In the premiere episode of Supernatural, Dean taunts some local police officers. When rebuked by Sam, Dean says, “They don’t really know what’s going on. We’re all alone on this.”
It is thus with a bit of poetic irony that when special agent Victor Henriksen first confronts Dean on the phone in episode 2.12, “Nightshifter” Henriksen says, “Go screw yourself, that’s how I knew. It’s become my job to know about you, Dean.” (Henriksen then goes on to use “I know” 4 more times in his dialog.)
In a world where knowledge is power, and in a show all about learning the truth, the boys now had for the first time an opponent who knew them.
Of all the guest stars who have been on the show, and those who became friends after being foes, none sticks out to me quite like Agent Henriksen. Why? First, it is what he represents.
Whenever humans gather together in large enough numbers, it becomes a necessity for them to begin specializing in tasks. The person who works best with metal becomes the village blacksmith. Another is talented with wheat and becomes the baker, and so on.
Of course, every society will need protectors from disruptive actors as well as enforcers of the society’s norms. While the group of people is small enough, this is a task all participate in (think of “posse”). When the society grows large enough, and a formal body of laws has been established, then some folks specialize in the role and the institution of law enforcement arises, giving us police officers.
Part of what I find so fascinating about the world of Supernatural is that hunters should be institutionalized (and I don’t mean in the sense of episode 5.11, “Sam, Interrupted”). If monsters and ghosts and demons and things are a threat to ordinary citizens, then ideally there would be an institution to handle them. (Now there’s a spin off! Law & Order: SPN.) But there’s not. I love pondering that mystery of why. Were they recognized, once upon a time? In days long past, were hunters the shaman, the priest, the imam, the monk or the medicine man? It would fit with why there seem to be so many old books that contain the knowledge Sam and Dean need. Did the fall of religion also lead to the fall of hunters, such that now they must all be independent actors, working underground because society still has a need for them?
Thus arrives Agent Henriksen, an employee of the FBI, making him not just a member of the institution, but of one of the highest in the land. He essentially represents the “insider” who has now come to oppose our “outsider” heroes. It is now no longer the monsters the boys must fight, but society as a whole via its representative, Henriksen. Even as society is fighting them, the boys are fighting to save society, adding extra layers to the irony.
But it’s not just what he represents that makes Victor Henriksen so compelling. Charles Malik Whitfield’s excellent performance brings to life a character we saw way too little.
Again, go back to that scene in the pilot when Dean insults the local officers. Pretend for a moment that hunters are an “institution” like the police, and you can easily see Dean’s words as a recreation of that old trope, the jurisdictional head-butting.
If you wonder what I mean, it is directly referenced in episode 2.12 when Victor Henriksen walks onto the scene and the local officer says, “Let me guess. You're lead dog now, but you would just love my full cooperation.” It’s that old trope of one law enforcement officer taking over a movie scene from another. In the pilot, Dean subtly plays this against the officers, essentially telling them, “this is our case now.” In “Nightshifter”, Henriksen tells Dean in less subtle tones, “you are my case now.”
This shows us in the audience that, in a lot of ways, Henriksen is very much like the Winchesters, especially Dean. Henriksen later deceiving the brothers with “I’ll give you an hour” and then planning to attack in 5 minutes, proves that he is as crafty as the boys. His recitation of their history proved that he had researched and studied them, just like all those long hours they spent in libraries, researching and studying their targets. Like the boys, he believes there are civilians in danger, and he’s going to do what it takes to rescue them from a monster. It is only by their quick wits and a bit of luck that the boys were able to escape his grasp. For once, they knew what it was like to be one of the monsters with a Winchester on their tail.
In episode 2.19, “Folsum Prison Blues”, Henriksen returned, apparently catching our heroes after a long chase. Only this time we see an important distinction between the FBI officer’s world - and the hunters world. Victor doesn’t get to execute his prey. They have to go into the system.
This ends up working to the boys’ advantage as they need to work a case within a prison, revealing this episode to be an examination of what happens when one institution has a problem another institution is designed to solve. You may think it would be a simple matter, but institutions are as territorial as the people running them. The struggles the Winchesters go through to clean up a problem within the prison are barely a dramatization of the real struggles actual prison reform goes through today.
Yet their plan didn’t expect Victor to get involved (just like so many supernatural monsters’ plans never expect our boys) and he very nearly stops them again – even as they save the life of the prison warden.
Again we see that Victor and Dean are very much alike as Victor tells our hero, “Near went nuts trying to find you” and warns the attorney that the boys are monsters. Meanwhile in the episode, Dean tells Sam, “We do this job wherever it takes us” and “Which is why we should stick around [in jail] until we find it”, showing that they both have a strong drive to do their jobs to the very end, no matter the cost.
In his final shot of the episode, Victor even has a smirk that wouldn’t look out of place on Dean, when he realizes they have eluded him, earning his frustration and grudging respect.
Agent Henriksen’s last appearance was in my personal favorite of season 3, episode 3.12, “Jus In Bello” (Victor’s favorite number seems to be 12). Again, he has captured the boys, but this time it wasn’t according to their plan, but Bela’s.
At the start of the episode, Victor even tells the sheriff one of my favorite dramatic irony lines, “You’ve never been to a rodeo like this before.” (Seriously, this whole episode could be broken down minute by minute with its sheer brilliance and stellar construction.)
He taunts them, bragging about their capture in a way Dean has enjoyed once in a while when he has the monster dead to rights. But Henriksen isn’t what scares the Winchesters. This time their enemies, literal demonic forces, intend to use the system against the boys.
The boys are trapped, unarmed, and seemingly defenseless when a demon takes over Victor. As the demon tries to use Victor’s own hands to kill the Winchesters... the brothers are again saved by their quick wits and fast thinking.
Thus freed from the demon, Victor Henriksen’s eyes are opened – and everything changes.
My job is boring, it’s frustrating. You work three years for one break, and then maybe you can save ... a few people. Maybe. That’s the payoff. I’ve been busting my ass for 15 years to nail a handful of guys and all this while, there’s something off in the corner so big. So, yeah… sign me up for that big, frosty mug of wasting my damn life.
The transcript of this line does not do Charles Malik Whitfield’s performance any justice. As usual with great actors, there is more told to the audience than just the words. With these words you realize that Victor Henriksen is a good man, probably one of the Winchesters’ most daunting single foes because of his righteous conviction. He believed in a higher calling, of trying to save people, and found his job as much of a hindrance to that calling as it was an avenue to achieve it. We’ll never know for certain, but this moment in the show gave us a character we hadn’t seen before – or since, a person who would choose the hunter life not out of tragedy, but because it was the right thing to do.
In a lot of ways, this made him Dean’s “brother from another mother.” More than Sam, Dean has always been driven by the righteousness of being a hunter. As a kid, he told Sam their father was a superhero. When he was older in high school, one of Dean’s more raw emotional moments was declaring “I’m a hero! A hero!” He was the one to coin the phrase “hunting things, saving people - the family business.”
Later in the episode, we see that Henriksen, alongside Dean, is adamant about not compromising their principles to defeat the demons.
They win without sacrificing an innocent girl, or it’s not a victory worth having.
Before he was possessed, we see Henriksen standing strong at the beginning of the siege while everyone panicked. He is then calm and reassuring to Nancy, again just like a certain older brother is to civilians in tense moments.
That’s why Special Agent Victor Henriksen was always my pick for a spinoff lead. He had the tenacity and spirit of the Winchesters, but wasn’t a hunter because of tragic loss. No, he was a hunter because of a noble calling (though he would probably make any time he handled demons fairly personal since he was clearly upset and unhappy with being used by one of them to kill an innocent person). What would that kind of drive do for a hunter?
With his experience in the FBI, would he be an even greater threat, able to navigate the bureaucracy that the supernatural sometimes hides behind? Would he remain with the organization, or would he eventually have to strike out on his own? Would he always be alone or would he eventually find a similar spirit to join his quest? How often might the Winchesters call on him for aid during some of their more challenging trials? (Boy, would he have been fun to have around during the Leviathan arc.) There are just so many rich story potentials and arcs you could draw from this character for multiple seasons of a show! It broke my heart when Lilith walked into that station and killed him.
Then his return in episode 4.02 “Are you there God? It’s me, Dean Winchester” twisted the knife further. When he demands to know why he doesn’t get a second chance, I had to admit it was a fair question.
Farewell, Henriksen. You were one of the most compelling characters in Supernatural. We would have loved to have seen more of you.