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.
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.
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.