I wanted to like The Winchesters. I was really, really rooting for The Winchesters. I watched the entire season, even though I started getting doubts early on. Now that I’ve seen the entire season, it was a mixed journey for sure. It’s one where I’m doubting if it’s a viable concept going forward.
Let’s address the elephant in the room first. There’s a huge reason why the previous Supernatural spinoffs haven’t worked. Audiences primarily have tuned in for Sam and Dean. When you want to tell something other than the Sam and Dean Winchester story, it has to be amazing. It has to stand out and be uniquely different, while maintaining subtle ties to the original series. The characters need to be layered, complex, and have the ability to connect emotionally, the plots need to be imaginative, sharp and brisk, and there needs to be a sense of urgency to the threats these characters face. Production has to deliver too. Does the production do more with less, like many of these low budget sci-fi shows? Often times, the answer was no for The Winchesters.
Sure, there were a lot of shout outs to Supernatural, but did they really service the plots? Since this was alternate universe, The Trickster was just a trickster. Rowena was just a witch with an agenda. Henry Winchester was a ghost that was summoned a bit too easily for being gone for 15 years. There were only so many Easter eggs I could consume before I realized I was full. It felt like stunt casting and shoutouts for the sake of it rather than boosting the stakes or intensity of the fight.
Still, the concept was cool, even though after watching the whole season if it felt like the series existed only to give Dean Winchester an ending he deserved. It wasn’t a bad reason to have a series, but I wish we were clued on that a little sooner so I wouldn’t have spent all season wondering what the f*** was going on. By the later part of the season, it all became too frustrating. There are times I want to watch a show and not have to work at it too hard. Clues and mysteries are nice, baffling intentions are momentum killers.
Season One in a Nutshell
Each episode kicked off with words of wisdom from Dean Winchester, who is observing in some way the 1972 version of John Winchester and Mary Campbell, his parents as young adults who have their first meeting in Lawrence, Kansas. The question is, why? Right off the bat it’s obvious this isn’t the real John and Mary story, because they start hunting together. As we know, in the original series, John didn’t find out about hunting until Mary died in 1983. With this new shift, everything is now different. This certainly produced a setup for a new, exciting adventure.
From the first episode it was obvious this was a ensemble show, and not just John and Mary fighting monsters. The “Scooby Gang” theme was intentional per Robbie Thompson in an early series interview. He saw value in starting with a “family” already in place. It was an interesting choice, but not totally out of line given with Supernatural’s love for Scooby Doo. Four young adults in 1972 driving around in a hippie van fighting monsters. I’m not sure why it didn’t work for me for the most part. Maybe because it wasn’t as sexy or slick as two brothers traveling the country in a classic muscle car. Maybe because when I saw them together in the van, I wondered why they were missing the dog. Either way, it seemed campy to me a lot of the time. Scooby Doo was campy, but it was supposed to be! It was a fun, silly cartoon.
I admire the choice to start with an ensemble rather than just two heroes like the flagship. An ensemble gives writers flexibility in story telling and a some room to build out complexity in each character through weekly plots. With more characters, an A plot and the B plot can co-exist in the same episode. The risk of that approach though is the cast needs to blend well and the two separate plots should have equal value. That didn’t always happen well. Part of the reason was the Scooby gang were trying to figure out their place, which is a very realistic spot for young adults. John was fresh back from Vietnam, Carlos was not only back from Vietnam, but gave up rock star dreams to take up the hunting life. Lata was trying to escape her past and embrace hunting while still being a pacifist. Mary faced the same struggle as her counterpart in the original series. She wanted to leave the life. She could go to college, she could leave town and start over, or she could pursue a romance with John, even though his new discovery of hunting was giving him a purpose. With all these competing wants and needs, the team was usually on shaky ground. Mary often treated it as a temporary gig, Carlos did not. It was hard for audiences to fully be onboard with the team when they weren’t sure about themselves. Even in the end, John and Mary went off to have an adventure alone. So much for the unbreakable team bond.
Another thing hurting this “family” were the A plot and B plot divisions. They didn’t often gel into something that enhanced the story overall. I blame the editing for that a lot of the time. The back and forth between the two stories often seemed scattered instead of seamless, which killed the momentum of one story for the sake of the other and vice versa. This is a problem that also plagued Supernatural in it’s later years. A good example of this was “Suspicious Minds.” While Mary and John were having a rather intense adventure with the evil Men of Letters guy, the intensity of that story was constantly interrupted by Lata and Carlos’ slow and dramatic encounter with the now unpossessed Roxy. While both stories had value, they didn’t go well together at all. The worst however was “Tears of a Clown.” The A plot was very, very good while the B plot with Ada and Rowena was pointless, campy, and as a result dragged the episode down.
The characters in The Winchesters weren’t given enough time to breathe and develop. There were some strong moments, especially for Carlos. This was a colorful character with a real tragic past. He was given some big chances to shine, particularly in “Masters of War” and “Hang on to Your Life.” He was funny and badass, but also a real friend that deeply cared. He and Lata formed a particularly strong bond and were so much better together than apart. When Carlos had to be supportive friend to Lata and Mary, he exuded sympathy and comfort. I wanted to know more about him and I think if the series continues, he must get a bigger role. Too often he was relegated to thin B plots.
Lata was a bit more perplexing and her character wasn’t given the same justice. We never saw how she was able to amass the amount of knowledge she did or what truly drove her. She just read books? It would have been cool if she was in tune to a network of hunters and started writing journals for them or had meet ups or something to share info. The fact that she magically had the answer each episode to what the monster and lore was without seeing her process got very annoying. Sam and Dean had a lot more guess work than that and they were hunters years later! They had the internet at their disposal. Also, her “deep dark secret” that followed her most of the season was anti-climatic and didn’t tell us much about her character and what made her tick. Her close friendship with Maggie, Mary’s dead cousin, wasn’t revealed until the ghost of Maggie suddenly appeared, even though Maggie was mentioned throughout the entire season. Why did they have a relationship? It did nothing for the story other than to shoehorn Maggie into an episode.
Mary, unfortunately, wasn’t a likable character. I’m not sure if it was the writing or the acting, but she had the personality of a cold fish. When she’s one of your main two characters, that’s a real problem. I know she was scared, especially when Samuel disappeared in the pilot (nice shoutout to the original), but that vulnerability didn’t come across well. She tried to step up and take on the leadership role since she was the experienced hunter, but she often came across as petulant and whiny. She wanted to get out of hunting, but she was needed after it was discovered the Akrida were trying to destroy the world. Her struggle constantly got attention in episodes like “You’re Lost Little Girl,” “Legend of a Mind,” “The Art of Dying,” and “Tears of a Clown,” but I didn’t feel any of it. I didn’t feel her desire for a real life, her willingness to pursue a romance with John in “Hang on to Your Life” or even her badass move behind the wheel of Baby in the season finale to take out the Akrida queen. I felt it way more in Supernatural when they showed Mary in flashbacks or time travel (at least in the earlier seasons). I really do think a lot of the blame fell on Meg Donnelly, who didn’t have the acting skills to sell Mary’s struggle. She couldn’t show, not tell. Mostly we got annoyed brooding. She also was far more high strung than the even-keeled Mary we knew from the original series.
If there was one star to come out of this show, that would be Drake Rodger as John Winchester. He had the total package. He sold the story of John with just one look in his eyes. He sold the dialogue too, but words or not, you could always feel the anguish inside him. He gave us plenty of traits that were found in both Sam and Dean Winchester, and I just felt like I was watching a true Winchester. You could tell he studied the original series carefully. His best scenes though were with others and not Mary, which ended up deflating the whole “epic romance” thing. That wasn’t Drake’s fault though. The chemistry between the pair just wasn’t there.
There were also supporting characters like Ada, who was finding her stride and growing in her witchcraft. She was often very interesting with her earth magic, until the end when the writing made her weak and useless. Millie Winchester, John’s mother, essentially became the glue holding everyone together. She already dealt with the disappearance of her husband Henry and raising a son while running a business, a very male oriented business I might add. She was tough as nails yet still sympathetic, caring and very wise. She kept herself together during a crisis, in other words, the perfect role model for these young people still trying to find their way. Millie was the one character for me that was a joy to watch from beginning to end.
The other character I adored was Samuel Campbell, who was only in 3 episodes, but he was awesome in all of them. That characterization was consistent with the original series Samuel. He was gruff, untrusting, but he would remain true to the team and the hunt anyway. He did have a knack for showing sympathy at the right times. I love that he didn't care for the Men of Letters. Mole men? Good one! I love that Millie also set him in his place when he was being an asshole. Tom Welling was inspired casting, but I do admit to a bias there.
Strengths and Weaknesses
Considering this was the roots of the epic John and Mary Winchester romance, that’s where the show failed the most. I get it, love stories take time to evolve. It’s not all sparks the second that characters lay eyes on each other. But as it did evolve, I wasn’t feeling it. Sure, John and Mary liked each other and started developing feelings over time, but was my heart a flush when they kissed the first time when facing the Akrida in “Reflections?" No. Is it perhaps because I was expecting it? Was it the chemistry between the actors being off? I just know as a viewer I wasn’t sold on their “epic” romance.
The scenes with the most emotional impact involved John and Millie. The most heartbreaking scene of the series was John in the shower at the end of “Masters of War” having a full PTSD breakdown, while Millie calmly holds him with comfort and no words. It’s the show, don’t tell that Drake really brought to this role. The same was true with John and Millie in “Cast Your Fate to the Wind,” when John hatched that plan to really die to seal the fate from the amulet, then hoped to be resurrected. As Millie heard the insane plan, she obviously struggled deeply with the idea, but wasn’t given time to do otherwise. The way she and John deliberated over the act with little time to spare, the vampires banging down the door, then Millie having to electrocute her own son for the sake of the plan, kept me on the edge of my seat, my heart fully breaking for these two. It made me wonder why we couldn’t get this with all the characters each week.
The lamest parts of the season were the attempts at upping the “sexual tension” with John’s ex-Betty and Mary’s barely noticeable love interest Kyle. They only went to the movies together, right? Just like Supernatural, this show didn’t flourish with love triangles (or was it a love square?) or anything related to romance. Even Carlos’ love interest was weak, and that was the strongest relationship on the show. Again, they needed to spend that wasted time on upping the stakes on saving the world and drawing out these character dynamics through beefier, more gut wrenching plots.
One strength of the series was the Monster of the Week, going back to the old Supernatural ways of finding monsters that hadn’t been done before. Robbie Thompson even mentioned the old rule, if a monster is Googleable, it has a place in the rotation. Oh man, I really missed that rule in the later seasons of Supernatural when they kept getting into the same old Demon/Vampire/Werewolf ruts. It was refreshing to see here, and it was done well. I liked a lot of the Monster of the Week stories, even if some of the motives were head scratchers.
However, the choice of the main threat, the Akrida, was less than inspired. Bugs? I get it, they’re supposed to be from another world (not planet though since there’s the whole no aliens thing), but bugs? BUGS?? Worse yet, bad CGI bugs. They made The Leviathan look good. It was awfully hard to take them seriously. Maybe because they introduced the device to defeat them in the pilot. Maybe it’s because this was a prequel to Supernatural, we knew they weren’t going to succeed. They went out with a whimper rather than a bang. What if the stakes were raised by unleashing the Akrida on another world? Possibly Sam’s world? I get it, it’s hard to do without knowing if another season will happen, but a villain should leave a pit in your stomach and not be easily defeated. You shouldn’t be laughing at the bad CGI and waiting for the weapon that defeats them to work in the knick of time when it needs to.
If you need a good example of a terrifying villain, anyone watch The Orville? Their primary enemy were highly intelligent, practically indestructible artificial beings. Machines that learned to conquer their evil masters, only to believe that all of mankind was evil and should be destroyed too. The Kaylon were freaking terrifying! Yeah, they could often be compared to The Borg from Star Trek, but if you’re looking for villains that will pose a real threat to the world, that’s the way to do it! That show only had 10-13 episodes a season, so they proved you could produce a formidable foe and tell deep character stories even though the amount of time to tell the story was short.
Although, maybe the comparison to The Orville is unfair, since that show did have a much bigger budget. Let’s toss out the VFX budget then. There was something in The Orville scripts that really pushed the tension sky high when the enemy was engaged. They also had to deal with multiple threats, not just one. That multi-layered story telling pushed the characters beyond their comfort zones and the emotional impact to their predicament was not only huge, but it was given ample time to play out. I really felt a connection to each of these characters after the first season. In Supernatural, this was done best in season two. Sam and Dean had things coming at them on all sides. You learn a lot about a character when they’re pushed to their limits. I don’t think any of these characters in The Winchesters were pushed that hard. It was sort of, “It’s the end of the world, let’s ride in the van!”
Another big problem with The Winchesters was the introduction of characters/story arcs that took time and went nowhere. I’m disappointed how they went down the path of John being wanted for murder only to walk it back quickly an episode later. The writers finally found a way to up the stakes and then they abandoned it? That was a waste of time. So was introducing Roxie, only to leave her character twisting in a motel room after she decided to help. There was Ada’s son Tony too and well as Carlos’ love interest Anton. Why weren’t they all part of the finale, doing their part to save the world? They all had special gifts that could have been useful. There was even Betty, who got to do nothing after she learned monsters were real.
I do struggle with the notion though, was the weakness in the overall storytelling or the production? As I mentioned earlier, the way the scenes bounced back and forth between each storyline at a rapid pace, often times it didn’t give either story thread time to breathe, which is the fault of editing. The production value of the show often felt cheap and low budget. The VFX was weak to utterly atrocious (see Akrida), and a lot of the show was filmed in broad daylight, which doesn’t do much for your monsters lurking in the dark stories. That tells me that they didn’t have a second film crew and didn’t have many night shoots. Sure, there were some great directors, but the directing can only do so much if the other pieces don’t deliver. A successful show needs to look expensive, even when it isn’t. A lot of shows compensate for that by focusing on character based stories and setting a consistent dramatic tone and pace. It has to be compelling and believable, even if it’s sci-fi. That’s why I think the end of the world plot became a disservice to The Winchesters. With the limitations in production and writing, they couldn’t overcome what was needed to make this a believable reality.
Was It Worthy?
I could break down everything that happened in this series, but the big question is, did I like it? For the most part, yes. Did I love it? No. It didn’t spark imagination for me like Supernatural. I know, it’s a spinoff that needs to find it’s own identity, but it often felt like a tame teen drama. Tonally it was off. I didn’t feel that sense of urgency or foreboding like you would get with a sci-fi looming end of the world plot. They needed to create more tension through stronger material, deeper character predicaments and push the limits of the acting. They needed more humor. They needed to loosen up these characters more and give them room to shine. While the Scooby Gang dynamic opened up character possibilities, it also cheapened the legitimacy of the mission.
The biggest problem that impacted my enjoyment was I spent every week going, “What is this?” Obviously it was a changed timeline since John found out about Henry and Men of Letters as well as hunting, but there were too many inconsistencies where this was not just merely a changed timeline. It became apparent after a while this was likely an alternate universe, but why? Sure, a satisfactory answer was given at the end of the season finale, but did that reveal suddenly make the rest of the season enjoyable? No.
I get it though, it’s hard to recreate the magic that Supernatural gave us. That was a very rare phenomenon. That honestly wasn’t my expectation. I just hoped for some bolder stories, for episodes that made me excited enough to want to watch it again. That only happened once, and that was the season finale. I do admit, the appearance of Jensen Ackles probably had a lot of do with that. While I enjoyed seeing characters like The Trickster, Henry Winchester, and Rowena, they weren’t really the characters we knew. Dean was. It was magnificent. But the trouble with appearances like that, it only reminds us how much we miss the original. Dean and Sam can’t be a big presence in this show. It has to flourish on its own. So far, this series has failed to do so.
I kept an open mind, but as the old saying goes, how far do you open your mind before your brains fall out? It boils down to what do I want in a series? After all, I’m a very busy person. I don’t have time to waste my evenings on filler. The criteria is simple. Something clever. Something unique. Something that is an attention getting. Something that makes you fall in love with the characters almost immediately, and even more so by the end of the season. The Winchesters was…none of that.
Overall grade for the season, a C-. If the show gets renewed, they’re going to have to come up with a pretty bold and exciting plots to get me to watch. I’m not saying that’s impossible, but it has to be light years better than what we’ve gotten so far.