[This is a review of the Supernatural season 12 premiere. There will be SPOILERS.]
The return of Mary Winchester promises to add an interesting wrinkle to the ongoing adventures of Sam and Dean, as Supernatural begins season 12. It wasn't too long ago (okay, a few seasons ago) that Mary was revealed to have been a hunter just like the two strapping young lads she didn't live to see grow up, and that development made for some interesting stories, but it also limited the show in terms of the context in which Mary could be utilized within the ongoing narrative of the series. Well, as far as the season 11 finale and now, the season 12 premiere 'Keep Calm and Carry On' are concerned, the days of Mary Winchester being confined to the past are in… well, the past. In other words, hunting the things that go bump in the night is Winchester family business, so might as well get as many Winchesters as possible helping out, right?
But the idea that Mary is back and traveling with Dean is more interesting than simply the notion that the Winchesters are once again a trio. Strength in numbers can also make for some interesting pairings, as the show is now free to cycle Sam, Dean, Castiel, Crowley, and Mary around to its hearts' content, and the variable personalities on display will likely make for some fascinating character moments. Really, though, at the heart of Mary's return, is the idea that the woman they call mom is ostensibly a stranger to her sons. It's not like Supernatural worked some contractual magic and was able to lure Jeffrey Dean Morgan back for a brief stint as Papa Winchester. While that would have been the epitome of fan service – especially considering the show Morgan is soon to be menacing on a weekly basis – the idea of returning a key part of the Winchester family, whose time in the full-fledged family was extremely limited, to say the least, is far more fecund ground on which to plant the latest season.
And that's where things kick off in season 12, with Sam being held by the Men of Letters and Dean stuck dealing with a revelation even he didn't think was possible, despite everything he's seen. And after 11 full seasons, Dean has indeed seen a lot. And yet, as far-fetched (even for this show) as the idea initially sounds, and the manner in which Mary's return feels as though it came completely out of left field, it works. There is a genuine curiosity in seeing Sam and Dean's mother interacting with her children, while also being in peak monster-hunting form. There is an entirely new relationship among the three of them to be explored, one that comes with all the emotional weight of a returned loved one with the added burden of it being someone the brothers didn't really get a chance to know – though Dean obviously had more of a relationship with Mary than his brother.
In a sense, then, that makes this season's promise of "getting back to basics" something that not only sounds feasible, but is also upheld in the first hour alone. As trite as it is for most shows or movies to say, Supernatural really is all about family, and to bring in a new player, who already had her entire backstory established several times over, simply makes Mary's re-introduction feel that much more intriguing.
And then the show goes and has Mary share a wry moment with the Impala that suggests Dean's beloved car (and probably its backseat) has more of a history than he was aware. The show pretty much leaves it at that, letting both Samantha Smith and Jensen Ackles guide the viewer through facial expression alone. It's a nice moment that also demonstrates how Supernatural can wring as much entertainment out of smaller, subtler moments as it does bombastic ones.
As such, 'Keep Calm and Carry On' doesn't go for too many big moments. The episode feels contained in many ways, almost restrained. Picking up right where season 11 left off, this makes sense. In a narrative sense, Supernatural is still reeling from the conclusion of the previous season, and so the premiere needs to let things cool off a bit. There is still a great deal happening in the hour, what with Sam being tortured and Crowley protecting his seat in Hell by embarking on a mad search for Lucifer, but by and large the hour plays more to smaller moments that help underline the real emotional impact of Mary's return.
That helps give the premiere, and hopefully the season as a whole, an emotional through line that enhances the conflict between the Winchesters and British Men of Letters. While the series has explored the group in previous seasons, it has felt as though the MoL were introduced as a way of putting some narrative spackle on a few plot holes and to facilitate the need for Sam and Dean to have a permanent HQ. Bringing in another faction that obviously has a problem with the Winchester way of doing things makes for a familiar sort of conflict that is nevertheless fun to watch.
There is an opportunity here for Supernatural to use this conflict between the British Men of Letters and the series' protagonists as a way to demonstrate something more than the Winchester's superiority. As fun as it is to see Sam and Dean pull out a win against all odds – or, in this case, a last minute save by Mary – the suggestion that there's a different way of doing things, of working to prevent monsters from hurting people before it happens instead of responding after the fact gives the viewer more to chew on than a basic binary conflict of divergent ideals. There is an ethical concern to the way the British Men of Letters do things that certainly smacks of the xenophobia demonstrated by political situations in both the U.K. and the U.S.
While it's hard to imagine that Supernatural would get too political with its storyline, the implication does make for a more intriguing sort of conflict that will hopefully continue to play out as the season progresses. In all, 'Keep Calm and Carry On' makes for a strong start to season 12 that relies more on character than plot to propel the story down its well-known road.
Supernatural continues next Thursday with 'Mamma Mia' @9pm on The CW.