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TV Review: Supernatural – “As Time Goes By”

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Supernatural takes a look at the other side of the Winchester family tree this week as Sam and Dean meet their Winchester grandfather in a time travel episode. “As Time Goes By,” written by Adam Glass, has an early season vibe and a strong performance from Gil McKinney as Henry Winchester. We also get a heavy dose of new mythology, which is welcome, as the quest story introduced in the premiere has been stalled for far too long. Unfortunately, we also get some continuity issues, leaving me as uncomfortable as Dean is with time travel.

I’ll start with the Winchester boys, as their relationship issues have formed the backbone of the season so far. Building on the shared decision to have fun in “LARP and the Real Girl,” Sam and Dean feel easy with other in “As Time Goes By.” The angry vibe is gone and they work off each other well. The brothers have different attitudes to meeting their grandfather, which is a call back to the different relationship each had with John Winchester. Dean has a very emotional reaction to the man he considers to have abandoned his father. Sam is more analytical and willing to consider Henry’s point of view. But both boys talk to each other, rather than fight, which is a relief after the angry exchanges we’ve grown used to this season.

Jensen Ackles, Jared Padalecki and Gil McKinney

Glass emphasizes the new rapport between Sam and Dean by setting up a choice for Dean and Henry: save Sam’s life or John’s childhood. Dean tells Henry he was wrong to prioritize his job (Man of Letters) over taking care of John. Henry defends his need to take up the legacy of his family, until a read through John’s journal reveals what a difficult, dangerous and pain-filled life he ended up leading.

Unfortunately, Abbadon knows the way to grab Dean’s attention is to grab Sam, which she does. She tells Dean she’ll trade his brother for a mysterious box Henry was given by his Men of Letters comrades. What to do? Henry feels the best choice is to try and kill Abbadon in the past, as that will solve so much. John will have his father, because Henry won’t die in the future. The Men of Letters will not be wiped out, so their knowledge won’t be lost. But Dean points out not only is there no guarantee Henry will be successful in killing Abbadon by himself, the change to the past may well wipe out Sam and Dean, as they may never be born. And they stopped the Apocalypse. Henry feels if he stops Abbadon, that will stop the Apocalypse, too, and the two men stare at each other.

Dean decides his viewpoint wins. Of course, he chooses Sam. Nothing this season has suggested Dean would make any other choice. The boys have been angry at each other, but the base of Dean’s anger has been his fear of losing Sam. When Sam told him to choose between remaining loyal to Benny or working with him, Dean, against his own value system, cut Benny loose. He showed growth by stepping back from his hurt that Sam might choose to leave him by telling him to make his own choice about Amelia, but that he wanted Sam to stay was clear.

I liked seeing Dean show how much Sam means to him. And while it was painful to watch Henry decide to sacrifice his son’s happiness for the greater good, I did love hearing him affirm that, flaws and all, John raised two amazing men. But I did think it was an odd story choice to have Dean save Sam.

I think this season has raised questions on Sam’s feelings about Dean. I don’t yet understand why Sam was not driven to find answers about Dean’s disappearance. I don’t know why his emotional state after losing Dean didn’t merit a flashback, especially when so many of his flashbacks didn’t end up pushing the story in the present. The suggestions of living a lie and perception shaping his memory of Amelia were dropped in favour of the love triangle and Sam truly feeling Amelia was his route to happiness. Sam asked Dean to consider a happiness equation that doesn’t include him, with the obvious implication that he is doing the same about Dean.

So, at this point, I’d like to know how Sam defines his happiness equation. Is his choice to stay with Dean still a means to an end, a duty? I think it would have been a better choice at this point in the story to have Sam faced with the dilemma of whether to save Dean. We need to see in action how he feels. We know he has two feet back in the game, but where is his heart?

Henry raises a different kind of issue: continuity. I have loved this series for seven and a half years because I think the story has been so well told. There are some niggles here and there (what happened to the Anti-Christ for example), but the emotional story holds together very well—until this season. I’m already struggling with characterization continuity with Sam, and now I have to struggle with story continuity with Henry.

Gil McKinney

I loved the job Gil McKinney did with Henry. He is believable and enjoyable as a secret Man of Letters out of his element, mourning his son and appreciating his grandsons. But the way he is written is not consistent with what we know about John’s family. And Jeremy Carver should know this. He created some the backstory himself in episode 4.03, where someone tells John to say hi to his old man and where John says he is a mechanic from a family of mechanics.

That John never knew his father’s real profession is not surprising. But “As Time Goes By” shows Henry to be an academic with nothing of the working class about him. He is a contrast to his grandsons in many ways, though not in his willingness to die for family. Henry says he is one of a long line of Men of Letters, so there is no impression created of a mechanic in a family of mechanics. And there is no suggestion of abandonment at all in John’s words and demeanor in 4:03.

It is possible to spin ways to cover these issues up. Did John’s mother remarry, so John had a step dad? Did this step dad not fill the space Henry left in John’s life? Was John’s mother a mechanic? Did she come from a family of mechanics? These plot points are possible, but to me, require corroborating details from the show to set them up. Without those details, I think Adam Glass simply didn’t consider past story when he crafted his present one.

Time travel is always tricky. It sets up logical issues and paradoxes on a good day. For example, it sets up time loops where you have to accept that John gave the Impala to Dean, but Dean also pointed out the Impala to his father. Which came first? This line of thought leads only to headaches.

But if the writer is careful with the details he can explain, time travel can work well, as it has in the past for Supernatural. Playing fast and loose with canon is not helpful.

That leaves me with the new mythology we get in “As Time Goes By.” Henry reveals the presence of a super-secret society of what seems very similar to the Watchers in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. These Men of Letters know more about the supernatural than hunters like John and Bobby, never mind Sam and Dean. I’m a little bothered that Sam and Dean and Bobby had no idea of their existence, even in legend. They may have been wiped out by Abbadon, but that happened so recently there’s still a living member in 2013. Surely the elite hunters would know of the society’s existence?

That issue notwithstanding, the society’s secret warded hiding place with all kinds of arcane knowledge does offer lots of story fodder. And hopefully that will actually put Sam and Dean on the offense instead of the defense, because we really haven’t seen that yet this year. The quest has been rather limp and it’s more than time it pushes the story into over drive.

Over all, I liked the episode, but it had some troubling flaws. I did enjoy the old school flavour and that Sam and Dean appear to like each other again—even if I’m not sure what swept their issues under the carpet.

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About Gerry Weaver

  • Gerry

    Hi shamangrrl, great to see you again! I agree with you on many of your points. I don’t think the boys neatly split into brains and brawn–they both are interesting mixtures of both, in their own ways. Sam is more bookish and Dean likes to have a plan of action, but both have brains and both have brawn.

    I also agree about the issues writing good women characters. I think when ever the writers craft a character for the express purpose of being a love interest, they fail to make her a believable well rounded character.

    The idea of Dean loving a woman with no morality who would hurt him as soon as look at him was ridiculous. That the writers had to make Dean look stupid in order for Bella to look sassy didn’t help. It was only when Bella was no longer the love interest that she became interesting as she fought her deal.

    Same with Jo–the “sassy” teenager was so unbelievable as someone Dean would develop romantic feelings for. Once the writers figured that out and started writing for Jo as a real character, she became much more interesting. I was gutted when she died and felt at that point, she could have been a real love interest for Dean.

    Lisa worked the best for me, because her attributes of attractive girl next door who was very comfortable in her own skin and dedicated to family felt right for Dean. But we only got to follow their story as it fell apart. We saw nothing of their relationship when it worked. I thought the unravelling of the relationship was well written with no bad guys, just real problems. But why would anyone have been pulling to keep Dean in that relationship with Lisa when we never saw them having fun in it?

    On the Sam running question, I do think he has a history of running when he’s upset. But he also has the same obsessive nature as John and we’ve seen him get obsessed when he loses something important. I think Sam runs as one way to show whoever he’s upset that he is upset–usually Dean. But losing Dean, I think he’d be obsessive about finding out what happened. Unless he really did have a complete breakdown–but that would deserve a flashback to my mind.

  • shamangrrl

    One more thing: I’m already sick of seeing “Sam is the brains and Dean is the brawn. A perfect blend of the families!”, in pretty much every review out there, so thank you for not parroting Singer and having that in your review. Frankly, the Show of the series (versus the Tell of the behind-the-scenes personnel) blows that right out of the water, as evinced by this very episode.

  • shamangrrl

    I really don’t care about Sam not looking for Dean, because I do think it was explained – I just think a lot of people don’t want to believe that “Sam ran” is the answer. But it makes sense to me, bacause it’s been shown that Sam always runs. It’s an unpleasant truth, but it is what it is. But what I can’t get over is how Sam has been treating Dean, and how Dean was finally putting a stop to the whole doormat/Sam-on-a-pedestal cycle, and now that’s all been stripped away. Dean is right back to being all about Sam, and Sam is fine with everything, now that balance has been restored to his world. *How* that balance was restored, I don’t know. But if feels like a massive course correction, and it is extremely poorly done, because there is no rhyme or reason for this complete flip-flop. Even the mytharc feels like it’s been revamped.

    The guys have John’s storage locker, Bobby’s supernatural library (unless Garth now owns it?), the Campbell Legacy Library – and now one more, extra-special Repository. They’ve pretty much ignored the first three – now this new, extra-special legacy (that apparently did the Men of Letters absolutely no good), is supposed to change everything? Seriously, with everything that’s going on, did we need another layer of mytharc? Because the current stories are going nowhere. Purgatory is not only over, but any advances to Dean’s character ended by the second episode, and that portion of the story became Castiel’s and Benny’s, with Dean as participant. The guys aren’t going after Crowley, apparently they aren’t concerned about Castiel, they don’t know about Naomi, Prophets can read tablets – except when they can’t, they don’t seem to care about any other tablets that might be out there, and now this?

    Regarding Singer’s interview, every time I read one, I want to pull my hair out, I find him that annoying, out of touch and frankly, condescending to the fans. Also, maybe if the writers wrote the female characters as actual characters, instead of “types”, they would be embraced. The well written female character *were* embraced, and of course, killed off with all expediency. It’s the “sexy, sassy, scantily dressed love interest” types (and that’s the sum total of their character), that don’t do well.

    Anyway, until the urban-myth-brother-bond is addressed in a realistic fashion, I can’t take Show. The past few episodes negate the first 10 episodes of the season – and I felt hope over those first 10 episodes. Now, I feel like we’re back to the same-old-same-old.

  • Gerry

    Hi Kelios, great to see you here! And I agree–what WAS the point of the Amelia story line? Despite all the set up in Hunteri Heroici, it wasn’t to fit into the theme of perception. The “living a lie” theme never made into the real time story, and neither did the idea both Sam and Amelia were using the relationship to avoid processing their losses. Which is a shame, as I would have liked to see Sam processing Dean’s loss.

    I’d also like Sam to do what Dean did, and admit where his own emotions drove his hurtful behaviour. Martin died–doesn’t Sam have any thoughts of his own involvement, especially when his decisions were driven by his hatred of Benny? And that hatred appears to be rooted in jealousy over Dean’s closeness with the vampire? Don’t we get any exploration over Sam’s change in what defines a monster? Doesn’t he need to admit he doesn’t get to define Dean’s family any more than Dean gets to define his?

    From the spoilery (SPOILER) Robert Singer interview, apparently not, as he thinks the boys are back on solid ground with each other. That just floors me, as I haven’t seen any reciprocal growth with the boys. Dean opened up to Sam and admitted his errors. All we got from Sam was deciding he really loved Amelia, but his duty called him to the quest. So not satisfying.

    It almost feels like this episode reset the season, and in many ways that feels like a relief. Except I loved the Purgatory scenes and I love Benny. I want to love Crowley, if he showed up more often, and I think Cas is being used well. I’m not willing to scrub their scenes from memory. So I have trouble just wiping out the first half of the season in my mind. But so little of Sam’s story felt credible or well told, I hope I can let go of it so I can enjoy the rest of the season.

  • kelios

    I agree completely. I feel like this season has given me whiplash–Sam and Dean fighting and angry to everything fine and dandy after one ep. What was the point of the whole Amelia storyline? It did nothing to advance the plot of the season as a whole and certainly did nothing to explain why Sam didn’t look for Dean or why he wanted to kill the person who DID help his brother escape from purgatory.

    I’m happy to see Sam and Dean liking each other again. I’m happy that they chose each other instead of other people. But I haven’t seen anything to convince me it was a heartfelt, meaningful choice on Sam’s part, and I’m honestly not sure how Dean can trust him to have his back at this point.