After last week’s very first Supernatural review for season 13’s “Advanced Thanatology,” (yay!) I got a couple of requests for a “catch up guide” for people at various points of “viewing progress.” Including one from someone who has only seen season 1! That’s a lot of ground to cover, especially for a show as serialized as Supernatural is. If a couple of people are asking, there may be more who aren’t, so rather than just respond to individual comments, I wanted this all in one place where I could refer people who ask me this question now, and in the future. That’s right guys, you ask, you shall receive! (Within reason of course, come on now!)
Now, as a die-hard completionist myself, I don’t really understand those people who can watch just enough of a show to get a basic understanding of what’s going on. I ‘m this way about every show (which is why my TV watching to-do list is so long right now!) but especially with regards to Supernatural. There are, understandably, a lot of comparisons between Supernatural and the shows that spiritually (pun intended!) came before it, The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. There is an over-arcing plot line over the season (sometimes even over several seasons), with some monster of the week “filler” episodes for good measure. But like Buffy built on the serial nature of X-Files and increased the ratio of serial episodes to fillers, Supernatural has done the same thing. So this is my (one and only) disclaimer/warning/entreaty to you to do yourself a favour and just bite the bullet and watch the whole thing. I know it’s long, I know you may want to watch your children grow up or spend quality time with your significant other or get some work done at some point. I say tough! Especially if you start watching some of the “must-see” episodes on this list and you’re loving the show. You will love (most of) what’s not listed as “must-see” as well! This is a relatively consistent show considering just how many episodes they have made! As an example, what does Entertainment Weekly have to say about the episode they ranked #256 out of 264 (264 being the worst)? “More forgettable than terrible.” If that’s the worst they can say at that point… well. Most of the flack the show has gotten has been for mishandling seasonal arcs, yet the seasons with the most plot problems have some of the best standalone episodes! Let’s just say you won’t go wrong in watching more of this show as opposed to less.
Another reason to watch the whole thing? Supernatural’s overall plot arcs can be pretty…heavy. Most of the levity of the show (and there’s some pretty stellar levity!) comes from the monster of the week episodes. If you zoom through this show only watching the plot episodes, we may find you in the bottom of a whisky bottle by the time you’re done. (To those of you we would find there anyway, please disregard, and I’ll see you there!) If you press ahead with watching just the must-see episodes, please add one or two of the “funny” ones along the way. Your liver will thank me. (Let’s just say that most of the “funny” ones will be among the top rated on the list. That way we can avoid “funny” spoilers.)
My final argument for watching it all? A lot of things that happen don’t really make “sense” if you don’t understand the relationships in the show. And the relationships are being developed throughout. There were a lot of episodes I hesitated over including as must-see because even though they didn’t involve the overall plot significantly, they did give some important insight into a relationship and why it is the way it is. (I ended up marking those as supplemental if the relationship impacted the plot, bonus if it didn’t.) Seriously, you really may not understand why a character does what they do, or why something is such a big deal, or where a sudden reaction is coming from if you don’t watch at least some of the supplemental material. If I still can’t talk you into watching it all, at least consider watching all of seasons 5 and 12. These are the two most heavily serialized of the seasons and I really think you’ll miss out by not gathering up all the plot threads throughout, even if they aren’t strictly necessary.
Okay, so as you can tell, I’m pretty biased towards watching more vs less of Supernatural. Knowing that, I wasn’t sure if I could trust myself in making up this list for you guys, so I “enlisted” help. I figured I would include some ratings (by critics and fans) and another must-see list (as well as some other lists) and then publish it all in one place as a Google doc so you can make up your own minds. I separated it all by season, as some of the episode titles may or may not be spoilery. With that in mind, I thought of adding a note whenever a recurring character appeared in an episode, and who it was, as some people may really want to watch every episode of a character they love, while avoiding episodes with one they hate. I considered it, but decided against it, as I thought that also may or may not be spoilery. If you come across a recurring character in the must-sees that you’d like to see more of, you can look up that character on a site like Supernatural Wiki (here) and see which episodes they’re in. Again, just a caution that reading those may lead to spoilers. I did think of just directing you to the other pages I used in compiling this list (and I will post links) but some of those pages had some massive spoilers, and I wanted you to have everything on one page, so you didn’t need to go back and forth while watching.
What did I include on my list? First, I went through myself and judged an episode to be either “Required Reading”, “Supplemental Reading” or “Bonus Reading”. I think this is self-explanatory, but in case it isn’t, “Required Reading” is an episode you’ll need to understand the overall plot. “Supplemental Reading” is an episode that has some information that would be helpful in understanding the plot, but isn’t strictly necessary, especially if you pay close attention to the “Then” (aka Supernatural“s “previously on”) segments. “Bonus Reading” is a mostly standalone episode. Now, understand, there are things happening in every episode that contribute to your understanding of the plot or the characters and their motivations, but I’ve judged these on the level of importance. Please note, my judgments here are based solely on the plot and have nothing to do with whether or not these are good episodes. For that, see the next two classifications.
I believe it was for the 200th episode extravaganza that Entertainment Weekly’s Samantha Highfill, Chancellor Agard and Jonathon Dornbush took on the Herculean task of rating each and every episode of Supernatural (related to each other) to that point. They’ve even kept it updated since then, so it now stands at a list 264 episodes long. (That’s all 12 past seasons.) They’ve divided it up into 3 pages with the Top 40 episodes, the Middle 214 episodes and finally the 10 Worst episodes. I changed their numbering system (but not the rankings themselves) in order to make the rankings more uniform. 1 is their pick for best episode and 264 their pick for worst. Now, I have no real quibbles with their top 40, even top 100. I may change things up slightly, but nothing is too far away from where I would place it on the list. After that however, and my ratings start to have some real discrepancies with theirs. Everything’s subjective, which is why I wanted to include other rankings in the first place, but I really didn’t feel some of their rankings were indicative of how I’ve heard the fandom speak of some of these episodes. So, after having gone through and typed everything up and thinking I was almost finished, I went back and added the IMDB user ratings as well. I feel these ratings more accurately reflect how I’ve heard the fandom speak of episodes, even if I also have some quibbles with some of these ratings as well. (Some characters weren’t well liked, so episodes involving them got some hatred I feel is undeserved, as well as vice versa.) I’ll link you to the IMDB ratings, but be warned that they include episode titles, which may or may not be spoilery. In case you care, the highest rating is a 9.7 (3 episodes) with the lowest a 6.0. (Though that’s one episode, with the next lowest rating a 7.1. The fandom hated that one!) The mean is 8.3, median is 8.7 and the mode is 8.6. (Includes the ratings so far for season 13.). Hopefully this gives you an idea of what their ratings “mean”.
My last source I added comes from Den of Geek!’s Juliette Harrisson. She went through around the time of the 200th episode and charted a Supernatural roadmap for beginners, with 5 different “routes” through the Supernatural canon. Be warned that there are spoilery spoilers on this page, so you have been warned! Also be aware that this roadmap ends in the beginning of season 10, so there will be no letters after that. I didn’t want to presume by adding to someone else’s list. The first route through is the “To Hell and Back” route, which is her take on the essential viewing for the overall plot route. Turns out her take on this and mine were very similar! So I can be objective when paring down the show! I noted this route with an A. This path you should be following already, but it’s a second opinion on what’s vital (until s10) and what’s not.
Route 2 is the “Saving People, Hunting Things” path which charts the best standalone episodes you can watch without being too lost with what’s happening in the background. This path is marked with a B. Follow it if you like the monster of the week episodes.
Number 3 is called “Daddy Issues” and notes every episode that deals in a significant way with the relationship between the two brothers, or that has some relation (pun not intended, but I’ll take the win) to their wider family. Just remember, when it comes to Supernatural, family don’t end in blood. I noted these episodes with a C. Venture down this path if you’re really loving the family drama or the brotherly love or both.
Path 4 is….SPOILERS! Serious, serious spoilers! Turn back now, you have been warned, danger, danger! Ok, maybe I’m making too much of this (or am I?) but it really is a spoiler to know what exactly this path refers to. I have marked down the path anyway, with D’s (heh heh) because it isn’t super spoilery to know where the path is, just what it’s about. You should be able to easily figure it out when you get there. Once you figure it out, if you enjoy all of the goodness this path provides, you may want ALL the D! (I am not actually a 12-year old boy, I swear!)
The final path, 5, is called “Meta Episodes”. Now, this show is pretty famous for these episodes. And they can get pretty meta. If you like these episodes (or if you love them, it will be one or the other!), you won’t want to miss them, so they are handily marked for your greedy consumption with an E.
Okay. That’s all of the extra information I have added, so you don’t just need to take my word for it. I figure that when it comes to the “supplemental reading” or even “bonus reading” list, you may be more inclined to watch if it’s highly rated by EW, IMDB, and is on Den of Geek’s list of best standalones for example. As far as my recommendations for “supplemental” and “bonus” reading, let’s just say that if it is rated 132 or higher on EW’s list, I recommend it. If it is rated 8.7 or higher on IMDB, I recommend it. If it is on one of the 5 paths on Den of Geek!’s roadmap, I recommend it. If it checks two or more of these boxes, I definitely recommend it. I’ve also added a “watch this if” tag to a couple of episodes if there is a one time guest star that is big in fandom circles (ie. Buffy alumni/alumnae), or is an homage to some other popular bit of pop culture.
I hope this guide helps you all decide which episodes to watch or not on your path to season 13. (Or maybe 14? There are a lot of episodes! If it makes you feel any better, all this looking back at the show to compile this list has made me decide to go back and do reviews for the entire show, so I’ve just made a ton of work for myself as well as you! See what you made me do?!) To anyone who’s all caught up already, what do you think? What should I have included as essential viewing? Did I miss something? Add too much? Is there an episode I should have recommended more highly? What episodes would you recommend people see? Please list episodes as numbers only in the comments (ie 1.01 or s1e01). That way we can avoid any unintentional spoilers. Let’s also avoid any other kinds of spoilery talk. If you must, please list what episode or season it’s a spoiler until and then put it in spoiler tags. For example, “spoiler until after 5.22”. That way people who have seen some Supernatural but aren’t totally caught up yet can know what is safe for them to see and what isn’t. Find out how to do spoiler tags here. If any of you who aren’t completely caught up yet come onto the new reviews from now on though, there will for sure be spoilers. (I haven’t decided yet about the reviews from before season 13. Any thoughts?) You have been warned. Until my next post, be good to each other! XO