The Winchesters premiere on October 11 offers fans a chance to return to the Supernatural universe nearly two years after the show’s conclusion. For many, it’s been far too long. Cass Cooper shares her thoughts on what this moment means for the Supernatural fandom, and what potential the prequel has to offer.
Last year, on June 24, when the news broke that The Winchesters — a Supernatural prequel created by none other than Jensen Ackles himself — was in development at The CW, fandom exploded. Twitter was a mess. Tumblr wasn’t any calmer. I have no idea what goes on over on Facebook, but I can’t imagine it was a picnic there, either. The point is, Supernatural fans had a lot of opinions, very quickly, about this announcement, but not much to base them on.
We knew that fan-favorite Supernatural alum and unofficial hashtag monitor Robbie Thompson had signed on to write the pilot, and that he would serve as executive producer of The Winchesters alongside Jensen and Danneel Ackles, for whom this would be the first project developed by their newly created production company, Chaos Machine. And we knew the premise: Before Sam and Dean, there was John and Mary. Told from the perspective of narrator Dean Winchester (Jensen Ackles), The Winchesters is the epic, untold love story of how John met Mary and how they put it all on the line to not only save their love, but the entire world.
That alone was enough to fuel the fandom fires, and though it was some time before any more particulars about The Winchesters became available, there was no shortage of… let’s call it ‘passionate discussion,’ shall we, regarding the viability of the subject matter.
The Winchesters series launch is now in full swing, with real details finally being shared in terms of what to expect from the project. This weekend saw the cast make their first convention appearance at New York Comic Con, and with The Winchesters October 11 premiere just days away, it feels like the perfect time to dig into all the things that have me absolutely hyped for this prequel. First things first, though, a little background on why I’m so very here for this deeper exploration into the lives of John Winchester and Mary Campbell.
Back in 2010, one of my best friends loaned me seasons 1 through 4 of Supernatural on DVD, and that moment drastically altered the course of my life. That’s not hyperbole — the list of things that I’ve done, places I’ve been, and people I’ve met and grown to love, all as a direct result of that afternoon when my friend handed me a box set and told me to text him with my reaction when I finally met his all-time favorite character at the end of Lazarus Rising — that list is long and mildly ridiculous, and ultimately culminates with me immigrating from my hometown in Australia to sunny-yet-earthquakey Los Angeles.
(Reading that back, I feel I should quickly explain before someone at The CW starts filing a restraining order — my eventual foray into online Supernatural fandom introduced me not only to a lot of people who would become close friends, but also to my wife, a California native who I would never have met without our shared love of Team Free Will bringing us together. All very regular and normal stuff, I promise. Carry on.)
What began as a frenzied rush to catch up before season 6 started airing soon turned into what would eventually become a solid decade of scheduling time to not only watch new episodes as soon as they were available in my Antipodean part of the world, but also setting aside the time to rewatch and discuss them with other fans. To dig into the meat of them, to pull at every thread and study these characters I’d come to adore. Before long, I was traveling to conventions, helping to run fan projects, and even organizing fandom events myself.
Not since Buffy and The X-Files had I found a show that pulled me in so thoroughly, and Supernatural swiftly overtook both as my all time favorite piece of media. It hasn’t budged from that place in the twelve years since I first saw it — and even now, almost two years after the series finale, nothing else has come close.
(Speaking of that final season, the video from Ackles and co-stars Misha Collins and Jared Padalecki announcing that Supernatural would be wrapping up after season 15 hit the internet the morning after my wedding. Rude, frankly. My wife and I were very hungover after a post-reception outing to a Melbourne karaoke bar where we’d enthusiastically performed the show’s unofficial theme “Carry On, Wayward Son” by Kansas in the small hours of the morning, and were in absolutely no state to learn that the show that had brought us together would soon be coming to an end.)
While other series have certainly captured my attention since Supernatural ended, nothing has been quite as consuming. Like many fellow fans I’ve spoken with over the past couple of years, I’ve missed the energy that came with following the ongoing story of Sam, Dean, Cas, and the rest of the extended Supernatural family. Waiting for episodes week to week, speculating about upcoming plot points, analyzing text and subtext alike, that is the lifeblood of fandom to me.
Of course, the Supernatural fandom never really went anywhere. The show’s name and characters still trend on social media multiple times a week, and I don’t think more than a few days have gone by without someone discovering some new tidbit — a previously overlooked detail that feels all the more enlightening or devastating after the show’s final revelations, a comment from an actor at a convention, a deleted scene from an episode script that brings new context to the writer’s intentions — and bringing it to Twitter or Tumblr to talk about. But without any truly new material to anticipate, online fandom has become a far different community than it once was.
So, while moving on from Supernatural was clearly never going to happen — and with 327 episodes worth of story to revisit, a lot of us never even tried — an addition to the wider canon means more than just a new series, to me. It means a chance to get that part of the community back. And that’s not even to mention the return of characters who I’d made peace with never seeing on screen again, or the introduction of new ones who seem like perfect additions to the world we already love.
The perspective I’m approaching The Winchesters from, is, in short, that of a massive Supernatural fan, and I’m absolutely thrilled to be getting another peek into that universe. I know that there are equally massive fans who want nothing to do with this series, and that is there prerogative, but I’m personally coming at The Winchesters as someone who knows and loves the source material, loves or at least is fascinated by every main character (barring, admittedly, Lucifer — fingers crossed for him to remain firmly locked in the Cage) and I’ll be looking at this series with eager eyes for elements to enrich my overall Supernatural experience. My hopes and expectations are high. But I’ll admit, like a lot of fans who engaged in all that passionate discussion of the subject matter back when the first news of The Winchesters emerged, I still initially questioned the decision to center a spin-off around John and Mary’s pre-canon relationship.
Part of my reluctance was due to some lingering bitterness over The CW’s (still baffling) 2018 decision to pass on previous Supernatural spin-off attempt Wayward Sisters, which generated an online petition with over 85,000 signatures from fans who desperately wanted to see it happen, along with significant vocal support from multiple cast, crew, and creative team members who worked on the original show.
While I was more satisfied with where the Supernatural finale landed than some other fans, I’ve often wondered, if Wayward Sisters had gone ahead, would different choices have been made about the final fates of Team Free Will? Featuring a core cast of characters who were already deeply beloved by fans, as well as the opportunity for Sam, Dean and Cas to stop by Sioux Falls every once in a while, Wayward Sisters had really seemed like the perfect option to keep the world of Supernatural alive at a time when — although nothing had been announced — it was becoming clear that the engine powering the “mothership” was slowing down, and it had seemed like no-brainer that while Supernatural itself may end, Ackles, Padalecki and Collins would want to step back into the roles a couple of episodes a year for as long as Wayward Sisters was airing.
I’d more or less given up on the possibility of any further stories within the Supernatural universe after Wayward Sisters fell through, and if the chance was being dangled in front of us again, I wasn’t sure I could muster much enthusiasm for something that didn’t involve those characters somehow — much less something that might try to present John Winchester through a heroic lens. Thankfully, my fears on that front have well and truly been addressed (more on that later) and so, with all that said, let’s take a look at the things I’m most looking forward to when The Winchesters finally kicks off on October 11.
John, Mary and Heaven’s Mandate
While I’ve long appreciated John Winchester as a character — his portrayal by Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Matt Cohen has always been a treat to see — he’s an exceptionally bad parent, and to put it bluntly, kind of a dick. “Excellent character, terrible person” has been my shorthand for how I feel about him since somewhere around Supernatural‘s season 1 episode Something Wicked, in which we learn that he left a young Sam and Dean in a motel to fend for themselves for several days while he hunted a monster that had been specifically attacking children in the town.
It’s not a stretch to view that episode as an example of John actively using his kids as bait, either — he shows up out of nowhere at the precise moment the monster starts attacking a six-year-old Sam, and rather than take personal responsibility for putting his children in danger, he places all the blame on a ten-year-old Dean, who later tells Sam “he never looked at me the same” after that hunt. But even if you want to take an extremely charitable position and assume he wasn’t deliberately using them as bait at this moment, the plain truth of his actions in this episode — including leaving them with a loaded shotgun and barely enough food to stretch between them, and with instructions for Dean to shoot first, ask questions later — are part of a repeated pattern of tremendous neglect that cannot be hand waved away.
This pattern, combined with his primary drive — an all-consuming revenge quest against the demon that killed Mary — and his tendency to place that drive above the needs, wellbeing or happiness of his children, such as the time he cussed out Bobby Singer for letting them play ball instead of doing target practice, means there’s more than enough established about the character to make him a problematic figure at best, even without a more conscious level of cruelty or abuse. Wherever you want to put John Winchester on the parenting scale from “neglectful but trying” to “intentionally abusive” — personally I’d place him somewhere in between, and the brothers, at different moments in their journeys, both condemn and lionize his actions depending on their emotional states — he’s certainly not someone that can be placed cleanly in the column of hero, even if he was ostensibly on the “same side” as Sam and Dean.
Admittedly, this was my biggest stumbling block when the prequel was first announced, and one that I know was shared by a large number of fans. How can The Winchesters present John as the show’s leading man and romantic hero without somehow excusing him for his behavior?
That behavior was necessary, for Supernatural’s core premise to exist, because in short, he fucked Sam and Dean up. Badly. John Winchester fucked up his sons, in countless, endless ways, and the fears, flaws and idiosyncrasies that his treatment of them instilled, not to mention that it created between them, is why we have Supernatural at all. Fantastic, endlessly layered character work at play, but that man stole Dean Winchester’s childhood, made him parent his own brother while he was still in elementary school himself, and stripped him any sense of self-worth or autonomy that he might once have had a chance of possessing, turning a naturally soft-hearted, loving boy into “Daddy’s blunt little instrument.” And now you want me to root for Daddy?
In several recent interviews, The Winchesters star Drake Rodger — a huge fan of Supernatural who knows how controversial his new role is — has spoken perceptively about John’s downward spiral and how he’s kept that in mind while portraying this younger, more hopeful, but still perhaps privately dark version of him.
“This person is working through his demons killing demons, and that’s not healthy,” Rodger said of young John in The Winchesters, drawing a comparison to the “dark energy” and “evil draw to kill” of Sam in Supernatural season 1. “If you’re a war veteran and you have PTSD, that’s almost its own demon in and of itself. It’s a version of you that wants to live out almost these horrific fantasies, these memories, and John has found a way where he can live them out, and when he lives them out, it’s celebrated — it’s like, ‘Oh you’re doing a good thing for killing these demons.’ But it isn’t all altruistic in that regard. There’s a part of him where it’s a device.”
Citing the character decay of Walter White to Heisenberg in Breaking Bad during The Winchesters panel at NYCC, Roger spoke about wanting to show the transition from “who [John] wanted to be, versus what Chuck or destiny had in mind for him.” Knowing that Rodger not only appreciates the complexity of the character, but also understands the importance of keeping his evolution in mind, gives me all the more confidence in his ability to bring young John to life, and the implication that the writing of John in The Winchesters is keeping that issue so truly in the forefront puts a great number of concerns to rest.
We already know, thanks to Supernatural’s inclusion of anecdotes, flashbacks, memories and even time travel, that John had been a different person before Mary’s death. He had his issues, yes. His quickness to anger, especially regarding power dynamics (see: season 5’s “The Song Remains the Same,” in which a young John, played by Matt Cohen, finds himself under his sons and wife as the ‘damsel’ at the bottom of the pecking order when he finds out the truth about the supernatural in 1978, an incident which is wiped from both Mary and John’s memory) and his rocky relationship with Mary, a detail that’s revealed both in that episode and during Dean’s heaven memory loop in “Dark Side of the Moon.” His eagerness to join the Vietnam War in the first place could also pose a question about just what type of person he is. But he still had the chance to grow and make good choices.
Obviously, John doesn’t make good choices in the end. He makes some outstandingly bad ones, in fact, and I’m fully invested in seeing all the things that connect John as he was in his youth to the man he eventually becomes; particularly which things were the result of Mary’s death, which parts may be due to war trauma, and which parts of him were there all along.
Mary, on the other hand, is a character I failed to fully appreciate until her surprise season 12 resurrection, which became one of my favorite elements of Supernatural’s final run of seasons under showrunner Andrew Dabb.
The death of Mary Campbell, later Mary Winchester (played by Samantha Smith in the original series, Amy Gumenick in flashbacks, and Meg Donnelly in the prequel) is the instigating incident of Supernatural, and the effect it had on both the wider world of Supernatural and on her sons lives in particular, is both massive and central, but it wasn’t until her season 12 character arc which took an almost mythological mother figure and gave us a flawed, driven, and traumatized woman with her own issues to resolve that I came to love her character. But there’s still a lot we don’t know about Mary’s past.
While she ultimately appeared in far more episodes of Supernatural than John, the vast majority of those took place after she was brought back to life, and as a result focused mostly on the trauma of being thrust into a world she no longer recognized, with fully grown adult sons where her toddler and baby had been, and the knowledge that her husband was not only gone but had raised them into the very life she’d hoped to avoid.
What little we do know is this: born and raised as a hunter by father Samuel (played by Mitch Pileggi on Supernatural, with Ackles’ Smallville colleague Tom Welling stepping into the role for the prequel) and mother Deanna, but nevertheless in what seemed to be a stable home, Mary wanted nothing more than to get out of “the life,” and she loved John largely because of what he represented to her — an escape into normalcy.
That said, her relationship with him was, according to Heaven’s representatives, “helped along” to some unknown degree by angelic meddling in order to breed Sam and Dean as the perfect vessels for Lucifer and Michael, and was indeed depicted as troubled in the time before her death, suggesting that even with the angels’ interference, there were some issues between them that could not be easily resolved.
Considering comments from Donnelly during recent press events where she highlights Mary’s independence and strength, and how adept a hunter she already is when she meets John, it seems likely that this might be a source of friction between them. All of this means that any deeper exploration into her upbringing, her relationship with hunting and being part of a hunting family, and what exactly all that angelic meddling entailed, is incredibly interesting to me.
Further, when it comes to John and Mary’s relationship, it’s never been clear just how much angelic interference actually took place. While we know it was a “top priority arrangement” for Heaven, we don’t know how many attempts were made, or how sinister it might have been. Was the meddling just a gentle nudge here and there to help them resolve disagreements and to put them in each other’s paths, or were they manipulated in a deeper way, maybe even mind-wiped and reset until a successful trajectory was found?
“Ooh, they couldn’t stand each other at first. But when we were done with them — Perfect couple,” a cupid tells Sam and Dean in season 5’s “My Bloody Valentine,” the episode following “The Song Remains The Same.” What does this mean??? Part of me wants The Winchesters to really lean into the horror element there, as I always wished had been explored more deeply in the original series, though there’s no telling at this point.
Which leads me to what I consider the most compelling aspect of John and Mary’s love story: the fact that it is doomed. We already know where it’s leading.
We know that no matter what happens, come November 2nd 1983, Mary will die on the ceiling of Sam’s nursery.
We know that John will fall apart and become the worst possible version of himself after her death.
We know that Sam and Dean will be raised into a life Mary never wanted for them, and that they’ll both go through (and to) Hell as their lives are manipulated by a cruel and capricious God who sees their struggles as nothing more than a source of entertainment.
We know all of this, which makes the John and Mary story within this series a tragic, doomed adventure from the outset–something I am very excited to get upset about.
A Wider Cast of Characters
Between the pitch-perfect casting of young Mary and John — both Meg Donnelly and Drake Rodger have managed to capture the energy of their predecessors to an impressive degree — and the introduction of new characters Latika (Nida Khurshid), Carlos (Jojo Fleites), and Ada (Demetria McKinney) as well as Bianca Kajlich as Millie Winchester, John’s mother and Henry’s wife — we’re looking at a series that finally gives us what I’d longed for on Supernatural: a real ensemble cast.
For me, stories are at their best when they’re character focused, and while centering a series around two people can obviously be effective for a time, the real juicy character work comes from not only seeing how they cope with their struggles together, but by seeing them in different contexts and with different people.
While at its core The Winchesters is being set up as a love story between John and Mary, there’s also been a clear effort to present the show as an ensemble from the outset — something which was pointed out by showrunner Robbie Thompson at the show’s NYCC panel: “Supernatural became a show about a larger family, but it was a two-hander. We really wanted [The Winchesters] to start with that family.”
The deliberate inclusion of a wider cast is especially exciting when you consider how the people who John and Mary surround themselves with during the early days of their relationship might play into the tragedy it ends in. I’m finding myself particularly intrigued by the thought of Ada, Latika, and Carlos possibly being involved in the wider existing mythology.
Re-writing or changing the established Supernatural story is not the goal of The Winchesters — according to Ackles, “Does this fade the picture at all?” is the question he and Thompson have taken to asking one another, referring to the moments in Back to the Future when a change to the past erases events to come — and it’s clear from how the creative team talks about maintaining continuity that great care is being taken to avoid breaking canon in any way.
Still, the nature of the Supernatural universe is, well… supernatural, giving The Winchesters the freedom to take any number of unexpected detours along the way. When the established world already has time travel, memory wipes, psychic manipulation, and meddling gods, it’s easy to see all the details that we might learn about John and Mary’s history that might at least bend canon a little, or retroactively change implications for Supernatural viewers, even if the details of the main show remain in place and The Winchesters ultimately concludes, in the long run, with John and Mary not remembering that any of this ever happened, returning to a life in which John remains oblivious of the truth about Mary, her family, and the world of monster-hunting.
But is it possible that one of the “core four” might learn about Azazel’s 1972 activities in Maryland, where his search for a “very special child” kicked off? Could Carlos or Latika encounter an angel, and unknowingly (or knowingly!) help along the celestial plan to get John and Mary together? Could Ada’s rare book store hold any familiar items we see later on? There are so many possibilities for how things could tie back to the story we already know, and getting to know these characters and how they’re involved was one of the first things that got me excited about this series.
I say one of, because the fact that we’re getting this prequel framed by Dean’s narration as he writes down the story in a journal, symbolically taking control of the narrative after the trauma of Chuck’s puppeteering manipulation, was enough to get my attention from the outset. Which leads me to the next thing on my list:
Getting Dean Winchester Back
Full disclosure: I’m perhaps a little bit obsessed with Dean Winchester. He’s the character for me. The one character I measure all other characters against. The sound I made when we first learned that we were getting him back in any capacity probably upset several neighborhood dogs, so finding out that we’ll get to hear his voice again in every episode, after I’d been convinced that we’d never hear anything new from him again? That was really the icing on the
pie cake. Finding out that he’ll be physically appearing from time to time as well? That’s a whole damn bakery.
As I mentioned earlier, the symbolism of Dean writing down the story is something that really strikes me as important, considering the devastating reveal about Chuck’s manipulation in the final season of Supernatural — but it does also raise the question of how accurate or honest Dean will be, considering how unreliable a narrator he’s been in the past. In Supernatural, Dean has overwritten his own memories when they’ve been too painful to think about (see: season 8’s “A Little Slice of Kevin,” and not processing Cas letting go of him in Purgatory,) and more than once it’s been made clear that he obfuscated the truth to make it easier to deal with (see: season 9’s “Bad Boys,” hiding his time at Sonny’s foster home from Sam well into adulthood.)
So can we take Dean’s word as truth? Will we see different versions of events as he tries to piece together the true story and separate out the embellishments that John (and later Mary) may have added when telling him about their past, or even see him veer away, if some aspect of the story is too much for him to handle? (I meant this in an angsty way, but the comedic possibilities there are a goldmine, actually — Dean narrating over his parents first kiss before cutting himself off with a grossed-out, “…but we don’t need to see any of that.” is something that I now desperately need to happen.)
I’ll definitely be paying extra close attention to what Dean says as the first few episodes air, and while I hope that his ascension to the afterlife has come with a level of clarity and acceptance that will allow him to be a reliable narrator here, I’m interested to see if that is the case (and if so, whether it is linear progress without regression.)
Speaking of the afterlife — the reason why Dean is not simply wandering over to his parents’ little corner of Heaven 2.0 (if this is, indeed, post-finale Dean, which I think it must be) to ask them about their youth remains unknown, as is the reason why he is questioning it at all, but I can’t help thinking that the version of John and Mary that are with Dean in Heaven also don’t know the version of the story that The Winchesters is telling, and we can only assume that the answer to these questions are going to be part of the big reveal in episode 13, which showrunner Robbie Thompson told us about last week. My gut feeling tells me that we might be looking at an overarching and intertwining mystery on both the Dean level and on the John and Mary level — this would certainly be a good reason for keeping it on a slow burn, and I’m already buzzing over the weekly speculation that’s bound to happen on that front.
Seeing (Or Hearing) Other Faves
Since the series was announced, there has been talk of seeing familiar faces pop up on screen, and earlier this week in an interview with TVLine, Jensen Ackles confirmed that “there are plans to have other voices being heard alongside Dean’s at times” as well.
One upcoming guest appearance was even hinted at during the NYCC panel, when Robbie Thompson teased that he is “low-key excited about the next one.” Considering that our own resident Loki/Trickster/Gabriel, Richard Speight Jr, is currently in the midst of directing The Winchesters episode 7, it doesn’t feel like a stretch to think that might have been a clue that we’ll see him pulling actor/director double-duty again like he did with Supernatural season 13’s ode to the archangel, “Unfinished Business.”
Beyond Gabriel, though, there’s really no shortage of other characters who have the potential to pop into The Winchesters — and through time-travel and magic, all things are possible. Still, there are several who seem far more likely than others, particularly within the two aspects of the narrative that we’re currently aware of.
Regarding the obvious exclusion — Jared Padalecki as Sam — Ackles has said that Sam appearing isn’t the most plausible, logistically, for the plot. “When you understand where we are in the timeline of things, it can get a little tricky with that,” he explained, which makes me feel relatively confident that the time period of The Winchesters, on Dean’s side, is set during the 40 years in Heaven after he has died but Sam has not. Sam may eventually appear (“We’ll figure it out, because it’s Supernatural,”) but within the realm of Dean’s narration, characters like Jack, Cas, or post-Supernatural Mary and John would make sense as early appearances, as they’re all in Heaven by the time Dean arrives during the season 15 finale, and presumably able to join him as he digs into the past.
Perhaps Jack used his new God-level powers to send Dean on this metaphysical road trip, and he’ll come to help him find his way. Perhaps Mary or John will come to give him some further insight into something he learns, or provide some narration of their own. Perhaps Cas encouraged Dean to go on this journey to help him heal from the horror of learning he was just a character in Chuck’s story, and he’ll drop in to see how it’s going.
In the realm of the 1972 narrative, there’s the possibility of one of the gang meeting someone like psychic Missouri, who lived in Lawrence, or Rufus, who was a hunter for some time before he taught Sam and Dean’s other father figure Bobby Singer about the supernatural. Then there are all the other somewhat immortal characters who were alive(ish) and on Earth(ish) in 1972 — Rowena, Crowley, and Balthazar are all fan favorites who have each proven to enjoy meddling in human affairs.
And of course, there’s Henry Winchester, Man of Letters and John’s missing father. We know perfectly well what happened to him, but given the focus of John’s story in The Winchesters, will he end up communicating with his long-lost father in one way or another? While it’s not necessary for any of these characters to turn up in order for this show to have me excited — as I mentioned, the main cast already have my attention — I’m not immune to the temptation of seeing my faves on screen again.
Whatever happens, the long Hellatus is almost over, and I can’t wait for fandom to get back to what we do best. I’ll catch you in the livetweets. (#TheWinchesters)