Jasper Watches ‘The Winchesters’

The Pilot

As any long time fan of Supernatural is aware, this pilot comes with a lot of baggage that’s difficult to set down, from the bizarre Twitter drama surrounding the announcement of the prequel series itself, to questions of why this particular spinoff (and not one of the several failed others). While it is impossible to set The Winchesters aside from its parent show in terms of content, as much as possible I am aiming to set aside the suspicion that has dogged discussion of this pilot since its announcement. Essentially this is all to say that as I collect my thoughts, I am taking what is presented to me in good faith, and I hope, reader, that you will as well. 

A pilot episode is a difficult thing to craft. Its goal is to hook not just an audience, but also a network, for hours of their future attention and funding with a very limited time to do so. It must encapsulate the tone we can expect, short term and long term conflicts, and give insight into the characters introduced without ever answering too many questions. Supernatural’s pilot in 2005, while at times cheesy and ham-fisted, remains one of the better pilot episodes I’ve seen, and so The Winchesters had not only the task of living up to the legacy of a 15 season parent program, but the task of living up to that specific iconic episode. In that regard, The Winchesters had more to accomplish than your average pilot episode, and for the most part I found it to be successful. 

On its own, the episode feels a bit rushed, but there’s a huge amount of establishing details to present to the audience – one which is made up of both long-time Supernatural fans, and newcomers to the show. The first act suffers the most from this, creating somewhat of a top-heavy feeling. The audience is presented with a cold open, the classic intro of many procedural shows and of Supernatural itself, which, while it is familiar in that regard, doesn’t have much payoff even in the final act of the episode. Obviously, this isn’t a fatal flaw – I’ve already expressed that I think this pilot is successful! – but I think for the very first episode of a show, it’s much more comfortable for the audience to be placed with the main character as they lead us into the story. Which is exactly what we’re given after the title card flickers across the screen. 

Drake Rodger’s John Winchester is childish, earnest, and energetic with a great deal of curiosity for the world around him, but, as we know from his first scene, is haunted both by his father’s absence and by the Vietnam War from which he is returning home. I’m impressed with his performance – he brings all that we know of a pre-hunter John from the time travel episodes of Supernatural with a hint of the angry, determined man he becomes. It’s enough to make even a cautious viewer hopeful for an interesting corruption arc, especially when accompanied by the writing talent of Supernatural alum Robbie Thompson. 

As John Winchester guides the audience into the town of Lawrence, Kansas, Dean’s narration guides us into the past, detailing the main idea of the plot for this new series. Voice over narration is generally not considered the most subtle or adept way to tell a story, but in this case even I don’t particularly mind it. In Dean’s voice, what Jensen Ackles sparingly offers the audience is a plea to hear him out. Does this story match with what we already know from Supernatural’s existing canon? No. But there is an underlying promise that it’ll all make sense eventually. On top of this, the existence of Dean’s presence within the narrative in and of itself raises interesting questions: Where is Dean? When is Dean? Who is he talking to (other than the audience)? Why is he researching his parents’ past? A plethora of things to wonder about. 

Mary Campbell as portrayed by Meg Donnelly is introduced within the first few minutes as well, before John even returns to his mother, and is in the best way possible exactly the character we expect, quiet and guarded, tough and tender. Donnelly has a vibrant range of expressions that work well and subtly with her at times spare dialogue, that put me distinctly in mind of Sam Smith in the later seasons of Supernatural, although she brings her own barely there hint of youthful sweetness. If her acting is anything throughout the rest of the season like it is in this episode, I think we’re in for a treat. 

Other than their accidental meeting, what brings John and Mary together for this story is family, and more specifically their missing fathers in an echo of Supernatural‘s 2005 pilot. The story here sets itself apart easily however. Where Sam is reluctant to join Dean, John is eager to join Mary. Where Sam wants to settle into a normal life, John is reaching out towards something dangerous. Even on Mary’s end The Winchesters differentiates itself. Samuel Campbell’s disappearance is odd because of his insistence on honesty and teamwork within his family, whereas John Winchester’s disappearance in the 2005 pilot is nothing new or notable at face value. With John’s fixation on his father Henry in The Winchester’s pilot, I imagine that the theme of fatherhood, especially absent fatherhood, will continue to be an important one throughout the season. 

The Winchesters isn’t entirely made of echoes however. New characters are just as important to making this prequel a success as doing the established ones justice. As Mary reluctantly introduces John to the world of hunting, she introduces him to a few friends and acquaintances who do the same work, namely Carlos (Jojo Fleites), Latika (Nida Khurshid), and Ada (Demettria McKinney). Production definitely had diversity on the mind when creating and casting these characters after Supernatural’s years of criticism for its mostly cisgender, heterosexual, white male cast, but unlike many other CW programs, it feels organic. In part this may be because the world of hunting monsters in and of itself exists on the fringe of mainstream society and naturally feels as though it ought to be made largely of groups who are pushed to the side by the dominant overculture, a.k.a. the oppressed. 

While we don’t see much of Ada, given that she is possessed half of the time she is present on screen, Latika and Carlos still stand out. Latika’s frightened but sweet, smart and feminine personality shines in her interactions with John, all smiles and nervous chatter. She’s the bookish one (we even meet her in a library) and therefore a valuable resource for both the characters and the writers to teach us new things about magic and monsters. I’m excited to see what her character has to offer. 

Carlos is a little more complicated than that. Personally, I find him delightful. He’s gregarious and loud and easy to befriend; he has the best wardrobe and plays guitar too. He’s also openly bisexual, which is awesome. I can count on one hand the bisexual male characters in mainstream TV – that is, who aren’t in a show that is specifically about queer experience. But I found it unnecessary to wrap this revelation about Carlos’ sexuality in the information that he’s both flakey and promiscuous, which is a consistent and frustrating stereotype about bisexual people. All of that said, I always prefer the sluttiest characters, and in all honesty my main reaction was, in the words of the iconic Lucille Bluth, good for her! 

On a personal level, the monster of the week plot rights a folklore wrong from Supernatural season 4 episode 4 “Metamorphosis” for me. As listeners of my Supernatural rewatch podcast ‘On The Road With Supernatural’ may recall, I am a native of New Orleans, and its long history with the paranormal and magical is something that has meant a lot to me growing up and in my adult life. The Cajun wolfman – Lougarou – is a monster that has featured in many a story of my family history, and is prominent in Louisiana’s folklore overall. Needless to say, I was unimpressed with Supernatural’s cannibal monster rugaru. I can’t resist New Orleans as a setting especially when there are monsters involved, so I naturally went into this episode with a bit of a positive bias. I brightened considerably at the Lougarou in the catacombs of a New Orleans cemetery, a little piece of home right where I least expected it. 

Beyond my personal connection, the catacombs and the hidden treasure locked behind them served up a charming Indiana Jones aesthetic quality that meshes well with established monster of the week and small town mystery scenarios that Supernatural offers its audiences, leaning more into the adventure aspects of the story than the horror elements. This is a smart move, given that, while horror never truly stopped being one of Supernatural’s many subgenres, it took a back seat more and more as the series went on. Beginning with the tone that the original series left off is comfortable for a continuing audience and fun for a new one. 

There’s obviously tons to talk about with regards to the ins and outs of the episode’s plot in and of itself. But far more interesting and needful is a return to discussion of Dean’s presence in the story. Somehow, whether it be the strong connection to Dean pre-established with the audience or the insertion of Dean-as-narrator as a tangible physical presence in the story, he turns up in those final moments of the episode feeling for all the world still the main character of the show. I can’t help, as many other long time fans of Supernatural have as well, but notice that distinct difference in color grading in this last scene. The bulk of the episode is presented in flashback with a nostalgic golden glow in stark contrast to Dean’s scene, which bears the familiar bleak gray of the original series, and the presence of both in one episode calls back to an established storytelling strategy there-in: reality is hard and unwelcoming, only dreams and wishful alternatives are soft and warm. The conclusion I draw here is that Dean exists in reality and is the main character after all, which can be nothing other than thrilling. And even then there are still questions, such as, where is Sam and what does Dean’s meaningful look at the Samulet on the rearview mirror mean? 

I’ve spent the past two years skeptical of any continuation of Supernatural given how the series crashed and burned in its two final episodes, but this pilot has renewed my enthusiasm for this world. I definitely plan to keep watching!

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