It should be hard to believe that Supernatural, the CW’s long-running series about brothers who hunt monsters, is currently airing its Fourteenth Season and approaching its 300th episode. After all, initial showrunner Eric Kripke only had a five-year plan for the show. As it is, Supernatural will have at least two-thirds of its run without the man who brought it to life. However, the show has also entered a kind of cultural omnipresence. It’s a show that could be taken for granted, a pop culture staple you just assume it still around. When it premiered, I was barely into my 20s. Now, I’m in my mid-30s and Supernatural has been there the entire time. It survived the WB’s transformation into the CW, multiple schedule shifts, and a season of Leviathan to emerge with steady ratings and a small but devoted fan-base.
It seems almost silly to point this out, but separating Supernatural’s success from its perfectly cast leads feels like an exercise in futility. As the perpetually put-upon Sam and Dean Winchester, Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles have demonstrated they’re game for anything the writers throw in their direction, whether it’s physical comedy or pathos-laden dialogue.
During its first season, episodes were mostly standalone, with an emphasis on urban legends and malevolent specters. Mythology was bare bones and barely more than background noise. Sam and Dean had lost their mother when they were children, Sam loses his girlfriend in the same fashion in the pilot episode, and they’re ostensibly looking for their missing father, but really, the show was a supernaturally tinged road trip series, with Dean’s iconic Impala serving as the show’s most consistent setting. However, the show always placed its emphasis on its central characters’ development, allowing its leads’ natural chemistry to do much of the show’s heavy lifting, meaning even standalone episodes carried a bit more emotional heft than they otherwise might.
Sam and Dean begin the series as estranged siblings, and the show took its time developing their brotherly bond to the point of complete devotion. They’d rather burn down the universe than see one another suffer. Yet, the series has never completely validated their perpetual, “hang the world, I’ll save my sibling” approach,with multiple characters questioning whether one’s willingness to sacrifice everything for the other doesn’t border on the absurd. There must be a drinking game built around every time one brother keeps a secret from the other or has a grandiose, emotional speech that forces the other to press onward. It’s the well to which the show has constantly returned, and it should be dry by now.
Yet, the show still manages to wring just a bit more heartbreak from an oft-duplicated dynamic, because it places its emotional core in that sense of undying loyalty and love. Whether it’s Dean refusing to shoot Sam in “Croatoan,” Sam preferring to sacrifice himself for the greater good rather than potentially disappoint Dean another time in “Sacrifice,” or the two of them just reaffirming their bond in “Fan Fiction,” it’s that central relationship that keeps viewers invested.
Supernatural ultimately tells a story of emotionally broken characters who rely on both a by-blood and makeshift family to continue fighting when it would be so much easier to surrender. Throw in Castiel (the invaluable Misha Collins) as the angel who first appeared in Season 4 and eventually turned his back on Heaven due to his love for the Winchester brothers, and you have a trio of characters whose shared traumas inextricably link them in a perpetual cycle of self-sacrifice.
It may not be the most mentally healthy trio (well, quartet now that Angel-Human hybrid Jack is on the team) on television, but it’s one of the most emotionally satisfying.
The other series aspect which allows Supernatural to continue to endure stems from its own inherent malleability. What other series could have an episode like “The French Mistake,” in which Sam and Dean are transported into a world where they’re actors named Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles on a treading water series called Supernatural? It not only breaks the fourth wall – it straps dynamite to its side and reduces it to rubble.
If that were the only example of the series’ built-in playfulness it would be noteworthy but unremarkable, yet the show has a kitchen sink approach to the stories its willing to tell, whether leaning into action-horror, slapstick comedy, or some blending of the two. Supernatural has thrown its characters into the animated world of Scooby Doo, a fan convention devoted to the Supernatural novels written by the prophet Chuck, a town in which a wishing well curses a child with a giant, suicidal, alcoholic teddy bear, and a Supernatural musical performed by an all-girls school.
It shouldn’t work. The series shouldn’t be able to blow apart its own universe with this kind of regularity. If fellow CW series Vampire Diaries had attempted this kind of meta-narrative, it would have imploded, but Supernatural’s playfulness and its cast’s gameness means its comedy episodes are among its most warmly regarded.
Take “Mystery Spot,” a Groundhog Day riff in which Sam find himself trapped in a time-loop that resets every time Dean dies. The episode plays Dean’s death scenes for laughs until the moment it doesn’t.
Near the end, it does a tonal about-face, becoming a story of Sam going down a dark, desperate path to find a means of saving Dean. The episode goes from killing Dean with poorly cooked tacos and dropping a piano on his head to Sam, driven only by his own obsession and inability to accept his brother’s demise.
Of course, Dean is back at the episode’s conclusion, but “Mystery Spot” functions as the perfect encapsulation of all that Supernatural can do. It can play a situation for laughs, then turn on a dime and play the same conflict for tragedy, and it can do both without missing a beat. It’s an approach few other shows try, let alone succeed at pulling off.
As for my own personal experience with the series, I was a devoted fan until the Seventh Season, at which point I drifted to other things and left the show behind. During the Eleventh Season, my mother insisted I watch the episode, “Don’t Call me Shurley,” which confirmed the long-held fan theory that Chuck, the nebbish author of the Supernatural novels, was in fact God. Seated in a bar, with only the morally complicated Metatron for company, God acknowledges both that the world is about to come crashing down and that he has no real interest in rectifying the situation, because He too has been a bit too hurt by humanity’s mistakes. It’s a brilliant episode, with its “Fare Thee Well” ending the cherry on a perfectly conceived sundae. With that, I was back on board, binging the seasons I’d missed and following along from Season 11 onward.
Seasons 11-14 have varied in quality (its Thirteenth Season is one of its strongest in years, and that is itself a major accomplishment), but the fact that the show is still hitting any highs after nearly 300 episodes feels a minor miracle. As it is, the show has its hook in me in a way few do. I may not be proud of myself for continuing to care about Sam, Dean, and Castiel, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I get a bit misty-eyed every time a “Carry On, Wayward Son” montage opens a season finale.