Series creator Eric Kripke laid out the arc for the first five years of Supernatural, and then took his leave as showrunner. The show faced threats of cancellation for most—if not all—of those years, and thus every season finale also had to serve as a potential series finale too. The fifth season contained some of the absolute best episodes, and ended with an incredible bang: Sam Winchester (Jared Padalecki) let Lucifer possess him, and retained control for long enough to throw himself back into Hell, preventing the apocalypse through his sacrifice.
It’s a hell of a way to end a season, as well as a steadily-built arc that stretched over five years. It was very similar to the fifth-season finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which ended with a similarly large sacrifice of a main character. But both shows were renewed, and both struggled like hell to figure out what to do next. Supernatural’s sixth season is absolutely its weakest, and yet, through the frustrating characters and weirdly meandering plot, it managed to pull off one of the ballsiest episodes of television I’ve ever seen. While shows like Arrested Development and 30 Rock have flirted with some cracks in the fourth wall, “The French Mistake” literally throws Padalecki and Ackles through it.
The episode begins with Sam and Dean doing some research, which is promptly interrupted by the angel Balthazar (Sebastian Roché), who tells them that they’re in danger because of their allegiance to Castiel (Misha Collins). He puts together a protection spell, hands the boys a key, and then shoves them out the window—where they land on soft blue mats, and look up to see a film crew applauding the take. Sam and Dean Winchester have been transported into an alternate reality, where “Supernatural” is nothing but a television show. To quote Sam: “We landed in some dimension where you’re Jensen Ackles, and I’m something called a Jared Padalecki.”
Like I said: ballsy.
“The French Mistake,” named for a somewhat obscure Mel Brooks joke, is mostly a gigantic, 42-minute love letter to the audience that has been so vital to Supernatural‘s continued existence. There’s a thing about an angelic hitman whom everyone else thinks is an extra (and are horrified when Sam and Dean try to kill), but the pleasure in “The French Mistake” comes from just sitting back and watching the jokes unfold. Sam and Dean are horrified and confused by this alternate reality, unable to figure out why anyone would want to watch their lives on TV (“Well, according to the interviewer, not many people do,” Sam quips). They recoil at Jensen’s soap opera background, and paint Padalecki and Ackles as high-maintenance divas who hate each other (in real life, they’re actually best friends). It’s wonderful to watch them freak out upon realizing that the Impala is just a prop, or that Jared is married to the woman who played Ruby the demon (Genevieve Padalecki), or that they’re in (gasp!) Canada. When the boys try to summon Castiel to get them back home, they encounter Misha Collins instead, who plays himself as a Twitter-obsessed lunatic (which is actually not terribly dissimilar to reality). Collins’ comedic skills are one of Supernatural‘s hidden gems, and he gets to have an absolute ball here as an aw-shucks puppydog, thrilled that Jared and Jensen are finally including him as one of the gang. Jensen and Jared’s weird behavior doesn’t go unnoticed; their antics are chalked up to either drugs or black market organ deals, and the crew even calls in Eric Kripke (played by Micah A. Hauptman) to try talking some sense into the boys. The whole thing ends with a bunch of the “crew” dead by the hitman’s hand, but Sam and Dean do get back to their own universe, secure in the knowledge that there’s no place like home.
“The French Mistake” succeeds because it’s absolutely fearless in skewering the good-natured stars of the little ghost show that could, and writer Ben Edlund deserves all the credit for walking that line with near-perfection. There are nods to everyone who makes Supernatural a reality, from Kripke and new showrunner Sera Gamble to well-known crew members like executive producer Jim Michaels and DP Serge Ladouceur. Supernatural has an impressively dedicated fanbase, and they know who these people are; while those unfamiliar with the show would find “The French Mistake” impossibly odd, it is truly perfect for anyone who’s seen the previous five and a half seasons. It is truly impressive that the episode goes as well as it does, because parody isn’t easy. You have to love the subject you’re riffing, and hit the right mixture of reality and exaggeration. Luckily, Ackles and Padalecki (and everyone else) are incredibly good sports, and get to have a lot of fun at their own expense. This isn’t the first meta episode of Supernatural—there’s a fantastic bit in Season 5 which digs at the section of the fanbase that made Wincest fan fiction a thing—but it came along at just the right time in a season that everyone was a little unsure about, and blew away everyone’s anxieties with the power of laughter.
When I attended the Supernatural Convention in Vancouver in late August, Jensen Ackles himself said that when “The French Mistake” aired, everyone knew that it was either going to be very well-received, or destroy the fanbase forever. Like the Buffy musical episode “Once More, With Feeling,” it’s the highlight of a slightly weaker season, and gave Supernatural the energy boost it needed to shake off the last remnants of Kripke-era nostalgia and start on a new direction. While things would never be as tightly choreographed as they were for the first five seasons, Supernatural still had a lot of stories to tell, and it was willing to take a few risks to keep things fresh and interesting. And things definitely get interesting from here on out.