Supernatural S1E8: Bugs

by thethreepennyguignol

Thank God for Jensen Ackles.

Seriously – because I don’t think this first season of Supernatural would have survived without the aggressive charm offensive our small bisexual king is bringing us here. This episode in particular, Bugs, is just such a stand-out of laziness in writing and conception, it’s hard to see why anyone would have thought this was worth going beyond a dozen or so episodes – until Jackles appears, pouts directly down the lens, breaking the fourth wall, and insults Sam while soddening with every person in an eight-mile radius including the viewer at once. Then, it makes sense.

But even still, these last few episodes, and this one especially, have Not Been It for the show. And I’m not the only one to think it – Bugs has become the bugbear (sorry) for the fandom and the critique around the show in general, often cited as the worst episode of Supernatural’s entire run. Even Supernatural skewered this one with their writer/fandom stand-in Chuck later in the series. If your own writers are coming for an episode, it has to be bad bad, right?

Well, no. I would probably quite enjoy Bugs if it was a truly, notably, excitingly bad episode: something stupid and silly and overblown. I love a bit of terrible-ness in my TV, and I have a soft spot for the much-maligned awful episodes of otherwise-beloved shows (Boom Town from the first season of the Doctor Who reboot, anyone?), but Bugs…Bugs is just a very, very boring, low-effort kind of terrible, and that’s so much worse than something flamboyantly awful.

Sam and Dean roll up to a new housing development to find that a Native American curse on the land has rendered it murderous with killer bugs, most of which look uncannily like rubber toys one might pick up from a one-dollar gag store. I’ve already touched on the way that Supernatural has dealt with First Nations’ mythology before this season with Wendigo, but this one might actually be worse: Sam and Dean wander off to chat with a local curse-literate expert, who reveals that the ground upon which the site was built has been blemished with a curse meant to oust all white people from the area by pissing off the insects enough that they get scoffed (or fall out of a glass shower and slice themselves to death while the camera trails up the side of her nudey, corpsey arse-cheek, because Supernatural has not nor will it understand how to film women in a sensitive or even sensible way).

It’s quite literally the Indian Burial Ground trope, and it’s played comically, embarrassingly straight in this utterly effort-free retelling of the story. Bugs might have started as an attempt at a critique on colonization or something else, but it ends up just a regurgitating of the same tropes in this meaningless, messy, and boring reiteration (oh, and this is just an excuse to squeeze in a plug, but, if you’d like to see a deeper dive into that trope and other folk horror standards, watch the excellent folk horror doc Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched, and thank me later). The climax basically revolves around Dean stuffing towels under doors and swatting at poorly-CGI’d bees, until the sun rises and brings to a close the shortest nighttime in existence so that everyone can pat themselves on the back and thank God for…their friend being slashed to death on her own shower? Nighttime lasting four minutes in this part of the country? Jensen Ackles’ jawline? I don’t know.

It’s a shit episode, and it’s not even shit in an interesting way, and that’s enough to render it the worst of the show thus far. But I must, unfortunately, not leave it there, because The Great Questions need answering. On Dean’s bisexuality – well, the Winchesters get mistaken for gay, is that close enough? I think to call this an updating of folklore would be a bit of generous interpretation of this utterly staid version of this story, so we’ll skip on that one. But what of Mister Dilfchester himself, John?

There’s actually a lot of him in this episode, even though there’s still none of him at all in terms of screentime – specifically, Sam’s (clunkily-written, poutily-acted) issues with his dad’s treatment of Sam during his upbringing. In terms of John-Winchester-as-the-real-antagonist, it’s about as explicit as the show’s been thus far, and I really enjoy the depth that adds to the Winchester’s childhood experiences with hunting and their involvement in the family business. Dean is always the good solider, the one willing to stick by all the rules he’s been raised by to do the most good, but Sam’s view of his father is downright bitter in this outing. Even as Dean tries to argue with it, claiming that John was never really let-down by his youngest son, it’s an interesting choice for the show to make so soon before John’s return to the series, and certainly not a particularly flattering one. It draws a line between the two brothers in terms of motivation – both of them are doing this for their father, but for Dean, it’s an act of loyalty and love, and for Sam, resignation and repetition.

It’s a shame such a key part of their relationship with their father is buried in such a thanklessly awful episode, but hey, we’re into some of the better stuff of the first series now. And God, am I ready for it – because there’s only so much of this show Jensen Ackles can shoulder alone. It’s time for everyone else to step up, and, with a big glut of lore on the way, maybe they can actually give him a break for once.

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