The shocking-cold-open-then-time-jump has become a tried-and-true Supernatural tradition, and while I'd hate to see the device over-used (I hate to see any device over-used, really), it still works. For instance, seeing a dorky Sam over-emphasizing his age before hooking up with a stranger in the most oblivious way imaginable was very, very funny. This show has gotten really good at self-mockery, and any chance to let Jared Padalecki act goofy is worth taking. A lot of this set up is familiar—the Winchesters have two settings, angst and absurdist—but it's energetic enough to catch the attention. If "Swap Meat" had just tread water with its main idea, that energy would probably have let us down eventually. Thankfully, though, this managed to tie in with the main storyline in a way I didn't see coming.
Sam and Dean are checking in with an old friend, on a case that would've fit perfectly well into the very first season of the series. (Although if that had been the case, Donna, who used to babysit for the boys, would've looked significantly more cougar-ish.) There's a poltergeist, and it's carving stuff into people's stomachs, and it has to do with a dead witch. Not a whole lot of interest there, but that's on purpose. If I had to pinpoint Supernatural's best asset, it would be its ability to de-construct its own narrative. Plenty of shows do that, but this is one of the few I can think of that actually managed to re-invent itself after multiple seasons with an unexpected talented for self-mockery. "Swap Meat" is a great example of how that asset, that self-aware acceptance of limitations, can augment an already decent idea.
The story of "Swap Meat" is how a teenager named Gary, along with his friends Trevor and Nora, got involved with witchcraft; how Gary found out that Hell has a bounty on Dean Winchester; and how Gary figured out a way to change bodies with Sam to get an edge on hunting Dean. But underneath that (layers upon layers, my friends), the writers are again giving the Winchesters a chance to re-examine their lives and realize how they're actually pretty happy with the way things are. Because once again, we've got an outsider to come in and appreciate everything the brothers have going for them, the freedom, the adventure, the ability to pick up the occasional dominatrix. It's a light touch that does a decent job of easing all the grimness we've been dealing with.
Plus, I really liked the idea of a handful of idiot teenagers thinking they can collect on a bounty from Hell. I could be nitpicky here and wonder why, if Hell is so intent on tracking Dean down, this is the first we've heard of it. With Lucifer out in the world, you'd think at the very least there would've been some kind of increase in demonic presence topside, and it wouldn't hurt to show Dean having to fight off the occasional incidental monster because of his and Sam's growing popularity. There've been some complaints in the comments about the somewhat low-fi nature of this season's apocalypse, and that limited imagination applies here as well; if de-construct is Supernatural's great strength, an inability to think through the actual non-funny consequences of its own mythology might be the show's big weakness. This isn't really a series that does so well on world-building, despite the increasingly complex mythology. It always feels artificial and somehow limited, which is one of the reasons the self-mocking works so well.
But we accept that. I'm not looking for Lost or Buffy or Angel here. So I'll accept that this is the first we've heard of the demon bounty, and I'll marvel at how entertaining Sam's increasingly desperate attempts to save the idiot teenagers were. This one felt solid to me, even if most of the pieces are worn from usage.
- I have a Star Wars T-shirt. Mine's in Japanese, though, so I think I'm okay.
- Gary, on life as Sam: "Why shouldn't I be happy? I got a gun, I'm getting drunk, and I look like this."
- The possession scene was so very, very satisfying. As was the dual exorcism.
- Because he was not in this episode, and because the CW press site has no promo pics from "Swap Meat," please enjoy the above picture of Castiel.