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8.12 As Time Goes By: As Long As We're Alive, There's Always Hope

8.12 As Time Goes By: As Long As We're Alive, There's Always Hope

What if your whole past
Isn't what you always thought?
What's your legacy?

Commentary and Meta Analysis

While this episode was beautifully shot and had some powerful emotional beats, I had real problems with it because it seemed to radically change things we thought we knew and add many new, mostly derivative ones without providing much logical supporting structure for them. I felt like last week's Maria, aka Gholandria the Wicked, watching a surprise genre mash-up of Supernatural, Buffy, Highlander, and Warehouse 13. I'll be curious to see how they smooth over the story seams in upcoming episodes since they've already started down this the road, but in the meantime, I'm working hard to find ways to make what I saw make sense in the context of show canon as I've perceived it. And this season is all about perception, isn't it?

In this commentary, I'm going to discuss my difficulty dealing with John's sudden acquisition of issues with paternal abandonment; the problematic legacy of the super-secret Men of Letters; and the latest wrinkles in the show's systems of magic.

Either Way, Dad Hated That Son Of A Bitch

For me, the most jarring aspect of the whole story was the brand-new discovery that John's dad had disappeared without explanation when he was very young, and that John had hated his father for apparently abandoning him and had shared that information with his sons. In seven and a half seasons, we'd never been given any indication that John had any issues with his biological father. And given all the issues Dean and Sam had with John, a continuing family history of daddy issues should have been referenced before now, if it existed. I have a hard time reconciling the new with the old.

My issues are both emotional and practical ones, given what show canon told us up until now. I'll start with a quick note on what little mention the show had made of the pre-brother Winchester family up until now, the stories I've told myself to try integrating the new and old information, and the emotional and practical problems I still have with this new addition.

The only mentions we ever heard of John's dad came during In The Beginning. Shortly after Dean entered Jay Bird's Diner in 1973, an older man walking in called John by his last name and remarked on his pleasure at seeing John, having heard he was recently back from military service. In parting, the man told John, “Well, say hello to your old man from me,” and John, smiling, responded easily, “You got it, Mr. D.” Later, talking with Mary and speculating about why her father objected to him, John asked if he didn't want her to, as he put it, “Hook up with a mechanic from a family of mechanics?” The impression I was left with was that John was comfortable with his still-living father, who was a mechanic just like him.

The obvious, immediate story I began devising to explain the apparent discrepancy between that episode and this was that John's mechanic father living in 1973 was his stepfather, not his biological one. But that raised practical and emotional issues of its own. Given the way Henry disappeared, his wife, John's mother, would either have needed to divorce him for abandonment or have him declared dead after the statutory time had passed – seven years, in most places – before she could have remarried. Either way, by the time he acquired a stepfather, John would have been at least several years older than he was when Henry vanished, which could have affected how well he bonded with his new stepfather, whoever he was. Also on the practical end, back in the Fifties and Sixties, a remarriage with children most often included formal adoption of the children by the new spouse, which would have meant John's last name would have ceased to be Winchester. The main reasons not to have done that would have been either to avoid jeopardizing an inheritance or to retain the surname of a loved father. If John indeed hated Henry for leaving him, that latter reason wouldn't have obtained. John seemed straight blue-collar when we met him, so if there had been an inheritance at issue, it evidently wasn't a lot. So – why was he still a Winchester? The best thought I can come up with is that John's mother still loved and believed in Henry and kept his last name for John in memory of the boy's father and in the hope John would outgrow his anger.

The emotional side is even knottier for me. I really could see how John feeling abandoned by Henry could have led to adult John's intense dedication and commitment to family and his determination to protect his sons and keep them with him, especially after Mary's horrible death. John's passionate belief in what fatherhood meant, delivered to Sam in The Song Remains The Same when he savaged their father for having dragged them into hunting, could also have grown out of juvenile feelings of abandonment by his own father. But that bitterness existing in his own life, combined with his passion to keep his family intact, makes it hard for me to factor in John once having walked away from his wife and sons during the argument we briefly saw in Dark Side Of The Moon. I would think that type of separation would have seemed anathema to a man who had dealt with feeling abandoned by his own father. Fighting with Mary, sure; most couples have disagreements. But walking out on his boys even for a short time, when he remembered his own deep and abiding anger over his own father having left him? Doesn't compute for me.

That bitter past also just doesn't resonate with the emotional picture of John Mary painted for Dean during In The Beginning. And yes, a woman in love will see the best side of the man she loves, but it's also the vibe I got from John both in that episode and in The Song Remains The Same. Prior to the supernatural crashing in on him, John came off as balanced, secure, and generally happy, apart from his job and monetary worries in 1978. I always loved Mary's description of him: “He's sweet, kind. Even after the war, after everything, he still believes in happily ever after, you know?” Maybe that optimism came from happy stability he'd found with a stepfather after his real one let him down, but – that really doesn't comport with Dean and Sam vividly remembering John having hated his real dad so much that he had told his sons about that hate with enough passion that it infected Dean. If John had found happiness and security with a stepfather, it seems he'd have shared that positive experience with his sons, rather than dwelling with vitriol on his missing biological father. Dean's brutal recitation to Henry of how hard a time John had after being abandoned had nothing in it that matched the psychological makeup of the happy, gentle John we met in his pre-demonic past.

For all these reasons, this new story of John's daddy issues and deep-seated anger over them simply doesn't ring true to me. Thanks to the writers of earlier episodes and the vivid portrayals of John by both Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Matthew Cohen, I have too strong and solid an image of John in my head from past episodes to see him so very differently now. That's just my perception, but it's not one I find easy to change.

We're Preceptors. Beholders. Chroniclers Of All That Which Man Does Not Understand.

My second major issue was the episode's simultaneous creation and destruction of the Men of Letters and their elite network of carefully selected hunters. Have to say, I agree with Sam: “If you guys were such a big deal, why haven't we – or anyone we know – ever heard of you?”

A highly skilled secret society with considerable resources that endured over a thousand years only to be wiped out without a trace in a single night by a single scary demon simply doesn't pass my laugh test. That society leaving behind a hidden stronghold chock-full of a thousand years of artifacts and information meticulously warded against every form of evil that only a single key could open – defeating all the wards in the process – doesn't make any practical sense, either. And if all the society's other elders, initiates, and chosen hunters somehow died in Abaddon's assault, no matter where they all were, I have to wonder how badly injured, blinded Larry Ganem, with no support except his wife, managed to arrange his coded fake grave and new identity. And if Larry's wife knew about the Men of Letters – which I would presume she did, since Larry had no hesitation in speaking about them and demons in front of her – why didn't Henry's wife know, and tell secret hero stories to her son of his father gone missing in the fight against evil? Was Henry's wife totally in the dark about his secret society membership, just thinking he belonged to some gentlemen's club? I've got all kinds of logic issues with the concept.

I'm hoping that as the brothers locate and explore their new legacy, we'll find out more about what actually happened to wipe away all traces of the Men of Letters, and learn sensible answers to the questions this episode raised in my head. In keeping with the season's theme of perception, I'm well aware that all we think we know now is based purely on Henry's limited knowledge, which stopped short of knowing about any destruction beyond the immediate chaos Abaddon had made of his and Josie's initiation ceremony, and on what blind, elderly Larry Ganem chose to share with a hunter he didn't know who said he'd found Henry's journal and wanted to fill in the gaps. We have a lot more to learn, and the story may make much more rational sense once we do.

The show has played with some of these ideas before in much smaller ways. Hunters themselves have been presented as being generally secret, living mostly on the outskirts of society and hiding their knowledge and deeds because they couldn't fit into the mainstream. The Campbells took that to an extreme, being introduced to us as an entire family of hunters who'd conducted their business without even mixing with or generally becoming known to hunters outside the clan for many generations. They kept their own counsel and didn't share with others the information they acquired, such as the cure for vampirism revealed in Live Free Or Twi-Hard. The breadth of the Campbell family library revealed in Frontierland amazed even Bobby, who'd amassed an impressive collection of his own and proceeded to duplicate and add the Campbell stock to it, as we learned in Let It Bleed. In their own way, the Campbells amounted to a secret society even within the broader secrecy of the hunter culture.

Harvelle's Roadhouse, introduced and destroyed in season two, illustrated a potential networking connection for hunters to share information, a place that kept tabs on monsters and potential cases and could foster cooperation among hunters. Unfortunately, over the course of the season the Roadhouse turned from an occasional postal drop for data exchange into a juvenile clubhouse where far too many blatantly suspicious blue-collar loners congregated, cagily studying their notes, nursing drinks, cleaning weapons, and glancing furtively around at each other, robbing it of any realism. The networking function of the Roadhouse resurfaced in Bobby's wall of phones and spiderweb of connections throughout the hunter community, a role Garth has now assumed.

The idea of stashes of magical and supernatural implements and devices being scattered around the country also isn't new. John's storage unit, first revealed in Bad Day At Black Rock, served notice that many if not all hunters were likely to have similar hidden collections of artifacts, weapons, and information. For example, Jody brought Sam boxes from one of Bobby's storage lockers in Time After Time.

The “supernatural mother lode” of the Men of Letters appears to lump together under one roof the functions of panic room, library, storage unit, and networking command center on a scale far grander than anything we've seen, and it's precisely that grand scale that makes it hard for me to buy. Building and maintaining such a stronghold and using it to direct the actions of elite hunter strike teams would have required significant organization, financing, and infrastructure. The bigger and more complex the organization, the harder it is to keep secret, and the harder it is to destroy it completely in a single surgical strike. According to this episode, however improbably, both of those things happened.

Perhaps we'll learn otherwise as time goes by. Perhaps Henry vanishing into the future with the only key deprived the remaining Lettermen and their pet hunters of their stronghold and disrupted their network. (As I noted before, having only one key would make no practical sense at all …) Perhaps Abaddon, before riding Josie Sands to her final initiation ceremony, had used the knowledge in her brain to target everyone else Josie knew in the organizational structure, sending other demons to take them out simultaneously with her attack on the ceremony. Perhaps anyone left alive after the first-stage strike, with all the resources of the stronghold suddenly beyond their reach, did the same thing as Larry Ganem, going into hiding under a new identity and burying any knowledge of the existence of the Men of Letters. That's a lot of perhaps.

I had another very basic problem with the Men of Letters. As soon as Henry gave his explanation, I flashed on both the Watchers of Highlander and the Watchers in Buffy The Vampire Slayer. The first were presented as human chroniclers of the Immortals who were supposed to observe and record what they saw, amassing and preserving knowledge, but not getting involved; the second were supposed to be carefully educated, observant loremasters who would train and supervise each successive Slayer. Brains, not brawn, and brains connecting with elite, selected brawn; sounds a lot like Henry's description. Add to that a hidden stronghold full of relics, magical devices, and information needing protection, and it suddenly felt like a crossover into Warehouse 13. I'm accustomed to Supernatural putting its own distinctive stamp on myths and legends, but this felt less distinctive and more of just a stamp. Additional development in upcoming stories may well change that, and I hope it does, but my first unfortunate out-of-the-box impression was that I really had seen this before and wasn't impressed to see it again in essentially the same clothes.

You Tapped The Power Of Your Soul To Get Here?

Stories of magic and spells have been a Supernatural staple from the very beginning of the show. We've seen its depictions of witchcraft, hoodoo/voodoo, and other theories of magic in numerous episodes. This episode went deep and silly at the same time, making me applaud the one and bemoan the other in the very same episode.

The deep was the thing I loved: Henry saying he needed a week to recharge his soul, indicating he'd used it to power the spell that jumped him into the future. Sam was amazed and intrigued, saying he thought only angels could do that.

Sam's comment reflected what we knew. When Dean traveled into the past for In The Beginning and told his possessed grandfather he'd come from the future, Azazel said he only knew one thing that had the juice to swing something like that, and observed Dean must have friends in high places, clearly referring to angels. All the time travel we had seen up to this point had been accomplished by angels. In Frontierland, with Castiel weakened by his injuries, he siphoned power from Bobby's soul to bring the brothers back to their home time.

Souls being the energy source that powered Heavem, Hell, and Purgatory was the main theme of all of season six. While time travel had been the exclusive province of angels until this episode, we've known for a while that demons could also use the power of human souls to do other things. In his conversation with Bobby in The Devil You Know, Crowley was pretty explicit about crossroads demons using the power of the soul being traded to accomplish the goal a person traded for. That conversation was very enlightening.

Crowley: “I need a little something to get the magic going.”
Bobby: “And what's that?”
Crowley: “You make a wish. I can give you anything you want, mate – up to and including Death's coordinates. All I need is ..”
Bobby: “My soul.”

Abaddon's use of Henry's door rather than one of her own, combined with us never having seen a demon initiate time travel, suggests that even though demons can use the power of the souls they acquire to do things, the specific mechanics of time travel may escape them. Abaddon clearly didn't lack the knowledge: the demon had access to everything Josie had learned, and she, as an initiate along with Henry, must have learned all the spells he did. Tapping those memories, Abaddon even taunted Henry, saying he'd never been particularly good at spells. And yet, Henry had learned a spell capable of carrying him through time. I'll admit, I'm bothered that, with time supposedly being such a delicate thing, jumping into the future was the first idea that popped into Henry's mind, but I'll let that go.

Even apart from time travel, Henry's ability to use soul power to supercharge spell components opens up a whole new realm of study. I'm betting Sam will essentially be going to college in the stronghold of the Men of Letters, learning the skills Henry's gift opens to the brothers. I wonder if Sam will gradually become more of a wizard as Dean becomes even more a knight. The thought that humans could consciously tap into and use the power of their own souls to energize magic struck me as something new with serious potential ramifications for the future. I hope we learn a lot more along with the brothers about how this aspect of magic works.

That same time travel spell, however, also pointed out the extremely silly aspect of magic as depicted in thie episode. Angel feathers? Really? And Dean had a carefully numbered stash of them in the Impala's trunk? Since when? We've only ever seen the shadows of wings when an angel died by sword or began to manifest its essence on Earth despite being contained within a human vessel; we've never seen material wings with material feathers. And given the strictly hands-off, observation-only policy angels supposedly had with regard to their surveillance of Earth after the time of Christ until the looming apocalypse, as described by Castiel, Anna, and Uriel in multiple episodes including Heaven And Earth and The Song Remains The Same – apart from the limited interference of the lesser variety of cupid angels in My Bloody Valentine – where and how would the Men of Letters have acquired the stock of angel feathers Henry raided for his jump to the future? Also, the Men of Letters and a random local contemporary little apothecary shop stocked tears of a dragon (despite dragons having vanished from Earth for at least 700 years, according to the Purgatory native masquerading as Ellie Visyak in Like A Virgin), and pinches of the sands of freaking time? Really?

Up to now, the spell components mentioned in episodes, while frequently oddball, had some rational source: human or animal bones, organs, or blood; myriad herbs and exotic spices; special oils; and things purified, distilled, blessed, or endowed with power through certain rituals, like holy water. This was the first episode I can remember to fall off the fantasy novel deep end and cite utterly nonsensical spell components. True, we learned from Dr. Visyak that a sword needed to be forged with dragon's blood to be able to kill a dragon, but she wryly noted the absence of dragons tied in with the great age and current scarcity of such swords, keeping things at least marginally real. Unless the dragon's tears and sands of time were fanciful names for otherwise mundane concoctions, they – along with angel feathers – crossed a line the show had never actually crossed before; they removed a little element of reality the show had always preserved even in the midst of its blatantly unreal supernatural elements. That disappoints me.

In the same episode, Supernatural advanced a fascinating concept of magic theory – humans accessing the power of souls – and threw away any concept of magic adhering to reality. I sigh.

Production Notes

As you can tell, I'm conflicted about this episode. It was beautifully visualized; Serge Ladouceur's directorial debut was a definite success! Henry's nighttime arrival at the street entrance of the initiation ceremony for the Men of Letters was a particularly gorgeous shot, and I commend Brad Creasser, acting in Serge's normal role of cinematographer, for lighting it perfectly. The difference in color and tone between the past and present day scenes defined them well. Sam and Dean bonding with Henry as he died and talking afterward at his grave was potent. The script by Adam Glass had some scintillating lines, and the episode rocketed from beginning to end; it's one of the fastest hours of television I can remember watching. Jay Gruska's family theme musical cues were heartbreaking. The effects crews did a bang-up job especially with the blood sigils and Abaddon's new demon smoke interrogation technique; I loved the energized sigil lighting Henry's face. The set decoration detail was amazing, especially the transformation of the gentlemen's club into Astro Comics, and creating two unique motels.

On the other hand, as my commentary and meta section indicates, I have major issues with the base concept story that go way beyond just the script for this episode. Right this moment, I can't understand why the creative team chose to introduce a family history for John that feels so emotionally inconsistent with the man we knew, and I have reservations about building the show's future around the relics of the Men of Letters when their very existence raises so many questions, issues, and logical discrepancies. To my mind, way too much new data got rammed into the episode's 42 minutes; perhaps if the pieces had been more deliberately introduced they could have been accompanied by supporting information that could have buttressed the structure and provided some rational explanations to encourage more acceptance. I will wait to see where and how things go from here, and how what we learn as the brothers get more information may resolve the myriad questions this episode raised, but I'm concerned about them.

I enjoyed both the idea of Henry Winchester as an intellectual and armchair adventurer thrown in over his head and the way Gil McKinney played him. I loved the humor beats in Henry observing and trying to adapt to a world so socially and technologically different from his own. I enjoyed seeing Henry's unconscious arrogance gradually broken down as Sam and Dean confounded his accustomed notions of hunters as brainless monkeys and as he faced up to the cost to his family of his commitment to the Men of Letters. His death was affecting, even though we knew it was inevitable from the very beginning. Henry's burial, however, is another one of those niggling details that make me judge this definitely not Adam Glass's best script. I get that the brothers wouldn't have given Henry a hunter's pyre even to be safe since Henry thought so little of hunters, but – burying him in a cemetery next to his fallen comrades? The overnight appearance of a random brand-new grave in an established cemetery is going to attract attention and exhumation and lead to a criminal investigation, especially when it's right next to a recently desecrated grave. No peaceful rest for Henry's bones, so the burial there was a dumb idea, when you think on it. At least Sam and Bobby buried Dean in the middle of nowhere where people weren't likely to stumble across his grave and might have thought his marker cross to be just another roadside memorial to a traffic fatality.

Abaddon was a disappointment to me. As one of the first fallen, first-born demons, a knight of Hell established before Lucifer got locked away in his prison cage by Michael the first time, Abaddon was presumably of a power level analogous to Lilith, Lucifer's first. At the very least, she would have been more than a match for Alastair, given the way she shook off the effects of being stabbed with what we now know is an “ancient demon-killing knife of the Kurds.” However, as played by Alaina Huffman, there was nothing distinctive about her personality or manner. Apart from her cute new interrogation trick of infusing part of herself into a victim to view their memories and her ability to follow Henry through a time door, Abaddon felt like just a run-of-the-mill, self-important evil bitch, and her propensity for screaming wordlessly at random moments made her more irritating than frightening. The way Dean and Henry took her down just reinforces the problem I have with the idea that Abaddon could have totally wiped out the Men of Letters, if they were as potent and resourceful as they were supposed to be.

The only truly interesting aspect of Abaddon for me was Larry's comment that she had been a hired gun. That implied Abaddon wasn't the brains behind the assault on the Men of Letters in 1958, and that makes me wonder who could have employed a knight of Hell as a tool and either given her orders or made her think she was pursuing her own desires. Lucifer wasn't in play at the time, and while Azazel was looking for his master's cage, he hadn't found it yet; that didn't happen until 1972, as we saw in Lucifer Rising. Lilith was still buried deep in the pit, with Azazel not yet knowing he needed to get her out in order to free Lucifer. Crowley was presumably king of the crossroads demons, but not yet positioned to jockey for rulership of Hell. So: who decided it was time to destroy the Men of Letters and figured out how to do it using Abaddon, and why? I am hoping we learn more about that as time progresses.

In summary, I really wanted to love this episode, and I really can't. I am looking forward to learning more about the Men of Letters and their fate (anyone care to bet we find out Eliot Ness was one of their elite hunters for a while?), and I do think what we learn could change my first impressions as new data answer questions and fill in currently missing logic. The show never fully paid off such things as John's and Bobby's storage unit caches of relics or the Campbells' extensive library; the Men of Letters' stronghold offers a new opportunity to expand on those concepts as a way to make the brothers more knowledgeable and powerful and to open up new avenues for research. The brothers have also never had a truly safe retreat to give them the chance to stash treasures or lick wounds. Depending on how this stronghold is designed, they might finally have a refuge in time of need and the chance to offer respite to allies like Kevin and Mama Tran. I wonder if they'll consider the feasibility of recreating a version of the Men of Letters and their hunter elite to increase their chances of pursuing and translating the tablets of the Word of God; having more organized help could totally change the dynamics of their hunt, hopefully without falling into the Roadhouse trap. Having the brothers openly assume leadership positions in the hunter community could be a fascinating change of role for them, if the writers could make it work. I'm curious to see where this may go.

I don't think anything is going to get me to accept John's new backstory, though. The good thing is, that probably doesn't matter any more than some of the other loops the show's thrown me for over the years, because I suspect it won't be mentioned again. It already served the only two purposes I could see it having: giving the brothers – particularly Dean – a reason to greet Henry initially with antagonism rather than even cautious familial acceptance; and explaining why John would have been totally ignorant of his intellectual supernatural legacy. I wish the writers' room had handled those things differently, but what's done is done, and that much of it is over with. In my mind, it falls into the same “stupid award” bin as Kripke having had an angel physically rip out her “grace” and literally fall with it from Heaven as two meteorites streaking across the North American night sky in Heaven And Hell. We never heard about that dumb notion again, and I'm betting John's newly acquired daddy issues will go silently back into their closet exactly the same way. And I would be fine with that.

After all, only the fundamental things need apply as time goes by.

Tags: dean winchester, episode commentaries, haiku, john winchester, meta, myth, philosophy, psychology, sam winchester, supernatural, supernatural university, television production

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