BY MIA STEINBERG
Supernatural’s first season was a delightfully spooky examination of popular myths and ghost stories, including the creepy Hook Man and slumber party favourite Bloody Mary, but didn’t really have much of an arc until the last three or four episodes. The writers took urban myths we’ve all grown up hearing, freed them from the confines of campfires and hushed whispers, and turned them into living, breathing things. This was a strategy that continued into the second season, but this time a larger picture was forming underneath. Out of all of the urban-myth-inspired episodes, Season 2’s “Crossroad Blues” makes the most effective use of the core concept, and permanently weaves it to the overall mythos of the show. In hindsight, it’s probably one of the most important episodes of Supernatural’s first couple of years.
The episode opens in 1938, at a bar in Mississippi. A handsome, charming African-American man plays a gorgeous blues song on his guitar, but is interrupted by the sound of a dog growling outside. He flees in terror, but the dog’s barking and growling follows along, and something—we never see what—kills him. The man is Robert Johnson, famous real-life blues guitarist who was rumored to have sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his talent. In the present, demon hunters Sam (Jared Padalecki) and Dean (Jensen Ackles) are following a trail of victims who all claimed to be hunted by huge black dogs just before their deaths. They end up in the same town in Mississippi, and realize that the latest victims—a genius architect and a chief surgeon—have some weirdly specific things in common. They were both absolute stars in their field, both were overnight successes, and ten years ago they both frequented a dive bar on the outskirts of town, right beside a crossroads.
It seems that ten years back, someone at the bar summoned a demon to make a crossroads pact—and it stayed around to make a few more deals before taking off. Now all those contracts are up, and the monstrous Hellhounds—the big black dogs that no one else can see—have come to collect. It’s here where we get a revealing look into Sam and Dean’s characters, as each one reacts to the situation very differently. Sam has compassion for the victims, capable of understanding the insatiable urge to have all your dreams come true, even if just for ten years. Dean, on the other hand, lays down victim-blaming like it’s going out of style, judgmental of those who took the easy way out. The brothers locate the last victim, a man named Evan who sold his soul to cure his wife of cancer, and set out to save him from being dragged into Hell. While Sam fends off invisible Hellhounds, Dean puts his own picture into the spell box and summons the crossroads demon (Jeannette Sousa) to have a little chat.
But Dean has more on his mind than saving an innocent(ish) man. At the start of this season, Dean woke up in the hospital after being gravely injured in a fight during Season 1’s finale. He found his father by his bedside; John gave Dean a hug, whispered in his ear, and then dropped dead. He made a pact with the demon he’d hunted for nearly two decades, surrendering his own soul in exchange for his son’s life. Dean is left with a horrifying secret he must from Sam as they continue to track the demon down, but he also struggles with intense self-loathing. He doesn’t feel his life was worth even a fraction of John’s, and struggles with feeling betrayed by the man he worshiped even though it saved his life. So, when Dean stands at that crossroads, he’s not exactly brimming with self-worth.
While the first three acts are a decent horror story with a good mystery to solve, it’s here where “Crossroad Blues” goes from monster-of-the-week to a vital part of the series as a whole. The scenes with Dean and the demon are the highlight of the episode. Sousa and Ackles absolutely crackle together, with emotional and sexual tension that is mesmerizing to watch. Sousa is gorgeous, and is clearly having lots of fun as she oozes with sensual malice and control. She taunts Dean about his guilt and pain, and then drops a tantalizing carrot: she can bring John back to life. The Winchesters will reunite, like in the old days. In ten years, she’ll come for Dean’s soul. “Look. Your dad’s supposed to be alive. You’re supposed to be dead. So we’ll just set things straight, put things back in their natural order. And you get ten extra years on top—that’s a bonus,” she says. Dean plays along, but ultimately turns the tables, trapping the demon and agreeing to let her go in exchange for dissolving Evan’s contract. Before she disappears, the demon reveals that John is trapped in hell, confirming all of Dean’s worst fears.
“Crossroad Blues” is a good example of one of Supernatural‘s biggest secrets: for all that it looks like a silly little Buffy knockoff, and despite it never once being nominated for Emmys or Golden Globes, the acting in this show is really freakin’ good. Ackles, a soap opera veteran, has made Dean Winchester into an incredibly deep, complex man. On the outside, he is the confident, charming older brother, but beneath the surface, Dean is extraordinarily insecure, and a lifetime of protecting, raising, and paying all of his attention to Sam has left him without much sense of his own identity. Ackles conveys so much of these heavy emotions in his face and voice, using his body language to make Confident Dean and Honest Dean very different from one another. Overall, the episode only drags when it cuts away from Dean and the demon and back to Sam protecting Evan from the dogs, because it gets a little repetitive. That said, the Hellhounds are gifts from the school of classic horror filmmaking, existing only as intense barks and growls and heavy banging against doors, but made real with the audience’s imaginations.
“Crossroad Blues” is about survivor’s guilt, and how the living struggle with what they feel they owe to the dead. It reveals that Dean thinks so little of his own life that he is willing to die in the worst way in order to protect his family, and at the end of this season, that’s exactly what he does. It lays the foundation for the next three seasons’ biggest story arcs, and is exemplary of Season 2’s transition from exploring American myths into more high-stakes, long-form storytelling. Supernatural is more than just a few chisel-faced dudes busting ghosts in their car, and “Crossroad Blues” is where the show begins to truly shift from one path onto another—the sort of turn that takes place, you could say, at the spot where two roads meet.