Taken on its own merits, this is a damn good episode. Unfortunately, this is not the kind of episode that can stand on its own, because it is part of the culmination of not only the fifth season but the entire series. Because the fifth season has been the least consistent overall, the events of this episode just don't seem entirely earned.
To a certain extent, this is not the fault of the production staff. During the production of the first half of the season, the writers were under the impression that the show was going to end as intended. So they spent a lot more time than usual on comedic episodes, under the impression they would never have another opportunity. I think it's obvious that a number of those episodes, conceptually, could have been saved for the sixth season.
More than that, there was the ever-present problem of budget. The first four seasons were able to make things work well within the budget because the scope of the story was requisitely more âintimateâ. This season, however, needed to take the intensity of those earlier seasons and take them up a notch, to sell the notion of the apocalypse. Instead, this season feels like it's more confined and isolated than ever.
The writers have tried to adjust by continuing with their character-based approach to the story, and as always, that has been the strongest aspect of the season. At least, that has been true for the character of Dean; Sam has been getting a remarkably lack of character exploration this season. (Then again, one might argue that what is coming will give the writers plenty of reason to focus on Sam in the sixth season denouement.)
But these fundamental challenges don't explain why events that could and should have been covered in at least two separate episodes, if not three, had to be compressed into this hour. The first third of the episode was a ridiculously short confrontation with Pestilence that missed the mark with logic.
After all, their strategy with Pestilence was essentially a frontal assault, despite seeing dead bodies with horrible sores and filth coming out of every orifice. Castiel's timely appearance seemed like quite the copout, even compared to Sam and Dean's relatively mild symptoms when compared to the other victims. And I'm still not sure how they managed to recover so quickly from their afflictions.
The writers effectively skipped over the fallout of Bobby's decision to sell his soul, something that would (and should) have had been explored in more depth. The comedic touches were nice, but there was a lot left unsaid. At the very least, I was hoping Bobby's restoration would leave him a little more conflicted. Of all people, Bobby and the Winchesters know how a deal with a demon can go wrong.
With only the final third of the episode devoted to a showdown with Death, I was prepared for disappointment. The elimination of the Croatoan virus was so easy that I had little or no hope. But who could have guessed that the most intense moment of the season would be a simple conversation between two characters?
I suppose that is hardly surprising when âSupernaturalâ has been, at the core, a character study. Yet Death, far from being a familiar face, was creepy beyond description. Dean's terror at the situation was palpable, and I never anticipated that Death would give Dean the ring without some sort of struggle. Death may overstate his power and reach a bit, but it's clear that he's well out of Dean's league. Dean's going to have to keep to his promise, which doesn't bode well for Sam.
It was the face-to-face with Death that allowed the episode to work. Without that, this would have been one of the most disappointing episodes of the season. And for that reason, I am wary of the season finale.