Welcome back, readers, to another Supernatural recap. I’m very excited for this particular installment, because I knew I wanted to review Season 3’s “Mystery Spot” before I even pitched this series to the Cinefilles editors. It’s a brilliant example of a well-known story structure, and is also one of the top episodes of Supernatural ever made. Episode writer Jeremy Carver and director Kim Manners are some of Supernatural‘s most beloved crew members, and for very good reason: they make fantastic genre television.
“Mystery Spot” takes the form of what some call a “Groundhog Day Loop”; like the Bill Murray film, the episode concerns a character repeating a day over and over again until some sort of requirement is met. Lots of television shows have done Groundhog Day Loops: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Eureka, and even Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, amongst others. It’s a fairly common episode structure that writers can dress up in a new way, but the framework is generally the same: our traveler wakes up each day and repeats the events over and over, changing little things around him and eventually getting a certain sequence of events right and breaking the loop. For most shows, even sci-fi ones, Groundhog Day Loops are one-off episodes, and everything goes back to normal at the end. Supernatural‘s take on this trope, however, goes to some very dark places and really subverts audience expectations.
In “Mystery Spot”, the traveler is Sam Winchester (Jared Padalecki). He and Dean (Jensen Ackles) are in Florida, investigating the disappearance of a famous skeptic at a local spooky mystery spot (“Where the laws of physics have no meaning,” the pamphlet helpfully declares). But when they sneak into the attraction that night, they are ambushed by the terrified owner, who shoots Dean. Sam rushes to his brother’s side, watches him die and then wakes up in the motel room, with Dean alive and well, dancing to Asia’s “Heat of the Moment” like a dork. Sam dismisses it as a weird dream at first, but—of course—it soon becomes all too clear that he is walking through the exact same scenarios as he did the day before. This time, Sam insists that they visit the mystery spot in the daylight hours. which leads to Dean being hit by a car. Sam wakes up again.
It seems that the mystery spot has created a time loop (“Like Groundhog Day?” Dean asks skeptically), the catalyst of which is Dean’s death. And despite Sam’s many attempts to prevent it, Dean always dies on that Tuesday. He dies of food poisoning, electrocutes himself with his shaver, is attacked by a dog, squashed by a heavy piece of furniture, and gets offed in hundreds of other ways, over hundreds of Tuesdays which slowly begin to drive Sam insane.
We’ve all seen time loop episodes before (never mind the film which made them ubiquitous), and we know how they usually go: the protagonist must get a certain set of things right in order to break the time loop, and once they have that epiphany things usually resolves pretty quickly. In “Mystery Spot,” the revelatory moments come in spades, but every time it seems like this day might be the one Sam gets right, Sam wakes up to “Heat of the Moment,” which, by the way, is an inspired choice of “I Got You Babe”-style motif music.
It takes a good four or five revelations for Sam to finally figure out why the loop has been happening. He’s being tortured by the Trickster (Richard Speight Jr), an old foe of the Winchesters who can manipulate time and space to his whims. After the ruse is up, Sam wakes up and is overjoyed to realize that it’s Wednesday—except as they’re packing up to leave, Dean is mugged and killed for his wallet, and there’s nothing Sam can do. This plot twist makes the last act of the episode into a very different beast, showing just how dark and out of control Sam can become when pushed in the right direction, and it’s simultaneously heartbreaking and fascinating to watch him suffer. Padalecki changes his facial expressions and tone in each iteration of the loop, showing a slow progression from confusion to anger to total emotional breakdown, bit by bit. There’s a long-running in-joke amongst Supernatural fans that asks why we love to see these two guys in such emotional turmoil, and to be honest it’s because Padalecki and Ackles are talented guys who are really good at conveying those emotions.
Speaking of, Ackles gets to have a lot of fun in this episode, with Dean in full funnyman mode, and it leads to several amusing moments and clever lines as he wisecracks his way through thousands of death scenarios. It’s levity that goes from comic relief to pitch-black humor, and “Mystery Spot” is, at heart, a loop about tragedy which is disguised as a comedy.
In the end, of course, the Trickster makes everything go back to normal, but “Mystery Spot” still leaves an impact on both the Winchester brothers and the audience. In the WGA Writers’ Strike-shortened third season, “Mystery Spot” is one of the very best among its peers. It’s funny, it’s sad, it’s frustrating, and it will forever change the way you think about at least one hair metal band.