Throwing out nods to the horror genre is nothing new for “Supernatural.” — the CW’s long-running show has made a reputation with its reference-heavy style — not just quoting from other works, but breaking down the fourth wall with classics like Season 3’s “Ghostfacers” and the Trickster (Richard Speight Jr.) tomfoolery of Season 5’s “Changing Channels.”
Keeping things fresh and new, while staying connected to its own gory lore and history, is something “Supernatural” has always taken seriously — but after a lackluster first half-season in 2016, we started returning to the old perennial question: Just how much steam does the show have left?
If these recent episodes are a sign, the answer is a lot.
From arthouse to grindhouse, “Supernatural” is connecting with us on a delightfully different level — pointing to many recognizable movie moments fans can recognize, making for a more personalized geektastic experience.
We first noticed this in the Season 12 mid-season premiere, “First Blood.” The title brings to mind a roided-out Sylvester Stallone in all his 1980s “Rambo” glory. In the episode, the Winchester brothers Jared Padalecki & Jensen Ackles) were faced with an impossible position: Held captive for an assassination attempt on the president, they had to escape lockdown unharmed. Against all odds, our heroes made it out, turning the neighborhood wilderness into their own personal hunting ground — and turning the tables on the soldiers through methods that would make John Rambo proud.
The trend continued in the Tarantino-inspired episode, “Stuck in the Middle (With You),” whose narrative structure, an homage to “Reservoir Dogs,” was a delightful departure for “Supernatural” — and in his return to the director’s chair for the first time since “Just My Imagination” (Dec. 2, 2015), Richard Speight Jr. delivered one of the series’ best episodes to date.
From the temporary buddy-cop team-up of Castiel and Crowley (Misha Collins & Mark Sheppard) to Lucifer’s (Rick Springfield) Lestat-like lust for rock-star fame — an obvious homage to “Queen of the Damned” — this widening and transparency of the show’s inspirations appeals directly to its audience’s sense of being in on a joke, every fan’s favorite feeling. But it’s not merely nostalgia pieces, but an ongoing conversation with fandom and geekiness — we can detect flavors of 2014’s “Kingsman: The Secret Service” in the show’s British Men of Letters, and don’t even get us started detailing the television antecedents of our favorite witch, Rowena (Ruth Connell)…
Perhaps a bold statement, but even hardline fans would have to admit that “Supernatural” has had periods in its long history that walked the line between compelling and phone-it-in storytelling. Once the show had outstayed its originally planned five-season arc, that clock will never stop ticking — and even beloved characters and intriguing plot lines can get super stale over time, no matter what show you’re talking about… Even one as compulsively fan-appeasing as “Supernatural,” which has long taken fan service to an unprecedented level.
That kind of age, in American TV, can be a curse — but in Season 12, we’re seeing how it can also prove itself a gift. “Supernatural” isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, and this stylistic trend not only shows the show’s willingness to keep things fun, but provides validation of the show’s remaining, loyal fans: This show was made for me and me alone! is what every show wants us to feel, and there’s simply not another show in history that ever goes this far to make its fans feel this way.
And now, in Thursday’s (March 2) episode “The Raid,” we found confirmation that more movie madness is to come, just as we hoped.
Between the edgy violence of this vampire-fighting episode, and the stylistic touches — the contrast of a bleak snow-blind night against the cold red walls of a BMOL compound — Steve Niles’ visceral “30 Days of Night” flashed before our eyes: A horde of blood-thirsty vampires invading a safe haven, and a very Josh Hartnett-y Sam Winchester holding down the fort, put us right back in that 2007 cinematic moment.
It’s not a stretch to find the horror movie roots that make “Supernatural” such a genre powerhouse. But evolving with the times both proves and is necessitated by the show’s staying power: Tapping into this deep well of action and genre goodness not only indicates the show’s ongoing willingness to branch out and have fun — taking a page from the “Cabin in the Woods” playbook, if you will — these cinematic homages open a dialog between storyteller and fan, resulting in a renewed devotion to ride-along with Sam and Dean, wherever the road takes them.
“Supernatural” airs Thursdays at 8 p.m. ET/PT on The CW.