As I was looking for a way to pass the quarantine doldrums, I saw Entertainment Weekly’s list of what it considered to be the 75 most ‘essential’ episodes of Supernatural, leading up to Season 15. Since any excuse for a rewatch is a good excuse, I figured I’d not only invite my Supernatural "Team Free Will North Carolina" (TFWNC) Facebook group to join me, but I’d also recap my thoughts on which episodes Entertainment Weekly (EW) chose, which ones they skipped, and what was left out. Music plays such a big role in Supernatural, so I also noted which iconic songs were included and which were missed in the skipped episodes. Reporting on all that turned into quite the project, and The WFB was kind enough to let me share it here! (My snarky opinions are my own and don’t reflect those of The WFB.)
The EW article suggests that the ‘Essential 75’ is a good ‘refresher’ for fans, and a primer for those who haven’t watched the show but want to see what the fuss is about. Even EW admits that ‘essential’ to the main plot isn’t the same as ‘best’. Both statements are true. I cringe when I think about anyone who isn’t already very familiar with Supernatural watching this selection of episodes and thinking they’ve got the essence of the show. So much of the emotion and backstory got left out in this list in favor of tracing the ‘plot’, that while it’s a nice reminder for those who know the show well, it lacks the depth and resonance of what makes Supernatural so heartrendingly special.
On the other hand, there’s no bad excuse for a recap/rewatch, so come on the journey with me! Start with season 1, season 2 and season 3's episode choices, then join me in looking at the picks for season 4!
Season 4 (Show runner: Eric Kripke)
So much going on. Did we ever find out why Sam transported Dean’s body from New Hope to Pontiac? It did make me scratch my head though, remembering when it took an army of angels to free Dean from Perdition and in later seasons people just come and go without much difficulty.
Of course, we have Ruby 2.0 with Genevieve Cortese, which definitely was a win for Jared! The lies between the brothers start with the reunion, and Sam hiding who Ruby is, while Dean claims he can’t remember Hell. Some iconic moments include Sam giving Dean back the amulet, and Dean finding the iPod in the Impala. (I read a fan fiction that explained Sam couldn’t bear to listen to Dean’s music without him, or to have silence when there were no radio stations. That’s my new head canon.)
Then there’s Pamela—who offers the boys a threesome! Cas is a badass with a great entrance. Of course, we know about Sam’s mind powers, and it’s heartbreaking to see him try to gather the nerve to tell Dean about it, only to have Ruby talk him out of it.
There are some amazing visuals in this episode—the flattened trees around Dean’s grave, Cas’s wings in the barn, and a lot of tight close-ups.
"In The Beginning"
I have to admit, I really hate the brothers not having a united front. The more I rewatch this season, the more annoyed I get with them shutting each other out, and the more I wish they could have stuck together. (I know that isn’t Kripke’s arc, but I can wish.)
Dean goes back in time and meets a John Winchester who is young and unscarred, low-key and kind. Mary is a hunter and a spitfire.
I loved the look on Dean’s face when he realized he’s named for his grandma, and the way he talks John out of buying the VW bus and instead buying the Impala.
The irony that Mary believes John ‘is everything a hunter isn’t.’ Dean tries to warn Mary and stop her from making the first deal, but nothing changes, and the angels’ message is ‘all roads lead to the same destination’, setting up the free will vs. predestination arc of the rest of the show.
One of the few humor breaks we get in Season 4’s ‘essential’ line-up. An interesting exploration of fear, and a chance to see behind Dean’s tough-guy mask.
Plus the Yorkie!
"I Know What You Did Last Summer"
Our first time in a psych ward, but it won’t be the last. Sam tries to make a deal to trade his life for Dean's. Once again, I wished they would work together and stop lying to each other. Ah well, that’s what AU fan fiction is for! There’s the iconic shot of Sam and Dean leaping out of the church window.
We can see why Sam trusts Ruby, and how hard she worked to earn his trust. We also find out how messed up Sam was while Dean was in Hell. There’s also some very hot Sam and Ruby sex!
She’s even starting to win Dean’s trust. All of which makes me cranky when later on, Dean blames Sam for trusting Ruby when she ran a very convincing con.
"Heaven and Hell"
I really hate Uriel, and I’m not a fan of Zachariah, either. Just saying. We get a look at Bobby’s panic room. Anna finds out she’s an angel.
Lots of discussion about ‘orders’ from heaven. Sam is still resisting Ruby’s encouragement. I had to laugh at the Titanic references, especially now that I realize a much younger Jensen was a model in an ad for a replica necklace back when the movie came out! Or course, there are parallels between John and God when Dean and Anna discuss absent fathers. Supernatural gets the mirror images it loves pairing Sam and demon Ruby, vs Dean and angel Anna.
Dean ultimately betrays Anna to save Sam. Then we get the pivotal discussion with Sam and Dean on the side of the road and Dean’s confession about Hell.
"Monster at the End of This Book"
Lots of in-jokes about LARPing and the books not selling much. I loved the book covers! There’s the whole discussion about fan fiction, ‘Sam girls’, ‘Dean girls’ and slash. I loved Becky’s comments about the ‘best parts are when they cry’ and ‘crying on the inside’—she’s not wrong! I know that the writers couldn’t have foretold season 15 at this point (could they?) but I got a chill when Chuck declares that he is a ‘cruel and capricious god’.
The laundromat made us want more ‘day in the life’ footage (fan fiction saves the day again).
Nice touch with the town being ‘Kripke’s Hollow’. I loved them trying not to fight: “It frustrates me when you say such reckless things.” We find out Chuck knows about the demon blood—but he keeps it secret.
Gotta love the Winchester Gospels!
"When the Levee Breaks"
I felt disoriented skipping so many episodes because we missed a lot of build-up, which made the last episodes feel rushed. I know the EW ‘essentials’ list probably assumes this isn’t the first viewing, but I wouldn’t recommend a first-timer do the Cliff Notes version because while you can follow the story you lose a lot of the emotional impact. This is the Sam in the panic room episode, and it makes me angry all over again how he’s been manipulated by the angels, including at this point, Cas.
Dean takes a hard line and his words are callous (I wince at the ‘at least he’ll die human’ line every time), but Jensen’s nuanced acting shows us Dean’s pain in his non-verbal communication. Bobby is actually the one arguing for being careful, not pushing Sam away.
There’s a foreshadowing of season 9 when we hear ‘you would have done the same for me’, and echoes of the Siren’s venom when Sam says Dean isn’t strong enough.
And yet, Sam asks Dean to trust him, one more time. Dean echoes John telling Sam not to come back if he walks out.
There’s The Voicemail. That’s one loose end I would LOVE to see wrapped up in season 15, one that fan fiction has done so much with. Bobby gives Dean a ‘tough love’ wake-up call, and we get more of Bobby's wisdom about family.
Dean’s hardass attitude annoys me when I rewatch this, no matter how essential it is to the arc. Sam has second thoughts, and both Ruby and the angels manipulate him—which again makes me testy when Dean later sees it as all Sam’s fault, when Dean knows he himself was being played by the angels.
Dean is in the ‘angel green room’ and there is some really great camera work like the mirror shot of Zachariah. Dean realizes he’s being tricked—and yet he still goes along with the angels’ plan in S5, which puzzles me. The ‘God has left the building’ line hits home, knowing what we later find out, as did the ‘feather to fly’ line.
The heartbeat soundtrack as Sam exorcises Lilith was brilliant. And even though they’re mad at each other, Dean shows up to save Sam, and when the gate to Hell opens,
they both grab for each other.
Episodes Excluded from the 'Essential' List
As I mentioned, I thought we skipped so many episodes that we lost some crucial emotional connection, as well as a more complete insight into both boys’ thinking.
"Are You There God, It’s Me, Dean Winchester"—releasing the witnesses, one of the early seals
"Metamorphosis"—the rugaru fight, Dean and Sam argue about Sam’s powers, Sam decides to stop using them
"Monster Movie"—a Monster of the Week (MOTW)
"It’s the Great Pumpkin, Sam Winchester"—introduced Samhain as one of the seals, Dean chooses to save the town rather than have the angels smite everyone (a test), Sam uses his powers to save them all and still gets in trouble for it.
"Wishful Thinking"—mostly a MOTW episode. Sam gets hit by lightning, Dean admits he remembers Hell but doesn’t want to talk about it.
"Family Remains"—mostly MOTW but more insight into Dean’s Hell-guilt
"Chriss Angel is a Douchebag"—Sam goes back to Ruby in reaction to Dean’s nihilism.
"After School Special"—shows where Sam got an initial push about ‘getting out’ (which later turns out to be demon manipulation), and we also get to see Dean in gym shorts.
"Sex and Violence"— the siren was a turning point in breaking the boys apart, and played a big role in their later mistrust.
"Death Takes a Holiday"—mostly MOTW, Alistair makes an appearance, Pamela Barnes warns Sam not to use his powers and then dies.
"On the Head of a Pin"—I was very surprised this episode wasn’t considered essential, since we find out more about Dean in Hell and Sam destroys Alistair. (Again, it seems unfair to hold that against Sam, when the angels were useless and he saved Dean. Not the first questionable choice made by a Winchester in a dire situation).
"It’s a Terrible Life"—was a destiny-focused episode, and a lot of fun with our AU ‘Smith and Wesson’ (an episode that launched a thousand AU fan fiction stories)
"Jump the Shark"—introduced Adam, which seems kind of essential to me.
"The Rapture"—We meet Jimmy Novak and Claire, then Dean and Bobby lock Sam in the panic room.
A few more thoughts—I did find myself wondering whether Dean would have been as eager for the angels’ approval if he didn’t have the Hell-guilt. And the panic room seemed to be the real point of no return, because it was the choice that finally pushed the brothers apart.
Key songs in the included episodes:
Some of the highlights for me were "Shook Me All Night Long", "Ramblin’ Man", "Eye of the Tiger", "Leave All That Behind" and of course, "Carry On, Wayward Son".
Key songs in the skipped episodes:
Notables were "Lonely is the Night" and "A Well-Respected Man".
I love to search Archive of our Own (AO3) for fan fictions by seasons and read them along with rewatching the episodes—plenty of fill-in, fix-it, and extra adventures!
So....what are your thoughts on the episodes that EW chose? Do you agree or disagree that they were the most ‘essential’ from the season to convey the plot? What would you have done differently? What important things in the episodes got left out? Join the discussion below, then keep going with season 5!
Written by Gail Z. Marin
Formatted and Illustrated by Nightsky
A version of this recap was originally posted in Supernatural TFWNC Facebook group. Article contents have been edited for clarity and to better fit with The WFB.
Original Concept: Entertainment Weekly's Supernatural Binge Guide
Read through "The Top 100 Favorite Supernatural Episodes", as ranked by The WFB and several other Supernatural fan sites, for a different overall view of Supernatural as series!
Want to read more about the ‘essential’ episodes? The WFB’s Episode Guide links to our reviews and discussions of each episode!