Saturday, May 18, 2013

Carry on my wayward son -- or a tale of two brothers (a Supernatural primer)

CASTIEL: You really think it's wise to be drinking on the job?
DEAN:      What show you been watching?
~Supernatural, Season 8 "Sacrifice"

**Yes, you need to be watching. You know who you are.
You're late to the party but there's still plenty of time. 

The CW's Supernatural just wrapped up its eighth season bringing the episode count to an impressive 172. That's quite an achievement for a show that faced cancellation after low second season ratings. Since that uncertain time Supernatural has only continued to grow more confident, maturing and even reinventing itself. While the overall story arc of two monster hunting brothers from Lawrence Kansas has remained the same, it's the amazing amount of permutations and detailed world-building of the mythology the writers have been able to consistently pull off that has kept the show vibrant and a loyal legion of fans coming back for more.

"House rules, Sammy. Driver picks the music,
shotgun shuts his cake hole."
The show can be goddam scary at times featuring a level of special effects not often seen on network TV. Yes I admit, the eye-candy is appealing — Jensen Ackles, Jared Padalecki, Misha Collins –  pick your poison, they are all pretty yummy. But the show offers so much more than cheap thrills. The writing is truly exceptional, the scares truly scary, the tears earned, and the humor side-splitting. Throw in an awesome soundtrack and you've got yourselves a winner, ladies and gentleman. Series creator Eric Kripke has described the importance of music to the show's development this way:
There's a real energy in the Midwest to miles and miles of flat farmland and two-lane blacktops that stretches into infinity and you're jamming classic rock as loud as it can go. There's something so mythic, so American about that, and that's the energy I wanted the show to have.
"Carry On My Wayward Son" by the band Kansas has become the show's signature theme song, the lyrics of which only become more relevant with each passing season.

The '67 Impala - grace, style, beauty, curves,
and a chrome grill to die for!

When he began writing Supernatural, Kripke imagined a modern, urban Western of two heroes who would arrive in town, defeat the villain, kiss the girl and ride out again (except they wouldn't be on horseback, but driving a muscle car and the villains wouldn't be bankrobbers but all sorts of monster ripped from the lore of urban legends). The muscle car became the iconic '67 Chevy Impala and the monsters would eventually include Archangels, Lucifer and even Death himself, but that original simple formula of two brothers saving people one job at a time driving across America in their trusted "steed" still stands.

Pilot - "Dad's on a hunting trip.
And he hasn't been home in a few days."
In the Pilot, older brother Dean crashes Sam's college apartment at Standford. It's the middle of the night. Sam goes to investigate, hyper alert to danger (we don't know this yet, but he has good reason to fear the worst). There's a tussle. Then an all out wrestling match, brother against brother. Younger brother Sam gets the upper hand (but perhaps Dean wasn't trying all that hard). When Sam demands to know what Dean wants we get a sense these brothers are at odds with one another and that's confirmed when Dean asks "If I'da called, would you have picked up?" This isn't a happy reunion. Sam is angry and just wants Dean to leave. Until Dean utters fourteen words that will launch the Winchesters on their quest across the backroads of America and give rise to 172 episodes and counting:
"Dad's on a hunting trip. And he hasn't been home in a few days."
Turns out "hunting trip" isn't referring to moose or deer, but The Woman In White. This will be the first supernatural case we see the boys work, but as the show progresses, we learn they have been doing this since they were kids with a father -- John Winchester -- who has trained the brothers like soldiers to fight in a war against creatures that the rest of the world dismisses as fairy tales.
SAM: When I told Dad I was scared of the thing in my closet, he gave me a .45.
DEAN: Well, what was he supposed to do?
SAM: I was nine years old! He was supposed to say, don't be afraid of the dark.
DEAN: Don't be afraid of the dark? Are you kidding me? Of course you should be afraid of the dark. You know what's out there.
John Winchester with his young sons
John's obsessed to find and destroy the demon who killed his wife and robbed his sons of their mother when they were just children. Sam is the young, defiant one who wants to rebel against his father's way of life and flees to Standford. Dean is the eldest, obedient son, loyal to a fault. John's disappearance will bring the brothers back together in an uneasy alliance of "saving people, hunting things, the family business."

At its heart, the show is really the story of two brothers, how they love each other, how they hurt each other, how they tear each other apart and build each other back up again. As they fight to save the world, the real fight becomes to save each other. Theirs has been called "an epic love story" and in a lot of ways, that's just what it is. In the words of Eric Kripke, it's about family:
But me, I'd say this was a test... for Sam and Dean. And I think they did all right. Up against good, evil, angels, devils, destiny, and God himself, they made their own choice. They chose family. And, well... isn't that kinda the whole point? 
Supernatural - a tale of two brothers

Barring a few exceptions and some Apocalyspe-fatigue, the first five seasons of Supernatural represent outstanding storytelling. There is a cohesiveness and a momentum that hurtles along with a clear vision and end point in sight. This is because these five seasons represent Kripke's original story arc. Season 5's finale - "Swan Song" - is a triumphant culmination of back story, character development, and mythology, a rousing chorus that bleeds final destination. Only because of its renewal for a sixth season did Kripke have to add one of his infamous Supernatural finale cliffhangers.

Supernatural has always struck a great balance between heavy, story arc shows and stand alone episodes that find the scary as well as the uproariously funny. For me, Supernatural has been one long road trip across America, with kickass music on the stereo. Bearing witness to the grueling battles and heartbreaking losses has bonded me to these characters like no other television experience. I feel like I've been to war too. And I'm not ready for it to be over yet, not even close.

Some mild spoilery things follow after the jump.