“Saving people, hunting things, the family business.” If only it had remained that simple…
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. There’s no doubt that Supernatural has made its impact on the sci-fi/fantasy genre after 327 episodes, and actors Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles will forever be known for their roles as Sam and Dean Winchester, respectively, and why shouldn’t they be? With a few guest spots on the Supernatural Then and Now rewatch podcast and Ackles’ own work on the potential prequel, it seems like even the series’ stars can’t fully leave the Winchester name behind. Of course, they’re not the only ones.
While the show began as a horror series, it didn’t exactly stay there. Over the course of 15 seasons, multiple showrunners, and two different television networks, Supernatural shape-shifted into something of an anomaly. Often moving between dark fantasy, horror, and even comedy, the series attempted to outgrow its realistic monster phase and got bigger and bigger each new season, with a new apocalyptic threat nearly every year. After the series completed its first big mytharc (affectionately referred to as “the Kripke Era,” after series creator Eric Kripke), it showed no signs of slowing down, instead introducing even bigger threats, alternate worlds, and even the Devil’s own son. Needless to say, the show went through a few different phases.
But as much as one might love iconic episodes such as “Fan Fiction,” “Scoobynatural,” and “The French Mistake,” the truth is that these overtly meta episodes are the exception to Supernatural rather than the general rule. To put it frankly, these episodes are great, but they’re not what the show is about, nor do they (or should they) represent the series’ overall tone. 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), and 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 grizzly teaser that would make you almost want to change the channel (or watch something else on Netflix). Of course, you never did. You were just too entranced by Sam and Dean, and you wanted to make sure they were okay by the episode’s end. We all did.
The moody lighting, the practical effects, the blood and guts… If Supernatural knew how to do anything, especially in its early years, it was building a creepy atmosphere that felt like a horror movie week-in and week-out. And they did an exceptional job! Watch a few horror flicks from the mid-2000s like Jeepers’ Creepers, Mama, or the Friday the 13th remake (also starring Padalecki) and compare notes, they’re a lot more similar than you’d think. Actually, sometimes the Supernatural episodes were creepier. Although Sam and Dean became the reason audiences stuck with the show for more than just the first season, 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 at the time such as Angel or Merlin, Supernatural leaned quite a bit darker, and it was proud of that. The show was truly unique, and people were crazy about it from the get-go. Whether the boys were chasing ghosts, demons, wendigos, or evil scarecrows, there was always something to make your skin crawl.
Yet, somewhere along the way, the show lost that. Sure, Supernatural began to transition from focusing on monster-of-the-week plots to Christian eschatology around the fourth season, but even Season 4 (which is this author’s all-time favorite batch of episodes) could seamlessly blend stand-alone horror stories with high-stakes mythology plotlines. Even a more comedic episode like “Monster Movie,” meant to be an ode to the Universal monsters, managed to be funny while honoring the horror genre’s iconic past (i.e., it still felt like a horror show). 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 Kripke’s original canon. Regardless, the show continued the trend, though arguably not for the better.
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, ignoring that what made the show compelling from the get-go was the unique horror element. 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 show 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 demon 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 a series of endless apocalypses, forgetting about its roots completely.
The reason that the first few seasons feel very personal is that 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. In truth, even the guests or recurring stars in the first few seasons, including Julie Benz, Alona Tal, Sterling K. Brown, and Nicki Aycox to name a few, were significantly better than in subsequent seasons. But early Supernatural really stood apart because there wasn’t a cataclysmic narrative revolving around saving the world, rather every episode touched on each character’s own personal apocalypse, especially Sam and Dean’s. If you look at your standard episode from the early days of Supernatural, maybe even just the first quarter of the series, you’ll see that each stand-alone, classic monster-of-the-week story is just excellent. That isn’t to say that they didn’t have their problems, or that they were flawless by any stretch, but every single one stood out. Yes, that even includes “Bugs,” which is heaps better than many of the monster-of-the-week episodes from the final few seasons, and certainly better than folks give it credit for.
These weekly hunts were touching, thrilling, and oftentimes scary, some even going so far as being pure nightmare fuel (“Scarecrow,” anyone?). In contrast, if you survey any random episode from the back half of the show, you’re liable 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, but if we’re being honest, they hardly compare to where the show had already been. Sure, some of that is probably because we’ve already watched x-number of episodes and are somewhat desensitized to the show, but a better explanation is that the back half of the series just isn’t as thoughtful or scary as a horror movie is supposed to be, and it doesn’t really try.
Earlier episodes such as “Something Wicked,” “Asylum,” or “Scarecrow” are terrifying because the creatures themselves feel nearly unbeatable, and often prey on Sam and Dean’s own worst fears. Sometimes we’re not so sure that the boys can even win, and 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 to keep it from becoming a crutch). 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 in 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, which only served to make the ghosts, demons, and monsters all the scarier. You never knew what kind of horror story you were walking into, and there was something exhilarating about that.
Back when the show fought to be a grounded horror drama, where the monsters were believable and the stakes each week were high (but not apocalyptic), Supernatural was at its absolute best. Only 12 episodes in, Dean is electrocuted and suffers a massive heart attack on a hunt (“Faith”), reminding us that even the Winchesters don’t necessarily have it all together. He barely makes it out of this episode alive, and the only reason he is healed at all is by the cost of another life. Compared to the remainder of the series where the brother’s resurrections rarely had any lasting consequences, this one stood out and stuck with Dean well into the following season. 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 weren’t unfathomable. In the beginning, Supernatural really 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.
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. This is what people signed on for, this is the show many of us fell in love with. For all its problems, the series finale “Carry On” should be commended for at least trying to recapture what made the show initially great. 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 they worked on in the last couple of seasons and was certainly a nice change of pace for the ending. Honestly, 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 story the same way, say, “Swan Song” did years prior, it did its absolute best.
At the end of the day, Supernatural is an amazing show. It covered vastly universal themes, gave us plenty of laughs and chills, and often reminded us about the importance of family (well, unless you’re Adam…). While there’s no doubt that the show is mostly solid throughout, the first few seasons had a spark in them that sadly went out way too soon. Sure, the show was still finding its legs back then, but it learned to walk (and drive) real quick, it just seemed to drive off too fast. While only time will tell if we’ll ever see such a unique horror drama as early Supernatural again, we can rest easy knowing that the Winchesters are finally at peace. But hey, it’s Supernatural, which means that nothing ever really ends…