In Defence of Supernatural’s “Bugs”

"Bugs" is creepy-crawly, but it's far from one of Supernatural's worst episodes.

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Hate-Watch is a column by FAN/FIC Editor Malory Beazley. In this column, Malory defends some of the most hated episodes of popular fandom shows, including Supernatural, X-Files, Firefly, and Sherlock.

Two brothers road-tripping across America in a ’67 Chevy Impala, killing witches, demons, monsters, and other supernatural beings. Mythology, lore, rebirths, and reincarnations — the premise alone is fodder for hundreds of stories. Indeed, the CW’s Supernatural itself is immortal. With 264 episodes in the can and a thirteenth season slated for next year, Supernatural is the longest-running fantasy series in American history.

Supernatural is one of the best shows on television, watched and discussed religiously by one of the biggest fandoms in popular culture. This is largely attributed to the chemistry between brothers Sam and Dean Winchester, two of the most compelling characters in modern fiction. However, every beloved series is bound to have a few dud episodes. And, in fan-driven shows especially, there’s usually fandom-wide consensus on which ones suck. For Supernatural, the most complained about stories are oft-cited and well-known: “Bloodlines” (9.20), “Route 666” (1.13, a.k.a. the “Racist Truck” episode), “Man’s Best Friend with Benefits” (8.15), “Dog Dean Afternoon” (9.05), and “Bugs” (1.08).

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“Bugs” (air date November 8, 2005) has Sam and Dean Winchester trying to solve a killer bug infestation that’s been wreaking havoc in Oasis Plains, a new land development in Oklahoma. “Bugs” always makes an appearance on “Top 10 Worst Episodes” lists (often claiming the #1 spot) and has been repeatedly mocked by Supernatural‘s writers. Not only is it one of creator Eric Kripke’s least favourite season one episodes, but “Bugs” was even the butt of a “meta” joke in “The Monster at the End of this Book” (4.18): when Chuck Shurley, creator of the Supernatural novel series, mentions the one about the bugs, he shrugs it off as “simply bad writing.”

Common criticisms of the episode include its clichéd storytelling (the “Indian Burial Ground” curse), its wacky pacing (the instant night-to-day ending), and the general “ick-factor.” With cockroaches, spiders, worms, and bees, “Bugs” certainly fills the creepy-crawly quota for the series. Many fans simply refuse to watch for that reason:

“I’d watch it, but spiders.”

But one thing to know about “Bugs” is that its bad reputation precedes it. Is “Bugs” really one of the worst episodes of Supernatural of all time? I think not. That’s why I’m here — to defend this much-hated episode from its most callous critics. So, let’s dive in. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I present to you my defence of “Bugs.”

Direction:

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Beautiful Directing and Cinematography
“Bugs” is the second Supernatural episode the infamous Kim Manners directed (the first was “Dead in the Water”) and die-hard fans know how influential he was in shaping the “let the boys be boys” culture on set. Actors Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles (Sam and Dean, respectively) held Manners in high regard for being truly present and engaged as a director. In terms of his cinematography, the final scene in “Bugs” is a direct reference to Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (a film which is also referenced again in the season four “flapping wings” title card). Much like Tippi Hedren and the Brenners’ frantic escape from Hitchcock’s winged creatures, the Winchesters protect the Pike family from the insect infestation that presses inward through creaking windows, crumbling chimneys, and shingle-hole skylights. The final “bees” sequence, despite its strange pacing, is a classic suspense scene and homage to Hitchcock by the dearly departed Kim Manners.
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The Horror
Above all else, Supernatural is a horror show. Appropriately, then, much of the criticism of “Bugs” comes from the fact that, despite borrowing elements from other skin-crawling flicks, the episode just wasn’t very scary. I disagree. Not every horror movie needs jump scares. In fact, some of the most effective horror comes from unsettling the audience, bit by bit, without them realizing it. On this point, I would argue the “spiders in the shower” scene is one of the most unsettling in the show’s entire run. As mentioned above, some fans refuse to watch the episode altogether because of this scene. Pretty effective horror if you ask me. While not explicitly “scary,” the slow-pacing of “Bugs” allows Manners to explore a more dark, suspenseful tone we saw in earlier episodes like “Dead in the Water.”

Story:

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Magical Native American Trope
This episode makes use of the Magical Native American cliché. This trope can be intensely problematic because it implies there is an inherent “magic” present in certain ethnicities, an implication that can lead to Orientalist assumptions about indigenous peoples as “other” or “exotic.” Keeping this in mind, I will defend the use of the Magical Native American trope in “Bugs” because it helps directly address a part of history largely ignored by Western civilization: the mass genocide of the Native American peoples by white colonizers. The story told by Joe White Tree, a descendent of the decimated Euchee tribe, makes explicit the horrifying violence of the white cavalry, who viciously slaughtered their entire village:

They murdered, raped. The next day, the cavalry came again, and the next, and the next. And on the sixth night, the cavalry came one last time. And by the time the sun rose, every man, woman, and child still in the village was dead.

White Tree says that after the village was destroyed by Europeans, a curse was placed on the land so that no white man could ever live there. Unlike many other popular texts, which callously cast off the lived experiences of Native Americans, “Bugs” takes care to align the Winchesters’ sympathies with White Tree and the Euchee. And while Sam and Dean, of course, try to save the Pike family from certain death, the episode frames the white land developers as the short-sighted, greedy ones. Dean, especially, scowls as they roll up to the open house at Oasis Plains, scoffing at the perfectly manicured lawns and respectable neighbours. Like the Euchee, the Winchesters, too, are outsiders in this strange world of white picket fences.


Character Development:

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Boy Melodrama Scenes
(“The B.M. scenes.” “Bowel movement scenes?”) The boy melodrama moments in this episode are top notch and really set the stage for what will motivate the Winchesters during the rest of the series. First of all, “Bugs” establishes a lot more backstory about the relationship between Sam and his still-missing father, John Winchester. In conversations with both Dean and Matt Pike (the land developer’s son, the bug-freak), we learn that Sam harbours a lot of resentment towards his father for dismissing Sam’s disinterest in hunting (he’d rather play soccer than go bow-hunting). By extension, we also catch a glimpse of Sam’s jealousy of his brother for being, as he perceives, “perfect” in their father’s eyes.

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In a touching moment, Sam confesses he believes his father is disappointed in him for wanting a “normal life.” Dean tells Sam their father does care about him and that John, unbeknownst to Sam, checked in on him multiple times while he was at Stanford. Sam is touched by this and asks Dean, “Why didn’t you tell me?” “It’s a two-way street,” Dean says. “You could have picked up the phone.”

This conversation helps Sam come to terms with his feelings towards his father because, at the episode’s end, he gets choked up and decides, “I want to find Dad. I want to apologize for all the things I said.” But not only does this revelation help Sam, it also helps Dean communicate his own pain about being abandoned by his brother during the Stanford era. This establishes an often frustrating theme we will see play out over the course of twelve seasons: Dean has difficulty communicating with his brother.

Two Parts of the Whole
Another underlying theme in “Bugs” comes from the scenes which reveal the yin-yang dynamic of Sam and Dean’s relationship. In the diner scene with Joe White Tree, Dean gets immediately chastised for trying to lie about their interest in the Indian Burial Ground. (Dean claims they are keen students from the university.) Not to be dissuaded, however, Dean tries to tell another lie and gets shut down again by White Tree: “You know who starts sentences with ‘truth is…’? Liars.” Sam, on the other hand, takes a different approach. He gets straight to the truth, which elicits cooperation and mutual respect from White Tree.

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Later in the episode, Dean tries to lie to Larry Pike, the land developer, about why he and his family need to leave the bug-infested house. (He says there’s a gas leak and gets hung up on.) Sam grabs the phone and dials the son, Matt Pike, and tells him the truth — that a butt-load of cursed insects are about to descend upon them. Success! To Dean’s chagrin, nobility and good intentions rule.

Except, not so much. Because Sam takes his honesty a step too far: he tells Matt to be truthful about the curse to his father. This is where Dean (the yin to Sammy’s yang) draws the line and grabs the phone: “Tell him you have stomach pain and have them take you to the hospital.” Here, Dean’s penchant for lying would have actually come in handy because, as it happens, Matt takes Sam’s bad advice, making him seem like a crazy person and causing his family to remain in the cursed house.

It’s a small couple of moments, but these emotional scenes really do highlight how much the Winchester brothers really complement and depend on each other to bring different philosophies, ethics, and skill-sets to their hunting jobs.

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Samandriel?
There are a few instances of repeat casting during Supernatural‘s twelve season run, but this might be the most obvious one. “Bugs” introduces us to actor Tyler Johnston, who returns later in the series for a major role as angel Samandriel.


Lighter Fare:

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The “Gay Moments”
“Bugs” has one of the first (and funniest) examples of the recurring “queer misunderstanding” moments that will pepper future seasons. When Sam and Dean show up at the Oasis Plains open house, Larry Pike immediately mistakes them as a couple. (Dean: “We’re brothers.“) The gag continues in the next scene when the real estate agent repeats Larry’s mistake, assuming the boys are “together.” The cherry on top? We get butchy Dean playing along, muttering a cheeky “Right honey?” and slapping his brother on the ass. It’s a great preview of what’s to come in future seasons: the comedy stylings of Jensen Ackles.

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Pouty Lip Shots
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention there are tons of pouty lip close-up shots of Jensen Ackles and Jared Padelecki in this episode. (Seriously. This may have pushed “Bugs” into the upper echelon of season one episodes for me. Half-kidding. Sort of. COME AT ME.)

Classic Rock Soundtrack
Classic rock is a staple of Supernatural, but this episode has some kick-ass cues: Def Leppard’s “Rock of Ages,” Bernie Marsden’s bluesy “Poke in the Butt,” The Scorpions’ “No One Like You,” and rockin’ tunes by Sonny Ellis and Bob Reynolds.

The Bee Story
Going meta for a moment, “Bugs” resulted in Jensen Ackles’ infamous (and oft-told) “Bee Story” (starts at 3:40 above). After being intentionally pricked with a “three-quarter sting” to test if he would go into anaphylactic shock, Jensen describes being trapped in a “closet” with 60,000 bees and a blowtorch. In solidarity with the actors, director Kim Manners refused to wear a beekeeper suit for the scene, unlike the rest of the crew. Unfortunately, as Jensen laments after being stung on the ass, the bees didn’t “read” on film, so they had to reshoot the entire thing using CGI.

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So, here comes my confession: I actually really like “Bugs.” Everybody complains about it, but, by all accounts, it’s at least a good episode of Supernatural in terms of cinematography, suspense, character development, and comedy. The problem with “Bugs” is that its bad reputation precedes it, creating an unfair, fandom-wide bias towards an otherwise decent “monster of the week” episode. In other words, of all the season one stories, it’s all-too-easy to single out the one with creepy-crawly critters. There are a lot of forgettable and inconsequential episodes of Supernatural, but “Bugs” isn’t one of them.

Next up in Hate-Watch: Route 666 (1.13)

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About Malory Beazley (36 Articles)
Malory has taken her interest in fandom to the academy, penning a Master's thesis entitled "Out of the Cupboards and Into the Streets!: Harry Potter Genderfuck Fan Fiction and Fan Activism." You can find her in Nova Scotia, sipping coffee, writing fiction, and reading slash.

2 Comments on In Defence of Supernatural’s “Bugs”

  1. I feel like you did a good job of defending this episode. I don’t remember disliking “Bugs” when I watched it, so it can’t have been as bad as people seem to think.

    I loved your points about the creeping nature of horror being worth quite a bit compared to jump-scares, as well as the observation that the episode highlights important parts of United States history that goes largely untalked about in most history classes. Based on these two observations, this episode seems like it had a lot of potential. The fact that many fans, and the writers themselves hate it makes me think that there is bad writing, but the concepts themselves were not bad and could have made something great under different circumstances.

    • I completely agree. I think “Bugs” has become so notorious as a “bad episode” because it stands out. Like they reference in the meta episode, it’s “the one with the bugs.” It’s the most memorable of season one because of the “gross-out” factor, which I think clouds peoples’ judgement who haven’t seen it in awhile.

      Thank you for reading and for your lovely comment! 🙂

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