The use of diegetic music in Supernatural has helped make many moments even more memorable — and Jack’s driving lesson with Dean last week was no exception.
“Unhuman Nature” — episode 7 of Supernatural season 14 — saw Jack in extremely bad shape, as his season-long illness progressed rapidly and was declared terminal, a result of his body failing on a cellular level after the removal of his grace.
Needless to say, the boys are taking this news somewhat hard — the whole Team Free Will track of the episode focused on Jack’s three foster fathers united in terror and grief over the prospect of losing their shared son. It was full of incredibly moving moments, including the whole group chasing after Jack’s gurney at an actual medical hospital, but the real heart of “Unhuman Nature” was the one-on-one bonding session between Dean and Jack.
Once Jack accepts his fatal condition, he requests that the guys support him and just help him to actually live a normal life and make memories. This is something that hits Dean the hardest of all, and he takes charge in facilitating Jack’s Make-A-Wish quest.
There’s a number of reasons that Dean is so deeply affected. First of all, there’s his actual relationship with Jack — how turbulently it started, and how it progressed — something that Cas and Sam reflect upon in Dean’s absence.
Then there’s the fact that out of all of them, Dean has been in Jack’s shoes — yes, they’ve all died, but Dean’s time counting down to his demon deal had an element of this conscious experience of time running out, this effort to wring out the last drops of life while he still can.
And then there’s the fact that — of all of them — Dean has actually lost a son before. More than one, in fact.
Whether you agree with the theory that Ben was actually Dean’s biological child or not, he very much became his kid in the full year that they lived together, and the loss of him was something that Dean is likely still repressing very deeply to this day.
No, Ben did not die, but the memory wipe was absolutely necessary because nothing short of that would have kept Dean and Ben away from each other for the rest of their lives. That wasn’t a relationship that was ever going to fade away. It was huge and traumatic and important.
But not only that — Dean has lost another child, over and over again. He’s lost Sam. Sam and Dean are not the most regular of brothers, and they never have been — this is in large part due to the duty of care placed upon Dean. He legitimately raised Sam, and he has verbalized his role as Sam’s actual parent more than once.
The dynamic between them speaks volumes in relation to this — the whole reason that Sam begins the series with more self-righteous autonomy than Dean could ever hope to possess for is because unlike Dean, who was raised by John, Sam was raised by a father who loved him and actually instilled self worth in him — Dean.
So, yeah. Dean kind of knows what’s coming, in the way the others don’t. He’s anticipating the grief of losing another child, and it is utterly ruinous. And it’s through this storyline that I finally understood just what Jack’s purpose in Dean’s life actually is.
You see, Jack — as well as being his own sweet self – is a vehicle for salvation. He’s a Christ child, a Aslanesque little lion cub — this kid came into their lives to show them to themselves and help them to move forward, to hold up a lot of mirrors and heal a lot of old wounds. One way or another — even in death — this kid is going to be the one that saves them all.
I interpreted Jack’s influence on Cas and Sam pretty swiftly. For Sam, he offered an opportunity to reexamine and reclaim his relationship with his own innate power – Sam has carried so much weight for so long about the idea that he was cursed, impure, unclean. He has long believed that the demon blood fed to him as a baby and the fact he was born to belong to Lucifer made him inherently corrupt, unfit for any sort of leadership, untrusting of his own mind and motivations.
Through caring for Jack, and believing in Jack’s purity and goodness, Sam has been able to put down so much of that baggage and believe in himself just as he believes in Jack. This has allowed him to step up as the heroic, kingly general he was always meant to be, without the crippling fear that his strong will comes from something evil.
And for Castiel, Jack has fostered growth in terms of personhood and purpose. They are, of course, connected on a divine level — when Cas was at a loss about his place in the universe, unable to serve Heaven and out of place as the Winchesters’ watchdog, Jack reached out and set him on a truly righteous path.
But after Jack lost his grace, Cas’s counselling of Jack and his assurance that Jack matters to the family because of who he is, rather than what he can do, has helped Castiel to believe similar things about himself, to finally settle into his friendship with the Winchesters as one of equals, refinding his role in their lives with a growing belief that his personhood is a more important quality and contribution to his found family than his power.
Jack’s role as Dean’s spiritual guide was less clear to me – until now. Now, I get it. Jack is here to heal Dean’s issues with emotional availability — as a father, as a son, and everything in between. He’s here to teach Dean how to love healthily, honestly and without reservation, and that’s what we see coming to a head in this episode as Dean supports Jack’s plan for the rest of his life and endeavors to help him with it to the best of his ability.
Jack Kline is possibly the least repressed being in the known universe — his innocence and sweetness and lack of shame when it comes to expressing his feelings is admirable to the point of terrifying, especially if your name is Dean “My Hang-Ups Have Hang-Ups” Winchester.
The scene of the pair fishing by the river, when Jack just guilelessly rambles about how the true meaning of life is all about spending time together and sharing your feelings is a master class in human emotion. Jensen Ackles is a face journey wizard — I thought Dean’s skull may actually implode listening to what Jack had to say — but it’s clear that being able to identify and verbalize and own that level of love, that hearing it directed towards him in such a pure form, is going to fundamentally change Dean forever.
In caring for Jack, Dean is attempting to get it right this time — doing everything he should have done for the others in his care, and also offering everything that he wanted done for him, that no one ever gave him. Jack idolizes Dean, much like Dean once idolized John, and Dean knows it. He also knows that his father was not someone worth idolizing, and he’s trying so hard to be worthy of Jack’s unabashed adoration.
Teaching Jack to drive in the Impala is an incredibly tangible example — we know that this is something he has literally dreamed about experiencing with his own father, and we also know that one of Dean’s biggest flaws as a caregiver is the tendency to be really overbearing and take control of what’s best for his loved ones against their wishes.
Watching Dean being so patient with Jack, watching him try to take Jack at his own pace and give him what he wants and needs is so heartbreaking and so beautiful, and when he backpedals into that overbearing insecurity at the end of the episode, chiding himself for indulging Jack and risking him, the others assure him that he has truly done the right thing by their child.
That driving lesson — Dean handing over the keys to his car, his heart and soul manifested physically in four wheels and black steel, the biggest gesture he could possibly make – is going to go down in Supernatural history as one of the show’s most touching scenes. And like all significant road scenes on this show, it has its own special soundtrack — because for Dean, driving isn’t driving unless it’s accompanied by good old fashioned rock & roll.
As everyone knows, Supernatural’s soundtrack was always at the core of its creation, as was the Winchesters’ trusty steed, the black 1967 Chevy Impala sedan dubbed “Baby.” Classic car plus classic rock equals a whole lotta cassettes — a perfect vehicle for organic music moments, with many scenes — like this one — scored by a song that initially appears diegetically, kicking in as Dean pops in a tape, or playing partway through after flicking on the car radio.
For Jack and Dean, the song of choice is Bachman–Turner Overdrive’s “Let It Ride,” which does double duty as being cruising-the-open-roads-appropriate on a surface level, and metaphorically a message about accepting the things one cannot change on a deeper one.
Throughout the series there have been many other diegetic music moments that have similarly imprinted on the fandom consciousness, so in honor of a new highlight in this category, here’s an in-depth look at some more of the songs that have helped shape the story of Supernatural through their in-universe appearance onscreen. (There’s 14 of them, because it’s season 14, I don’t make the rules, sorry.)
Song: ‘Back in Black’ — AC/DC
Episode: 1.01 — ‘Pilot’
Where it all began. Supernatural’s pilot is, of course, all about the reunion of Sam and Dean Winchester, hitting the road together for the first time in a long while. The whole first season is about exploring Sam and Dean’s understanding of one another as they meet again as adult peers after several years of separation. Honestly, the same could be said of the entire series, but season 1 covers this very thoroughly for the sake of the audience, who don’t yet know the boys at all.
As they get to know each other again, we get a picture painted for us showing where they came from and who they are now, and how those factors are being reconciled. The pilot addresses this almost immediately, as we meet a worldly young Sam who’s trying to grow away from his past, and a rather badly socialized Dean who dwells in it, relishing nostalgia and familiarity in a way that comes across pretty nerdy and pretty needy.
The show’s first big classic rock moment serves all of these ideas, as once the guys are out on their case, Sam reluctant, Dean thrilled. Sam discovers Dean’s cassette collection and chides him for sticking to it — both technologically and taste-wise — after all this time.
Dean is unfazed by this — later, we’ll learn just how significant a safe space this music is for him — and issues one of his very few conditions for Sam travelling with him. He literally had to beg for Sam’s company, so he doesn’t have too many shots to call, but the iconic “driver picks the music, shotgun shuts his cakehole” is one of them, and it represents Dean’s fresh and fragile ownership over his independence — remember Sam’s mocking surprise over the fact that Dean was “allowed” — at age 26 — to go on a hunt by himself?
Anyway, Sam shuts his cakehole and lets Dean indulge, settling in for what he doesn’t yet know is to be many, many years of riding shotgun to a soundtrack he doesn’t really approve of. (To this day we don’t really know anything about Sam’s own music taste, aside from a couple of joke references that don’t really count, like Jason Manns, and apparently Vince Vincente.)
This moment is also when Sam first asks Dean to actually address him as Sam – until now, Dean has only called his brother Sammy on screen. Dean’s response? “Sorry, I can’t hear you. The music’s too loud.”
That, kids, is what we call symbolism. The subtext here? “Nope, not going to deal with that, going to cling to the past and wallow in it for better or worse, I refuse to acknowledge any growth or change because if I do that, I have to acknowledge the distance and discord that goes hand-and-hand with it. Everything is exactly how I want it to be and that’s what I’m telling myself and that’s final.”
A fun fact about this scene: both the dialogue and hand-written tapes imply that the cassette that Dean snatches out of Sam’s hand is actually Metallica — the song originally used in the unaired original pilot was “Enter Sandman,” but the show could not obtain the rights to use it for broadcast — but let’s just say he put the AC/DC album back in the wrong box.
Song: ‘Bad Moon Rising’ — Creedence Clearwater Revival
Episode: 1.22 — “Devil’s Trap”
Okay, so first things first, I swear most of these diegetic music mentions won’t be as lengthy or analytical as that one above.*** I can’t promise a few others won’t get out of hand, but this is really more of a greatest hits intended to do what these moments on screen also aimed for — to evoke memories, feelings and associations.
The haunting example in the season 1 finale is a huge one. The Winchester family — reunited and decidedly not feeling so good — is on the road to the hospital after a big showdown with the yellow-eyed demon, in which John was possessed and the boys had a lot of their serious daddy issues brought to the surface.
Dean is passed out in the back, and Sam, in the best shape, is driving, arguing with his injured father about why he didn’t kill Azazel — and John’s vessel — when he had the chance. The radio is playing “Bad Moon Rising” and with zero foreshadowing the Impala is hit side on by a massive truck, knocking everyone out and leaving car and Winchesters crumpled on the side of the road, the jangling strains of Creedence Clearwater Revival still piping through the stereo as we cut back to the mangled wreckage and fade to black, leaving the season on a cliffhanger.
*** Uh, so this turned out to be a gigantic lie, sorry. Get out now, while you still can. This is your last chance.
The scene — and song — continues in the first episode of season 2, as the demonic driver approaches the Impala and faces off with a groggy Sam, and the Winchester family is later found and airlifted out. This is how you use a song to make an impact (no pun intended) and also for subtle and brilliant foreshadowing — despite its upbeat melody, the song is about “the apocalypse that was going to be visited upon us,” according to CCR’s Dan Fogerty.
For a lot of viewers, especially viewers who were introduced to this kind of classic rock via the show, as creator Eric Kripke hoped for — this is the image that will always, always come to mind when they hear “Bad Moon Rising” somewhere in passing — indelibly linked are the image of the crash and the cheerful country chords cutting through the night on the side of a desolate Midwestern highway.
Song: ‘Heat of the Moment’ — Asia
Episode: 3.11 — ‘Mystery Spot’
Another permanent association — one of the show’s most iconic. The use of diegetic music in “Mystery Spot” is a device to help portray the repetitive Groundhog Day story — stuck in a loop, the boys wake up at 7:30am on Tuesday after Tuesday after Tuesday to the dulcet tones of John Wetton belting out the chorus of his supergroup’s first hit.
Despite the classic rock road trip music that helps set the mood for the spirit of the heartland, Dean’s taste is far from All-American and extends to quite a few prog rock and new wave artists as well as punk, psychedelic, heavy metal and country, a fact that I find endlessly endearing and love to speculate about in terms of his teenagerhood in the 90s.
The point is, Sam knows he’s repeating his day — in which Dean dies every time — but Dean doesn’t, and Dean is loving life every time he gets to groove out to Asia. At first Sam’s a little charmed by his doomed brother’s constant enthusiasm, but the sound of the song soon comes to represent the helplessness and hopelessness of the situation.
Of course, the loop eventually closes and Sam and Dean are allowed to progress on to Wednesday — the clock radio activates at Huey Lewis’ “Back in Time,” otherwise known as the most beautiful song Sam’s ever heard, but of course, the Trickster’s at play, and Sam’s situation becomes much more dire.
Song: ‘Wanted Dead or Alive’ — Bon Jovi
Episode: 3.16 — ‘No Rest for the Wicked’
“Mystery Spot” was about Gabriel preparing Sam for life without Dean due impending to his demon deal due date, and Dean’s Wednesday death is irreversible (well, kind of, in the context of the episode) leaving Sam to actually experience months and months of lost time on a ruthless vengeance quest in a world without Dean. All of this is setup for the main event — the end of season 3 when Dean’s time genuinely is up and the boys have no solution.
Dean is trying his best to accept his fate, but Sam, having already lived it, is becoming inconsolable and trying to make amends. When he attempts to tell Dean how he feels, Dean is having none of it and goes full “no chick flick moments,” unable to cope with actual emotional expression (see above, god bless Jack Kline) and instead wants to listen to music and sing along, physically nudging Sam into joining in and creating a nice memory together.
This, “Wanted Dead or Alive,” is the song that’s playing in the car — Bon Jovi rocks, on occasion, according to Dean — and as Sam gets swept up and actually starts enjoying himself — you could probably count up every truly genuine Sam Winchester grin on all your digits over the show’s 14 seasons, so it’s kind of extreme — Dean starts processing the song’s actual lyrics and becomes overwhelmed and somber, voice fading out.
As I mentioned above, this arc, for Dean, is somewhat similar to what he’s helping Jack with right now, and it must be impossible for him not to think back on his time watching the clock. It’s for a very different reason, of course, and you could argue that Jack’s circumstance is even more tragic, but Dean has lived with death nipping at his heels, and though he lived to tell the tale, watching a loved one go through something similar may spark all sorts of fun recursive traumas in Dean this season.
Song: ‘Eye of the Tiger’ — Survivor
Episode: 4.06 — ‘Yellow Fever’
This moment — which incidentally occurred during current showrunner Andrew Dabb’s first episode as a staff writer — is unforgettable for a number of reasons. “Yellow Fever” is actually a really important episode, especially in the context of setting up season 4’s later reveal the truth about of Dean’s time in hell.
When Dean is infected by a ghost sickness and becomes increasingly fearful of absolutely everything, the story allows Jensen Ackles to really show off his comedic chops, and it also give us some seriously earnest and revelatory character depth, as he shows us how Dean’s real feelings and reactions — particularly about hunting — would present, if his capacity to manage fear was taken away.
Mid-monologue, he even addresses his own musical security blanket (“I mean, I drive too fast. And I listen to the same five albums over and over and over again, a-and I sing along. I’m annoying, I know that.”) — Dean knows he’s kind of an eccentric, he knows he’s idiosyncratic, and he’s somewhat insecure about Sam not wanting to put up with it.
But of course, it’s also hugely memorable thanks to a very special outtake featuring that little bit of diegetic music. Firstly, in the actual episode, “Eye of the Tiger” plays briefly when Dean is stretched out across the front seat of the Impala, lost in his own world and air-drumming along, until Sam, with his what-the-fuck eyebrows firmly in place, pulls Dean out of it by banging on the car roof.
This incident combines comedy and coping mechanisms pretty profoundly — as soon as Dean starts speaking to Sam, he’s back to extreme anxiety, shoulders around his ears, freaking out about what’s happening to him — immersing himself into the music was very much his safe space, sweeping him away, which is an unspoken but blindingly obvious and ongoing character trait for Dean throughout the whole series with many of his sensory indulgences.
That’s all well and good. But of course, there’s more. While filming this scene, Jared Padalecki famously “forgot” — intentionally — to give his onscreen brother his cue to stop drumming and exit the car. Just, you know, to see what would happen. Director Phil Sgriccia kept the cameras rolling to capture what ended up being an epically ridiculous, ridiculously epic lip sync performance in which Ackles climbed out of the car window onto the roof and ended up playing air guitar on his own leg.
This clip was deemed too precious to wait until the season’s wrap to share in special features, so it was aired immediately as a bonus at the end of the actual episode, and took on a life of its own, contextless, in the pop culture zeitgeist. The “Eye of the Tiger” outtake is literally the first footage from Supernatural that I myself ever saw, years and years before I actually sat down with the series. Such is its power.
Song: ‘Simple Man’ — Lynyrd Skynyrd
Episode: 5.03 — ‘Free to Be You and Me’
The use of “Simple Man” in the opening of “Free to Be You and Me” is sort of subtextually diegetic — it actually switches from sheer soundtrack to radio-level car music in the final moments of the scene that it scores, which is a really interesting incorporation of the music and one that works so well with the tools this show has in its belt.
The montage that this song accompanies follows Sam and Dean on their separate paths, after they mutually agree that Sam is not safe to be hunting in the wake of his demon blood addiction and his struggles with handling power and darkness. Sam steps away fairly comfortably — as he has done before and will again — picking up work in a bar, and Dean continues hunting alone on the road.
This is a difficult episode in general, as it’s the first one ever to feature no scenes of Sam and Dean together, at all, and it also somewhat showcases how each brother has the potential to thrive alone — that Sam very easily slips back into an anonymous “normal life,” despite being plagued by Lucifer, and that Dean relishes the company of others and is forced to admit that he has a good time hunting without the burden of Sam.
It’s all very messy and upsetting, because it perpetuates narrative that the brothers have no shot at happiness if they follow their hearts and give in to the way they affect one another — choose a real life OR each another. Thank God that’s shifted, is all I can say. Thank God that everything has balanced out so beautifull and that their state of being has become so much more stable.
Just look at the difference between this episode and the recent “Optimism,” which also featured separate Sam and Dean tracks. The fact that they were split up in that episode was a total non-issue, as opposed to this crisis, and that’s a sign of how far the show has progressed and how healthy their relationship has become.
The lyrics of “Simple Man” could frankly refer to either of the brothers at this point, but given what leads Sam to split off from Dean, I think they’re more pertinent to his mental state — a big part of what leads to this decision is Sam feeling conflicted about his relationship with power
— not with Ruby, not with the demon blood, but with his own inherent dominance and drive, and how much he fears that makes him evil.
It’s actually a great moment to look back on right now, as a huge part of Jack’s arc with Sam is to do with healing these old wounds and old fears — through mentoring Jack, Sam has learned a hell of a lot about himself and his history with “impure” power — both literal and metaphysical — and subsequently, has healthily embraced a lot of those qualities he feared so deeply when he equated them with being corrupted.
“Simple Man” has also found a place in fans’ hearts as one of the staples in Jensen Ackles’ wheelhouse as a singer. The song is one of his favorite numbers to perform at convention concerts, and the combination of his sheer skill and the song’s significance to the show make it a smash every time.
Song: ‘All Out Of Love’ — Air Supply
Episode: 7.06 — ‘Slash Fiction’
Season 7 is very erratic, tonally, in terms of how the boys reacted to the mountains of trauma they were facing (an issue the show has overcome, in recent years, in leaps and bounds) but this episode contains another one of those comedy moments that actually has a lot of substance regarding the characters’ headspace. With stressors piled upon stressors — the betrayal and death of Castiel, the invasion of the Leviathans, Bobby’s house burning down, Hallucifer interfering — this episode adds a huge new upheaval.
When Leviathan shapeshifters pose as the boys and commit mass murders in order to put law enforcement on the real Winchesters’ tail, they’re forced to abandon Baby and use anonymous cars, which of course, doesn’t sit well with Dean. He’s feeling very fragile about all of this, and when Sam suggests making their new ride more comfortable by playing some music, he flicks on the radio and finds this song, which he immediately tries to shut off as he thinks it will annoy Dean further.
On the contrary, Dean asks him to leave it on, covering up his choice by claiming it’s probably the only thing on — and then proceeds to emotionally mouth along to the music. The brothers sneak a lot of looks at each other in this scene — Sam incredulous, and Dean checking on whether his brother is judging him, toning it down when Sam’s eyes are on him and then turning away to sing in the other direction.
Dean’s embarrassed to indulge in this sentimental soft rock, but he clearly wants to, and so the story goes — according to writer Robbie Thompson – Jared Padalecki was meant to play this moment with pure what-the-fuckery, but he instead gave Sam a few deeper notes of processing Dean’s behavior and schooling his reactions, with the mindset of “he needs this, just let him have it.”
Yes, the whole thing is a joke, but it also plays into canonically exposing the performative machismo that gets dismantled so much over the course of Dean’s series-long character arc and is now, in the present day, post “You love chick flicks”/“Yeah, you’re right, I do” era of Supernatural, delightfully nearly non-existent.
If the singalong wasn’t implication enough, it’s immediately preceded by Dean quoting “Dirty Dancing” — which Sam also tries to call out as something Dean shouldn’t know or like — and is quickly warned off pressing the issue with a claim that “Swayze always gets a pass,” yet another example of Sam initially not quite understanding how Dean is truly wired, and Dean attempting to justify and defend his guilty pleasures and explain why they’re actually valid and acceptable.
The fact that this episode was indeed written by Robbie Thompson is significant, because he’s about to pull this same trick again in just a moment – it’s clearly a character trait that the writer must have felt strongly about.
Song: ‘Goodbye Stranger’ — Supertramp
Episode: 8.17 — “Goodbye Stranger”
The fact that “Goodbye Stranger” is the title as well as part of the soundtrack means that the song’s actual message is a crucial codex when it comes to unpacking the plot and subtext of the episode itself, as this title was chosen well before the song was actually cleared for airplay – Supernatural has featured quite a few episodes named for songs that didn’t actually get played, and the meaning of those songs was still thematically relevant regardless.
So strap in, because given that it’s a title track, this part is going to end up analyzing the takeaway of the entire episode and how the song relates to it. This deeply distressing episode sees its title song used diegetically at the close of the hour, after a number of very upsetting events that leave the characters fraught and frayed and flung apart.
A very basic surface read makes the song seem like it’s about a one-night stand, a transient commitment-phobe, but if you know anything about Supertramp you’ll know that there’s a lot more to it than that.
“Goodbye Stranger” is, in fact, about two characters leaving each other at the uncertain end of a relationship — the chorus and verse, though both sung by the same singer, represent two different points of view — but rather than romance, it’s more commonly speculated that it’s about the communication breakdown between writers Rick Davies and Roger Hodgson, who were making this album amidst a lot of personal conflict.
Here, the theme of “Goodbye Stranger” very much seems to relate to Dean and Castiel, as the episode contains one of their biggest and most tragic altercations — after Cas is brainwashed and controlled by Naomi as an agent of Heaven, she tries to set him against the Winchesters in pursuit of the angel tablet.
When Dean and Cas eventually find the tablet, Cas’s conditioning takes over and he almost kills Dean — just as he’s been trained to do — before Dean’s personal pleading about the importance of their friendship breaks through the brainwashing and frees Cas from Naomi’s control.
Despite being himself again, Cas is overwhelmed by how dire the situation is and takes the tablet on the run — out of the hands of Heaven and Sam and Dean, a decision Dean is incapable of understanding, just as Cas is incapable of understanding how much it crushes Dean that Cas doesn’t prioritize the trust and togetherness of Team Free Will.
Even when this is spelled out in later episodes, there’s still such a sense of conflict and confusion between the truth about Dean’s grief — that he’s hurt that Cas abandoned the brothers and didn’t confide in them and didn’t include them and didn’t want to stay with them, and Castiel’s long-running assumption that every time Dean is upset with him, it’s because of the real-world consequences of his actual mistakes, rather than how he made Dean feel.
What’s going on here is very much representative of the core of the story that has built up Castiel’s relationship with the brothers — with Dean specifically, let’s be frank. It has always been rife with communication breakdown, and this is one of the worst instances. When Dean says “What broke the connection,” he’s very clearly expecting an answer, and when Cas says “I don’t know,” Dean’s eyes doing the most rabid, frantic “how do you not get this, dude” dance of all time.
Cas does not yet understand how to actually translate human emotions, and tends to be susceptible to feeling things and being driven by them without processing their significance at all — much like being moved by the melody of a song sung in a foreign tongue. Once he experiences humanity himself, he began to learn the language — to actually understand the things he feels – and he’s become more fluent every day ever since.
But at this point, in season 8, everyone has a lot of feelings and nobody says what they mean — or even correctly identifies it — and it leaves everyone in a state of serious misery that they’re unable to verbalize. It’s all about their desperate, dedicated love served, at this point, with a side dish of zero security, little understanding of the others’ emotional range or motivations, distraught that their driving forces are so discordant.
Thank God that’s a thing of the past, mostly, and that these people actually now use their words like grown-ups — most of the time. Here, the song – played when Dean flicks on the radio, and stretching out to soundtrack Castiel’s sad solo journey out of town on a bus — summarizes what’s been happening all along.
But Dean and Castiel’s fight isn’t the sole tragedy of the episode — many other factors, including the death of Meg and the discovery of how deadly Sam’s undertaking of the demon trials truly is, all play into the discomfort of those closing moments, scored by Supertramp.
You know how I said Robbie Thompson was gonna do that shame/validation thing again? Well. Dean, reflecting on the days’ events, asks for Sam’s honestly and tells his brother that while he can’t carry Sam’s burden, he can carry him, and Sam once again double-takes and calls out Dean’s Tolkienesque form of expression.
Dean’s openness here seems to be an attempt to make amends — mostly with himself — as he’s clearly broken up about what’s just happened with Cas, both in terms of Cas’s lack of honesty and and his own lack of emotional availability that contributed to this mess — he clearly thinks he’s failed with being there for Cas, and like Hell is he going to fail Sam in the same way.
So after Dean tells Sam that he’s allowed to quote the Rudy hobbit, thank you very much, he flicks on the radio to distract from his embarrassment and he hears this song, and is forced to once again reflect on the day’s losses — it’s clear that in these moments, both Dean and Cas think that this parting of the ways is a pretty permanent one.
Out of all the moments on this list, this scene and song combo is the one that I really can’t shake off — the association and the consideration of what all this means deeply affects me in a really depressing way every time I hear it, so I honestly try to avoid it when I’m not emotionally prepared.
Song: ‘Walking on Sunshine’ — Katrina and the Waves
Episode: 8.20 — ‘Pac-Man Fever’
Swiftly moving on from that night-ruiner to a much more fun occasion involving everyone’s favorite ginger lesbian, Charlie Bradbury.
The very first time we ever meet Charlie, we are introduced to her happy-go-lucky nature via the medium of this song. She has it playing on her headphones on her own personal pump-up playlist, and once in the “privacy” of her office building’s elevator — which has full glass walls — she lets loose, dancing exuberantly until she reaches her floor.
However, my preference is for the second diegetic use of Charlie’s theme song — when she first visits the Bunker in season 8 and convinces Dean to take her along on a case, the song is reprised when the pair are out shopping for an appropriate wardrobe.
While Charlie tries on many fantastic yet unworkable outfits for her undercover gig, Dean is unimpressed with her whimsy and signals this by shutting off the music on Charlie’s phone – music that we didn’t know until that moment actually was diegetic — to which she sadly objects “Aw! Montage!”
I love this scene for a multitude of reasons, not least because Charlie is actively creating a meta movie moment on purpose. I love that Dean is sitting there cutting out pictures to make her a fake ID — please, someone, write me my Bunkertime Crafternoon episode, where literally all that happens is the guys sitting around working on the administrative aspects of their underground lives, especially now that they have a whole mini-army from another world to provide paperwork for.
I love the casual comfort of their friendship, and how clear it is that Dean feels none of that aforementioned machismo when bonding with Charlie. Charlie always tries to draw Dean out, and he mostly lets her. They’re the best, purest friendship — no messy stakes, no preconceived notions, no impatient outbursts.
His cutting off of her “montage” isn’t cruel, it’s merely an attempt to signify that playtime is over — and being too fantastical about hunting is something of a running thread for Charlie, yet Dean doesn’t get frustrated with her failures the way he would with pretty much anyone else.
Their relationship is the perfect platonic ideal of friendship — literally and figuratively — and not only is that important for them in and of themselves, it’s also a fantastic gauge for the viewer in terms to relating certain reactions to other relationships and comparing the differences.
Song: ‘Carry On Wayward Son’ — Kansas, covered by the cast of the Supernatural musical
Episode: 10.05 — “Fan Fiction”
“Carry On Wayward Son” is, of course, the closest thing Supernatural has, or will ever have, to a theme song (Chuck bless whoever decided not to give this show traditional opening credits — it was a very, very good decision, as they waste airtime and also tend to seriously date a series stylistically — just look at Buffy and Angel.) The Kansas classic is the song of the show, used every season finale to recap the events of the year, and it has become absolutely, inextricably linked with the show forever, and for good reason.
Lyrically, the song is such a profoundly pertinent interpretation of the Winchesters’ thankless journey that I tend to burst into tears just thinking about it. We all know that the song is their story. However — and this is important — they didn’t, until now. “Fan Fiction,” the show’s 200th episode, is the meta-est of meta episodes, and features the boys investigating a case at a private girls’ school who happen to be performing in a musical about Carver Edlund’s Supernatural books, penned by superfan student director Marie.
The entire episode is all about the Winchesters looking at their lives from the outside, coming to terms with what that means and how it can be reflected back on them. Part of this was of course done with the aim of nodding to the viewers themselves, validating their dedication to the series and acknowledging how those involved in the show have accepted and embraced many fandom interpretations while still remaining true to their in-world vision.
But part of it is not actually all that meta. It’s literal and legitimate character work, what the brothers learn from taking a step back and looking at their lives, played out by people who really love them, who have studied them and want the best for them. They’re in a strange, uncertain place after Dean’s brush with demonhood, and they have no idea how to get back to normal — but the play’s “boy melodrama” moment of heartfelt togetherness, in which “Sam” and “Dean” remind each other what really matters — affects the real Sam and Dean in a similar way.
And the song, Jesus Christ, the song. The had absolutely no right to make this cover of a classic rock hit, recreated as a slow choral arrangement sung by a girls’ high school chorus — most of whom are wearing fake beards — in a deeply ironic scene that’s interrupted by humorous interjections that lampshade the show’s flaws, so damn poignant, but it is, oh how it is.
Processing the lyrics and relating them to their story clearly hits the boys hard, as well it should — and I’m sort of incredibly grateful that they finally actually do know that this is their song now, and I’m sort of incredibly grateful that they canonically learned this via people who cared about and understood their fictional selves so deeply that they correctly chose an appropriate anthem to showcase the brothers’ story. They are seen, and they are known, and they are loved, and they are valued, and they were shown this — by their fans. Need I say more?
Song: ‘The Gambler’ — Kenny Rogers
Episode: 10.17 — ‘Inside Man’
“The Gambler” is honestly one of the greatest tunes of all time, an incredibly evocative story-based song which tells the tale of a young man — the singer — meeting an old gambler on a cross-country train ride and trading his last swig of whiskey for some worldly wisdom. It’s a fundamentally timeless song that has taught a lot of people some serious life lessons via the metaphor of a crafty card technique, so I’m hard pressed to say this song “belongs” to Supernatural in a way a few of these others really kinda do.
But awww, still. Bobby. It’s so fitting, in so many ways. This song first appeared (non-diegetically) in the wonderfully Singer-centric episode “Weekend at Bobby’s,” co-written by Dabb and directed by Jensen Ackles, and it featured as the soundtrack to a montage that traced Bobby’s daily life at his hunter HQ, all the hours of research, all the false starts and dead ends before coming up with the right answer to provide Sam and Dean – who are just one of the hunting teams he runs around helping behind the scenes.
Whoever he is, the gambler was definitely cut from the same cloth as Bobby Singer, and the advice he offers the listener comes from the same place as many of the Winchesters’ grumpy foster father’s pep talks. Bobby himself, of course, didn’t “break even” as the eponymous gambler does (“the best that you can hope for is to die in your sleep”) but he sure was a survivor, who made his way through the hunting world with a combination of thorough research, dumb luck and sheer grit, knowing what to throw away and what to keep.
I love that this song is reprised four seasons later in “Inside Man,” when Bobby is finally kicking back in his own personal Heaven — his cosy living room, recliner, whiskey, Tori Spelling autobiography, the lot. He’s listening to “The Gambler” via a beautiful old vintage radio, and the song is interrupted by Sam’s voice, making contact via a seance to ask for his help upstairs in Heaven, as their — you guessed it — “inside man.”
The episode goes on to explore the fallacy of Heaven — that each soul is not just placed in its own private paradise, they’re locked in there – and Bobby escapes his in order to meet up with Castiel inside the bureaucratic part of Heaven in order to free Metatron and force him to help Dean.
In a letter that Cas passes on to Sam, Bobby admits that hearing Sam’s voice and getting to do something real was the best thing that’s happened to him in Heaven, and the last we see of him is the angels coming to serve up whatever punishment is coming to him for breaking out.
We have no idea what’s happened to the real Bobby Singer since then, which you’d think seems like something the show needs to address — as does the problematic nature of those individual Heavenly prison cells and how they’re not all they’re cracked up to be — but Supernatural has a lot of ground to cover and a lot of mythology to rationalize, so perhaps it’s best not to dwell on it. After all, you’ve gotta know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em…
Song: ‘Night Moves’ — Bob Seger
Episode: 11.04 — “Baby”
Probably the most obvious and most important entry on this list. There’s not much to say that hasn’t been said already a thousand times over, by fans, cast and crew. The season 11 episode “Baby” was an incredibly unique and ambitious undertaking, told entirely from the “point of view” of the Impala. With cameras fixed to the interior and dash, for the whole hour, the audience sees only see what can be seen from inside the car itself.
All the music — in fact, all the sound full stop — in this episode is diegetic. There is no score or omniscient soundtrack at all, which adds to the entire concept — a concept that, it must be noted, sounds absolutely unsellable and unexecutable on paper. Such is Supernatural’s legacy – the symbiotic faith that exists between this show and its audience has opened a lot of doors for the creative team and allowed them the freedom to try things so far out of left field that they’re actually in another stadium.
Of course, “Baby” was a roaring success, permanently deemed one of the show’s top ten episodes, if not the very best of them all. Many of the driving moments were actually “shot” by Jared and Jensen themselves. Given the nature of the camera rigging — locked in place and unmanned — it amounted to basically turning the machines on and then just hitting the road to do their scenes with no director, no cues, no nothing — just a freeform — and essentially live — performance.
The combination of this unusual setup and a script that intentionally dwelled in those in between, unseen moments on the road — the downtime conversations that take place when the boys spend 10, 15, 20 hours getting from point A to point B for a random case — resulted in some of the most naturalistic and beloved moments between the brothers in all of Supernatural’s history, and none stand out in quite as lovely a way as the shooting-the-shit montage set to Bob Seger’s “Night Moves,” which Dean slides into the tape deck in order to tease Sam about his back seat one-night-stand.
The “Night Moves” scene is beautiful because it’s allowed to just… be, just as the brothers are allowed to just be. For around 90 seconds of airtime, the song is just allowed to play as we cut in and out of their casual conversations, singalongs, laughter, meals — all the “the moments between moments” — as writer Robbie Thompson (yes, him again!) that fill up the countless hours in each other’s company on the bench seat of that Chevy. Many of the highlights were ad-libbed between the actors, a product of their enduring partnership, and there are apparently hours worth of outtakes sitting on a reel somewhere.
The “Night Moves” montage is absolutely precious to everyone who calls themselves a card-carrying member of the Supernatural fan club, but the entire episode is packed full of absolutely crucial character moments, many of which have left a lingering flavor in the show’s make-up, both in terms of character development and in terms of what the viewers will respond to.
Supernatural’s upcoming 300th episode, for example, sounds set to rely more upon those moments-between-the-moments than ever before, and in general, the show has progressed to a place where everyone making it is aware that the audience is, en masse, much more invested in character than they are in plot – that we actually often prefer long conversations and the mundane in between because we really just want to spend time with these guys no matter what they’re doing, and we care about the small parts of their lives just as much as the big ones.
Before we move on, there’s one more thing about “Baby” that I want to flag, given what actually inspired this article. After Sam dreams about riding shotgun with a young John Winchester, well, we all know the truth of what was going on there now, about who that message was really from.
But in the wake of “Unhuman Nature,” it’s fascinating to think back to the aftermath of Sam’s vision and Dean’s revelation of his own recurring dreams about John, and the idealized, age-appropriate driving lesson that represented all that he craved in terms of his relationship with his father. Thinking about what Dean described there and comparing it to what we’ve just seen him offer Jack is… well… a lot, and it really lends weight to the ideas I’ve been talking about when piecing together what Jack’s presence in Dean’s life actually means and how moving it is.
Song: ‘Born To Be Wild’ — Steppenwolf
Episode: 12.03 — ‘The Foundry’
This is a small moment, but an important one. As the brothers and Mary all struggle in different ways to adjust to their new life as a family, it’s the little things that sometimes reveal the most.
As Mary’s personality starts to come out to play, Dean is thrilled out of his mind that his beautiful bacon-loving tough-as-nails mother is someone so naturally in tune with his sensibilities, and he relishes in the prospect of going out on a family hunting trip at Mary’s request. Sam, of course, is as skeptical as Dean is smug about the entire situation.
We see Sam — who doesn’t know this woman at all but wants desperately to do right by her — initially treat Mary very delicately and cautiously, wanting to give her everything she needs in order to acclimatize. He’s expecting Mary to need a huge adjustment period that requires a lot of space and quiet and boundaries – possibly because that’s how he’d cope himself in such a scenario.
And we see Dean, who has extremely idealized memories of Mary, making assumptions that his mother could not be happier to be at home with her sons, that there’s nothing better for her than being in the bosom of the family, and that she’ll be as keen as he is to be as close and cozy as possible, which is, of course, exactly what he would want himself.
Sam is further shocked and Dean further delighted when, after stopping for snacks, Mary turns the car radio up instead of off, blasting this song to set the mood for the road trip. It’s especially telling in terms of how clear it is that Sam was gesturing for the music down for Mary’s sake — he’s really not expecting that his mother would be someone so similar to older brother, and it leaves him at something of a loss about how to move forward with her.
Season 12 is all about reconciling the memories and ideas of Mary Winchester with her actual personhood, and while at first it seems to Dean like he kind of won the lottery with the whole “my mom’s back and she’s totally my new BFF” thing — Mary was, after all, literally Amara’s gift to him specifically — neither brother is quite on the money with their read on her, and neither are close to being prepared for the idea that Mary might actually have trouble dealing with their sheer existence as grown men.
On some levels, Dean and Mary do just get each other, yet on others, like her plans with the Men of Letters, Sam is her go-to guy. Both brothers internalize this disparity in a way that erupts between them during season 13, after they think they’ve lost her again for good — both thinks the other is closer and more connected to Mary, and there’s a lot of angst about it all round.
But it’s also worth noting that Sam’s discovery of the similarities between Mary and Dean probably goes a long way towards undoing his childhood conditioning, his belief Dean and John were one and the same, and that Sam himself was the outlier. I feel like spending time with his mother has proven to Sam Winchester, for better or worse, just how much his father’s son he actually is and always has been, which cannot have been an easy thing to internalize.
We’ve seen Sam go all single-minded and obsessive and ruthless, reminiscent of what John’s life became after Mary’s death. And of course Sam is instinctively a Man of Letters, a true legacy. Sam’s claims that Dean was just like John were quite simply never true. Dean has always been very much Mary’s son — he’s at his core, of scrappy Campbell hunter stock, just as Sam was the much more rightful heir to the Winchester legacy — he’s both naive and commanding in turns, just like his father.
Getting to know Mary has helped the boys to get to know themselves, and each other, on a much deeper level. In sketching out the similarities between Mary and Dean, both brothers have been forced to reassess a lot of old preconceived ideas, including how John “spun” Mary to the brothers, how damaging John’s relationship with his sons actually was… why they are the way they are, basically.
And I genuinely believe that this revealing moment with the car radio is where that all starts. This particular use of diegetic music speaks volumes in a matter of seconds, when it comes to perfecting the portrayal of the reintroduced Mary Winchester and her different relationships with each of her sons.
Song: ‘Cat’s in the Cradle’ — Harry Chapin
Episode: 13.21 — ‘Beat the Devil’
Fantastically tongue-in-cheek, Supernatural sees “Cat’s in the Cradle,” that tragic ode to father/son relationships, playing on the jukebox in a bar where Lucifer is drinking his sorrows away, moping about having ruined every chance at power he got and lost any possible connection to his son Jack.
Sharing his sorrows with the bartender, the song seems awfully convenient as a soundtrack until Lucifer stumbles out of the bar and straight back in again, stuck in a magical loop.
It’s then that we learn that this scene is a set-up orchestrated by Gabriel and Rowena in order to capture Lucifer and bring him back to Team Free Will — which explains the music choice entirely, as Gabriel is, as the kids say, a messy bitch who lives for drama, and so anything he can do to make a situation as extra as angelically possible, he’s gonna do it.
This moment is memorable for its deliciousness — the characters and the script give Lucifer no quarter. He is shamed and broken down and pathetic and easily overpowered, and honestly it’s pretty cathartic to see him so wholly and utterly humiliated and used and exploited by all the people he’s hurt the most.
The episode goes on to just whale on Lucifer in the most glorious ways, which of course, for plot reasons, can’t continue forever, but oh, it’s so great while it lasts.
The continued ways that Lucifer’s victims are allowed to indulge in inflicting pain on their abuser after the “Cat’s in the Cradle” scene are all so empowering — and Rowena digging that knife in deep about Lucifer’s son, taunting him about losing Jack and how his son chose Team Free Will as his new trio of dads, verbalized and validated so much about not only her own journey but Jack’s as well.
Which is why, unfortunately, when Rowena comes rushing in to save “Dean” in “Unhuman Nature” and finds out the truth about who’s really ill, her reaction sort of retconned the relevance of this amazing episode.
In “Beat the Devil,” Rowena was obviously saying these things specifically in order to hurt Lucifer, not out of any sort of love for Jack, and it entirely tracks that she could have said all this to Lucifer and still objected to Jack or believed he was intrinsically evil upon meeting him.
But the way the scene played out in “Unhuman Nature” came across more like that Rowena legitimately didn’t know who Jack was, and didn’t know he was Lucifer’s son, which is categorically not true and really invalidates this amazing series of scenes focusing on Lucifer’s foes delighting in his failure as a father.
I feel like Supernatural could have retained that “Bollocks” moment they were so clearly gunning for — Jack winning Rowena over, which played gorgeously in isolation — without actually rewriting her level of knowledge, but here we are, so it’s worth reminding anyone who didn’t catch that discrepancy how wonderfully this did originally play out — “Beat the Devil” is an episode worth rewatching any day of the week.
Want to evoke the memory of all these diegetic music scenes in the comfort of your own Spotify? No problem. They’re all in a playlist for your listening pleasure.
‘Supernatural’ airs Thursdays at 8/7c on The CW
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