Supernatural Re-Watch: Pilot

As I said before, I won’t be blogging each episode individually. That would be way too much work, not to mention that I don’t have something interesting to say about every. single. ep. But the pilot, being the thing that launches the whole series, does get its own post.

So, let’s start with the elephant in the room. The pilot episode features not one but two pretty blonde women who get killed off to cause angst to the male protagonists: Mary, who is John’s wife and Sam and Dean’s mother, and Jess, who is Sam’s girlfriend. Interestingly, the show later takes Mary out of the refrigerator — not by bringing her back to life or saying she didn’t really die, but by adding backstory that radically changes the meaning of her death. In structural terms, she’s still bumped off to set the plot in motion, but from a causal standpoint, Mary’s death was ultimately the result of her own choices and actions. Personally, I’m glad for the change, though having to wait until season 4 for it is less than great. And nothing redeems Jess’ death: when we get more context for that one, it turns out quite literally to be a device by the villain to put Sam back on the road as a hunter. Not cool, guys. Eight hundred points from Gryffindor.

Apart from that rather ugly elephant, though, the first episode is reasonably effective, in that it does a suitably compact job of establishing the key elements of the series. Not just the basic components (supernatural creatures; brothers hunting them down), but smaller touches — the things that make the story more solid and vivid.

The biggest one, of course, is the dynamic between Sam and Dean. Right from the start, you get a clear sense of who they are individually and together. Dean is the “bad boy” of the two, but there are aspects cross-cutting that identity. He’s also the good son: Dad’s faithful sidekick, the one who stayed with him when Sam split and who never questions his orders. He isn’t generally broody; that’s Sam’s territory. And although it doesn’t show up much in this episode, Dean has a protective streak a mile wide. Over the course of the series, we get a very good look at how he was given the responsibility of taking care of his little brother, and that is the bedrock of his identity. He’s a womanizer and a smartass, dressed in leather and driving the cool car, but just to call him the bad boy would be to sell him short.

Sam, meanwhile, is the straight man, the one who takes everything seriously and is visibly burdened by his suffering. (You might call him more “mopey” than “broody;” it would not be inaccurate.) And yet he’s the one who rebelled; he ran away to make a normal life for himself, and has some serious issues with his father — or at least, some seriously visible issues, since arguably Dean’s are much worse, but also buried much deeper. Sam is the brains of the operation, the one who went to college and knows how to do research. He isn’t some weedy little nerd, though: Jared Padalecki is nearly six foot five, and especially in later seasons, when he hits his mid-twenties and fills out that last bit, he is built like a brick wall. (I’ve heard that Jensen Ackles complains about being called the “short one” of the pair, when he’s six foot one himself.)

What works the best here is not either one of them separately; it’s the two of them together. Any “buddy story” lives or dies in the strength of its buddies, and these two click from the start. The actors get along famously, and because of that, you don’t get the initial stiffness that says “we’re still trying to work out our roles.” Right from their first scene together, their performances show a degree of comfort with one another that sells their relationship better than any dialogue could. There’s a bit of clunky exposition when they talk about their missing father and how the two of them were raised (Kripke has said that scene was a beast to write), but it’s leavened later on by things like “dude — no chick flick moments” and Sam giving Dean shit about his heavy metal collection. Over time, the contrasts and similarities between the two of them play out well: they’re both highly competent and dedicated to their work, but while Dean is untroubled on the outside and broken into little pieces inside, Sam is externally tormented but fundamentally solid. (For a while, anyway.)

Not all of the flavor comes from the characters. Reportedly the CW tried to make Kripke do the WB/CW thing, featuring the boy band of the week as the incidental music for their episodes; Kripke dug his heels in, and thank god for that. I literally cannot imagine this show without the metal and classic rock. It would have been a travesty. 😛 There are the colorful touches (the trunk compartment full of weapons, propped open with a sawed-off shotgun), the practical ones (Dad’s journal, a plausible fountain of useful information), and the seeds of things that will pay off later, like the mid-term and long-term goals. There are underpinnings that many similar shows would just handwave: rather than ignoring the question of how the Winchesters pay their way, or cheesing out on it by making them independently wealthy, the pilot establishes that they get by on things like credit card fraud. It’s an unexpected touch, and a good one, because it gives the whole setup a blue-collar touch that’s frankly unusual with these kinds of shows.

By no stretch of the imagination is the episode blow-you-away brilliant. Like I said, eight hundred points from Gryffindor for refrigerating two women in less than an hour. (The fact that Mary’s death was recontextualized later does nothing to redeem that sequence as an introduction to the show.) The episode plot isn’t all that complex, the only really developed characters are the protagonists, and although there are some good lines, the script is mostly just competent. Still, as introductions to new series go, this one is perfectly decent, and a lot better than some others I’ve seen.

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