It’s oddly fitting how S7 ends up being a foreshadowing of the seasons to come.
It’s odd comparing S6 and S7 back to back. S6 had a lot of ‘heart’ and interesting ideas, but failed on structural and storytelling level. Meanwhile S7 executes quite strongly on a structural and storytelling level, while ultimately coming off as lacking in the show’s ‘heart.’
Part of this arises from the creators’ decision to inject “politics” (or rather, modern day issues) into a show that was too big for them. The monsters of the week, demons, and angels never cared about your race, sex, politics, or creed (save for that 1 racist truck episode, and there’s a reason it’s considered one of the show’s worst). Trying to make some point about a political party comes off as petty when discussing primordial, lovecraftian beings seeking to subdue humanity.
But ultimately, that’s not what killed this season and set the show askew.
If you’ve watched Red Letter Media’s in-depth review of Star Wars 1: The Phantom
Plot Menace, you know there is a test in the middle of the review about “characters” (about 7 min into part 1). It’s a basic way to measure how fleshed out and well done characters are in a story.
There’s several different ways to perform this measure of character. One of my favorite for those who don’t get RLM’s test is what I call the “context switch.” I went over it briefly in my discussion about villains in part 6 the idea is, take a character, and place them in a context different from the source material. How much can you imagine and the stories you can create from that new context is a measure of the character. If you can’t think of anything with the character in a new context (or it’s very dull) then that’s the sign of a weak or bad character (possibly a bit part).
There is also a flip side to this, and that is a measurement of how vital to a story a character is. (I think I’ll name it a char-plot check unless one of you comes up with something better.) Remove a character from a plot and replace it with another character (the less in common, the better). Then see how much of the plot would have to be changed for things to still make sense with the new character. This isn’t a measurement of the story’s quality by the way. A very, plot-heavy story which can be told with almost any character involved can still be a very good story. Likewise a character-heavy story which cannot be told with anybody but the main character involved can still be a very bad story. But this exercise does tell you how vital to the plot characters are.
S7 is the first season where Sam and Dean are NOT plot-vital characters.
Think about it. Let’s take Mulder and Scully as our control pair. We’ll remove S&D from S1 and insert M&S into their spots. How much of S1 would have to be changed for things to still make sense? Not a whole lot, many of the episodes would still work with Mulder and Scully. You’d principally have to alter some of the Pilot, then a few of the arc episodes (like Shadow) in a major way (to the point of creating new stories) for M&S to fit. S2? Oh now we have to alter a great deal of the season for M&S to work. S3? It won’t work at all, the fate of one of the principles’ souls is the main arc. And so on all the way up to S6. You cannot make the first six seasons work with the characters of Mulder and Scully without altering the seasons to the point they become entirely new stories. Changing the characters ends up requiring us to change the plot in major, substantial ways.
From S1 to S6, the key to the main story arcs is the character of the brothers, without them there is no story. But S7? There is Sam’s mental breakdown arc but it’s a side plot with no relevance to the main struggle against the Leviathan. Fighting said Leviathan is something any main character (or set of) can do.
This may seem different in Carver’s years, but if you trace the plotlines through, you realize the only point that matters is S8’s arc – which is not character dependent. Put Mulder and Scully in there and you can still have the “closing Gates of Hell” arc with them. Then since they were involved with S8’s arc, they must be the one’s involved in the following seasons. Keep the same pair through whatever S9’s arc was, and then they can carry the Mark of Cain in S10, then deal with Amara in S11. There is nothing from here on out that specifically requires Sam and Dean as characters the way the original seasons did. If anything, as we’ll see changing the characters might make things more understandable.
This is the start of the echo of what Supernatural once was.