Welcome back. I meant to clarify last time that I don’t know how many parts this will be. The initial Kripke 5 seasons may only take 1 part apiece but the later seasons past that are going to require more and more in depth analysis about what went right and wrong. So this could be 50 parts as well, maybe more, maybe less. I’m trying to keep myself to a thousand words or less per part.
So with S1 out of the way for Supernatural, S2 means they can begin building on the world they established.
Much of what was established in S1 comes to fruition here in storylines that while might technically be ‘escalation’ they nonetheless are organic outcomes from previously established facets.
After off and on police troubles in side parts of the main story, the boys then have a square-on confrontation with the cops in episode 2.07, preparing the audience for that moment in episode 2.12 where we find that the highest cops in the land, the FBI is on their case. When Dean said at the close, “We are so screwed” we the audience believed him because we had been shown previously the challenge their job was when law enforcement was against them.
One could play this game until angels fall, cataloging everything established in S1 that comes up again in S2. Even down to the brothers’ prank war (1.17) now causing misdirection in a case during S2 (2.15). That’s what makes it a living, breathing world to the audience. I know some might say that real life doesn’t have narrative continuity or poetry or echoes or foreshadowing but what we tend to forget is that there are millions and millions of other repetitions to life that assure us of its reality and truth. So in the same way a caricature artist exaggerates the figure they are drawing storytellers must employ exaggerating tricks like foreshadowing to bring stories to life and suspend our disbelief even if our conscious mind doesn’t grasp it. A good example would be the original 80s Ghostbusters movie. Now that we have HD & wide-screen versions, rewatch the movie and count how many times you see the Stay-Puff Marshmallow Man in addition to his big reveal. (I counted two additional times in the film – on a bag and on a building advertisement – on my latest rewatch – there might still be more.)
This brings us to what I consider the most important episode of the entire series (after the Pilot since, obviously it must exist for the show to exist), “What is and What Should Never Be.” Where Dean, as far as he knows, is in an entirely real world where his family is happy and healthy, and must make a choice between that and sacrificing his family for the good of so many others. Not only is it an incredibly, emotionally powerful episode, but it outright shows us how the “show” will end in Swan Song by foreshadowing the character of the protagonists. Everything about who the Winchesters are (yes, even Sam & John as seen in this episode) are shown to us in this episode.
But until S5, in this one it all leads up to the finale where not only a few storylines conclude, but character arcs too. We’ve seen that Dean is a heroic figure who cannot stand for others to die for him, whether a random civilian in Faith or his Father in 2.01. In the prior episode Dean even prepares himself to sacrifice his father and brother again to save others. Yet here, when Sam dies for no reason or cause, Dean finally breaks (which had been foreshadowed in episodes like Croatoan though it was a bit hamfisted there). We’ve seen for 2 seasons now that Dean has trouble bearing the hunting life alone (indeed, who really could?) and now it is too much. Left with no choice that he can see, Dean goes to the crossroads previous established in episode 2.08 (see? always world-building the show is) and does what his father would do, bargain (even with Hell) for the life of a family member. And the moment works because the show has done the work to set up and prove this moment to the audience. We saw John Winchester die. We saw other people be torn apart by hell hounds. This is what makes a tragedy. When the audience is crying out for the protagonist to not take an action which we can all see is very, VERY wrong and yet we see how no other action is possible in that scene because of who the protagonist is. We do not want Dean making that deal, but we know he’s going to, because of who he is.
Then ultimately, after all of that, the moment at the end when the Colt is fired and the main villain which took their mother, father and (Sam’s) lover from them is shot, we can’t help but stand up and cheer. At last! At last the Winchesters have a genuine victory on their hands. That victory becomes even sweeter because there was such a low point before and because it feels earned by them. They figured out the mystery, stopped the villain, and even had their dad crawl out of Hell to back them up one more time.
That is what we call a payoff.