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An Ode to Supernatural

"My father was an obsessed bastard! All that crap he dumped on me about protecting Sam, that was his crap. He's the one that couldn't protect his family! He's the one who let mom die! Who wasn't there for Sam. I always was! It wasn't fair! I didn't deserve what he put on me."

— Dean Winchester, Season 3, episode 10, "Supernatural"

"Supernatural" has been on the air for 15 seasons. The current season will be its last. This brings mixed feelings in its relatively small yet passionate fanbase (of which I include myself). One of the most fascinating aspects of “Supernatural” is that its fame is limited to its network and fanbase: there isn't much outside chatter of what is going on with the show, even though it is and has been the flagship series of The CW. Many people watched for the first five or six seasons, and then fell away. Others have stuck around. Some people started watching at age 15, and are now 30 years old and still watching. Critics started off reviewing the show, but stopped eventually. The only comparison to “Supernatural” may be “The X-Files” (a huge influence on the show's early aesthetic and structure), although “X-Files’” viewership was much larger. “Supernatural” premiered in 2005, is closing up shop in 2020, and is one of the few shows that bridged the gap between pre-and post-social media worlds. But the show has survived its ups and downs, its controversial seasons, its series of show-runners ... nothing has driven the faithful away. I am currently participating in a thread on Twitter which has gone on for seven days straight. People take breaks to sleep and then hop back on to join the flow. “Supernatural” is a unique phenomenon in television, particularly because its two charismatic stars did not jump ship at any point (the way David Caruso so catastrophically did). This means that Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki have spent their 20s and their 30s (and Ackles is now into his 40s) exploring the same characters, finding depths to plumb. This is almost unheard of. It is the show's ace in the hole. 

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Why has “Supernatural” generated such a loyal fanbase? It depends on who you ask. The fans are divided into (sometimes warring) factions. The hostility has increased as the series comes to a close, perhaps because of the collective impending separation anxiety. Who you "ship" is paramount: different people ship different things and "never the twain shall meet." I did not ship characters or pairings, I shipped the show. I saw the show through the continuous arc of two fascinating central characters, brothers Sam and Dean Winchester, and I was also drawn to the intense and dark beauty of the show's look (particularly in early seasons). I reveled in the references (a small list: visual nods to "Citizen Kane," "High Noon," “Jaws," "The Shining," "Beauty and the Beast"—the Cocteau version not the Disney version, "Cat People"—the Tourneur version not the Schrader version, "Strangers on a Train," “Nosferatu", even "The Searchers" gets one or two nods ... it was so incredibly rich and textured).

Eric Kripke created the show (and remained with it for the first five seasons). His inspirations were multifold: his love of urban legends, American folklore, and horror movies. His love of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” was an influence (Kripke observed "Buffy" wasn't about vampires so much as it was about high school. “Supernatural” wasn't about hunting monsters, it was about family.). There are elements which feel eerily familiar, like a dream filtered through a nightmare: the television series “Route 66” is present, as is “Quantum Leap.” (On an obsessive note: one of the lead characters in “Quantum Leap” is named "Sam," while the other character is played by "Dean" Stockwell. Coincidence?). Kerouac's On the Road exists as a ghostly echo, Sam and Dean, unmoored from domesticity in restless constant motion across the forgotten byways of America. (Obsessive note, again: In On the Road, the two lead characters are named "Sal"—close enough—and "Dean" Moriarty).

“Supernatural” is the story of two brothers, Dean and Sam Winchester (played, respectively, by Ackles and Padalecki). The pilot begins "22 years ago." A family gets ready for bed, father (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), mother (Samantha Smith), and two sons, Dean four years old, Sam six months old in his crib. All is idyllic until the mother senses—like Miss Clavell in the Madeleine books—"Something is not right," and goes to the nursery where she sees a dark figure standing over her baby's crib. Next thing you know she is pinned to the ceiling, blood staining the center of her nightgown, and the room bursts into flames. Mother dies, father and two sons escape, their lives changed forever. What it was that killed her has obsessed the father ever since, and he raised his sons in a commando-military atmosphere, crisscrossing the country tracking down clues. Sam escapes to college (where the story picks up in the pilot). Dean stayed behind, a devoted acolyte to his father. 

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The pilot works in archetypes, and archetypes are extremely flexible when in the right hands. The show got years of mileage out of the pilot, which should be studied, along with “The Sopranos” pilot, for how to set the scene, and establish characters and mood. “Supernatural” was haunted by the Lost Mother on the ceiling bleeding from the womb area, and the strong Marine father unable to protect his family. The two brothers developed very differently. Sam had no memory of a time before, doesn't remember his mother. Dean does. No two siblings have the same childhood, even though raised in the same family. Dean is in thrall to his father: he drives his dad's '67 Chevy Impala, wears his dad's coat, listens to the music his dad likes. Part of the early seasons show Dean slowly breaking away from his father’s influence, and becoming his own man. Sam was "rebellious" and didn't want to spend his life in dingy motel rooms, killing horrible things. He wanted an education, a normal life. The family system is a bell jar, though, and Sam de-camping for college is seen as a huge betrayal. This is all sick and twisted and Freudian, reaping rewards for years to come.

To direct the pilot, Kripke tapped David Nutter, who had directed “The X-Files” and “Millennium”: Kripke wanted to establish “Supernatural” with a strong attention-getting style. Aaron Schneider, who had won an Oscar the previous year for his short film "Two Soldiers" was the cinematographer for the pilot, an essential job for a show prioritizing mood over almost everything else. After Schneider came the genius Serge Ladouceur, who has shot an astonishing 309 episodes. The first season is so dark and shadowy there are times where you can't see the action. The look is steeped in old-school gritty horror. Kim Manners, so crucial in establishing the "look" of “The X-Files,” came on early as director and producer. (Manners, who died in 2009, was paid tribute to in a 2016 “X-Files” episode, when David Duchovny leans against a tombstone engraved with: "In Memory of Kim Manners.") Manners' influence on “Supernatural” cannot be measured: he cared about beauty, cinema, emotion. His work is so distinct you can clock his episodes within 15 seconds. He also understood how to shoot Padalecki and Ackles, and it took some figuring-out in the beginning. Both are outrageously good-looking, but in different ways. Padalecki is dark, with brown hair, deep-set dark eyes, an angular face. Ackles has pale skin sprinkled with freckles, light green eyes, and looks somehow softer, more glamorous. It took Kim Manners and Serge Ladouceur combined to figure out how to film these men in a way that elevated them, mythologized them. You could see how on another show, they would just be cast as good-looking hunks, no different from any other good-looking hunk. But on "Supernatural," they are mythic and iconic. 

Both came to the series with noteworthy credits under their belts (Ackles' early stint on “Days of Our Lives,” as well as a regular on “Dark Angel,” “Dawson’s Creek,” and “Smallville.” Padalecki was well-known from his role on “Gilmore Girls.”) What can't really be planned on, although everyone hopes for it, is the elusive thing called chemistry. Chemistry is so important that paired-up auditions are called "chemistry reads." The chemistry between Ackles and Padalecki is the stuff that dreams are made of: they can communicate at this point via ESP, but it was there all along, a spontaneity in response to one another, active listening and talking, an alive sense of engagement.

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For the first two seasons, it was mainly just the two of them. Other characters were added as the series progressed: there was Bobby (the wonderful Jim Beaver, who has written occasionally for this site), a drunk old coot with a vast knowledge of the supernatural, and Ellen and Jo (Samantha Ferris and Alona Tal), a mother and daughter who run a roadhouse populated by "hunters." More characters arrived: Castiel (Misha Collins) came along in season four, a celestial being who becomes an important ally, although he has decreased in relevance as the series progressed (he has a strong fan base). In recent seasons (season 12 to now), “Supernatural” has morphed into an ensemble show, with some unfortunate results. Other characters dominate whole plot-lines, plots which have nothing to do with Sam and Dean. This has been controversial among the fans, to say the least. The initial premise—two brothers roaring across the country in an old muscle car, with a trunk full of monster-killing tools—is now something less gritty, less blue-collar, less dark. 

Nevertheless, the show has found innovative ways to dig into the central relationship. Sometimes events drive the brothers apart. Sam is drawn to the dark side, seduced by a demon named Ruby (Genevieve Padalecki—Padalecki's now-wife, they met during filming). Dean shacks up with a woman (Cindy Sampson) and her son (Nicholas Elia) for one season, displaying a yearning for domestic life never before revealed. It is shown repeatedly that Sam and Dean are each other's Achilles heel, that dark forces will use one against the other. Terrible choices have to be made. Both make enormous sacrifices for "the family business." When they are present to this, when they feel the cost, the show becomes a stone-cold family tragedy. None of this would be possible without the sensitive, emotional, subtle, and often hilarious performances of Ackles and Padalecki. (If you only saw the promotional material for “Supernatural,” you might think it was a self-serious macho-posturing-dudes show. It's not at all. The creators were smart enough to recognize early on how funny they both were, and make space for it.)

Ackles and Padalecki are two of the best-kept secrets in show business. Neither reached for the brass ring of wider cultural fame. They recognized the value of “Supernatural,” as the unbelievable gift of being given the space to develop and investigate the same characters over 15 years. Their careers have more in common with the actors in the old Hollywood studio system than the careers of their contemporaries. Actors like John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Humphrey Bogart, brought to the table specific personalities, essences, but it is a mistake to say "they just played themselves." What they did was explore those essences, subtly and with great skill, over 30, 40 years of a career. This is the gift Ackles and Padalecki have accepted (and created). Recently, Ackles was asked at a convention what he would like to do after “Supernatural” ends, and he said that whatever comes along, he hoped it would have the depth of Dean Winchester. 

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As the show nears to a close, I am flooded with memories of favorite episodes:

Season 1: "Scarecrow" and "Something Wicked"
Season 2: the hilarious "Rashomon" spoof "Tall Tales"
Season 3: "A Very Supernatural Christmas" and "Mystery Spot"
Season 4: "Monster Movie" (filmed in black and white, an extended homage to Warner Brothers' old monster movies), "On the Head of a Pin" 
Season 5: "The End," "Changing Channels"
Season 6: "Live Free or Twihard," the meta "The French Mistake," "Frontierland"
Season 7: "The Mentalists"
Season 8 and Season 9: very few fans like these seasons. I love them.
Season 10: "Fan Fiction," the 200th episode

And on and on. There have, perhaps, been diminishing returns as the series went on, expected in such a long-running show. But to maintain the high level for as long as it did is a miracle, not to mention watching the two leads go from boys to men, in real time, finding endless variations on the themes established in Kripke's pilot, creating two characters fans feel like they know personally. 

The countdown has begun. There is much fan speculation about how the series will end. Will Sam and Dean choose to go out in a “blaze of glory,” Butch and Sundance, Thelma and Louise style? Both films have been name-checked by the characters, a possible foreshadowing. Or will they take to the road again, getting into the Chevy Impala, ready to face the dark forces out there again, together? I fluctuate on what I think would be better and most appropriate. In the meantime, I keep thinking of the lyrics to Kansas' "Carry On My Wayward Son," the unofficial theme song of the series: 

Carry on my wayward son
There’ll be peace when you are done
Lay your weary head to rest
Don’t you cry,
Don’t you cry no more,

I will miss “Supernatural” when it's gone. 

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