I wrote an article here on New Year’s Eve about how I’m dealing with Supernatural ending, because I’m still having lots of feelings about the loss of my favorite show ever, especially in the midst of so much stress – political and social upheaval and a raging pandemic. We need our comfort shows more than ever! One of the things that’s helping is going back to the beginning and rewatching from the start. In a way, it’s giving me new content, because watching those early episodes now is completely different with the perspective of knowing how the story plays out and how it ends. I understand Sam and Dean more deeply than I did when I watched these episodes for the first time 15 years ago. At the same time, I’m struck by how well they hold up and how truly ingenious the writing, directing, acting and cinematography was, right from the start.
Today’s episode rewatch is the third one that aired, and the first directed by Kim Manners, who would come to have such a significant impact on the show’s two young stars, Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles. ‘Dead In The Water’ is one of the most well known episodes, giving us some iconic scenes as well as some of the first memorable gag reel moments. The episode was written by Raelle Tucker and Sera Gamble, who would go on to be showrunner when Kripke departed at the end of Season 5 (and would also helm another of my favorite shows, The Magicians). So, let’s dig in…
The episode opens on a cabin that’s familiar to most fans, and I had to take a moment right away because I now realize that it’s a cabin that I think I’ve actually been to in real life – on one of the location tours given by Supernatural’s locations supervisor for many seasons, the one of a kind Russ Hamilton. I’m notoriously bad at remember things like locations, though, so somebody correct me if the ‘Russ bus’ never in fact visited this particular Vancouver cabin. At any rate, it’s striking, and beautiful in its own way. There is so much atmosphere provided by locations and set dec for Supernatural, making it so much memorable than it would be otherwise.
I don’t think, at the time I first watched this episode, that I realized that the show customarily opens with the guest stars of the week being attacked by the monster of the week, especially in the early seasons. But director Kim Manners does a great job of setting up the sense of foreboding even if you didn’t know something bad was about to happen. The family in the dimly lit cabin is a dad and a sister and brother, with no mom around – because many of the guest characters are parallels for the Winchesters in some way. The girl opts for a swim in the gigantic deserted lake, out there all alone, which seems like a terrible idea even if this wasn’t Supernatural. We see her from beneath, highlighting her vulnerability, as she begins to get scared, hearing unintelligible whispering all around her even though no one is there. Uh oh. It’s scary as hell even before anything happens thanks to Manners, and then whoosh, she’s pulled under.
The lake looks peaceful once again, no sign of the girl. Uh oh.
And then, customarily, the show pivoted to the Winchester brothers, in this case at the Lynnwood Motel, which I’m totally taking as a shout out to me even though I was entirely unknown to any of them at the time. Hindsight. Dean flirts with the waitress, who flirts back, understandably, and Sam cuts that right off with a “Just the check please.”
Dean sighs, put upon.
Dean: You know, Sam, we are allowed to have fun every once in a while. That’s fun.
Dean in these early seasons comes off as a guy who definitely does have fun, including the hooking up with waitresses kind of fun apparently. He’s a little bit flippant, and initially seems like he buys into all the machismo bullshit that you might expect from a guy like Dean Winchester. We’ll later find out he’s not as much of a stereotype as we thought, and that both his respect for women and his seriousness about the job are as much a part of him as the bravado devil-may-care attitude he likes to gird himself with. He also evolves as time goes on, but it’s not all evolution – some of it was there all along.
While he’s flirting, Dean is also finding them a case, but Sam is reluctant to do anything that’s not directly tied to finding their dad and the thing that killed Jessica. They’re ostensibly discussing the missing girl, but Sam’s pointed response to Dean is received just as intended. The brothers know how to communicate, even if it alot of it is disguised in Winchester-speak.
Sam: People don’t just disappear, Dean. Other people just stop looking for them.
Dean confronts his brother about what he’s really trying to say, correctly reading that as a criticism about working other cases instead of tracking their dad. Eventually Dean snaps back at Sam, clearly resentful that Sam left the family business and went off to college and left him to carry on ‘the family business’, though we don’t entirely understand that whole story yet.
Dean: I’m the one who has been with Dad every single day while you were at pep rallies…
Oooh. That cuts more with hindsight, knowing how strong Dean’s feelings were about wanting Sam to come with him on the search for their father, and to come back to hunting with the family. It wasn’t just envy that Sam was living an arguably easier life, it was also Dean’s hurt that Sam didn’t stay with their family, and with him.
The brothers are still brittle with each other, but Sam acquiesces and they head to the lake to investigate. There’s a gorgeous shot of the Impala driving across a bridge, past a man fishing, meant to be idyllic Americana but to me all I can see is beautiful Vancouver. I will always miss it, just from the memorable times I was able to be there and see some of the places my favorite show filmed at.
Agent Ford and Hamill (and we’re off with the aliases, which I love even more with fifteen years of hindsight) of the US Wildlife Service speak with the sheriff. I take a moment to admire Dean in that too-big beat up leather jacket that’s like the physical symbolism of how much Dean is trying to be like his dad at this point in his life, and always feeling like he’s not quite living up to the expectations (or filling out the leather jacket). The sheriff is suspicious; although Sam and Dean know there have been three bodies, they clearly don’t know about the dam that’s going to fail.
Sheriff: The dam, of course.
Dean: Of course, the dam…. It’s…. falling apart…
He luckily guesses sort of right, and Ackles sells it with the subtle humor and physical touches that he adds so often to do so. They also realize that the lake may not exist much longer, which becomes integral to the case. Dean takes a break to flirt yet again, this time with the sheriff’s daughter Andrea. He asks about a nearby hotel, and she tells him there’s one two blocks away.
Dean: Would you mind showing us?
Andrea: You want me to walk you two blocks?
Dean: If it isn’t too much trouble…
It’s a ridiculously transparent exchange, and Sam is rolling his eyes so hard they’re practically popping out of his head – and I’m rolling mine right along with him.
Interestingly, early seasons Dean is the furthest thing from a smooth operator. That’s his persona, but the reality is that he’s sort of achingly vulnerable in his attempts to connect with people. He’s gorgeous, sure, so he probably succeeds a lot anyway, but his sort of fumbling way of attempting connection is kind of endearing. Not like he had a lot of experience with “normal” interaction, after all.
Andrea has a son, Lucas, so Dean tries to score some empathy points.
Dean: Kids are the best, huh?
Andrea shuts him down, calling out the terrible pick up line, and walks away smiling.
The guest cast for this show has always been top notch, and the writing of the other characters too. Amy Acker was also on Angel, another of my favorite shows, and she shines here, managing to convey humor and self confidence along with terror (coming up) and a fierce love for her family that there’s no doubt Dean can relate to.
Sam to Dean: Kids are the best? Really? You don’t even like kids! Name three kids you even know!
Dean (scratching his head): I’m thinking…
Again the brotherly banter hits perfectly, and Ackles and Padalecki bring the humor as easily as they’ve already started to bring the emotionality. It turns out that Dean really does like kids, though, and he’s good with them. Being parentified at an early age and doing a larger share of raising your little brother than any kid should have to has given Dean lots of experience with one child at least, though we don’t know that yet at the time of this episode. And while Dean was angry at having to do that and recognizes the unfairness of putting that on a kid, he never resents looking after Sam.
We learn that Lucas’ father recently drowned, and that Lucas was found floating on a wooden platform two hours later, having witnessed his father’s death. He hasn’t spoken since then. And Dean gets it. He has empathy, not sympathy.
Dean: Watching one of your parents die isn’t something you just get over…
He’s right. That’s trauma with a big T. And we realize it’s not just Lucas’ experience he’s talking about – it’s his own. Sam is too young to remember the fire burning up their house and their mother, but Dean isn’t. It’s a trauma that’s shaped so much of who he is, and we find out about it like Sam does, in bits and pieces of overheard conversation directed at others instead of the easier but less realistic dreaded exposition. Dean has a mass of unresolved loss and trauma in there, but it’s tightly sealed off and covered over with bravado and constant flirting and joking around. But it’s there; in this episode, we see that even more clearly. Sam has his own trauma, of course, and it will be compounded for both brothers across the next fifteen years.
Although Sam seems to be right that Dean doesn’t know a lot of kids, he’s nevertheless instinctively good with Lucas. He gets down on Lucas’ level to play with him, first with the little green army men.
“I used to love these”, Dean says, and now with Swan Song long past, I think of the army men jammed into the ashtray of the Impala, the ones that helped save the world. Damn it, and now there’s a lump in my throat.
With my psychologist hat on, it makes so much sense. Like Lucas, Dean was a little boy who witnessed terrible things that he had no control over and no way to fight back against. The little green army men are an invitation to work that helplessness out the way children instinctively do, through play. To gain back some control and feel a sense of power that kids don’t have. There’s a reason why play therapy works, after all. I love that the show gets all these subtle little things so right.
Dean: I think I know how you feel. When I was your age, I saw something….
He goes on to tell Lucas that he’ll believe him, and gives Lucas a crayon drawing: My dad, my mom, my geek brother, and me.
For Dean, family really is everything and wanting his family close and intact is of primary importance to Dean. That he still draws the family with all four of them together says so much. It makes my psychologist self want to grab that drawing and analyze the crap out of it. Too bad that wasn’t in the set sale!
While Lucas doesn’t talk to Dean, he does catch up with him as he and Sam are about to leave and gives him a picture he drew. It’s communication, and Dean knows it.
I’m distracted for a moment by the playground where this conversation is taking place. I’ve been there too, on my very first foray around Vancouver trying to find past filming locations. I remember being so thrilled just to see the place where my beloved show was filmed and stand where my favorite characters stood – it was magical just to be there and feel close to the show.
Back to the dark and dreary cabin, where the heartbroken Dad isn’t eating. The son decides to make them some dinner, but the big work sink (which frankly already looks kinda disgusting) clogs up. The water runs brown, the sink fills up, and the kid decides to root around in the drain to try to unclog it and of course we KNOW something bad is gonna happen. I was literally yelling NOOOOOO as I rewatched, even though I totally knew what was going to happen. There’s something even more horrifying about the kid drowning in his own damn sink with his grieving father in the next room, next to bloody gutted fish. Supernatural’s aesthetic in Season 1 was remarkably dark and gritty.
Sam tells Dean about it later.
Sam: Will drowned?
Dean: Yeah. In the SINK.
They realize whatever it is can get through the pipes, so everyone is at risk, and I have to take a minute to say that wow, this episode is really truly horror. Supernatural started out as a horror show and this episode really fits the bill. That is profoundly terrifying. I’m totally not taking a bath tonight. Actually not even a shower.
Sam and Dean try to get the grieving dad to talk to them, but he won’t.
Dad: My children are gone…it’s worse than dying…
Supernatural, right from the start, is so much about loss. The show goes back to examine that theme again and again, right up through its finale. How much we as humans struggle with loss, the lengths we’ll go to in order to prevent it, the painful reality of trying to deal with it. I use this show all the time in the graduate course on grief and loss that I teach, because its exploration is so rich and realistic.
The Winchesters go back to talk to Lucas again to see if they can figure out what the drawing means. Once again, Dean gets down on the floor with him – the best way to engage with a child – and talks to him, while Sam listens at the doorway.
Dean: You’re scared, it’s okay, I understand. When I was your age I saw something real bad happen to my mom, and I was scared too. I didn’t feel like talking. But see, my mom? She wanted me to be brave. I think about that every day, and I try my best to be brave.
Lucas does the same, and gives Dean another drawing that’s another clue. But the importance of that scene is really in Sam (and us) learning more about Dean. Sam doesn’t remember when four year old Dean was so traumatized he didn’t talk. He didn’t know that part of the reason Dean puts on the bravado and refuses to admit to fear or vulnerability is because he internalized that early. Probably not from his mother directly, but from his father, after his mother died. There’s a part of me that’s horrified, because from a psychological standpoint, that’s not what you want to tell a child who is grieving – to be brave, to suck it up, to not feel their emotions and grieve the loss. But John Winchester may have been so caught up in his own grief, that he couldn’t be there for his sons and couldn’t tolerate his son’s grief on top of his own. And Dean, the oldest at the tender age of four, got the message that he needed to step up and push his own needs aside and take care of his little brother – and eventually his father too. We’ll see more of that later, but the first glimmers of understanding of who Dean is and what shaped him are here in that scene.
Sam’s initial dismissal of his brother as ‘not like me’ and as caring only about hunting and toeing the family line begins to slowly change as he sees his brother through adult eyes now – that sets the stage for their slowly growing closeness over the course of the first season.
In the car after, Dean immediately wants to deflect and deny any of the vulnerability that he didn’t realize Sam was seeing, first trying to annoy his little brother out of any warm feelings with “Oh college boy, thinks he’s so smart” (though he also clearly is proud of his brother’s smarts too)
Sam: You know, what you said about mom….you never told me that before…
Dean bristles, instantly on the defensive, realizing he let Sam see too much of the real him. That he made himself vulnerable, and that means Sam can hurt him.
Dean: It’s no big deal. Oh god, we’re not gonna have to hug or anything, are we?
Me watching fifteen years later: YES PLEASE!
Little did we know at the time that brother hugs would become so important to the fandom – or to the brothers. We know now that Dean was incredibly fearful that Sam would abandon him, but he could not let Sam know that’s how he was feeling. He probably wanted a hug more than anything, but that’s the last thing he would allow Sam to think, so instead he uses humor to dismiss Sam’s own warm feelings. The brothers’ messed up (lack of) communication and especially Dean’s insistence on stereotyped masculinity norms really got in their way, didn’t it?
Good thing we know what’s under there.
Thanks to Sam’s smarts, they find the house that Lucas drew, and talk to the still grieving mother who lost her son 35 years ago.
Mom: Losing him, it’s worse than dying.
It’s the theme of the episode, but in many ways, in this third episode of the series, it’s also the theme of the show. For Sam and Dean, losing their family – and each other – is the worst thing. Worse than dying. That hits so much harder now, knowing the lengths they and their father will go to, to save each other – and knowing that in the finale Dean would still say that very thing. It also hurts so much now to know that Sam has to experience what the grief-stricken mother and father in this episode had to as well.
The Winchesters figure out that the ghost of Peter is going after the Carlton family, and Bill Carlton, the grieving dad, figures it out too. Sam and Dean arrive to the lake just in time to see Bill steering his boat out into the middle of the lake, intending to sacrifice himself. Sam and Dean run to the dock – in a popular scene in which Jared and Jensen’s long legs eat up the sand in a very attractive way – just in time to see the boat blow up and sink.
I was watching the episode with my rewatch friends and we all had to pause and yell “gag reel” because Jensen leapt into Jared’s arms on the gag reel for Season 1 at the end of that pier and it’s priceless. Their second episode filmed in Vancouver, and the cast and crew were already clearly having the time of their lives, and Jared and Jensen were already brothers offscreen too.
The sheriff, unfortunately, is on to Sam and Dean not being who they said they were and orders them out of town, though Lucas clings to Dean clearly trying to tell him something. Something not good. Dean drives as far as the edge of town and then turns around.
Dean: I don’t wanna leave til I know the kid’s okay.
Sam: Who are you and what have you done with my brother?
Dean waves it away, but both Sam and the viewers are getting a clue that Dean Winchester is a lot more than a macho womanizer.
Good thing he turned around, because Andrea decides to take a bath and it turns out Bill Carlson’s sacrifice hasn’t appeased Peter. Once again, Manners makes it all kinds of creepy scary ewww, building up the tension as Andrea gets ready for her bath and tries to put Lucas to bed. He’s been compulsively drawing what looks like circles on top of circles (and which we will soon realize was a whirlpool that can suck someone down).
Andrea closes her eyes and doesn’t realize, but we do to our horror, as the water turns brown and envelops her and then pulls her under, Andrea fighting to get out and Lucas pounding desperately at the bathroom door.
Lucas throws open the front door as soon as Sam and Dean arrive and Sam manages to pull Andrea out in an impressive feat of Sam strength.
Little by little, with a shaken Andrea, they try to put the pieces together.
Serge Ladouceur is already working his magic. He told me when I sat down with him in Season 4 for one of the books that Jared and Jensen were so attractive that he could light them like he would a beautiful woman. This cap right here? Evidence.
Back at Andrea’s, Lucas gets their attention as he leaves the house, seeming like he’s in a trance. He leads them to a grassy spot and the Winchesters start digging, uncovering the bicycle that Lucas drew and that Peter rode to the lake so long ago. The sheriff finds them and points a gun at them, but Sam and Dean have figured it out and accuse him of killing Peter when they were kids.
Dean: It’s gonna take everyone, so you can feel the pain that his mom felt. Tell me you didn’t just let him go in the lake.
We get the tragic backstory then, of the smallest kid who was relentlessly bullied, and that this time it got rough and they held him under too long – and let the body go.
The Winchesters tell it like it is: Nothing stays buried.
It’s the message of this episode, but it’s also a larger message of the show and what the Winchester family is dealing with. There are things that all of them are hiding from each other (and in some cases, from themselves too) and sooner or later those things will have to come out.
While the adults talked, Lucas wanders out onto the dock – and before the Winchesters, the sheriff or Andrea can get to him, Peter’s ghost appears and pulls him under. Sam and Dean dive in (Jared and Jensen really did this and it was frankly pretty magnificent).
Andrea waits on the dock, beside herself, while they dive down again and again trying to find him.
Meanwhile, Andrea’s dad has realized that Peter wants him, and heads into the lake, sacrificing himself and begging for his grandson’s life. It’s another theme that we’ll revisit again and again on Supernatural – family and loved ones sacrificing for each other – right up until the very last.
Sam finally surfaces, shaking his head no, nothing. Everything goes slow motion as Andrea breaks down, sobbing and screaming….
For an agonizingly long time, we just see Andrea’s anguish, her heart breaking. As a mom, it tore me apart, and all the kudos to Acker for making us feel it.
And then, in slow motion, Dean breaks the surface, Lucas in his arms. He and the boy gasp for breath, and Andrea’s face shows her incredible relief, and I finally let out the breath I’d been holding.
Jensen has talked about how hard that scene was to film – the water was cold and he had to be held down, holding the young actor who played Lucas in his arms down with him, and then had to get them both to the surface, and it felt like a terrifying responsibility. I think they were both breathless enough for some of that dramatic bursting to the surface to be real and some of it acting, and as a result it’s an amazing scene.
I remember the first time I saw it, I nearly burst into tears, just from the suspense – and perhaps from being a mom myself.
The next day, the brothers pack up the Impala to leave. It’s evidence of how well they can read each other already that Sam knows what Dean’s feeling.
Sam to Dean: Look, we’re not gonna save everybody.
Dean: I know.
Already they are so much more in tune. Sam is starting to understand how deep his brother’s desire to save people is and how much he really does care.
Andrea and Lucas come to see them off, thanking them for saving her son. Dean teaches Lucas to say “Zeppelin rules” because this is an Eric Kripke show, and kisses Dean goodbye. For all his flirty macho posturing, Dean’s a little bit awkwardly flustered by it, deflecting with “Sam, move your ass!”
Andrea and Lucas wave goodbye, and the Impala drives off, the boys knowing that at least they saved these two people.
This is the way most episodes ended in the early seasons, and for a long time when they didn’t end that way, I felt weirdly cheated, like the show was betraying its own norms. This time that didn’t happen, though. There was something very satisfying about watching the Impala drive off with her boys, safe once again from another brush with monsters – even as we knew they were headed for more danger inevitably.
I feel that way now, watching, knowing I have another fourteen seasons ahead of me to rewatch – and I feel lucky that their luck didn’t run out until we were fifteen more years down the road.
Next week, Supernatural 1.04 – Phantom Traveler. In which we get EMF meters, black eyed demons and Dean Winchester’s fear of flying all in one lovely package! Join me then, and in the interim, you can read lots of behind the scenes insights from the actors who brought Supernatural to life in the two books with chapters by actors and fans – Family Don’t End With Blood and There’ll Be Peace When You Are Done. Links on the home page here or at peacewhenyouaredone.com