04th Jun2014

Ten Best: Episodes of ‘Supernatural’

by Nathan Smith

supernatural-cast

The road so far …

It wasn’t exactly easy for genre television in 2005. Well, it’s really never been easy for genre television ever in the history of television, but in 2005, a deluge of genre shows premiered and almost all of them had fallen prey to the swift axe of the television gods by the next year. Start by thinking about television now. It’s a fruitful time for horror and science fiction and fantasy. There are a multitude of genre shows, running the gamut from The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, to True Blood and The Vampire Diaries. They’re all massive hits.

Now, think of all of the shows that premiered around that time in 2005. There was Surface, and that was cancelled after ten episodes by NBC. Invasion, a well-regarded show written by Shaun Cassidy (who created one of my favorite shows, American Gothic) and that was cancelled after a full twenty-two episode season by ABC, who cancelled in turn, Frank Spotnitz’s Night Stalker, a warmed over reboot of “Kolchak: The Night Stalker,” and that lasted six episodes. Or Threshold, which was cancelled after nine episodes by CBS, despite some genre talent behind the scenes.

So, aside from the occasional megahit like Lost, (which had previously paved the way for all these different types of genre television to hit your screens), it was all quiet on the western front for anything remotely resembling genre television. And no one could’ve told you that a television series on a fledgling network would’ve grown to be a consistently entertaining show with a season count now moving into the number ten, and an episode count nearing two hundred, and showing no signs of slowing down, it’s still flexing its muscles as creatively as possible.

In 2005, Supernatural premiered with two leads in Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki and a story that promised that you could drop in at any time, and nothing from the plot could be lost. Of course, that was way back in season one, and now the plot became tighter and much more complex. The two men had WB-ready looks and charisma to boot. They also had the ability to give anything they were thrown at them their all, Ackles especially, just take a look at season nine’s “Dog Dean Afternoon,” for complete proof of that statement. The actors had bankability. Ackles had fluttered around in different WB shows like Smallville and Dawson’s Creek, and Padalecki was on Gilmore Girls. It even allowed Ackles to step behind the camera, starting with season six’s stellar “Weekend at Bobby’s.”

Supernatural had a stacked deck going against it from the get-go. First, there was the torrential downpour of aforementioned shows, and the fact that The WB was heading out the door. Dawson’s Creek was gone. Angel had been cancelled prematurely years prior, and by the end of the first season of Supernatural The WB then folded and mutated with UPN to form The CW bringing Supernatural with it (and nearly Invasion). It even had a schedule change halfway through the first season, leaping from Tuesday to Thursday, which in any other case could’ve killed the show. But, here’s the thing, it didn’t. It thrived. People moved with the show wherever it went. It wasn’t the greatest ratings for a show, but the show had begun forming an increasingly ravenous fan base due to its two leads and consistently compelling storyline. It’s recommended to check out Nicholas Knight’s fantastic season companions. There are loads of interviews, behind the scenes photos, and the thought process behind the breaking of every single episode.

The architect behind the complex (some would say too complex in season nine) mythology was Eric Kripke, a self-proclaimed horror geek who fostered a love of classic rock and muscle cars. He had worked on the short-lived Tarzan for The WB and had a horror film to his credit in Boogeyman, (which got its digs in season two’s fantastic “Hollywood Babylon,” the first of many meta digs at the show and its talent). And initially, Kripke, saw a show about a reporter travelling from town to town hunting monsters and urban legends, and wanted to bring it life. It was a kind of reconfigured Route 66 meets Kolchak: The Night Stalker.

But, he changed it to the simplest, bare-bones of plots, two brothers hunting monsters and travelling from town to town. It’s a small tweak, but opened the show up to a world of possibilities. While the show mainly alternated between urban legend based monster of the week cases, and checking back in with the mythology set up in the pilot, soon the writers were pushing the boundaries of hour-long storytelling by opening up the world, and by season two, the show had found a new form of telling the story. He assembled a staff of writers, like Sera Gamble, Jeremy Carver, Ben Edlund, and John Shiban, all of whom brought fantastic elements to the writing and exploration to the Winchester’s lives.

The storytelling was never boring for one thing. Kripke and his writers mandated that while the story would keep flowing, they never let it linger one storyline for too long. After all, the main plot that sets the story going is effectively ended in season two, while they push forward and pay off later plots they set up as soon as the first season rather effectively. And because of the rubber band storytelling they have as a result of the series’ logline, it allows the writers to break stories that range from siege movie to found footage, through meta storytelling to ghost story, all while fitting into the concept that Eric Kripke set up and respecting the rules he established for the show.

The show’s weathered its fair share of change. First, the show experienced a schedule change at the start of its sixth season, moving to Fridays, and then in its eighth season to Tuesdays, and finally dropping to Wednesdays in its ninth season. It still draws respectable numbers despite these schedule shifts. It also saw a change in show runners when Eric Kripke left after season five, and placed the reins in the hands of capable lieutenant Sera Gamble. It was a lukewarm season six, but still had some great parts to it, and that mindset would continue on into season seven, which had a little more focus but not enough to attempt to steer itself right. Only now, with Jeremy Carver at the helm do things seem to be turning in the right direction. Season eight found itself strengthening the mythology and shining light on some of the other aspects, and he’s stayed the course even as the show heads into season ten.

Here are ten episodes of Supernatural that detail the journey of The Winchesters, as they navigate the increasingly gray world, all while “you know, saving people, hunting things. The family business.”

SPOILERS BEYOND HERE!

“Pilot” (season one, episode one)

Once Kripke has settled on what the story was going to cover, he had to figure out the why. He bounced from many things as to why Sam would get back out on the road with Dean and continue hunting monsters. And what they settled on works well. The death of a loved one pushing the character makes for fantastic drama, and gives the pilot a cyclical nature. It also showcases the charisma between Padalecki and Ackles, and really made you feel like they were brothers, that they loved each other, and ultimately loathe each other at times, which is a road that will be well-traveled in the show’s twilight years. Though the first monster of the week episode pans out with a whimper, the case is interesting, the end not so much. Through Kripke’s script and David Nutter’s ace pilot direction, the introduction to the world of “Supernatural” is fast-paced and introduces the elements with zero fuss, and in the first minutes creates a mythology that will last through the first five seasons.

“What Is and What Should Never Be” (season two, episode twenty)

Where season one was meat and potatoes storytelling in the strictest sense, season two allowed for expansion in the world of The Winchesters and allowed for different types of storytelling when it came to monster of the week territory. This late season two episode has a kindred spirit in “Normal Again,” a season six episode of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” by presenting the theory of the alternate world for Dean Winchester, after he’s attacked by a djinn on a routine case. It makes sense for Dean to have this particular story, because he’s the one who lost it all by losing his mother. It’s a well-acted episode, look at Ackles’ graveside confession to his father, and illustrates the point that on “Supernatural,” you don’t get the girl, the gold watch and everything, even if you’ve earned it. It’s a sobering viewpoint that The Winchesters can’t earn happiness, that they aren’t allowed to have it. Even in a false world, things are cracked and broken. That’s why this episode is one of the perfect ones. Plus, it earns brownie points for including Joey Ramone’s excellent cover of “What a Wonderful World.”

“Jus in Bello” (season three, episode twelve)

Because of the writer’s strike in 2007, it caused a lot of television programs to rethink their seasons, and “Supernatural” was affected by this in a great way, but Kripke and his writers brilliantly used that deadline to come up with some great things for their third truncated season. This episode was even slated to be the finale, if they were unable to meet the writer’s strike deadline. They started thinking outside the box, and this episode was another great example of how they were able to utilize different types of stories within the parameters of the story they set. “Jus in Bello” is a classic siege story in the vein of John Carpenter’s “Assault on Precinct 13, effectively ramping up the demon storyline, bringing to an end the cat and mouse game with nemesis and eventual friend Charles Henriksen, and finally setting the stage by introducing Lilith, a villain that will plague the boys right up into the season four finale. It also continues the heartbreaking trend of making Sam and Dean realize that just because they save the day; it doesn’t mean they’ve saved the day.

“No Rest for the Wicked” (season three, episode sixteen)

Season three was an uneven season. It wasn’t particularly clear where the writers were going in the earlier episodes, (and there were some real stinkers, hello “Red Sky at Morning,”) but once they reached the back half, everything started to become more focused. It’s interesting to read the “Supernatural” Companion for season three, because Kripke comes up with a parallel for Dean’s impending deal with Lilith and the writer’s strike. And because of that writer’s strike, the bullpen at “Supernatural” faced a decision before they had to put their pens down. What to do with Dean’s deal? And they came up with a simple response. Send him to the pit and leave him there screaming for mercy. It’s an effective ending, and one that sets up a great game for the stellar fourth season. It works because it simply lets us down. Sam and Dean always saved the day up until now. And Dean’s trip would be a catalyst for things to come for a long time. Plus, they cemented Lilith as the creepiest little kid on television next to Billy Mumy on “The Twilight Zone.”

“Lazarus Rising” (season four, episode one)

Season four is an excellent season of television in the world of “Supernatural.” It started a new intriguing mythology by way of “The Prophecy,” warring angels and demons, a plot that is still going strong in season nine. It completes threads of story with Sam that have been going since season one (which would have started in season three, had the writer’s strike not prevented that. It introduces longtime fan-favorite Castiel to the mix and in doing so, comes up with a clever way to get Dean out of his untimely grave. And those opening moments, where it’s just Dean wandering without a clue as to where he is, is pitch perfect. As ably directed by longtime director Kim Manners (his second to last directorial effort before he passed away), the show is allowed to just flow for a few moments, which is something not many shows would allow to happen, or at the very least sparse dialogue. And from this episode on, the mythology roars forward to a breakneck conclusion with great monster of the week episodes sprinkled throughout.

“Swan Song” (season five, episode 22)

Try and forget about season six for a minute. I know there are some of you who wished they could. Think about how perfect this ending was. It was Eric Kripke’s last episode as show runner; though not his last episode written (he came back for the so-so season six finale). It provided an ending with closure. Dean got his “happy” ending, Lucifer and Michael were effectively dealt with, and Chuck was made out to be something more than a schlubby writer with a drinking problem. Even though the episode ends with a shot that threatens to undo all the fantastic set up before it, it still has some poignant moments, like Chuck’s narration telling the story of the Impala aka the “Metallicar” (which functions as the third Winchester), or the rapid-fire mini clip show that comes at a moment of near fatality that ultimately transcends its way to pure poignancy. Swan song, indeed.

“The French Mistake” (season six, episode 15)

Season six wasn’t an absolute mess. It’s a season that had lots of great ideas (Soulless Sam), good episodes (“Clap Your Hands If You Believe”), but ultimately a season that didn’t know what it wanted to do. Was it about Sam without a soul? Was it about Castiel and the War in Heaven? Was it Purgatory and the Mother of All? Maybe it was Crowley working with Castiel to betray Sam and Dean. Well, it was all of these things. It was the season-long equivalent of Ricky Bobby not knowing what to do with his hands. It couldn’t have been easy for Sera Gamble to take over for Eric Kripke after he’d shepherded five tightly plotted seasons, but she succeeded mostly. This late season episode, written by ace writer Ben Edlund, and titled after a song at the end of “Blazing Saddles,” did many things that “Supernatural” does well; it bites the hand that feeds it. It pokes fun at the actors, producers, takes literal potshots at Eric Kripke, pokes fun at Misha Collins’ Twitter fetish, and somehow even manages to work in the plot of the season’s arc. Sort of. It’s a very funny episode in a season swarming with darkness.

“Death’s Door” (season seven, episode ten)

It’s hard to remember a time when Bobby Singer wasn’t synonymous with Supernatural. He didn’t appear in season one until the very end, and intermittently appeared in season two, but by season three, he was the full-fledged father figure the boys didn’t have. It got to a point where the viewer cared about Bobby as much as Sam and Dean did. But, the harshness of reality is that at some point, the boys needed to be out on their own, all alone in this great big world, without Bobby and his books. And so, in season seven, they presented this phenomenal episode, a journey through Bobby’s psyche after he was gunned down by slithery baddie Dick Roman (a great performance, one that reminded me of Mayor Richard Wilkins from “Buffy” season three). It’s purely exists as a showcase for Jim Beaver to act to the rafters in a performance that could’ve, and should’ve won him a Guest Star Emmy. It shows that deep down he loves these boys, more than he’d ever let them know, and though it wasn’t really the end of Bobby Singer (he’d flitter about for the rest of the season as a ghost, and even make a welcome return in season eight) it is a definitive swan song for a grumpy whiskey swilling hunter that doesn’t try to earn our love, but sure did. And it’s hard to believe that any Supernatural fan had dry eyes by the episode’s end.

“As Time Goes By” (season eight, episode ten)

Most shows as they age would adopt a “stay the course” mentality. It’s easy to do, really. Why deviate from what works when for all intents and purposes; the trains are running on time. Still, after Sera Gamble left at the start of season eight, a new world order needed to be set forth, and it was by returning writer and now show runner, Jeremy Carver. Sure, it was a return to the angels and demons war that some people weren’t exactly pining for, but Carver and his writers figured out a way to add a new twist to a well-worn story: The Men of Letters. The Men of Letters storyline allowed for a new mythology to be grafted onto Sam and Dean’s lives, giving them a home in the bunker after all their years of motel hopping, and adding a new villain in Abaddon, as a Knight of Hell. It allows us a brief look back in time at Henry Winchester, and tells us that more than one type of hunter exists in this world, and continuing the trend of homemade weaponry, creates the Devil’s Trap bullet which is pretty cool in its own right. It was a welcome change to a show that was aging gracefully.

“First Born” (season nine, episode 11)

Again, here’s the theme of change. Season nine continued the increasingly chaotic war between angels, and it put a divide between Sam and Dean that would last a lot longer than normal. That was a welcome change, as was the interesting element of bringing Cain to the mix and introducing the First Blade, as a means to end Abaddon permanently. It allows us for moments with Dean and Crowley who had become a type of frenemies that are willing to kill each other if it benefitted them. Timothy Omundson gives a fantastic performance as Cain, the grizzled first killer, and the scene with Omundson as he looks upon Dean fighting demons with glee are excellent. The man adds gravitas to what could’ve been a one note character. “First Born” also introduces to viewers a new arc for Dean that has seriously dark repercussions down the road, but repercussions that keep things moving and mutating in a manner you wouldn’t see from a show this long in the tooth. It also started up a new mythology for season ten, making this show one that’s enjoyable even as it moves into its new season.
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You can check out Supernatural’s entire run so far on Netflix and the first eight seasons are available on DVD and Blu-Ray

Here are 10 more that didn’t make the cut, but came very, very close: “Devil’s Trap” (season one, episode 22); “All Hell Breaks Loose” (season two, episodes 21/22); “Ghostfacers!” (season three, episode 13); “Death Takes a Holiday” (season four, episode 15); “The End” (season five, episode four); “Weekend at Bobby’s” (season six, episode four); “Meet the New Boss” (season seven, episode one); “Hunteri Heroici” (season eight, episode eight); and “Holy Terror” (season nine, episode nine)

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4 Responses to “Ten Best: Episodes of ‘Supernatural’”

  • cheryl42

    Yes Swan Song the perfect ending to the series. Dean finally getting his apple pie life, Castiel the new sheriff in heaven, Chuck as God, Bobby resurrected and still hunting and Michael and Lucifer locked in the cage apocalypse averted. Yes the perfect….oh wait, Sam tortured for all eternity by two very pissed off Arc Angels. Yeah no….very happy there was a season 6.

  • Nathan Smith

    I see it as the perfect ending because, it’s not a perfect ending for all involved.

    • cheryl42

      I suppose if you aren’t a fan of Sam it would have rocked your world but…. just no. Maybe the way EK had intended for it to end with both brothers falling into the cage and a movie to get them out…ok I’ll buy that.

  • Boone

    First of all, i love Shaun Cassidy. “Invasion” and “American Gothic” are two of my favorite show ever (RIP to them :((

    Now Supernatural…
    Your list great exceprt the episodes after “Swan Song”. I love the Kripke’s era (season 1 to 5). The others was meh to me. Of course “The French Mistake” is hilarious but the season 6 is to uneven to SPN standards so the following seasons.