Last week’s Supernatural included a very special cameo as a tribute to a former cast member, but it’s hardly the first time they’ve gotten this meta.
Supernatural is on hiatus for a hot minute — it will return on March 30 with the werewolf-centric “Ladies Drink Free,” so this week, instead of a new episode, you get this article, which will be a comparably satisfying* replacement. (*Citation needed.)
You guys, we need to talk about what was clearly the most important part of last week’s episode, “Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell.” No, I’m not talking about the shock ending in which Castiel followed a fellow angel — a messenger from Joshua, Heaven’s most underused and interesting divine being — back to a fate unknown upstairs. I’m not talking about the big-boy communication breakthrough where Sam told Dean about his new connection to the British Men of Letters and Dean was actually okay with it. I’m not talking about the weirdly poignant and yet somehow pointed commentary on unequal power in relationships, courtesy of Gwen and her dead boyfriend, or the fact that writer Davy Perez brought back one of showrunner Andrew Dabb’s inventions, the brilliant hellhound spotting glasses, fun for so many reasons. I’m not even talking about Crowley — not his startling one-upping of Lucifer, nor even the fact that, after all this time, he finally got a hug, though sadly not from his dear Sam and Dean.
I’m talking about that goddamn bat.
When I spoke with Perez about his last episode “Stuck in the Middle (With You),” he mentioned that his next offering would include “a little bit of a wink to the audience” early on in its first act. “I’m pretty sure most people will get what I’m talking about when they see it,” he hinted.
Supernatural is extremely self-referential, featuring nods to everything from fans who ship the brothers together to the bad scripts of the creator’s least favorite episodes, so there was potential for this to have been about literally anything. But oh boy, do we now get what he was talking about or what. In the episode’s opening Winchester scene, the boys return home from an unseen, successful hunt (thanks to a lead that Mick Davies fed Sam) and Dean enters the bunker’s conference room swinging a wooden baseball bat wrapped in barbed wire. “Man! Dad loved this thing,” he reminisces as he admires it, blood and all, and then lays it on the table, where the camera lingers on it for a long moment as the boys walk away to get cleaned up.
Really, guys? Really? Really?
For those unaware of what’s going on here — though I’m sure it escaped very few of you — this is some extremely cheeky lampshading of the fact that Jeffrey Dean Morgan, who played Sam and Dean’s long-dead father John Winchester, now stars as Negan on The Walking Dead. The bat, of course, is Lucille, Negan’s weapon of choice, which he used to kill Abraham, Glenn, and a variety of zombies. The image of Negan and Lucille has become instantly iconic, even gracing the 2016 San Diego Comic-Con passes, and since Morgan’s terrifying debut in The Walking Dead’s season 6 finale, many, many comments have been made by the Supernatural cast and fandom about how naughty Dad was being over on AMC.
Back in October, we thought this crossover had peaked. Not only did Matt Cohen, who plays John in flashbacks, cosplay as his onscreen self’s other self, Jensen Ackles posted a couple of pics with his very own Lucille — on the hood of the Impala, no less — and Morgan rebutted in character, chiding his “son.” It was a Negan John Winchester extravaganza.
Little did we know that the gag would carry over from real life into fourth-wall breaking fiction. And yet, this is absolutely on brand for Supernatural — more than anything, I’m just shocked they got away with it. Can a network copyright the image of a wire-wrapped baseball bat? Probably not. (It should be noted that “Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell” was shot in January 2017 — Ackles wasn’t teasing this cameo way backin October, just messing around.)
Supernatural is packed full of pop culture references at the best of times — not in a Gilmore or a Glee way, it’s more naturalistic dialogue than that — but more to the point, it’s always been a masterpiece of meta, especially for a series that’s not actually a comedy. Given the parameters of the universe the show takes place in, Supernatural has gotten away with some of the most bizarre self-referential circumstances that have ever aired on television, somehow without seeming completely and utterly unhinged.
The three biggest standouts are, of course, the existence of the Carver Edlund “Supernatural” book series, penned by Chuck Shurley aka God, which means that some people out there in Sam and Dean’s universe know all about their lives as fiction, and the episodes “The French Mistake,” in which Sam and Dean get transported by angels to an alternate universe (a version of this universe) where everyone mistakes them for the actors Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles; and the 200th episode “Fan Fiction,” in which they encounter a school musical based on the aforementioned books and which dives deeper into fandom culture, pushing more boundaries in that department than most shows would ever dare.
“The French Mistake” tops the list as the most meta episode of Supernatural — maybe of any TV show full stop — ever, but it’s the smaller moments, slipped into perfectly normal episodes, that I tend to prefer, tasty little Easter eggs to savor, as opposed to being smothered by a Willy Wonka-esque chocolate lake.
The show has included plenty of more subtle, sensible self-referential moments, like the names of the crew making up phone contacts or guest book signatures — a nice shoutout — or the playing in of real-life injuries in order for the actor to wear a cast or sling (twice, for Padalecki — once in season 2, once in season 10) but the juiciest ones are those that don’t actually affect the plot whatsoever, just wink at something to do with the real world in a seriously fourth-wall breaking way, of which Lucille’s cameo is the most recent and possibly the most on-the-nose example. Here are ten others — some obvious, some a little less so.
- ‘I thought you were going to California.’ ‘Oh, I did. I came, I saw, I conquered. Oh, and I met what’s-his-name, something Michael Murray at a bar.’ ‘Who?’ This exchange between Sam and Meg in season 1’s “Shadow” is the first seriously overt example of this trope — Chad Michael Murray starred in both Gilmore Girls and House of Wax with Jared Padalecki, and the pair remain close even today. Padalecki, unlike Sam, knows exactly who “something Michael Murray” is — this is a shout-out to a friend.
- ‘For some reason I could really go for some pea soup.’ This is probably the closest example to the whole “this actor played another big deal character” Negan situation that the show has done in the past, but for a guest star. “The Usual Suspects” featured Linda Blair as Detective Diana Ballard, a rather brilliantly drawn character who arrests the Winchesters but eventually ends up helping them escape. Ballard almost made my list of one-off characters the boys should meet again — she really held her own — but the ending pea soup quip, as Sam and Dean ponder over whether Diana looked familiar, is a reference to Blair’s award-winning role in The Exorcist, when she was a young teenager. Pea soup was used as projectile vomit.
- ‘Now to the right, here is Stars Hollow. It’s the setting for the television series, Gilmore Girls. And if we’re lucky, we might even catch one of the show’s stars.’ Said by a tour guide in “Hollywood Babylon,” while the boys are on a studio lot tour in Los Angeles, one of the Winchesters’ very few “we’re taking a break on purpose” episodes. Cue Sam looking very uncomfortable and pulling Dean out of the golf cart — Padalecki, of course, is that star, rising to fame as Rory Gilmore’s first boyfriend, Dean Forester. As the guys get involved in a case on the lot, the show uses the Hollywood setting to shoehorn in a ton more self-referential moments, including a movie directed by McG, one of Supernatural’s original producers. There are so many more dotted through, but also, all the criticisms about the movie Sam and Dean end up working on were apparently real notes given to creator Eric Kripke about Supernatural itself.
- ‘Did you really have to live through the bugs?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘What about the ghost ship?’ In “The Monster at the End of This Book,” the Winchesters discover that a series of pulpy paranormal novels have been published about their lives, getting every detail correct. This leads them to the author, Carver Edlund — named for two of the show’s lead writers Jeremy Carver and Ben Edlund, more of a composite self-insert for Kripke and the writing team than a simple shout-out. Carver Edlund — the prophet Chuck Shurley — is initially horrified to discover that his stories had all been real, throwing some shade on episodes that didn’t go down well with the viewers — in this case, “Bugs” and “Red Sky at Morning.” “Horror is one thing, but to be forced to live bad writing…” Oh, self-burn! Those are rare!
- ‘I’m not a Paris Hilton BFF. I’ve never even seen House of Wax.‘ In season 5’s “Fallen Idols,” a comedic monster-of-the-week with a side-serving of realness about the perils of celebrity culture, Paris Hilton, notoriously a good sport, played the final incarnation of the Leshii, a pagan god that feeds off of those who worship it. To keep up in this day and age, it transforms into other idols, to find more fans, and eventually encounters the Winchesters. However, the clincher of this meta moment is actually the fact Hilton and Padalecki starred together in House of Wax, causing the universe to once again open up a wormhole while trying to figure out that loop in the space-time continuum.
- ‘Kick it in the ass!’ This one’s sad rather than funny — this was a favorite catch-phrase of the late Kim Manners, one of Supernatural’s most influential founding figures. Manners was an executive producer and director until his death from lung cancer midway through season 4. Manners ran the day to day production on set in Vancouver, and is credited with fostering the healthy, safe and familial culture between cast and crew, setting a precedent for the Supernatural set to this day. He also demonstrated exemplary treatment of the women under his care and used his privilege to prevent exploitation, and we were honored to share actress Nicki Aycox’ memories of Manners in an interview last year. It’s only fitting that his signature encouragement was used as Ellen’s parting line to Dean in “Abandon All Hope…,” and the phrase has reappeared in several significant moments since then, including in the intended series finale “Swan Song” and in the 200th episode.
- ‘Castiel, haven’t seen you all season.’ Supernatural pulls this kind of thing a few times — in this case, in “Caged Heat,” it’s Crowley to Cas, lampshading the fact that the characters haven’t shared a scene since season 5’s penultimate episode, but a “see you next season” joke happens again with the Alpha Vampire at the end of season 7, and in the season 8 finale “Sacrifice,” when Cas asks Dean if he really should be drinking on the job, Dean replies with, “What show you been watching?” I have a love-hate relationship with this particular brand of self-referential meta. Supernatural does it better than most, with each incident coming across quite naturally, more as if the character is making a “language of pop culture” reference themselves, rather than admitting that they’re aware they’re being watched in a television show.
- ‘We’ll Star Trek IV this bitch.’ ‘I only watched Deep Space Nine.’ In “Frontierland,” the fact that Jim Beaver as Bobby references Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is a little tribute to his late wife Cecily Adams, who had a recurring role in DS9 as the alien Ishka. Season 6 is actually rather full of Bobby Singer meta references — he is, and always has been, named after executive producer Robert Singer, but “The French Mistake” has Dean judging the hell out of that decision (“What kind of douchebag names a character after himself?”) and later in the season, there’s another nod to Beaver’s real life — the gang encounters a demon who does for demonkind what Bobby does for hunters. This demon’s name is Ellsworth, which was the name of Beaver’s character on Deadwood.
- ‘My Bloodiest Valentine in hell-a-vision 3D.’ This time it’s Jensen Ackles’ career getting some tongue-in-cheek exposure — in “The Girl Next Door,” which Dabb wrote and Ackles directed, this comment is overheard on the TV as an advertisement. Ackles, for better or worse, actually starred in the 2009 3D remake of cult horror film My Bloody Valentine, which was, indeed, titled My Bloody Valentine 3D. That’s not where this episode’s Ackles filmography references end, either — the gas station clerk Dean questions is wearing a Batman: Under the Red Hood shirt. Ackles voiced Jason Todd, the eponymous Red Hood, in that animated film.
- ‘I signed up for Snapchat. And I started a new series of books. Yeah. Revolution. But I don’t think it’s going anywhere.’ In season 11’s “Don’t Call Me Shurley,” all is finally revealed about Chuck’s identity — he is, as many fans guessed, actually God, and therefore his innocent confusion as a prophet was basically all an act — his penning of the Supernatural books was some sort of exercise in boredom. The fact that he felt okay about just faking his way through that whole apocalypse and beyond, pretending to be an innocent bystander, is an issue for another day, but this moment was an interesting little dig at the idea of Chuck as Eric Kripke’s fictional counterpart — Revolution being, at the time, Kripke’s most recently cancelled new project, a post-apocalyptic series on NBC. Bit of a ballsy move from writer Robbie Thompson, given Kripke is no longer part of the show to be in on the joke.