Recently, Emily has watched through seasons 1-9 of Supernatural (2-9 were for the first time). In the third of several articles, Emily examines how Supernatural is a series that is aware of itself on so many levels that it is a fully laid out Smörgåsbord of metafiction and intertextual references.
There will be spoilers for seasons 1-9 in this article.
Raised by pop culture
If there’s one thing that becomes apparent during the course of Supernatural, is that the Winchester brothers, especially Dean, are very well versed on pop culture and cult TV and films. Hardly an episode goes by in the series without some kind of allusion to an external text, this intertextuality (Wiki explanation at the link) being used to help further explain and define the events happening in episodes and their characters. From the Pilot alone, we find references to The Brady Bunch, The Smurfs and even The X-Files. (Sometimes, over the seasons, I did kinda wonder how they ever had any time to watch enough TV to make all of these references!)
Apart from the likes of animated comedies such as South Park, Family Guy and The Simpsons, I’ve never known of any TV series to pile on this level of intertextuality. While many genre shows will make allusions here and there, and there are definitely episodes of Castle, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Farscape that make many, Supernatural makes a lot of references and then takes them further.
The power of intertextuality
When a TV show, film, novel, videogame – any media text – invokes another text as part of its narrative, there are two potential effects on us as the audience. The allusion either passes us by and we’re none the wiser, or we know what is being referenced and experience a flash of meaning by the text’s invocation. But it is so rewarding when you do know of the reference being made and what it can imply in the greater context of something like an episode of Supernatural. The sense of reward comes from not necessarily being in on a joke, per se, but that your knowledge has come into play.
These references are taken even further when the show uses cameos and guest stars from the things being referenced. For instance, I shivered when this conversation happened near the end of season two episode “The Usual Suspects”:
Sam: Nice lady.
Dean: Yeah, for a cop. Did she look familiar to you?
Sam: No, why?
Dean: I don’t know. Anyway, are you hungry?
Dean: For some reason I could really go for some pea soup.
The cop they’re referring to in this moment is played by actress Linda Blair, the main star of The Exorcist, and the soup is referring some of the more infamous body horror moments from the film. And this is just one instance of something like this happening. There are many others across the seasons. And if cameos aren’t enough, there’s always the show’s knowing exploration of elements of film and TV, like in season five episode “Changing Channels” where they send up different TV show genres and tropes or their entire lampooning of a particular series (hence the earlier X-Files inspired image).
The prophet, the hedonist and the scribe
There are three big events over the course of the series that allow for it to be shown as “self-aware” (so to speak) without it breaking itself out of itself (i.e. without breaking the fourth wall). These events are all forms of metafiction (Wiki explanation at the link). Metafiction tends to be where a narrative device or plot is used within a text that identifies the text as being a work of fiction, whether or not the characters then become aware of themselves being fiction as the audience knows them as fiction, is another matter.
The first biggy of these is the revelation in season four, episode 18, “The Monster at the End of this Book”, where we find out Dean and Sam’s exploits have been recorded, almost blow-for-blow, as part of a genre fiction novel series called Supernatural. The discovery of their author, Chuck, and his powers as a prophet are pretty high up there on the metafictional rating scale. Perhaps what comes even more bizarrely out of this is the tongue-in-cheek exploration of Supernatural’s own fans as Chuck’s books open the way to fan conventions, LARP and more, (and consequently one of the episodes of season ten that I haven’t watched yet, but know of by name only) like “Fan Fiction”.
If the exploration of fan culture within the series wasn’t enough, during season six we have Balthazar’s attempt at protecting Sam and Dean. Needing to play for time, in “The French Mistake”, Balthazar manages to transport the Winchester brothers into an alternate universe where Supernatural is just a TV series and they are living the lives of the actual actors that play them, Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki, while still being Dean and Sam. Playing on stereotypes of the rich and famous, this episode uses metafiction to create great comical effect.
And then finally, in the season nine episode “Meta Fiction”, we have Metatron tiring of Castiel’s inability to understand pop culture references. So rather than leaving Castiel with a bunch of books and DVDs to get through, the scribe just dumps everything he knows into Cas’s brain. Suddenly, Cas’s knowledge of pop culture is potentially greater than that of the viewer. But also this whole skit acknowledges just how much the series relies on intertextuality thus again creating a degree of metafiction.
Feasting at the Smörgåsbord
Not every one likes the amount of metafiction and intertextuality that makes its way into Supernatural. Especially as the more detailed use of both come in during what many see as “filler” episodes that don’t much further expand the seasons’ main plot lines. Personally, I like how it’s all used in both main plot and filler episodes, as it allows for us to be taken away for a moment from a lot of the drama that actually takes place each season. It’s pop culture used as plot, but also used as a means to reward viewers and lighten things up.
By the way, if you want to read something a bit more academic about all of this, definitely check out Alberto N. García’s Breaking the Mirror. Metafictional Strategies in ‘Supernatural’.