The fourth episode of “The Winchesters” first season is titled Monsters of War, which is a good description of what it was about – fighting your monsters, whether you’re a hunter or a veteran or anyone who’s experienced loss, grief, and trauma.
The opening is an older man stumbling down a psychiatric hospital corridor, walking right into a vivid flashback of his time in the midst of a war, bombs flying, warning shouts of “Incoming!” blaring. He takes refuge in an empty room only to find himself facing something that calls itself “Destiny” armed with a spear.
Blood splatter, title card, Dean Winchester, narrator.
Dean: Fighting the battle between good and evil isn’t easy, especially when the first monster you have to face is the one inside yourself.
I don’t really need it spelled out for me, but yes, true that. One of the main premises of “Supernatural” from day one, when the monsters Sam and Dean were fighting was not just the literal ones we saw onscreen. Cut to John and Mary sparring like the aforementioned Sam and Dean often did, Drake Rodger shirtless because, well, Drake Rodger, and Mary looking authentically seventies and I’m pretty sure I had those shorts.
John doesn’t want to stop or take a break, saying he missed fighting, even though in the service it was a 24/7 “gym class with grenades” which does not sound like fun. He laughs it off defensively, but when Mary laughs too, he admits that was Murph’s line, and the defensive laughter fades away as he remembers his friend’s violent death.
Mary realizes that he needs to punch something “that can punch back” to get that kind of big feelings out, so they spar for real. Mary taunts him a bit with “monsters aren’t gonna play nice and neither should you”, and bests him what seems like too easily to me – he’s a trained fighter too, after all, and I wouldn’t mind him coming out on top once in a while to make it realistic.
Carlos arrives when they’re in what looks like a compromising position, asking if he’s interrupting “whatever kind of hetero mating ritual this is” which did make me laugh. Sparring always seems a bit like it should engender those kind of questions to be honest, no matter who’s doing it.
Carlos and Lata share news of the strange deaths at the hospital, and when Carlos mentions hearing it from one of his vet friends, John has a hard time believing that Carlos hangs out with vets, because stereotypes. John is surprised to learn that Carlos is also a veteran, of the navy – and not because he enlisted.
Carlos’ vet friend Manny was there when the WWII vet was killed and doesn’t think it was a suicide thanks to singe marks on the walls and ceiling. Lata has some ideas about obscure monsters it could be, Mary makes a joke about it being a dragon (which, go figure, turns out really do exist in the Supernatural universe!) but they only go after virgins, and Carlos jokes that at least he’s safe and everyone scoffs. I know it’s the 70s and free love is the assumption, but I’d like to see that assumption being applied to not just one character.
Mary gets to call John ‘Soldier Boy’ again, which totally threw me out of the moment and into “The Boys” universe momentarily, but not in a bad way. She also worries that the monster targeting vets might hit a little too close to home for John, but he insists he’s okay and just wants to do more fighting (instead of think about those pesky feelings). John’s not the only one repressing feelings though. Mary steers him away from one of the rooms in her house, which turns out to be her cousin Maggie’s old room. The Campbells really aren’t coping with her death too well, because no one has been in there since.
John, Mary and Lata in lab coats with caps not trying very hard to cover all their hair make their way into the morgue to see how poor “Patches” looks, Carlos in the body bag because (like Dean Winchester) he sucks at rock paper scissors. I wonder if John learned that way of making decisions from the Campbells and Sam and Dean then learned it from him…. (but maybe this is an AU anyway so that kind of speculation is irrelevant).
John notices Patches’ silver cross which is laying beside him on the slab and has a flashback to Murph’s death, losing time and being thrown back to that moment that so traumatized him. Patches’ widow arrives at that moment and finds John (aka Graham Nash so the show is still on a CSN&Y kick) still clutching his cross. He covers by presenting it to Mrs. Pasternak and thanking her for her husband’s service, then gets overwhelmed by his own emotions and has to leave.
Apparently, Patches was having some anger issues and argued with a doctor in the therapy group he was attending the day he was killed. When Mary asks his widow who the doctor was, she says another person just asked that – a young reporter named Kyle Reed; Mary recognizes his name.
Meanwhile, John is having a breakdown in the hospital bathroom with another flashback and a lot of shaking. He sees the same monster who killed Patches, then smashes his fist into a metal trash bin again and again, trying to ground himself.
John, speaking as a psychologist, there are less damaging and more effective ways to do that, just saying.
He tells Mary it’s just indigestion when she asks him if he’s okay.
“Yeah, I’m fine” is the mantra that many veterans – and many men – repeat to themselves to keep up a veneer of invulnerability, following the demands of all those toxic masculinity messages. Certainly in the 1970s, before that term was coined, the idea that men who were “real men” should not express emotions was widespread, and John is well aware of those prohibitions.
Mary and Lata’s idea for how to get more information is immediately a threat to John’s repression of that vulnerability – he and Carlos, as veterans themselves, join the therapy group.
Lata and Mary do research. Lata says there’s not a lot of pre-Christian lore in the Men of Letters library, which I’m not sure lines up with what we knew of them on “Supernatural” even if they were ‘a bunch of old white men.’
Joining a vets’ therapy group means we get to see John back in uniform, attending the memorial service before the therapy group. Millie understands when he says he’s reluctant to sit around “talking about how I feel”, saying that’s never been their strong suit and that actions matter more than words. Something that John Winchester certainly seems to subscribe to for most of his life! (Also I continue to be fascinated by Millie, who defies a whole bunch of gender stereotypes herself, for better or worse).
Carlos gets to make an entrance also in uniform, to John and Millie’s appreciation.
Millie: Everyone loves a man in uniform.
Carlos (grinning): Including other men in uniform.
When he’s right, he’s right.
Millie reminds John to get out of there if they “try to blame it all on the mother” and John replies “of course, we all know it’s Dad’s fault anyway,” but it’s a shared moment between them that ends with a smile.
Requisite psychologist note: Therapy is not all about trying to blame it all on the mother, or on the father for that matter, but the past is relevant to the present nevertheless, that part’s true.
They ask for the therapist that Patches saw, a Dr. Zimpano, but he’s all booked up. (They also disturbingly refer to him as “Dr. Z” which is how my clients and students refer to me, so I immediately protested that I do not want to have the same name as the monster, thank you very much!)
Carlos turns his puppy eyes and flirting ability on the desk nurse to get them switched, and it works as well as it did for Sam Winchester in the future.
Meanwhile, Mary and Lata talk about Maggie, Lata saying how much she misses her and how much she wishes she could “see past the darkness” like Maggie could.
Mary meets up with the reporter she went to the movies with (who’s also the guy who interviewed the widow), returning his dime to him and saying Patches was a friend of the family and what a coincidence! Hmmm. Are there really coincidences in this show? I think not. Sure enough, Kyle is there chasing a story because Patches isn’t the first vet to be killed mysteriously in psych units. He seems like a good guy, and one we’ll perhaps see more of.
Carlos and John attend Dr. Z’s group, where not all the vets think he’s all that great. Carlos tells his actual story, living life off the grid until he got arrested and had to pick jail or service, so it was a navy medic and a bad haircut. Then he gets unexpectedly serious, sharing his own version of flashbacks and admitting that it doesn’t make a difference how he felt about the war or how he got there, that it was still experiencing a trauma.
He leaves after and says John will be next, though John says he wants to just listen. Dr. Z, on the other hand, encourages him to talk. So, John reluctantly shares his experience about being ambushed, his buddy stepping on a land mine and him seeing it happen. His survivor guilt is obvious, as he uses that defensive humor again.
John: My friend died, and all I got was a lousy scar.
John has to keep talking to give Carlos a chance to ransack Dr. Z’s files – he finds notes in the file about seeing a figure with a spear wearing a horned mask, assumed to be a hallucination. John is increasingly uncomfortable back in the group, hands shaking.
The other vets run defense for him, saying they were raised to bottle it up, to be a man. They attack Dr. Z verbally, accusing him of not listening to them like he didn’t listen to Patches. The therapist pretty much breaks all the rules of being a therapist by getting both defensive and punitive, ordering the outspoken vet to his office like he’s the principal or something.
Boo for depictions of bad therapists! (I know, that’s part of the plot)
John goes after fellow vet Jimmy and breaks through the door when he hears an altercation, but he’s too late to save the other vet from the same kind of attack. When John finds him dead and bloody, he sees Murph again, back in the flashback, and the sense of overwhelming guilt, once again not being able to stop it.
Enraged and overwhelmed by his own strong emotions, John confronts Dr. Z physically, demanding to know who the man in the horned mask is that Patches – and he – saw. Dr. Z is surprisingly empathic this time, insisting it’s not real, that “there are no monsters in this hospital”.
John retorts: you have no idea.
John is dismissive of sharing in the group, but Carlos tells John that he actually felt it was helpful, so much so that he forgot they were working on a case and shared for real. Apparently, that doesn’t help him avoid the monster though, who sucks him into an empty room as Carlos also gets thrown back in time to a flashback of the war.
Carlos isn’t the only one who’s finally facing his repressed feelings. Mary and Lata confront their own feelings by going into Maggie’s room finally. I got thrown out of the moment temporarily by the framed poster of Donny Osmond over Maggie’s bed – I’m not sure any of us actually framed our posters back in the 70s, but sure, we all had similar posters plastered on our walls though mine were definitely not Donny Osmond.
Lata comments that ancient myths and creatures weren’t Maggie’s only obsessions. (I bristle at fandom being referred to as an obsession, but it happens all the time, so I’ll let it slide since it’s affectionate here).
They sift through Maggie’s inspiration cards – they write down 2 bad things and 1 good thing idea she did for every hunt. A sort of Hallmark way to “see past the darkness” but it can’t hurt. I just tend to bristle at overly simplistic strategies like ‘tack an inspirational message on your fridge and you’ll be fine and dandy’ solutions to legitimate mental health challenges.
I see what they’re going for here though, and optimism and gratitude are good for humans, so Maggie was onto something there. Especially hard to hang onto for hunters constantly faced with violence and hopelessness. (And yet one of the things I cherish about “Supernatural” is that the show was dark, gritty and realistic, and sometimes quite hopeless – that’s what made it so compelling that Sam and Dean struggled not to succumb to that hopelessness and yet kept fighting anyway).
Lata far too easily finds the exact monster they’re looking for in like one minute flat, Mars Neto, not a monster but a deity, complete with helpful illustration. Poor Sam and Dean had to really work for their figuring out “the lore,” complete with MoL libraries AND the internet, but Lata just puts her finger on it like that! Mary and Lata enlist Millie’s help, since the hospital only allows family to visit, filling her in on the guy who’s a god, who’s also immortal.
Millie, always the protective mom: You sent John into battle against a god that’s immortal?
They assure her that if they destroy his totem, he’s killable, reminding her that John and Carlos are trained soldiers, but that doesn’t reassure Millie. She says that John’s been a fighter since he was four years old, inevitably running right towards the enemy. (Sounds like his son at that age and beyond too?)
And that’s exactly what John is doing, frantically looking for Carlos, opening doors and noticing the do not enter tape torn down from one. He switches on the light to walk right into… the Viet Nam jungle. They find each other in the jungle and embrace, but Carlos says they’re trapped in there, that maybe they have to face what’s in there if they want to get out – not the monster with the mask but…
And then Carlos steps (literally) right into John’s trauma, stepping on a landmine and calling out, just like Murph did, voice quavering, “John?”
John tells him not to move, and then the god appears – it’s the vet Jimmy, who is not dead after all. He’s literally wearing a horned mask that he takes off (and that makes him sound a little like Darth Vader) as he welcomes them, saying men of action are so hard to come by. That’s a riff on Millie’s ‘it’s all about actions, who needs talking?”
The god says he was trying to get John ready, to get him to embrace his anger, so he’d be ready to fight the Akrida. This is pretty much the theme of several seasons of “Supernatural, “but he is not nearly as scary as the Yellow Eyed Demon, or The Trickster for that matter. The god says he’ll let Carlos go if John joins him – or fights him – which seems different to me, but that’s how he puts it.
It’s a fight to ‘draw first blood’ and although Carlos begs John not to fight, John agrees, mysteriously armed with a spear of his own and still eager to fight fight fight instead of deal with any of his issues.
For some reason, the god doesn’t stop with drawing first blood after all, tossing John up in the air and cutting him repeatedly and urging him to set his violence and rage free, to become what he was born to be… This seems to be referencing the idea that John (and Mary) were chosen for some sort of destiny, which eventually results in Sam and Dean – and some gods and monsters already know of him.
John seems to be succumbing to his own rage, but help is on the way!
Millie proves herself to be a pretty adept hunter, threatening Dr. Z with an expose about their lockdown on the nightly news with Walter Cronkite. Poor embattled Dr. Z has to go deal with Jimmy’s corpse mysteriously disappearing and throws up his hands, saying “ladies, have a blast” – and apparently now you don’t have to be family to get in to visit after all!
Lata gets distracted by the beauty and fragility of the totem when they finally find it, which Millie smartly shatters immediately with a ‘we do not have time for irony’ truth. That weakens the god and, with epic music playing according to my subtitles, John stabs him through the chest with the spear. Instead of taking up the mask, he knocks the god over with it. It seems that might be just what the god wanted though.
God: I was right, you are just like me.
He beats him again and again, practically channeling his namesake Soldier Boy from that other show and Jensen Ackles character – and pretty much proving the god’s point, splattering himself with blood, breathless.
Dying God: You’re ready for the war against the Akrida.
Carlos is freed from the land mine as the god dies, but he stares in shock and maybe a little horror at a bloodied, wounded, given-into-violence John.
Shades of bloody out of control Dean Winchester shocking his brother in early seasons “Supernatural.”
John and Carlos meet up with Millie, Mary and Lata. Carlos tells them that the god said the only way out was for John to fight him, and Lata asks the obvious question.
Lata: Just John? Why?
Is this another “Supernatural” case of ‘the chosen one’?
I liked the real-life results of this case. Dr. Z assures Carlos that he’s now committed to doing right by the veterans, and that the deaths will be better investigated. He says he hopes they didn’t scare Carlos off, that he sees a lot of potential for growth and healing in him. Mary gives Dr. Z Ryan’s card to help.
So, Dr. Z didn’t turn out to be the monster after all – my name is vindicated! Carlos has himself a new therapist, in fact.
Mary offers Carlos Maggie’s room to stay with her, since he’s still shaken up, saying she “can’t keep the door locked forever,” both actually and metaphorically, so there’s progress for Mary too.
Carlos thanks John for what he did saving him from the landmine, perhaps a symbolic making up for not being able to do that for Murph, so maybe the god did him a little bit of a favor after all. Carlos offers that he’s there if John ever wants to talk, and you get the feeling that John and Carlos bonded in a deeper way after the events of this hunt.
We get the classic 70s song from Harry Nilsson playing, the lyrics “Everybody’s talkin at me, I don’t hear a word they’re sayin, only the echoes of my mind…” playing as we see where all our main characters ended up. Carlos back at the group, along with some WWII vets who look so much like my dad, also a vet, that it made me tear up unexpectedly.
Mary and Lata follow Maggie’s write-down-two-good things on cards thing.
Millie makes dinner, hears the shower running and finds the door open, John kneeling in the tub fully clothed, sobbing. She embraces him from behind, rocking with him like all mothers do with crying children.
It’s an odd but popular fictional trope to sob in the shower fully clothed, but I thought Drake and Bianca sold the emotional impact of that moment, and I felt for them both. As I mentioned, my dad was also a vet who came back from the war with PTSD, long undiagnosed because he followed those harmful tropes of “don’t talk about it, don’t show your feelings” for far too long before realizing he actually could get help – and deserved it. I really appreciated the respectful treatment of the veterans in this episode, including the implication that they deserve a better system of help than they often get in this country.
Much like “Supernatural,” it’s the very human themes and the relationships between the characters that so far are what most capture my interest about “The Winchesters.” I appreciate the psychological themes more than I do the gods and monsters, in this episode the strong performances from Drake Rodger and JoJo Fleites especially.
New episode tomorrow of “The Winchesters” on The CW with Legacy of a Mind!