Let us continue looking at S10’s failings by examining the arc in a bit more detail.
Previously I mentioned that S10 went heavier on Monster of the Week (MotW) episodes than some previous seasons but that’s not enough to render a season entirely forgettable. The MotW episodes from S7 are pretty forgettable (I only remember 2 of them because of cross-genre show guest stars*) but even if you hate the season, you can remember what S7 was about, right? Why? Because its season long arc was memorable. How? Why isn’t the arc of S10 as memorable?
What does that mean? Most of you have probably already guessed that it references the characters advancing toward their goal/aim of the arc. After all, most of S10 can be summed up as:
Dean (or Sam): “Got anything on the MoC?”
the Other One: “Nope”
D (or S): “Let’s go ask that guy!”
That guy: “I got nothing.”
The O1: “What about this guy?”
This guy: “I know nothing.”
Well yes that’s along the right track, but let’s go deeper by comparing S10’s arc to S4’s. Is that fair? NOPE!
S4’s arc is widely considered (rightly) to be one of – if not THE – high points of the series. Yet does it always advance? Objectively speaking, there are episodes (like 4.07 and 4.16) where the boys make no headway on the arc. Yet the arc in S4 is nonetheless one that advances relentlessly. How can this be? Because the advancement isn’t of the plot itself but the audience’s understanding.
This is what a lot of creators can miss, that the audience is the one who needs to advance in a story, not necessarily the characters. By the end of the story, the audience needs to come away with something they did not have at the start of the story. This can be almost anything: greater understanding of a character, a world, causes, the stakes – anything as long as the audience will gain from it. While advancing the characters in a direction is usually a clear and obvious method to advance the audience, the journey can be poorly written enough that even a travel from point A to B ultimately goes nowhere.
So while objectively speaking in S4 the boys fail to advance their goal and Samhain is released, breaking the seal, the audience still advances in our understanding of the angels’ perspective, Sam’s powers, what’s at stake for the season, and a bit more about the wider SPN world.
Looking through S10, what was advanced through its arc episodes? Episode 10.14 is considered one of the best of the season thanks mostly to top notch acting and well designed set pieces. What did we learn? That Cain had a desire to kill? That was obvious back in episode 9.11. That Dean was on “a path”? Again, nothing we didn’t already know.
To make it all worse, at times through the season the story would work to retreat against the audience. For example, episode 10.12. If a de-aging spell could remove the MoC from Dean’s arm, why didn’t they try turning back the clock on Dean 2-5 years at the end of the season instead of killing the poor innocent Dinner Dude? Why not use that spell to buy Dean time while looking for answers? Would the The DarknessTM have been released had this episode come after episode 10.14? It becomes hard for the audience to believe that the MoC is such an intractable problem when the boys find a partial solution by accident in the first half of the season. Yes it would have logically been a bit weird for the MoC to have persisted onto Young!Dean’s form but it would have at least worked to convey that it is a curse he cannot escape, a curse older than time, not to be easily undone – and even give some foreshadowing about how clingy The DarknessTM would be towards him the next season. (Or they could have let Sam be the one turned young.)
What about in episode 10.22? (dealing with a secret controlling society again – because they can’t learn from the failure of Bloodlines) Dean is kidnapped by body splicers. Is there a moment where Dean considers having his arm removed? Why not? If the MoC is as bad of a curse as it is supposed to be, would it not be better for Dean to lose his whole arm than keep suffering from it? Would his arm regrow? If it was attached to one of the Stynes, would that guy then have the MoC? What if Dean cut off his arm and buried it? Never answered, again undercutting any advancement from the audience. And let me be clear, normally I wouldn’t expect the show to explain all this, but when you introduce characters in an episode where swapping arms is a plot point, then these questions are going to naturally start coming up! (Yes some audience members will probably drift towards asking such questions anyway but typically if you’re not going to explore them, then don’t invite those questions and structure things to make them less obvious.)
So in the end, the main arc of S10, went nowhere for the audience by any measure. We learned nothing in arc episodes we didn’t already know before. Even times when the world building might have expanded, it turned out to be repeats of things we’ve seen before and/or nonsensical in the larger show context (seriously, no secret society can logically still be surviving intact in this world after the events of S5 and S7).
Still there is one arc – more of a theme – that sort of worked this season, even if a lot of people hated it. We’ll examine that next time.
*That would Kaylee from Firefly and Spike & Cordelia from Buffy/Angel.