Credit: Diyah Pera /The CW
Devil's Bargain

Every Supernatural fan can list their favorite — and least favorite — seasons. After 11 years of “saving people, hunting things,” there are bound to be some years that work better than others.

When a show is on the air for such a long period of time, there’s a balance each season has to strike: How does it stick to what works while also keeping things exciting? For Supernatural, sticking with what works isn’t always as simple as it sounds. Sure, Sam and Dean Winchester have to hunt the supernatural. That’s the very basis of this show. But if we’re looking at the thing that makes one season better than another, we’re looking at the season’s overall arc. Are Sam and Dean hunting the yellow-eyed demon? Are they trying to close the gates of Hell?

For many fans, seasons 4 and 5 are considered two of the best, and those are the two seasons that, when combined, tell the overarching story of the Winchesters trying to stop the apocalypse. That story was not only well paced, but it introduced a number of new dynamic characters, from Castiel to Lucifer.

On the other side of that is something like season 7, which focused solely on the brothers defeating the Leviathans, a much less interesting and dynamic villain. When season 7 presented the Leviathans as the central villain, there wasn’t much else the season could do to save itself. If the greater method of storytelling isn’t compelling, the season isn’t going to work as well. That’s not to say all of season 7 was bad, but it is the reason why it’s not considered one of the best.

So when it came time to craft season 11, the thing the season did well was, first and foremost, giving itself a solid foundation on which to build. That foundation was the story of Amara, God’s sister, who returned to Earth looking for answers from her brother. And that brings us to another thing this show does so well: While using religion sounds scary, Supernatural has found a balance of putting its own twists on Biblical stories – for example, giving God a sister — that not only creates interesting drama but that often times provides humor.

And if we’re talking about what “works” for this show, we can go the very core of its being: Sibling dynamics. This is, after all, the story of two brothers who will do literally anything to save each other. Fans have spent 11 years watching Sam and Dean fight, make up, and no matter what, put each other first. So in deciding to give God a sister, the show not only promised the reveal of God — something six years in the making — but it also promised another complex sibling dynamic. Heck, it promised the most complicated sibling dynamic in all of eternity.

Between season 11’s choice of villain, Biblical elements, and sibling intrigue, it checked all the boxes of what we already know works for Supernatural. So then it moved to the question of what would make season 11 feel fresh and exciting. And if the overarching story is the key to doing what works, the individual episodes are the key to making things feel new.

Another signature of the show has always been experimental episodes, often filled with meta humor. And this season, Supernatural took risks, both big and small, to keep fans on their toes. There was “Baby,” the episode told entirely from the perspective of the Impala, which never should’ve worked but ended up being one of the series’ strongest hours to date. “Baby” was certainly the biggest risk the show took this season, but it wasn’t the only one.

There was “Just My Imagination,” the episode that featured the murder of a number of imaginary friends. If it sounds ridiculous, it’s supposed to. That’s what makes it funny. And at this point, the Supernatural writers are so used to the ridiculous, they know how to make it work for them. There’s never an episode, no matter how extreme, that doesn’t feel like a Supernatural episode.

There are, however, episodes that feel like a new kind of Supernatural episode, and that’s what “Red Meat” was this year. “Red Meat” saw Sam and Dean fighting a pack of werewolves — not uncommon for them — but the thing that was uncommon: Sam is shot within the first five minutes of the episode. And the rest of the episode is spent watching Dean try to save the lives of a couple they’ve met while also making sure his brother’s okay. It was one of the series’ slowest and tensest hours. And it worked.

All of these things happened in season 11. And they all happened while the show still managed to tell the greater story of Amara and God. For any season of Supernatural, you look at two things to determine how successful it was: It’s 23-episode story, and the 23 one-episode stories it tells all year long. And season 11 not only told a compelling 23-episode story, but it gave fans consistently exciting one-episode stories, from the classic case of the week to something like “Baby.” And that’s why season 11 is the best season this show has had since season 5.

Sure, the general premise of this show might be “saving people, hunting things,” but that has given the writers freedom to create stories worth watching even 11 years later.

Supernatural‘s season 11 finale airs Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET on The CW.

Episode Recaps

Devil's Bargain

Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki star as the Winchester brothers, hellbent on battling the paranormal forces of evil.

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