“Change of tone” and “back to the beginning” appeared to be the mantras of Supernatural’s 8th season premiere, “We Need to Talk About Kevin.”  Former writer and producer Jeremy Carver has returned from a two-year absence to take over the role of showrunner, and the shift is marked.

As you might remember from the final moments of last season, the Winchesters’ lives were transmuted with the well-placed swing of a bone soaked in the blood of the fathers. Given that the brothers have traveled to heaven and hell, it’s not much of a surprise that purgatory has come into play. It was a nice way of separating the brothers, with Dean and Cas left in great peril, and Sam not knowing what had happened to his brother.

Now it’s one year later.

We’ve seen Sam without Dean – actually we’ve seen this twice.  In the fantastically funny and emotional episode “Mystery Spot” (written by Jeremy Carver), we watched as Sam fell apart, becoming a soulless (shades of things to come) hunter whose only focus was killing things and tracking the trickster who destroyed Dean.  Then, when Dean goes to Hell, and after four months without his brother, we are introduced to a Sam that has become fixated (with the help of Ruby) on using his powers to kill demons and save the people they’ve inhabited.

This is not the Sam we meet in the premiere.  Even more important than the girl in the bed that Sam is exiting is the dog that Sam seems bereft to leave.  As seen in “Dark Side of the Moon,” one of Sam’s happiest life moments involved running away from the family business and getting a dog.  While there are hints that during Dean’s time away Sam has been involved in things he’s not yet willing to share (especially his life with the girl in the bed), Sam has moved on from hunting – he’s abandoned all the burner phones; he’s stopped listening to messages; and he didn’t look for Dean.  This in and of itself is a significant development in the sibling relationship.  Can you imagine a time when Dean would not look for Sam?  Yes, I know Dean led a new life when Sam was trapped in the cage, but that’s different.  If Sam had just disappeared, right in front of him, would Dean really give up looking, regardless of what they had promised each other?

Of course, Dean has some secrets of his own.  He’s emerged from Purgatory, bloodied and almost feral.  Although it’s unclear how he made his escape, it seems to have involved smuggling out a vampire, Benny (Ty Olsson), in his blood – a vampire he then brings back to life by “releasing” Benny’s “soul” onto his unburied bones.  And then there’s Cas, who Dean says didn’t make it out of Purgatory, but the story is vague, and there’s an implication that perhaps Dean and his new vampire brother are hiding something about that story.

Plus, did I mention Dean’s friends with a vampire!?!?!

So while the show doesn’t begin with the brothers living in some kind of hate spiral, they do not emotionally exist in the same place.  Dean admits that he’s not the same person he was a year ago, but immediately resumes his hunting life – a life that Sam begrudgingly begins again. And I’m not quite sure Sam is rejoining the life.  He gives off the vibe that while this might be a welcome family reunion, it’s a temporary hunting mission. If it weren’t for all the things that have happened in the interim, it would almost be like the first episode of the series.

These differences manifest almost immediately in the narrative involving Kevin Traan, the very young prophet of the Lord, who has escaped from Crowley and needs Winchester help. Kevin Traan, who had been calling Sam for help for over six months, with his messages not only going unanswered but unheard.  As Dean sits and listens to message after message, we see the sibling rift become exacerbated.

It’s really at this point that the new storytelling element comes into play.  Reminiscent of LOST, the show is now reliant upon flashbacks to tell the story of Dean’s year in Purgatory and Sam’s year without hunting.  I’ve heard mixed reviews about the flashback motif – I think it can work, as long as they aren’t reliant upon, as Stephanie Wooten called it, “the brothers looking all ‘deep’” as a necessary component of the transition.

The Purgatory flashbacks illustrate how Dean’s entire year was spent trying to survive – that he was seen as nothing more than “man-meat” by the creatures surrounding him and every day involved hand-to-hand combat.  It’s like a year long Hunger Games and you get the impression that he got little sleep and little sustenance.  In the flashbacks he’s looking for Castiel, unfortunately with little luck, but he does meet vampire Benny, who explains that there’s a portal out of Purgatory, but it can only be used by humans – he will help Dean, as long as Dean carries Benny’s soul with him during the escape.

Sam’s flashbacks involved his life-changing event of hitting a dog with his car, and then forming a bond with both the canine and the vet, Amelia.  While there weren’t many scenes with Amelia (Liane Balaban), her ability to banter with Sam gives me hope that there might be a female character on Supernatural who isn’t (fingers crossed) a demon and might actually serve as a regular.

This first episode sets up for the viewer the conflict arc that we’re going to follow – at least for a little while – with the Winchesters and Kevin in battle with Crowley and his minions.  Crowley needs Kevin to translate more tablets, but underestimates Kevin’s wily nature.  This is a great new character addition to the show.  He can handle the Sam/Dean dynamic, has moved past his fear/confusion about being a prophet, and is brave enough to fight Crowley and his demons.

Kevin also misleads Crowley about the content of the tablets, offering him a way to open a hell gate, when in reality he’s found a way to purge the Earth of demons. . .forever.

This revelation invigorates Dean, but causes Sam to reflect upon life and free will.  It’s definitely the Sam of old who ponders whether Kevin can make it out of this adventure alive, and if not, then is it really worth it – is sacrificing the life of one for the good of the Earth justification for closing down the gates of Hell?  Dean, reminiscent of his second season personality, finds this a no-brainer, but Sam just isn’t convinced.

Unfortunately, as long time Supernatural viewers are aware, running with the Winchesters and fighting evil doesn’t happen without consequences.  In this instance, Kevin’s friend (high-school girlfriend) Channing.  Possessed by a demon, Crowley is willing to return her, unharmed, to her university life, if Kevin is willing to walk away from the Winchesters and join his team.  Dean is the one who calls Crowley’s bluff, and Crowley allows Channing momentary sentience.  It’s enough to make Kevin question his position and he agrees to go with Crowley, much to Dean’s chagrin.

But as I already said, Kevin is a wily one, and instead of handing himself over he sets a trap, dumping buckets of holy water on Crowley and Channing.  As the boy escape, we get a gorgeous slow-motion scene of Crowley snapping Channing’s neck while the Impala’s passengers watch.

The episode ends with Dean taking a call from a “wrong number” and then sneaking away to call Benny.  The two share a cryptic conversation in which Dean asserts that he regrets nothing they did in Purgatory – that it was necessary for their survival and escape.  He also advises lying low, but assures Benny that if he needs help, Dean will be there.  For someone who can demonstrate such a black and white attitude towards demons, monsters, and evil, Dean has the most complicated relationships with supernatural creatures.  The flashback structure will clearly serve as the means to disseminate details about what evil deeds transpired in Purgatory, and it will not be a shock to discover they have something to do with Castiel’s absence.

Jeremy Carver’s reign has begun by bringing in elements of the show that hearken back to earlier seasons.  Behaviors, philosophies, monsters, even weapons are all familiar to long-time viewers.  It’s a way of reassuring the audience that has been dissatisfied with the past two seasons that things have gone back to an earlier mindset, but that the stakes are still high.  How successfully Carver can continue this trend is the real question.

And can I just say, how flipping fantastic was it to finally have the Impala back on our screens?