Supernatural Re-watch, S1E1: Pilot

The unimaginatively-named “Pilot” was the first episode of Supernatural, premiering on the WB network (since subsumed into the CW network, where SPN now lives) on September 13, 2005.

Synopsis:

Starting with a flashback to 1983, we get the backstory for Sam and Dean.  Sam’s six months old, and Dean’s not yet five, living in Lawrence, KS.  Up in the middle of the night, Mary (their mother) screams from Sam’s room, bringing John (dad) at the run.  Coming into the room, he finds nothing apparently wrong – until he notices Mary flat against the ceiling, gut-knifed and bleeding.  As he watches, she catches fire.  Dad hands the baby to Dean, telling him to run, but is unable to save Mary, driven back by the fire.

Back in 2005, we catch up with Sam, now in pre-law at Stanford, with a live-in girlfriend called Jess.  In what will be an ongoing theme of love interests for the boys, Jess looks remarkably like the boys’ mother (yes, I do mean that very implication).   We find out Sam is a top student.

Dean shows up, and we get to find out that both brothers can fight.  Dad’s overdue from a “hunting trip”, a phrase that means something deep to Sam.  Dean needs help to look for him; Sam says he swore off hunting for good.  Some discussion of how appalling a father Dad is:

Sam: When I told Dad I was scared of the thing in my closet, he gave me a .45.

Dean: Well, come on, what was he supposed to do?

Sam: I was nine years old.  He was supposed to say “don’t be afraid of the dark!”

Much infodump about what Dad’s been doing, how obsessive and dangerous hunting has been, how they’ve been superheroes for years, and blah blah blah.

Setup for our first MOTW: Dean lays out a list of men killed in unusual ways on a particular stretch of road in California.  Sam insists that if he goes to help, he HAS to be back by Monday for his interview for law school.

Cut to California, where a young man is driving along a road, and spots a barefoot woman in white at the roadside.  He offers her a ride when she asks him to take her home.  Luring him back to her haunting place with the implication of sex, he peels rubber to do so.   Arriving at her home, though, it’s a desolate old building, and she soon starts behaving more ghostly – disappearing and such.  She kills him in his car on a broken-down old bridge.

Back to Sam and Dean, discussing their habit of supporting their hunting life through credit fraud, and we get to meet the Impala: Dean’s car, formerly Dad’s car, full of cassette tapes of metal and classic rock bands.  Yes, cassette tapes.  Coming on the murder scene, Dean grabs a fake ID and identifies the boys to the local fuzz as US Marshals.

They start investigating, discovering that there’s a local legend about a woman who was murdered many years ago, and has been killing men ever since.  Looking closer, Constance Welch is found to have committed suicide off that same bridge after having killed her children (to make her husband like her better – check out the La Llorona link about the Woman in White legend).

Dean gets arrested for the credit fraud and impersonating a marshal, and suspected of being the serial murderer; Dad’s journal makes its first appearance, including a “set of coordinates” with Dean’s name (which don’t correspond to any system of which I’m aware; they look like lat and long, but they’re nowhere near specific enough to give them the leads they seem to get from them, which is probably why that was dropped as a plot device fairly early).  Sam moves on to investigating by himself.  He confronts the widower, and discovers that the man had been unfaithful.

Sam helps Dean escape from police custody, and then encounters the ghost himself  – despite having never been unfaithful!  She makes it technically correct that he has, and attacks, with Dean providing a distraction to save Sam.  Sam drives the Impala into her former home, taking the ghost inside with him, for the first time since she died.  In the house, she encounters the children she’d killed: their embrace causes her to de-rez, with a lovely toilet-flushing sound effect.

Despite Dean’s hopes, Sam insists on going home to Stanford.  He finds some cookies with a  note saying he’s loved, and relaxes onto his bed when he hears the shower running, looking happy.  Then, in what will become an ongoing theme (narrative symmetry), Sam looks up to find the woman he loves dying in exactly the same way his mother did: gut-knifed, plastered to the ceiling, and burning.

The episode finishes with Sam fiddling with weaponry in the Impala’s trunk/arsenal, showing his newfound willingness to go hunting.

Analysis:

Wow, there’s a good start to the show here, in terms of stuff to look at.

First, a couple of small things: I’ve noticed regularly throughout the series that, for a show so full of Whiteness, the local fuzz are often played – or at least commanded – by POC or women (but not anyone who’s both – don’t be silly!).  Stealth progressivism, sorta!  Hey, we gotta take the good where we can find it.

Second small thing, appropriation: the story of La Llorona (the Woman in White) is one of Mexican and Central American origin.  Also, the day on which both Mary and Jess died was November 2, 1983 & 2005; November 2 is the Dia de los Muertes in Mexico.  None of the people involved in the murder/suicide, nor in the later killings, is Latino/a.  This theme of appropriation will definitely continue.

I mentioned above “narrative symmetry”: this is going to be a really important recurring theme, and I’m going to try and point it out wherever I see it, in things like the boys’ relationship mirroring that of certain supernatural beings they will later encounter, or Sam’s face and bed being the place on which the blood of both the women he loves is spilt during their murders, and so on.  In this episode, of course, we have that first example (Sam’s bed).

Among other recurring themes/leitmotifs in the show are the Woman Scorned (almost always leading to a vengeful spirit of some sort), probably most hideously and frequently the Women in Refrigerators, and the Cartwright Curse (i.e., do not sleep with Sam or Dean, because they have an STI called DEATH, and very few women seem to be immune).  There are more (Black Dude Dies First, for instance), but these three are pretty much constants throughout.

And let’s talk about one of those right now.  Because yeah, as Gail Simone said, it’s not a good idea to be a woman around superheroes.  I would definitely argue that, despite the lack of brightly-coloured spandex, Dean and Sam are clearly superheroes.  They regularly show skills and abilities that are of inhumanly high quality: the ability to pick pretty much any lock that isn’t a plot device, the ability to regularly shrug off gunshots and other serious damage, Dean’s ability to completely and perfectly rebuild a totalled car, and that leaves aside the really spoilery stuff that we’ll come to later, but which only makes my case more solid.  Suffice to say, I think it’s fairly clear that Sam and Dean are as superheroic as Supes and Bats.  In fact, it’s not out of the question to characterize them that way, as Supes and Bats: Sam the wholesome kid, and Dean the grimdark avenger.  To be fair, that will develop more interestingly as their characters are built.

We have a huge amount of media in our culture in which women exist as plot devices, the destruction of which is meant to give the protagonist a reason to be any kind of –agonist: “I’ll get you for what you did to/said about my mom/girlfriend/wife/daughter/sister/workmate/neighbour/one-night fling partner, you fiend!”  Like child heroes almost always being orphans (else, why are their parents letting them do such stupidly dangerous things?): the boys are not only functionally orphans (since Dad has disappeared), but regularly need a fresh infusion of ladyblood to keep their fires stoked (see: Jo & Ellen, Madison, Ruby, and many, many more!).  This is, for me personally, one of the greatest failings of the show, that it uses Mel Gibson’s Favourite Plot Device as a regular story generator.

It probably doesn’t need to be said that SPN rarely, if ever, has an episode which would pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test (aka the Dykes to Watch Out For/Bechdel test, which Bechtel attributes to Liz Wallace: that two named women characters speak to each other about something other than a man), but I would contend we need a different level of test for this kind of show.  Let’s call it the Mary Winchester test: do any two fully-named women live through an entire episode?  In this episode, sadly, no.  Jess doesn’t even get a last name (we find out it’s Moore later), and both she and Mary, along with the ghostly Mrs. Welch, end up deader than dead by the time we get the chords and credits.

The other great theme of dubious progressivism in this series is that of motherly sacrifice and motherly love.  Mary Winchester will return again and again in various ways, giving her boys the Lily Potter-approved Seal of Motherly Protection.

Beyond the appropriation issues, and that it is HollywoodWhite (if people aren’t white, there’s often a reason, or they’re just unnamed b/g characters), there isn’t a lot of racefail that I notice in this episode.  I’m sure someone will let me know what I missed – no question that my own racial privilege makes it harder for me to notice the ways they fuck up in this area.  Both Black characters who have speaking roles in this episode (Sam and Jess’ friend at the bar, and the police officer that Dean talks to) have to make do without names, but hey – at least they don’t die!  /eyeroll

Probably because it’s a pilot, this episode was fairly low on the “Innocents Killed”, “Misogynist Slurs”, and “Objectification by Dean” counts.  No worries, though, the boys will get started soon on leaving their trail of innocent blood across the US.

Dean’s character is clearly meant to be the anti-Nice Guy: he’s the Bad Boy that All Girls Want.  He’s the guy the Nice Guy thinks always gets the girl (I would argue that this is generally not so, outside of Hollywood properties; most hetero men who are truly assholes get a lot less “action” than they’re reputed to, as, duh, most women don’t want to date assholes).  He’s the classically beautiful “male model” type (his first major gig was on a soap opera).

Sam, on the other hand, we establish fairly early as the “sensitive one”: Padalecki has a tic of using a soft, high-pitched voice (by the end of the first season, he and Dean both usually speak like they’ve a mouthful of gravel, ramping up the Manly-Man-ness) and lovely worry-brows to engage with people who need to be treated gently.  Dean, of course, always derides this behaviour as completely unmanly, in as explicit a manner as possible – calling Sam by a girl’s name, or otherwise imputing that being nice and empathetic to people is damaging to Sam’s already minuscule manhood (no, I mean his state-of-being-a-man, not his Pocket Saltgun).

It may become rather apparent that I’m more of a Sam fan than a Dean fan, though I appreciate both actors’ physical beauty and acting ability relatively equally.  To give the show credit on the equal-opportunity objectification front, both Ackles and Padalecki are frequently given a good beefcake showing – there’s one scene in the series where Padalecki, leaving a bathroom, walks covered only in a towel to his bed, and oh ME oh MY is that boy ripped (fans self).  And Ackles is, genuinely, a male-model type, with almost femininely beautiful features (though I quickly grew bored with Ackles’ #1 knee-trembler look, three-quarter profile over his left shoulder – wish they’d give him more variety in it).

That’s about it for the first episode from me; next episode picks up from those coordinates we saw in Dad’s journal, “35-111” – which apparently means a place in Colorado where they think Dad went next.  The hunt for Dad continues in S1E2, Wendigo. Appropriation ahoy!

(cue guitars and credits)

S1E1: Pilot: 3 Pentacles

3/5 for me, because I find the (necessary, but still) infodumpiness of the early dialogue really painful and awkward – a little too often we get the “As you know, Bob” speech, and as is often the case with pilots, bits and bobs were changed before the show really got rolling.  Still, the MOTW is interesting, and the method of dealing with her is quite unusual in the show’s mythology, and it’s hard to be too hard on clumsy exposition in a pilot: they’ve got to sell the idea to a group of people, after all, with distinctly stunted imaginations and clearly not-up-to-snuff intellectual capacities (i.e., studio execs).

Trivia:

Running total of innocents killed by the Boys: 0 (none yet, lads, let’s see how long we can keep that going!)

Named women and/or POC (not already dead) who end up dead before the episode’s out: 2 (Mary Winchester, Jessica Moore)

Marginalized (named) body survival rate: 33% (Jess and Mary die; Amy, the dead boy’s girlfriend, lives, and no other characters who are not White hetero cis men get names)

Objectification by Dean: 1 (Jess – his brother’s girlfriend! creepy!)

Misogynist slurs: Bitch (2 – both Dean)

Aliases used by the boys: American rocker Ted Nugent; Hector Aframian, both Dean.

Hint o’ maple:  Not much I noticed, though I’m fairly sure I heard a couple of Canadian Raising pronunciations in the show.  The show being filmed in Vancouver, BC (Canada), there are frequently recognizably Canadian people and places in the show’s backgrounds, like Canada Post vans and boxes, Canadian accents, Tim Horton’s outlets, and a few overt references in the later seasons.  The hint o’maple section will outline any I happen to catch.  I may also make occasional reference here to the “temperate rainforest of $AMERICAN_PLACE”, because like the X-Files, being shot in and around Vancouver means a LOT of places have a somewhat similar look.

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13 thoughts on “Supernatural Re-watch, S1E1: Pilot

  1. “regularly need a fresh infusion of ladyblood to keep their fires stoked”

    I’ll buy Mary, Jess, Madison, even Jo and Ellen, but Ruby? I won’t say more in order to not violate the spoiler rule, but maybe I’m misunderstanding the idea here. My impression was that it was the fire of vengeance that needed to be stoked with “lady”blood.

    Just general observations about the pilot. I never found Dean hitting on Jess creepy exactly. It always came across to me as approval on the “nice job, Sammy” level but also suspicious and slightly jealous. It was like Dean was analyzing “so this is who Sammy’s been spending all his time with instead of me.” Okay, maybe that is slightly creepy, but knowing what we know about their life, I think that Dean was suspicious of anyone around his brother. I can’t help but think that he was assessing her as a threat as much as anything. It’s funny that you mention Jess looking like Mary because I’ve often seen meta comparing her to Dean — tall, blonde, full-lips, big green eyes. I guess both is fairly accurate.

    I’ve been thinking a lot lately of how inaccurate was my first impression of Dean as a shallow, bad boy and Sam as the emotional, soft-centered boy next door. Yeah, not so much.

    btw, the ghost’s first name was Constance.

    Nice analysis; and Wendigo is next. Love that one.

    • Yay comments! You’re probably right about Ruby, honestly; I actually wrote this and the next three two years ago, when I first decided I would do this – I wasn’t going to get started until I had eight episodes banked, against depression interference, and, well, depression interfered – and there are things I’d change if I were writing it now, but I figure I’ve put enough on my plate without obsessive re-writing. Well, okay, more obsessive re-writing.

      Also, I freely admit that I’m often willing to give Sam the benefit of a doubt I’ll never give Dean, because to me, Dean is the epitome of the words “walking definition of hypocrite”, and I have a hard time liking or being nice about people who are huge hypocrites. It will probably come up later, I haven’t mentioned it yet, but I think there is also something of the abusive in Dean’s relationship with Sam, not least the number of times un-possessed/fucked-with Dean punches the hell out of Sam, usually with Sam making excuses for it. So when Dean hits on Sam’s girlfriend, I find it easy to see it as him basically not being okay with Sam having other partners, and definitely not okay with Sam having other partners who are hot and smart. Though I see their relationship as platonic rather than Wincestuous, I think there are a lot of dynamics in their relationship that are deeply fucked up, and that one of those things is Dean’s emotional and physical abuse of Sam over the course of the show. It’s more of a parent/child abusiveness, than a two-lovers abusiveness, to me, and is partly why Sam usually puts up with it: he has no other parent to look to, as Dean has effectively been both his parents since he can remember, with the ongoing absence of John.

      Having read your blog, I’m really looking forward to your comments! I like that we have some similarities, and some differences. Makes the convos more interesting. 🙂

    • I agree about the abusiveness. It’s funny that a lot of people compare Sam to John, but I can see a direct line between the way that John treated Dean and how Dean treats Sam.

      I don’t disagree with you that Dean resents Sam having other partners or even people in his life. Dean has been defined by his relationship with his brother in a way that Sam hasn’t. Sam is literally Dean’s raison d’etre. I don’t think that makes Sam any less dependent on Dean in the end however. Stanford was, I think, a tiny window of opportunity for Sam that was lost when Jess died.

      Anyway, I look forward to your upcoming reviews. I do love convos!

  2. I enjoyed your first rematch/review, and am looking forward to more as they are available. Slight quibble with a couple of the ‘hint of maple’ items: we in Ohio have an Ontario-lite experience of weather as well as a good representation of Timmies- perhaps that’s why the Impala flies our colors more often than not? (Granted, that’s not typical of the rest of the states I’m familiar with)

    • Hi Jenny! Glad you commented. You’re right, of course, and that’s an interesting theory of the Impala’s reg plates. Where is Kripke from, I thought I remembered it being some (pardon me) Rust Belt state, or do I have it wrong? *checks*

      Yep, born in Toledo, yay for a head stuffed full of useless crap one more time. 🙂

      So it’s possible, certainly. Honestly, I expect the vast majority to be whether or not the majority of the actors (who are, of course, Canadian, since it’s much cheaper to get bit-part people from ACTRA than SAG, or whomever represents TV actors in the US) manage to hide their accents from my ear. Some do well, some don’t. I will have gritted teeth all the way through the Bella shows, because while she definitely lived in the UK for a while, her attempt is…grating in many respects. She gets the pitch elements right, mostly, but as with so many Americans, growing up with so little exposure to genuine foreign accents in media has left her with a bad ear for “vowels that aren’t American English ones”, and particularly non-American vowel reduction or diphthong simplification.

      Also, it’s fun to notice things like post boxes and sign fonts, and the intentional bits they put in were hilarious (like S3’s Jus in Bello, where “Gibson’s Gas” is a sign on a gas station in the background of a shot; Gibson’s was the fictional station in the CBC’s wry Prairie-province-set comedy Corner Gas.

  3. Great post! I am so excited about reading this series, because I started watching the show only recently, and I looooove cheesy supernatural horror, but I was like, “Also can we talk about how there are TWO refrigerator women just in the very first episode alone?” But then I was eight years behind the curve, so that wasn’t going to happen. In short: yay!

    • I’m glad, I’m really pleased that we’ve already got a few people wanting to read along, because it makes it much easier to beat the depression and make it keep happening. So thanks! 🙂

      I do love Show, even if Show often disappoints me.

  4. It is nice to read recaps of Supernatural that
    a) give a shit about women and/or POC
    b) are willing to call the show out on its misogyny/racism
    c) point out the mythology in the episodes and how the show doesn’t always get the mythology right :/
    d) are critical of Dean (he’s not a monster, but he’s not Saint Dean either, and Sam gets way more shit than he deserves while Dean stays sparkly clean bc who knows who fucking knows really). I am looking forward to more!

  5. You made a fascinating point in one of your responses about Dean being a hypocrite and having an all to often tendency to wail on Sam.

    In general I found this to be an enlightening analysis of the pilot with the hindsight that made it especially interesting. I really wish the show would take into account that there are actually intelligent beings watching it and try to delve further into some ‘plot devices’ most don’t live past one episode thanks in part to the ‘monster of the week’ set up. Though it would have been interesting and would still be interesting if they could do a “to be continued” where said plot device manages to survive for more then one episode. Here’s to wishing.

  6. fyi, you’ve forgotten the supernatural tag on this one. Great first post!
    This episode also starts another running theme in the series–sexual harassment by women (directed at men) is sexy and/or funny! Made extra creepy by the claim that la Llorona’s molestation of Sam makes him a cheater.

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