Supernatural: The Complete Fourth Season (DVD)
Reviewed by Debi Moore
Starring Jensen Ackles, Jared Padalecki, Misha Collins, Jim Beaver, Genevieve Cortese
Created by Eric Kripke
Distributed by Warner Home Video
Note: This review assumes the reader has watched this and prior seasons of Supernatural or is at least familiar with the basic framework of the show. If that's not the case, proceed with caution as spoilers abound.
The fourth season of Supernatural contains several themes and storylines that, at first glance, might give hardcore fans pause. It wasn't enough for showrunner Eric Kripke to send Dean to hell at the end of Season 3; he also decided to inject some theology into the show in the form of angels who answer to a certain "higher power" and an approaching apocalypse set into motion by the demon Lilith, who is racing the clock (and our boys) to break the 66 seals that confine Lucifer to the underworld. But you needn't worry; Season 4 tackles every obstacle in true Winchester fashion: Refusing to take itself too seriously but, at the same time, maintaining a deadly serious tone about its subject matter, respecting the characters and the audience, and knowing just what notes to hit. Honestly, what other show would actually name an episode "Jump the Shark"? And deliver an outcome that proves beyond the shadow of a doubt that no, it most assuredly has not jumped the shark? Instead, it has hit its stride and will either close out its run at the top of its game at the end of Season 5 (as Kripke has threatened since the very beginning) or be fully primed to keep chugging along with Dean's cherished Impala for at least another couple of years.
Along with the Biblical stuff, Kripke's always creative writing team throw in a flashback episode ("In the Beginning") with a young Mary and John that reveals crucial information about the true nature of their involvement with the yellow-eyed demon (and boasts a kickin' cameo by Mitch Pileggi as Mary's father); a potentially kitschy black & white encounter with Dracula, the Mummy, and the Wolf-Man ("Monster Movie") that turned out to be a high point in the series as a whole; a talking teddy bear (don't ask; just watch "Wishful Thinking"); and one of those "alternate reality" trips called "It's a Terrible Life" in which Sam and Dean are different people whose paths ultimately cross, resulting in a powerful realization for Dean when he returns to the real world. And with regard to that "Shark" tale mentioned above, I was right there with the skeptics who thought it was a bad ... no, make that a VERY bad ... idea to introduce the possibility of a third Winchester son. We should have known better than to doubt the brain trust behind Supernatural. Kripke and Co. put Sam and Dean -- and those of us watching -- through an emotional wringer that reverberated through the balance of the season. Bravo.
Julie Siege and Nancy Weiner came up with "The Monster at the End of this Book" about a comic book series based on the brothers' escapades. It's a risky proposition for a series to become so self-aware, but everyone involved pulls it off brilliantly. Plus, the looks on Jensen's and Jared's faces when their characters learn about slash fiction are well worth the price of the boxset! As it turns out, "Supernatural" the graphic novels are the work of a prophet, and I won't give any more away other than to say that Rob Benedict as Chuck is a great addition to the cast. His positives balance out the negatives we've had to endure since Genevieve Cortese took over the role of Sam's demon sidekick Ruby, although I will say that by the end of the season she had grown a bit more comfortable in the part and did herself proud in the final episode.
Which brings us to the highlight of Supernatural 2008-2009: Misha Collins as the angel Castiel. His scenes, which occur mostly with Jensen Ackles, are riveting. His technique is a minimalist approach, but he still manages to convey an incredible enormity of purpose. It's impossible not to be moved by him, especially after watching the heartbreaking "The Rapture" in which we learn about Jimmy, the original owner of Castiel's body. The nuances he incorporates to differentiate between Jimmy and Castiel are quite extraordinary. And he's matched pound-for-pound by Ackles, who is really put through his paces this season but rises to the occasion. Padalecki, too, is called upon to show his range, and he demonstrates a substantial growth over previous years as well. But there's no denying Season 4 belongs to Dean Winchester. His 22-episode journey from the bowels of hell to a final showdown with Lilith is the most compelling horror television we've seen since the heyday of Buffy and Angel.
Unfortunately, the glory days of Supernatural's DVD special features are apparently behind it. Seasons 1 and 2 offered a plethora of featurettes that showed the stars behind-the-scenes and included one out of three commentaries each year with J&J. As expected, strike-shortened Season 3 was light on bonus materials, but surely Warner would make up for it with Season 4, right? Wrong. At first glance it seems to be a healthy assortment what with three commentaries, a handful of deleted and unaired scenes, the eagerly anticipated annual gag reel, and a three-section gallery bridging heaven, purgatory, and hell; but let's look deeper.
Disc 1 contains extended scenes from Eps. 1 and 3 and a commentary on "In the Beginning" with Kripke and writer Jeremy Carver in which we learn the three main influences on Supernatural (one of them is Hellblazer; you'll have to listen to learn the other two). Kripke mentions, too, that Mary's back story probably would have been told in Season 3 but was postponed due to the writers' strike, which he considers a blessing in disguise since waiting allowed him to develop it more completely.
Two unaired scenes from the B&W "Monster Movie" can be found on Disc 2 along with one extended scene each from Eps. 6 and 7. Not much different is offered on Disc 3, which has one extended and one unaired scene from Ep. 10, or Disc 4, where there's one extended scene from Ep. 16 in which Dean is offered Alastair by Castiel and Uriel. On Disc 5 there are a total of three extended scenes, two from Ep. 18, "The Monster at the End of this Book", and one from Ep. 20, "The Rapture".
It's on Disc 6 where the bulk of the goods are located. We get the final two chapters - Ep. 21, "When the Levee Breaks", and Ep. 22, "Lucifer Rising", both with commentaries; The Mythologies of Supernatural: From Heaven to Hell documentary; the 10-minute gag reel (which, as usual, is a hoot and a half); and a couple of Easter eggs featuring the Ghos … oh, never mind. Find 'em yourselves! Anyway, the commentary for Ep. 21 is by writer Sera Gamble and director Robert Singer. It starts off rather dry and technical, then picks up the pace with a discussion of Sam's detox process. But it has lulls so it's good to bounce around a bit. The better option is Kripke's monologue during Ep. 22, in which he cackles with glee when describing the episode's nun violence and how his use of it upset some viewers … and a few crew members, too! As a tease for Season 5, Kripke divulges that the demonic conspiracy, while mostly concerned with getting Lucifer out of hell, is also about a couple of other things we'll soon find out about. He turns sober, however, when mentioning the late Kim Manners, who typically directed the season finales, and tells how he purposely shot "Lucifer Rising" in Manners' style as a tribute to his friend and producer.
The packaging is modified from previous years; instead of a cardboard paper covered fold-out design, it's just plain plastic with a single center section with three flip holders for the six discs. Can't say I really prefer one over the other, so that's a wash. The layout of the discs is key-coded such that rather than listing deleted/extended scenes on the menu, they are indicated by scissors on the episode list. Similarly, the commentaries are denoted by microphones.
Now we come to the last and, sadly, least of the extras: The Mythologies of Supernatural: From Heaven to Hell. Paradiso (Heaven) is comprised of segments on "Angels and Archangels", "Angels and Miracles", and "The Ageless Unseen War" totaling about 24 minutes. Purgatorio (Purgatory) is 8-1/2 minutes on "The Bonds of Limbo"; and Inferno (Hell) delves into "The Price of Free Will", "The Sweet Song of Death", and "The Destroyer of Children" for just under a half-hour. The same theologians, paranormal investigators, and various experts appear over and over, along with many of the writers from the show, discussing, among other things, the existence of angels in all the world's major religions, the end of days, obedience versus a fall from grace, and Lilith as a symbol of temptation and terror. It sounds fascinating I know, but the majority of these talking heads are heavy-handed and much too earnest for my taste. However, that's certainly not to say others won't love it, and your mileage may vary.
What won't vary is Supernatural's high level of quality, episode after episode, year after year. I ended my Supernatural: The Complete Third Season review by saying, "While nothing's really 'perfect', this show has fewer flaws than most, and as long as The CW keeps allowing Kripke and crew to keep doing what they've been doing, there's no reason to think Season 4 won't uphold the standard of all that's come before it." I'm pleased to say I was 100% correct, which is why Supernatural gets another 4-1/2 rating from me and a prediction that Season 5 will provide nothing but more of the same.
• The Mythologies of Supernatural: From Heaven to Hell documentary
• Creator commentary on three episodes
• Extended/unaired scenes
• Gag reel
4 1/2 out of 5
3 out of 5
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