Supernatural is the kind of show that takes a sadistic glee in emotionally compromising episodes — it's like This is Us but with more exsanguination. Look at any list of "great" Supernatural episodes and you're going to see the likes of "Faith" and "Mystery Spot" and "What Is and What Should Never Be." And in lists curated after Feb. 7, 2019, I think you might just see "Lebanon" start to appear.
The hour starts out basic enough — Sam (Jared Padalecki) and Dean (Jensen Ackles) roll into Precious Pawn. (Ah yes, I have pawned many an engagement ring in a shop just like that one, except I'm pretty sure the super secret back rooms in those establishments just contained lifted DVD players and not an assortment of supernatural swag.) The first 15 minutes of "Lebanon" are a fun romp that could have happened in literally any season of the series (except for Season 5, because Season 5 was emo); Dean and Sam casually avenge a hunter, clean out Precious Pawn's catalogue of crazy, and chase some kids across town after they steal Baby, as sad teenagers do. I love that, initially, the local teens in Lebanon view Dean and Sam as these old weirdoes, crafting elaborate stories about them that somehow aren't as weird as the truth.
But this is the 300th episode of the series. It's been on the air for 14 seasons. It's already been renewed for a 15th season. Supernatural is almost old enough to drive and I think it's important (and much appreciated) that the series acknowledges that in "Lebanon." Since the show started, we've seen Padalecki and Ackles evolve from the latest crop of WB (yes, WB!) heartthrobs into husbands, fathers, business owners, and directors. Padalecki was barely old enough to drink a beer when this series began. Ackles' voice was noticeably higher, that face noticeably smoother — and that's not a knock on them for being "lol old." Padalecki is like five minutes older than me and we are not old, thank you very much. I'm just saying that this is a series that we have, in a way, grown up with. To insist that Dean and Sam be seen in the same way, as these sexy, mysterious, dangerous daredevils who blow in and out of towns on the tail of some spooky happening or another would be to turn the series into a parody of itself. Sometimes, it's perfectly fine to act your age.
The way the locals view Sam and Dean is also an important factor in one of the underlying themes of "Lebanon" and, of course, the series as a whole. Sam specifically referred to the Men of Letters bunker as "home" when he and Dean started clearing out the pawn shop, and it was such a quick but poignant moment. Yes, finally, after all this time, the Winchester boys have a real, fixed place on the map that they can call home. They have become locals themselves, and that sexy serial killer vibe that got Dean Winchester laid in Season 1 doesn't play so well when you're pushing 40 in a town so tiny that the postmaster can tell you where the girl who stole your car lives, and where her mom works, based on the description that she's blonde.
Regardless of how the youths initially viewed Dean and Sam, however, through their interactions with the mail lady and the liquor store owner, it's apparent that the Winchester boys (well, the Campbell boys), are not outcasts at all. They are a part of this community. They have more going for them in life than just the hunt, the revenge, and the cycle of emotional constipation that defined their lives for so long. A long, long time ago, Dean Winchester said "it ends bloody or sad." Maybe it doesn't have to, though. Enter John Winchester (Jeffrey Dean Morgan).
Oh, it ends bloody and sad for John. There's no changing that. While cataloguing Precious Pawn's more interesting merchandise, Sam discovers a magical, wish-granting pearl. The lightbulb goes off over that shaggy head and he convinces Dean to hold the pearl, wish really hard, and finally get Michael out of his head. The pearl grants the owner what their heart most desires and what more could Dean possibly want than Michael out of his head? Well, Dean has, by his own admission, wanted exactly one thing and one thing only, since he was 4 years old: his family, together again.
It was a nice try, Sammy. Good effort.
I side-eyed the ease with which John Winchester, freshly plucked from 2003 and dropped in the magic doomsday bunker in 2019, bought Sam and Dean's story. This is a John from two years before the series even begins. The bitterness toward Sam leaving for Stanford was undoubtedly fresh. Wouldn't this have also been around the time ol' Yellow Eyes' plans started to become known to John, starting our rapid descent into Crazytown and "oh, btw Deano, you might have to kill Sammy" territory?
You're telling me that John, in peak-psycho-hunter mode, poofs into a magical bunker almost 20 years in the future, finds out that both of his children have been repeatedly possessed by all manner of supernatural baddies; have been to literal hell and back (and heaven, and a couple alternate universes); have become BFFs with an actual angel; have adopted Satan's spawn; and oh yeah, Saint Mary the Fridged is alive and well and badass as hell... and that all of this gets plunked into John Winchester's uncompromising hunter-brain and he's just like "I am so grateful for this time we have together."
"Lebanon" isn't an episode that benefits from too much logical thinking, but maybe that's the point. It's an episode that relies heavily on magical thinking and it is pure wish fulfillment. Dean wished for his family, and that wish was granted. Of course, in typical Supernatural fashion, Dean and Sam aren't allowed to have nice things and the fulfillment of Dean's wish compromised the world as the events from the last 16 years of their lives began to unravel. In a world where John Winchester isn't destined to die in 2006, Sam graduates from Stanford and becomes a sort of Steve Jobs figure, complete with douchey turtleneck. Dean is on the FBI's most wanted list, but, ever the martyr, he's apparently cool with that as long as it means he gets his family.
Unfortunately, if John doesn't go back to 2003 and continue to drag his boys down the road that leads to the start of the series, the events of the series never happen. This has cosmic implications, certainly, as all that world-saving the Winchesters engaged in becomes unsaved. All the people they rescued over the years are resigned to their bloody fates. Castiel (Misha Collins) reverts back to his Old Testament self, untarnished by the Winchester meddling that humanized him over the years. There is also the little problem that if John lives, Mary (Samantha Smith) dies. If the events of the series never happen, then Mary is never resurrected. Mary Winchester dies in 1983 and that's where she will stay.
The Winchester family — John, Dean, Mary, and Sam, together again if only for a moment — decide that John needs to return to 2003 and his sad and bloody fate, and John is OK with that because he's a terrible, messed up person who loves his family and it's clear where Dean gets his martyr complex from. John returns to 2003 where that last supper with his family is just an odd dream that will surely be forgotten by the time he's making a deal with Azazel in a hospital basement. It is Supernatural's most sacred guiding rule of the universe: the Winchesters never, ever, get to have their cake and eat it too.
And that's... OK. Dean tells Sam, "I'm good with who I am. I'm good with who you are," and that's what any 14-year-old needs to hear, even if that 14-year-old happens to be an immortal little show on The CW. That line encapsulated the growth that this series, its stars and crew, its fans, and its world have experienced in the lifetime that 300 episodes represents.
It hasn't always been fun. The road hasn't always been smooth. Plans have backfired. Friends have died. Fights have been bitter. Silences long. Maybe this isn't where everyone thought they were going to land when this crazy road trip started, but it's where we're meant to be, and it's home.
SOME NOTES AND QUOTES
- That was a nice looking John Wayne Gacy ghost. KUDOS to the makeup crew.
- You saved the world... and now you live in a secret bunker with an angel and Lucifer's kid?" It doesn't take much to sum up how weird this show is.
- Oh Robo-Cas, what tingly feelings you inspire. Remember when Castiel was powerful and scary and not a baby in a trench coat?
- It was very awesome to see Kurt Fuller again as Zachariah. I missed that a-hole angel.
- I thought I would hate Sam's forgiveness scene with John because I habitually apply way too many personal feelings to that particular relationship, but I was pleasantly surprised to be OK with it.
- John and Mary definitely ran off and did a horizontal tango while their children awkwardly walked as far away as possible, right? We can agree that that's what happened there?
- Dean, to Sam, regarding John Wayne Gacy's haunted cigar box: "This is the best worst thing to happen to you because you love serial killers but hate clowns."
Supernatural airs Thursdays at 8/7c on The CW.
(Disclosure: TV Guide is owned by CBS Interactive, a division of CBS Corporation.)