Ah, “Phantom Traveler”, when the Department of Homeland Security was a new thing.
It’s mindboggling to realize that Homeland Security was just over two years old when Supernatural debuted in 2005. There are a lot of parallels I could point out now, but maybe I’ll stick to one generalization: both Homeland Security and the Winchester brothers went into this with the intention of fighting an external enemy, but eventually spent a lot of time fighting internal ones.
I’ve always had a soft spot for “Phantom Traveler”. The episode quilted together a number of things that trigger fear. Besides the Homeland Security reference, the episode leaned on horror-adjacent airplane disaster movies, and threw in a Final Destination-inspired red herring about a supernatural force hunting down people who had escaped death.
It also introduced elements that would become significant to Supernatural‘s short-, medium-, and long-term narrative:
- The demon knowing about Jess was a hint about Sam’s fate and, reinforced the idea that his character was the vehicle for Supernatural’s mytharc story, just as Luke Skywalker was in Star Wars;
- Dean’s fear of flying;
- the use of black smoke to represent the demonic souls; and
- the idea that saying the word Christo would immediately reveal a demon. (This last point was abandoned when the writers realized that being able to spot a demon instantly would make the Winchesters’ lives too convenient.)
I will also note that, after the teaser, the episode begins with a direct appeal to the non-het male gaze as the camera pans over the landscape of Dean’s sleeping body. Or maybe that was a sly reference to the near-omniscience of demons or the panopticon of Homeland Security. Yeah, I’m sure that’s it.
That genius shot was directed by Robert Singer, who made his Supernatural debut with “Phantom Traveller”. He was a producer on the show from day one, and will be there on the last day. The episode was the first of only two episodes written by Richard Hatem (the other was “Asylum”), who went on to The Secret Circle, Grimm, and, now, Titans (I need to watch that).
While checking Wikipedia for the start of Homeland Security, I learned that its creation wasn’t just a massive reorganization of government departments, it was also a major union-busting move: “The plan stripped 180,000 government employees of their union rights. In 2002, Bush officials argued that the September 11 attacks made the proposed elimination of employee protections imperative.” So the agency was a product of a governmental war on itself.
- Episode 1.01 “Pilot”
- Episode 1.03 “Dead in the Water”
- Episode 1.04 “Phantom Traveler”
- Episode 2.01 “Wendigo”