One fateful night during my junior year, I was roaming around on Netflix, hunting for distractions. I’d recently finished watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and I was in the mood for new fantasy adventures. I’d always loved reading stories about dragons and knights, spellcasters and hobbits. Doctor Who, The Avengers, Narnia? Sign me up. So, when Netflix dangled a show called Supernatural, I bit.
The hook caught. Twenty-five or so months and one hundred and seventy-two episodes later, I was ready for last week’s premiere of Supernatural Season 9. In the days leading up to the premiere, I indulged my inner fangirl, scrolling through the actors’ Twitter feeds, rewatching favorite episodes from the first eight seasons, chuckling over old YouTube gag reels. I was pumped.
Here’s the Supernatural backstory: adult brothers Sam and Dean Winchester (played by Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles) have followed their father’s footsteps and become “hunters,” people whose life mission is to track and destroy paranormal threats. These aren’t jet-setting agents toting a federally funded techno-arsenal. Sam and Dean are dirt poor, rambling across the country in their black ’67 Impala and surviving on burgers and credit card fraud. With a trunkful of shotguns, rock salt, spray paint, and fake IDs, the Winchesters save small-town families from creepy-crawlies like demons and shapeshifters.
Supernatural’s otherworldly premise fits my tastes, but it took me a while to get on board with the show’s aesthetic. Supernatural is gritty and dark, set to a classic rock soundtrack and peppered with just enough humor to keep the tension palatable. The show’s what’s-behind-me? camera work and preponderance of bloody killings frequently stray into horror-movie territory, a genre I otherwise avoid. So, as Season 9 dawned, I tried to figure out why I love this grimy, violent, foul-mouthed show so much.
Confession: I made it through the first season largely because the actors who play Sam and Dean are such hunks. Soon, though, I fell for the tongue-in-cheek humor, the off-the-wall plotlines, the inexorable pull of each season’s overarching story. And that story, season after season, is all about family.
In the world of Supernatural, family—biological or otherwise—is paramount. You can’t trust anyone but family. You’d sacrifice anything to save your family. A death in the family must always be avenged. And because Sam and Dean’s family members nearly always end up dead, the brothers exact plenty of vengeance.
The hunting life doesn’t lend itself well to long-term attachments. Sam and Dean are the only Winchesters left, and they’d do anything to keep each other alive. Years of dingy motels and life-or-death battles have cemented Dean and Sam’s bond into something unbreakable. Yes, once in a while a love interest will wander in, but when the chips are down and a Winchester must choose lover or brother, he’ll always choose brother.
That doesn’t mean the choice always works out in the Winchesters’ favor. While Dean and Sam are clearly the show’s “good guys,” their actions don’t always come out on the side of peace and light. In various seasons, Sam has gotten addicted to demon blood, lost his soul, and accidentally launched the apocalypse. Dean sold his soul to a demon, spent a bloody year in purgatory, and several times has gone into battle praying he won’t come out.
The side of peace and light is pretty tough to define, anyway. In Season 4, Dean and Sam find out that angels, heaven, and God are all very real. But angels are power-hungry soldiers, heaven is a war zone, and God…well, God is around here somewhere.
One angel sums up his heavenly father by saying, “[He’s] pretty much like you’d expect. Larger than life, gruff, bit of a sexist. But fair—eminently fair.” Supernatural’s God is benevolent but markedly absent. He’s an irresponsible father who told his angels to keep an eye on humanity, then slipped out the back door of heaven and hasn’t been seen since. Implications of his existence pop up periodically throughout the show; in literal deus ex machina maneuvers, God has pulled strings to resurrect several dead characters. Despite these cryptic references to divine will and action, the human and angelic characters alike believe that God has left the building and he ain’t coming back.
Irreverent and theologically unsound as it may be, I still find Supernatural to be a fascinating look at forces of good and evil. After all, isn’t that what fantasy is for? Fairy tales, as G.K. Chesterton says, “are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” Darkness is easier to stomach when it can be stabbed with a silver knife, when we can watch it burn, when we can stare into its dead eyes and turn away. Supernatural presents evil in many guises and tells us that through persistence and loyalty, darkness can be destroyed.
So far, at least. Season 9 launched last week, bringing with it a whole new set of challenges for the intrepid Winchesters. As Dean said at the end of the last episode, “It’s going to be a busy year.”