Ten seasons, in Supernatural still manages a way to keep itself fresh. There have been some weak moments of course—seasons six, seven and nine were DOA—but last night’s premiere was certainly a step up. Picking up six weeks from the end of the last episode, Sam (Jared Padalecki) is trying to find Dean (Jensen Ackles) who has become a demon, and Castiel (Misha Collins) is dying—his stolen angel’s grace is wearing out.

In past seasons, Sam has been possessed and Dean became a torturer in hell, and Castiel was their loyal nuclear weapon who would go off when they needed backup, so the brothers are used to having to deal with the other’s baggage; Castiel was closer to Dean so his team-up with Sam are pretty stilted—despite everything they just don’t know or trust each other entirely. Between Dean’s disappearance and Castiel’s illness, Sam is left to fend for himself which is a strange new idea in the show. Over the years, the writers have been pushed into a corner by fans. They don’t like the brothers being apart for very long and they don’t want either brother to have extraneous ties. By listening to the fans too much, the writers have been forced into oft-repeating concepts or shoehorning thin reasons for the brothers to stay teamed up. It’s also meant that a supporting cast is rarely utilized, romantic interests are here today and gone tomorrow, and whoever’s left is usually killed off (we all miss Bobby, Meg, Ruby and Abbadon). In last night’s “Black,” however, Sam and Dean do not at any time share the screen and it’s a much needed break for us all.

The Mark of Cain has turned Dean into a demon (dubbed, unfortunately, the Deanmon) and has become friends with the Crowley (Mark Sheppard), the King of Hell. It’s established that this isn’t a possession by another entity that’s affecting Dean, but Dean himself embracing the worst sides of his personality. Intentionally or not, this isn’t all that different from regular Dean. Demon Dean enjoys drinking and casual sex, as well as drunkenly belting out karaoke covers to classic rock songs, and doing violence people. Predictably, he even defended a barmaid’s honor. Unfortunately, we’re meant to believe that this is an evil Dean so it really doesn’t help that he’s exactly the same. We do get a bit of a hint at the darkness in “Black” when Dean refuses to help save Sam’s life, and the previews to the next episode show the two brothers confronting one another with Dean knocking the taste out of Sam’s mouth. Again, the problem here is that we know—it being the second episode and all—that Dean won’t kill Sam, which will continue to establish as the bar fight did in this episode that there is still something of the normal Dean still in play, hinting a redemption story. Which we’ve seen on this show before. From both brothers. More than once.

Regardless, this is an interesting switch that the series has played on the characters over the years. In the early seasons, we wanted Dean to ride off into the sunset because he had devoted his life to his father’s crusade while Sam had been able to extricate himself and go to college. The ending in season 5 spoke to this by having Sam trapped essentially in hell while Dean lived a happy life. More recent seasons have developed differently. Dean has—after a lifetime of misery—succumbed to it. He spent most of the last season and a half has an unpleasant and awful person while Sam had been able, at least for a moment, to move in with his life. He briefly had a dog too!

Now that Sam and Dean are on opposite sides—like in season 5—but the roles are reversed and Dean is apparently happy being the bad guy. Since there’s no established “cure” for being a demon one would assume that Sam will have to kill his own brother—reversing the Cain and Abel story which would make a clever end to the series. Of course, this show is also well known for its ability to add a last minute McGuffin to hit the magic reset button, and the Mark of Cain has a built in one established last season. If this is indeed the series’ final season (as rumored) it’s hopeful that current showrunner Jeremy Carver decides to embrace an organic and audacious ending that’s bittersweet if a little dour rather than the schmaltzy Return of the Jedi happy ending that fans are so keen on.

Most effectively, Crowley has won. He’s always had some kind of strange affection for the boys, and now one of them is on his side. As manipulative and evil as Crowley is, seeing him happy is strangely gratifying. Elsewhere, Castiel embarks on a journey to help heaven and as per usual, only makes things worse. It’s great to see the show incorporate a new subplot that (so far) has no Winchesters, and gives this new version of Castiel some spotlight. It’s also interesting to see angels rebelling from heaven. We’ve seen most of them hate both Earth and humanity, but after experiencing it for themselves after The Fall (clever, Jeremy), many enjoy the freedom of living here rather than in heaven that is considered to be totalitarian. In an episode establishing reversals of common themes and ideas, we’re given another. In the descriptions of hell under Crowley it’s considered to be just one long party while heaven is an unending bureaucracy.

Regardless of the extremely comedic and campy hour, some pretty dark stuff was set up here—almost all of which was entertaining. Hopefully it’s indicative of the season to follow (and hopefully it’s the series’ last). While Carver and his writers feel there is plenty of mythology left to cover, as recent seasons have shown us, it’s mythology that works but the standalone episodes that don’t. By separating the brothers and Castiel, the show could arguably go on through this season and maybe an eleventh. It’s still a matter of quality, of course, which Supernatural has struggled to maintain. If this is the last season, it’s certainly the right way to go out—brother vs. brother; whoever wins, both lose.

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