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A glimmer of hope arrives in the third episode of the superfluous sixth season of Supernatural

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Not many shows can capture the pulpy thrill of monster hunting like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, sustain it with a fun apocalyptic plot balanced by great meta-humor, and end on a gut-wrenching series finale that nevertheless gives the main arc a logical conclusion.

Supernatural was set to be that show, but alas pressures from CW executives caused the show to continue with a sixth season against Creator/Showrunner Eric Kripke’s wishes. Thus, Kripke stopped writing and directing episodes after season 5.

So of course, almost every SPN fan expected this season to fail, which is why I decided to give the season a shot anyway. Couldn’t hurt right? Not exactly: The first two episodes of the season seemed to do too much with the characters and world at once (Monsters are cropping up everywhere; Sam’s out of hell and is acting all weird and distant; Sam and Dean’s granddad got pulled down from heaven).

And The writers left too many important questions unanswered or uncharacteristically resolved (Why did Sam come back from hell? Why did Bobby keep it a secret from Dean even though he knows his family is his life or whatever? Why is grandpa collecting monsters?) I sort of underestimated my disappointment, and as a result, I was hesitant to chronicle this new season of Supernatural. This whole season felt like it was going to be a bad sequel to something we all held dear.

The Third Man, episode 3 of the season, penned by the excellent Carver Ben Edlund, kind of turned my mood around on this season. It turned me around just about when Castiel (Misha Collins) suddenly appeared in the middle of the episode and pulled Supernatural out of this hole the writers were digging.

Sam (Jared Padalecki) and Dean (Jensen Ackles) were investigating police officers in the small town of Easter, Pa., who are dying of mysterious causes. One cop collapsed into a bloody mulch; another’s skin boiled all over and he died; and another had locusts dig a whole clean through his skull from the inside. Cas thinks that all of these deaths are plagues traced back to part of a powerful ancient weapon: Moses’s staff. So with quick detective work, thanks to Cas’s handy zap-to-anywhere powers, the crew ends up at the culprit’s house. It appears an ex-cop got cheated out of his pension by all of these guys, who testified about something wrong that he didn’t do.

They’re about to question the ex-cop further when his 10-year-old kid comes out brandishing a bit of wood. Immune to any magic wand forces, Cas quickly knocks out the dad and overpowers the kid. After questioning the kid a bit, the crew learns that the kid traded his soul for the staff-bit so he could take revenge on pop’s enemies. Demons again? No, this time it was an angel! After the WTF feeling washes over Sam and Dean, Cas says he needs to lay some crazy angel mojo to know who did it, but warns that it’s gonna hurt the kid…a lot…for several minutes!

This scene is key. The story really points out the big role reversal between Sam and Dean. Sam stays mute, and Dean takes on the ethical cop role of asking “We’re seriously gonna torture a kid now?” and then straight-up asks Sam if he’s OK with this, to which Sam responds “Sure, if it gets us intel.” This kind of scene is what I’ve been waiting for, at least some attrition, some testing of boundaries to see where we’re going with Sam’s character. It’s only in the epilogue that the two really go more in-depth about Sam’s changed behavior after hell, and it’s a conversation that’s been long overdue to keep their relationship believable.

Anyway, the kid’s soul brand reveals that its owner is Balthazar, another angel who has apparently broken free from heaven. With that bit of info, Cas zaps away alone to confront the traitor. In their confrontation, Cas and Balthazar reveal that Heaven’s gone apeshit since Sam and Dean stopped the apocalypse; Rafael—an angel with whom Cas and Dean tangoed before—is trying to seize power of heaven with no god present; and everyone’s treating human souls as valuable collectibles now. As the two argue about how it’s wrong to trade powerful weapons for souls—Cas slowly reaching for his knife—the mystery dude who was creeping around outside turns out to be none other than Rafael! Raf effortlessly kicks the shit of B-dude and Cas, who manages to take out one of his angel henchmen. When he finally corners Cas, though, Rafael falls for the old “Hey, look over there!” trick and Balthazar turns him into the pillar of salt with some crystal weapon. Afterwards, Cas makes a deal with Balthazar to release the kid and not take any more souls; in return, Balthy gets to keep all of his fancy weapons.

This episode wasn’t exactly packed, but it gave me tinges of what used to excite me about Supernatural. I’m excited now about the prospect of an anarchic angel civil war. Sam and Dean seem much more like themselves, or at least their out-of-character actions are addressed in a much more direct way. After all, the whole show is about the brothers’ relationship. Cas is really there to supplement that relationship, shed a new light on it from time to time.

This episode did a great job in subordinating the underlying tensions between Sam and Dean to give us a glimpse at the Cas/heaven subplot. This style gives The Third Man a more episodic feel than the first two episodes and helps give this whole season more purpose. I’m still skeptical about the main arc’s direction (especially whether it has a destination in mind or not), but with so many more episodes to go, there might be hope for this hyper-extended series yet.

Don’t miss this week when Jensen Ackles (Dean) directs the episode Weekend at Bobby’s! If I have to guess by the title, I’d say it’s a filler episode, but it should at least be interesting to see what it looks like.

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