It's tough to judge "The Devil You Know" as a standalone, since it so obviously isn't one. We're down to the wire now, only one episode left after this before the finale, and that means we don't have time for adventures that aren't directly related to the main plot. Gabriel gave Sam and Dean their marching orders last week: find the rings of the Four Horsemen, and lock Lucifer back in his cage. The Winchesters already have War and Famine's accessories. All that's left is Death and Pestilence. "Devil" is about trying to track down the final pieces. It brings in a couple of old friends—one of them really, really old—and has some good scenes. That the cohesion isn't entirely there isn't really a criticism. Sometimes, you just have to embrace serialization, burn the bridge, and hit the gas. (Is that a mixed metaphor? I prefer to think of it as clumping.)
As for that old, old friend, a word about retroactive continuity: it's tricky business. If you're a comic fan, I'm sure you already know this, but for all of you who aren't comic book fans, well, did you see Spider-man 3? Remember the sub-plot about—yes, there was the dance scene in the jazz club, I actually thought it was brilliant, but no, that isn't what I'm talking about right now. What I'm talking about is the decision to give Sandman a more personal connection to Peter Parker by making Sandman responsible for Uncle Ben's death. Now, this didn't directly contradict information we received in the first movie: while we knew at least one guy was involved, we didn't actually see him pull the trigger, so theoretically, he could've had a partner. The problem is, it's a stretch, coincidence-wise, for this new villain to arrive on the scene, get super freaky sand powers, and be the guy who actually shot poor Cliff Robertson on the sidewalk. The Spider-man franchise was already on thin ice with its insistence that every bad guy have some personal relationship with Spidey before going nova. To try and milk more pathos out of the series' great tragedy was unnecessary and distracting.
The problem is, the more you rewrite your past, the more obvious it is to the audience that the past can be rewritten. This isn't a Big Brother situation, nobody's getting political power by pretending the weather report is always spot on, because we're dealing with fiction. Now, we all know that Sam and Dean are made up (okay, most of us do), and that everything we see on the show was written out and filmed and there were special effects and guest stars and so forth. While we're watching an episode, though, every effort is made to maintain the illusion that there's a kind of reality to all this. It's an illusion sustained by a willing agreement between us and the people who make the series. We want to be entertained, so we'll accept what we see. But that only goes so far. Too much crappy dialog or boring stories, and the illusion will crack and slip. And too much editing of established continuity makes it all the more difficult to pretend, because we need some sort of solid foundation to hold on to, or else there's no point to the game.
All of which is a very roundabout way of saying I was ambivalent towards the revelation that Brady, the Horsemen's consigliere, was responsible for the death of Sam's fiancee waaaay back in the very first episode of the show. We spent two seasons tracking down Azazel, the yellow-eyed demon who order the deaths of the fiancee and Sam and Dean's mom. It was a lot of ugliness, but we got through that. To find out now there was another party involved smacks of cheap dramatics, done to create suspense in what is largely a run-and-fetch episode. (We don't even see the brothers dealing with any Horsemen this week.) Still, it gave Sam something to do, and the final showdown between the two was surprisingly intense. There was something brutal about it: no mercy, just trapping the thing in an alley and taking it down.
The other old friend I welcomed with no ambivalence whatsoever: Crowley, smooth demon sonofabitch, last seen providing Sam and Dean with the Colt which did absolutely nothing against Lucifer. He's in a jam because his aiding the Winchesters has not gone unnoticed. Now he has to see Lucifer put away, or else he'll spend the rest of eternity doing something terribly unpleasant. Mark Sheppard is tremendous fun, and his helpful-but-not-too-helpful assistance gave the episode a welcome element of humor. It also led to a terrific ending, one that managed to exploit the demon concept in a new way, and also play-off Crowley's untrustworthiness. He appears to Bobby, says he can find Death (the Winchesters are already on their way to nab Pestilence, after Brady spills the address), but there's a slight catch: Bobby needs to sell Crowley his soul for the address.
So, yeah, this was just a collection of scenes to get everyone in the proper place, but it was a very good collection, and I haven't even mentioned everything. Like the hellhound attack. Or Crowley taking Brady down without hesitation. If the next two episodes can build off this, we're looking at an exciting season finale.
- Sam's fiancee was boring as hell. Heh.
- There was some background noise about Brady running a company with a vaccine to stop Pestilence's flu (a vaccine that did horrible things to anyone who got a hit), but while I appreciate the effort, it wasn't very compelling.
- "Oh, well good for you."