I always intended to edit it down, and update it before posting (it covers Seasons 1-3) but, well, I never got around to it. And then Swan Song came along, and eloquently summed up everything I could possibly want to say about the Impala and more. Given that I had written 4,000 words about her importance, also probably explains why that episode is so special to me.
BACK IN BLACK
The Batmobile, the General Lee, Starsky and Hutch’s Torino, Magnum’s Ferrari, Knight Rider’s KITT--cars have become icons in many TV shows. Mean, sleek, macho machines with an ability to burn rubber in the cause of a hot pursuit or getaway. Auto-erotic fixations for the heroes, valued for their grunt and stunts. However, one car is has gone full throttle beyond these conventions. In her break-out role on Supernatural, a ’67 Impala Chevy is showing that a car can be more than just a bitchin’ ride.
At first glance, the Impala appears to fulfil the usual TV-car stereotype. She fits the bill in the looks department: a classic, sexy and shiny, with a trunk full of weapons. Like all TV cars she never breaks down or gets covered in bird poop, and she always finds a place to park. Sure, the Impala might get dirty occasionally, but in the next episode she’s certain to be gleaming again. (Unfortunately we have never seen Dean in a pair of cut-offs, sudsing her up. Of course, Dean “doesn’t do shorts” [“Wendigo,” 1-2], but viewers live in hope.)
Like her well-known brethren, the Impala, for all her distinctive looks, flies under the radar. Despite their eye-catching appearance, it’s as if TV cars can cast a glamour over themselves to remain inconspicuous. The super villains of Gotham City never noticed the Batmobile parked on the corner and criminals never wised up to the fact that the arrival of a loud, red Torino meant Starsky and Hutch were on their tail. Similarly, on Supernatural, when the FBI takes an active interest in the Winchesters, the only disguise the Impala needs is a switch of her license plates: Kansas plates KAZ 2Y5 to CNK 80Q3 from Ohio. It’s a bit like a fugitive from America’s Most Wanted sticking on a fake mustache.
Along with their owners, who are usually breaking all the rules in their fight for justice, TV cars are mavericks. Like the Winchesters, the Impala is an outsider, marginalized from mainstream society. In today’s world, she’s transgressive-a gas-guzzler harking back to the days when gas was thirty-three cents a gallon and heavy with lead. The ’67 Impala was built for cruising down the highway, not for zipping down to the mall. No airbags here, just a solid chassis of Detroit steel. This is no iMpala; she has a cassette deck that only plays mullet rock-no indie pop mp3 nonsense for her.
TV cars are known for their guts and their willingness to throw their metal bodies into danger without hesitation and the Impala is no exception. She’s courageous, a hunter chasing down ghosts, demons, and vampires, along with the Winchesters for all the thrills and spills. The junk in her trunk is all high caliber and razor sharp steel. She gets beat up, once smashed almost beyond repair, but like the rest of the Winchesters, death proves an impermanent condition. When Dean restores her after her late season one encounter with a demon-driven Mack truck, she makes her return to the screen in a long, sensuous scene, gleaming in the sun as she tears along the highway to AC/DC’s “Back in Black.”
But Supernatural is not just a show about battling evil; it’s a show about family. The Impala is a character with as much depth and emotional resonance as Sam or Dean. She is the link to their past, to what they are fighting for, and present at all the significant moments in their life to lend support and comfort. She takes them on their journey and provides the only home they know. The Impala is not just a hot ride; she is a Winchester.
The Impala is established as an integral part of the family in the opening scenes of the pilot episode. When Mary Winchester dies on the ceiling of the nursery and their house goes up in flames, John Winchester, young Dean, and baby Sam are seen huddling on the hood of the Impala, supported by her, as life as they know it ends.
With the loss of mother and home, it is the Impala that takes on the role of nurturer and sanctuary, becomes the metaphoric womb for the Winchesters. This is the heart of her character.
The Impala carries with her the family history. She takes the Winchesters from suburban idyll to a nomadic life hunting the supernatural. When Peter Johnson, writer of the tie-in Origins comics, made the Impala a car that John acquired as part of becoming a hunter, fans were outraged. Johnson listened, and later altered this in the trade paperback edition, saying he now recognized what the car represented thematically “in the continuity of the family-before and after Mary’s death.” source
We know little of what happened to her during the intervening years, but twenty-two years after Mary’s death it is the Impala that brings Dean to Stanford, to reunite him with Sam. (I’m pretty sure she had some work done in those intervening years because she looks pretty amazing for a girl approaching forty.)
The relationships in the Winchester family are intense. For twenty years, as they chased the creatures of myth and urban legend, cut off from normal society, this family had only each other: John, Dean, Sam- and the Impala, too, because as Bobby later reminds Dean, “Family don’t end with blood” (“No Rest for the Wicked,” 3-16).
The Impala signifies for both Sam and Dean the home they never had. In contrast to the never-ending series of quirkily decorated motel rooms, the odd house-preferably with a steam shower-to squat in, and the occasional weekend at Bobby’s, the Impala is the only space that is truly theirs.
As a car, though, she can only provide so much in the way of a home. While the Winchesters travel in her, sleep in her, and eat in her, the Impala really offers only the illusion of a private space. As anyone who has been caught singing out loud or picking their nose while in the car knows, the car is a private space open to the public sphere. Put simply- it has windows!
Having a car as the only recurring space on the show emphasizes the boys’ isolation from normal social interactions. Most TV shows have three types of spaces: private space, such as a bedroom (or prison cell); a semi-public space, such as a living room in a sitcom or a workplace (think squad room or hospital doctors’ lounge); and a contained public space, like the Bronze (Buffy), Central Perk (Friends), and those bars or dining areas that exist on every spaceship from Enterprise to Galactica.
The purpose of the recurring semi-public spaces is to allow social relationships to develop. It is where relationships may transition from friendship to romance. They are often an alternative space to both the private space of a home and the open public space of a crime scene or workplace, a place where characters of different status at work can inter- act more equally. They are a more public space than a home and allow antagonistic characters to interact with each other-think (early) Spike and Buffy.
The Winchesters have access to none of these. They did visit Harvelle’s Roadhouse for a brief period before demons destroyed it, but they rarely interacted with any of the perpetually gun-cleaning hunters who frequented it. All Sam and Dean have is the Impala, primarily a private space, and rarely are other people allowed in. They do not have access to spaces in which to develop relationships with other people. That kind of interaction is limited because this show is all about Dean, Sam-and the Impala.
It is within the fragile private space of the Impala that the brothers have many intimate and often difficult conversations- the sort of exchanges either brother would prefer to walk away from, but which are inescapable when the Impala is powering along at 100 miles an hour. Whether it’s Sam challenging Dean about his obedience to John or trying to tell him how much he means to him, or Dean insisting to Sam that he’ll save him or later that he doesn’t want to go to hell, the Impala is the space that contains and holds them.
Many other significant events occur with the Impala present. At the end of the pilot episode, the brothers stand over the trunk of the Impala, guns in hand, side by side. Sam, having just lost the woman he loved to another incendiary ceiling, has to choose whether to leave his “normal” life and return to hunting and his family. The camera shows us the brothers from the Impala’s point of view, waiting to support whatever decision is made. “We’ve got work to do,” Sam says as he throws his weapon in, and the episode ends as he closes the trunk.
This scene is recreated forty-four episodes later, in “All Hell Breaks Loose (Part Two)” (2-22). Supernatural stands out in its use of a visual language more sophisticated than is usually found on TV. In particular, it uses the mirroring of scenes from previous episodes to provide a link to past events, and to indicate how characters have evolved since that earlier point, adding emotional resonance to the character arcs.
At the end of the season two finale, the Winchesters’ mission is ostensibly complete-they have defeated the demon that killed their mom- and there is another pivotal choice to be made. As the brothers decide to carry on fighting the demons that have escaped from Hell, the scene from the first episode is replayed, again from the Impala’s point of view. This time the brothers’ positions are reversed, for in the second season it has been Dean who has repeatedly suggested that they leave hunting and so now it is Dean who tosses the Colt into the trunk, saying, “We’ve got work to do.” There is no doubt of course, that the Impala is along for the ride.
The Impala is also there when Sam and Dean first find out their father is alive, as they sit on her hood and listen to a voicemail message in “Phantom Traveler” (1-4). The Impala supports them as Dean shares his grief with Sam in “Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things” (2-4), and as he collapses with the vision he receives from Andy in “All Hell Breaks Loose (Part One)” (2-21). She looks on as Dean finally shares John’s secret with Sam and later when he sells his soul to the Crossroads Demon, and again when Sam kills the Crossroads Demon. The Impala helps Dean carry Sam from Cold Oak after he is killed by Jake, and watches helplessly as Dean dies in “Mystery Spot” (3-11). She shares too in the most bittersweet moment of the season three finale, when the boys recapture for a moment the memory of happier times as they sing along to Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive.” In each instance, the Impala shares in the brothers’ trials and their grief, and on rare occasions their hope.
Yet while the members of the Winchester family are more enmeshed with each other than most, the Impala undoubtedly has the closest relationship with Dean, and his affection for her is unabashed, as this exchange from “Bloodlust” (2-3) illustrates:
DEAN: Woah!! Listen to her purr! Have you ever heard any- thing so sweet?
SAM: You know, if you two want to get a room, just let me know, Dean.
DEAN: Don’t listen to him, baby. He doesn’t understand us.
For all his teasing, Sam does understand; his Christmas presents to Dean in “A Very Supernatural Christmas” (3-8) are beef jerky and motor oil. As Dean says, “Fuel for me, and fuel for my baby.” The final shot of the Christmas episode pulls back to frame Sam, Dean, and the Impala in the same shot, to show her sharing in this bittersweet family occasion.
The Impala is Dean’s only constant, as those closest to him, in one way or another, leave him.
We see how strongly Dean is attached to the Impala by his reaction on the rare occasions when they are separated- and unlike Sam or John she never abandons Dean willingly. When the shapeshifter in “Skin” steals her, Dean complains, “The thought of him drivin’ my car. . . .
It’s killin’ me” (1-6). It takes Andy’s “Obi-Wan” mind powers to part Dean from her in “Simon Said,” (2-5), and in “Red Sky at Morning” (3-6), Dean has a full blown panic attack when Bela has the Impala towed, a stronger reaction than he had when she shot Sam! Life without her is unthinkable, and even in the alternate reality created by the djinn in “What Is and What Should Never Be” (2-20), the Impala is present, no longer a hunter but a civilian like Dean, with just a copy of Maxim and some burger wrappers in her trunk rather than her usual cache of guns, knives, and rock salt. There is no stronger indication of Dean’s love for the Impala than the fact that Dean’s last words to Sam in “No Rest for the Wicked,” as the clock strikes midnight and the hell- hound sniffs at Dean’s soul, are: “Keep on fighting, and take care of my wheels” (3-16).
For Dean, being behind the wheel means being a man in charge: “Driver picks the music, shotgun shuts his cakehole” (“Pilot”). But it’s not just about choosing the tunes. When everything is going to hell in a hand basket around him (and in the world of Supernatural, sometimes this is happening quite literally) and Dean is overwhelmed with emo tional turmoil, presenting Sam with the façade that he’s coping becomes paramount. Significantly, as Dean struggles to keep it together in season two, burdened with grief and guilt over John’s death and the fear of what Sam may become, Dean stays behind the wheel throughout and Sam is never seen driving the Impala.
Dean, he of the “no chick flick moments” mentality, often relies on the Impala to help him express what he can’t. In times of turmoil, Dean locks his emotions away more securely than the Impala’s trunk with a devil’s trap on it. When he is worried about how Sam is dealing with the trauma and grief of Jess’s death in “Wendigo,” he doesn’t hug him, or have a deep and meaningful conversation about life and loss-he asks Sam if he’d like to drive. A significant gesture from him, made clear by Sam’s response: “In your whole life you never once asked me that.”
Later, in the aftermath of John’s death, Dean can’t articulate his grief. Like the Impala, he is broken, and he starts what seems to be the insurmountable task of fixing things, fixing himself. “We’ve got nothing Sam. Nothing, okay? And the only thing I can do? Is I can work on the car” (“Everybody Loves a Clown,” 2-2).
In season three, as Dean grapples with having less than a year to live, Sam again challenges him about having shut himself off. He pleads with Dean to be his “big brother” again. Dean allows Sam back into his emo tional sphere by lifting the hood of the Impala to expose her broken inner workings, trusting that Sam can help fix things. There can be no clearer sign of unconditional trust and love from Dean than letting Sam near the Impala’s carburettor with a wrench.
The Impala also gives Sam a chance to express his feelings, particularly about Dean. In season one, Sam rediscovers his role in the family, renewing his relationship with both Dean and the Impala. Dean wants Sam to stay, and is happy to let him in the driver’s seat. In “Bugs” (1-8), Dean emerges from a seedy bar after a hard night of hustling pool to find all six-foot-four of Sam sprawled across the hood of the Impala. It’s a sign that Sam is comfortably back in the family unit-and also that he’s a typical bratty younger brother, subtly challenging Dean’s position of older-brother–in-charge. Of course, in latter seasons Sam wouldn’t lounge on the Impala. Not only has his relationship with Dean evolved, but he’s bulked up quite a bit and these days he would crush her like a tin can!
On a more sombre note, during “In My Time of Dying” (2-1), when Dean lies in a coma and the Impala lies smashed in a junk yard, Bobby suggests there is nothing of the car worth salvaging. Sam, however, counters, “Listen to me, Bobby. If there’s only one working part, that’s enough. We’re not just going to give up on . . .” Bobby, God bless the sensitive heart under that gruff, pig hat-wearing exterior, knows immediately that it is Dean about whom Sam is talking.
Just like Sam and Dean, the Impala has Daddy issues. The Impala was John’s car first; he was a mechanic, so we can assume he restored her. As his life changed, the Impala was the one reminder of the man he had been, before he became an obsessed demon hunter.
We know John gave Dean the Impala, and while we don’t know exactly when, it must’ve been a significant occasion-an anointing, if you will, of his oldest son. To Dean, the car represents John and his mission. In accepting it, Dean stepped into his role in the “family business” and acknowledged that he wanted to be just like his father. We know that deep in his subconscious, which we visit in “Dream a Little Dream of Me” (3-10), Dean continues to see the car as John’s and as a signifier of his father’s influence on him even after his death.
After he gives the Impala to Dean, John retains his role as patriarch by replacing the Impala with a monster truck-bigger in every way than the Impala, with much larger, not at all phallicly significant, weapons. The separation of John from the Impala is a sign of him disconnecting from his family, his heart, and without her he becomes a loner, focused solely on his vengeful quest.
When John reunites with his sons in “Dead Man’s Blood” (1-20), he makes a crack to Dean about the state of the car: “Dean, why don’t you touch up your car, before you get rust? I wouldn’t have given you the damn thing if I thought you were going to ruin it.” John is reasserting his paternal authority-reminding Dean where the car came from and who the car represents. In other words: respect the car, respect me.
After John’s death, with the Impala a wreck, Dean drives a loaner from Bobby in “Everybody Loves a Clown”: a family van with soft pop, rather than cock rock, playing on the radio. In Freudian terms, he experiences the loss of his father (the phallus-owner) as castration: “I feel like a freaking soccer mom.” Beyond the purely Oedipal, this can more broadly be seen as Dean having lost the power to act. He has no clear enemy to fight, and he has no idea what to do with the enigmatic warning John has left him about Sam.
One of the arguably most powerful moments in the show-and in Dean and the Impala’s relationship-comes when he turns against her at the end of this episode. Sam breaks down and reveals to Dean his deep grief over John’s death and his regret that he never got a chance to reconcile with him. As he leaves, Dean turns to the Impala, which he has been repairing, and in a heartbreaking scene, pounds into her with a tire iron. Over and over. Seventeen times, as grief smashes into him, he smashes into the Impala. Demolishing what he loves, what he has been trying to restore. Expressing his rage at his father, for causing Sam this grief, for abandoning Dean, for leaving him with the guilt of knowing John died for him, and for charging Dean with the unthinkable: the task of killing Sam.
This symbolic destruction of the father, of that which John used to appoint his son as his successor, also suggests that Dean is going to follow a different path than his father. In the next episode, “Bloodlust” (2- 3), the Impala is back on the road with Dean at the wheel. At first, it appears as if Dean is following full-bore down John Winchester’s road, as he takes on the hunt for vampires with a frightening intensity. However, by the end of the episode, Dean has started to question the values his father taught him-that everything supernatural is evil. This is developed throughout this season and the next, as Dean time and again tries to pull away from hunting, questioning the cost of what he and Sam do, and as he starts to see the world in more ethical shades of grey than John Winchester did.
To Sam too, the Impala represents his father and his mission. In “Scarecrow” (1-11), he is frustrated that John has made contact with them only to send them on another hunt while refusing Sam’s plea to let him join in the search for the demon that killed Jess and Mary. Sam storms out of and then walks away from the Impala-symbolically rejecting his father’s authority. Dean, however, accepts his father’s directions, and stays with the Impala and the hunt. Later in “Dead Man’s Blood,” it is when Sam is driving the Impala that he ceases to follow John’s directions, and uses it to stop John’s truck in its tracks and challenge his father’s authority.
Another example of how the Impala links Sam with John can be seen after Dean’s death on Wednesday in “Mystery Spot.” Sam transforms into a version of his father-fanatical and revenge-driven, although slightly neater. The Impala too changes back to John’s car-complete with anal- retentively organized weapons in a pop-out compartment in the trunk.
And let us not forget that the Impala is integral to the story as a car. Supernatural is a quest story of the sort that has been around since Odysseus was a boy. All heroes need transport, be it Jason’s Argo, Don Quixote’s Rocinante, or the choppers in Easy Rider. Sam and Dean follow their heroes’ path in a Chevy Impala. The physical journey is merely a reflection of the characters’ internal journey, their own search for meaning and purpose and truth.
The Impala’s meanderings back and forth across America with no clear destination or goal reflect the postmodern project of constructing self, where the old truths are broken down and nothing is assured. The boys are on the road to nowhere-and everywhere. The mission statement for the Winchesters-“saving people, hunting things”-is continually challenged and disrupted as the series progresses. Sometimes the people are evil, and the things need saving. Later it turns out the things (ghosts and demons) actually used to be people. Even saving each other is problematized for the brothers, when it turns out Sam might be the anti-Christ and saving Dean from his deal may mean losing a war against Hell. And in the Winchesters’ world, not even death-or at least staying dead-is certain.
The Impala fights alongside Dean and Sam, nurtures and supports them, and undoubtedly would charge into Hell to save them. Her role in Supernatural has gained her an enthusiastic following from fans, who have christened her “Metallicar” in reference to her favorite type of music, and her image can be found on merchandise from trading cards to collectible plates. The Impala isn’t just another TV muscle car; she embodies the heart and soul of this show.
The Impala is a Winchester.