“Time After Time” is a note perfect example of Supernatural at its best. In the skilled hands of writer Robbie Thompson, we get an episode which is smart, funny, moving and involves Dean Winchester in a fedora.
Supernatural is no stranger to time travel episodes and the premise of the show allows the writers to play with such concepts with more latitude than most shows which are not Dr. Who. Supernatural’s last visit to the past was season six’s “Frontierland,” in which Sam and Dean visited the old West. That episode was good, but I would argue “Time After Time” raises the bar even higher.
There is so much to love in new writer Robbie Thompson’s script. I’ll start with the intricate structure. The central premise is the Winchesters hunting Chronos, god of time, through time. Thompson uses the structure of his story to reinforce his theme by playing with our timeline as well as Sam’s and Dean’s.
The story opens in the middle of some very important action. Sam and Dean are tracking a nattily dressed man in a fedora down an alleyway. The boys split up to trap the guy, but as Dean catches up with his quarry, the mysterious man is using red light to age a homeless man to death. Dean kicks into hero gear immediately and runs to grab the man. Sam enters the scene only to see his brother and the man, bathed in red light, disappear. It’s a great opening—but who is this guy and why are the boys chasing him?
To find out, we have to turn the clock back two days. The time shift finds Sam and Dean at Rufus’s cabin. Dean is hunkered over Sam’s computer, unsurprisingly researching Dick Roman. Sam is sleeping. A phone call from Sheriff Jodie jolts him awake. She’s spotted a potential case in Ohio and wonders if the boys are interested.
They are and soon are squatting in a decrepit house in Canton, Ohio. A talk with a delightfully loopy witness to the odd killing (the man aged into a mummy in minutes) gives the Winchesters a clue. The perpetrator sports a fedora and an old fashioned suit. As a clue, it seems slim pickens, but Sam and Dean search through time via the computer, coming up with several similar murders in Canton, one of which was in 1974. Dean’s new computer hacking skillz (courtesy of Frank Devereaux) show a man at the current murder site matching one in a 1974 newspaper photo. Evidently, this guy finds time no restriction.
The 1974 timeline leads Sam and Dean to a witness still living in town, who gives the boys an address and a name: Ethan Snyder. And now we connect back to the timeline we opened with, as Sam and Dean stake out Snyder.
Having signalled time will not be linear, Thompson complicates his timelines even more. Dean has been transported back with the mysterious man to 1944. Here, our fedora hatted man blends into the crowd easily, while Dean, with his clothes from the future (and gun!) draws the attention of the police immediately.
The cop interrogating Dean can’t believe he was so inept he made a fake FBI badge with a date 68 years in the future. Dean can’t believe he’s now in 1944. Fortunately, none other than Eliot Ness can believe both and he and Dean spot each other as hunters.
And that’s when the episode’s timelines get really interesting. Dean and Ness investigate the murders in 1944 in parallel to Sam and Jodie in present day. To begin with, we visit each time to learn what each pair is currently searching for. Sam sends Jodie to bring Bobby’s library to him while Dean meets Ezra, Ness’s female equivalent to Bobby, who turns Dean into a sharp dressed man, 1940’s style.
Then Thompson beautifully shifts between each timeline to show the two pairs working in tandem, both working out Chronos the god of time is their mystery man. As soon as everyone knows the identity, the timelines diverge again, as Sam and Jodie look for a spell to summon a god, while Dean and Ness try to figure out what will kill him.
Thompson layers in more time references, as Dean realizes Ethan/Chronos uses his knowledge of the future to win a lot of money off betting. A quick good cop/bad cop routine with Ethan’s bookie yields his whereabouts and Dean and Ness are soon watching Chronos in 1944 much as Dean and Sam were watching him in present day. This time, though, Chronos is meeting his girlfriend rather than stalking a victim. Colour Dean surprised.
In back to back scenes, Sam in present day and Dean in 1944 both realize they can’t kill Chronos outright without stranding Dean in the past. If he’s not actually touching Chronos when Sam casts his summoning spell, only Chronos gets pulled back.
Fortunately, Dean has seen Back to the Future III! He tracks down the squalid house Sam inhabits in present day. In 1944, the house is nicely kept by an older man who can’t quite pooh pooh Dean’s need to inspect for termites, but would clearly like to. Dean finds the bedroom Sam sleeps in and using his brother’s eye view when he lies down, carves Sam’s name on the baseboard and hides a note behind it.
Back in the future (heh!), Sam gets sent to bed by Jodie. As he shifts around trying to get comfortable on the floor, he spots his name and intuits Dean’s plan immediately. He finds the note, which has some great clues to help Sam learn the exact time Chronos will have his hands on Dean. Dean gives him the date and Chronos’ girlfriend’s name: Lila Taylor.
Present day Lila has time issues of her own. She has Alzheimer’s and is lost in the 1960s when Sam and Jodie track her down. But she can remember the past just fine. Unfortunately, what she remembers is her boyfriend Ethan strangled a nice young policeman—Dean. Still, the fact that the clocks stopped that evening at 11:34 gives Sam what he needs—an exact time to cast his summoning spell.
Dean does his part and sneaks into Lila’s house in 1944. His sneaking is for naught, as Chronos knows he is coming and jumps him immediately. But Ness gets the drop on Lila, whom Chronos truly loves, so Chronos confesses to her he needs to kill to get the juice to control his time jumps, as there is not enough human faith to power him up anymore. If he doesn’t kill, he gets pulled into random times, which he describes as “the worst existence you can imagine.”
Lila is nonetheless horrified at her boyfriend’s murders, which makes Chronos so furious he starts to strangle Dean. It’s 11:34, and in present day Sam completes his summoning spell. Chronos and Dean both get pulled back to the present, along with the spike needed to kill the god.
Sam manages to get the jump on Chronos and spikes him. The last nod to time is an ominous one, as a dying Chronos reads the boys’ future. “It’s covered in thick black ooze. It’s everywhere. They’re everywhere. Enjoy oblivion.”
I certainly enjoyed the cleverly and intricately structured plot, but the episode’s joys don’t stop there.
Thompson has as great a touch with language as he has with plot. His dialogue is rich, subtly serving more than one purpose. His banter between Sam and Dean is not only amusing, it shows the boys emerging from the shock of Bobby’s death and moving into a new stage, one that allows Sam’s and Dean’s sense of fun to peek out.
When Sam takes Dean to task about obsessively researching the Leviathan boss, he uses a light touch, saying “I can’t believe I’m about to say this, but I hope you’re watching cartoon smut, because reading Dick Roman stuff over and over again is just self-punishment.”
Dean is, of course, reading about Roman, but he matches Sam’s joking tone when he closes the laptop with a sniff, retorting, “It’s called anime. And it’s an art form.” Later, when Dean asks for the computer to show off his new hacking skills, Sam asks, “Are you looking up more ‘anime’ or are you strictly into Dick now?” Dean just smugly demonstrates he now knows his way around a computer, leaving Sam suitably envious. And it’s wonderful to see the boys so playful again.
Dean in particular has been so depressed in recent times, he hasn’t felt his trademark enthusiasm about anything, never mind hunting. Even the Turducken sandwich bliss was a drug high. But his natural instinct is to open himself up to new experiences and show his emotions. Thompson uses the time shift to give Dean a place so removed from his present circumstances, he relaxes and lets himself feel. In 1944, there are no Leviathans. Bobby has not just died. What it does offer is Eliot Ness and Dean lets his inner fan boy out.
Dean’s adorably enthusiastic reaction to his Untouchables hero mystifies Ness as much as it delights the audience. Thompson again shows his skill with dialogue as he contrasts Dean’s colourful modern slang with Ness’s even more colourful 1940s vernacular. Both men share a flare with words, but the evolution of slang means they often might as well be speaking different languages.
Dean confuses his idol right off the bat by referring to the Kevin Costner/Sean Connery Untouchables movie, which means nothing to Ness. Dean follows his movie talk up with an “Awesome!” leading Ness to ask, “How does that fill you with awe?” After taking Dean’s slang literally, Ness serves up some of his own, telling the older Winchester, “You look like a banjo stiff.” Dean tries to zing him back, but doesn’t quite know how he’s been insulted.
Dean is in the perfect mood to encounter Ezra, Ness’s right hand woman. She not only fills Bobby’s spot for the lawman, her mannerisms resemble him, too. As she gruffly calls Dean “idjit,” he actually smiles rather than flinches. I appreciated Thompson’s light touch with the comparison. Later in the episode Ezra is very unBobbylike indeed as she responds to Dean’s offer of having whatever she wants as a thanks by showing him just how smoochable he is in his nifty new duds. Which is very smoochable. Very.
Grief for Bobby is lightly laced throughout this snappy and funny episode. The tones do not fight, however. They enhance each other. When Dean and Eliot have a heart to heart, Dean leads with his assumption hunters start to hunt out of revenge and grief. Eliot bats that theory aside, telling Dean he got into hunting when he discovered vampires were real. Dean tells his hero he has lost so many people, he doesn’t know why he hunts anymore—which is a nice summation of Dean’s arc this season.
To his surprise, Ness has little sympathy. He tells Dean, “Everybody loses everybody and then one day, boom, your number is up. But at least you’re making a difference. So enjoy it while it lasts, kid, because hunting is the only clarity you’re going to find in this life.”
Dean used to feel this way, too, before he lost so many loved ones to cosmic wars that never seem to end. There is a reason for his grief and his soul searching. Ness has not had the weight of saving the world put on his shoulders the way Sam and Dean have. Nor does he have Dean’s back-story of being raised by a man who told him he was responsible when things went wrong, even when it was ridiculous to do so.
John was not the only influence on Dean, though. He was also raised by Bobby, who had a similar philosophy to Ness. His reaper told him he took an unremarkable life and made it remarkable, which is a pretty good legacy. I think Dean’s lightness of spirit in 1944 may have allowed him at some level to hear the value in Ness’s words. I doubt he’s processed his grief and anger enough yet to really feel saving a life is enough reason to hunt. But it is really valuable to hear Ness say it and mean it.
Grief over Bobby permeates Sam’s timeline, as well, but does so in a bittersweet way that allows Jodie and Sam to bond over their memories of the man. From Jodie’s slight stumble over Bobby’s name when she phones Sam to her discovery of Rufus’s gift of a bottle of Hunter’s Helper to Bobby, the two share a lovely rapport. I had no trouble believing Sam would crack that bottle with Jodie to remember Bobby or that Jodie would decide to mother Sam as a way to grieve Bobby and her lost family. And Jared Padalecki is a master at conveying emotion without saying a word, a gift the writers have perhaps relied on just a little too much this season. Thompson, though, gets it just right. I want more of Jodie and Sam.
There are other lovely touches to the episode. Thompson squeezes in several movie references which add layers to the dialogue, from the obvious Back to the Future and The Untouchables to The Time Traveller’s Wife. Director Phil Sgriccia and Director of Photography Serge Ladouceur made this episode as gorgeous as Dean’s new suit. The 1940s are shot with a soft golden light against lots of red backdrops, giving those scenes a period movie look. In contrast, the present has a cold blue light, mirroring the bleak outlook of that timeline.
And I can’t end the review without talking about the guest stars. Jason Dohring does an excellent job with not a lot of screen time or lines in giving Chronos dimension. I feel for him as he describes his existence and believe he loves Lila. I also believe he would cut Dean down without a thought, so he makes a very interesting villain.
Nicholas Lea as Eliot Ness is perfect. His Ness has gravitas and weight, but not at the expense of chemistry and fun with Ackles’ Dean. He is completely believable as the lawman and gives the 1940s scenes as much legitimacy as the gorgeous set decoration.
The best compliment I can give “Time After Time” is I found myself wishing it was a two hour movie as it aired, so I could spend more time with it. Robbie Thompson is a keeper.