Mysterious bug infestations are killing workers in a new suburban housing development. Sam and Dean find a skull on the grounds and learn from an indigenous elder that the community was built on the site of an “Indian burial ground”and the spirits are angry.
This episode is about aspiration and duty, and what happens when the twain don’t mix. After Dean hustles some locals at pool, Sam draws hard lines between honest work and dishonest work. Dean just wants to do what’s “easy and fun.” They flesh out their differences as they arrive in the suburbs. Dean says he’d sooner die than live in suburbia (making his post-apocalypse choices in Season 5 ironic), while Sam says there’s nothing wrong with “normal”. The debate continues in proxy form later in the episode when Sam tells the real estate developer’s weird, insect-obsessed emo kid that things will get better in college, where he will be free of family expectations. Dean’s counterpoint is to stress the importance of fulfilling family obligations.
The Winchester family values include hunting things to save people. Dean has long carried out what he believes is the necessary violence to keep the supernatural at bay, but Sam has yet to acknowledge that establishing or achieving “normal” can also be violent. How appropriate is it for colonizers to make money off land stolen from indigenous people? The episode’s answer is that it was never appropriate, and never will be.
After a final confrontation with a house full of bees (yes, actual bees were used in the filming of the episode!), Sam and Dean check back with the developer and his family (white neo-settlers, when you think about it). He says the development is on hold while the government studies the burial plot. Remarkably to Sam and Dean, the developer seems to shrug off the delay, saying that the project was the biggest financial disaster of his career. It’s interesting that he didn’t say that it was the biggest financial disaster of his life. It was healthy of him to separate his life from his career, and that he’s not bitter about the financial bath, not when he has what he values most: his family.
It was easy for the developer to talk away sanguinely, but the first victim, gas company worker who could never afford to live in the development, is not coming back. Neither is the second victim, a realtor who was selling homes for the developer. The curse worked from the bottom of the hierarchy, and failed to defeat the most privileged person on the grounds.
The Winchesters never do go back to check on the elder. That part of the story is mired in “magical Indian” tropes. It would have been interesting. He can’t walk away from the history that has left his people dead or displaced. Even if he subscribed to the same notions of ownership as the developer, the elder can’t just take back the land, nor the land does the land return to the indigenous people of the area.
The societal issues brought up in the episode aren’t fully resolved, but there’s enough there to be interesting.
Apparently, filming the episode was a nightmare, especially when they brought live bees to the set. The payoff wasn’t great, though: a swarm of bees might be terrifying in person, but it’s not much to look at on screen. For this reason, Eric Kripke has gone on record as saying “Bugs” is the worst episode of Supernatural.
It actually contains dialogue that has fascinated fandom for 14 years. We learn details about the argument that ended Sam’s relationship with his father; Sam and Dean’s differing perceptions of what John thinks about Sam; John’s habit of checking in on Sam at Stanford. The exact moment of Sam’s argument with John has never been depicted on screen, although it has been talked about endlessly by Dean and Sam, and, later, time-travelling John. Every account makes clear that the teller is giving a heavily subjective account. This has given fanfiction writers a lot of leeway to construct the moment and what each character could have been thinking or feeling at the time.
Meanwhile, jokes abound as the developer and the real estate agent assume that Sam and Dean are a gay couple. Separately, Sam ribs Dean about watching Oprah, and Dean likens Sam’s role in the family to “the blond chick in the Munsters”. The show’s open acknowledgement of how Sam and Dean look like a couple and how they embody noth feminine and masculine complicate the characters’ gender and sexuality, launching thousands of pieces of fanfiction and analytic meta (essays).
Rewatching the episode, I wanted to write an essay about practically every scene. It’s not polished, but it is fascinating. “Bugs” is not the worst episode of Supernatural, not by a long shot.
- Episode 1.01 “Pilot”
- Episode 1.06: “Skin”
- Episode 1.03 “Dead in the Water”
- Episode 1.08 “Bugs”
- Episode 1.04 “Phantom Traveler”
- Episode 1.07 “Hook Man”
- Episode 1.05 “Bloody Mary”
- Episode 1.02 “Wendigo”