Supernatural Re-Watch: “Nightmare” and seeding metaplot
For the record, I will talk about things other than Supernatural pretty soon. 🙂 It’s just that I got some way into Season 1 before deciding to make a blog series about this, which means I have a backlog of things to say. And I don’t want to get too far ahead in my watching from where I am in posting.
“Nightmare” is the first real forward progress we get on the long-term metaplot, by which I mean the question of what happened to Mary Winchester and why. In this ep we meet Max, a teenager with telekinetic powers, whose mother died in a suspiciously familiar fashion.
In retrospect, “Nightmare” feels a bit like a red herring. Max is real enough, of course, and although we don’t get an explanation for what’s up with him (and with Sam) yet, he is the first clue that the metaplot is bigger than it initially looked. This isn’t just about one family’s quest for revenge; there’s something else going on, and they’re just a piece of a larger picture. But the specifics kind of come across as misdirection. Maybe it’s just me and the kind of people I was watching the show with, but at the time, we poured a lot of energy into trying to guess the significance of how Mary, Jessica, and Max’s own mother died. Pinned to the ceiling, bursting into flame — Mary and Jess both had a line of blood on their abdomens, suggesting they’d been cut open; was it meant to hint that they’d been pregnant, or was the stain too high for that? It’s such a weirdly specific way for them to be killed, it seemed like it had to have some kind of meaning.
But it didn’t, not really. Unless there’s something major I’m forgetting from later on, the only meaning behind the method is that it’s something so specific, it can’t possibly be mistaken for coincidence. If Max’s mother had simply died in a fire, the connection between him and Sam would be tenuous at best. Okay, they both lost their mothers and they both have weird powers. That’s no guarantee the same creature is responsible. You need the manner of their deaths to be idiosyncratic, to make the connection unquestionable.
Presuming I’m right about the chain of reasoning, then I see why Kripke did it that way, and off the cuff I can’t think of an easier way to establish the connection clearly enough. Still, it feels like a suboptimal approach to me, because it places so much importance on a set of details that are, in their own right, essentially meaningless. (The way to improve it, I suppose, would be to keep the specificity but make the details meaningful. I don’t have any good suggestions as to how that might be done, though.)
Anyway, you’ve got an older teen with telekinesis, and Sam in his early twenties with visions of the future. The latter is a useful plot device for one of the recurring questions of the series, namely, “why are the Winchesters in this town and how did they find out about the problems here?” Scouring the internet for news of the weird only gets you so far, after all, and if they had too many repeat customers calling them up, you would start to question how good they are at their jobs. If memory serves, Sam only gets visions about stuff related to the yellow-eyed demon and his plans, but that’s still helpful on a basic narrative level.
(I can’t remember how long it takes for the telekinesis to rear its head again, or if it even does. I know Sam eventually kills demons with his mind or something, but him getting the door open has stuck in my memory as an ability of convenience that mostly doesn’t recur. I could be wrong about that, though.)
I sort of wish the show had done a little more with the notion that Sam, in manifesting this precognitive ability, has marked himself as Other in a way that they’re used to treating as a threat. True, you’ve had Missouri show up by now, so it’s clear that psychics aren’t automatically assumed to be monsters — but in that case, maybe the script shouldn’t have ever suggested that Sam’s ability is potentially a problem. I want them to either worry about it more, or not at all. Worrying about it only a little feels half-hearted.
It’s worth noting that “Nightmare” is the 14th episode of Season 1. Networks apparently make a frequent habit of ordering 13 episodes to start, and then green-lighting the “back nine” if they like how things are going. I would not be surprised to hear that it was a deliberate decision to postpone any big metaplot development until they knew the show would continue. I remember hearing that the WB was kind of anti-metaplot at that point; they wanted episodic shows, the sort where viewers could start watching at any point and not feel lost. While you can see the logic behind that, it’s also counterproductive in a way, because there’s less motivation to tune in every week. After all, you won’t miss anything if you miss an episode, right? (Exhibit A: Smallville, the show where nothing ever seemed to have lasting consequences. Their approach is a large part of why I never invested in the story very heavily.) That mentality probably accounts for a lot of Supernatural‘s structure, the episodic framework with metaplot woven carefully through it. The former satisfied the WB, while the latter helped create the fan investment that has carried the show into a tenth season. I suspect there is a lesson to be learned from that. 🙂