Before the series delved into angels and the Apocalypse, not to mention alternate realities and dimensions, Supernatural was a show all about two brothers who hunted monsters together while in search of their missing father.
The 15-season series premiered during the last season of The WB in 2005 and remained on The CW for the next 15 years into the fall of 2020, making it the longest-running North American science-fiction/fantasy series out there. Starring Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles as Sam and Dean Winchester, Supernatural is one of those shows that you can just go back to again and again. Whether you just love the world itself or the dynamic between the Winchester brothers, it’s clear that Supernatural will always hold a place in viewers’ hearts.
Although the show remained popular in its later years, the early years of Supernatural often stand out as the best of the series, and for good reason. As Sam and Dean traveled across rural America to hunt monsters and urban legends, the early seasons of Supernatural felt unlike anything that came before or would come later. A perfect mix of folklore and Americana, the show knew how to expertly balance the overarching plot (revenge against the demon that killed their mother) with the monster-of-the-week stories, each structured like they were mini-horror movies. Though later seasons would get bogged down by world-changing stakes, un-killable characters, and loads of continuity errors, the show’s early years – despite a few dated references and flip phones – still look good to this day.
By the time the fourth season came around, Supernatural began shifting in a new, unprecedented direction. The introduction of the angels-on-angel conflicts and the demon-blood arc along the backdrop of the biblical Apocalypse made the next two years a high-octane thrill ride unlike anything on television at the time. Sure, shows covering the events of the last book in the New Testament are all the rage now (Sleepy Hollow, Preacher, and Good Omens all come to mind), but back then, series creator Eric Kripke was trailblazing. No doubt, stories about Armageddon had been told before, even on television, but never before like this. But although Season 4 is this author’s favorite season of Supernatural, it was the initial magic of the series’ earliest years — the first three seasons — that still makes the show special almost 20 years later.
Personal Stakes > World-Ending Conflicts
Compared to the back half of the series, the first few years of Supernatural felt very personal. This can be seen in a variety of ways, but most importantly in the Winchesters’ desire to find their missing father and take revenge for their mother’s death. The fight to find their dad, while also tracking down the elusive Yellow-Eyed Demon, only opened new and compelling doors for Sam and Dean to walk through. As they were tracking down their father, they discovered Sam’s psychic abilities, which in turn only multiplied the paranormal activity. Couple that with Sam’s grief over the death of his girlfriend Jessica and Dean’s desire to reunite the only family he’s ever known, and each major plot point was deeply connected by an intricately woven tapestry of brotherly moments that, as sappy as it sounds, made the show tick.
One of the biggest themes of Supernatural is family, and it drives everything that Sam and Dean do. Not only did Ackles and Padalecki perfectly portray what it’s like to have brothers in these early years (from the constant jabbing to the prank wars, which continued off camera), but their “no chick flick moments” outlook on hunting kept their emotions close to the chest. Episodes like “Faith,” “Born Under A Bad Sign,” and “A Very Supernatural Christmas” perfectly highlighted the Sam and Dean bond in a way that the show struggled to near the end. Of course, the early years made the brother’s relationship a massive part of the show, and it was because of their love for one another that they were constantly sacrificing themselves for each other.
Of all the seasons of the show, the inner-personal turmoil that Sam and Dean went through in the early years feels the rawest and most honest, not to mention the most relatable. To this day, we can still understand Sam’s grief over the death of his first love. The same is true for Dean’s struggle toward purpose and belonging. In a sense, these early years serve as a “coming-of-age” story that forced Sam and Dean to grow up and become the men we see in the remainder of the show. Their personal loss feels just as relatable now as it did back then, and while future seasons would focus more on world-ending conflicts, it was the breaking of Sam and Dean’s personal worlds that still stick with us to this day.
Saving People, Hunting Things
In the series’ second episode, “Wendigo,” Sam and Dean began to live by the motto “saving people, hunting things, the family business.” As the Winchesters drove through each sleepy town haunted by the latest monster, ghost, or demonic spirit chronicled in their father’s journal, they cared just as much about saving individual lives as they did hunting the beasts that went bump in the night. We see this often throughout these years, be it in Sam’s desire to save the werewolf Madison (“Heart”), their conflict over the non-human-eating vampire Lenore (“Bloodlust”), or even the brother’s attempts to save the human Meg from demonic possession (“Devil’s Trap”). Sam and Dean’s commitment to saving lives made them more than just modern-day cowboys who drove around in a cool muscle car, it made them into paranormal superheroes.
But somewhere along the way, Sam and Dean lost that. By the time Season 11 came around, Sam mentions to Dean that he’s sick of just “hunting things,” and wants to go back to “saving people” also. Sadly, this sort of dies out halfway through the season, and they go back to forgetting about the first half of their motto just like before. But when you compare an episode from Season 3 to one in Season 13, there’s a clear-cut difference: Sam and Dean used to genuinely care about the personal lives of those they were protecting. As the brothers established these quick relationships with motel clerks, gallery owners, church parishioners, and stray hikers, they each had a personal investment in the cases they worked. It’s no wonder that, over the years, folks got excited whenever a character from the show’s early years popped back up again.
That said, the earlier seasons of Supernatural followed The X-Files model of telling more “monster-of-the-week” stories compared to mythology ones. It was this self-contained nature of the show’s early years that gave fans closure every week while still leaving room for more. While monster-of-the-week episodes are a bit of a dying art, the early years of Supernatural had perfected it. The idea that the show could tell a complete story, from beginning to end, without popping into a different recurring arc (usually focused on Castiel, Crowley, or Jack) while also featuring new and compelling characters at the center of it seems foreign to us now, but Supernatural sure knew how to make a good standalone. Even the “bad” ones in the earlier years are more memorable than those past Season 6.
Of course, even Supernatural’s seasonal arcs were once more self-contained. Though the first two seasons were a part of the same overall mythology, the second season finale, “All Hell Breaks Loose, Part 2” ends with genuine closure for our heroes. And, like the best standalones, it also included one-off characters who genuinely made an impact on both the audience and the Winchesters alike. While there’s still work to be done after Season 2, and plenty of questions still in dire need of answers, there remains a sense of finality in “All Hell Breaks Loose” that the show’s later years lacked. In other words, there were very few exit ramps on Supernatural going forward, but the early years gave us at least one solid “out.”
Style Over Substance
Although monster-of-the-week episodes existed long past series creator Eric Kripke’s tenure on the series (which ended with Season 5), the later years struggled to capture the same magic that Supernatural exuded right out of the Hellgate. One of the ways that Supernatural stood out was its interpretation of monsters. Unlike the creatures and demons you’d see on Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Angel, the antagonists you’d see on Supernatural were grounded in the harsh realities of our world. Werewolves didn’t look like they came out of The Howling, nor did vampires parade around with capes or have an aversion to wooden stakes. Early Supernatural redefined iconic monsters by resurrecting traditional folklore, all while giving off a very Kolchak-inspired “American urban legends” vibe.
To accomplish this, Supernatural’s dark and thematic lighting setups and horror-inspired set designs all lent a hand to make this world work. Of course, it helped that the first three seasons were all shot on 35mm. Now, say what you want about shooting on film, but 35mm looks clearer and crisper than digital, and so do the first three seasons of Supernatural. Unconvinced? Compare an episode from Season 1 to Season 10, and you’ll see it clear as day for yourself. Part of what made the show work so well was the visual aesthetic that was attached to it. Back then, the monsters looked scarier, the world was darker, and there was a lot more room for creatures to hide in every nook and cranny than later on. As we said earlier, the show looked and felt like a horror movie, not much different from Jeepers Creepers or Final Destination.
But it wasn’t just the look and feel of the world, it was the sound of Supernatural that helped set it apart. Aside from the rock-infused score by Jay Gruska and Christopher Lennertz, the show’s classic rock soundtrack highlighted your parent’s personal favorites including AC/DC, Styx, Def Leppard, and Boston. As Dean recycled the same tracks over and over, it created an atmosphere of defiance that sort of lent itself to the brother’s troubles with both the law and the spiritual forces opposing them. Unfortunately, as time went on, the tunes got turned way down. Whether this was network interference or just rising prices of music rights is unclear, but the show didn’t sound the same after the first couple of seasons. Sure, b stuck around once a year, and Bob Seger and REO Speedwagon played somewhat regularly, but many of the greats faded away as the Impala drove on down the highway.
Carrying On Strong
Though the first season of Supernatural was, admittedly, still finding its legs, it remains a fan favorite that contains some of the most memorable episodes of the show. For many, Supernatural was best when it was a horror series, and while an argument could be made that the best era on the show was the Apocalypse arc from Seasons 4-5, there’s some truth to the fact that the horror-infused early years are most notable (not to mention the spookiest too).
Before its world got too big with too many recurring guests and angelic beings, Supernatural was this little show about two brothers hunting monsters across the back roads of America. Be it the universal themes of family and grief, the self-contained nature of the show’s initial run, or the rustic and rural Midwestern atmosphere that the series created, the show’s early years stand the test of time to this day. Sure, the technology is a bit outdated and some of the references might be out-of-touch, but these early years had a heart behind them that would prove impossible to replicate as the series went on.
No doubt, Supernatural is still one of the best and most impressive shows to ever air on television, and no matter if it’s the early or later years, we love it dearly. Still, those first few years had quite the spark.