If you're going to watch ten seasons of any television series, you'd better be okay with spending a sizable chunk of your life in that world. There are presumably people out there with a firmer grasp on the geography of Springfield than of their own neighborhoods, and even more whose memories of their childhood homes have been saved over by memories of the NCIS headquarters. That's because, regardless of the premise or plot of any long-running series, they all become essentially hangout shows in the end, our most significant go-to destinations when it's time to escape. Now in its tenth season (the tin anniversary!), the CW's longest-running hunk procedural Supernatural has fully embraced this reality with its newest season opener, "Black," which was possibly the least stressful, least apocalyptic series premiere in its history. In fact, "Black" was downright pleasant and comforting in a way that only a brand this trusted could get away with. Praising a high-octane monster-murderin' procedural for its chillness might seem like a dig, but I mean it as a compliment: "Black" was one fun hang.
By now it's an annual tradition for one or more of the Winchester brothers to get murdered, sacrificed, possessed, or swept to Hell at the end of every season, so "Black" was Supernatural's acknowledgment that maybe Dean getting turned into a demon in last spring's finale wasn't all that interesting as a premise. So, instead of some kind of Demon Dean massacre or an unpleasant brother-versus-brother showdown, subversion abounded as we were instead presented with Demon Dean actually seeming happier and more engaged with the world than before. In fact, his demon-osity didn't seem quite as severe as we'd been led to believe, as Crowley explained that Demon Dean wasn't simply a meatsuit occupied by a stranger, he was actually Dean, just with the occasional case of black-eyeball. Apparently the Mark of Cain was keeping Dean's soul intact and he need only murder other demons to keep from going full-evil. Or something? Doesn't matter. It just appears that Supernatural has backed away from demon unpleasantness as fast as possible and instead treated us to TWO karaoke sequences, as well as two scenes of male characters casually flashing their junk. Welcome back, show.
Most of "Black" was set in and around a South Dakota roadhouse-slash-karaoke bar where Dean and Crowley had been enjoying a sort of male hell-creature version of Thelma & Louise. Drinking, one-night stands, unanimously booed renditions of "I'm Too Sexy," and hiding from Sam were now a way of life for Dean, and it was the episode's running joke that Dean was clearly better off. But in an undeniably effective runner, Crowley too was enjoying the burgeoning friendship between them. Though he has designs on enlisting Dean to help him run a revamped Hell, Crowley made it clear that he also, you know, enjoys Dean's company. The slow humanization of Crowley has always been a tricky but endlessly entertaining subplot all these years, and I was relieved Supernatural didn't backslide him into villainy quite yet. After all, in converting Dean to a demon, Crowley DID save his life. It's about time Crowley got the familial affection he's been so clearly wanting.
That "Black" allowed for these quiet, interpersonal moments rather than pummel us with exposition and setup for yet another threatened apocalypse spoke to just how confident Supernatural is in the entertainment value of its characters' inner lives. Sam's never been a — how do we say this politely — super-dynamic guy, personality-wise, but there's something so tragic about seeing him with his arm in a sling, desperately poring through newspapers, looking for any sign that his brother might be out there. Yes, he angrily mutilated a demon (a lady, because this IS Supernatural), but this Sam seemed ultimately more hurt and vulnerable than he has in seasons past, when he was either soulless or possessed by an angel. Crowley's newfound friendship with Dean is Sam's loss; Sam's now missing his brother in both senses of the word, and despite Dean's wishes to be left alone, Sam's not having it.
It didn't take long for Sam to track Dean using security-camera footage and cell-phone triangulation, but unfortunately, a mysterious man was also looking for Dean and abducted Sam as bait. It's not clear who this guy is, but we do know he uses a bench press while his wife and child eat breakfast, and also, creepiest of all, he owns a fax machine. Later, when a tied-up Sam asked him who he was, he heavily implied that he was a former hunter who's had a longstanding grudge against Dean. Seems about right! Dean has always left a wake of pissed-off people (and corpses) wherever he'd been. Unfortunately for Sam, the episode ended with Dean informing the man over the phone that he would not be rescuing Sam and that Sam was just going to have to deal with his incarceration on his own. But come on, Supernatural. Do you expect us to believe a Winchester will not suddenly burst in the room at the last second to save the other Winchester? Get real.
Oh, and guess what! Castiel was also in this episode, and he definitely flashed his junk at a lady, and also he is dying of grace-starvation. Despite much of the angel stuff getting sorted out in last season's finale, Hannah arrived and informed us that Heaven was still getting its bureaucracy set up and she needed Castiel's help to track down a pair of angels who'd refused to return. Though this plotline wasn't terribly eventful, it did allow for a really well-written scene in which a rogue angel pled his case to Castiel and Hannah about the benefits of earthly experience. Hannah was a skeptical jerk about it, but Castiel was obviously sympathetic. Alas, it all ended with an angel knife-fight, and Castiel had to put the guy down. Still, though, it's clear Castiel had thrown in his lot with us earthlings. Unfortunately, he'd need to start murdering angels in order to re-up his grace levels, which got me suddenly fantasizing about angel-vampirism. Now, THAT is a plotline I'd like to see on Supernatural.
Ultimately, "Black" worked so well due to its restraint. It didn't attempt to set up any huge mythologies, and it didn't present yet another Undead Winchester rehash most of the previous season openers have. Instead it let the characters speak for themselves in measured terms, gave them room to breathe, and, you know, hang out. I'm sure we'll get to the monsters of the week and and road-tripping and outlandishly complicated end-times threat in no time, but for now, it was just nice to see these guys again. Ten years later, they're still one of the most reliable escapes we've got.
[Note: We won't be covering Supernatural week-to-week this season, but we'll check in intermittently about its more significant episodes.]