‘The Winchesters’ Explores Monsters of War, Both Literal and Metaphorical

The fourth episode of ‘The Winchesters’ first season is titled “Monsters of War,” which is a good description of what it was about – fighting your monsters, whether you’re a hunter or a veteran or anyone who’s experienced loss, grief and trauma. The opening is an older man stumbling down a psychiatric hospital corridor, walking right into a vivid flashback of his time in the midst of a war, bombs flying, warning shouts of “Incoming!” blaring. He takes refuge in an empty room only to find himself facing something that calls itself “Destiny” armed with a spear.

Blood splatter, title card, Dean Winchester, narrator.

Dean: Fighting the battle between good and evil isn’t easy, especially when the first monster you have to face is the one inside yourself.

I don’t really need it spelled out for me, but yes, true that. One of the main premises of Supernatural from day one, when the monsters Sam and Dean were fighting were not just the literal ones we saw onscreen. Cut to John and Mary sparring like the aforementioned Sam and Dean often did, Drake Rodger shirtless because, well, Drake Rodger, and Mary looking authentically seventies and I’m pretty sure I had those shorts.

John doesn’t want to stop or take a break, saying he missed fighting, even though in the service it was 24/7 “gym class with grenades” which does not sound like fun. He laughs it off defensively, but when Mary laughs too, he admits that was Murph’s line, and the defensive laughter fades away as he remembers his friend’s violent death. Mary realizes that he needs to punch something “that can punch back” to get those kind of big feelings out, so they spar for real. Mary taunts him a bit with “monsters aren’t gonna play nice and neither should you”, and bests him what seems like a little too easily to me – he’s a trained fighter too, after all, and I wouldn’t mind him coming out on top once in a while to make it realistic.

Carlos arrives when they’re in what looks like a compromising position, asking if he’s interrupting “whatever kind of hetero mating ritual this is” which did make me laugh. Sparring always seems a bit like it should engender those kind of questions to be honest, no matter who’s doing it.

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Carlos and Lata share news of the strange deaths at the hospital, and when Carlos mentions hearing it from one of his vet friends, John has a hard time believing that Carlos hangs out with vets, because stereotypes.  I like that this show wants to challenge some of those. John is surprised to learn that Carlos is also a veteran, of the navy – and not because he enlisted.

Carlos’ vet friend Manny was there when the WWII vet was killed and doesn’t think it was a suicide thanks to singe marks on the walls and ceiling.  Lata has some ideas about obscure monsters it could be, Mary makes a joke about it being a dragon (which, go figure, turns out really do exist in the Supernatural universe we find out in the future!) but they only go after virgins, and Carlos jokes that at least he’s safe and everyone scoffs. I know it’s the 70s and free love is the assumption, but I’d like to see that assumption being applied to not just one character.

Mary gets to call John ‘Soldier Boy’ again, which totally threw me out of the moment and into The Boys universe momentarily, but not in a bad way. She also worries that the monster targeting vets might hit a little too close to home for John, but he insists he’s okay and just wants to do more fighting (instead of think about those pesky feelings). John’s not the only one repressing feelings though. Mary steers him away from one of the rooms in her house, which turns out to be her cousin Maggie’s old room. The Campbells really aren’t coping with her death too well, because no one has been in there since.

John, Mary and Lata in lab coats with caps not trying very hard to cover all their hair make their way into the morgue to see how poor “Patches” looks, Carlos in the body bag because (like Dean Winchester) he sucks at rock paper scissors. I wonder if John learned that way of making decisions from the Campbells and Sam and Dean then learned it from him…. (but maybe this is an AU anyway so that kind of speculation is irrelevant).

John notices Patches’ silver cross which is laying beside him on the slab and has a flashback to Murph’s death, losing time and being thrown back to that moment that so traumatized him.

Patches’ widow arrives at that moment and finds John (aka Graham Nash so the show is still on a CSN&Y kick) still clutching his cross. He covers by presenting it to Mrs. Pasternak and thanking her for her husband’s service, then gets overwhelmed by his own emotions and has to leave.

Apparently Patches was having some anger issues and argued with a doctor in the therapy group he was attending the day he was killed. When Mary asks his widow who the doctor was, she says another person just asked that – a young reporter named Kyle Reed; Mary recognizes his name.

Meanwhile, John is having a breakdown in the hospital bathroom with another flashback and a lot of shaking. He sees the same monster who killed Patches, then smashes his fist into a metal trash bin again and again,  trying to ground himself.  (John, speaking as a psychologist, there are less damaging and more effective ways to do that, just saying).

He tells Mary it’s just indigestion when she asks him if he’s okay, apparently thinking that was a hallucination.

“Yeah I’m fine” is the mantra that many veterans – and many men – repeat to themselves to keep up a veneer of invulnerability, following the demands of all those toxic masculinity messages. Certainly in the 1970s, before that term was coined, the idea that men who were “real men” should not express emotions was widespread, and John is well aware of those prohibitions. Mary and Lata’s idea for how to get more information is immediately a threat to John’s repression of that vulnerability – he and Carlos, as veterans themselves, join the therapy group.

Lata and Mary do research. Lata says there’s not a lot of pre-Christian lore in the Men of Letters library, which I’m not sure lines up with what we knew of them on Supernatural even if they were ‘a bunch of old white men.’ Maybe it does?

Joining a vets’ therapy group means we get to see John back in uniform, attending the memorial service before the therapy group. Millie understands when he says he’s reluctant to sit around “talking about how I feel”, saying that’s never been their strong suit and that actions matter more than words. Something that John Winchester certainly seems to subscribe to for most of his life! (Also I continue to be fascinated by Millie, who defies a whole bunch of gender stereotypes herself, for better or worse).

Carlos gets to make an entrance also in uniform, to John and Millie’s appreciation.

Millie: Everyone loves a man in uniform.

Carlos (grinning): Including other men in uniform.

When he’s right, he’s right.

Millie reminds John to get out of there if they “try to blame it all on the mother” and John replies “of course, we all know it’s Dad’s fault anyway” but it’s a shared moment between them that ends with a smile.  (Requisite psychologist note: Therapy is not all about trying to blame it all on the mother, or on the father for that matter, but the past is relevant to the present nevertheless, that part’s true.)

They ask for the therapist that Patches saw, a Dr. Zimpano, but he’s all booked up. (They also disturbingly refer to him as “Dr. Z” which is how my clients and students refer to me, so I immediately protested that I do not want to have the same name as the monster, thank you very much!)

Carlos turns his puppy eyes and flirting ability on the desk nurse to get them switched, and it works as well as it did for Sam Winchester in the future.

Meanwhile, Mary and Lata talk about Maggie, Lata saying how much she misses her and how much she wishes she could “see past the darkness” like Maggie could.

Mary meets up with the reporter she went to the movies with (who’s also the guy who interviewed the widow), returning his dime to him and saying Patches was a friend of the family and what a coincidence! Hmmm. Are there really coincidences in this show? I think not. Sure enough, Kyle is there chasing a story because Patches isn’t the first vet to be killed mysteriously in psych units. He seems like a good guy, and one we’ll perhaps see more of.

Carlos and John attend Dr. Z’s group, where not all the vets think he’s all that great. Carlos tells his actual story, living life off the grid until he got arrested and had to pick jail or service, so it was a navy medic and a bad haircut. Then he gets unexpectedly serious, sharing his own version of flashbacks and admitting that it doesn’t make a difference how he felt about the war or how he got there, that it was still experiencing a trauma.

He leaves after and says John will be next, though John says he wants to just listen. Dr. Z, on the other hand, encourages him to talk. So John reluctantly shares his experience about being ambushed, his buddy stepping on a land mine and him seeing it happen. His survivor guilt is obvious, as he uses that defensive humor again.

John: My friend died, and all I got was a lousy scar.

John has to keep talking to give Carlos a chance to ransack Dr. Z’s files – he finds notes in the file about seeing a figure with a spear wearing a horned mask, assumed to be a hallucination. John is increasingly uncomfortable back in the group, hands shaking.

The other vets run defense for him, saying they were raised to bottle it up, to be a man. They attack Dr. Z verbally, accusing him of not listening to them like he didn’t listen to Patches. The therapist pretty much breaks all the rules of being a therapist by getting both defensive and punitive, ordering the outspoken vet to his office like he’s the principal or something. Boo for depictions of bad therapists! (I know, that’s part of the plot)

John goes after fellow vet Jimmy and breaks through the door when he hears an altercation, but he’s too late to save the other vet from the same kind of attack. When John finds him dead and bloody, he sees Murph again, back in the flashback and the sense of guilt overwhelming, once again not being able to stop it.

Enraged and overwhelmed by his own strong emotions, John confronts Dr. Z physically, demanding to know who the man in the horned mask is that Patches – and he – saw. Dr. Z is surprisingly empathic this time, insisting it’s not real, that “there are no monsters in this hospital”. John retorts, “you have no idea.”

John is dismissive of sharing in the group, but Carlos tells John that he actually felt it was helpful, so much so that he forgot they were working on a case and shared for real.  Apparently that doesn’t help him avoid the monster though, who sucks him into an empty room as Carlos also gets thrown back in time to a flashback of the war.

Carlos isn’t the only one who’s finally facing his repressed feelings. Mary and Lata confront their own feelings by going into Maggie’s room finally. I got thrown out of the moment temporarily by the framed poster of Donny Osmond over Maggie’s bed – I’m not sure any of us actually framed our posters back in the 70s, but sure, we all had similar posters plastered on our walls though mine were definitely not Donny Osmond. Lata comments that ancient myths and creatures weren’t Maggie’s only obsessions. (I bristle at fandom being referred to as an obsession, but it happens all the time so I’ll let it slide since it’s affectionate here).

They sift through Maggie’s inspiration cards – the write down 2 bad things and 1 good thing idea she did for every hunt. A sort of Hallmark way to “see past the darkness” but I guess it can’t hurt.

I just worry about overly simplistic strategies like ‘tack an inspirational message on your fridge and you’ll be fine and dandy’ solutions to legitimate mental health challenges.  I see what they’re going for here though, and optimism and gratitude are good for humans, so maybe Maggie was onto something there. Especially hard to hang onto for hunters constantly faced with violence and hopelessness. (And yet one of the things I cherish about Supernatural is that the show was dark, gritty and realistic and sometimes quite hopeless – that’s what made it so compelling that Sam and Dean struggled not to succumb to that hopelessness and yet kept fighting anyway).

Lata far too easily finds the exact monster they’re looking for in like one minute flat – Mars Neto, not a monster but a deity, complete with helpful illustration thanks to Maggie. Poor Sam and Dean had to really work for their figuring out “the lore”, complete with MoL libraries AND the internet, but Lata just puts her finger on it like that! Mary and Lata enlist Millie’s help, since the hospital only allows family to visit, filling her in on the guy who’s a god, who’s also immortal.

Millie, always the protective mom: You sent John into battle against a god that’s immortal?

They assure her that if they destroy his totem, he’s killable, reminding her that John and Carlos are trained soldiers, but that doesn’t reassure Millie. She says that John’s been a fighter since he was four years old, inevitably running right towards the enemy. (Sound like his son at that age and beyond too?)

And that’s exactly what John is doing, frantically looking for Carlos, opening doors and noticing the do not enter tape torn down from one. He switches on the light to walk right into… the Viet Nam jungle.  They find each other in the jungle and embrace, relieved to see each other.

Carlos says they’re trapped in there, that maybe they have to face what’s in there if they want to get out – not the monster with the mask but…

And then Carlos steps (literally) right into John’s trauma, stepping on a landmine and calling out, just like Murph did, voice quavering, “John?”

John tells him not to move, and then the god appears – it’s the vet Jimmy, who is not dead after all. He’s literally wearing a horned mask that he takes off (and that makes him sound a little like Darth Vader) as he welcomes them, saying men of action are so hard to come by. That’s a riff on Millie’s ‘it’s all about actions, who needs talking?”

The god says he was trying to get John ready, to get him to embrace his anger, so he’d be ready to fight the Akrida.

Which is pretty much the theme of several seasons of Supernatural, but he is not nearly as scary as the Yellow Eyed Demon, or The Trickster for that matter.  The god says he’ll let Carlos go if John joins him – or fights him – which seem different to me, but that’s how he puts it. It’s a fight to ‘draw first blood’ and although Carlos begs John not to fight, John agrees, mysteriously armed with a spear of his own and still eager to fight fight fight instead of deal with any of his issues.

For some reason, the god doesn’t stop with drawing first blood after all, tossing John up in the air and cutting him repeatedly and urging him to set his violence and rage free, to become what he was born to be…  This seems to be referencing the idea that John (and Mary) were chosen for some sort of destiny, that eventually will result in Sam and Dean – and some gods and monsters already know of him.

John seems to be succumbing to his own rage, but help is on the way!

Millie proves herself to be a pretty adept hunter, threatening Dr. Z with an expose about their lockdown on the nightly news with Walter Cronkite. Poor embattled Dr. Z has to go deal with Jimmy’s corpse mysteriously disappearing and throws up his hands, saying “ladies, have a blast” – and apparently now you don’t have to be family to get in to visit after all!

Lata gets distracted by the beauty and fragility of the totem when they finally find it, which Millie smartly shatters immediately with a ‘we do not have time for irony’ truth. That weakens the god and, with epic music playing according to my subtitles, John stabs him through the chest with the spear. Instead of taking up the mask, he knocks the god over with it. It seems that might be just what the god wanted though.

God: I was right, you are just like me.

John: No.

He beats him again and again, practically channeling his namesake Soldier Boy from that other show and Jensen Ackles character – and pretty much proving the god’s point, splattering himself with blood, breathless.

Dying God: You’re ready for the war against the Akrida.

Carlos is freed from the land mine as the god dies, but he stares in shock and maybe a little horror at a bloodied, wounded, given-into-violence John.

Shades of bloody out of control Dean Winchester shocking his brother in early seasons Supernatural.

John and Carlos meet up with Millie, Mary and Lata. Carlos tells them that the god said the only way out was for John to fight him, and Lata asks the obvious question.

Lata: Just John? Why?

Is this another Supernatural case of ‘the chosen one’?

I liked the real life results of this case. Dr. Z assures Carlos that he’s now committed to doing right by the veterans, and that the deaths will be better investigated. He says he hopes they didn’t scare Carlos off, that he sees a lot of potential for growth and healing in him. Mary gives Dr. Z Ryan’s card to help. So Dr. Z didn’t turn out to be the monster after all – my name is vindicated! Carlos has himself a new therapist, in fact.

Mary offers Carlos Maggie’s room to stay with her, since he’s still shaken up, saying she “can’t keep the door locked forever,” both actually and metaphorically, so there’s progress for Mary too.

Carlos thanks John for what he did saving him from the landmine, perhaps a symbolic making up for not being able to do that for Murph, so maybe the god did him a little bit of a favor after all. Carlos offers that he’s there if John ever wants to talk, and you get the feeling that John and Carlos bonded in a deeper way after the events of this hunt.

We get the classic 70s song from Harry Nilsson playing, the lyrics “Everybody’s talkin at me, I don’t hear a word they’re sayin, only the echoes of my mind…” playing as we see where all our main characters ended up. Carlos back at the group, along with some WWII vets who look so much like my dad, also a vet, that it made me tear up unexpectedly.

Mary and Lata follow Maggie’s write-down-two-good things on cards thing.

Millie makes dinner, hears the shower running and finds the door open, John kneeling in the tub fully clothed, sobbing. She embraces him from behind, rocking with him like all mothers do with crying children.

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It’s an odd but popular fictional trope to sob in the shower fully clothed, but I thought Drake and Bianca sold the emotional impact of that moment, and I felt for them both. As I mentioned, my dad was also a vet who came back from the war with PTSD, long undiagnosed because he followed those harmful tropes of “don’t talk about it, don’t show your feelings” for far too long before realizing he actually could get help – and deserved it. I really appreciated the respectful treatment of the veterans in this episode, including the implication that they deserve a better system of help than they often get in this country.

Much like Supernatural, it’s the very human themes and the relationships between the characters that so far are what most capture my interest about The Winchesters. I appreciate the psychological themes more than I do the gods and monsters, in this episode the strong performances from Drake Rodger and JoJo Fleites especially.

Caps by spndeangirl

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12 thoughts on “‘The Winchesters’ Explores Monsters of War, Both Literal and Metaphorical

  • At first I thought this was a really solid episode. In retrospect it falls apart.
    The saving grace was Drakes r emotional performance as well as Jo Jos. I always find myself wanting to see Carlos on screen more so this episode definitely scratched that itch.

    One huge gripe and it’s getting worse instead of improving is Lata and her magic 3 page flip to discover the monster or in this case, a god no matter how ancient, rare or Ive never seen anything like it. All in 5 minutes flat. And then miraculously before you can say Bob Singers your Uncle the Core Four have figured out how to kill it. Boring, predictable and lazy writing.

    Sadly another episode ones by that I am just not buying Meg as Mary. Stop pushing her as this Uber hunter when the actress isn’t capable of portraying that. It’s the same thing they did with Claire. Did Thompson create Claire because they are almost identical. And equally annoying.

    I get the whole alt universe strange never before seen dimensional shifting monsters but please, can we just have some run of the mill vamps or ghosts or something? Ala Sam and Dean? Or something that requires actual research and not pulling a dust covered book from under a bed. Honestly Lata hasn’t earned Bobby Singer status. At this point she’s a better researcher than Sam – even he didn’t have the miraculous 3 page flip.
    And Maggie? Unless they are going to have her return as a vamp who signs up with DJ Akrida against the good guys or something? Then I could care less about her.

    The vet/PTSD.idea was fine. Loved Drakes portrayal of John here. He really made you feel for him and all they went through. But the god? That was weak. Very weak.
    Broken down a lot of this episode didn’t really track.

    So in conclusion (and I can’t see what I’m writing for some reason on your site as I’m writing it). Stop with the quick fixes, quick finds, quick unrealistic research and knowledge.
    Give Lata some personality because her pacifist butt is sliding right off the page. Meg please for the love of the memory of Mary Winchester – step it up. I’m so not buying what you are selling. And you can’t say it’s because they haven’t given her anything because she is the primary focus. Drake and Jo Jo are acting circles around everyone. Give me more Carlos in each episode please.

    Oh and although it didn’t apply to this episode – less is more when it comes to seeing the monsters. Did you not learn anything from the ghosts in full daylight in Season 15?

    • You’ve voiced pretty much exactly my sentiments about Mary/Claire and the way she’s written. This is not Mary. Claire made me feel as if needles were being driven under my fingernails, and Mary is having the same effect. I don’t know (yet) if its the writing or just the performance, but she’s irritating without being sympathetic. Mary Winchester had compassion. This girl has aggressive, conceited vanity.

      Lata, too has been given a bum deal. She’s colorless, flavorless and way too able. Give her something to do that she has to work at. She’s really not serving any kind of purpose.

      I agree about the monsters too. The claws in the hemp sack, creepy. The critter, when viewed, not so much. Kripke learned that back in episode 2. Sad that you’ve forgotten it.

      I really want this to succeed. I think it could be good. Please do better.

      • Yes, that scene with the monster’s claws appearing out of the bag, that’s the way to do it – proof that it can be done here and can work!

    • So far it’s the parts of the show that are not about the monsters that are the most solid for me – Drake and JoJo and Bianca in particular sell their characters well. Part of it is that we’re getting more backstory on John and Carlos, so that may be why I’m also feeling more connected to them. Agreed that less is more as far as seeing the monsters, as S15 of the mothership also proved…

  • Oh one more thing. The medical uniform caps are not a fashion accessory. They actually served a function and hair hanging out of them was not it.

  • I binge watched the 4 episodes to see what the Winchesters was like. At best, it’s a semi-entertaining show with a lot of creepy things and a few interesting characters.

    John’s PTSD (which was not called that at the time) is real and scarier than the story line. I didn’t buy the trauma Carlos said he had and I don’t believe he’s a vet.

    At worst, it’s a pale Supernatural wanna be. I don’t like Mary, she’s too stubborn and argumentative, I don’t like John although I recognize a few familiar traits. The other two are forgettable and could easily have been merged into 1 character who does minimal research and supplies the occasional weapon.

    I lived in the 70s. This is a caricature of what it was like with the same old clothes, the same old flower headbands, and the same old peace, love, dope mind set.

    I am so very disappointed in where this seems to be heading. I might try and watch another episode but so far the only thing I really like is the music.

    • Yes, I am enjoying the music – they’re picking some good songs to revisit. I think the show might be harder for those of us who were alive in the 70s than for people who weren’t and don’t have reality to compare to, unfortunately for us!

  • I want to love the show so much, and I hate that people feel there is so much missing, but can’t help but agree with many of the comments here, and on other SM. I agree Mary is not quite hitting the spot, but I can probably see this Mary growing into the Mary who re-appeared in the later seasons of SPN. I think overall I will just add my voice to the fact that Drake is doing a great job with the emotional scenes, I think Carlos character development is improving, though I thought his story about watching lights on the shore was a little lame. Saying that in a grouop of vets who saw buddies stepping on landmines etc, wouldn’t have gotten any empathy, especially in the 70’s. Lata’s magic ability to get hold of the exact book required within minutes is easy fixed, if only they would string the episode out to encompass a week or so, not just hours or a day or two. Show the gang hitting the libraries and newspaper archives! I do like the character Lata more every week tho. I’m just going to tack on that John shoving a wooden handle through a gods metal armour was a bit of a stretch as well. And hey, if they can’t identify a moster or how to kill it, there’s always beheading to fall back on (unless its a werepyre).

    • I forgot to say that, that Carlos and the story of the lights didn’t seem to fit with the other stories, and I would be surprised if he didn’t see and witness alot darker things than that. Perhaps he just wasn’t ready to talk about those darker things yet?

  • My dad had a 23 year naval career, and he was literally there when the Vietnam war started and it encompassed pretty much the entire time he served, so that part of this episode meant a lot to me. The summer of ’72 my mother, sister, brother, and I were in a bad car accident while he was in the Atlantic preparing for the next Pacific deployment, and my dad was granted emergency leave to come home and care for us until we were all off of crutches, and then he had to return to his ship and his job, which is a story in itself. Recently he was telling me about the death of a friend in a terrible deck accident, and as he told it he started to cry. I hadn’t seen him cry since coming into my hospital room 50 years ago. I’ve seen over the years how carrying the burdens of his work and his difficult childhood hurt him, but even today, given how he was raised, he probably wouldn’t talk with a therapist if one came to his house every day for free. When the Nilsson song started to play and Millie was holding John in the shower, I hurt for my dad and for my son who was serving at the Kabul airbase and had Afghan friends killed when Kabul fell to the Taliban, and I cried quite a bit. There may be flaws in this episode and even the series in other regards, but I appreciated this effort so much.

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