter; Lost) is flawless. That confidence...a quiet sense of menace...the way his temporary host's flesh gradually sears away, unable to contain these satanic energies...it's perfect.
Supernatural knows there are rules it's probably supposed to follow for mytharcs like this, but it frequently veers off in a completely different direction anyway. One of the season's biggest revelations -- the specific roles that Sam and Dean are destined to play -- is unveiled three episodes in. Any other show would've clutched that card tightly to its chest until a couple of episodes before the finalé. It also shatters the fourth wall at pretty much every opportunity. I mean, in the season premiere, you're looking at an obsessed fan of the Supernatural books knocking on the Winchesters' door, groping Sam's chest, and yapping about slash fic. I laughed (and even more awesomely, Samlicker81 is played by none other than Ginger Snaps' Emily Perkins!). Any sort of logic demands that a season
The shows that are played for laughs are really clever too, not just shameless stabs at comedy. I mean, watch "The Real Ghostbusters" and think about who the heroes at the end of the day really are. There's a certain element of tragedy to "The Curious Case of Dean Winchester". The man-witch doesn't cheat at cards, he's entirely upfront about what's at stake, and he's even generous enough to throw away a good hand to give a withered old-timer a new lease on life. Heck, even when Sam and Dean bust into his ritzy apartment, he lets them off easy. Sure, Sam's scratching down there more than he normally would, but it could've been a whole lot worse. The point is that the rules of Supernatural mean that they can't just stab the problem away, and what ultimately happens is more tragic and more resonant than a slashed throat anyway. "I Believe the Children Are Our Future" opens with another set of urban legends suddenly springing to life: a butch tooth fairy yanking out every last one of Pop's chompers (and leaving behind eight bucks in quarters!), a 1.2 jigawatt joy buzzer, and, among others, Dean undergoing a horrifying transformation when he decides to...y'know, relieve a little tension. Turns out it's not at all what you think, and a potential gamechanger in the overall season arc is introduced. "The Real Ghostbusters" milks a lot of laughs out of its self-referential sense of humor, but it further advances the hunt for a way to take down Lucifer at the same time. "Swap Meat" seems like a Freaky Friday riff with some dweeby, virginal teenager pouncing his way inside Sam's body, and it's all boinking, booze, and burgers (kinda like that other Winchester..). This winds up keying in tightly with the Apocalypse arc too. There really are very few wasted moments anywhere in the season. Supernatural is reluctant to just spin its wheels waiting for something to happen, and it deftly juggles all of the comedy and dark drama. The humor doesn't diminish the importance of what's happening, and it's an appreciated break from all that angst. I can see how going more than a month with nothing but one
...and then there's the horror. I never cease to be amazed by just how much Supernatural is able to sneak away with on primetime network television, and as someone who's kind of a gorehound, I mean that in the best possible way. "My Bloody Valentine" opens with a couple so enamoured with one another that rather than stop at playful nibbles, they completely devour one another. It's kind of like that cannibalistic movie-within-a-movie in May, only...y'know, on The CW, and pretty much completely intact to boot. Disturbing. Amazing. This same episode has a guy in a backwater diner who's so ravenous that he dips his hands in a deep fryer, pulls up fistfuls of french-fries, and shoves them into his gullet with his scarred, smoking fingers. It never stops trying to one-up itself. Again, this is another terrific episode with the series' trademark balance of gore, comedy, characterization, story advancement, and well-earned surprises. It's immediately followed by "Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid". Look, all I do in my off-hours is sit in my jammies and watch movies with dead people eating living people. If "Dead Men..." had been a movie rather than a 42 minute episode of a TV show, it'd rank as one of my all-time favorite zombie flicks, and this is from someone who's seen enough to be pretty damned picky. It's gruesome, intense, and has to hold some kind of record for the most headshots in any single show on network television. For crying out loud, a kid sopping with his father's blood and holding a fistful of intestines in his hand...? You're on my Christmas card list for sure. The horror doesn't stop at the splatter, though. It's haunting in the truest sense: a small town's loved ones have returned from the grave, and at least at the outset, they aren't rotting, decaying ghouls. They're rather pallid, sure, but otherwise they're indistinguishable from the people they knew and cared for so deeply. The horror comes from the sense of loss: that the townsfolks lost these people once, they consciously know that this isn't right, and yet they refuse to acknowledge the probability that something's going to go disastrously, catastrophically wrong. The audience feels it too. When Karen Singer comes back from the grave, she's magnetic, warm, and instantly likeable. We want her to stick around. We want Bobby to get the second chance...the happy ending...he so richly deserves. He knows, as we do, that it's going to end badly and it's going to happen soon. It's genuinely painful to watch unfold, and that heartbreak truly showcases the mighty talents of Jim Beaver. So, yeah. Heartbreak. Zombies. Two great tastes that taste great together.
I really want to keep gushing about how brilliant every episode this season is. In fact, this fifth season is the only one in Supernatural's run without any distractingly clunky installments. Its lowest points really aren't that low at all and still trump pretty much everything else I watch. "The Devil You Know" is the only time the pace really drags, coming in the homestretch just to make sure all of the right pieces are in place and to explain a dangling plot point from the pilot. "Dark Side of the Moon" swoops into Heaven and features the return of a character who hasn't been seen in several seasons, but with so many alternate reality episodes over the past couple of seasons, I just couldn't get excited about this one. On the other hand, there's a lucha libre mask, and that immediately elevates it into something else. A lot of attention this season is paid to further exploring plot points from the past. We see a handful of familiar hunters, including Jo and Ellen who've been presumed dead for ages. We learn why Jessica was torched all the way back in the pilot. The
There's just so much I love about this season. In "Hammer of the Gods", we get to see how deities from other religions, past and present, are taking the Judeo-Christian Apocalypse, for one. Even though the Supernatural formula dictates that a lot of these episodes will throw out a red herring about who the murderous creature this week actually is, I was really impressed by a lot of the twists and turns that came along. The complexity beyond good guys in white hats and the badniks in black is always appreciated. I really wasn't a fan of the "hey, Willow, turns out demon blood is like drugs too!" from season four, and that's dialed-down and handed so, so, so much more effectively this year. Mark Sheppard -- who you know and love from Firefly, Battlestar Galactica, Leverage, Chuck, and just about any other fan favorite you could name from the past decade -- strolls into the cast as Crowley. He's one of Lucifer's top lieutenants and happens to be the demon behind all those crossroads deals. His playful cockiness is another welcomed contrast from all that angst, and he also sets up some of season five's most impressive moments. Along with some of the more familiar themes
What isn't that great...? Well, there are a lot of the same arguments between Sam and Dean that you've heard eighteen hojillion times before. Supernatural has a tendency to overexplain and quadruple-underline certain themes and plot points, and that heavy-handedness can be a little tiresome. There's a definite tendency to tell rather than show. Lots and lots of angst. Certainly some repetition. Some corny dialogue here and there. None of that should be unfamiliar for anyone who's been a fan of the show for a while, and that's all easily shrugged off. I could rattle off some really nitpicky things too, I guess, like Odin having both eyes intact or the choice for the last song Sam and Dean might ever hear, but whatever. Some imagery made me groan, like a bunch of Secret Service-style agents tumbling out of an Escalade to watch over Famine.
It seems like I have a lot of minor gripes about the Horsemen, really. This is a series where angels are shown to be nearly omnipotent -- they can bend reality to their whim, travel through time, and reanimate the dead -- so it seems a little odd that the Four Horsemen draw seemingly all of their powers from their rings. In fact, they have to physically fiddle with their rings to do anything at all. Though the scale of the Horsemens' actions escalate throughout the season, War and Famine both work on a surprisingly small scale. One Horseman has his eyes set on butchering millions in a sprawling metropolitan city, another has a deviously clever scheme that could consume much of the country, and yet War and Famine prefer to poke around small, out-of-the-way towns, tormenting dozens rather than millions. It's like the Apocalyptic equivalent of cowtipping. I'm sure they would've been much more powerful once Satan had settled into a proper vessel, but they don't come across as anything more than a garden variety demon, really. I love the episodes they're in, but the scale doesn't seem to be quite there. Oh, but the introductions of Pestilence and Death are so spectacularly effective that they more than make up for that.
It's disappointing that death (with a lowercase-D) ceases to mean anything on this show anymore too. It works fine this season, but it's hard to feel any stakes during a traditional ghost hunt when you know an angel can dive down and tap a dead Dean or a slaughtered Sam on the forehead for another go-around. ...and then there's the Apocalypse itself. I realize this is the beginning of the end...that the worst is still just off on the horizon. I understand that a lot of this is budgetary and for dramatic purposes, but even though I was very, very frequently told that the world is coming to an end, I never really felt it. Still, what happens may not be
This fifth season was intended to be Supernatural's last, and "Swan Song", its final episode, really does feel like a series finalé. Its deaths are swift and unflinchingly brutal, there's a mirror reflection of the series' very first episode that functions brilliantly, and you even score the complete origin of the Metallicar in the process. Does the plan ultimately make all that much sense...? No. Is there a kinda cheesy framing device...? Yeah. I don't care. It got me anyway. I know that with season six just off in the distance, this isn't the final word that it was initially intended to be, but "Swan Song" is still a better series finalé than Lost got.
Geez. I'd duped myself into thinking this was going to be a really short review too. I'd just finished rewatching the entire run of Supernatural before season five showed up in my mailbox, and, at least after season one's first few shaky episodes were out of the way, I was really impressed by how consistent the quality had been for the first four years. I couldn't decide on a favorite season, and there isn't one that strikes me as being noticeably worse than the others either. They all had their flaws but at the end of the day seemed equally great to me. After devouring season five, I think I finally can point to a favorite. This year, Supernatural refines all of its strengths. It boasts the series' most robust myth arc, its most devastating sense of humor, some of its most gruesome imagery, and its strongest supporting cast. Even its weaker episodes are in some way redeemed to the point that I don't really think of them as being lackluster at all. I know reactions were mixed among many Supernatural fans when season five first aired, but I really recommend giving it a second look on Blu-ray. I think watching these episodes in one fell swoop rather than spaced out for weeks or months at a time is an entirely different experience, and knowing in advance what you're in for allows you to approach it with a different set of expectations...to better appreciate what's there rather than what isn't. There isn't a show on television right now that I enjoy watching more than Supernatural, and it's such a thrill to see that its fifth season is perhaps its best yet. Very Highly Recommended.
As ever, Supernatural generally looks phenomenal on Blu-ray. The photography, which has been captured digitally for two seasons now, is extremely crisp and detailed. What with demons and monsters tending to shy away from the light of day and all, it's essential that black levels be as inky and robust as they are here. The shadows are appropriately dark without devouring all of the detail around them too. The palette is generally undersaturated, reflecting the bleak tone one would probably expect out of an apocalyptic horror series. The colors can leap several feet off the screen whenever given half a chance, though, most memorably the hypersaturated hues that dominate "Changing Channels". There's also a texture to the image that still leaves it looking rather filmic despite the fact that it's a digital production. The 'grain' is generally rendered flawlessly -- tiny, clear, and distinct -- but there are moments when the compression does buckle under the weight of it all. It's not distracting from a reasonable distance and would likely be unnoticeable on a smaller display, but upon close inspection, the background noise in some scenes does clump together like an overcompressed JPEG often does. Here's one glaring example. This background noise also seems to freeze during some quick pans. Neither of these are persistent issues, but I'm sure a meatier bitrate still would've eased that somewhat. As it is, these episodes only take up around 2/3rds of each disc, so it's not as if there isn't additional room to stretch around. I also noticed some nasty posterization in a few moments. One example is provided below. I also captured a less dramatic shot from a different episode just to illustrate that it's not an isolated incident.
There are definitely some sloppy hiccups in the authoring, but generally, I continue to be very happy with the way Supernatural is presented on Blu-ray. (...and c'mon! Give us season two so I can ditch my last Supernatural DVD set.) It's not perfect, no, but there shouldn't be any question that this is well worth the extra few bucks to experience in high definition.
More on the technical side: all four discs in this boxed set are BD-50s. These 22 episodes are presented at their original broadcast aspect ratio of 1.78:1, and they're all encoded with the VC-1 codec.
The surrounds are reserved largely for eerie ambiance and scattered bursts of action: the hellish snarl as Lucifer is first unleashed, streams of demon smoke, angelic whispers, gunfire, the deafening roar of an approaching archangel, tortured screams, and, um, a rowdy studio audience. There are also some nice touches like reverb in certain settings and smooth, seamless pans as cars whiz by in the background. The use of the surrounds really isn't all that aggressive, but they do seem to pick up a little more after the first ten episodes have come and gone. The sound design definitely emphasizes the front mains and the subwoofer most heavily. The sub gets a pretty decent workout, thanks largely to the stings in the score and a few thunderous rock songs. With so many bodies being flung around, the sheer number of shotgun blasts and fired pistols, and even one particularly massive explosion, the effects pack a pretty reasonable wallop. The series' dialogue generally emerges well enough, sometimes sounding a little flat or clipped but nothing altogether unexpected for a TV series. The audio overall is perfectly okay, but I've been spoiled by so many superior sounding releases that "perfectly okay" doesn't quite seem good enough anymore. I really wish Warner would have a change of heart and adopt lossless audio straight across the board for all of their releases. I don't think the difference would be earth-shattering in this case, but I bet it'd be a noticeable improvement just the same.
Dolby Digital 2.0 tracks are also offered in Portuguese. The long list of subtitles includes streams in English (SDH), French, Dutch, Spanish, and Portuguese.
The downside...? One commentary. One deleted scene. On the other hand, there are a lot more featurettes than the flipside of the case might lead you to believe, and they're more imaginative than just another rote making-of. Add in the gag reel and webisodes, and it all runs right at three hours in total.
This season of Supernatural is a four-disc set, and if you've already picked up any of the other sets, the packaging really hasn't changed. Tucked inside is a set of liner notes with a synopsis for each episode and writing/directorial credits. The fourth and final disc is BD Live-enabled, but aside from a preview of one of the featurettes that's on the same disc, there's nothing that has anything to do with the show itself.
The Final Word
There isn't a show on television right now that I enjoy more than Supernatural. Maybe I'm just a cheap date, but muscle cars, exploding zombie heads, cannibalism, an apocalyptic war between Heaven and Hell, and a Japanese game show where a wrong answer gets you whacked in the balls...? I mean, I like Mad Men as much as the next guy and all, but I've never once seen Don Draper pack a shotgun shell with rock salt and then blast the walking undead clean between the eyes. Supernatural wins. Howlingly funny, sopping with splatter, and overflowing with pretty, pretty people, Supernatural is an unrelenting adrenaline rush, and my kneejerk reaction is that its fifth season is its best yet. The uninitiated should find a different jumping on point than this, but if you've been following the show till now...? Highly Recommended.