The Winchesters – Season 1 Episode 4
“Masters of War”
The Winchesters deals with P.T.S.D. and Veteran health when the team investigate the death of a war veteran.
John’s P.T.S.D. from his time in Vietnam was established in the first episode as an ongoing issue for him to deal with. There was a particularly interesting scene where he confessed to Mary about feeling as if he was being haunted by Murphy; a fellow soldier who he watched die after stepping on a landmine. Mary was able to prove that he isn’t being haunted by Murphy’s spirit but his memory of the experience continues to affect him. John and Mary found common ground by opening up to each other about recent losses they experienced and both come into play majorly in this episode.
The exploration of Mary’s grief is less prominent and a lot simpler in terms of presentation. That doesn’t diminish the effectiveness of what the episode delivers but the focus is more on John. For Mary it largely consists of her unwillingness to let anyone into Maggie’s old room because there are too many painful memories behind the door. Later, she and Lata go into the room as a tribute to their friend and find a collection of postcards that she wrote to herself after every Hunt. Each of them contains two examples of bad things that happened and one example of a good thing. Mary comments that Maggie must have used that to see past the constant darkness. Going through Maggie’s room is a brief scene and it’s clearly built around the discovery of the postcards but it’s a genuine moment of catharsis for Mary to acknowledge the loss rather than locking it behind a door and pretending it didn’t happen. It also provides her with an idea of how to cope with the darkness she routinely faces that may be adopted in the coming episodes.
Maggie as an absent presence both works and doesn’t. The audience only knowing her through what is stated in dialogue enhances the perspective of the characters as her absence is very much the point. On the other hand, it does almost feel as if it comes from nowhere as there has been very little mention of Maggie and John accidentally trying to enter her room is a clumsy introduction of what will come to be explored. Mary’s reluctance to let anyone into the room is also far too neatly resolved by the end of the episode when she invites Carlos to stay with her. It all technically fits together but the setup and progression is far from sophisticated.
This was a strong episode for Carlos who is fleshed out in interesting ways. His military service is a clear point of connection between him and John who haven’t had much in the way of interaction so far. The show still has a general issue juggling its cast with each episode apparently only having room for one character outside of John and Mary to feature prominently with the others either not included or in supporting roles. It makes sense to a degree but The Winchesters fails to hide the structural decisions underneath its storytelling so it stands out that a given episode is a particular character’s turn to receive some development.
Carlos gets his turn in the spotlight in this outing and it goes a long way towards making him more interesting. the second episode attempted to add depth to him by detailing animosity directed at Mary for her leadership style but it didn’t really work as there wasn’t a strong grounding to the idea. The same could be said about this but it works a lot better because time is taken to properly establish his time in the military by him meeting John in uniform and delivering a frank account of his experience serving. Jojo Fleites takes to the material very well and imbues Carlos with a great deal of pathos as he tells his story. It all comes together nicely and flows naturally into the story being told.
An important detail is that Carlos is much further on in the process of dealing with his P.T.S.D. than John is. Not that he has completely resolved any issues because such a feat is likely impossible but he’s in a far better place emotionally and is able to recognise that John is at a very raw point in his handling of what he experienced. All Carlos can do at this point is make it clear that he is there if John decides to come to him for support though his forcing John to share at the group therapy session is in poor taste. It could be argued that it was necessary in order to progress the mission but he should have recognised that John was far from ready to take such an important leap. This is more of a misjudgement on the part of Carlos rather than a flaw with the episode itself. This actually enhances the episode as characters are more believable when they make mistakes. Adding texture to Carlos beyond the quipping and surface-level details makes him a far more compelling character and the common ground he finds with John has a lot of potential to develop.
The situation is a very difficult one for John as it dredges up some painful memories that he has yet to process. Hunting has been a positive outlet for him as it allows him to use his skills to help people and he feels part of something important. Being part of the team has provided him much-needed companionship but the scars from his time in Vietnam will take time to heal. This Hunt is particularly difficult because it forces him to confront the trauma that he’s struggling to deal with. His early insistence that he will be fine is a clear indicator of trouble ahead and his declining mental state over the course of the episode is wonderfully portrayed by Drake Rodger. The scene where he sees the crucifix necklace and connects that to Murphy who wore a similar necklace is particularly effective and the ensuing unravelling makes for harrowing viewing.
His confrontation with Mars Neto (James MacDonald) encapsulates everything John deals with over the course of the episode. The recreation of the jungle environment puts him directly inside the pain he’s struggling with and Carlos stepping on a landline is an obvious representation of his belief that he failed to save Murphy’s life under the same circumstances. The scenario offers John the opportunity to improve on what he did before or have history repeat itself. The realisation of that possibility is delivered excellently in Drake Rodger’s performance and everything comes together to craft a brilliantly tense sequence.
Mars Neto wants to ensure John is ready to fight the Akrida and informs him that the Hunters are nowhere near ready for a threat that is already here. John is of particular interest as a Hunter and a soldier as he has the potential to be a formidable weapon against the Akrida. It culminates in a fight to prove his worth and save Carlos’ life. Mars Neto pushes John to unleash the rage he keeps locked inside and goads him into embracing the potential within him. He sees John as being a born warrior who needs to embrace his baser instincts to live up to his full potential. In an interesting twist, Mars Neto heals John’s war scar as well as the injuries sustained during their fight as a way to wipe the slate clean. His scar sustained when Murphy died was a physical representation of the emotional trauma he carries with him and a constant reminder of that loss. It may be gone but the emotional pain won’t go away so easily but it’s confirmation that his trauma doesn’t have to define him and it is possible to deal with it.
Another interesting detail of the fight is there is a point where Mars Neto offers him his power by way of the mask and John almost takes it which suggests that his vulnerabilities are getting the best of him in a key moment. It’s a brief moment of weakness as John rejects the offer almost immediately after when Mars Neto’s immortality is taken from him. It’s an affirmation of him finding his own power and beginning the healing process. The brutality he displays when killing Mars Neto is concerning and the first real sign of the John Winchester that was seen in Supernatural. The pleasured expression on his face as he goes in for the kill is chilling and Mars Neto’s declaration that he was right about what he saw in John suggests other struggles to come. This being a prequel means that fans of the parent show know where John ends up and it’s a good idea to have him be more gentle in his younger years before slowly becoming more hardened. Carlos’ horrified expression when finding John coming down from the euphoria of killing him is also really effective and it all comes together to set up a dark path for John to follow.
The montage at the end of the episode showing different coping mechanisms is a strong summation of everything the episode has covered. Mary clearing out Maggie’s room indicates the beginning of the healing process for her, Lata and Mary beginning to write their own postcards to pick up Maggie’s tradition shows they have learned how to combat the darkness, Carlos continuing to engage in group therapy is a healthy outlet for what he’s dealing with and Millie comforting John as he cries in the shower shows the emotional toll these events have taken on him. The message is that healing isn’t an instant process but there are outlets that help things along.
A strong episode with a poignant exploration of P.T.S.D. through a case that forces John to confront his past and fleshes out Carlos in meaningful ways. Mary’s grief over a friend lost during a Hunt is less prominent and a lot simpler in terms of presentation but handled well and allows Mary to take steps forward in managing her own persistent darkness. Maggie as an absent presence both works and doesn’t with a clumsy introduction to the idea of her absence and a far from sophisticated progression as well as resolution. This was a strong episode for Carlos though the show is still failing to disguise the structural decisions governing character coverage. His military service provides a natural connection to John and him being further along in the process of dealing with his P.T.S.D. is an important detail as it positions him as a potential figure of support for John. The situation dredges up painful memories that John has yet to process. His declining mental state over the course of the episode is wonderfully portrayed by Drake Rodger. His confrontation with Mars Neto encapsulates everything John deals with in the episode and awakens the rage that’s within him. Carlos’ horrified expression witnessing the pleasure on John’s face is really effective and sets up the dark path John will follow. The montage at the end of the episode was a strong summation of everything the episode covered and neatly shows where the characters are in their emotional journeys. The message is that healing isn’t an instant process but there are outlets that help things along.
- organically developing Carlos and providing a natural connection between him and John
- Carlos being further along in the process of dealing with his P.T.S.D. framing him as a potential figure of support for John
- the portrayal of John’s P.T.S.D. and Drake Rodger’s excellent performance conveying it
- John’s confrontation with Mars Neto encapsulating everything he deals with over the episode
- setting up a dark path through John unleashing the anger within him
- Carlos’ horrified expression witnessing the pleasure on John’s face after killing Mars Neto
- the ending montage neatly summarising what the episode covered and showing where the characters currently are
- the introduction and progression of Mary’s grief being a clumsy example of storytelling
- failing to hide the structural decisions underneath the storytelling governing character coverage
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