A prequel to the CW smash Supernatural focuses on the parents of the monster hunting brothers.
After fifteen seasons, ever-escalating seasonal arcs, and literally thousands of trips to the afterlife for both Winchester brothers, Supernatural closed its final chapter. Once you’ve killed God, Lucifer, and Death, is there anywhere else to go? The CW, faced with the prospect of losing it’s biggest moneymaker, was already laying the groundwork with Jensen Ackles (who played older brother Dean) for a new spin-off/prequel focusing on John and Mary, the ill-fated parents of the Winchesters. A bold move, considering the story of Mary and John was well-trod ground in Supernatural, even featuring the boys time traveling back to the days of their parents’ courtship. Bold, too, because who would want to watch a show about two of the most reviled characters in the show’s history? Supernatural historians will tell you that John was neglectful, with some heavily implied physical abuse. Mary, only getting to know her children as adults, was distant and cold, not the sainted paragon of motherhood she’d been painted as.
But Ackles, along with wife Danneel and showrunner Robbie Thompson, have crafted a clever way of retconning the already-familiar characters. And while no doubt the details will unspool as the season progresses, the premise is an intriguing one. In some unspecified time before the show’s 2020 finale, Dean Winchester is trying to piece together the real story of how his parents came to be his parents. Ackles makes a brief appearance at the end of the pilot, something to entice the existing fans of the Supernatural-verse while giving a nice bookend to newer watchers. Also, it never hurts to look at Jensen Ackles.
This isn’t the first attempt at a Supernatural spin-off, from the (thankfully) dead on arrival pilot Bloodlines (think Twilight meets Gossip Girl, but lacking an ounce of the charm) to the female-centric Wayward Sisters. So how did The Winchesters succeed in being made while previous attempts died on the vine? One reason might be a strict (maybe too strict) dedication to the Supernatural format. While Bloodlines and Wayward Sisters really tried to be something different and new (to varying degrees of success), The Winchesters hits every note of your average episode of Supernatural, beat by beat. It’s possible this is Thompson, et. al.’s way of easing existing fans in, but thankfully by the end of the pilot it’s clear that this ain’t (is?) your mama’s Supernatural.
Set in the 1970’s, we meet young John Winchester (Drake Rodger), a young Marine newly returned from Vietnam, and carrying all of the baggage you’d expect with that. When he returns home to Kansas, John bumps into Mary Campbell (Meg Donnelly), the scion of a family of monster hunters whose legacy of “saving people, hunting things” goes back generations. John, too, isn’t all he appears at first blush, being a legacy member of the Men of Letters—basically Freemasons who hunt monsters on a global scale. Seemingly abandoned by his father at the age of four, John has no knowledge of what the Men of Letters are, or what really happened to his father.
The setup mirrors the Supernatural pilot in a few ways: missing dad, grumpy/sunshine duo, classic rock music. But like any offspring, it isn’t long before The Winchesters starts stepping out of that shadow. Rather than a gruff duo traveling middle America in a classic muscle car, Winchesters solidify establishes an ensemble cast—a literal Scooby Gang, complete with van. Aside from John and Mary, there is the beautiful research whiz Latika (Nida Khurshid) and the vibrant Carlos (Jojo Fleites), an openly queer hunter who shows John the ropes of monster killing. Latika and Carlos breathe some much-needed life into the pilot, as John and Mary aren’t yet in a place where there is any thought of romance. There’s no will-they-or-won’t-they, because we know they eventually will, but if John’s twinkling interest in Latika is any indication, that won’t be happening for a while yet.
The weakest parts of the show come, unfortunately, any time John and Mary interact one-on-one. Though they manage to find a rhythm by the end of the pilot, their dialogue is often stilted, and their chemistry uneven. “I figured you liked your coffee like you like your world view,” John says in one scene. “Black as night.” Oof. Painful and awkward as the dialogue is, the show also suffers from trying to shoehorn the Winchester parents into the roles their children will eventually occupy. Mary is the gruff, leather-clad Hunter who’s been there, done that. Her rough manner hides an intense (but not, you know, *girly*) vulnerability. And John is there to be the flannel-wearing giant with soulful eyes. The potential for really excellent storytelling is there—if the writers had only given these two a little more individuality and more room to breathe.
Still, The Winchesters managed to be an engaging, even enjoyable watch with a lot of charm, particularly in the way the newly-formed Hunter gang interact with each other and the mythos of the Supernatural Monsterverse. There are plenty of easter eggs for the die hard fans, but it’s likely that The Winchesters will end up with some dedicated fans all its own given time.
The Winchesters is now playing on the CW.