This year the boys got caught in the middle of a big battle between good and evil â€“ and for that matter between good and good, and evil and evil! All hell is literally breaking loose, the seals that bind Lucifer in Hell being broken, one by one, and the Winchesters are important â€“ not that anyone will tell them why.
Season 4â€™s arc is by far the best of the show so far, building on plot elements from previous years while bringing in lots of new characters and situations. Misha Collins has been a breakout addition to the cast, bringing immense gravity and weight to proceedings as angel Castiel, his magnificently doleful features doing everything necessary to convey how bleak prospects are for those on the side of the angels. Best of all, he dresses exactly like John Constantine, which points up that this year of Supernatural has been the closest anythingâ€™s come to capturing the Vertigo feel on-screen. On the other side of the fence, Christopher HeyerdahlÂ has terrified as arch-demon Alastair, chewing his words as if thereâ€™s human flesh stuck in his teeth.
For me, Jared Padalecki as Sam is still the weak link. Heâ€™s too whiny and petulant for such a tall guy, and never really convinces when playing angry, vengeful or tough â€“ but the wife doesnâ€™t think so (and like everything originating on The CW, how much girls dig it counts for a lot). On the other hand, Kirk-manquÃ© Jensen Ackles has been superb as Dean all year, as comfortable with giddy insouciance as tortured guilt. His best moment comes when telling Sam about his time â€œawayâ€; itâ€™s the scene that drives the season, Deanâ€™s painful honesty answered only by Samâ€™s deadly evasiveness, and he really plants a flag on it.
Establishing the Winchesters at the heart of the apocalypse has undone some of the damage done by the road house episodes of the previous year, which made them seem like two largely irrelevant hunters among thousands. Unfortunately, brotherly heart-to-hearts are still all-too-frequent. The problem with a small regular cast is that such interactions become repetitive; the upside is that anything can happen to the supporting characters. Itâ€™s a worthwhile trade-off.
Despite the strong story arc, thereâ€™s time for the usual format-breaking, fun episodes (often written by Tick creator Ben Edlund). One sees the boys as amnesiac office drones, and another sends them after a novelist whoâ€™s unwittingly been chronicling their adventures in lusty purple prose.
Supernatural will never be my favourite show â€“ its main concerns (getting out of Dadâ€™s shadow, learning to get on with siblings as you grow up) are too much those of teenagers â€“ but if thereâ€™s no movie to watch on a Friday night, it always fills the gap.
This review originally appeared in the March 2009 issue of Prism.