Other than watching the first two seasons when they aired in 2005-2006, my exposure to Supernatural had primarily been through the voracious memeified fandom on Tumblr and snippets of scenes on YouTube. At the time, this was entertainment enough for me and, since a number of major plot points had been spoiled for me, I never thought I'd sit down and watch the full series.
And yet, Supernatural wormed its way into my consciousness. Rather than turning me off, these spoilers sparked my interest. As April Wolfe, screenwriter and former host of the Switchblade Sisters podcast, used to say, "It's not what happens, but how it happens that matters." And I was growing increasingly curious as to how Sam and Dean Winchester got to where they were going in the show.
So, I figured I'd go ahead and rewatch the first two seasons and if it caugh my interest, I'd continue on from there. What I didn't expect was to become completely absorbed in the show, obsessively watching late into the night and itching to get back to it during my work day — leading to me essentially binging all 327 episodes in a just a month along with various blooper reels and con footage.
For those who haven't seen Supernatural, the basic story is about two brothers — Sam and Dean Winchester (played by Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles) — who hunt ghosts, demons, and other monsters that go bump in the night, while also searching for their missing father. As they face various monsters in each episode, they slowly start to uncover the truth about the demon who killed their mother when they were children and its plans for them. At its heart, this show is about the love between these two brothers and what their willing to do and how much they're willing to sacrifice in order to protect each other.
A lot could be said about this show both positive (gritty storytelling with a mix of humor and grounded relationships) and negative (how it treats its marginalized characters). I have had many of my own feelings of joy and frustration with the show, all of which is way too much show to break down into a single post. So, here are a small, random selection of my thoughts —
with many spoilers ahead, I'm sure.
The Golden Age
Many fans refer to the first five seasons of Supernatural as the "Golden Age" of the series — and with good reason. Intermingled with monster-of-the-week episodes is a clear, cohesive narrative that solidly builds to tragic endpoint. What begins with a desire for revenge on the monster that killed their mother grows into a wider story involving a yellow-eyed demon, prophecies, and the apocalypse — which both Sam and Dean are significantly caught up in.
Overtime, it's revealed that when Sam was a baby, he was fed demon blood, which granted him supernatural powers later in life. And this was not some random curse, but an act performed by the yellow-eyed demon as part of a larger master plan that would eventually lead to releasing Lucifer from his prison in Hell and bring about the end of days. This complicated plan involves a lot of details involving demons and sacrifices and 66 seals that have to be unlocked — but the nitty gritty of the plot details are not necessarily the most interesting part of these seasons.
The beating heart of the Golden Age, and the entire series as a whole, is the relationship between Sam and Dean — two brothers willing to sacrifice anything to save each other. For all their emphasis on family and their clear love for each other, however, they have a tumultuous relationship due to their push and pull caused by their conflicting personalities.
Sam has always been more independent. He doesn't take their father at his word alone, asks questions, demands answers, and doesn't accept the white washed truths or gaslighting. As he grows older, he rejects the rules put in place by their dad and voices a desire to live another kind of life, a life that doesn't involve blood and death and lighting corpses on fire to cast out the spirits of the dead. So, he attempts to leave — not only off to college prior to the start of the show — but also several times throughout the series. He's good alone and can more easily let go of the family and their hold on him. He also finds it easier to connect people outside their hunter lifestyle, which often allows him to show a greater sense of empathy with the people they meet. And he is open to seeing the grey in the moral choices they are making as hunters.
Dean on the other hand is more directly loyal to their father and follows his commands without questions. This is partially due to the fact that he was older when their mother died and was tasked with taking care and protecting his younger brother, which forced him to grow up quickly. With his tight ties to family, he is more codependent and cannot conceive of a life without family he knows, even if that lifestyle and family dynamics are brutal and dysfunctional. As a result, he cannot help but be hurt every time his baby brother wants to leave, feeling abandoned, while maybe also being a little bit jealous of the ease with which Sam is able to move one. In addition, Dean tends to have a more clear-cut, black-and-white morality that sees all monsters as being evil, which is in alignment with their dad's belief.
The differences between Sam and Dean and the dynamics of their relationship often puts them in conflict and also leads them to making poor decisions that creates more problems than they solve — such as keeping secrets, accepting deals with demons, and so on.
A huge strain on their relationship comes in season four. Due to a deal with a demon, Dean was dragged down to Hell, where he was tortured for four months. At the start of season four, he is miraculously resurrected. He immediately goes looking for Sam, who finds to be not quite the same as he was before. Although Sam attempted to save Dean, he was unable to do so — and as a result, Sam was left on his own and having to find his own way. Wanting to seek revenge for the loss of his brother, Sam was heading down a dark path.
Despite his return, Dean is not able to easily return to his role as the older brother and simply slide back into the routine of hunting. Traumatized by his time in Hell, he can barely address his own feelings, let alone deal with Sam's need for independence in a healthy way.
What's more, in Dean's absence, Sam has been working with a demon named Ruby and has been honing his demon-gifted powers. From Sam's perspective, the use of these powers is for a greater good, since he can easily exorcise demons from human hosts without killing them. However, the use of these powers goes directly against Dean's understanding of the world — therefore, when he learns the truth about this, he's furious.
Dean confronts Sam in the same way their father would have — with anger and shouting and threats and accusations — all the forms of tough love that drove Sam away when their father attempted them. He is unwilling to hear Sam's perspective, and he also can't admit the full depth of why Sam's actions terrifies him so much. Dean is not only afraid of losing his brother in body (since he has already resurrected Sam from death once), but also in soul, since the use of these powers could turn Sam into the kind of monster that Dean might have to hunt.
As one would expect, rather than forcing Sam to stop using his abilities, it pushes him to be more stealthy. He sneaks off to see the demon Ruby, lies about what he's up to, and generally rebels against Dean's assumed authority as the older brother. Sam wants to feel strong enough to protect the people he cares about — the demon powers provide him that (while also feeding his ego and arrogance, too). And yet, he is willing to follow Dean's request to stop using the powers for a while, because he is also afraid of losing his brother, specifically of being seen as monster by the person he loves and respects most.
This conflict drives the events of season four, ultimately leading the brothers to make choices that break their brotherhood and causes the release of Lucifer, which initiates the apocalypse.
At the start of the season five, Sam and Dean's relationship — and the hope for the world — is at its worst. They are fractured and begin by going their separate ways. However, as events unfold, Sam and Dean learn that they are going to have to come together in order to stave off the end of the world. Much of this season is about rebuilding respect, faith, and trust between the brothers. In the end, when all seems to be lost, it is their love for each other that enables them to break the chain of prophecy and prevent the apocalypse from happening. This final conflict — which comes down to the humanity of these two brothers — is beautiful and tragic. And it would have made a satisfying (if heartbreaking) ending to the series had it not continued.
While subsequent seasons of Supernatural are also great fun and have great villains, interesting arcs, some incredibly moving moments, and some of my favorite individual episodes, they also have some storytelling misses and don't manage to create the feeling of cohesion that these first seasons achieved.
Facing the Aftermath
One of the things I enjoy about this series is that doesn't shy away from facing the ongoing trauma of what these characters go through. Both Sam and Dean make poor decisions that lead to real world (even apocalyptic harm) and deal with bodily injuries, the deaths of people they care about, and even their own deaths (with both of them serving stints in Hell). The show explores the aftermath of these events as the series goes on, revealing the grief, guilt, and anger that underlies the characters' ongoing efforts to kill monsters, save people, and survive. Often, these are issues that cannot be easily solved and, thus, are processed and addressed over the course of several episodes.
Now, let's be clear. Neither Sam, Dean, or most of the other characters in the series deal with their trauma in any kind of a healthy way. There's a lot of repression and lying to each other about what they're going through — and in Dean's case, there's also a lot of drowning his feelings in alcohol, food, and women. He never (or rarely) processes his baggage well and this tends to lead him to drive the people he cares about away, since he also has trouble processing his own value and self worth in the world. He often sees himself as a foot soldier, a body to throw at the enemy and not worth much more than a shield or sacrifice. He buries his hurt and anger deep down — and often advises his brother and others to do the same — only to have it explode at the worst times.
Sam can sometimes be a bit better about dealing with his issues. He leans toward exercise and eating healthy (even becoming vegetarian in later seasons), and I get the impression that he could be open to the idea of therapy, if he could find someone to speak to who would believe him. Much of these choices come about after being possessed by Lucifer and then being trapped and tortured in Hell for the equivalent of around 120-160 years (for context, Dean said that his four months in Hell were equal to 40 years for him). In the two-plus years after being resurrected from Hell (seasons six and seven), Sam has to directly confront the toll that these experience took on his body, mind, and soul.
Sam is initially brought back from Hell without his soul. Though, he is otherwise physically and mentally healthy, the lack of a soul makes him cold, analytical, and dangerous. When Death (Julian Richings) finally returns Sam's soul to him, it's not a simple transference. His soul has been so damaged by the torture it received in Hell that experiencing the full weight of those memories could push Sam into a permanent coma, cause him go insane, or kill him. Therefore, as a form of protection, Death puts up a wall inside Sam's head to block those memories of Hell from him, so that he can wake up and function normally.
After testing that the soul has been put properly back in place, Cas (the brothers' friendly neighborhood angel, played by Misha Collins) chastises Dean, stating “Let me tell you what his soul felt like when I touched it. Like it had been skinned alive, Dean. If you wanted to kill your brother, you should have done it outright.”
The wall in Sam's head is fragile — so of course it eventually comes tumbling down, fording Sam into a coma. Inside his own head, he has to confront the various aspects of himself that he's kept repressed with the help of the wall and put the pieces of his fractured mind back together. Becoming whole again, however, comes at a cost. Regaining his memories of Hell causes Sam to begin to have hallucinations, which he eventually learns to live with — mostly by ignoring them and touching the scar on his hand as a trick to help remind him of what is real and what is not.
But you can't ignore your trauma forever. Eventually, the hallucinations of Lucifer become so persistent that Sam cannot sleep. He goes for days without sleep and, even when institutionalized, the use of medication does not help. Eventually, his body starts shutting down from lack of sleep. It is only when Cas conducts a miracle to help carry Sam's painful memories of Hell that Sam is able to recover.
He returns to normal after that point, though the trauma of those experiences are not truly gone. As I said, he partially deals with them by focusing on his work as a hunter and by supporting his physical health — but the fear never really goes away.
In S13-E12 "Various & Sundry Villains," Sam and Rowena (a powerful witch played by Ruth Connell) discuss their shared trauma of seeing Lucifer's true face. Sam explains to her that even if she finds a certain book of magic and regains her power, it's not going to achieve what she wants, that she is still going to feel afraid and helpless. When Rowena asks how he deals with it, he answers:
I guess I don’t deal with it. Not really. I mean, I pushed it down and, um, the world kept almost ending, so I keep pushing it down, and I don’t know. I really don’t talk about it, not even with Dean. I mean, I could. You know, he’d listen, but… That’s not something I really know how to share.
All these years later, Sam is doing fairly well, but none of that erases what happened to him. He still has to deal with his fear and ongoing trauma. Sam's experiences is just one example. The show from time to time brings up and mentions the past and allows the characters to discuss continued mourning, loss, and trauma in a way that I appreciate.
A Car Called Home
When Supernatural first aired, I distinctly remember the immediate fan love for Dean's Impala — which came with the fan-made moniker, the Metallicar (highlighting his love for metal music). It's a beautiful car with glossy black paint and silver chrome trim. Throughout the show, the Impalla is a character as important as the brothers themselves. It is ever present and well loved, with Dean calling her "Baby."
One way of measuring how good or bad things are going with the brothers (particularly Dean) is through the amount of damage that the Impalla received. For example, at the end of season one, the Impalla is sideswiped by a semi-truck — and it's totaled. This moment falls in line with the moment of their dad's death, and the two brothers work to process their grief while Dean works to repair the car, essentially rebuilding it from the ground up. During this episode (S2-E2), we see Dean try to tough guy his way through his feelings, locking them down deep inside them. But when Sam confronts Dean by expressing his own feelings about their loss, we see Dean's exterior crack. He beats on the hood of his beloved car, revealing the full extent of the anger and grief inside him.
For both of the brothers, the Impalla is not just a mode of transportation, not just an object to get them from places to place. It is the home that they grew up in — and it remains the home that supports and shelters them them as adults. Perhaps the best description of the importance the car has for the brothers is in this description that occurs in S5-E22 "Swan Song":
The Impala, of course, has all the things other cars have. And a few things they don't. But none of that stuff is important. This is the stuff that's important: the army man that Sam crammed into the ashtray, it's still stuck there. The Legos that Dean shoved into the vents, to this day, heat comes on, they can hear them rattle. These are the things that make the car theirs, really theirs. Even when dean rebuilt it from the ground up, he made sure all these little things stayed. 'Cause its the blemishes that make her beautiful.
Another beautiful exploration of the place the Impalla holds for the brothers is in my all-time favorite episode of the series, S11-E4 "Baby." Told entirely from the point of view of the Impalla itself, the brothers go on a road trip to do their job of hunting monsters. What I love about this episode is the moments shared within the confines of their personal mobile home. The brothers sing along to music, Dean teases Sam about a hookup in the backseat, and they have a genuine and heartfelt conversation about their worries and concerns surrounding the current dangers they're facing — before spending the night sleeping across the seats. It anchors the importance of the Impalla in their lives.
It's a Meta Meta World
I feel like you can't really talk about Supernatural without simultaneously talking about how integral the meta elements are to the show as a whole. Hints of this occurred early on, such as as in "Hollywood Babylon" (S2-18), in which a number of jokes occur poking fun at the Supernatural series (such as shooting guns at ghosts), along with other references, such as a backlot tour guide pointing to where Gilmore Girls was filmed (a series that Padalecki previously appeared on).
Most of these meta aspects are fairly subtle, however, until season four, when the show introduced an overtly meta episode — and since then, there has been four such notable episodes. They are:
- S4-E18 "The Monster at the End of the Book" – Sam and Dean learn that a guy named Chuck Shurley (Rob Benedict) has been writing Supernatural, a series of books about their entire lives, including intimate details and their inner thoughts. The brothers learn that Chuck is a profit of God, who is tasked with recording the events to come (which he just happens to do as a novel series), including the ongoing saga of the Winchester's lives.
- S5-E9 "The Real Ghostbusters" – The brothers run into Chuck again at a Supernatural convention, where they encounter numerous fans who are cosplaying as the brothers, as well as their friends and loved ones who are portrayed in the book series.
- S6-E15 "The French Mistake" – For their own protection, an angel drops Sam and Dean into a parallel world, where they must pretend to be the actors who are playing themselves in a fictional Supernatural TV series. (Did that make any sense?)
- S10-E5 "Fan Fiction" – Sam and Dean investigate a haunting at a theater, where a group of young women are attempting to adapt the Supernatural book series into musical play — with a particular emphasis on their favorite subtext. The episodes is directly inspired by fan culture and the prevalence of shipping between the brothers and Cas.
While these meta episodes are amusing in and of themselves, they also work to hint at events to come — namely, that there is a writer who has been guiding their story of the Winchesters lives. In season eleven, Sam, Dean, and Cas finally learn the truth: Chuck, the guy who wrote the book series, is not just a profit of God, but a God himself. Chuck is not only the writer of the whole story (the creator of this and every other universe), he also likes to observe and see how the story he writes play out. As such, he represents both an egotistical creator, who thinks he knows best as to how things should go, and the uberfan who throws a temper tantrum when events don't unfold the way he wants. Ultimately, Chuck becomes a major annoyance and antagonist in the final seasons.
Bloopers, Cons, and Other Forms of Laughter
I'm a fan of a good blooper reel — and Supernatural has some of the best. According to behind the scenes interviews, Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki connected like brothers almost immediately, which added to their onscreen chemistry. It also contributed to their antics on the set, in which the actors tended to pull pranks and make jokes — not only between each other, but also on their costars. Misha Collins (who plays Castiel) and Alexander Calvert (who plays Jack) were apparently the favorite targets of these antics — and the best of these moments are captured in the bloopers.
While I didn't deep dive into con videos, I did enjoy some of the highlights. What's immediately apparent is the way Ackles, Padalecki, Collins, and other actors have a great time hanging out with each other. In these panels, they often share stories of about making the show, stories of their behind-the-scenes troublemaking (often joking that they are unemployable anywhere else), and some of their off-the-set troublemaking. And sometimes — to the great delight of the audience — these panels just go completely off the rails, as in the case of the so-called Influence Saga:
To Sum Up
I've barely even touched on the vast multitude of things that could be talked about regarding Supernatural — and I didn't even get into Castiel's relationship with Dean, Bobby's role as a father figure, Crowley as the frenemy from Hell, Rowena being my favorite character, or any number of other fun and interesting aspects of this show. But to some up and now that I've finally seen Supernatural in it's entirety, I get why so many people have loved it for so long and why it has spawned a thousand memes all across Tumblr. There is a passion and a joy that comes through the entire show — from the writing and production to the actors and the way they talk about their experiences on set to the fans themselves and the way they've made it their own. And it's delightful to experience.