I’ve been watching supernatural since its beginning but I didn’t start actually reviewing the episodes until last year. So, as a lead up to the eleventh season of Supernatural, I’d like to do theme reviews of some of my favorite episodes from each season. Episodes I feel best embody the overall themes of the show and the relationship of the Winchesters. (And for added fun, I’m going to be completely random.)
We’ll start with the episode that I blame for this whole thing: The Pilot. And the woman at whose feet we can lay the blame for everything we see and know afterwards. The wheels are set in motion by Mary Winchester and we start with her.
It’s an ideal family dynamic. Mom, Dad, little boy and baby, but there’s already a worm in this apple. Later that night, Mary gets up to check on her baby boy. Realizing that the man in the room with her son is not her husband, (he’s asleep in front of the TV) , the show gives us our first jump scare, and we’re not even five minutes in.
But that’s one of the basic premises of the show. Belief in one thing, but then finding out the horrifying truth that things are not as you thought they were. During the first season, it’s how the show provides most of its basic scares. Hearing his wife screaming, only to find her gutted and burning on his baby boy’s ceiling, John utters the fateful words that little Dean will carry with him for the rest of his life, causing no end of pain and misery for both his children.
“Take your brother outside as fast as you can! Don’t look back! Now Dean!”
The look of horror and misery on John’s face, as he cradles his babies, on the hood of the Chevy Impala that they will, from that time onward, refer to as home, indicates a man who has lost any and all hope for happiness. His vision has narrowed down to one thing…vengeance.
If movies and tv shows have taught us nothing else, it’s that the cost of vengeance, is blood.
John’s baby boy is all grown up and attending college. It’s an idyllic situation, too. He’s just starting in life, he has friends, a girl he loves and the beginning of a career. When we first meet Sam, he has no backstory. We have no idea what he’s gone through between the death of his mother and now. That story will be fleshed out over the next four seasons.
Later that evening, Sam hears a noise in his and Jessica’s apartment and goes to investigate, paralleling what happened in the Winchester home, two decades ago. I love this scene, when we first meet grownup Dean. He’s a total, four-score, jerk and I hated him immediately. I got over that, eventually, though.
It’s a beautifully shot, chiaroscuro scene, with only the backlighlighting off the brothers clothing to give us any hints of their fight. The cinematography and fight choreography is just gorgeous here, and remains so, throughout the whole of the first season. I am a sucker for a good fight scene, apparently.
I think this is the moment I I fell in love with this show.
After the brothers have calmed themselves down, Dean ogles Jessica for a minute, then gets to his reason for visiting. He’s lost Dad. It’s indicative of Dean’s nature that the moment he thinks their father might be dead, it’s Sam he goes to. It’s not as if he’s never been alone. He’s been hunting alone the entire time, so what emotion actually prompted him to seek out his brother?
Sam agrees to accompany him, in the search for their father, for two days. He has a life he needs to get back to. While they’re hunting their Dad, the two of them begin to hash out some old issues and we start to get some idea of what kind of life Sam had before he went to school, including the fight with their father that prompted his departure, and tore Dean’s life apart. Dean would have been content for the three of them to go on living and hunting like that forever. It’s Sam’s departure (and subsequent return) that is the catalyst for some serious self reflection, for him. And throughout the first season, we start to get some inkling that maybe Dean wants (wanted) a little more out of life.
Much of the show’s scares, at least in the first season, are also based on urban myths. This episode combines the urban myth of the Phantom Hitchhiker with the Hispanic myth of La Llorona, the Woman in White, or The Grieving Mother. The Phantom Hitchhiker is often the ghost of a young woman who just wants to go home, and this is combined with the myth of the Mother who drowned her children, whose guilt and shame will not allow her to rest. She spends eternity washing children’s clothing in local bodies of water, or luring and drowning other people’s children. Often, she is a portent of death, like The Black Dog, or The Banshee. If you see her, someone you know will die soon.
This particular ghost is hunting young men on the highway. Pretending to need a ride home but killing the Good Samaritan before they reach it, because she’s punishing all men as stand-ins for the lover who left her, and trying to avoid the ghosts of the children she lost. Sam and Dean, with the assistance of the Impala, (we eventually learn is named Baby,) solve the mystery and her dilemma, by crashing the car into the house, where the children wait to take her home.
This is also one of the show’s great premises as well. The plot is often an echo of whatever emotional dilemma the brothers are dealing with that week. Sometimes it sets up backstory but often the resolution of the plot is an indication of where Sam and Dean are in their relationship, at that time. Is it cracked, fixed, stable, broken? What is the issue and does it need more talking?
La Llorona’s inability to deal with the loss of her children costs innumerable lives and her need for revenge prevents her from finding any rest. This is a parallel to the story of the Winchesters. This is John’s story, specifically. The loss of the wife/mother created an imbalance in their universe, to such an incredible degree that, just like her, they can never go home again, and spend all of their time riding the back roads of the country, seeking vengeance and killing. And eventually costing innumerable lives.
They, too, are portents of death. To see the Winchesters means someone or something is going to die.
If the show really wants to parallel La Llorona’s story, with that of the Winchesters, then at some point, the brothers have to stop killing and traveling, and be allowed to go home and find rest.
Sam gets back to school in time to witness Jessica’s death, disemboweled and burning on the ceiling. It is Dean who saves him from the fire again, so that the show ends exactly where it began, with the brothers lives upheaved, once again, by the loss of a prominent female figure. Females are often stand-ins, on the show, for all that is good, stable and peaceful, in the world. That the brothers cannot have women in their lives, is a given, if that is the show’s philosophy.
“Take your brother outside as fast as you can! Don’t look back!”
The show begins as it means to go on, as Dean follows this order, for the next thirty years. Because of that first loss, he has a nearly, pathological inability to deal with any other, which will at one point cost him his soul, his life, his brother’s life , and eventually cause the destruction of the world, several times, over the next decade.
This is what John started.
(But the catalyst for so much misery is that very first decision made by Mary, because of her inability to deal with loss. For the backstory on that see the episode, The Song Remains the Same, in season five.)