In the immortal words of a certain “Buffy” musical episode: “I think this line’s mostly filler.”
This season of “Supernatural” has been better than some at constructing engaging standalone episodes with only minor threads of mythology woven in, but “Man’s Best Friend With Benefits” fell a little short of the mark.
The old adage of never working with animals or children tends to manifest itself in episodes involving dogs in a major way — Season 6′s “All Dogs Go To Heaven” felt similarly lackluster — and not just because of inappropriate relationships between humans and their four-legged friends.
Obviously, the blame doesn’t lie with the animals, but both episodes felt half-baked in other ways — and I coincidentally tend to feel the same about any story involving witches; “Malleus Maleficarum,” “Criss Angel Is a Douchebag,” “The Curious Case of Dean Winchester” and “Shut Up, Dr. Phil” are among my least favorite episodes of the show in terms of rewatchability. (I guess I’m with Dean on that front: I hate witches.)
James and Portia were perfectly likable and reasonably interesting characters, both possessing enough personality to make them distinctive over the episode’s 42 minutes. But since it’s an unwritten rule of the show that Sam and Dean are generally no match for one witch’s powers (let alone two), episodes that involve that brand of “monster” often leave the brothers sidelined when it comes to the action. As demonstrated in both “Benefits” and “Dr. Phil,” the stakes are pretty low for the audience when we’re watching two witches fight each other: why should we care if James or Spencer kill each other, since it doesn’t directly impact us or Sam and Dean in any way?
Sadly, we didn’t know enough about James to have an emotional investment in his fate — much like Dean in the episode, I suspect most of us would’ve been ambivalent about whether he got ganked or not — but maybe now that we’ve had an episode to get to know him and his overly-familiar familiar, if they show up somewhere down the road, we’ll be more attached to them. (I was similarly impressed with Dean’s restraint when it came to making bestiality jokes, though.)
A degree of narrative laziness also detracted from the hour’s impact: Are we really supposed to believe, with all the lore Dean knows and all the hunting experience he has, that he wouldn’t know what a witch’s familiar is? Any passing familiarity (no pun intended) with pop culture can give you that info. It would’ve been just as easy for Portia to say “I’m his familiar,” and Dean to respond, “like a witch’s sidekick?” and still explain it for clueless members of the audience, as it was to make him look ignorant, and that kind of sloppiness is kind of unforgivable for a show in its eighth season, especially a mere week after Sam told Dean that he was the world’s best hunter.
Still, when “Benefits” wasn’t playing Dean for comic relief, the episode did offer a couple of meaningful conversations between the brothers. Dean continued offering Sam a way out of God’s trials (although we all know that Sam would be too stubborn to take the exit strategy even if he wanted it) and Sam continued insisting that he was fine with whatever the trials threw at him next.
It didn’t take long for Sam’s insecurities to make an appearance, and given all of Sam’s close calls and questionable decisions with Azazel, Lilith and Lucifer, it’s obvious that both brothers have their internal doubts about whether Sam will actually be able to “pull this one off.” But despite the episode’s shortcomings, Sam’s observation that “it’s not that you don’t trust me, it’s that you can only trust you,” was a pretty insightful glimpse into Dean’s thought process (and one that he didn’t deny). As Dean declared in “Southern Comfort,” he feels like everyone in his life has let him down before, so it’s unsurprising that he believes if he wants something done right, he has to do it himself (even if that assessment might not be entirely fair, considering the amount of times Sam and Castiel have come through for him in the past). And even better, after realizing how much they’ve both been through, Dean once again came to conclusion that the Winchesters are far stronger when they’re on the same page and have each other’s backs, promising to support his brother through the trials. Too bad it looks like Sam may start hiding just how much of a physical toll the quest is taking on him…
I was glad to see that the subtly recurring theme of “monsters” who are being controlled by outside forces continued in this episode; through the donor organs giving their recipients murderous impulses in “Heartache,” Kate the reluctant werewolf in “Bitten,” the possessed penny in “SoCo,” the unwitting Fred in “Hunteri Heroici,” Gilda the fairy in “LARP” and the subservient Golem in “Hitler,” control and free will are undeniably a central narrative focus for the season, but I’m glad that the writers have resisted the urge to drop anvils about it by having Sam or Dean comment on that fact (at least not so far).
As Dean pointed out this week, Benny didn’t choose to become a vampire or a slave to his bloodlust, just as the audience knows Castiel didn’t choose to become Naomi’s pawn, yet the angel is now being used in ways he doesn’t understand and can’t control, just as James was this week. It will be interesting to see how the writers tie the quest for the tablets into that larger philosophical debate and how it relates to both Benny and Castiel’s arcs for the latter half of the season, but it’s nice to see that emotional throughline continuing to stretch across the year.
While I doubt I’ll be watching “Benefits” again any time soon, the episode was marginally redeemed by those two well-placed brotherly conversations, and though the storyline wasn’t particularly gripping, James and Portia were interesting enough that I wouldn’t mind seeing them reappear somewhere down the line. What did you think of “Man’s Best Friend with Benefits”?