All questions of whether season 6 should have happened can be put to rest. If we don’t get any other episodes as good as this one, its existence has still be justified. ‘Weekend at Bobby’s’, the impressive directorial debut of Jensen Ackles, isn’t just a great ep, it’s also an integral one; giving us a closer look at one of the series best characters, Bobby Singer. It steps back from the current story-thread just a little bit, while simultaneously bolstering that idea of a world where monsters are falling into erratic patterns. Ackles and the ep’s writers, Andrew Dabb and Daniel Loflin, take on a difficult task; finding a way to wrap-up an dangling season 5 plot thread while exploring in greater detail the private life of a long-running character. It has the recipe for disaster, the kind of goofy lark that lends itself well to a series star/regular trying to scratch that fledgling directing bug.
As Bobby himself might say, ‘Fledgling and lark, my ass!’
Starting with the outdated title riff, I expected something a lot less substantial and compelling than what we got. Although I confess to paying closer attention to the direction and acting here than usual, it doesn’t seem like much of a stretch to call this one of the best directed eps in some time. And considering some of the quality stuff we got last season—Two minutes past midnight and Swan Song comes to mind—that’s not easily mustered hyperbole.
There’s such an ease and grace to the flow of the episode, and although it’s combining half a dozen running stories, it intimately grasps the underlying heart of the show. There has always been something distinctly folksy American (at least to my eyes) about Supernatural and it’s tale of vagabond brothers and rustic working-class monster hunters scouring the highways of the U.S. looking to fight evil. Sure, it absorbs and confiscates the mythological nightmares of hundreds of disparate cultures, but it puts them in orbit of a community that feels unique to the America of literature and tradition, not the America of fast-food and talk-shows (though the show lampoons that side). Jensen Ackles has been paying attention in his five plus years on the set, and encapsulates that thematic richness in a single hour-long.
The story is extraordinarily simple. One year ago, in the midst of the battle with Lucifer, Bobby sold his soul to the Crossroad’s demon Crowley for game-changing information. As part of the deal, their sometime-ally Crowley promised to return the soul when the battle was over. The opening coda of Weekend shows Bobby invoking Crowley and learning the expected truth; the tricky demon had included a clause that only secured ‘best efforts’ in returning the soul, not promise of an actual relinquishing. So, Bobby has ten years and he’s called to Hell as Crowley’s property. The episode that follows has to find a way to get him out of the deal (because another season of ‘save the character from hell’ drama would be tedious) and do it in such a way it doesn’t feel perfunctory. Along the way, we get to see how Bobby lives his life while the Winchesters are on the road, a return visit from grizzled hunter Rufus, and the revelation of Crowley’s origins before he was king of the crossroads.
But instead of ticking of check boxes, Weekend becomes something of a minor gem in the series resume. I usually find it a dangerous road when a show decides to take a secondary character and then thrust them front and center, even for a single episode. The reason this usually backfires is that many side characters exist to be just that; they serve a narrative or atmospheric purpose that doesn’t require them to be anything more interesting. Bobby Singer started serving a very specific purpose in Season 2; he was the surrogate father of the Winchesters, the show’s myth ‘explainer’ and deus ex machina (‘Bobby just called and gave us the location/weapon/cure’) all rolled into one. He had a link to John, and a love of the boys, and a dearth of information on the monsters and creatures roaming the land. Think Rupert Giles by way of John Deere.
Due to the subtle and endearing work of Jim Beaver, Bobby became more than that almost immediately. He was gruff and yet lovable, stoic with the hints of a hidden prankster, and he exuded a southern-fried charm that just infected the whole show. Bit by bit, Beaver took a role that was always the sidekick or mentor, and made it matter. The writers never took him for granted either, and let us get to know him over the last four seasons. Last year we got Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid that shifted the focus from the Winchesters to Bobby. But what has been done in Weekend is different. This isn’t a mere shift in focus, but a shift in perspective. This episode lets us see and feel what Bobby sees and feels everyday of his life. It makes the mundane work he does important, and by extension makes him an even stronger part of the series. It looks easy as you watch it, but make no mistake, this was carefully planned.
The finest moment of the show occurs right after the opening, with Dean and Bobby calling for help identifying a strange claw they found in a dead body. Bobby, par for the course, says he’ll see what he can do. Usually, that’s all we see, and then the later delivery of the information. Instead, we watch him gather his keys, put down his coffee and start the search. He drives down to the library, it’s closed so he breaks in. The truck won’t start, so he takes the book and makes the long walk back to town. The entire time this is happening, Kenny Rogers’ ‘The Gambler’ is playing on the soundtrack. It’s a perfect choice, and embodies the character of Bobby in a way that is both humorous and poignant. He flips through books until dawn, calls Dean and reports the beast is a ‘Lamia’. He gets a quick ‘Great, thanks Bobby’ before the phone goes silent. The look on his face and the circles under his eyes say it all.
That moment sets the tone, and each following scene is centered on Bobby. Beaver gives it his all, but I think credit should also go to Ackles who really seems to pull a more relaxed and jovial performance from both Beaver and Steven Johnson as Rufus. It’s great fun to see these two old wily hunters working together, even just briefly, and instead of being the grim portents of bad news or valuable intel, they get to be the playful jokesters. There’s even time for a potential love interest for Bobby, who brings him peach cobbler and suggests they watch ‘Drag Me To Hell’ together. He grumbles ‘I’m trying to avoid it’ and so she suggests he come over and fix the wood-chipper. Later, when he has to throw an Asian banshee into it, he realizes it works just fine. The culmination of that scene is just about one of the most perfect moments on the show, and the phrase ‘story of my life’ has never been delivered with more honest sincerity.
Even that Drag Me To Hell joke has been worked in with effort. Raimi’s film features the Lamia (the same monster Sam and Dean are off fighting) and just as it’s never fully glimpsed in the movie, it’s never seen in the episode either. There’s a subtle binding of the two concepts together, and fidelity to something that should be a throw-away. The same goes for the carefully placed glimpses of the Winchesters, with the usual fast-food accoutrements or bickering rivalry cannily arranged to make their moments count.
As a story, this is a good fun time and it actually sets the table of the upcoming season better than the three eps before it. We finally know what it feels like to have all these monsters breaking their feeding habits, we get a more intimate look at how Sam’s icy demeanor is affecting the brothers relationship, and we understand whats been going on in Hell since Lucy left. Heaven may be in a civil-war, but Crowley is struggling, like the beleaguered CEO of a company, to make some basic organizational changes in the business practices of Hell. Tormenting Bobby seems like the way he lets off steam after a long day at the office. For his part, Crowley is right on target, and the truncated story of his son and his originations as an ancient Scotsman (his last name is McCleod!) has impact despite its brevity. The way Bobby traps him is satisfying and the interplay between Beaver and Mark Sheppard makes the moment stand out. I’m seriously hoping we haven’t seen the last of Crowley because he’s by far the most interesting demon the show has ever had.
I’ve run on too long already, but let me wrap up with a few final insights. The demons have been seen as insurmountable menaces for a long time. Just as we are starting to see the more personable side of the monsters, this ep emphasizes the demystified and routine nature of the demons. Now, its revealed they can be dispensed permanently by the burning of their bones, just like restless spirits. This may not be true of the once-angels like Lucifer, but it applies to ex-humans like Crowley. Bobby calls them ‘ghosts with an ego’. It strips them of their vaunted status in the shows mythology, but it doesn’t just ignore them. This is a good sign of Season 6 slowly disentangling itself from season 5 to stand on its own feet.
Finally, there’s a greater context to this show, and to the significance of Ackles as a headliner. During that musical montage with Rogers (a nice expansion of the 70’s soundtrack without using classic rock) the opening credits are coming up on the screen. This is not a mistake, and we see ‘Guest starring: Jim Beaver’ appear. While watching the images onscreen, we realize how limited that ‘credit’ is and how important Bobby really is, both to the boys and to the show at large. What Ackles has done is cast the spotlight on Bobby and by extension Beaver, and this episode is a love letter to the hard and effective work that Jim does every week. It’s heartfelt, it’s terrifically directed, and it’s just a good time to watch. When you see Bobby sit down in that chair, with that hard-won cobbler and ice-cream, it’s hard not to think ‘Guest star, my ass’!
You did good Jensen. I hope you get back in the director’s chair soon!
Next episode Stephanie Meyers and her sparkly vamps get a well-deserved roasting in ‘Life Free or Twi-Hard’.