S3 was pretty rough and uneven but still closed out on a strong note with the heroes actually losing and Dean being dragged off to Hell, a move NO ONE thought the show makers would ever do. With that kind of gutsy effort, S4 was ready to be one of the best (if not the best) seasons ever.
There are two episodes I can distinctly remember where I was when I first watched them: Wendigo and Lazarus Rising.
At the time I reviewed it (back in 2008? has it been that long?) I said, “But with tonight, one got a feel that the “real” Supernatural was back.” Why? Looking back with time it becomes even more obvious in its subtle brilliance: the episode Lazarus Rising was structured according to the MotW format (no really, ask me to break it down in detail sometime). BUT the episode then proceeded to turn it on its head. First, by having our protagonists be the principle parties instead of random citizens. Second, by kicking off the case not with a mysterious death, but mysterious LIFE. All this builds to something we often wondered about existing: an angel!
By using a familiar structure but twisting it just enough, the audience finds itself captivated, lulled even into a twist we never considered, but upon reflection made perfect story-logical sense! (in a world of demons, why not angels?)
Then the words, “Because God commanded it. Because we have work for you.” As I point out frequently in my reviews, Supernatural is fascinating to watch because it examines what should be a public service, that doesn’t have the proper support of the public (that is, not an institution). Sam & Dean are functionally cops, but they don’t have a precinct and additional officers to back them up. Yet at the end of this episode? God Himself declares to be on their side! How can one be more “institutionalized” than to have God on your side? And angels! How can the boys ever lose?
But then the season reveals that Lilith’s plan is to release Lucifer by breaking 66 seals – out of a possible 600 (gee I wonder if there were 666 total). That puts the good guys in a bit of a bind, especially as not every seal seems to be known. This creates a great structure for the season as every episode COULD be an arc episode and we wouldn’t always know it; a MotW set up could be an arc episode (as shown in #4.07). It not only puts a driving force to the plot, but gives reason for the boys to sometimes get sidetracked in wacky adventures – they can’t chance on passing up a possible seal breaking. This is why, although there is a (spoiler) list of “must see” episodes of S4, ultimately one can largely watch the entire thing for effect because of this near perfect story structure and one of the reasons this is considered the best season by a wide majority of fans.
Then to continue playing with audience expectations, the writers reveal that what seemed like oddities, inconsistencies, and logical flaws did, in fact, have a reason. With the angels sheer power and abilities available, it became a question of just how Lilith could ever possibly win. Then comes the hammer drop: several of the angels want what she wants (albeit for slightly different reasons). They are losing on purpose, while pretending not to to keep the troops from being demoralized.
Oh right, and God’s not around, they’re doing this of their own accord.
Meaning the audience (and Dean) had been lied to. Though keep in mind (because this will come up later) that this is a case of the characters lying, NOT the story/plot. Again, we have foreshadowing. The season began with a mystery that upon reflection and retrospect was obvious. So again, at the end, we find another revelation that also upon reflection, was obvious all along.
And don’t worry, we’ll be talking about Castiel and Ruby in more depth later.