Happy New Year, Supernatural fans! Zack sends his regards, but he's still a little too broken up over Bobby's death to give this show the thought and attention it deserves without sobbing uncontrollably. I can't say that seeing Jim Beaver leave yet another series with his forehead in more pieces than it had been when he'd signed on was exactly what I needed to get myself in the proper frame of mind for the holidays, but it was a brave move and the right thing to do for the show, especially if they don't find some magical mumbo-jumbo bullshit way to bring him back from the dead, maybe hand-in-hand with Castiel. Supernatural has scheduled the apocalypse on its calendar in ink, only to have the boys step in and break it up at the last minute, more than a couple of times now, and that means that extraordinary measures were needed to make the viewers feel that this time, the danger was real and sacrifices would have to be made.
Killing off beloved characters, right after strongly hinting that one of them was starting to look pretty good to the local lady constable and might want to spring for some Listerine, is one of the better ways of achieving that effect. And apart from the affection that viewers had invested in Bobby Singer over the years, killing him off really does serve to make Dean and Sam seem lonelier than ever, cut adrift in the dark without their support network, in a way that the death of their father never really did. When John Winchester had his big farewell moment, saying goodbye to the son who didn't know that John had already agreed to die and go to Hell to save him, the emotions that the show must have hoped to stir up were somewhat undercut by the fact that it was hard for a seasoned TV watcher to not recognize that the real reason John was being ushered back out of his sons' lives was that Jeffrey Dean Morgan didn't think he was helping his burgeoning movie career by hanging around the set of a TV series where he wasn't the star and was supposed to be the father of an actor who was all of twelve years his junior.
Somehow, his hasty exit rhymed with the conception of John Winchester as an absentee dad who'd only been enough of a presence in his sons' lives to screw them up and bequeath to them a way of life that's eventually going to get them unpleasantly killed. I don't know how much of this was planned and how much of it just grew out of the rapport between Jim Beaver and the two leads before the writers picked up on it and put it to work for them, but the more Beaver put his stamp on the show, the more the surrogate-father relationship became its emotional core, to the point that the heroes' real father, who was originally conceived as a towering, unseen figure in their lives, was reduced to a name whose invocation was always good for a comic shudder. (Now, with all the boys' tender parental emotions connected to Bobby, John is basically to Supernatural what the mostly unseen, often-quoted Pappy was to Maverick, if Pappy had beaten Maverick with a leather strap every day of his childhood and stolen the girl he wanted to take to the school dance.)
The first post-Bobby episode of Supernatural quickly established that the show is more interested in exploring that lonely chill of orphanhood than in hustling in some new characters to provide the heroes with some aid and comfort. Well, maybe some aid, but not much with the comfort. Right now, the Winchesters' chief ally in the battle against the smooth yuppie super-villain Dick Roman and his legion of Leviathans is Frank, the paranoid conspiracy freak whose standard method of greeting visitors is to demand that they prove they are who they say they are, at gunpoint. Kevin McNally, who plays Frank, actually gives this episode its liveliest moments. Frank isn't a hunter, and though he has his own skill set that makes him useful to people like the Winchesters, there's no brotherly understanding between them, or even much mutual respect for their calling or sympathy over what it's done to their personalities and private lives. Frank is all crank, and McNally knows how to get laughs out of his singular world view and the blown fuses in his mental wiring without making his just seem unappealing and weird. (When he and Dean are out in the middle of nowhere, working undercover as a phone company repair crew, Frank orders Dean to get into a cherry picker and try to look busy. Why me, Dean wants to know. (Frank points to the tag on the front of his costume and says, reasonably, "This one says, 'Manager', that one says, 'Technician!'")
There's no potential here for a surrogate-father relationship; he and Dean spend their every shared minute chewing on each other. But by the time of their last scene together, Frank is offering Dean advice on how to deal with Bobby's death, and what he says makes enough sense ("I call it being professional. Do it right, with a smile, or don't do it.") to make you think that he might at least someday graduate to the rank of grudgingly respected uncle. (I wonder how McNally found the atmosphere and the working process on Supernatural, compared to his other current TV gig, Downton Abbey. There might be an interview in there.)
Sadly, the battle against the Leviathans only amounts to a subplot in this episode. The stuff up front is about Sam's trying to track down and rescue a fellow hunter who fell victim to some blood-sucking monsters whose species name I don't know how to spell. Long-time viewers will not be too surprised to learn that the climax involves Dean dropping everything he's doing so he can track down and rescue Sam. The details were not exactly buffed to a fine shine. The monsters operate as a team of two, which Dean knows in advance because he's hunted them before, but Sam doesn't, because all he knows about them is derived from a journal entry written by his father, who was hunting one that was atypical of its breed and preferred to work solo. Dean knows all this, but just never got around to enlightening his brother about their dad's mistake. Dean does take the time to explain all this to the missing hunter's fourteen-year-old daughter, who is more direct with him than she was with Sam because, she says, she trusts Dean less. The fourteen-year-old invites herself along on Dean's monster hunt because, she says, she didn't tag along with her father, and he didn't come back, and then she didn't tag along with Sam, and then he didn't come back. That sounds to me like the best reason in the world not to tag along with Dean, but I guess that just goes to show how hunters are a breed apart.
The whole point of the story is to get Dean trapped together with the fourteen-year-old girl, so that, in a trope that Supernatural never gets tired of, he can see his younger self in her and get to thinking about what might have been, for him, and what will never be, for her, if she doesn't get off the dead-end hunter track. Supernatural has done some variant on this gimmick more times than I can count, but I can't remember ever finding the kid in question as particularly obnoxious as this one. Probably it didn't help that the episode was so slack in the thrills department, which meant that, for long stretches, there wasn't much to distract you from the kid's snottiness. (It seemed so obvious that the pretty girl who approached Sam him in the truck stop parking lot at night was going to turn out to be a monster that it was hard not to think he was an idiot for not guessing it himself, no matter how much bad information he'd picked up from reading his dad's journals.)
In the end, the girl saved the day by running into the monsters' lair and knifing one of them, even though Dean had left her in the car, chained to the steering wheel. When Dean asked her how she'd escaped her cuffs, she smirked and said, "A girl's gotta have her secrets," and I was sort of hoping that he'd beat it out of her. In the end, the Winchesters persuaded her dad to consider letting her walk away from "the life" and go to college—a gesture that seemed more ill-conceived than touching, considering that there's a secret war going on, and the girl had done nothing for the last fifteen minutes of the episode but flaunt her mad skills. (Any evidence that they're not turning into their father counts as a good thing, but even Bobby might suggest that the girl could hang in there and pig-stick a few more ghouls before cramming for the SATs.)
But if the central plot didn't work very well, a lot of the stuff surrounding it was effective and affecting. And the last minute or so, a close-up of Dean's face as he silently processes what he's been through as he's barreling down the road, serves as a beautiful grace note. There's a famous story that Klaus Kinski was once working on a movie and heard that the director was trying to fix some problem with the script and told him, "There is no problem. I have the solution. Put the camera on me." The point of that story is that Klaus Kinski was an unhinged megalomaniac, but it turns out that if you insert Jensen Ackles in his place, that method works pretty well. But then, I'm pretty sure that Klaus Kinski was actually a Leviathon.