Phantom Traveler was a more important episode than any of us realized when it first aired. Beyond just revealing Dean’s hidden fears and Sam’s strength of leadership, it provided our very first introduction to demons. After viewing it again in the light of all subsequent episodes, I would submit it also served as the Winchester brothers’ practical introduction to demons. Given the revelation that demons have been behind all of the Winchesters’ travails, Phantom Traveler bears another look.
I said that I believed that their encounter in this episode was Sam and Dean’s first real experience with demons. I’ve based that on small clues scattered across the episode – clues that also indicated that John had much more familiarity with demons than his sons did.
The boys clearly knew the basics. They were at a loss to figure out what they were up against until after they investigated the remains of the crashed plane and discovered the residue left behind on the handle of the emergency door, but the lore behind that was very clear.
Dean: Well, you know, there’s not too many things that leave behind a sulfuric residue.
Sam: Demonic possession?
Dean: That would explain how a mortal man would have the strength to open up an emergency hatch.
Sam: If the guy was possessed, it’s possible.
Dean: Yeah, but this goes way beyond floating over a bed or barfing pea soup. I mean, it’s one thing to possess a person, but to use him to take down an entire airplane?
Sam: You ever heard of something like this before?
But although they recognized sulfur as a sign of possible demonic involvement, their inexperience with demons themselves quickly became apparent as they tried to work through to an understanding of what was going on and how to deal with it.
Sam: So, every religion and every world culture has the concept of demons and demonic possession, right? I mean, Christian, Native American, Hindu, you name it.
Dean: Yeah, but none of them describe anything like this.
Sam: Well, that’s not exactly true. You see, according to Japanese belief, certain demons are behind certain disasters, both natural and man-made. One causes earthquakes, another causes disease.
Dean: And this one causes plane crashes? All right, so, what, we’ve got a demon that’s evolved with the times and found a way to ratchet up the body count?
Sam: Yeah. And you know, who knows how many planes it’s brought down before this one?
Dean: I don’t know, man. This isn’t our normal gig. I mean, demons – they don’t want anything, just death and destruction for its own sake. This is big. And I wish Dad was here.
Sam: Yeah. Me too.
There’s a profound irony in those lines that was totally lost on me the first time around. They don’t want anything, just death and destruction for its own sake. This is big. And I wish Dad was here. That speech alone encompassed all that the brothers understood about demons at the time. By the end of the first season, we learned exactly how mistaken that notion was; we learned that some very powerful demons did indeed want something, and that Sam himself was part of what they wanted – part of a bigger plan that involved plenty of death and destruction, but not just for its own sake.
It took seven more episodes – right up to the phone call from John, the brothers’ opening scene in Scarecrow, episode eleven – before we began to understand the key missing pieces of the puzzle.
Sam: You’re after it, aren’t you? The thing that killed Mom?
John: Yeah. It’s a demon, Sam.
Sam: A demon? You know for sure?
John: I do.
That was the very first time the brothers had ever heard of a demon being connected to them. We had learned emphatically in Home, episode nine, that they’d never known what it was that had killed their mother and set their father on the hunting road.
Dean: And, uh, you know Dad’s story as well as I do. Mom was … was on the ceiling. And whatever put her there was long gone by the time Dad found her.
Sam: And he never had a theory about what did it?
Dean: If he did, he kept it to himself. God knows we asked him enough times.
We may never know exactly when John figured out the truth about what had killed Mary, or why. We learned from his opening speech in Salvation that he’d left Dean and gone on his solo hunt when the same omens he’d learned to recognize from his investigation into the time Mary died – the lightning storms, cattle deaths, house fires, and the like – began to appear again. That he already knew before they began to reappear that those omens were demonic signs strongly suggests that he’d known for a long time that a demon was responsible. He told Missouri in Home that he couldn’t talk to or see his boys – not until he knew the truth. But the truth about what? Not just that a demon was involved; he must have known that already. Not just that it was no accident that Sam’s nursery was the locus; even if you don’t accept the comic books as canon, he’d obviously spotted early on the connection between the house fires and the six-month-old infants and understood that something about Sam was a key. My guess is that the truth he was still trying to ascertain was the truth about the larger plan, the motive behind the demon’s actions – the motive we didn’t learn until All Hell Breaks Loose, Part 2, with the opening of the devil’s gate, and Sin City, with the revelations about the invasion of the demon army.
But he plainly knew that by the time Scarecrow rolled around.
Sam: You know where it is?
John: Yeah. I think I’m finally closing in on it.
Sam: Let us help.
John: You can’t. You can’t be any part of it.
Sam: Why not?
John: Listen, Sammy, that’s why I’m calling. You and your brother, you gotta stop looking for me. … Look, we don’t have time for this. This is bigger than you think. They’re everywhere. Even us talking right now – it’s not safe.
When he made his deal for Dean’s life during In My Time of Dying, John told the Yellow-Eyed Demon that he’d known the truth about Sam for a while. We still don’t know exactly how much he knew, but he’d obviously wanted to protect his sons from the knowledge and keep them remote from the ultimate fight, and had hidden much from them in the process. He still didn’t share all of what he knew when he laid on Dean the burden of saving his brother, or killing him.
But none of that was apparent yet in Phantom Traveler. Instead, we learned all that the brothers knew about demons at that early date, revealed in snippets of conversation scattered throughout the episode as they tried to locate the demon and figure out how to deal with it. Locating it was the first challenge, and we learned the limits of the brothers’ ability to recognize possession.
Sam: Now, who is it possessing?
Dean: Well, it’s usually going to be somebody with some sort of weakness, you know, a chink in the armor that the demon can worm through. Someone with an addiction, or some sort of emotional distress.
Sam: What if she’s already possessed?
Dean: There’s ways to test that. I brought holy water.
Sam: No. I think we can go more subtle. If she’s possessed, she’ll flinch at the name of God.
Dean. Ah. Nice.
In the end, Dean combined his EMF meter with the name of God routine, and pegged the co-pilot as possessed, getting the flash of black demon eyes. Sam, meanwhile, had combed John’s journal for more clues, and we got our single most definite indication that John was much more familiar with demons than his sons were: John’s journal came complete with detailed exorcism rituals. The boys’ very evident unfamiliarity with them came across loud and clear as Sam explained how the ritual would work.
Sam: Now, I found an exorcism in here that I think is gonna work: the Rituale Romanum.
Dean: What do we have to do?
Sam: It’s two parts. The first part expels the demon from the victim’s body. It makes it manifest, which actually makes it more powerful.
Dean: More powerful?
Sam: Well, it doesn’t need to possess anyone anymore; it can just wreak havoc on its own.
Dean: Oh. And why is that a good thing?
Sam: Well, because the second part sends the bastard back to Hell. Once and for all.
The boys plainly hadn’t done an exorcism before. They hadn’t known what to expect, beyond violence and danger. All of Dean’s references to possession and exorcism throughout the episode were recognizably film ones, not direct memories of his own. The reality of the experience tested them to their limits, and included one more critical, nearly paralyzing element.
Sam: Dean. It – it knew. About Jessica.
Dean: Sam, these things – they read minds. They lie. All right? That’s all it was.
Phantom Traveler set the stage for all the demon episodes that followed, having established what the brothers – and we – understood about demons. I would submit that it also established that John had known much more than he had shared with his boys, and suggested that John had deliberately kept his sons away from demons even as he himself sought them out. Dean said it, flat-out: This isn’t our normal gig. It became their normal gig as time went on, but here in just the fourth episode of the series, it was obviously brand-new to them.
It was just as plainly not new to others. In Devil’s Trap, Bobby quickly recognized Meg as a human possessed by a demon, and expressed surprise that Sam and Dean hadn’t realized from their previous encounters in Scarecrow and Shadow that she was a possessed human, not an otherwise incarnate demon. Similarly, when Sam arrived possessed on Bobby’s doorstep in Born Under a Bad Sign, Bobby recognized enough not just to set a test, but to be singularly unsurprised when the demon inside Sam’s body failed it. On the flip side, he just as plainly didn’t expect Ellen to have any problem passing the identical test in All Hell Breaks Loose, Part 2, but seemed to present the test simply as an expected matter of course, the necessary precaution of hunters on the edge. Whether it’s just experience, hunting sense, or something else, Bobby seems to have an uncanny ability to recognize demons – something not routine to hunters, judging from Isaac and Tamara’s inability to spot the other demons in the bar in The Magnificent Seven until they openly revealed themselves.
John displayed considerable knowledge he had obviously never shared with his sons when he decided to summon the demon to bargain for Dean’s life. He knew the supplies he would need and the specific sigil of the demon’s name – things that plainly hadn’t been left in his journal for his sons to find, since Sam didn’t realize what he was up to until Bobby let slip that those supplies were used in summoning a demon, not protecting against one.
Given how little they knew of demons during Phantom Traveler in contrast with how much has been revealed since, I would hypothesize that John, having deciphered the demonic nature of what had happened to Mary, had tried to keep Sam and Dean safe by keeping them largely remote not just from demons, but even from lore about them that might have drawn them into demon hunts. The boys knew the basics of how to guard against demons, but little else. Bobby and Pastor Jim obviously could both have filled in a lot of holes; that the boys didn’t already know more would seem to hint that their lack of knowledge was deliberate. One might argue that keeping them relatively ignorant was a dangerous thing that John wouldn’t have done, but since, according to Bobby in Devil’s Trap, there were only three or four demonic possessions in any given year – up until the year we joined the series and all Hell first began to break loose – the risk may not have seemed that great, especially weighed against the fear that Sam in particular might have blamed and feared himself … as he indeed began to do, when first he started to learn the truth.
We learned in Everybody Loves a Clown and Bloodlust that John had deliberately kept his sons away from and ignorant of most other hunters, evidently trying to keep them – particularly Sam – safe from dangerous curiosity and didactic hunter thinking. It seems likely to me that he may have tried to do the same thing with regard to demons, keeping his sons a safe distance away until either he could resolve the problem, or it became inescapable.
Whether my guesses are right or not, the simple truth is that Phantom Traveler became a whole new experience for me when viewed through eyes that have seen all three of the seasons completed thus far. Watch it again with your own experienced eyes, and tell me what you see.