A wise prophet/horror novelist once said: "It's not really jumping the shark if you never come back down."
Thirteen long, strange seasons in, Supernatural seems to be proving its own fictional prophet right. While more critically acclaimed shows have been felled by a time loop or meta move too many, Supernatural has shown, year after year, that there's no swing wild enough, no twist outlandish enough, no trope overplayed enough to bring its weird palace of horror and brotherly love crashing to the ground.
Tonight, Supernatural will be testing its prophet's pet theory once more as Sam (Jared Padalecki) and Dean (Jensen Ackles) Winchester take a turn for the animated in the ultimate spooksville crossover, "ScoobyNatural."
Odds on Sam and Dean's adventure in the Mystery Machine being great are so good it's not even worth betting on. The real question is — how good? Good enough to crack the series' absolute best?
In an expansive update to our Season 9 list of Supernatural's most meta episodes, we have pulled together this list of the series' 13 weirdest, most off-the-wall — and yes, most mind-bendingly meta — episodes of the series' thirteen-season run, all of which succeeded not only in not bringing Supernatural's shark back down, but also in advancing the series' core story of brotherly devotion.
Some seasons' weirdos didn't make the cut; some seasons' weirdness was extra rich. We just picked the best.
"Regarding Dean," Season 12, Episode 11
By Season 12, Sam and Dean Winchester had seen it all. Naturally, the most meta way out of that corner? Dean's memory gets hexed away by a witch!
As with almost all of Supernatural's "fun" episodes, what starts out silly eventually takes a turn for the heart-rending. But while that final scene of Dean-as-Dean is devastating — his last shred of selfhood floating away as he stares himself down in the bathroom mirror — everything that comes before and after is pure, popcorn entertainment: Dean noshing waffles with joyful, carefree abandon; Dean exclaiming in awe when Sam tells him they hunt monsters for a living; Dean exclaiming in double awe at the bounciness of Rowena’s hair. If this had been a season finale episode, the emotional wallop of the forgetting hex might have landed harder, but this early in the season? The only way the episode was going to end was with Sam making things right, so we in the audience get to just go along for the ride, enjoying Dean's day of inner-demon-less bliss.
Bonus Easter egg? Scooby-Doo keeping an obliviated Dean entertained on the hotel television. Jinkies!
"Baby," Season 11, Episode 4
While a whole episode told from a car’s point of view might, on paper, seem like the epitome of jumping the shark, Season 11's "Baby" — Supernatural's third experimental POV episode, after Season 3's "Ghostfacers" (see below) and Season 8's coed werewolf drama, "Bitten" — comes almost too late. Sure, Castiel is generally considered the third man of Supernatural, but it's really Dean’s beloved Chevy Impala, Baby, that has been with the brothers from Go.
For all the boys have been through, Baby understands them even better than we in the audience do, and watching the car watch them as they live their lives in, around, and after one more bloody, brutal case, that's just about as meta as it gets. It's not that funny, especially when compared to the other episodes in this list, but it's also definitely not NOT funny. It is, rather, little bits of everything, following unceremoniously one after the other exactly like unedited life is lived, from bad food to one-night stands to brotherly sing-alongs about one-night stands… just with a few more monster decapitations.
"LARP and the Real Girl," Season 8, Episode 11
All episodes featuring Felicia Day's geeky hacker, Charlie, are great episodes, but "LARP and the Real Girl" rises to the top on the power of earnest nerdery, lady-on-fairy loving, and Dean discovering his gleeful inner LARPer. Dean's revelation feels all the more significant after so many false starts and awkward LARPer interactions in the Supernatural-book meta episodes of seasons past.
Set in the fantasy LARP realm of Moondoor over which a Charlie in self-imposed witness protection resides as queen, Sam and Dean have to learn to give some control of the investigation over to the LARP geeks who know their proprietary lore inside and out. The boys also have to learn how to "fight" following rules and a military order to which they are complete newbies. It's light and goofy, and while other fun episodes entertain the audience but leave Sam and Dean in the same dark depths as ever, this one ends with the boys getting a chance to have some fun for their own sakes, finding the same kind of fraternity and peace in LARPing that so many who otherwise feel isolated or alone in their day-to-day lives also do.
"Changing Channels," Season 5, Episode 8
AKA, the one where Sam and Dean are on a sitcom… and a hospital soap, and a Japanese game show, and a herpes commercial, and Knight Rider, all at the sulky behest of their occasional nemesis, the Trickster (Richard Speight, Jr.). As with many of the episodes on this list, part of what makes the storytelling so trippy is how casually it slips between frames — here, Dean and Sam are on a bad multi-cam sitcom, complete with Full House title sequence; here, the channel changes to a hospital soap starring Dr. Sexy; here, the shot pulls back through the screen to reveal Dean watching from the edge of his motel bed; here, Dean and Sam walk through a door during their case straight onto the set of that same Dr. Sexy's hospital soap. The sight gags are what's memorable, but the disorientation of understanding where Sam and Dean are at any point in the hour is what makes the episode so very rewatchable.
"The Monster at the End of This Book," Season 4, Episode 18
The meta-episode that launched a metaphorical thousand meta-episodes, this is the one where Sam and Dean first discover the existence of Carver Edlund's eerily biographical Supernatural book series, which traces the brother's every hunt from the Woman in White up until Dean's descent into Hell at the end of Season 3. From the comic book shop clerk's first "ah, you're LARPers!" exclamation of recognition, to the resigned sharing of "fan" tattoos to get the author’s name from his overzealous publisher, we know that something wild and new is afoot. And watching the boys descend into shock as they discover the creepy commodification of their miserable lives never gets old.
It's not only the in-world Supernatural books that make this episode the most meta yet, though: Carver Edlund, the pseudonym for author Chuck Shurley (Rob Benedict), is itself a reference to the show's executive producer, Jeremy Carver, and co-producer, Ben Edlund; Chuck's publisher, Sera Siege (Keegan Connor Tracy), is named after supervising producer Sera Gamble and teleplay/story writer Julie Siege; and the diner Sam and Dean eat at is named after series creator, Eric Kripke.
"I'm sitting in a laundromat reading about myself sitting in a laundromat reading about myself," Dean says while reading Chuck's newest pages, his growling tone echoing the brain explosion many fans have watching this episode for the first time. "My head hurts."
"Hollywood Babylon," Season 2, Episode 8
Before Chuck Shurley's so-meta-it-hurts Supernatural series came on the scene, there was Season 2's "Hollywood Babylon," which used the whole Supernatural premise to send up Hollywood and used Hollywood to send up the whole Supernatural premise. "The rules aren't really landing for me," a clueless studio exec complains early in the hour to the director, McG (a real Supernatural producer, but who is played here by Regan Burns), of the schlocky horror flick whose set Sam and Dean have come to investigate. "Like, the kids do this Latin chant and that makes the ghosts show up? See but if the ghosts are in Hell, how do they hear the chanting? What do they, have super-hearing? It's illogical, the rules don't track!" This is, of course, a dig on Supernatural’s outlandish monster fighting rules, but the audience is given barely any time to laugh about it before the exec's dumb complaint gets casually turned, verbatim, into real dialogue for the movie-within-a-show. The whole thing gets transformed into a dig on the blasphemously careless anti-process behind the show's beloved, complicated mythology.
It's not just the dialogue that gets swapped around from reality to fiction and back again: Like in "Changing Channels," the action in "Hollywood Babylon" is also constantly moving from "real" (what the Winchesters' lives are like in normal episodes) to framed (on set, with cameras), challenging the audience to remember that everything in Hollywood, even Supernatural, is fake. But then the actors read dialogue that Sam recognizes to be "real" Latin convocations, and the fake horror flick's trailer, embedded in the middle of the episode, uses footage we in the audience have seen on previous, decidedly non-meta Supernatural episodes before. We find ourselves challenged to see even Hollywood's fakeness as fake, and with it, to believe that monsters and ghosts just might be real, after all…
"Ghostfacers," Season 3, Episode 13
"Ghostfacers," told in the form of shaky-cam footage from the eponymous Ghostfacer team's reality ghost hunting show, is Supernatural’s first stab at an experimental POV episode that includes but isn't really about Sam and Dean. Sam and Dean don't show up in this episode until the seven-minute mark and, even after they arrive on the scene, they aren't fully incorporated into the Ghostfacers' interpersonal melodrama until 11 minutes in. When they are incorporated, it is with classic bleeped-out reality TV cursing to "get that f***ing camera out of my face!" which drives home even further the understanding that what we are watching is not Supernatural, and that the story being told is not the Winchesters'.
For fans of the show, seeing the boys framed (or rather, NOT framed) this way is a lot of fun, but because so much of the story requires Sam and Dean to not be in it, the concept of "Ghostfacers" — and of the much less funny "Bitten" later on in Season 8 — work completely, even if you've never seen the show before in your life.
"Just My Imagination," Season 11, Episode 8
We can see this choice being divisive, but this Season 11 case of invisibly murdered, very real imaginary friends is just so weird that for us, it edges into exceptional. Featuring Nate Torrance as Sam's childhood imaginary friend, the loving, pure-hearted Sully, "Just My Imagination" drops the boys into one of their most disturbing cases to date — not because of the level of gore they come across, but because of the blindness with which the adults interact with it. One mother tracks the first murder victim's sparkling blood across her traumatized daughter's bedroom carpet, dropping her hands into it and smearing it, unwittingly, across her face as she opines about her daughter's apparent delusions. Other adults off-screen ignored the pain of the little kid who grows up to do the murdering because "the Invisible Man killed my sister!"
Coming in the middle of a season all about Sam's descent into increasingly harrowing delusion, "Just My Imagination" turns away from its preferred Hollywood-framed examinations of what's real and what's not, using instead the vast gulf between what's possible in the minds of kids and what's impossible in those of adults. That it simultaneously features a sparkly manicorn, a mermaid, a shredding air guitarist, and marshmallow nachos is just a fun, extra-Supernatural bonus.
(Pro-tip: if this episode is your exact cup of imaginary tea, check out Chris O’Dowd's Moone Boy on Hulu, which matches "Just My Imagination" imaginary friend for imaginary friend, but replaces all the sparkling gore with awkward Irish pre-pubescence.)
"The Real Ghostbusters," Season 5, Episode 9
Once Chuck Shurley and his cult-favorite Supernatural books were introduced, there was no going back, and every Supernatural-themed meta episode since has just gotten increasingly wilder and more mind-meltingly awkward.
The first meta-episode to return to the proverbial scene of the slash-crime was "The Real Ghostbusters," which finds Sam and Dean careening into the parking lot of a hotel in a historical house thinking Chuck is in grave danger, only to find that superfan Becky (Emily Perkins) has tricked them into showing up for a Supernatural convention, complete with LARPing and a hunt for the historical house's real ghost.
The Q&A session Chuck hosts to open the convention gives the writers opportunity to completely drag their own lore more thoroughly even than in "Hollywood Babylon," while all the Sam-and-Dean LARPers give the real Sam and Dean their first opportunity (of many to come) to have their secret admissions of being the real Sam and Dean hysterically laughed off. Because so much of the humor derives from the interactions Sam and Dean have with the Supernatural superfans, and the extremely funny ways in which each of those interactions so completely unmoor the boys, "The Real Ghostbusters" is an episode that ends up being even more universally enjoyable than "The Monster at the End of the Book," which requires a significantly greater knowledge of show lore to really love.
"Mystery Spot," Season 3, Episode 11
In unbelievable total, the Winchester brothers have been killed and resurrected more than 117 times since they first hopped in Baby and set off to fight America's monsters. More than 100 of those deaths belong to Dean via the Trickster in Season 3's murdery Groundhog Day episode, "Mystery Spot." While the subject of "Mystery Spot" is super dark — way back in Season 3, the prospect of the boys' deaths was novel enough that Sam watching Dean dying day after day after day was still unthinkable — the episode uses the comedy Rule of Three to make the horror funny. The audience gets three step-by-step, Asia-scored shots at the brothers' deadly Tuesday; the action speeds up to flash through three of Dean's deaths in quick succession; Sam utterly defeated, wakes up to greet Tuesday #100. Maybe. He doesn't know. It's been a lot of Tuesdays. Spoiler: Dean lives. But watching him almost not that many times in a row is always a sinisterly good time.
"Monster Movie," Season 4, Episode 5
Before the past couple years' vintage editions of Black Mirror and Master of None and Feud: Bette & Joan, before the desaturated outings on Twin Peaks and The Walking Dead and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, before even Pretty Little Liars' slept-on noir "Shadow Play," there was Supernatural’s classically stylized "Monster Movie." In Dean's own, unsubtle words: "An honest to god monster hunt! It's about time the Winchesters got back to tackling a black-and-white case."
Following Sam and Dean’s hunting of a melodramatic shapeshifter obsessed with the Halloween-y monsters of classic Hollywood and the even more melodramatic red herring whose ghoulish silhouette is shown looming over the dinky Casio at the local cineplex, "Monster Movie" joins several of Supernatural’s other meta outings in including a fake interstitial in the middle of the story ("Intermission" here, versus, for example, the horror flick trailer in "Hollywood Babylon"). It is pure, campy fun, removed enough from Season 4's bigger arcs to rewatch as often as your ghoulish heart desires.
"The French Mistake," Season 6, Episode 15
It's hard to remember this far back, but Season 6 was a real ugly duckling, having to follow as it did the grand finale of series creator Brian Kripke's big, five-year build to the Apocalypse. From the outset, Season 6 even existing often felt like Supernatural jumping the shark. Cue "The French Mistake," which answered the question "okay, but what if we jumped SIX sharks" by sending the boys to their furthest meta reaches yet by launching them through Bobby's window straight onto the set of The CW's Supernatural, starring actors Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki.
Because the archangel arc of Season 6 couldn't have mattered less to an audience that just watched the boys beat the Apocalypse, neither the reasons behind this wacky turn of events nor the Senior VP of Marketing-looking angel assassin who follows them into our world ultimately mean a dang thing. What does mean everything is how Sam and Dean react to the idea of being actors, living actors' lives, in a world that doesn't appear to have any supernatural forces at work anywhere. Every revelation is a wonder, every line of dialogue an opportunity for joy. But it is Sam and Dean having to maintain their covers by acting that makes this episode one of the greats — not just of the series, but of television as a medium. Dean's face when he's trying not to look at the camera! Sam's limp hands reaching out in dramatic support! It's cliché to describe a joke by saying, "it never gets old," but truly, in this case, it never gets old.
"Fan Fiction," Season 10, Episode 5
For a long time, it was impossible to imagine any episode that could possibly top "The French Mistake" for meta genius or for comedy. And then came "Fan Fiction," the milestone 200th episode of the series. All about a monster attack on a high school production of Supernatural: The Musical, "Fan Fiction" manages to celebrate the show's long, weird history while centering the young female superfans who have been the series' lifeblood but are too rarely reflected in the story itself.
Sam and Dean's shock and indignation when the first walk into the St. Alphonso's auditorium may be infinitely greater than what they felt walking into the Supernatural convention back in Season 5, but unlike those superfans — Becky chief amongst them — none of the girls putting on Supernatural: The Musical, from techies to actors to the impassioned writer-director herself, are treated like a joke. Sam and Dean are — when they try to impress the girls by owning up to their real Sam-and-Dean identities only to be guffawed down harder than ever before — but the girls themselves, their passion, up to and including subtextual sexual tension between Sam and Dean and the fan-favorite slash pairing of Dean and Castiel (much to Sam's jealous dismay), is treated as fully loving and lovable. And while playwright Marie's (Katie Sarife) vision for the story doesn't match Dean's, the utter, passionate weirdness of it does illuminate his understanding of himself, and of his and Sam's relationship. Which, when it comes down to brass tacks, is what Supernatural (not the musical) is all about.
Plus, the musical's songs? Pretty catchy!
So, where will "ScoobyNatural" ultimately rank? "ScoobyNatural" airs March 29 (tonight!) on The CW.