We all know the story. Two brothers get in their father’s old ’67 Impala and drive through countless small towns to hunt down the things that go bump in the night. Supernatural stars Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles will forever be known for their roles as Sam and Dean Winchester, and it’s easy to see why. The series’ impressive 15 seasons pushed the horror and fantasy genres to new heights. But it was the show’s earliest years that were most impressive, particularly the first few seasons where the Winchesters tackle some of the scariest demons, monsters, and pagan gods to ever roam the back roads of America. The truth is, Supernatural was always at its best when it leaned into its horror roots, and the show was never the same without them.

‘Supernatural’s Initial Horror Premise Is What Made the Show Unique

While the show began as a horror series, Supernatural moved away from its initial premise over the years. After 15 seasons, multiple showrunners, and two different television networks, the show shape-shifted into something of an anomaly. Often moving between dark fantasy, horror, and even comedy, the Winchesters’ story outgrew its realistic monster phase and got bigger and bigger with each new season. New apocalyptic threats came about nearly every year, and the show could never quite escape how big it had become. After Supernatural completed its first big mytharc (affectionately referred to as “The Kripke Era” after series creator Eric Kripke), it showed no signs of slowing down. Needless to say, the show went through a few different phases.

But as much as one might love iconic episodes like “Fan Fiction,” “Scoobynatural,” and “The French Mistake” (and they’re all great episodes), the truth is that these overtly meta stories are the exception to Supernatural rather than the general rule. These episodes are classics, but they’re not what Supernatural is about, nor do they (or should they) represent the series’ overall tone. Much like how wacky episodes of The X-Files never fully pulled the show away from its dramatic, science-fiction/conspiracy roots, neither should Sam and Dean’s zaniest adventures cause us to forget that this is a horror show, first and foremost. Or, at least it was supposed to be. When Supernatural first aired, it was a horror show, one about two brothers traveling the country in search of their missing dad (played masterfully by Jeffery Dean Morgan). Along the way, they hunt monsters. Each new episode featured some fresh take on a familiar urban legend, the kind you used to tell at spooky slumber parties, with a grisly teaser that would almost make you change the channel. Whether the boys were chasing ghosts, demons, wendigos, or evil scarecrows, there was always something to make your skin crawl.

The moody lighting, the practical effects, the blood and guts… If Supernatural knew how to do anything in its early years, it was building a creepy atmosphere that felt like a horror movie made for your television set. Watch a few horror flicks from the mid-2000s like Jeepers Creepers, Mama, or the Friday the 13th remake (which ironically also starred Jared Padalecki), and you’ll see that they’re a lot more similar than you’d think. Truthfully, the Supernatural episodes were sometimes creepier. Although Sam and Dean were the reason audiences stuck with the show, Supernatural was a hit largely because there wasn’t another show like it on television at the time. Now, horror shows like American Horror Story and Midnight Mass are a bit more mainstream, but back then, sci-fi series like Lost, Smallville, and Battlestar Galactica were all the rage. Even compared to other fantasy shows such as Angel or Merlin, Supernatural leaned quite a bit darker, and it was proud of that.

‘Supernatural’s Tone Dramatically Shifted When Eric Kripke Left

But somewhere along the way, the show lost that pure horror touch. Sure, Supernatural began to transition from focusing on monster-of-the-week plots to Christian eschatology around the fourth season, but even Season 4 (this author’s all-time favorite) could seamlessly blend stand-alone horror stories with high-stakes mythology plotlines. Even a more comedic episode like “Monster Movie” was a clever ode to the Universal Monster Movies of yesteryear, and managed to be funny while honoring the horror genre’s iconic past. While Season 5 trailed on into more mythology-based storytelling (leaving most of the urban legends behind), it built naturally off what came before and effectively closed creator Eric Kripke’s original canon (and his tenure on the show). Had Supernatural ended there like it was supposed to, it wouldn’t have been a problem. But the series continued well beyond Season 5, shedding its horror roots until it became more of a fun “spooky cop show” than a compelling road drama. Yes, Sam and Dean still hunted monsters, but they never seemed as scary or well-thought-out.

Whether it was the switch from film to digital or the further emphasis on mythology stories over the classic monsters-of-the-week, Supernatural shifted, both tonally and visually, out of horror and further into fantasy, forsaking what made the show compelling from the get-go. The biggest problem Supernatural had the longer it ran wasn’t strange character arcs or even the holes in the greater mythology (though those were issues to be sure), but rather that they strayed too far from the original vision of being a road-trip horror series and forgot what it was like to “save people” in the process. The show even comments on this at the beginning of Season 11, when Sam decides that he wants to get back to saving folks possessed by demons rather than killing the evil spirit and its host. Unfortunately, this only lasts a few episodes and is never mentioned again in the series. This small arc perfectly encapsulates Supernatural’s recurring problem of getting bogged down by several endless apocalypses. In short, it had gotten too big to go back to being a small, grounded horror show.

‘Supernatural’s Early Years Expertly Balanced Horror & Character

The reason that the first few seasons feel very personal is because they are. Every stand-alone character has as much of an arc as the brothers did, and each one feels like an archetype (or a play on an archetype) you’d see in a horror movie, albeit with a bit more development. In truth, even the guests or recurring stars in the first few seasons, including Julie Benz, Alona Tal, Sterling K. Brown, and Nicki Aycox, were significantly better than in subsequent years. But early Supernatural stood apart because there wasn’t a cataclysmic narrative revolving around saving the world. Instead, every episode touched on each character’s own personal apocalypse. As a result, time was spent getting to know these characters, even if it was only for a single episode. “No Exit” is a great example of this, as Alona Tal’s Jo Harvelle is nearly killed on a hunt after she haphazardly throws herself in the middle of Sam and Dean’s case. Likewise, Sterling K. Brown’s Gordon Walker managed to be a frightening vampire hunter for two seasons but was even scarier when he was transformed into a vampire himself in “Fresh Blood,” his absolute worst fear realized.

If you look at your standard episode from the early seasons of Supernatural, maybe even just the first quarter of the series, you’ll see that each stand-alone, monster-of-the-week story has excellent form and structure. Again, these episodes were constructed to feel like mini-horror movies, and that’s exactly how they play, complete with full character arcs. Even when you add the progressively developing mytharc to the mix, most episodes still feel unique and standalone-ish. That isn’t to say that they didn’t have their problems or that they were flawless, but every single Winchester hunt stood out. Yes, that even includes “Bugs” and “Route 666,” which are heaps better than many of the monster-of-the-week episodes from the final few seasons.

These weekly hunts were touching, thrilling, and oftentimes scary. Some even go down in television history as pure nightmare fuel (“Scarecrow,” anyone?). In contrast, if you survey any random episode from the back half of the show (especially past the eighth season), you’re likely to find something that feels pretty generic all the way around. That isn’t to say that there aren’t good or even great episodes of Supernatural later on (there certainly are), but they hardly compare to where the show had been before. Sure, some of that is probably because we’ve already watched so many Supernatural episodes over 15 years, but that didn’t stop the back half of the series from failing to be as thoughtful or scary as a horror movie was supposed to be. What’s worse is that they don’t ever really try, save for an occasional episode or sequence.

‘Supernatural’s Early Seasons Had Scarier Monsters & Higher Stakes

Earlier episodes such as “Something Wicked,” “Asylum,” or “Scarecrow” are terrifying because the creatures themselves feel nearly unbeatable. The monsters usually prey on Sam and Dean’s own worst fears, and sometimes we’re not so sure that the boys can even win. When somehow they do, it’s often by dumb luck, providence, or some sort of magic demon-killing bullet (though at the beginning they had a very limited number of those). In fact, the way they defeat their first few ghosts isn’t even with the usual “salt and burn” technique, but by inadvertently helping the spirits find peace through vengeance. It’s this special care that many episodes gave their antagonists that the final few seasons lack. Early on, the show loved to explore and play around with different themes that have withstood the test of time, be it personal tragedy, issues of faith, or fears for the future. These only served to make the ghosts, demons, and monsters all the scarier, and the conflicts more relatable. You never knew what kind of horror story you were walking into, and there was something exhilarating about that.

The monsters themselves were incredibly well-designed when Supernatural first started, departing generally from the overly cartoonish demons sometimes seen on shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer in favor of mature, realistic looks that were both stylish and believable. Even if the Hook Man’s appearance was somewhat basic, it served the narrative well and the villain became an iconic character referenced again in later years. The aforementioned Scarecrow similarly feels like something out of a Midwestern horror flick that you wouldn’t want anywhere near you after dark. Demons were generally scarier back then too, and much harder to exorcise than they became later on. And let’s not forget the infamous Wendigo. While glorifying evil isn’t the goal, showing how dark these monsters could be (both in appearance and in action) contrasted nicely with Sam and Dean’s own struggles as heroes.

When the show fought to be a grounded horror drama with more believable monsters and high, personal stakes each week (though not apocalyptic), Supernatural was at its absolute best. Only 12 episodes in, Dean is electrocuted and suffers a massive heart attack during a hunt (“Faith”), reminding us that even the Winchesters don’t have it all together. They, too, could die at any moment. He barely makes it out of this episode alive, and the only reason he is healed at all is at the cost of another life. Compared to the remainder of the series where the brother’s resurrections rarely feature any lasting consequences, this one stands out all these years later. By the time the Season 1 finale, “Devil’s Trap,” ends, the Winchesters are in a horrible car crash, which nearly costs them their lives. Again, the stakes were high but not unfathomable. In the beginning, Supernatural knew how to mess with our heads while keeping everything fairly grounded, and that’s a huge reason why those early episodes are so easily rewatchable today, even if the flip phones are seriously outdated.

‘Supernatural’s Final Episode Went Back to Its Horror Roots

The truth is that Supernatural was always at its best when it was a show about two brothers hunting ghosts, demons, monsters, and the like, driving in and out of each sleepy small town never to return. Too often, the Winchesters are bogged down in world-ending plots full of cosmic powers and deep magic rather than focusing on saving people and hunting things, their long-remembered mission statement. For all its problems, the series finale “Carry On” should be commended for at least trying to recapture this horror magic. The stakes are both high and personal, and Dean’s final hunt was, well, his last. Of course, the finale fell short in many ways, but the brothers’ final case together (hunting masked vampires) was scarier than most cases in the show’s back half, and a welcome change of pace for the final season. (If only they’d done it sooner.) The series finale felt more representative of the first few seasons of the series rather than the last, and, even if it didn’t deliver on closing out the canon the same way, say, “Swan Song” did years prior, it did its best considering.

At the end of the day, Supernatural is an amazing show. It covered vastly universal themes, gave us plenty of laughs and chills, and reminded us of the importance of family (unless you’re Sam and Dean’s half-brother, that is). While the majority of the series is still entertaining throughout, the first few seasons had a spark that sadly went out too soon. Sure, Supernatural was still finding its legs (the first season didn’t even have a “Road So Far…” sequence), but it learned to walk (and drive) real quickly. While only time will tell if we’ll ever see such a unique horror drama as the early years of Supernatural again, we can rest easy knowing that the Winchesters are finally at peace, even if it took Dean some extra work to get there. But hey, this is Supernatural, which means that nothing ever really ends, and if fans have their way, it may even return for Season 16…

Source: collider.com

By Ivaylo Angelov

Ivaylo Angelov born in Bulgaria, Varna graduated School Geo Milev is Tvserieswelove's Soaps Editor and oversees all of the section's news, features, spoilers and interviews.