Last week I finally finished watching season one of Supernatural on DVD. This of course means that I am jonesing pretty hard for season two, because season one ends on a cliffhanger, as most serialized dramas do these days (read: the 21st century so far). It actually ends on a bit of a double cliffhanger, which is simultaneously enervating and amusing to me.
In the simplest sense the cliffhanger is that the three main monster-hunter characters – Sam, Dean, and their father John – are driving in one car which is t-boned by a tractor trailer at the intersection of two back-country roads. The last shot of the episode is a slow pan through the car over the bloodied, unconscious bodies of the Winchester men, and then upwards to the cab of the big rig, where the driver is sitting stock still, with wide open all-black eyes (the series’ signature for demonic possession). So it’s a classic how-will-they-get-out-of-this-one non-ending, although the tension is greatly diminished by the fact that I am well aware the show keeps going with both Sam and Dean alive and well and is headed into season seven this fall. (Admittedly I don’t know how much longer their father stays in the picture, so his ultimate fate is at least somewhat in doubt.)
But in another sense the real cliffhanger is of the more soap-opera-y type, such as when a character answers the phone at 1:59 on Friday afternoon and says “Oh, hello Doctor, you have the test results?” and you have to wait until Monday to get the answer to the question. Because Supernatural never contented itself with being about a couple of brothers who knew in spite of conventional wisdom that boogeymen were real and traveled around America “hunting things and saving people”. It was about that, but it was also about the mysteries at the heart of why the boys knew there was more to life than conventional wisdom. There’s an early encounter with a paranormal evil that claims the life of their mother and sets the storytelling engines in motion, setting up knowledge of the secret world’s existence and motivation to work against it and pathos and angst all in one fell swoop, plus an arch-enemy in need of a reckoning that the whole season can build to. But for all that, it’s still deeply mysterious. It’s nothing as simple as “I know monsters are real because a monster killed my mom and now I hunt monsters.” There’s a constant suggestion that the monster went after the Winchesters specifically, particularly then-infant Sam, and that Sam is somehow important … and honestly it’s partly there in the episodes themselves in manifestations both subtle and ham-fisted, but partly it’s also in my consciousness because all of my buddies have seen way more episodes of the show than I have and I know there’s lots of stuff about prophecies and War Between Heaven and Hell and Sam’s role in things all coming down the pike. (I love my friends but they are not really spoiler-averse in general conversation.)
The point being that for all of Sam’s asking “Why us? Why me?” all season long, those questions never get answered. The mystery gets fleshed out with more and more information but it never coalesces into anything resembling a deciphered solution. And as I said, that is almost equal parts frustrating and impressive. I’m terribly over-invested in finding out those answers myself, yet I can’t help but admire the way the show’s writers kept things going for 22 episodes on a very slow burn that always felt like incremental progress, and then slammed into the final set of end credits with me twisting on the hook as ever. Five days later I am still in that strange state where I want to know what happens next and what it all means, but I’m enjoying the feeling, especially since at the same time I’m well aware that the payoff may be a big disappointment, whenever I finally do get to the point where they spell out what everything was supposed to mean. (Those revelations often are letdowns, I’ve found.)
Still, it certainly hasn’t been an experience that I’ve regretted spending time and brain-space on. Aside from the mysteries and cliffhangers and mythos-building and things like that, it’s a real reminder of certain other entertainment pleasures of mine. The soundtrack for the show is fantastic, almost entirely 70’s rock that makes me just want to cruise iTunes for hours pulling together a growls’n’distortion epic playlist of my own. And the episodes that spend about 40 seconds dropping another hint about what makes Sam so special and the other 39 minutes and change on the boys fighting the latest random, malevolent ghost remind me of well-played RPGs so much that I find myself making mental notes of how I could turn the urban legends from my own childhood into gaming sessions for my friends, which I haven’t had the opportunity to do in some time but hope to be able to work back toward sometime. And, of course, one of my buddies already has the rulebooks for the licensed Supernatural roleplaying game. Because of course they do.