Supernatural delivered one of its strongest episodes to date when it returned last week with “First Blood.” Was it their best mid-season premiere ever?

To answer my own question, quite frankly: yes. “First Blood,” written by showrunner Andrew Dabb — his first writing credit since the season premiere — is note-perfect. An action-packed episode that left plenty of time for critical character-study moments, it dealt directly with the fall-out from “LOTUS” — not Kelly and her devil-spawn baby (presumably we’ll catch up with them later) but the incarceration of Sam and Dean in an off-the-grid government prison.

Rather than being saved by Mary, Castiel, Crowley or the Men of Letters, the boys actually manage to get out of the facility themselves, though we don’t discover how until the end, and the mystery of it was actually quite gripping — perhaps others got the picture immediately, but I, possibly a simpleton, was madly theorizing about intense yoga breathing comas, dead shifter body-doubles dragged in by Crowley, or a special Romeo and Juliet-esque poison brewed from bologna and corn. After six weeks of isolation – a beautiful montage showing how each brother copes, or doesn’t cope, with their situation (Dean, one of the neediest characters to ever appear on television, later declares it to be worse than his time in Hell) the boys are found dead, at the same time, in their separate cells. Supernatural must be the only show in history where the two leads can be declared as medically deceased half-way through an episode and have the audience just collectively shrug, but once they’re free and left alone in the morgue, they make a run for it.

It’s no surprise that “First Blood” surpasses most episodes in quality, as it’s somewhat of a milestone – the show’s 250th. It sticks tightly to the one story, honing in on the importance of every moment, and it continues to remind us of the scope of the Supernatural universe. The inclusion of a phone call from Alicia Banes, the young hunter we met in “Celebrating The Life of Asa Fox,” and of Man-of-Letters-Mick pitching his whole Special Relationship offer to another random American hunter, who’s having none of that, were both very nice touches, and also, I believe, big clues as to where the season might be headed in regards to Sam and Dean’s place in the hunter network. It showcased the best and truest elements of every lead character — even Crowley, who may have only appeared in one scene, but through his refusal to worry or help, reinforced his utter faith in the Winchesters and the fact that he’s still betting on them to come out on top every single time. And he’s right.

The scenes in the woods, with the boys on the run from the military squad, are a fitting tribute to their skill, competence, ruthlessness, ingenuity, teamwork and general badassery, with Sam every inch the survivalist and Dean’s focus as pure as it was in Purgatory. The pair working near-wordlessly in tandem was an elegant reminder of just how goddamn good they are at their job — only thing missing was that their booby trapped cabin didn’t freakin’ explode behind them as they walked away with Sam’s “we’re the guys that save the world” mic-drop. Given that their defeat of the troops also highlighted their compassion — they cemented their innocence in this scenario by killing no one, even when lethal force was being directed towards them — that may have been a little inappropriate. But still.

Most striking, perhaps, and certainly most unexpected, as this was not promoted as a “Cas-centric” episode, was the importance of Castiel’s arc — his grief and depression was palpable, and exacerbated by Mary blaming him, in the heat of the moment, for losing Sam and Dean. His hopeless mental state, his view of himself as expendable and incompetent is thrown into stark relief as he explains his failed attempts at hunting in their absence — a marked difference in tone from the way that Cas’s odd questions and inability to blend in on cases are usually played for laughs — and his count, down to the hour, of the time passed since he last saw the brothers, is a classic signature of someone wrecked by loss and guilt.

But the episode’s crux: the reveal of how they’d actually gotten out of the prison, Mary’s offer to take their place, Castiel slaying Billie in order to free the Winchesters from their deadly deal, and his impassioned, furious, frazzled speech about why, all genuinely shocked me. In the most loving way possible, Cas is 10000% done with their self-sacrifice bullshit, and he isn’t afraid to say so anymore. This is not an angelic warrior working for the greater good. This is a man with selfish wants and needs, and while the audience has been somewhat aware of that for a while, Cas’s emotional state, and the depth of his attachment, seems to have left all three Winchesters utterly shell-shocked. The cards are on the table, and there’s absolutely no going back for him now. We have absolutely no idea what the consequences of this act will be, either on a cosmic level or on a relationship level, but it floored me, and I’m more excited to find out than I have been about the plot of any TV show in quite a long time.

Combining filmic cinematography, eminently quotable dialogue — everything from Dean’s animalistic threat over the comms (“We’re not trapped out here with you. You’re trapped out here with us.”) to the leading agent’s quip of “That is totally mentally normal” (I’ll be stealing that for my day-to-day life, thanks Dabb) to Cas’s shocking closing monologue — and burning hints of what’s to come, including Mary taking an interest in what the Men of Letters have to offer, this is one of the best kick-offs to a winter back-half ever, and a complete and utter payoff for having us muddle through the whole POTUS plot. It now feels like that entire arc, which could have been overblown in and of itself, was a means to and end — to getting us here, to that bridge, with Mary with a gun to her head, and Cas breaking a blood pact without knowing the ramifications. I am, as the kids say, so here for this. But some of the Supernatural mid-season finales of yesteryear have also been pretty great. Let’s count them down below.

11) Season 10 — ‘The Hunter Games’

This rather unpleasant episode picks up right after Dean’s massacre of a house full of human criminals, and focuses on his determination to rid himself of the Mark of Cain. Castiel organizes to “borrow” the despicable Metatron from Heaven’s jail in order to get information, a plan that goes sideways when Dean relishes in torturing him. Cas also still has the errant Claire Novak to deal with, and she very stupidly hooks up with some drifters and organizes for them to attack Dean, a plan that goes about as well as one would expect. It’s extremely Sam-lite, and there’s also a ton of Crowley and Rowena double-crossing drama in a time period when we didn’t really care about their personal beef. The episode does set us off on a new arc, thanks to the information that Metatron reveals, and gives us the lovely bit of angel lore about prayer and longing, but overall, meh.

10) Season 3 — ‘Malleus Maleficarum’

I truly can’t believe I’m ranking any Ben Edlund episode this low, but this one just isn’t that captivating, especially for a mid-season premiere. The dialogue and the characterization are on-point, but the plot — about a coven of suburban witches who are unknowingly performing much darker magic than they realize, thanks to a demon among them — is not. This is actually be the first truly witch-centric episode of Supernatural, so there’s some important discussion of the ethics of killing them — they are just people, after all – but the real value lies in Dean’s first meeting with Ruby, and their frank discussion of how a human soul becomes a demon and what will happen once Dean goes to hell. Of course, it wouldn’t be an Edlund episode without a nice bit of homoerotic tension — in this case, between Ruby and the demon possessing one of the local women.

9) Season 8 — ‘Torn and Frayed’

Following on directly from the “Citizen Fang” cliffhanger, Sam considers his options when Amelia tells him that if he wants to stay, she’ll choose him over her back-from-the-dead husband. When Dean follows him to town, Sam forces a “me or Benny” ultimatum on him, so Dean peaces out. They’re reunited by Castiel, who enlists Dean’s help to rescue an angel being tortured by Crowley, and eventually pulls Sam in too, forcing the brothers to interact on the job. It ends with the boys choosing each other over Benny and Amelia, and while I understand that Sam’s life with Amelia certainly was an all-in or all-out scenario, I still think poor Benny, who just wanted a support network and could have been a great hunting ally, got a raw deal, and that Sam’s mistrust of him was extremely out of character. Cas also had a particularly nasty time in this episode, as he starts to get flashes of awareness about the reality in Heaven and being tortured himself. His brainwashing starts to take hold, causing him to kill the angel he was trying to save.

8) Season 4 — ‘Family Remains’

After the mid-season finale “Heaven and Hell,” which was the second half of a two-parter dealing with a whole lot of angel nonsense, “Family Remains” is a pointed return to form, incorporating some of the biggest urban legends ever in a Monster of the Week episode, as if to reassure viewers who may have been reeling from the total regime change that was the introduction of the divine plan that yes, not to worry, this is still the same show. This episode is Supernatural with a vengeance. Dean, now that what he did in Hell is out in the open, is trying to make up for that by taking every job he possibly can, which leads the brothers to a haunted house in Nebraska for what should be a standard salt-and-burn. However, this is one of the few Supernatural episodes with a human monster. what they assumed was a ghost was actually a pair of feral children, the children and grandchildren — products of an incestuous rape — of the former owner, who were trapped and tortured their whole lives. The writing, directing and cinematography in this episode is all extremely high quality, but the content is more commentary on Dean’s emotional state than the introduction of a big new plot for the back half of the season.

7) Season 2 — ‘Hunted’

I’d actually forgotten how good this one was, as season 2 really began to explore what was going on with Sam and the other children that matched his circumstances and were developing a variety of psychic powers. First of all, we learn that John must have known something was up, because his deathbed message to Dean was that if Dean couldn’t save Sam, he’d have to kill him instead. Naturally, Father of the Year John Winchester doesn’t put much stock in free will, but whatever. Sam sneaks away from Dean in order to investigate the murder of another one of these kids, and is found by Ava, yet another one of the bunch who had come specifically to save Sam, as she had psychic dreams about his death. Her visions transpire in reality when fellow hunter Gordon Walker — This Is Us star Sterling K. Brown — decides that Sam needs to be taken out, as the demons speak of him leading their army. Between the conversations that continue the dismantling of John Winchester, the everyday heroism of a character like Ava, the brilliant escape Sam pulls off in the booby trapped house, the extremely clever trap that the guys lay to get Gordon taken into legal custody, and Dean’s refusal to accept Sam’s apparent destiny, this is a really solid little hour of television.

6) Season 6 — ‘Like a Virgin’

Quite a fun episode, actually, that deals with a creature that even Bobby had relegated to the realms of legitimate myth inside their universe — dragons. The balance between the monster of the week plot — slay the virgin-stealing dragon with the magic sword in the stone — and the overall season arc regarding Sam’s soul is pretty perfect, and the dialogue is razor-sharp as Sam wakes up good as new and keen to work jobs, with no memory that he’s been soulless for eighteen months. Dean is thrilled to have his brother back, but Sam suspects that not all is as it seems and kind of tricks Cas into revealing the truth. The new lore that the gang discover while hunting the dragon-people hints at the bigger picture of what’s to come — that the various monsters are trying to access Purgatory, and end up raising a being known as the Mother of All. Later on, we find out just how much the opening of Purgatory will affect many aspects of the show to come, but at this point, it’s just kicking off – a brand-new game changer for the Supernatural universe.

5) Season 1 — ‘Scarecrow’

Setting the scene for Sam and Dean’s first break-up, “Scarecrow” introduces a ton of new factors into the show’s first season. For starters, there’s the reveal, to the boys, that their father is alive — something the audience already knew — and the tangible difference in how Sam and Dean each respond to him. Instead of giving them any assurance or understanding of what he’s up to, he gives his sons a random case to follow up, and it’s due to this – Dean’s obsequious obedience vs. Sam’s headstrong defiance – that they have their first ditch-each-other blow-out, with Dean going to work the job as requested and Sam heading to California to track down their father and join him in hunting the demon that killed their loved ones. On his journey, Sam also meets Meg — one of the show’s most important demons — for the first time. Ultimately, Sam decides to re-join Dean after he worries about him not answering his phone — a good thing, because it turns out that the case Dean was following up involves the townsfolk offering up a human sacrifice in an orchard to a pagan god, and he’s on the menu. I’ll just outright admit it: Dean’s pissy, helpless “I hope your apple pie is freakin’ worth it!” to his captors as he’s left tied to a tree is the moment I knew this show had me by the metaphorical balls forever.

4) Season 7 — ‘Adventures in Babysitting’

“Adventures in Babysitting” is a moment where Supernatural really takes time to breathe in the aftermath of probably its most significant permanent death — that of Bobby Singer. As the boys spend weeks quietly recovering in Rufus’s cabin, they’re eventually spurred into action by pursuing different branches of Bobby’s legacy — Dean obsessively trying to decode the meaning of the numbers that Bobby spent his last ounce of strength sharing with them, and Sam rushing out to the aide of a hunter’s child looking for Bobby. This episode has a bit of everything — a monster-of-the-week (Vetalas) inside the bigger picture, a continuation of the Leviathan plot as Dean and the fantastic Frank Devereaux discover that Bobby’s numbers were coordinates to a location and begin surveillance, a deeply crucial emotional arc which spotlights Dean’s deep depression throughout all of season 7, and the introduction of a terrific new character in Krissy Chambers, the teenage daughter of a hunter who’s more than a match for Sam and Dean. I’ve written before about why Madison McLaughlin is one of my favorite Supernatural guest stars of all time, and all the small factors of this episode combine to make it stand out as more than the mere sum of its parts. The closing scene, of Dean following Frank’s advice and forcing a smile as he drives through the night, soundtracked by Traffic’s “Dear Mr. Fantasy,” is one of the show’s most wrenching.

3) Season 11 — ‘The Devil In The Details’

Like “First Blood,” and similarly penned by Dabb, this episode gets into the heart of each character much more deeply than expected, be it Sam’s trip down memory lane and Lucifer’s harsh but kinda fair dressing-down about how the brothers are going to doom the world by choosing each other over the greater good, Dean’s deeply troubled conflict over his uncontrollable draw to Amara and his ingrained nurturing side coming out to play, Cas’s self-loathing and perception of himself as expendable, leading to his decision at the end of the episode, and even Crowley’s forcing of a confession from a supernaturally controlled Rowena as to why she hates him so much. After “O Brother Where Art Thou?” left everyone confused and stressed, I’m sure that the absolutely insane cold open to the second half of season 11 – a lavish Christmas scene featuring Crowley in footie pyjamas, brandishing a Sam Funko Pop he’s just unwrapped at his mother Rowena — had people scratching their heads, but there actually was a brilliant point to this, in showing how Lucifer made contact with Rowena in her dreams and brought her on board to help with his plan to get Sam into the Cage. Culminating in a literal cage-match between Team Free Will and Lucifer, Sam refuses to consent to being Lucifer’s vessel at any cost, and in a shocking turn of events, it’s Cas who secretly agrees, due to Lucifer’s conviction that he can beat the Darkness. The audience is left aware of this, and get to witness a small snippet of Misha Collins’ Lucifer (killing Rowena!) but the Winchesters have no idea. Talk about edge of your seat stuff!

2) Season 5 — ‘Sam, Interrupted’

Quite a few of these mid-season premieres deal with the aftermath of the death an extended “family” member, and this one was a double-whammy. In “Abandon All Hope…” the boys lost Ellen and Jo, and faced Lucifer in person for the first time. It’s a lot to cope with, but is it really enough to have Sam checking into a civilian mental health facility? …Of course not, but that is where the episode opens, with the brothers telling the whole truth of their circumstance to a doctor in order to get themselves admitted to a psychiatric hospital undercover, to help out a troubled ex-hunter who’s a genuine patient there. The monster, killing patients and making it look like suicide, is a special kind of wraith, but the story offers a goldmine in terms of character exploration, as Sam and Dean, both affected by the wraith early on, both lose their coping mechanisms in very different ways — Sam lashing out in violent rages and Dean becoming insular and paralyzed with anxiety. Given that the wraith claims to just turn up the dial on crazy that’s already there – makes the brains tastier, mmmm — we can take this as a truthful glimpse at the brothers’ psyches, which is beyond fascinating. A particular highlight is Dean’s mystery psychiatrist — his frank conversations with her are an embarrassment of riches, but her last appearance is a hallucination, and it’s uncertain if she was ever real. Again, this is showrunner Dabb’s take on the Winchesters, as is my number one pick, coming right up.

1) Season 9 — ‘Road Trip’

This episode is not only top of the list here — ironic, as its precursor “Holy Terror” came in very last place on my mid-season finale list — it’s also my go-to pick if you asked me to name my very favorite episode of the entire show. This episode is so fulfilling and so focused: in the wake of Kevin’s death, “Road Trip” features the Winchesters and the show’s two secondary leads, Castiel and Crowley, all taking part in the same singular story as allies and basically operating, for once, as a pitch-perfect ensemble cast — a rare jewel among the show’s 250 episodes, which often tend to divert screen time from the Winchesters in order to tell a separate story about what’s going on in Heaven or Hell. In the last golden days before the Mark of Cain takes hold of Dean, he attempts to discover the identity of the angel possessing Sam and get rid of it, calling in first Cas, and then Crowley — a prisoner in the Bunker at that point — to help with the situation. Every beat of this episode, from the quiet rage over Kevin, to Jared Padalecki’s unrecognizable performance as Gadreel, to Dean’s apology for kicking Cas out of the bunker, to Crowley’s scathing critique of the ridiculous pimped-out Continental, is flawless, and it sets up the chain of events that will eventuate in the actual crux of the season — yet another break-up between Sam and Dean, once Sam discovers the truth, and Crowley’s liberty being restored, allowing him to challenge the rise of Abaddon. Look, it’s just really good, okay.

Disagree? Vote below to help create a definitive ranking as decided by the fandom. You can also check out our ranking of the Supernatural mid-season finales, including season 12’s “LOTUS.”

‘Supernatural’ airs Thursdays at the new time of 8/7c on The CW

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