Supernatural Re-Watch: “Shadow” and payoff

“Shadow” is the sixteenth episode of Season 1, and it is the point at which I realized Eric Kripke had learned some valuable lessons from the mistakes of The X-Files.

Finding John Winchester is the issue that set the characters in motion, that put Sam and Dean on the road together. As I said to k8 and S when we first watched the show, if this had been The X-Files, five years later they would still be looking for their dad, having found seven different explanations for his disappearance along the way, each less satisfying than the last. (I might be just a wee bit annoyed by the whole Samantha-and-Mulder thing.) But Kripke doesn’t try to spin it out forever: Sam and Dean go looking for John, and they find him. Before the first season is even done.

Heck, the writers don’t even wait until the sixteenth episode to start changing the game. The natural assumption on the part of the viewer is that John is dead, or will be by the time his sons track him down, but we’re barely four episodes in before we get a clue that he’s still alive; I forgot to record this, but I think it’s in “Phantom Traveler” that Dean finds out John’s outgoing voicemail message has changed, telling people to call his son for help. John himself shows up at the end of “Home,” sitting in Missouri’s house, though it’s staged in such a fashion as to leave open the possibility that he’s actually a ghost. He calls his sons at the end of the very next episode, “Asylum” — which is, not coincidentally, the last one before the mid-season break, making for a nice little cliffhanger. And then, rather than continuing to tease the audience with hints and near-misses and brief conversations, the writers take that promise and deliver on it: in “Shadow,” John reunites with his sons.

This is what Kripke got right, and for my money, it’s the core of what makes Supernatural a compelling show. He doesn’t try to milk his starting mysteries for all eternity; he hangs guns on the mantel and then fires them. Okay, we don’t really get an explanation for what happened to John — just that he was looking for a way to deal with the yellow-eyed demon, which doesn’t actually explain why he was MIA for so long that Dean had to recruit Sam to help look for him. But that mid-term goal on the brothers’ to-do list gets checked off. So does the long-term goal, though not quite as soon; the yellow-eyed demon is not the antagonist they’re fighting at the end of S5. Kripke trusts himself and his audience enough to believe that the answers to the starting questions will generate new questions in turn. And so step by step, the plot builds to something bigger than it was before.

Not everybody can manage this trick. I walked away from Alias at the end of S2 because Abrams failed at this maneuver. (Incoming spoilers.) I thought the core of the show was the conflict with SD6, so when that organization got wiped out halfway through S2, I felt like the story was over. The “revelation” that it was actually about the Rambaldi artifacts came across as a bait-and-switch, rather than a cool evolution of what had come before. I had similar problems with Fringe, though to a lesser degree. In Kripke’s case, I think it helps that he layers his conflicts; the short-term goals pay off every episode, more or less, while this particular mid-term goal stretched for two thirds of a season, and the long-term goal doesn’t get resolved until (if memory serves) the end of S2. Finding John doesn’t mean the story loses momentum, because there are other things to carry it forward while the new goals develop.

I think this is a vital lesson for any kind of serial work, whether it’s a TV show, a comic book, a novel series, or anything else. Running things in parallel lets you pay off various elements as you go, and the payoff is vital for a satisfying story. It allows the characters to achieve meaningful victories, instead of either spinning their wheels or accomplishing something that ends up feeling unimportant. (Interesting twist: it isn’t actually a victory when Sam and Dean find John. Technically their father is the one who finds them, rather than the other way around, and also their reunion turns out to be exactly what the bad guys want.)

You have to trust yourself, and trust your audience. Your ideas don’t get cooler by you holding onto them forever. Let them follow their course, and lay the groundwork for something bigger and better.

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