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Supernatural: Season 8

Warner Bros. // Unrated // September 10, 2013 // Region 0
List Price: $69.97 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted September 10, 2013 | E-mail the Author

Okay, it's not exactly as simple as uttering three small words. Still, there is a way to rid the world of demons -- to slam shut the gates of Hell for all eternity. The only problem is...well, everything. These words of God are enscribed in an ancient tablet that just about always seems out of reach. The spectre of Crowley -- the lord of the underworld -- looms over the one person on the planet who can interpret the lost text. The Winchesters and everyone around them wind up in the crosshairs of the armies of Heaven and Hell alike. Oh, and that's just what it takes to find and translate the tablet; we haven't even started talking about what it'll take to actually grease the hinges of the gates of Hell.

In its eighth season, Supernatural breaks away from the desperate rush to thwart some Big Bad's nefarious scheme to vaniquish humanity or usher in the end of days. It's a quest in the old Arthurian style, and forever casting out every last demon sure as
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hell qualifies as Sam and Dean's Holy Grail. There's not a Bigger Bad than Lucifier or Leviathan, and Sam and Dean have already endured whatever the plural of 'apocalypse' is, so I appreciate the reversal here. This time around, the Winchesters are the ones with the colossal, overarching plan, and everyone and everything else is trying to stop it before their kind is wiped out. It's this sort of approach that keeps Supernatural feeling so fresh and vital even after the better part of a decade on the air. This season strikes a nearly perfect balance between honoring the characters and conventions of the past while continuing to experiment with what kind of a series Supernatural can be.

You might not clue into that at first glance, though. I have to admit that my kneejerk reaction was that season eight seems a little too familiar. I mean, the premiere opens with Dean stumbling around in the middle of nowhere, still reeling from breaking out of an inescapable, nightmarish, Biblical prison. One of the Winchesters believing the other is dead, leaving hunting behind, spending a full year embracing a life of suburban bliss with the woman of his dreams...yeah, been there, done that. One of the brothers is harboring a terrible secret he can't bring himself to reveal. Lotsa blow-ups and mistrust. Hell, there's even a stand-in for Bobby -- complete with a handy hunter's journal -- to field all the off-screen research and rally the troops. Don't mistake this as Supernatural on autopilot, though. A handful of the broad strokes may ring a bell, but that's only a small part of what the season is about. Plus it's the execution that matters at the end of the day anyway, and season eight shoots to kill.

As much as I dug last season's Leviathan storyline, I'd still say that the mytharc in season eight is the strongest that Supernatural has delivered this side of the Kripke era. Just about everything in the mix is perfectly balanced. The demon tablet arc is hardly ever shoved to the sidelines for too long, and there's a constant sense of progress that keeps the pacing steamrolling forward. There's a hell of a lot of plot this time around, with the armies of Hell and a faction of heavenly puppetmasters bearing down on our boys, and yet the season never loses sight of characterization. Angsty drama, unflinchingly gruesome imagery, and a cacklingly demented sense of humor are once again juggled deftly. I don't think Supernatural has ever used flashbacks to such consistently strong effect. I found myself
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genuinely engaged by the gradual unveiling of the brothers' year apart. I wouldn't have guessed I'd find Sam settling into mundane domestic bliss as compelling as I did, and Dean's missing months are even sharper. How did he bust out of Purgatory while Castiel remains missing in action? What happened on the other side? What secrets are he hiding?

This is a remarkably consistent season with hardly any weak spots. A few episodes do stand out above the rest, though. I'm not exactly a fan of found footage movies, but I'm really impressed by Supernatural's approach to the genre. It's not the first time a monster-of-the-week has been investigated by a bunch of camera-crazed kids while Sam and Dean are somewhere off to the side, but it's not played for laughs here like it was in "Ghostfacers" back in season three. "Bitten" feels more like Chronicle-meets-V/H/S rather than just another Paranormal Activity knockoff. Bonus points for its choice of creature too, something I don't think has been tackled in a found footage flick before. The Purgatory storyline introduces Dean's undead partner in crime, a southern-fried vamp named Benny (Ty Olsson). Benny is easily the best character that Supernatural has introduced over the past few years, making for some intensely emotional moments late in the season that hit like a slug to the gut. I'd like to think more about the good times, though, especially the team-up between Dean and a remorseful Benny in "Blood Brother", one of those rare episodes that splits the flesh-and-blood brothers apart the entire time. Supernatural has seven full seasons in the rear view mirror by this point, and season eight continually mines the series' wealth of mythology and characters. The collision between the past and present is a recurring theme this year, and at no point does that hit harder than in "Clip Show", where Crowley systematically starts murdering everyone that Sam and Dean had ever saved. I'm a sucker for Supernatural's high-concept episodes, and "Hunteri Heroici" ranks right up there with the series' best, this time drawing less from bleak, grisly horror and more, Chuck Jones. Love it, love it, love it. Bonus points for piling on two hysterical Felicia Day episodes too.

If there's one frustrating thing about season eight, it's that all my least favorite episodes are bunched together, one after another. "As Time Goes By" is another episode where the past plows head-on with the present, introducing a secret society, a Winchester legacy the brothers never knew about, and a proper homebase in the wake of Bobby's death. Maybe it would've resonated a little more with some additional time to
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breathe, but it's so rushed that none of these potential game-changers have a chance to make much of an impression. Hey, here's an important new character and a bunch of poorly setup retcons and a secret super-magical HQ and I'll say "legacy" eight hojillion times and oh wait it's over kthxbye. The impact the Men of Letters reveal has on the mythology of the show going forward is substantial and appreciated, but this isn't the way to go about it. I'm not that crazy about most of the five episode stretch that spans "As Time Goes By" and "Remember the Titans", which is a shame because there are some good ideas scattered around in there, such as Supernatural delving into Judiac lore. Once those are out of the way, though, it's all killer, no filler.

I'm not left with a whole lot else to gripe about. Osric Chau is kind of bland early on as college-age prophet Kevin Tran, but the greater toll his burden takes on him, the more interesting a character he becomes. I can't say as much for his mother, a kind of over-the-top Sassy Mom! type, but whatever. D.J. Qualls pops up again as Garth, and his hamfisted quirkiness that was kind of endearing before gets stale awfully quickly this time around. Even though Qualls only puts in one on-screen appearance, it seems like he's referenced just about every other episode this season. If Garth is that important, do somethin' with him! He's no Bobby Singer; that's for sure. Amelia (Liane Balaban), a.k.a. The 23,648th Love of Sam's Life, fails to make any meaningful impression until her storyline is just about at an end. For most of her appearances, Amelia is kind of like a room temperature glass of water; not bad or worth complaining about or anything, but who cares? As that comes to a close, though...

Still, the Winchesters proactively taking the fight to Hell, Castiel's tortured search for redemption, Crowley continuing to stand out as one of the most cacklingly compelling badniks on TV, honoring the series' rich past while still looking to the future, a pretty much perfect blend of gruesome horror, action, smirking humor, world-building, and characterization: Supernatural gets so much right in its eighth season that its few missteps slough right off. It wasn't that long ago that I started to get that itch to see Supernatural pack things up and call it a day, but after this...? There's an offhand comment in one of the extras that makes it sound like the writers have another few years' worth of stories mapped out, and if they're anywhere near as strong as the episodes in the series' eighth season are, then I hope Supernatural stays on the air for a long, long time. Highly Recommended.

Okay, "Bitten" is a little bit of an outlier since that found footage episode was shot on consumer-ish-grade camcorders and isn't meant to be glossy and gorgeous. Other than that, though...? The otherworldly crisp and detailed
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Supernatural continues to stand strong as one of the best looking series on Blu-ray. I'm especially impressed by this season's vivid colors, consistently saturated more richly than I ever remember Supernatural being before. The presentation is flawless, with no missteps in the compression, no edge enhancement, no overzealous filtering, or much of anything else to gripe about.

This eighth season of Supernatural spans four BD-50 discs. Its twenty-three episodes are presented at their broadcast aspect ratio of 1.78:1, and you're looking at AVC encodes all around.

Supernatural's lossless audio -- presented here again in 16-bit DTS-HD Master Audio -- is an improvement over last year's already robust showing. Its use of the surround channels is intensely atmospheric, and the rears do a tremendous job reinforcing the action as well: godly bursts of lightning, a warlock unleashed, the ferocious rush of a tornado screaming out of nowhere, and all sorts of gunplay. There's a strong sense of directionality as well, and I cracked a depraved little smile as I heard a lopped-off vampire head tumble into the right speaker. Supernatural isn't timid about unleashing hellish waves of bass, and as frenzied and chaotic as things can get, the series' sharp dialogue remains clear and discernable throughout.

A handful of commentaries aside, the only other soundtracks are Portuguese dubs in Dolby Digital stereo (192kbps). Subtitles are offered in English (SDH), French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Japanese.

  • Audio Commentaries: Same as
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    the last go-around, this season set piles on three commentaries.

    First up are writer Andrew Dabb and producer Todd Aronauer for one of the standouts this season, "Hunteri Heroici". Most of my favorite comments revolve around what a logistical challenge this episode proved to be, showcasing some of the series' most extensive visual effects work, shaping its hopefully-not-litigious cartoony sound design, and licensing all the right bits of animation. I also love hearing about how the show's plowed through just about every actor in Vancouver and what great luck it is that Supernatural is shot in "the world capital of talking animal movies".

    "As Time Goes By" is accompanied by a small army of executive producers: Robert Singer (it's okay, you can call him 'Bob'), Jeremy Carver, and Adam Glass. The three of them discuss the casting for this episode, who penned which gags, and how this installment originally revolved around a hotel at the end of time rather than anything related to Winchester lore. Decent but the least memorable of the set's three commentaries.

    ...and, yeah, they saved the best for last. I'm a card-carrying fan of writer/consulting producer Ben Edlund -- wait, are there cards? -- who's joined here by director/executive producer Phil Sgriccia. It's every bit as quippy and fun a commentary as you'd expect with Edlund in tow, and they chat about finally having someone taller than Jared Padalecki on-set, how a key role was written with Seth Green and his red hair in mind, the historical basis of the Thule Society, and, wow, I didn't realize that old guy was Barney Friggin' Miller until they pointed it out. That's worth the price of entry right there.

  • Finding Supernatural: Creating the Found Footage Episode (26 min.; HD): The lengthiest of the set's three featurettes follows the making of "Bitten" from conception all the way through post-production. Breaking away from the procedural investi-gank structure, Sam and Dean largely getting shoved to the sidelines, these actors fielding a bunch of the camerawork, a crew that frequently can't see what's being shot until they physically grab a camcorder and start playing back footage: it's inarguably one of Supernatural's most experimental outings and deserves this sort of behind-the-scenes attention. "Finding Supernatural" also delves into how different the post-production of this episode is, with lengthier cuts, a reliance on diagetic music, and limited visual effects. This is a really terrific behind-the-scenes piece, and I love its clever construction with handwritten video tape labels, peeks at the featurette in the editing bay, and legal pads of production notes.

  • For the Defense of Mankind: The Tablets Revealed (20 min.; HD): Quests! Relics! Oracles! "For the Defense of Mankind" looks at their roles in various religions for countless centuries as well as this adventure-driven season of Supernatural.

  • Angel Warrior: The Story of Castiel (20 min.; HD): By this point, Misha Collins has been an integral part of Supernatural for more seasons than not, and it's about time he got a twenty minute love letter on one of these Blu-ray sets. As its title suggests, this retrospective details the series' approach to angels as warriors in general and with Castiel in particular. The cast and crew speak about Collins' casting when the introduction of angels was still a closely-guarded secret, the way Castiel deftly weaves fish-out-of-water humor into the intensity the character demands, being part of a world that a fallen angel can't quite understand, his relationship with Sam and Dean (not the slash fic type know what I mean), and Crowley representing the flipside of that coin.

  • Deleted Scenes (20 min.; HD): Fourteen of this season's twenty-three episodes feature at least one deleted scene. Mark Sheppard steals just
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    about every last one of these that he's in, especially the banter with his overinquisitive henchdemons in "We Need to Talk About Kevin" and a harrowing exchange with Sam in "Sacrifice". Among the other highlights are more of Dean and Felicia Day's Charlie palling around in "Pac-Man Fever" as well as an extended and far more effective conversation with a certain time traveler in "As Time Goes By". Otherwise, most of these scenes are stray bits of dialogue or introducing stuff that doesn't really need to be established beforehand. Well, and there's a nails-on-chalkboard smarmy librarian in "Everybody Hates Hitler", which is kind of the worst thing ever, but I'm trying to block that out.

    Bear in mind that these deleted scenes are only available under the "Episodes" submenu, not alongside the rest of the extras.

  • Gag Reel (9 min.; HD): Once again, Supernatural continues its triumphant reign as having the best gag reels of any TV show without Alison Brie on the bill.

Supernatural doesn't go the combo pack route like Warner has been doing with The Vampire Diaries, so you score a lean four-disc Blu-ray set rather than nine DVDs and BDs. My dwindling shelf space thanks you. For what it's worth, you do get an UltraViolet digital copy code out of the deal, and sure enough, Supernatural once again comes packaged in a shiny, foil slipcase.

The Final Word
It's probably a little bit of an exaggeration to say that, after nearly 175 episodes, this eighth season of Supernatural is as good as the series has ever been. For my money, anyway, it comes close enough. As much as I dug season seven, it still felt like an aging show that was starting to wind down. This latest run of episodes jabs a syringe of adrenaline directly to the heart of Supernatural, and now I'm not only looking forward to the premiere of its ninth season, but I'm hoping there's a tenth, eleventh, and who knows how many after that. Highly Recommended.
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