I already posted my emotional non-spoilery reactions to the pilot episode of The Winchesters which aired at New York Comic Con, but I also wanted to do a rewatch and a deep dive into the events of the episode itself and the introduction of the younger version of John and Mary Winchester who we know from the original series, Supernatural. As a very very passionate Supernatural fan who watched that show for 15 seasons, I felt both anticipation and trepidation at a prequel kicking off – it was mostly due to the reassurance of people who knew the Supernatural world intimately that I went into watching ‘The Winchesters’ pilot hoping for the best. I was also anxious, though. I am very protective of “My Show” and always will be.
So it was with a lot of conflicting emotions that I watched the series premiere. Now that I’m home and have done a rewatch, here’s my deep dive into the events of the pilot and the characters, familiar and new, introduced in the episode.
It’s a suitably spooky beginning, a dark graveyard and an Indiana Jones-esque character entering a crypt by torch light to slice his palm and draw a blood sigil, opening a stone container to retrieve something – and then run like hell trying to escape from the monster that’s now after him! As Supernatural beginnings go, that’s pretty on point!
And then we’re greeted by a “Welcome To Lawrence” sign and an instrumental music background that’s also reminiscent of what Jensen Ackles likes to call “the mothership”, OG Supernatural. That show used lots of signage to mark the brothers’ travels, so this also feels familiar. Young John Winchester (Drake Rodger) is on a bus heading back to Lawrence, fresh from the war, still rattled by flashbacks thanks to the PTSD he’s brought back with him, and clutching a mysterious letter addressed to him.
Apparently the show had to fight hard for the extra budget to film John’s war scenes, but I think those instincts were good – we need to understand how much impact the violence John experienced had on him, and how much guilt he’s carrying around as a result of not being able to save his comrades. Those experiences are integral to his determination to head down the ‘saving people hunting things’ path, especially the guilt and the subsequent need to save everyone he can. Similar motivations will send his sons down the same path eventually, as we all know.
“March 23, 1972” a familiar voice narrates – it’s no surprise to anyone that it’s Jensen Ackles reprising his role of Dean Winchester. The narration is emotional for any Supernatural fan, but it’s also a bit confusing, because we don’t know who Dean is supposed to be talking to, and it actually sounds like he’s talking to us, the audience – and that he’s somehow savvy about the anxiety fans have had over whether this prequel will mess with established canon. “I know this story might sound familiar, but I’m gonna put the pieces together in a way that might surprise you” seems directed at us, the anxious viewers. Perhaps that’s only for this first bit of narration but it struck me as interesting. I guess we’ll see!
I’m not entirely convinced that we really needed Dean as the narrator, as much as I’ve missed having my favorite character in the history of the universe on my screen. I would kinda like to watch this story as its own thing, and am not sure I need the frame of Dean looking back. But hopefully they worked that into the ongoing story in an organic way that just hasn’t been revealed yet.
Anyway, John does indeed bump into Mary Campbell (Meg Donnelly) just like we’d heard in the original show. It’s a “meet cute” in the tradition of meet cutes, and both John and Mary are likable, but they don’t get that cup of coffee that we heard they did right away. Instead, Mary walks away with a “see ya around, soldier boy”, a cheeky shout out to Jensen Ackles’ role on The Boys as Soldier Boy.
I admit I smiled at that and both her and John’s love of licorice (something their son Dean will later share and which I cannot fathom at all..). Also I love Mary’s bell bottoms! Don’t tell me that bell bottoms aren’t awesome, I remember how awesome they were! I’m hoping fervently that Danneel Ackles agrees with me, because I’m fairly certain she’s the biggest influence on the fashion choices we’ll see on this show.
John’s reunion with his mother Millie (Bianca Kajlich) is frosty to start, which is interesting. Millie owns the gas station and is a mechanic, and she pulls no punches reminding John that from her perspective, “my husband and son walked out on me, so…”
She also clearly adores him as she sweeps him into a welcome home hug.
I like the complicated mother-son dynamic, which strikes me as realistic. John pops open a beer saying he’s legal now; Millie takes it away. It’s like every college kid who lives independently at school and then comes home on that first break and gets treated like a kid all over again.
We also find out that John enlisted illegally when he was actually too young, which explains some of the age inconsistencies fans were wondering about but also adds to existing canon which makes me nervous anyway. It’s an anxiety-provoking experience to love something passionately and not want anything to ever change it, and then to have something that has the potential to change it. It requires a tremendous amount of trust to believe the people who have that power to change it care as much as you do, and to believe them when they say they won’t destroy anything that you love so fervently. That’s what I’m doing, I’m trusting, but that doesn’t entirely eradicate my anxiety!
Millie accuses John of chasing after his dad ever since he disappeared mysteriously, saying that’s why he enlisted, and not exactly believing him when he assures her “I’m fine.” Mom advises John to let the past go, but John sets out to follow the instructions in the mysterious letter – and runs right into Mary again. That’s because a demon tries to take the key that was in the envelope (and then ‘kill you quick’) and Mary comes to the rescue.
The ensuing fight scene was in the trailer and isn’t one of my favorite parts of the pilot. I’m all for Mary being that overused word “badass”, but I need that to be realistic. She’s a trained hunter and no doubt a skilled fighter, but she’s about half the size of the demon she’s fighting so it ends up not looking all that plausible. John has also presumably had some fight training, so his ineptitude is a bit baffling. I didn’t like when Supernatural did the ‘make the guys look silly to make the women look more badass” and I’m not a big fan of that here either – let her be badass and competent, period. That said, I did like Mary using her brains and having the vat of holy water ready to push the demon into. That I totally believe!
The demon makes the mistake of taunting Mary about someone she cares about being “down there”, and the reference to Maggie pushes Mary to spout off an exorcism and send the demon smoking out, much to John’s bewilderment. There’s a welcome reference to the fact that some hosts can in fact be saved after possession (though not the poor guy floating in the holy water tub). Drake Rodger does a good job with portraying John’s What The Effing Hell reaction, and Mary is matter of fact as she tells him the truth about what he just saw.
John tells Mary the truth about the mysterious letter and key – that a man he didn’t know gave him the letter and then vanished. Literally. (Dean?) It’s a letter from his dad, who John is understandably obsessed with figuring out what happened to him, saying that if he wants answers, he had to come to that address. They realize they’re both looking for their missing dads, and so they enter the crypt together. Mary couldn’t get in before, since the door is magically sealed.
John: Wait, magic is real too?
Mary: It’s all real.
John: Right. Of course it is.
Shades of young Dean telling very young Sam the truth reluctantly, heartbroken by Sam’s heartbreak in response.
(For me as a viewer, these reveals were also discomfiting, since in the original show John didn’t know about any of this – hunting, Men of Letters, nothing. So it’s a big change and I trust it will all make sense eventually with a mind wipe or the reveal of an AU or something, but for right now it just feels anxiety provoking! I guess I’m with John on that.)
As John uses the key to open the door, Mary realizes why the demon didn’t possess either of them – there’s an anti possession charm on the key, and Mary has one on her charm bracelet. Good thinking, Henry Winchester!
The exposition is inevitably a bit clunky as Mary has to fill John in on virtually everything hunting in like three minutes, but I suppose that had to be done to move the story along. Not sure they couldn’t have slowed the pace down a little instead of jam packing all that reveal into the first ten minutes of the show though.
John suspects that maybe his dad was “one of those paranormal freemasons” especially with the symbol on the envelope, but Mary insists there’s no such thing. Also canon that Mary didn’t know about the Men of Letters, it should be noted. As they look around the cavernous room they’re surprisingly in, Mary sees a switch and throws it – and the lights come on to illuminate what is reminiscent of the Men of Letters bunker from Supernatural, so much so that it brought a lump to my throat.
I was immediately thrown back to the time I was on set to watch filming and got to roam the incredible Men of Letters set, with none other than The Winchesters showrunner (then Supernatural writer) Robbie Thompson to play tour guide and show us around. It was such an amazing set, and felt so real, down to all sorts of unexpected details.
I also immediately remembered Jensen Ackles’ emotional video as they tore apart that set as the show came to an end. So when I say that my emotions around this show are complicated? Yeah, they’re complicated.
John: What is this place? Clubhouse?
He wipes the thick dust off a plaque, and my emotions get even more complicated as he reads it.
John: Who are the Men of Letters?
Mary easily picks the lock on some file cabinets, while John finds a locker labeled “H.E.W” – Henry Eric Winchester. (I’m guessing Henry’s previously unrevealed middle name is a shout out to the man who created this universe, Eric Kripke)
John unlocks it with the combination that’s his birthday and finds photos and a watch that were his dad’s. he shares a story with Mary that’s another callback to the pilot of Supernatural.
John: When I was little I thought there was a monster under my bed. My dad would say, don’t worry son, I know how to trap it.
Mary far too easily finds the file on the first try that her dad was looking for and they set out to find Ada Munroe and the box he risked his life to find. And then they part ways, Mary advising John that he doesn’t want any part of the hunting life.
Mary: Go home, soldier boy…
There’s a shot of the movie marquee playing Slaughterhouse Five, referenced in Supernatural as where John and Mary met – one of the “signposts” that Ackles talks about hitting (but changing what happens in between them). I’m still nervous, but I can see what they’re trying to do at least.
We find Ada (Demetria McKinney) in Texas in her bookstore, running like hell before being unable to escape being possessed by a demon. John doesn’t listen to Mary’s ‘stay away’, wooing her with coffee and some research that leads to the missing Ada in Lubbock.
Mary: You’re like a dog with a bone.
John: And coffee…
Mary: Your dad kept all this from you for a reason.
John: Yeah, and I hate him for that… and I love him.
There’s a kind of running joke that codes Mary as Dean and John as Sam, including how they take their coffee. So off they go, driving from Lawrence to Lubbock. We meet Latika (Nida Khurshid) in the library and I like her immediately.
She’s smart and great at puzzles, and worried about Samuel Campbell hunting alone without family and disappearing after he saved her life. She also insists on coming with them, despite not being a fan of the scary (or rats – understandably).
It’s both jarring and satisfying to see Mary and John driving to their next case so much like Sam and Dean. John has more flashbacks, most notably him promising another Marine called Murph “I’ll get you through this” and then that guy stepping on a landmine, turning in slow motion to say “John…” I can’t imagine really understanding John’s mental state without these flashbacks, so kudos to whoever fought hard for them – the Ackles as exec producers, I’m guessing.
John still has a piece of Murph’s silver cross necklace literally embedded in his shrapnel-scarred arm. John thinks he’s being haunted by the man’s ghost, but Mary pulls out an EMF meter and says nope, no actual ghost. She empathizes though, saying that she sees the face of everyone she couldn’t save. They bond a little over that shared struggle, and understand each other a bit better.
They find Ada’s rare book shop trashed and reeking of sulfur, and a familiar looking pin board on the wall marking Samuel’s search (with one paper prominently reading “Manners”, a shout out to the late and dearly beloved Supernatural director and producer Kim Manners). John himself will leave behind similar pin boards when he goes missing and his own sons are searching for him in Supernatural.
Unfortunately the demon Mary exorcised before has a new host and confronts them in the street. Luckily, fourth member of the new team Carlos (JoJo Fleites) shows up just in time to run the demon down with his Scooby van.
I think I’m going to really like the character of Carlos and was looking forward to meeting him, but his character was also a little over the top, so I’m hoping that was just for the big intro. I like his personality and sense of humor, but the ‘Jimi Janis Jim Morrison’ was a bit much.
Drake and JoJo Fleites have some great comic chemistry together, especially when Carlos asks John to read the exorcism scribbled on a menu and John instead starts reading the actual menu. I laughed out loud! John manages the exorcism and this time they can save the woman, though she can’t be in too great shape after being hit by a freaking van!
Mary and John do the same looking-at-you-while-you’re-not-looking thing that Sam and Dean did when they weren’t saying what they were thinking, as they look through MoL folders. (I have one of those from the Supernatural set so that made me unexpectedly nostalgic too).
The pilot introduces some of the dynamics between Carlos, Lata and Mary, including that Mary doesn’t think Latika is ready to hunt and thinks she should walk away while she can (Mary is still feeling guilty for what happened to Maggie, just like John is feeling guilty for what happened to Murph). We also learn that Carlos used to have a crush on Mary and “flaked on her” while making out with someone’s ex-boyfriend, so we gather that Carlos is perhaps bisexual. That puts some pressure on the show to avoid stereotypes but I’m looking forward to learning more about Carlos – and I love every interview I’ve seen with JoJo, who identifies as non-binary in real life. We find out that a ghoul killed Carlos’ family before he could kill it, giving him a similar motive for hunting. The pilot is not as dark as Supernatural in tone, but we get some hints of the underlying darkness in Carlos’ conversation with John.
Carlos: The only thing worse than how it starts for a hunter is how it ends.
Carlos is also a musician, which should bode well for more classic 70s tunes.
Lata figures out that the box that Samuel was looking for is one that traps monsters, pulling them inside and killing them (like that ‘egg’ that the British Men of Letters had on Supernatural, presumably). She also figures out how it can probably be opened. Samuel has left some coordinates in the book – now we know where John got that practice of leaving coordinates for his sons – and that leads the foursome to New Orleans, Mary insisting on driving (now we know where Dean gets that…)
Lata and John bond over being nervous but they both choose to go in and face the danger, following Mary and Carlos.
Mary shares that Maggie was her cousin and like a sister to her, killed by a vampire a year ago. She was killed at eighteen, just like John’s buddy Murph. Mary tells John she wants out of the life, that her parents put a knife in her hand when she was four years old – a callback to the Supernatural pilot when Sam, who also wanted out, complains that their dad (John) put a .45 in his hand when he was eight years old and said he was afraid of monsters.
Intergenerational trauma at its best! (worst…)
Their conversation is also a direct callback to a painful conversation between Sam and Dean, where Sam says that after they find their dad, he’s walking away, much to Dean’s anguish. John isn’t invested in the same way (yet), but he does question what she wants to do with her life instead.
They’re now in the tomb where we first saw Samuel running from the monster, and they open the same lid and descend into the “giant hole in the above ground cemetery” as Lata describes it. John and Mary go down, John feeling more and more like this is “a normal night”. These scenes are all shot by torchlight, which is really beautiful and gives a much more believable feel to monster encounters – it’s beautiful in the way that director of photography Serge Ladouceur’s famous flashlight lit scenes in Supernatural always were.
Carlos and Latika stay on top, and Carlos inexplicably leaves her alone for a few minutes, and that of course is when the demon possessing Ada shows up. Carlos returns in time, having figured out there’s a loup-garou below menacing John and Mary, but gets knocked out.
Meanwhile, John and Mary find the box and then the monster finds them, and the next few minutes are full of action and suspense that is well done.
It’s a loup-garou, which I would have preferred to not actually see clearly, but it’s a scary scene nonetheless. John proves himself a true Winchester by cutting the silver cross out of his own arm to slow the monster down enough to buy Mary time to get out of there alive. She crawls back up and retrieves the knife, tossing it down to John and tossing the box to Latika to open. In true Supernatural fashion, John finally finds the knife and Lata figures out how to open the box just in time, the demon being sucked into the box and John beheading the loup-garou as a preview of the badass hunter he’s clearly going to turn out to be. I saw “our” John Winchester then, in that moment. The man he’ll end up being, for better and for a lot worse.
John brings Henry’s watch back to Millie, demanding to know how she could keep this from him. She says all she ever wanted was her own garage, like her old man had (aka “normal”). That when he was born she knew she’d do anything to keep him safe – a Winchester tradition.
Millie: Maybe one day, when you have kids, you’ll understand.
We would have thought of Sam and Dean at that moment anyway, but Jay Gruska’s “Americana”, the family theme of Supernatural, plays to make it even more poignant.
John: That’s what Dad was trying to do too, keep us safe.
He gives Millie the letter – from Henry. Voiced, as we knew from the convention a few weeks ago when they clued us in, by Gil McKinney, who played Henry Winchester on Supernatural. It was so good to hear his voice again!
Henry apologizes for keeping the truth from his son, writing that their family has fought the dangers out there for centuries, and ending with “I love you, and your mother, always.” Millie is tearful reading it, begging John not to go down this road. But John is determined.
John: Saving people, hunting things, I was born to do this.
The callback is so specific it starts to feel too much to me at this point, the very mantra of Supernatural repeated here. I get it, that they want to tie this explicitly and specifically to the mothership, but there’s a part of me that wants to watch this as its own show and let it succeed on its own merits.
Millie: You sound just like your daddy. Just come home.
John: I promise.
Ah, the Winchester promise. We know how that goes.
The four connect with Ada, who tells John that he looks like his dad.
She also tells John that all the Men of Letters she knew disappeared 15 years ago. Ada also clues them in to what they – and Samuel – are up against. The Akrida, who tried for centuries to invade their world but were held back by the Men of Letters. Now they’re all gone – and so the Akrida are back. They want to wipe out everyone, including demons and monsters and humans, and take over the world, as the best of monsters do. Samuel was trying to find out where they were coming in (somewhere in Savannah).
Mary: Well then it looks like I have to get to Savannah.
John: We. Looks like we have to get to Savannah.
Mary nods and the foursome set off, and we hear – and see – Dean Winchester again.
Dean: What they didn’t know was that the Akrida weren’t just a threat to Earth, but to all of existence.
The narration continues, once again seemingly directed more to us than anyone in story.
Dean: Like I told you, there’s gonna be some surprises…but I’ll explain everything. And until then, I’ll keep picking the music.
Another shout out to the Supernatural pilot, when Dean reminds Sam that “driver picks the music, shotgun shuts his cakehole.”
Dean climbs into the Impala – with a glance at the Samulet hanging from the mirror – and drives off to some classic rock. A typical early days of Supernatural ending which made me smile.
The first part of that narration seems like a clue to what might be happening and why Dean is “back”. Could the Akrida be a threat to Heaven too? Or could this be an AU world that’s also threatened? Does it involve some threat to Sam, and that’s why Dean cast that glance at the Samulet as he drove away with an empty seat beside him? I hope so, because I need an explanation of why Dean is back on my TV and Sam is not – because right now, that hurts.
I had so many feelings when the episode ended – especially the first time I saw it, sitting in the giant Empire Ballroom at New York Comic Con and watching it on the big screen – that I sat there a bit dumbstruck for a few minutes. There’s a remembrance of a beloved crew member, stunt coordinator for the early seasons Lou Bollo, on the screen at the end, making me even more emotional. Lou was an integral part of that episode I got to watch film in the Men of Letters bunker, and I was fascinated to watch him choreograph a fight scene so brilliantly.
So much has changed, I was reminded, and there’s been a lot of loss in the 17 years since Supernatural began, and it all ganged up on me as I sat there. Rewatching the episode now, I still feel pretty emotional. And I’m still feeling protective about the show that changed my life that I will love forever, but I also did enjoy this brand new show and its new cast of characters.
I like the callbacks and homage as long as it it’s not so much that it loses its impact, and I like all four of the “core four” characters. It had enough of a Supernatural vibe to seem like it is indeed a prequel, but it was also different – as an ensemble from the start, I want to get to know all four of them (and Millie) and hope that the interrelationships will remain complex. Drake Rodger was particularly good at making me care about John, and showing us his vulnerability as he struggles with guilt and PTSD. I can see both of his future sons in him, a mix of Sam and Dean with both their strengths and vulnerabilities. The chemistry between John and Mary isn’t quite there yet, but I like the comedic moments between Drake and Meg already so that’s a start. Carlos and Latika and Millie are all characters I want to know.
So, I’m trusting you, Robbie Thompson and Jensen and Danneel Ackles. I’ll go on this ride with you, hoping that this Supernatural universe that’s so beloved to me will stay alive and thriving, and will someday bring Sam and Dean back to me too. Until then, looking forward to the next episode on Tuesday and getting to know these characters even better.
You can read Jensen Ackles and many other
Supernatural cast and fans’ chapters about
what this show and fandom have meant to
them in Family Don’t End With Blood –
links here or at peacewhenyouaredone.com