Supernatural S1E4: Phantom Traveler

by thethreepennyguignol

I mean this with love, I mean this with all the love in the world, but what in the fuck was that?

I was really looking forward to this episode of Supernatural. After all, it’s the first demon-centric story of the season so far, a mainstay that would arguably come to define the show’s mythology moving forward. But this episode, Phantom Traveler, is probably the worst of the season so far.

At this early stage in the show’s run, it makes sense that it was trying to find a signature style when it came to direction, editing, cinematography, all of that, and honestly, I’m all for it. But Phantom Traveler is just this bizarre sore thumb sticking out in the pretty workmanlike direction of the season so far – it’s choppy, it’s messy, it’s ugly, it’s fucking awful. Almost every behind-the-camera choice made here is utterly deranged on a high level, which is something that I usually appreciate, but this just has such a stench of mid-noughties attempts at edge to it that I simply am unable to take it. I had an Advil headache after fifteen minutes. How am I meant to analyse and critique an episode when watching it feels like being subjected to a fucking trepanning?

Anyway. I’m not here to shout about the directorial choices made in the first season of a show that begun fifteen years ago, much as I would enjoy just roasting every single choice that’s made in this utterly ugly episode. Because honestly, when it comes to the updating of mythology, this is one of my favourite episodes of the season thus far (even if every scene ends with a weirdly long pause after the dialogue has finished because the editor was comatose on the job, apparently).

I’m a huge fan of Supernatural when it finds ways to blend ancient folklore with modern technology and belief systems, and this is a great example of that: the demon in question invades people about to travel on an aircraft, and causes chaos from the inside out once the plane is in the air. It’s a simple premise, but one that allows for this fun exploration of how demons function in the modern world. The chaos is captured on a black box, which is what tips off Sam and Dean to something less-than-natural going on, and the episode-long investigation into this story is really fun. This is perhaps the most explicit example of Supernatural marrying the old and the new like this so far, and that navigation of how a demon functions using modern technology (and just how it can be bent to their benefit) makes for some really great TV (or would, if this episode wasn’t shot like a gonzo porn flick).

Demons are Supernatural’s bread and butter – they have solid history that makes for an easy way to ground a story, they have specific details and differences that allow for almost endless variation on that theme, and there’s stacks of documentation that purports to be all about them, so there’s loads for Sam and Dean to sift through when they’ve got their investigator hats on. When it comes to procedural horror, demons are the go-to, and there’s a reason that Supernatural comes back to them over and over again the way it does.

This is also another great episode for Jensen Ackles (aren’t they all?) as we get to see a bit of his less blustery side; he’s scared of flying, and watching Ackles get to play out a little comedy take on that riff is a nice change from all that seriousness last time around. Also worth noting that all bisexual people are scared of flying and can’t edit a TV episode to save their lives, so that’s another point in favour of the bi reading oh my God there’s just been nothing so far I’m sorry I don’t have shit for you.

There’s also an interesting moment at the end of this episode that sees the person who contacted the Winchesters remarking that their father gave them Dean’s new number, allowing them to be contacted. I really like the way that the show has been building up John off-screen like this, letting us hear about him second-hand from other characters (even if it means I don’t get to look at hot, young Jeffery Dean Morgan as much as I would like, but still). We’re building up a mythology around John that puts him in the same slot as the monsters we’re seeing every week – unseen, spoken of but never manifesting, exerting influence over the lives of our leading men whether they like it or not. His presence is more spiritual than anything else, a figure in the distance, more mysterious than any of our monster, and I find that really interesting in terms of what it implies about John and his relationship with his sons.

So, aside from the dreadful attempts at style this week, I really enjoyed this episode. We’re finally getting into Supernatural’s demonic side (and letting Jensen Ackles have a little fun with his comedic one in the process), and laying the groundwork for the marriage of modern and ancient that I love so much in the show’s first season.

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(header image via Dark Place Zine)