Next up in our series rewatch of Supernatural, the fourth episode of season 1, ‘Phantom Traveler.’ I believe this is the first episode directed by Bob Singer, who would remain with the show throughout its 15 season run and be pivotal to its evolution, as a director, a producer and eventually a showrunner. The Season 1 DVDs have an episode commentary by Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles for this episode, so from time to time I’ll include some of those priceless comments too. They were so young in Season 1, and still new to being the leads of a TV show, but you can tell that their friendship was already clearly solid.
The show is still dark and scary in Season 1, so the opening sequence is scary too. An anxious flyer prepares to board a plane, then some ominous looking black smoke comes out of a bathroom vent and goes right into his eyes. His eyes turn black, and now he’s calm as ever.
Pivotal moment – this is the episode where we’re introduced to demons, who will become so important to the entire series. VFX may have been more primitive in 2005, but the smoke is actually surprisingly well done – and creepy. The black-eyed man momentarily freaks out the flight attendant, then calmly wrenches open the door hatch and brings the plane down, exactly 40 minutes into its flight.
[Jared: I’m really proud of this episode. Good job, Bob. I really enjoy Sam’s relationship with his brother Dean.]
Me fifteen years later: Me too!
After the opening sequence, we always switch to the boys, and this episode is no exception. Well, boy in this case – Dean is asleep, luckily for us on top of the covers and not wearing multiple layers as is way more usual. Singer, perhaps already understanding that the show’s audience was not the mostly male demographic that the WB was expecting after having laid eyes on Jared and Jensen, gives us a slow pan up Dean’s boxer-and-tee-shirt-clad body. The stills and later the gif of that shot became an instant classic in the fandom, for obvious reasons.
I’ve written about this in several of our books, but the show didn’t just lean into the traditional ‘male gaze’ – in this shot, the show turns the tables, something surprising and a little bit subversive for 2005. It’s also something that fandom has delighted in and one of the things that makes fandom such a different type of community, with different norms – a powerful change from what most of us are used to. Especially then. Okay, I’ll move along. I’m just typing to keep this gif in frame…
A shadowy figure enters the motel room and for a moment we’re all on edge. Dean too apparently – he surreptitiously reaches under his pillow – and then Sam wakes Dean up with a too-cheery “Mornin’ sunshine!”
Dean has adorable bed-head and is worried because Sam still isn’t sleeping well and having nightmares. He bristles and denies it when Sam realizes his big brother is worried, though.
Dean: No, it’s your job to keep my ass alive so I need you sharp!
(Forgive the number of caps of said ass, it’s just a really nice scene. Like, well lit. Yes, that’s it.)
We all know he cares about Sam, however, and I think so does Sam, who confides in his brother.
Sam: This job, it gets to you…
Dean tells him not to let it, but Sam is skeptical.
Sam: It never keeps you up at night? You’re never afraid?
Dean denies it, but Sam pulls the knife out from beneath his pillow.
Dean: That’s not fear, that’s precaution.
Watching this episode now, with the benefit of the entire series’ arc, it’s fascinating to know that Dean will eventually be able to admit that in fact, he is afraid. Not so much of the monsters, though he eventually is able to admit that too, but of being abandoned – especially by his brother. His admission of fear in the finale is all the more powerful revisiting how steadfastly Dean refused to admit he was afraid of anything at this point in his life. We now know he was, and it’s a little heartbreaking that he can’t talk about it and find any reassurance.
[Ackles and Padalecki watching this episode devolve into teasing each other very quickly. Jared: How much richer is your life now that you’ve met me? Jensen: I hate you so much.]
[A minute later, they get more serious, talking about how well they get along and how alike they are, remembering that when it was time to film a certain scene they were hanging out in Jared’s trailer eating churros and watching The Italian Job]
The phone rings and it’s a guy that Dean and John helped with a poltergeist a while back, asking for help again for “their kind of thing”. Sam and Dean pack up and head out, as they did every episode in those early seasons.
They meet with the guy and he tells Sam that “Dean and your dad really helped me out. If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be alive.”
Sam, still struggling with whether he wants to be a hunter or not, listens and takes that in. The guy then smiles. “He was real proud of you, talked about you all the time.”
Sam is incredulous, asking “he did?”
Apparently Dean isn’t the only Winchester who won’t admit to normal human feelings sometimes, if they appear to make him at all vulnerable. He may have learned that from his dad.
Our understanding of who John Winchester was changes quite a bit as we go through fifteen seasons of Supernatural, and sometimes in ways that aren’t entirely consistent. At this point, we know he pulled his kids into knowing about the supernatural way too early, and eventually in fighting monsters themselves. We know that Sam was at least partly estranged from the rest of his family, but we also know from this episode that John was proud of Sam for his success in college – even if he never conveyed that to Sam. Most of us who are parents would admit to some inconsistency when it comes to how we treat our children, but the depiction of John Winchester varies significantly from season to season. Jeffrey Dean Morgan has talked about his annoyance of that variation, saying that when he was on the show, he played a character who, despite his flaws, loved his boys. That’s also how he played John when he returned to the show for the 300th episode, but in between there were some offscreen depictions that fandom quickly took to ironically calling “John Winchester’s A+ parenting.”
Sam and Dean listen to the cockpit voice recorder and agree this is up their alley after they hear a creepy voice saying “No survivors”, so it’s off to get some fake IDs, this time Homeland Security (a relatively new thing in 2005).
Sam: That’s pretty illegal, even for us.
This flight, unlike the others, did have survivors, and Sam and Dean go to visit one of them, the young man named Max who saw the possessed guy open the hatch – and thus checked himself into a psychiatric hospital. Dean isn’t the smoothest in getting him to open up, so Sam swoops in with his empathy and puppy dog eyes, and Max starts talking.
Sam: It’s okay, just tell us what you thought you saw.
Who would not respond to that face??
[Jared: Dean isn’t much on the soft and sensitive side. Jensen: good cop, bad cop. Jared: team work]
Max says he saw a man whose eyes were black open the emergency exit, even though he knows that’s impossible. Sam and Dean exchange a look.
Next they visit the possessed guy’s wife, and ask her if there was anything strange about him. Whoever the guest star is, she wins for the funniest line of the episode in the midst of what would be in real life a not at all funny scene.
Sam: Anything strange?
Grieving wife: Well…he had acid reflux.
Supernatural was already mastering the art of combining horror, scary, tragic and humorous all in the same episode and somehow making it work.
The boys head to the NTSB site to inspect the wreckage, but first, as Sam says, “we’d better look the part.”
First time we see the boys in fed suits! By the time the later seasons of Supernatural are airing, Sam and Dean look like male modeling sonsofbitches in their perfectly fitted suits, but in the early seasons, the show is a little more realistic. Dean Winchester is not used to wearing a suit and tie, and it shows. He stops to flirt briefly with a woman coming into the shop, then grimaces.
[Jared: Jensen’s little addition, Dean checking out the girl]
Sam: You look like a seventh grader at his first dance.
Dean: (tugs at his tie uncomfortably, probably another Jensen Ackles ad lib because he adds those little physical touches all the time, it turns out).
[Jensen: Blues Brothers homage here, the suits. We stood in the window of the store and modeled…]
Me: Where were the Vancouver photogs when we needed them? I need to see Jared and Jensen modeling in the window of Mort’s!
Sam and Dean and their fake IDs bluff their way into the hangar with the plane wreckage.
[Jensen: Another amazing set from Jerry Wanek. And Serge Ladouceur, our amazing DP, the awesome lighting. It’s a pleasure to work with him.]
Even in the first season, Jared and Jensen spent a good part of their time on the commentary giving props to the crew and director, from Bob Singer to Jerry Wanek to Serge Ladouceur. In his chapter in There’ll Be Peace When You Are Done, Jensen talks about how they always tried to set a tone on the Supernatural set, so that it would never be a toxic work environment. Clearly in Season 1, that was already happening.
Dean pulls out a strange looking contraption as they inspect the wreckage, and Sam raises his eyebrows.
Dean: It’s an EMF meter.
Sam: Yeah, I know. Why does it look like a busted up Walkman?
Dean: (beaming proudly) Because, it’s homemade.
Sam: (unimpressed) Yeah, I can see that…
Dean deflates visibly. I felt bad for him at the time; I feel even worse now, knowing how much he wanted to impress his little brother and how he already felt not as smart or accomplished as his college educated law school bound brother. Ouch.
Sam pulls out a knife and scrapes a substance coating the handle of the airplane door, which turns out to be sulphur.
[Jensen: Jared cut himself on the knife. Jared: Sliced open my thumb. Jensen: This is why we’re not allowed to have nice things.]
Then the real Homeland Security agents show up and the Winchesters beat a hasty retreat – walking briskly across the tarmac in perfect sync, something we’ll end up seeing regularly. They vault over a fence – something that I think Ackles and Padalecki maybe did themselves, since there’s another episode coming up when they vault a fence and it is most definitely them doing it. Mmm. Anyway, they get away.
Meanwhile, the pilot who was traumatized by the first accident decides to go back up and fly again. Initially understandably nervous, the telltale black smoke appears and he calms right down, and this time he crashes the plane himself, again 40 minutes in.
[Jensen (excitedly) This is a great shot, the plane crashing through the wires, look, look at that!]
Me: Why are you two so adorable?
The boys try to figure it out, Dean stopping to say that he wishes that their Dad was there, since this feels bigger than their usual hunt.
[Jared: I ate 15 donuts here in this scene, and they never show it! Jensen: Oh, your daily quota? Jared: No, that’s 30.]
They also make fun of themselves and each other as they’re watching.
[Jared: Think, Sam, think!]
They also both are extremely amused by the random Poltergeist reference as someone in the background yells out “Poltergeist?! I love that movie!”
[Jensen (lauging): They added that in post]
Sam and Dean are smart, though, figuring out that the 40 minutes is meaningful (Dean at this point in the series is smart enough to know it’s biblical and oh how I wish he had been allowed to remain that smart and knowledgeable throughout the series) and also that it’s going after the survivors of the first plane crash. That means the flight attendant is next, so they race to the airport to try to catch her before her next flight.
[Deleted scene: The Impala screeches into the airport parking lot and the boys get out. Sam reminds Dean to put his guns in the trunk. Dean: Why?? Sam (with an eyeroll): Because it’s an airport! Dean: I feel naked.]
Hello Vancouver airport, where I’ve now been so many times. They call her on the airport phone and Dean tries a ploy to say a family member is in the hospital but unfortunately the ploy fails and she hangs up on him – and gets on the plane. I kinda love that many of these early episodes are pretty realistic for a horror show that of course isn’t realistic at all – Dean’s idea is a good one, but like many good ideas in real life, it still doesn’t work! The writing was so good, all those little touches that made the Supernatural universe – as unrealistic as it inherently is – feel so relatable to those of us in the real world.
Sam: Plan B, we’re getting on that plane.
Sam: Are you okay?
Dean: Not really…. I kinda have this problem with…
Sam: (incredulous) Flying??
What a glorious time it was, as we (and Sam) slowly learned more and more about Dean Winchester, a character who at first glance seemed like almost like a caricature but as time went on turned out to have so much depth, full of contradictions and a whole lot of issues. In other words, he was REAL. It took a little while longer, but we soon learned that Sam was a lot more than the smart kid who scored super high on his LSATS too, and that the relationship between the two brothers was as complicated – and as fascinating – as they were.
Sam doesn’t mock Dean at that point, he just offers to go alone. And Dean, who would fly without a plane over an ocean before he’d let Sam go off and risk his life alone, of course says no way. And that means we get a priceless scene of that unique combination of ribbing and actual comforting that siblings have down pat.
Sam: Try to relax.
Dean: Try to shut up.
Sam: Are you… humming Metallica?
Dean: It calms me down!
As much as Sam is gently ridiculing his brother, the look he gives Dean when Dean can’t see is fond.
Sam pretty much takes control because he needs to, and we get to see that while Sam may fall into the little brother role with Dean because that’s how they grew up, he’s just as strong and capable as Dean is. He points out that if Dean doesn’t calm down, it makes him vulnerable to possession. Dean, to his credit, doesn’t snark back. He listens to Sam.
Sam: You panic, you’re wide open to demonic possession, so you need to CALM. DOWN.
Dean: deep breathing
Me: Oh Sammy, I get all tingly when you take control like that…
[Jared: Up til now, Dean has been the heroic one, now Sam gets to see his older brother scared. Jensen: First chink in the armor. Where’s the white knuckle shot, Bob? I was gripping the armrest so tight I think I chipped a tooth!]
[Despite that complaint, Jared and Jensen talk a lot about how nice it is to have Bob direct, someone who’s attached to the show and really invested in it, because it raises a lot of confidence in the crew and cast. Jensen: Bob is a man of few words. Some of the guest actors were looking for compliments and he’s just like, moving on.]
I was fortunate to be on set once when Bob Singer was directing, and that does seem to be true. But the few words that he did say, everyone seemed to take with a lot of weight and a lot of respect. He also has a biting sense of humor and made me laugh out loud several times (then immediately smother it because the last thing you want to do when you’re sitting behind Bob Singer is make noise and ruin a take!)
[At some point in the commentary, they talk about Bob’s directing a little more, though I can’t for the life of me remember what they were referring to. Jensen: That was Jared pulling me in. Jared: They told me to really give it to him, really yank him back to catch him off guard.]
Anyway, this is the episode where they introduce saying “Christo” to find out if someone is possessed by a demon, which was so handy dandy that they decided they needed to forget it existed all together for a long time after. Sometimes the show writes itself into a corner by making things too easy for the Winchesters, also something they had to struggle with when they eventually brought angels and then Jack into the mix.
Dean goes to talk to Amanda, with the plan of trying to find out if she’s a demon. Sam calls after him with a reminder.
Sam: Say it in Latin! It’s Christo.
Dean: Dude, I know, I’m not an idiot!
Oh, how I love that little moment. Sam and Dean are so damn smart in these early seasons. Of course Dean knows Latin and how to say this important word, how could he not? One of the worst things about later seasons is that some episodes/writers dumbed Dean down for cheap and easy comic effect. That was never necessary – all the actors on this show are perfectly capable of both being smart AND being funny as hell. Grrr. Not over it.
Amanda confides that yes, she is scared, every time she flies, which surprises Dean (who we know can’t really admit to his own fears).
Amanda: Everybody’s scared of something, I’m not gonna let it hold me back.
Good advice for Dean too.
Even that little exchange was hilarious. Let Jensen Ackles do more comedy, world.
Dean walks the aisle with the EMF meter, figures out it’s the co-pilot and the brothers confirm it eventually with a Christo.
They try to get through to Amanda, finally succeeding because she saw the guy’s eyes turn black when the first flight went down. I think she might temporarily regret believing these two suspicious looking strangers when they pin the co-pilot down and start throwing (holy) water oh him while Sam reads an exorcism out of the journal. Then again, he sizzles when the water hits him, so maybe that corroborated Sam and Dean’s story!
Co-pilot to Sam: Your girlfriend died screaming! Even now, she’s burning…
[Jared: That co-pilot was a stunt guy, I was so jealous of his six pack. Jensen: That guy was great.]
All hell breaks loose, the plane is going down, it’s chaos everywhere. Dean is thrown up against the wall and looks hilariously terrified, which gives Ackles a chance to show off those comedic talents once again. Meanwhile, the journal with the exorcism in it slides away down the aisle and Sam goes after it, finally grabbing it and finishing the exorcism.
The Winchesters save the day, Amanda thanks them as she gives the cops a report, and Sam and Dean head out, job well done.
Dean: Let’s get outta here.
He turns to Sam; they’re both already tuned in to each other and know when something isn’t right.
Dean: You okay?
Sam (distraught) Dean, it knew about Jessica!
Dean: They read minds, they lie.
Sam believes it, at least for now, but it remains an ominous possibility that something more than that is going on with demons. (Which, of course, it is). They meet with Jerry, who is once again very grateful and points out that if it weren’t for them, a lot of people could have been killed. All these little things reinforce Sam’s decision to buy into the ‘saving people, hunting things’ mantra for real.
Before they leave, Dean asks how Jerry got his number, and he casually answers that their dad gave it to him. He called John’s cell, and the voicemail said to give Dean a call.
Sam and Dean exchange a WTF look. Their dad has been entirely missing, no communication at all, cell number out of service, but he took the time to make a new voicemail? They sit on the trunk of the Impala and call him, holding the phone between them, and sure enough.
They don’t say a word, but you can tell they’re feeling all sorts of things. Relief, hurt, anger – he was okay enough to change his voicemail message but not contact his sons?? Ouch.
[Jensen: It’s the first time they have confirmation that Dad was alive and had communicated with someone. Jared: The jaw clench. You can’t teach that, Jensen.]
The Impala peels out and drives away, and once again, even now knowing what will happen, I can’t wait for the next episode. That’s good TV.
[On the commentary, Jared and Jensen talk about the experience of shouldering the responsibility for Season 1.
Jared: Most scenes are just he and I. I had no idea the hours and the responsibility when I signed on.
Jensen: Jared and I were both so excited about this, what an awesome story line and great characters. The workload is a good problem to have. And it’s an on and off camera relationship that we have. Jared and I, our characters have a very strong relationship and he and I personally have gotten to know each other very well. It’s nice to have a recurring character like Jeffrey Dean Morgan on because we’ve gotten to know him too, so you can find nuances between the characters.
Jared: The show is rooted in the relationship between Sam and Dean. I remember being told that from the beginning, and it’s great that you get to focus on that relationship and explore that brother/brother relationship and all the fun that comes along with that.]
They were so excited about getting a Season 2 and it’s so heartwarming to hear that.
[Jensen (laughing again): I tried to floor it there, but… We have four Impalas and now we’ve got some that are candied out with a 350. Hope you enjoyed the sarcasm, we laid it on pretty thick!]
I, for one, definitely did. I love rewatching the episodes with the perspective of all fifteen seasons, and I also love eavesdropping on very young Jared and Jensen, their enthusiasm for this little show so evident one season in.
Join me for the next episode next week – the one that I still count as the scariest episode ever, Blood Mary! (Do not bring your mirror)
You can always remember Supernatural with the
books with chapters by the show’s actors and fans,
There’ll Be Peace When You Are Done and Family
Don’t End With Blood. More info at the home page
here or at peacewhenyouaredone.com