The Winchesters – Season 1 Episode 1
Supernatural returns in prequel form with The Winchesters; the story of Sam and Dean’s parents embarking on a life of saving people and hunting things.
There were two failed attempts to create a spinoff of Supernatural during the airing of the show. “Bloodlines” and “Wayward Sisters” didn’t manage to capture enough interest to merit having their own series. Now that Supernatural is in the rearview mirror and fans have had a chance to internalise the ending we have a prequel spinoff produced by Dean Winchester himself, Jensen Ackles -who also appears in the show- and his wife Daneel.
The Winchesters takes a back-to-basics approach and provides a relatively simple opening episode to reintroduce the world and give new fans what they need to understand what’s going on. It’s a tricky line to walk as everything this show has to offer was already covered in its parent show so fans rightly don’t want to be overloaded with exposition covering what has already been established but new fans won’t want to be alienated by assumptions being made about their level of knowledge.
A balance is struck by having John Winchester (Drake Rodger) be the newcomer to the world of the supernatural and Mary Campbell (Meg Donnelly) as the voice of experience who can answer any questions and fill him in on the rules. It’s an old and popular storytelling trick because it works well but there’s always the chance it could be a crutch that writers lean on which may make the show frustratingly formulaic. The benefit of the doubt is extended with this only being the first episode and John’s induction into the world of Hunting being one of the main components. He accepts being presented with a Demon far too quickly; a symptom of the rushed pacing in places leaving little time for characters to digest what has happened to them.
The story revolves around John and Mary’s first hunt together following a chance meeting outside a movie theatre. This leads to a more substantial meeting when John is attacked by a Demon and saved by Mary before John gets caught up in a Hunt. The episode doesn’t waste time getting the two leads to interact and team up which makes sense since the concept is built on the origin of their relationship. Immediately, the two actors have strong chemistry and compliment one another nicely. Their characters are broadly drawn for now, likely so that their introduction is impactful with heavier character work to follow in subsequent episodes.
Their personalities are born from TV logic of children embodying the personality of one of their parents when introduced and displaying a wider range of traits later. Mary is most like Dean with her leather jacket and cynical attitude where John is more like Sam with wide-eyed idealism and a more thoughtful nature. The episode simplifies this further by boiling -pun intended- their personalities down to their taste in coffee. Mary likes it black and John likes it sweet. For the purposes of the pilot, we are being served a riff on Sam and Dean again which makes sense as a decision because it’s a familiar dynamic while also being an accessible formula for newcomers. Whether the show will develop these characters along unique lines remains to be seen but it’s a solid hook so far.
Speaking of familiar, Mary is spurred into action after her father went on a hunt and hasn’t been heard from for a while. A secondary yet connected mystery is created through John receiving a letter from his father with the Men of Letters symbol on it. Fans of Supernatural will be familiar with that organisation but John and Mary aren’t so learning about them will be an experience they can share. It brings them together as both being legacies in the field of Hunting in different ways. A major difference between them is that Mary was brought up in the life and John was shielded from it. There’s a compelling dissonance between them as Mary wants to solve her father’s disappearance and leave this life behind and John wants to be involved in it. He comes to see it as a calling that he needs to answer whereas Mary sees it as a trap she wants to escape. It sets up a broad source of disagreement to be explored.
The actual plot of the episode is a simple hunt that leads them to learn a little bit about the Men of Letters while getting into a groove as partners. It serves as the backdrop for the real story that is their fledgling relationship. John is introduced nursing figurative demons as he returns from Vietnam and is haunted by memories of what happened there. The episode’s best scene has him detail his fear that he is being haunted by the ghost of a friend he lost. In this show, that can actually happen so Mary urges him to investigate which leads to him learning that it’s a trauma-based hallucination. She admits that she sees the faces of everyone she has failed to save which leads naturally to her declaring that she would like to leave this life behind.
It isn’t explicitly stated but there’s an implication that John sees taking up Hunting as a way to redeem any mistakes he made. His optimism is an interesting contrast to the pain he carries with him following his experience in Vietnam and makes him more layered. Mary currently has less beneath the surface but there is a hint of John encouraging a slight softening in her hard edges. Their romance may be inevitable but it’s certainly in the very early stages.
The Winchesters differs from Supernatural‘s early days in that there’s a team rather than a duo. Latika (Nida Khurshid) and Carlos (Jojo Fleites) back up John and Mary with their own expertise and their own built-in trauma to deal with. The episode doesn’t entirely succeed with their introduction as they come across as shallow stock characters with the CW standard loud personalities and -in the case of Carlos- quirks designed to endear them to the audience. It’s currently unclear whether their presence will be worthwhile but in this episode, they came across as egregious additions. Focusing on John and Mary and then bringing the other characters in the second episode may have worked better as their introduction was rushed and felt more like a box-ticking exercise rather than a necessary addition. So far the four of them together amount to the Scooby Gang without the dog, they even have the van.
As a fan of Supernatural, I feel a certain amount of trepidation about this show as episodes of that show used time travel to fill in elements of John and Mary’s backstory. This show would seem to contradict some of what has been established but the framing device of Dean narrating promises to resolve any inconsistencies through Dean learning the truth. He talks about being surprised by some of what he has found so there is a possibility that everything will make sense once Dean’s findings are relayed to the audience. On the other hand, slavish devotion to canon isn’t everything so if the show continues to hold my attention then it’s something I’ll personally be able to deal with., The framing device of Dean’s narration isn’t overused and does increase the intrigue when deployed.
A promising start that introduces the leads well, doesn’t overload the viewer with exposition and teases interesting mysteries to be developed over subsequent episodes. John and Mary are immediately engaging characters and the actors have strong chemistry that helps carry their scenes. For now, their high-level characterisation aligns to tried and tested TV formula but the suggestion of layers is there and things are teased that could be developed. The other characters don’t fare quite as well and their presence bloats the episode somewhat but the core ingredients exist for an engaging overall dynamic. Introducing -or reintroducing- the world of Supernatural is done by having John be inducted into the life of a Hunter while Mary has all of the answers. Once again, it’s a tried and tested formula but works well enough for the purposes of this episode. The plot of the episode is very simple but the fledgling Mary/John relationship is always the focus and the framing device of Dean Winchester narrating isn’t overused. Overall, it’s an engaging return to the world of Supernatural with strong leading characters.
- the two leading performances
- excellent chemistry between the two leads
- not overloading the audience with exposition
- teasing interesting mysteries
- John’s PTSD over Vietnam being well used
- the Dean Winchester framing device being used well
- Latika and Carlos failing to make a strong impression
- their presence bloating the episode unnecessarily
- rushed pacing in places leaving characters little time to process what they experience
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