Today’s topic is ostensibly “Your Least Favorite Season”, but seeing as how I like to stay positive on this blog, I’m going to cheat a bit and talk about why each of the seasons are my favorite, in one way or another. (Though since I’ve already spilled enough words on Season 7, which is in fact my favorite season, I’ll skip it in today’s meta.)
In this first part, I’ll explore why I love Seasons 1-3. (Seasons 4-6 will have to wait until
later today, after work next week, on Meta Monday, sorry):
Season 1: Favorite Monsters
Very early on, Supernatural established itself as a different kind of horror show by pulling from some fantastic deep-end-of-the-pool mythology. Forget vampires and werewolves: This show served up wendigos, shtrigas, even old world gods. And when an episode did demand a more traditional monster – such as a grim reaper or a shapeshifter – you could be sure that the Supernatural incarnation would offer a subversion on the usual associated tropes. (Grim reapers, for example, are usually depicted as faceless and emotionless, while Supernatural’s Reapers not only have faces but personalities—as we saw in “Faith”, they can even hold grudges.)
What I love so much about Season 1 is that these new monsters weren’t made up out of thin air; shrtrigas, wendigos, even the Vanir are all lesser known creatures from real-world legends around the globe. And while the show’s presentation isn’t always accurate, it is at least respectful, in that it attempts to include and highlight legends that go beyond the typical Western European playset. Plus, it was a brilliant move on the writers’ part: For a supernaturally-themed show debuting during the height of the mid-2000s Twilight-inspired freakout, what better way to set itself apart from the pack?
What’s interesting is how the monsters contrast to the rest of the show, which in Season 1 is still fairly by-the-book. Many episodes feature famous urban legends and classic horror stories—what child hasn’t heard the one about Bloody Mary or the Hook Man? – and the character archetypes (the old black soothsayer; the family of inbred killers; the faith healer who believes he is the genuine article) are all rather well-trod tropes in the horror genre. Even the idea of two brothers chasing after an absent father’s shadow is a classic literary theme, showing up in Brothers Karamazov and East of Eden, for starters. That’s to say nothing of the writing, which is generally cheesy and overwrought save for certain standout episodes like “Faith” (fuck yeah Sera Gamble).
So in the end, I think it was the monsters – not to mention the charisma and acting quality of the two main leads – that made viewers take notice, giving the show the lifeblood it needed to make it to later seasons. And thank god it did.
Season 2: Favorite Minor Characters
Ellen. Jo. Ash. Henricksen. Gordon. Ava. Tessa. The Trickster. This season introduced some of the series’ most beloved minor characters and antagonists, while at the same time substantially fleshing out previously introduced characters, such as Bobby and Azazel. Even the one-off minors, like Ronald or Madison, are brilliant and complicated, and hard not to fall in love with.
That’s because Supernatural is a modern-day western, and westerns are only as good as the believability of their universe. You as a viewer have to believe that this frontier which the cowboy calls home is harsh and beautiful and deserving of his protection. In a large part, that belief hinges on the color of the supporting cast; minor characters in a western must be strong, clever and larger-than-life, because that’s what frontier life demands. In harsh circumstances, only the strongest will survive.
Thus you see certain archetypes emerge – Ellen, the overbearing mother; Jo, the maiden desperate to prove herself; Henricksen, the sheriff; Gordon, the vigilante. And we respond so powerfully to them because they are archetypes – that is, they are universally understood patterns of character that resonate within our bones at some primal, base level. Too often writers confuse archetypes with stereotypes (which are popular beliefs about certain types of people), but Supernatural very rarely makes that mistake, for which I am grateful.
Well… I must caveat that last bit, because Supernatural has been rightly criticized for its race problem – most black men are antagonists, while black women are, for the most part, invisible. (In seven seasons, I can only think of five speaking roles for black women— Missouri, Cassie, “Sister” Thibideaux, the raged-out hunter whose name I forget, and Raphael’s second vessel.)
I want to give the writers the benefit of the doubt and believe that they’re trying to subvert stereotype here – black men might be antagonists, for example, but Uriel, Henricksen, and Gordon are not mindlessly evil, and I find their characters genuinely complex and interesting – yet as the seasons go on, racial representation within the show becomes more and more problematic (even as has queer representation improved, but that’s another discussion for a different time). The Supernatural universe has become “whiter” and “whiter”, with fewer POC characters introduced each season – Season 7’s admittedly great cast of minors (Garth, Frank, Charlie, Emma, Abby) looks hopelessly whitebread next to Season 2’s multiracial line-up. It’s hard not to look at Kevin and the Alpha Vamp as tokens.
And that’s another strength of Season 2, because you were just as likely to run up against a black lawman as a Hispanic security guard; and the color of someone’s skin wasn’t necessarily a novelty. Gordon Walker was vile because he was Gordon Walker, not for any other reason, and because there’d already been so many black people on the show, I didn’t find myself stepping back from the show and wondering if the vileness of his character as a statement, intentional or otherwise, from the show’s writers. That’s not to say that Gordon’s race didn’t matter to the character, because undoubtedly racial tension played a huge role in how he became who he did; but from the viewer’s standpoint, Gordon could be taken for what he was: i.e., a monster. But if Gordon Walker appeared in Season 7, where so few other minorities are now present on the show, it would be hard not to see his vileness in a meta context about race and racial perception in pop culture.
And that’s the trap you run into when your universe isn’t diverse enough – you feel forced to write certain kinds of characters, and shy away from presenting truly fleshed out minority characters. The minorities who do make it on screen are softened, even cloying, with flaws that don’t really feel like flaws. Gordon is unabashedly vile. The Alpha Vamp—who should be vile – comes off as downright paternal.
And that’s why so many great characters make their first appearance Season 2 – back then, the Supernatural universe was so diverse that all sorts of strong personalities could emerge – indeed, it would’ve seemed strange if it unfolded any other way.
Season 3: Favorite Individual Episodes
Due to the 2007 Writers Guild of America Strike (wow, remember that?), this season was abbreviated, and only 16 episodes were produced instead of the usual 22-23.
A six-episode deficit could have truly wreaked havoc on a show as serialized as Supernatural – just imagine the carnage if the strike had happened one year later, during the angels and heavenly seals narrative—but serendipitously, Season 3’s overall premise (getting Dean out of his contract) ended up being the perfect one to deal with the unfortunate circumstances. As a plotline, fighting against a ticking clock is broad, adaptable and, ironically, not particularly time-sensitive; for once you start that clock, how the individual minutes themselves unfold matter less than whether the character beats the clock in the end.
Thus, the season is essentially a collection of standalones, tied together loosely with a few anchor episodes. Apart from a line here or there indicating that Dean’s time is running short, most episodes barely mention Hell or the contract. They can be taken on their own merits, and when I’m introducing someone to the show for the first time, usually I show them something from Season 3, such as “Ghostfacers” or “Mystery Spot”.
What’s brilliant about this season is that, for the first time in the series, the show’s writers don’t belabor the point about Dean’s contract –the viewer is always aware of the sands in the hourglass, even without being explicitly reminded.
As the season wears on and the fun, light-hearted episodes continue to resolve with the Winchesters no closer to their goal of getting Dean out, the viewer begins to feel an increasing sense of dread. Sam losing his shoe or Dean bobbing his head to Asia, or gay love piercing the veil – that’s all well and good, but when the laughter stops, the story hasn’t progressed, the problem hasn’t been solved, and in fact, Hell is just one step closer. By “Ghostfacers”, episode 13 of 16, the viewer realizes the boys are still at square 1, and this season will really bring it down to the wire. In other words, Season 3’s lack of structure is in itself suspenseful.
Yet, the viewer never truly doubts that the Winchesters will find some way to get Dean out of his contract, because that’s how “ticking clock” stories work: the protagonist always diffuses the bomb when the timer reads 0:01, never later, never before. That’s why Season 3’s resolution – Dean actually for reals goes to Hell – was such a gut punch. The bomb went off. The Winchesters failed. That’s not how the story is supposed to work.
I think, in some ways, Season 3’s abbreviated set list worked to the writers’ advantage. Had the season had more episodes to explore additional attempts by the Winchesters to free Dean from his contract, Dean’s eventual fate would have infuriated viewers. (After all, if he was always going to go to Hell, what was the point of all that struggle?) On the flip side, if the season had been longer, but still maintained the same fluid structure and high ratio of standalone-to-plot episodes, the season might’ve frustrated viewers looking for a meatier meta-narrative (which is a common complaint about Season 7’s seemingly loosey-goosey structure as well).
So in many ways, Season 3 is good because it is short. The writers didn’t just adapt their season to admittedly crappy circumstances; they used the strike as an opportunity to tell a story they couldn’t have otherwise pulled off. And it’s good they did, because Season 3 is integral in setting up what went down in Season 4 and beyond.
Coming up soon: Seasons 4-6