By the time Supernatural ended its 15-season run in 2020, it seemed as if the series had wrung out every possible story line. What started as a WB show about two (hot) brothers hunting monsters and searching for their missing father eventually turned into a bloated CW fantasy juggernaut that put Sam (Jared Padalecki) and Dean (Jensen Ackles) Winchester through incessant angel-on-angel wars, alternate dimensions, fourth wall–breaking, multiple trips to Heaven and hell, the violent murders of all their friends and family, and a full season centered on Dean having a crush on God’s sister.
And since nothing Supernatural-related ever stays dead, now we have a prequel. Produced by Ackles and his wife, Danneel, the CW’s The Winchesters takes us back to 1972 to watch Sam and Dean’s parents, John Winchester and Mary Campbell, hunt demons together and fall in love. Ackles narrates the season as Dean; based on some pre-prequel drama, it does not seem as though Sam will be showing up.
For those of us who have watched the original, The Winchesters’ premise already raises a few flags. Don’t we know that John and Mary met at a movie theater, had coffee, and bonded over Led Zeppelin? How can they hunt together if John didn’t know about the supernatural until after Mary died in 1983? How is Dean going to narrate, considering they sent him to Car Heaven in the series finale? Are we memory-holing Sam? Where’s Castiel? Do we really need more of a 327-episode TV show?
Most of these questions aren’t answered in the pilot, which, like the past four seasons of the source material, is a touch too plot-heavy to form an opinion about how the rest of the series is going to go. It’s hard to see how the show moves forward without changing Supernatural’s established canon, though the Ackleses and showrunner Robbie Thompson have insisted viewers will ultimately be satisfied with how the mythology comes back around.
There’s no evidence of that yet in The Winchesters, which dives right into the action. The pilot cold-opens on a graveyard in New Orleans, where a man dressed like Indiana Jones runs into trouble with some kind of monster. That man appears to be hunter Samuel Campbell, Sam and Dean’s grandpa, and when we meet his daughter, Mary (Meg Donnelly), on the other side of the credits, he has been missing for a few days. Sound familiar?
Lest you think The Winchesters is just Supernatural with bell-bottoms, this time there are two missing fathers. After two years in Vietnam, John (Drake Rodger) returns to his hometown of Lawrence, Kansas, where he intends to search for his dad, Henry Winchester. He thinks Henry walked out on him as a child, and though those of us who made it deep into Supernatural know Henry’s fate, the prequel will either retcon this or uncover it later. John has more going on than just daddy issues, as he has also witnessed unspeakable tragedy on the battlefield and appears to be haunted by post-traumatic stress and possibly a war ghost.
Within minutes of stepping off the bus back in town, he literally bumps into Mary for their first meet-cute. They meet-cute again a few minutes later, when a letter and key from Henry that mysteriously made its way into John’s possession directs him toward an abandoned warehouse. A demon shows up and tries to kill John, but he’s in luck — Mary’s there! She saves his life, they do some quipping, she pours some salt around, and we’re firmly back in the world of Supernatural.
It takes John about 0.02 seconds to accept that demons exist, which saves everyone a lot of exposition and brings us right into the meat of the complicated plot. Demons are after Mary, who is searching for Samuel, who she last heard was on his way to this warehouse to look for a mystical document. Henry’s key opens the warehouse’s doors, which lead to a satellite clubhouse for the Men of Letters, a secret and extinct society of supernatural knowledge-keepers that plays a big role in the original series. The place is abandoned but still stocked with enough lore to keep Sam Winchester satisfied for weeks. Mary opens one single drawer and finds the document her father was looking for, which is convenient because there’s still a lot of plot to get through.
Mary tries to tell John to get lost, but he shows up the next morning with coffee, so she takes him to meet her other hunter friends. This is where The Winchesters does a better job of world-building than its predecessor and where it starts to establish itself as its own show. Supernatural’s first season mostly focused on Sam and Dean, cementing the heart of the series but limiting the scope of its universe. It wasn’t until the writers brought in more hunters, supernatural allies, and foes (and occasionally both) in later seasons that it was able to write its own mythology and find firm footing in the world it created.
Here, though, Mary already has her own Scooby Gang: hunters Latika Desai (Nida Khurshid) and Carlos Cervantez (Jojo Fleites). They even have a van! The Winchesters’ hunter universe also includes Ada (Demetria McKinney), an occultist bookstore owner who was working with Samuel, but unfortunately for her, she gets possessed by one of the demons after Mary.
After all the meet-cutes, much of the rest of the pilot is dedicated to explaining who everyone is and what’s going on. It turns out Samuel has been searching for a way to open a monster trap made by the Men of Letters so he can kill the show’s first big bad: the Acreda, otherworldly monsters who seek to wipe out all living creatures on Earth. The hunter Scooby Gang uses the document Mary found to locate the graveyard from the cold open and, in keeping with Supernatural’s artistic license re: how long it takes to drive across the country, makes its way from Kansas to New Orleans in record time.
They don’t find Samuel, but they do find a monster and the possessed Ada, both of whom they defeat after some brief action and an exorcism. The now-non-possessed Ada directs Mary and her crew to Savannah to continue the search for Samuel, and John follows along, right into the next episode. Folks, he’s a hunter now — at least until the angels mind-zap him, or however they manage to bring the prequel back around to Supernatural canon.
There’s so much going on in this pilot that it’s hard to keep track of all the bread crumbs. We don’t know why demons are after Mary’s family or why she’s grieving over her cousin, who apparently turned into a vampire and might be in hell. John’s war trauma (and maybe war ghost) gets only a few minutes of airtime. And there’s Dean, who makes a bodily appearance in the last minute of the episode, hanging out with his beloved 1967 Chevy Impala on the side of an empty road on the hunt for “the truth” about John and Mary. We’ll see what happens as the series unfolds, but some of these disconnected threads could have probably been saved for further down the line. It’s a far cry from the simple Star Wars–inspired hero’s journey that characterized the first season of Supernatural, before all the angel wars.
But it’s a somewhat promising, if hectic, start. The cast gels together well enough — no one’s winning any Golden Globes here, but Rodger is a convincing John (Donnelly less so as Mary), and Fleites and Khurshid are occasionally fun additions. Thompson, who was behind top Supernatural episodes like “Fan Fiction” and “Baby,” wrote the pilot’s script, and though there are a few too many snappy quips, the episode moves along and doesn’t get too bogged down in exposition. (I implore anyone feeling nostalgic for the Supernatural pilot to revisit Sam’s five-minute monologue explaining the entire series’ premise to the audience.)
Of course, it’s tough to judge a prequel pilot when you’re already familiar with the source material, especially if you’ve broken your own brain by watching so many hours of that source material that you can name every episode in order and own a blanket with Dean’s face on it, not that that’s me! I suspect some fans will like the pilot and some will hate it; I also think the pilot is distinct enough from Supernatural that a newbie could get into it without needing the background info. And it does feel distinct. So far, The Winchesters seems more like a Riverdale or a Buffy knockoff than the best of Supernatural — a bit younger, much busier, less brooding, and devoid of the joys and pitfalls of ultracodependent brotherly love — and that’s fine. It can be its own thing. Now I’m curious to see where it goes next.
• Supernatural had an egregious record when it came to women and characters of color, so it’s nice to see some diversity in the casting. Hopefully it doesn’t kill everybody off after two episodes.
• The end-scene Impala has its original Kansas license plates, before the Winchesters switched to Ohio plates in Supernatural’s second season. Heaven Impala had the original plates in the series finale, so this is probably dead Dean narrating. It’s nice that he found something to do with his eternity.
• I didn’t even get to John’s mom, Millie Winchester (Bianca Kajlich). She doesn’t have much to do here, other than to bemoan John’s newfound interest in the supernatural, but hopefully they’ll make better use of her later.
• Producers recently revealed that Tom Welling, a.k.a. Smallville’s Clark Kent, has been cast as Samuel Campbell. A fun reunion for Ackles, who was a Smallville series regular in season four. Welling does kind of look like Mitch Pileggi if you squint.
• John says that a man he never met handed him Henry’s letter with the key and then “disappeared — like, vanished,” but the interaction happened offscreen. I assume they’ll show us this scene later, and I would put money on that man being Misha Collins.
• “The only thing worse than how it starts for a hunter is how it ends”; it’s true.