11:30 am EDT, February 6, 2019

‘Supernatural’ at 300: ‘Lebanon’ takes the impact of John Winchester seriously

Supernatural’s much anticipated 300th episode is finally here, and it is truly a one-of-a-kind experience — both in what it achieves onscreen and what it represents offscreen about the show’s legacy.

300 episodes is a rare milestone for any sort of weekly drama. With Supernatural’s recent renewal, it becomes one of only eight prime-time scripted shows currently on air to receive a 15th season, and if it carries on beyond that, the number grows smaller still.

Take animation out of the mix, and you’re looking at Supernatural in a pool of about three or four in terms of endurance within live-action television production, and the most prominent in terms of relying on a very small central cast instead of an ensemble, two of whom have appeared in every single episode and have built their lives and families around the ongoing production of this show.

We were thrilled to join the Supernatural cast and creators in Vancouver last year, when they celebrated this milestone episode starting production at a massive party in their honor. It was a magical night filled with pride and joy, and making Supernatural has clearly, over the years, shifted from “steady work” into “labor of love” territory for everyone involved. Commitment on all sides has led to this achievement.

The takeaway from the press line was that Supernatural has thrived because of good people and positive experiences, and a symbiosis between the show’s cast and crew and its fans – they care about making it, that carries on screen, so we care about watching it, and then they care that we care and so on and so on until episode 300. In short, Supernatural proves that the act of caring not only matters – it works.

While talking about the general concept of 300 – first revealed at Comic-Con by showrunner Andrew Dabb – was exciting, and reflecting on the show’s legacy and social impact with the cast was a privilege, the timing of the party unfortunately meant that there wasn’t a lot shared about the episode’s finer details that the actors and producers could discuss.

Biggest of all was the reveal, a month after the party, that Jeffrey Dean Morgan, who played Sam and Dean’s father John Winchester and died (for good) in the season 2 premiere, would be returning to the show to visit his wife and sons in some special way.

JEFFREY DEAN MORGAN RETURNS FOR THE 300TH EPISODE – Sam (Jared Padalecki) and Dean (Jensen Ackles) look to occult lore for a solution to their latest problem, but instead of a resolution, they find much more than either of them had anticipated. Jeffrey Dean Morgan (John Winchester) guest stars. The episode was directed by Robert Singer and written by Andrew Dabb & Meredith Glynn.

After finally viewing the 300th episode, I’m happy to applaud Supernatural for its handling of one of the most high-stakes moments in its history, one that was always bound to be both controversial and comforting. If you are keen to know what to expect for John Winchester in “Lebanon” – plus a few other tidbits – read on.

Spoiler Warning: This article contains generalized spoilers and analysis of plot points for Supernatural’s 300th episode. If you do not wish to be spoiled at all, do not read this article in advance of the airdate.

Let’s reflect on John. There is no cushioning the fact that John Winchester is a troublesome and divisive figure in the brothers’ history. No viewer in their right mind could claim that he was a faultless – or even particularly good – father, given the choices he made after losing Mary and how they in turn changed him.

However, he acted from a place of deep love, despite what it cost his family, and his sons do know that. The conflicting feelings that Sam and Dean have about their father are an ongoing plot point – all the different facets, from “my father was an obsessed bastard” to “he was just doing the best he could” have come out to play, as recently as last week.

Protective fans – I know this because I am one of them – are often much harder on John than the boys are themselves. This is understandable on many counts. It is very easy to look in at a character – or at a real person – from outside and love them, and hate those who wronged them. It is very easy to want for them the things that they find it impossible to want for themselves.

But this show knows its characters. From day one, the relationship between father and sons is framed as extremely difficult. We’re meant to know that Dean’s hero worship borders on obsequiousness, and that he seems almost programmed out of believing he has the right to any sort of autonomy or self-care. We’re meant to know that Sam rejected that notion of obedience so completely that it tore a rift in the family.

It is the central emotional plot of the show’s inaugural season. We are meant to know that these relationships are, in a word, dysfunctional. However, despite that, when the family does actually share screen time in season 1, it’s often desperately fond, despite harsh words when apart – because love isn’t rational or reasonable.

There’s no doubt that Sam and Dean grew up damaged – and not just because of the hunter lifestyle. You know it. I know it. They know it. Mary knows it. And the show knows it. It knows what John Winchester did to those kids. It’s told us enough times.

And so upon seeing John again, it would be very easy, perhaps wishful thinking for some, to want any or all three of the living Winchesters – Dean, Sam or Mary – address him with immediate rage, seeking retribution or handing over a laundry list of misdeeds for him to answer for.

Actor Jeffrey Dean Morgan has not been quiet about how upsetting he found John’s legacy to be – “It always bugged me that the John that I played is different than the John that has been portrayed since I haven’t been around. I really wanted the opportunity to be able to come back and make amends in a way and try to fix the sullied name of this character,” he told EW recently.

Again, this is understandable, given that it is an actor’s job to be their character’s greatest ally and find the sympathetic notes – even Mark Pellegrino will tell you that. And it has to be said that the episodes that Morgan actually appeared in – the ones he would have studied deeply, as opposed to all the memories the boys have mentioned in the 13 seasons since – do show a somewhat softer side of John, right on the precipice of completing his revenge quest, hoping to get out, relieved to have his children near but terrified for their safety. When the trio of Winchester men were together, it was easy to see how stress and worry erupted as anger and conflict.

No matter how much John Winchester – or at least, the sum of his parts that the show has pieced together over the years – might objectively deserve to be punched in the face, it is, I admit, unrealistic to believe that Sam or Dean would actually react like this upon seeing him for the first time since he died. It would be entirely out of character. Like it or not, they loved him, and they lost him long before they had a chance to understand him.

They’re both grown men. Not quite older than John was when he died – that’s Mary’s particular cross to bear – but getting close. They were so green back then, about hunting, yes, but about life and loss, death and grief. They’ve both done things just as destructive as John did – not with kids in tow, but worse in other ways. So the perspective they bring to this reunion, alongside a huge dose of unconditional love – Winchesters are great at unconditional love – means that rage and aggression was never going to be on the table.

So taking this into account, on the flip side of John meeting a row of relatives with scores to settle, it would have also been easy to handwave the very real problems with John’s parenting (despite Morgan’s beliefs) in order to lean into rose-coloured sentimentality and grant him questionless exoneration for the sake of a perfect family reunion.

“Lebanon” does neither, and its delicacy in handling what is probably the most complex emotional confrontation the show will ever face must be commended. Without revealing too much about the hows and whys, the fact of the matter is that yes, this is the real John, with the same experience and memories of the Winchesters’ lives pre-series, and no, he is not a ghost.

And when the truth is laid out to him (a jump cut after his first scene signifies something like at least half a day of catch-up, as Mary was clearly called and told to come home immediately from the Hibbing cabin – Samantha Smith is incredibly visceral in this episode) John himself is all the metaphorical face-puncher he needs.

A broken man with the best of intentions facing the horrors of his childrens’ lives when laid out in front of him years after the fact – how would you feel? Proud of what they’ve overcome? Devastated for his part in it? Desperate to make amends? All of that and more. John Winchester is facing quite literally an impossible situation, one that no one has ever had to face in real life, for any multitude of reasons, and how he reacts to it is… appropriate, to say the very least.

His loved ones aren’t keen to waste the obviously limited time together on conflict – again, would you, if you lost someone you loved that much, even if the relationship was troubled, and got a last chance with them? – but that does not mean that those bigger issues aren’t addressed. After all, you can’t make amends by ignoring a situation. You have to face it. And it is satisfying to see John, with the truth of his family’s past and future laid out, shoulder the responsibility and show some serious contrition, choosing to apologize instead of being forced to explain.

There is a slight undercurrent of anger, sure – moreso for Sam, who spends one particular conversation very clearly choosing not to lash out (my angry-crier friends will recognize this), though Dean has a veiled mic drop moment at the very end which I know will garner a few fist pumps. And fans will be gratified to know that the scars surrounding John’s erratic behavior – a universal parenting issue – are addressed in a way that’s separate to the moments addressing his guilt over getting the boys into hunting and take them on the road.

But at the end of the day, this whole endeavor? This isn’t actually about John Winchester. John’s appearance is not meant to represent a primary goal of offering absolution or condemnation for that character for his own sake. Instead, it is, as all things Supernatural are and ever shall be, about Sam and Dean, and what they gained from this experience, what they needed and what perhaps they didn’t know they needed.

Both brothers walk away from this episode changed for the better – possibly permanently. Each receives a very special and individual gift thanks to John’s presence, something much bigger than simply the chance to have dinner as a family and make a lovely memory. Growth, closure, acceptance, catharsis, you could call it many things. Mary is actually the one I’m most worried about moving forward – I don’t know if this was as positive for her as it was for her sons, but she shines in both her happiness and pain like a burning star.

I don’t want to spoil the specifics, but both Padalecki and Ackles are of course extraordinary in their performances – Sam takes the episode’s MVP trophy home in his one-on-one with his father, but Dean’s true takeaway from what seeing John allows him to verbalize has been a long, long time coming. Look forward to the dishwashing scene, is all I’m saying, and remember that all any person can be – all any person can know how to be – is the sum of their own unique experiences.

And, switching gears here, “Lebanon” is certainly more than just John Winchester. It’s sort of a series of movements, with the John suite taking central focus, but the others are still quite important.

Not too much precedence is given to the episode’s initial concept of the townspeople looking in on the Winchesters and gossiping – of course, when you have the opportunity to address something like John, other ideas may have to go on the backburner – but it’s still a good third of the episode and it’s hilarious.

Plus, it adds serious potential to get the town involved in more episodes in future. Here’s a hint – the Winchesters now have a gang of local teens who know their secret. And I love them all.

The episode also references or pays homage to many, many, many others from the show’s past. It’s not meta, exactly – it’s just a lot of natural mentions or visual throwbacks to things that came up in the past, either for humorous or serious reasons. Here’s five, just for fun: “Plucky Pennywhistle’s Magical Menagerie,” “The Executioner’s Song,” “As Time Goes By,” “Bugs,” and “Lazarus Rising.”

And boy, are Castiel fans going to love that last one. It’s been well circulated that Cas appears in “Lebanon” as a version of his former self, alongside his old superior Zachariah, and this does not disappoint.

Due to the nature of a wibbly wobbly timeline, this is a Castiel who not only never fell, but was never tasked with saving Dean from Hell. It’s basically a redux of his first appearance on Earth, and the stark comparison when Misha Collins reverts to his first performance is a great tribute to all he’s become in his ten years with the Winchesters.

You wanna talk about episode throwbacks? Count in “Goodbye Stranger” – 300 comes complete with Dean’s Patented Meaningful Bloody-Faced Begging. Don’t worry – regular Cas does come home at the end of the episode, and he’s wearing his newest trench coat (as opposed to his original one, seen below) to prove it.

When I’ve been thinking about Supernatural lately – and I think about Supernatural a lot – I keep coming back, for some reason, to the words of Lin-Manuel Miranda, via Eliza Hamilton: “Look at where you are, look at where you started. The fact that you’re alive is a miracle – just stay alive, that would be enough.”

A little on the nose, I know, but honestly, it totally applies to both the Winchesters onscreen and the show as a whole offscreen.

Supernatural has achieved permanence simply by persisting, but the fact that it continues to produce top-notch programming that leans into its own legacy rather than trying to reinvent it, the fact that its careful character development is by all calculations the deepest on TV (no other actors have put more hours into understanding their characters as these two) and the fact that the attitudes of those making it are truly positive, enthusiastic, still trying their best together means that today the show, in its advanced age, is the strongest it’s ever been. With a foundation that solid, how could it not be?

Supernatural’s season 14 is more than half over. Its reduced episode order is openly known to be a concession to its stars – a preservation of their resilience and their family life after 15 years of fairly taxing work in another country away from their children, and kudos to everyone involved in that honorable decision.

I bring this up now because at this milestone – a milestone which, at one point, the stars considered may be the end – I’m more certain than ever that this show could run indefinitely if it wanted to. In whatever way, however they need to make it work and make it fun. A six hour mini-series every summer. 20 minute episodes, 5 minute webisodes, more strong ensemble stories that allow the stars more days off per episode.

Whatever it takes, I want it. I never want to lose this show. I never want to lose these characters. The fact that you’re alive is a miracle. Just stay alive. That would be enough.

‘Supernatural’ airs Thursdays at 8/7c on The CW

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