While you weren't watching, Supernatural became the best speculative show on television. Season 5 premieres tonight, and the demon-busting Winchester brothers are facing the ultimate big bad: Lucifer himself. Jump into the action with our handy catch-up guide. Spoilers!
With its finely-drawn characters, snappy dialogue, and smart-but-not-boring moral dilemmas, Supernatural is quite simply one of the best shows on TV. And it's only gotten better over the years, so now is as good a time as any to jump into the story of two brothers on a quest to stop the Apocalypse - and kick the asses of some dickish angels who started the whole thing.
So what do you need to know before watching tonight's episode? Let's start with the relevant characters we've met on the road so far . . .
One of the two "hunter" brothers whose life calling is rooting out supernatural evil before it can destroy human life. (Or at least destroy more human life than it already has.) Of the two Winchester brothers, he's the goofier, tougher, ladies' man type. He drives a black Chevy Impala, loves classic metal, and spent a pretty long time in Hell before getting busted out by some angels. He and his brother Sam were born in Kansas, and spend a lot of time hunting in the midwest, where their hunter father taught them to kill demons before they could drive.
Before joining Dean as a hunter, Sam was trying to lead a normal life as a law student at Stanford. But when his girlfriend was murdered by the same demon who killed the boys' mother, he left all that behind for the hunter life he once scorned. He's the more thoughtful, educated, emo brother. He's also got demon blood running in his veins, which gives him some psychic powers but also means he takes a lot of walks on the dark side.
Sam and Dean's hunter father John taught the boys everything they know about destroying evil, but also forced them to spend their childhoods on the run, always moving from town to town. His life as a hunter began when a yellow-eyed demon called Azazel killed his wife Mary (the boys' mother) when Sam was a baby. Azazel also fed Sam some of his blood, unbeknownst to John. Hunting didn't come to John out of nowhere: Mary and her father were hunters too, but she had tried to leave the life behind. When Dean's life hung in the balance at the beginning of season 2, John made a deal with Azazel - his soul for Dean's. For a while, John burned in hell and Dean felt really guilty about it. Then he manages to break out when the brothers break open the gates to Hell briefly - and John vanishes in a puff of smoke. Did he go to Heaven? Someplace better? We don't know.
After Dean is pulled out of Hell at the beginning of season 4, he meets the trenchcoat-wearing angel Castiel, who is to be his guardian on a "mission" whose true purpose is revealed little by little as the season goes on. Nicknamed Cas, the angel is stoic at first but slowly comes to sympathize with Dean and Sam as he realizes that there may be a conspiracy in Heaven to destroy Earth and all of humanity. At the end of season 4, Cas has openly begun to doubt the goodness of the archangels whom he's supposed to obey unquestioningly.
A father figure to Sam and Dean, Bobby is a resourceful hunter who has helped the boys on many of their missions. He was a friend of John's. Bobby looks like a stereotypical hillbilly in his baseball cap and flannels, but is actually a wily brainiac who has an amazing collection of occult books and weapons at his disposal in his backwoods cabin.
An archangel who admits to Dean that the angels wanted to bring on Armageddon as a "planetary enema" to get rid of all the pesky, annoying humans on Earth. He also says "God has left the building," which makes it seem as if Zachariah is part of an angelic coup in Heaven.
An angel from Castiel's garrison who rebelled against Zachariah and his co-conspirators, Anna hides on Earth and occasionally offers advice to Castiel when he's in doubt. She urges him to question heavenly authority. There are also hints that she and Castiel have some kind of history together, but we never know what it is.
A demon who pretended to be on Sam and Dean's side last season when they were hunting for the demon Lilith. She fed Sam her blood to enhance his psychic powers, and the two of them had a very gothy, weird sexual relationship for most of the season. Needless to say, Dean did not approve. And he was right: It turned out that Ruby was working for Lucifer all along, and wanted to get Sam strong enough to defeat Lilith. Only by killing Lilith would Sam break the 66 seal and free Lucifer from Hell. After Sam and Dean realized what she'd done at the end of season 4, Dean killed her with his special demon-eliminating knife.
A demon adversary of the brothers throughout the show, Meg has killed a number of hunters and their allies. The brothers send her to Hell at one point, which focuses all her wrath on them. At one point she possessed Sam and tried to turn the brothers against each other, but Bobby managed to help them exorcise her. She's still really pissed at the boys, and is going to show up as one of their tormentors in season 5. It's not clear whether she has any connection to the Lilith/Ruby/Lucifer conspiracy. She has occupied several bodies, and will occupy the one you see here in season 5.
The yellow-eyed demon who killed the boys' mother and Sam's girlfriend was sent on a mission from Lucifer to select special children (including Sam) who could help in the coming Apocalypse. He calls Lucifer his "father," but that may just be an honorific and not an actual family relationship. Sam is one of several kids that Azazel gifts with special powers, and at the end of season 2 the demon forces all the children to face off in a battle royale to figure out which one is the strongest. Sam is one of the only survivors. The boys finally kill Azazel after the battle royale, but his influence lives on in Sam's blood - and in the success of Lilith and Ruby's plan to release Lucifer with the help of "gifted child" Sam.
Chuck is a prophet whose cheesy graphic novels about the Winchester Brothers will - according to Zachariah - eventually become scripture. For now, however, Chuck is a neurotic, drunk shut-in who basically writes fanfic about Sam and Dean. His visions of the future, which he writes down in his novels, play a role in some of the decisions that Sam and Dean make in season 4.
Ellen and Jo Harvelle
A mother-daughter hunter team, Ellen and Jo run a bar frequented by hunters and also fight demons once in a while. Ellen and her late husband were friends of John's. Ellen has tried to keep daughter Jo out of the hunter life, but Jo has a natural aptitude for it - which she demonstrates in an episode where she helps Dean fight a monster. She and Dean also have romantic feelings for each other, which Dean refuses to act on. Ellen's bar is burned down when the demons start striking out at hunters in season 2, but Ellen and Jo remain at large and will return in season 5.
The Supernatural Style
Supernatural has developed a stylized way of depicting demons, angels, and hunters. Here are a few things to watch out for.
1. When you're exorcising a demon, the possessed person vomits up the demon in the form of black smoke.
2. You always know a demon because its eyes turn completely black. Very powerful demons have alternate colors: Azazel had swirling yellow eyes, and Lilith's eyes turned completely white.
3. Angels all seem to wear skinny black ties, white shirts, and khaki trenchcoats. When they die, you see their huge wings like giant stencils on the ground around their bodies.
4. Angels take possession of human bodies just like demons do. When you exorcise an angel, light bursts out of the possessed person's face.
5. Demons can be "trapped" by weird symbols drawn on the floor or ceiling. Angels can be banished if you draw a symbol in blood and then slap the symbol with your bloodied hand.
6. You can't kill demons by conventional means, but a few weapons can: An enchanted knife that Dean has, and an enchanted Colt gun which has been lost. We still don't know how to kill angels, but I'm sure we'll find out during this season.
7. Hunters like Sam, Dean and Bobby are not part of some official "x-files" unit. They are renegades and have to fake their identities to do investigations. Sam and Dean live on stolen credit cards.
The Major Plot Arcs
Here I'll just focus on the plot arcs you need to know to get into season 5.
The Yellow-Eyed Demon
Everything starts here, really. The Yellow-Eyed Demon, whose real name is Azazel, has been trying to raise Lucifer for a while - at least since the 1970s, when he entered the body of a priest and slaughtered a roomful of nuns in order to set up a telephone connection to Hell. At that time, Lucifer told Azazel to create a bunch of special children, one of whom could help set him free. Azazel fed each of these children some of his blood, giving them superpowers of various kinds - Sam got a kind of premonition, as well as some telekinetic abilities and (when he drinks more demon blood), he can cast demons out using the shaky pointing hand technique.
Seems as if these special kids were going to be some kind of Satanic army, but Sam's special destiny was to break the 66th seal on Hell by killing Lucifer's daugther (and the first demon) Lilith. This eventually comes to pass at the end of season 4, and will provide the main arc for season 5.
Sam and Dean stalked Azazel throughout season 1 and 2, to get revenge for their mother's death, Sam's girlfriend's death, and later their father John's death too. (John gave Azazel his soul so that Dean could live.) The brothers eventually kill Azazel with a magical Colt gun that can destroy demons. Unfortunately, during the scuffle that kills Azazel, they also manage to open the gates to Hell for a short time, releasing hundreds of demons. Among these demons are the 7 deadly sins, who will play a big role in season 5.
Highway to Hell
It turns out Sam is mortally wounded in the scuffle with Azazel and his army of special children, so at the beginning of season 3, Dean makes a deal with a crossroads demon. If the demon will bring Sam back to life, Dean will give the demon his soul in one year. The deal goes smoothly, and the rest of season 3 is a countdown to Dean's death. The two brothers have to stop the demons they've released through the Devil's Gate while also looking for a loophole in the deal Dean made with the crossroads demon.
The brothers discover that Lilith holds Dean's contract, and in addition that Lilith walks the Earth after escaping Hell through the Devil's Gate. To fight Lilith, Sam enlists the help of the demon Ruby, who claims that she's on the boys' side. But even with her guidance, there is no way they can defeat Lilith. At the end of season 3, Dean is dragged to Hell, where he experiences decades of torture before finally breaking. To avoid more torment, he becomes a torturer himself. Before he can go completely demonic, however, Dean is rescued by the angel Castiel and pals. Season 4 begins with Dean finding himself alive on Earth again, completely confused, with a vague mission from the angels to save the world - or possibly to end it.
While Dean was in Hell, Sam cozied up with demon Ruby. She's told him that the only way to stop Armageddon is to kill Lilith, and she's feeding him her blood and training him in anti-demon ninja skills so he'll be ready to face Lilith. Things get really complicated when Dean returns from Hell: Dean is being given mixed messages by his angel companion, and he's suspicious that Sam has gone darkside. At one point, Dean and hunter/father-figure Bobby lock Sam in the basement of Bobby's house and try to get him to "detox" from the demon blood he's drunk. That goes fairly badly, and ends with Sam and Dean fighting so much that they go their separate ways.
Dean has a falling out with Castiel too. The angel refuses to tell Dean what the angels have in store for him because he wants to be a good, obedient angel. He seems about to tell Dean what's really going on when he's captured by other angels and sent to a reeducation camp in Heaven. Now Dean doesn't trust his angel, and doesn't trust his brother either.
As the brothers close in on Lilith - separately and sometimes together - it's clear that the fate of Earth hinges on whether they can heal the rift that's growing between them. Unfortunately they aren't able to heal the rift soon enough. Sam heads to a final confrontation with Lilith, not realizing demon pal Ruby is actually leading him astray. She's been working for Lucifer all along, and wants Sam to kill Lilith to open the 66th seal.
As this is happening, Dean is swept into a "green room" by Castiel and archangel Zachariah (pictured), who finally spills it about the Apocalypse. Turns out "God has left the building" and the angels wanted Sam to kill Lilith to start the Apocalypse so they can purge the Earth. There was never any plan to stop the Apocalypse after all, we still don't know exactly why the angels rescued Dean from Hell to serve with them. Still, Zachariah says, Dean has a special purpose. It just doesn't involve saving the human race, most of whom will be destroyed in the fight between demons and angels.
Castiel helps Dean escape the "green room" eventually, rebelling against Zachariah in the process. But they're too late. Sam has killed Lilith, and her blood is seeping into the floor, opening a burning gate to Hell. Dean kills the perfidious Ruby with a demon-vanquishing knife, and the two brothers flee before Lucifer arrives. And that, my friends, was the cliffhanger we were left with as season 4 ended. Tonight, we'll see what comes next.