Supernatural returns next week, but how did the mid-season finale “LOTUS” compare to the cliffhangers of the past?

It’s been six long weeks since Supernatural’s rather unsubtle POTUS-themed season 12 mid-season finale. This time next week we’ll be counting down the minutes until the show returns — that’s 8 p.m. EST, rather than its previous 9 p.m. slot, remember — and when it picks back up we’ll find Sam and Dean in some of their biggest trouble yet, imprisoned in an off-the-grid government facility and charged with the attempted murder of the President of the United States. And you thought that time they became America’s Most Wanted for a slew of public mass shootings was bad enough. Nope. The American government thinks they’re psychopathic President-killing cult members. This bodes well.

But how did we even get here? Over the course of the season, an errant Lucifer, acting out like a teen with daddy issues, has been struggling to find a vessel that garnered him the love and respect he believes he’s owed. For a while, he possessed rockstar Vince Vincente (guest star Rick Springfield), but when Vince expired, he moved onwards and upwards, literally burning through CEOs and archbishops until he reached the very top — the President. “LOTUS” spends a lot — like a LOT — of its screen time showing Lucifer’s point of view while possessing fictional president Jefferson Rooney, a pious widower who’s been sleeping with his aide.

It’s honestly kind of a difficult story to get invested in, and it’s hard to understand Supernatural’s play here — in the penultimate 2016 episode “Rock Never Dies,” Lucifer got to literally stand on a stage and scream his precious baby feelings, and in the finale, we follow him inside a new character and guest actor whom we don’t know at all, as he explores such delights as pardoning serial killers and losing his virginity — an opportunity I find hard to believe he didn’t take advantage of when riding inside a rockstar. Lucifer is getting a lot of chances to talk about his feelings — we’ve heard more about his emotional state than any other character this season — and I’m not really sure if this is meant to be garnering empathy or what.

Going into the back half of the season, the next big Luci-related crisis seems to be the existence of his child — a nephilim, being carried by his staffer girlfriend. Aside from the glaring consent issues — Kelly obviously didn’t agree to shagging Lucifer because she thought it was the man she loved — the furor from Castiel over the baby’s existence, an “abomination,” is inconsistent with the prior references to nephilim on the show. The only other time one has been portrayed was in season 8’s “Clip Show,” in which Metatron tricked Castiel into killing an adult nephilim, a normal woman — a task Cas had trouble with, as he deigned her a complete innocent.

In addition to that, Sam and Dean also gave the free will and personhood pass to a powerful Antichrist back in season 5 — a demon’s child born from a human vessel. I find it difficult to accept that the story here is that the kid is going to be evil purely because it’s genetically Lucifer’s. If that is the case, I’ll have a firmly raised eyebrow, and if it’s not, the gang better come to that conclusion quick-smart. More Adam Young from Good Omens and less Delphi Diggory from Cursed Child here, please and thank you.

“LOTUS” also introduced some odd and interesting new canon, including the whole “Bibles burn holes in Lucifer” thing, as well as the entire arsenal of the British Men of Letters — we get a proper look at their sorcery tech in action after one of the show’s greatest character introductions of all time, when we finally meet the elegant and ruthless Mr. Ketch. He’s clearly super evil, but boy is he smooth — his first scene in which he casually takes out the Secret Service was by far the most bewitching of the episode.

The partnership between the BMoL and the Winchesters starts to flicker into existence when the boys ask to borrow — well, it’s a magic egg, for lack of a better word, with the capacity to drive an angel or demon out of a vessel — as a gesture of goodwill. Eventually they get the chance to use this on Lucifer and have Rowena perform the spell that puts him back in Hell, but he kind of just… goes down an air vent, leaving POTUS unconscious in a motel. It’s unclear if Luci’s actually trapped in the Cage again or not, despite the fact that Sam and Dean seem relieved and victorious.

While the episode excelled in dialogue, in gorgeous little character moments, and in continuing to show the awesome foursome as a functioning team with a common goal, the actual plot of “LOTUS” was one of the craziest that the show has given us to date. Left reeling over the hiatus and given the lack of knowledge about what’s coming next, it’s easy to call something of this scale overblown purely because what the actual hell, President Lucifer, but how this will play out in retrospect is a different story — one we’ll have to wait and see about. Season 12 up until this point has been some of Supernatural’s finest work ever, and I think that in the long run, the involvement of POTUS was an incidental aspect of a story that’s going to be about something else entirely.

In terms of mid-season finales, this one sure did kick it up a notch in terms of real-world stakes — like, yes, they’ve died a thousand times and had to stop apocalypses, but that’s all in their underground secret world. The consequences of being hindered by the federal government in terms of their public movement is a whole different kettle of fish, and quite a dose of realism. However, we’ve had some doozies in Decembers past — let’s count them down below.

11) Season 9 – ‘Holy Terror’

A number of people hate the wider heaven and hell politics of Supernatural, so they must have REALLY hated this episode, because it’s an aspect I’m usually fine with, and even for me the amount of screen time given to the warring angel factions was too much. Cas-the-human’s reunion with the boys is sweet but somewhat dumbed down, and his slaughter of another angel to get the grace he believes he needs in order to be of use to the cause seems out of character, even in times of desperation. The Gadreel reveal is somewhat gripping, but the real clincher that sends this episode straight to the bottom in my ranking is the death of the lovely Kevin Tran — completely shocking, unexpected, and unnecessary.

10) Season 11 – ‘Oh Brother Where Art Thou?’

This one has a touch of “LOTUS” to it, in that without the context of the full season to reflect upon, it feels both overblown and stressful. This episode is the first conscious confrontation between the adult Amara and Dean, including their kiss. Emily Swallow is rather good as the newly-grown Amara confused by humanity, but needless to say, the potential of this as a romantic relationship was not well received — the consent issues are just the tip of the iceberg there. Meanwhile, Sam fans were probably equally as horrified by the reunion with Lucifer, and the reveal that it was him — not God — sending messages to Sam, all part of a plan to get his beloved vessel back in the cage with him — and that’s where we leave them for the hiatus. I love how season 11 ended up playing out, but yikes.

9) Season 1 – ‘Asylum’

This one’s low because it’s pretty basic — a reminder that this is what Supernatual was at that point and that these were the stakes. It revealed a lot for the era, but it’s come so far that it now seems a little funny that this was their idea of a big mid-season finale back in 2005. “Asylum” is a pretty simple monster of the week episode with some major personal points. It highlights what they put up with from John — Dean’s willingness and Sam’s skepticism to follow Dad’s orders, and includes the first real “truth comes out while under the influence of the supernatural” showdown between Sam and Dean, with Dean offering to let Sam kill him if that’s really how he feels. As a cliffhanger, the boys finally get a call from their father and find out that he’s alive.

8) Season 4 – ‘Heaven and Hell’

As the second part of a two-parter, this was another angel-heavy drama, filled with a ton of lore (about grace, angel blades, etc) and hinging on the reveal that Anna, the girl hearing voices, was in fact a fallen angel herself, who chose humanity. I’m not the biggest Anna fan, but I actually kind of like the incidental “why not” hook-up between her and Dean. This episode includes Sam, Dean, Anna and Ruby attempting to solve the issue of being stalked by various angels and demons by pretending to double-cross each other in order to set up a scenario where both enemies take each other out — quite cleverly done, when it all becomes clear to the audience. There are hints about what’s been really going on between Sam and Ruby, and of Dean and Cas’ “profound bond,” but the most interesting factor is Dean’s dynamic with Alistair, the demon who took charge of him in hell, and of course, the reveal that he ended up torturing souls under Alistair’s care.

7) Season 8 – ‘Citizen Fang’

“Citizen Fang” is an interesting case in that it’s neither monster of the week nor overarching big-bad related. In fact, most of season 8 is about how the preseason events — purgatory, Amelia — messed with the boys and sent their priorities spinning in wildly different directions. This episode focuses on Dean and and the vampire Benny, one of the greatest and most instantly tangible relationships the show has ever done. The emotional availability between them is refreshingly healthy, but unfortunately it clashes with his relationship with Sam, who intrinsically cannot accept Dean’s trust, especially when bodies start dropping. Sam has Benny tracked by a mentally unstable hunter, and in return, in order to get Sam off of Benny’s trail, Dean pulls a pretty shady move involving Sam’s “let’s pretend to be normal” girlfriend. This one is full of ouches — a somewhat weak and very upsetting episode in the midst of a brilliant season.

6) Season 3 – ‘A Very Supernatural Christmas’

One of Supernatural’s greatest gifts is that they manage to make things feel natural that really, by all rights, should be more on the nose, and this episode is no different. It’s not very high-stakes and there’s no cliffhanger, which is why it doesn’t rank higher. It’s an absolutely beautiful episode, but it’s just an outlier in terms of what’s generally required from a mid-season finale. It’s Dean vs. Sam on the matter of Christmas — Dean is semi at peace with his upcoming demon deal death and wants to indulge, and Sam resents the holiday and any reminders of how abnormal his childhood was. Weight is added to this through flashbacks to a Christmas in their youth, when Sam discovers the truth about hunting and gives Dean his trademark amulet. The present-day plot is a ridiculous monster of the week scenario involving some very neighborly pagan gods — absurd Supernatural comedy at its best, thanks to creator Eric Kripke’s desire o make “the most violent Christmas special in the history of television.”

5) Season 6 – ‘Appointment in Samarra’

From the cold open in which Dean has himself medically killed in order to talk to Death about rescuing Sam’s soul from Lucifer, this episode presents itself as a bit of a wild card. It’s almost a story within a story, with Dean’s day wielding Death’s powers alongside the reaper Tessa serving as an insular plot of its own which could have been stretched to be the entire arc of a less important episode. Elsewhere, Sam doesn’t want his soul back, and attempts to kill Bobby to complete a patricide ritual that will keep his soul out forever. In the end, both Dean and Sam fail on their missions — Dean gives up and loses his bargain and returns home just in time to stop Sam killing Bobby — but Death, in a wonderfully dry and compassionate turn from Julian Richings, rewards Dean’s efforts anyway, and does return Sam’s soul. It’s a clean-ish and clear close to the season’s first major personal arc, and therefore it cleaves season 6 neatly in two, with a “before” and “after” period with just a hint from Death on the matter of souls in general, which plays into what comes next.

4) Season 7 – ‘Death’s Door’

Picking up in the frantic aftermath of Bobby being shot in the head, this episode has a unique single focus — no side stories coming into play — and is one of Supernatural’s very few episodes told primarily from the POV of a character other than Sam or Dean — certainly the only one to feature as any sort of finale. Most of this episode takes place inside Bobby’s mind while comatose, as he follows a maze through his own subconscious in order to avoid a reaper and race back to life. It delves through his worst memories, including killing his own father, and also is a perfect platform to bring back his deceased partner Rufus, who becomes his guide on the journey. The focus on Bobby, the discoveries of his darkest secrets and the opportunity to view the boys so sweetly through his eyes, is a fantastic farewell to the character, who manages to regain consciousness and pass on the crucial information he was holding onto before passing away. The episode ends on an unusual cliffhanger regarding his spirit — whether he’ll choose to go along with the reaper or remain as a ghost.

3) Season 10 – ‘The Things We Left Behind’

Penned by current showrunner Andrew Dabb, this episode holds no supernatural element for Team Free Will — there’s a rather less engaging demonic side plot about Crowley and Rowena’s family drama — and it serves to humanize Castiel more than his stint as an actual human did, as he struggles with personal responsibilities. He really drives the A plot, and the story addresses the off-screen damage he left in his wake back when he possessed Jimmy Novak, as he reaches out to help Jimmy’s daughter Claire, an extremely troubled teenager who’s in foster care. When the guys follow Claire’s movements and find her in a great deal of trouble, the real crux — the point of it all, and the cliffhanger we’re left on — is Dean’s slaughter of every human in the house, due to the thrall of the Mark of Cain, which he’s no longer able to control. I’ve written about this episode before, and again I give particular kudos to the CBGB conversation in the bar — the fact that they allowed a mid-season finale to breathe that much and get that casually introspective while still hitting all the beats leading up to a big, game-changing moment is exactly the kind of storytelling I most appreciate.

2) Season 2 – ‘Croatoan’

“Croatoan” is a rather iconic episode in Supernatural history, in which Sam’s psychic dreams lead the brothers to a remote town infected by a violent demonic virus the residents are spreading on purpose. The epidemic that infects the town is like nothing we’d seen on the show before, and it also represents one of the show’s first big ethical conflicts about when to kill — not knowing if the virus wears off or can be cured, and it may have been the first time that Sam and Dean killed potential innocents and debated how much of a struggle that decision should be. When Sam has contact with the virus, he’s the one ready to die, but Dean will flat out not allow it, locking them in together and staying there to be killed as well if necessary. It’s the Winchester codependency at its utter finest — this is at a point where neither of them have anything else at all in the whole world. Ultimately, Sam wasn’t infected, and the real shocker is that the whole scenario — the town being infected, the guys being trapped there — was all a demonic set-up to test Sam’s powers, his immunity signifying that he is the one they’re looking for. We leave off for the hiatus just as Dean is about to reveal to Sam exactly what John said to him before he died.

1) Season 5 – ‘Abandon All Hope…’

An easy winner and an extremely full episode featuring fantastic performances from a whole host of characters. From the introduction of the Supernatural’s soon-to-be fourth lead Crowley, to the first face-to-face meeting of Sam and Lucifer, this is a story all about beginnings, setting the show on a new path. In their first attempt to get the jump on Lucifer, the gang — at this point including the Winchesters, Bobby, Cas, Jo and Ellen — retrieve the famed Colt pistol from Crowley and track Lucifer to an abandoned town full of reapers. After the group is attacked by hellhounds — thanks, future ally Meg — and Jo is mortally wounded, they hide out in a hardware store and eventually accept the inevitability of her death and use it to their advantage, with the women blowing up the store and the hellhounds and giving the boys a chance to escape. Points off for killing two female recurring characters in one go, but this show has a lot of casualties and it certainly serves the story. In general, this episode absolutely could have worked as an entire season finale, not just a mid-season one, concluding in the discovery that the gun is useless and then Lucifer raising Death and causing apocalyptic conditions.

Disagree? Vote below to help create a definitive ranking as decided by the fandom.

‘Supernatural’ returns Thursday January 26 at 8/7c on The CW

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