Let’s be real for a second: Sometimes the seasons following Supernatural Season 5 feel like sucky sequels. The first five seasons tell a cohesive story with a clear beginning, middle, and end. The question of how a show that built so much of its mythology around the (Judeo-Christian) apocalypse could move forward loomed over Season 6 and frankly, Season 6 failed to answer that question in any satisfying way. Season 7 was an improvement, but only slightly, still plagued by the sense that we were all just treading water, killing time until the story mattered again. Outside of the woefully mismanaged Sam-outta-Hell and domesticated Dean storylines, there was barely any connection to the early seasons of the show. We learned that Sam and Dean were bred to be archangel vessels, their entire usefulness tied up in the brotherly showdown-that-wasn’t, and it seemed, at times, that even the writers themselves didn’t quite understand how to make their protagonists important without their heavenly pedigrees.
“As Time Goes By” was the episode we’ve been waiting for, the keystone that ties the mythology of Seasons 1 through 5 to the often aimless wanderings of more recent seasons—and it managed to be completely awesome while doing so.
Also it was heartbreaking, because of course it was. Raise your hand if you pegged that kid in the bed for John Winchester as soon as he popped onto the screen. Keep it up there if you knew he was never going to see his papa (played by Friday Night Lights’ Gil McKinney) again. Yeah, me too. This isn’t the first time we’ve sat through an episode of Supernatural that, right from the beginning, we knew couldn’t possibly end with anything other than sadness. Seasons 3 and 4 were good for those. The best-case scenario for Henry Winchester was that he got stuck in 2013 and became another Bobby for his grandsons to hit up for some deus ex machina action, but we’ve HAD formerly long-lost grandparents show up to hang out and it kind of sucked. I still don’t REALLY understand what the point of the Campbell’s Season 6 storyline was. Anyone? Anyone at all?
When Henry’s 1958 initiation into the mysterious “Men of Letters” was crashed by one seriously pissed-off demon named Abaddon, he whipped up a spell and jumped into the future looking for John. He ended up with Sam and Dean and a mountain of angst. Sam acted nicely as our audience mouthpiece, asking all the questions we were thinking, like WTF are the Men of Letters and if they work with hunters like Henry claims, then why haven’t we (or the Winchesters) heard of them before? Dean sulked, because daddy issues, but I saw that coming, and he made his contribution too, pointing out that John despised his father, Henry, and claimed that the dude ran out on the family when John was a kid. And with that little piece of Winchester Family Wangst, the nagging feeling that Henry was going to meet an unfortunate fate was all but confirmed.
R.I.P. Henry, we hardly knew ye—but what we did know was enough to understand why the angels worked so hard to make sure Mary Campbell and John Winchester popped out their genetically gifted sons (as revealed in Season 5’s “My Bloody Valentine.”) Audience mouthpiece Sam conveniently made the connection again in case we didn’t get there ourselves. The Campbells were a legendary hunting family while the Winchesters descended from a long line of supernatural scholars. John and Mary represented the perfect union of “brains and brawn” that Dean and Sam would need to survive their apocalyptic coming of age. Fate REALLY screwed this bunch over, didn’t it?
Beyond providing a link to the past, however, Henry Winchester also presented an invaluable tool for the Winchesters’ future: the key to deciphering every scroll, spell, and—even though they didn’t explicitly say it, we were all thinking it—tablet, as well as the coordinates to an impenetrable safe zone in which to use it.
I think we all know where this is going.
Unfortunately, we will be going there without Henry. MISS U ALREADY, HENRY. KISSES. Despite reading John’s ode to Winchester Wangst (revealed to have been written in his own journal because SADNESS) and resolving to redo his time travel spell to go back and be a good dad to John, Henry ultimately carried on that long-held Winchester tradition of sacrificing oneself for the famdiddly when he took a demon fist to the gut during that hostage exchange with Abaddon—who, aside from Crowley, I would say is the demon with the best fashion sense we’ve seen so far. Loved the "devil made me do it" T-shirt and the fact that she just waltzed around in a bloodstained cocktail dress for half the episode like it was no big thing. Way to be fierce, girl.
Despite their initial apprehension, Dean and his grandpa ended up reaching an understanding before his death. Dean originally clung to his own father’s resentment of Henry’s perceived abandonment and balked at Henry’s justification that sometimes there’s a hefty personal price to be paid for the responsibility that comes with being a Man of Letters. To Henry’s credit, his original impression that hunters were nothing more than “apes”—and the apparent disappointment that his esteemed family eventually sunk to their level—gave way to an understanding that sometimes legacies and traditions evolve because they must. I would say that Henry’s parting affirmation to his grandsons—that despite not being Men of Letters, they’re still Winchesters, and “As long as we’re alive, there’s always hope,” should be put on their crest or something—but in retrospect, that’s rather generously optimistic for that clan.
What did you think of the newest addition to the Winchester family tree?
– I could be wrong about this, as my love of tacky things is well documented, but I thought Sam and Dean’s Ugly Motel Room of the Week was actually kind of pleasing in a budget retro kind of way.
– If I were Dean Winchester, I’d think time travel was the ultimate in suckass too.
– LOL @ hunters being the mouthbreathers of the supernatural underworld. I can’t say I haven’t had that thought myself from time to time.
– Smart Winchester Sighting! The fact that Dean and Sam are legacies in some smartypants supernatural book club/cult/library of weird is one of the best developments of the series. It’s kind of like when Luke Skywalker found out what the Jedi were and what his connection to them was—complete with the daddy issues. Also, devil’s trap bullet FTW!
– This episode was confirmed to take place in 2013, even though technically we’ve skipped what, like two years in continuity between Sam being in Hell and Dean doing the Purgatory thing? Whatevs. I always just hand-waved the time jumps myself anyway.
– When Henry broke the Impala’s window, “OMG DEAN’S GONNA KILL YO ASS.”