'The Winchesters' Review: Supernatural Spinoff Prequel With John, Mary

The Winchesters” is an interesting “Supernatual” spinoff choice, because not only is it spinning off established characters like “Wayward Sisters” (its second spinoff pilot that didn’t go to series) had attempted to, it’s creating a new world with established characters whose very canon that this show is tackling was already established in “Supernatural.” Because “The Winchesters” isn’t just a spinoff, it’s a prequel: about how John Winchester (Drake Rodger) and Mary Campbell (Meg Donnelly), father and mother to “Supernatural’s” Sam (Jared Padalecki) and Dean (Jensen Ackles) Winchester, met and fell in love. The story of John and Mary was told multiple times over the course of that show’s 15 seasons, thanks to the magic of time travel and flashbacks — and, well, magic. But most important, what was established about John and Mary was the fact that while Mary came from a monster-hunting family, she got together with John to leave that life behind — and John had been completely unaware of that world altogether until Mary’s death at the very beginning of “Supernatural.”

“The Winchesters” seemingly changes that fact. “Seemingly” because, despite it clearly being the case, executive producers Robbie Thompson (a “Supernatural” writing alum who also serves as “The Winchesters” showrunner) and Jensen and Danneel Ackles have all been adamant during panels and interviews for “The Winchesters” that this prequel is not a rewrite, reboot, or a change to the “Supernatural” continuity. In fact, Thompson and the Ackleses have asked that the audience have an open mind and a wait-and-see approach with the series to see how they pull this all off with established canon, suggesting that by the end of the season, the full picture will be revealed. However, from a viewer’s perspective of just the pilot, it’s difficult to see a picture of anything but changing the mythology, as it thrusts a wide-eyed John Winchester (freshly returned home to Lawrence, Kansas after serving in the Vietnam War) into the world of monster-hunting pretty quickly.

To be fair, through Jensen Ackles’ narration as Dean Winchester, the pilot does set up that something’s not right about this departure. As the Thompson-penned episode cheekily twists moments like John and Mary running into each other outside a movie theater and having coffee together into small beats in their monster-hunting story, it does seem like “The Winchesters” is presenting these events as though they’re just standard family secrets, and move along. Yet Ackles’ narration hints at something edgier, acknowledging that what’s happening on screen isn’t what we were told or led to believe and that the truth about this needs to be uncovered. The narration isn’t only Dean wistfully reciting his parents’ love story, it’s him uncovering a mystery on top of the mysteries they are uncovering themselves. How that will factor into the larger story told by “Supernatural” remains to be seen, but it’s clear that there’s something up “The Winchesters’” sleeve.

“The Winchesters” also goes the route that no other proposed “Supernatural” spinoff had planned to go, in terms of its back to basics approach. Obviously, there are Easter eggs for fan consumption, from key quotes to a patented “Supernatural” palm-slice happening within the first minute. But the premise itself — that John and Mary are brought together here because both of their fathers have gone missing — is its biggest throwback. For John’s father, Henry, this story also comes from established “Supernatural” canon: Henry disappeared when John was 4 years old, working as part of a supernatural freemason group known as the Men of Letters. The Men of Letters became a major part of “Supernatural” beginning in its eighth season, and it’s a major part of “The Winchesters” from its first moment, with John, Mary, and their team looking to uncover the mysteries of this organization that seems to have just completely disappeared without a trace. Mary’s father, Samuel, on the other hand, is a more traditional monster hunter who’s gone missing in the midst of a job that he’s kept secret from Mary, despite the fact that they’re a family that always works together. As in the original series, John and Mary follow clues (like notes on maps, coordinates and journal entries) to figure out the next stop on their road trip of the United States they should go to.

“The Winchesters” does thrive in going back to square one in a way “Supernatural” wasn’t really able to do as it continued to get bigger with each passing season, getting down to brass tacks in the form of searching for their fathers and doing what the Winchester-Campbell clan does best: “saving people, hunting things.” “The Winchesters” could easily just do “Supernatural” again” with John and Mary, as Drake Rodger and Meg Donnelly work the two-hander dynamic well enough to anchor the series on their own before it introduces its Scooby gang (complete with Mystery Machine). (The rest of the ensemble is hit or miss, as are the comic beats that come along with them.) Especially as John and Mary’s personalities follow established television logic that children are basically just the personality product of one of their parents; so, naturally, Mary wears leather jackets and is the gruff hunter like Dean and John wears flannel and is the sensitive hunter like Sam. It’s a simple formula, which is just what the original “Supernatural” relied on. The Men of Letters being a part of “The Winchesters” mythology from the start suggests that simplicity won’t be what this series relies on, but it’s nice while it lasts.

The thing about John and Mary is that there are established performances (of both the past and present) from “Supernatural” for both of these actors to compare them to. But solely on their own merits, Rodger pulls off the sweet guy who’s-seen-some-shit approach to John better than Donnelly does the world-weary, wants to get out of this life version of Mary; though the latter’s shortcoming in this domain come across more as a result of writing for this style of character that’s been seen and done a bunch before. Plus, with the comparisons to their Winchester sibling counterparts, Rodger arguably has the easier task of channeling Padalecki in his performance of John than Donnelly does of channeling Ackles as Mary. It’s harder to truly define Mary than it is John, but that ultimately manages to work out for the Mary character, as the show establishes that she wants to figure out who she is outside of hunting — and to live long enough to answer that question.

Outside of the two-hander dynamic is where things get tricky for “The Winchesters.” Not in terms of the music, which of course cribs from “Supernatural’s” old-school soundtrack and established score, but with its ensemble. While “Supernatural” progressively added more characters to its world and revealed just how large the hunting community actually is, the heart and soul of the series was always the Winchester brothers, much like the core of “The Winchesters” is John and Mary. Despite the things that don’t yet make sense about “The Winchesters,” it still makes sense that this show is the “Supernatural” spinoff that got the green light. There is a comfort to returning to this world that Thompson and the Ackleses clearly realize here — a comfort to getting back on the road with a pair of Winchesters.

“The Winchesters” premieres on Oct. 11 at 8 p.m. on The CW.

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