Fate is a fickle mistress, especially if you’re a Winchester.
Supernatural has long been interested in the ideas of fate and destiny and what that means in the face of the end of the world, even going so far as to make Dean and Sam’s entire existence a pawn in the battle between good and evil, orchestrated by the powers that be so they can one day fulfill their ultimate purpose of stopping the apocalypse.
For such a heady idea, this was tossed out almost as an afterthought in the midst of the much more pressing matter of season five’s impending apocalypse, and although Mary’s hunter side of the family has been explored in great detail since that time, John’s backstory mostly remained a mystery. “As Time Goes By” takes on the task of filling in these gaps by introducing John’s father, Henry, propelled into Dean and Sam’s lives via fate’s favorite narrative trickster: time travel.
The episode starts out in fairly typical Supernatural fashion, following an unknown man in 1958 Illinois, who says a tender goodnight to his son before engaging in some mysterious supernatural ritual rudely interrupted by a demon named Abaddon. A few herbs are mixed together, and incantation made, and the as-yet-unidentified man is flung from the clutches of the demon and straight into Dean and Sam’s hotel room. It was fairly difficult to avoid the pre-episode chatter surrounding the arrival of Henry Winchester, so the “big reveal” of his identity to Dean and Sam is more of a gut punch to them than the audience. Still, knowing who he was almost helps the opening sequence, as everything takes on more meaning; his conversation with John becomes more touching and tragic, his involvement with some sort of mysterious supernatural organization more intriguing.
And what a mysterious supernatural organization it is: Henry (and his father, and his father before him) is a Man of Letters, a legacy entrusted to be “preceptors, beholders, chroniclers of all that which man does not understand.” They’re the erudite yin to hunters’ brute yang, entrusted to share their findings with elite hunters who then do the rest. The Winchester legacy as a hunter is what made John the perfect preordained match for Mary’s hunter background, and together their children were obviously fated to be the best of both worlds.
When Henry went forward in time in a desperate attempt to find John and stop Abaddon is when everything in this destiny went sideways. Henry quickly realizes his trip forward in time is likely a one-way ticket, with Dean and Sam explaining how John always hated his father for walking out on him when he was only a boy. With Abaddon following Henry through the time portal in search of a key he’s holding—a key later revealed to be basically a supernatural skeleton key—Henry immediately sees an opportunity to go back and set everything right with John. Blessedly for my limited ability to follow complicated time travel shenanigans, Dean isn’t in a hurry to see his image start fading from the family picture, so he does what Dean does best: knocks his grandfather right out.
It’s here, in the race to stop Abaddon from killing a kidnapped Sam (by bringing her what she wants most of all—Henry’s supernatural key), where the idea of fate and destiny comes full circle. If Henry goes back in time and stops things on his end, is a good father to John, and lives long enough to indoctrinate John as a Man of Letters, would Dean and Sam even exist? Would that cupid’s plan to put John and Mary together have worked? From the second Henry transported himself into that hotel room, his fate was sealed. What his journey was about most of all was accepting this fate. That’s why it’s easy to see his (admittedly nifty) double-crossing scheme with Dean coming. Henry’s job here was to meet his grandsons and deliver this key, and his acceptance of that fact in the end is what made his connection to John the most clear. Both were men who would do anything for their families, even if they were only capable of expressing it in opposite ways.
For all the good about this episode—and there was a lot of good—the best thing is how absolutely steeped it is in the best parts of the show’s mythology. Although Mary is the one who died on that ceiling and whose death John spent a lifetime avenging, John is the central figure in Dean and Sam’s lives. His successes and failures as a father made them who they are as hunters and also as men. Henry was a different kind of Winchester: reserved, proper, learned, and stiff. Still, it’s easy to see their similarities, and how those similarities trickled down to the next generation. The Winchester men are men of dedication, of singular focus, driven by a purpose greater than them, even if it is ultimately their downfall.
At one point Dean laments what he sees as Henry’s decision to value his Man of Letters duty over his family, but in the end Henry did exactly what John did before him, and what Dean and Sam would do for each other in a heartbeat: He died, his last act being in service to the Winchester clan. Henry’s last words are essentially the show credo, with him explaining to his grandsons that “You’re also Winchesters. As long as we’re alive, there’s always hope.”
That there is indeed.
- Thanks to Phil for letting me take the reins this week. He’ll be back next week to evaluate what appears to be a wacky golem comedy episode, and boy, am I glad that one’s on him.
- Tonight’s “Then” was a lot of fun, harking back all the way to the pilot and featuring a good amount of random footage from season one. Saving people! Hunting things! Nostalgia!
- The demon shtick is fairly tired, but I greatly enjoyed Abaddon due to the actress’ game performance. Too bad she’s in a million little cement-cased pieces.
- This Man of Letters idea is very compelling. Were they implying the entire organization was wiped out, or are we going to see more of them once the boys figure out that key?
- Henry, on seeing he’s arrived in the year 2013: “I guess the Mayans were wrong.”
- “That’s the problem with you hunters. You’re all shortsighted.” “Yeah, well, at least we’re not extinct.”