I didn’t originally intend to post about this episode, because I remembered it as being a perfectly competent but not especially important bit of the first season. Rewatching it, though, I was struck by the way it performs some quiet-but-vital work on the issues of character and theme.
There’s an obvious parallel built in here: Michael, the kid at the motel, has a brother he wants to protect, which of course echoes the dynamic between Dean and Sam. It’s more than just an incidental thing; brothers are pretty much the biggest running theme in the entire series. And just in case you missed the comparison, the episode has flashbacks to wee!Dean and wee!Sam — which in general is not a graceful way to do things, but in this case I think it’s necessary to establish more than just the parallel.
The flashbacks show us key components of how the Winchesters came to be the family they are today. We know some of it from what Sam and Dean have said, but they’ll never say all of it; some things they aren’t aware of, and others they’ll never talk about. The only way for the audience to learn this stuff is to see it directly, i.e. in flashback . . . or else to have it play out over a long period of family interactions. And since John’s days on this earth are numbered, we don’t have the time to infer all the necessary elements by reading between the lines.
Going to the IMDb to get the name of the kid, I find that even the summary points this out, describing the Winchesters’ previous encounter with the shtriga as “an event which has fueled Dean’s protectiveness over Sam and his blind obedience to his father.” Dean, of course, is clearly Sam’s protector even before that incident; when his father is rattling off all the things Dean needs to do, the “most important” is “watch out for Sammy.” It’s interesting to watch that interaction play out: John initially comes across as harsh, authoritarian, and of course that’s not inaccurate. But it isn’t wholly without sympathy, either. When wee!Dean tells his father “you know I’m not stupid,” John agrees, saying that he’s only repeating all of this because one mistake is enough to screw everything up. When Dean obediently recites “shoot first, ask questions later,” John’s response is “That’s my man,” with a hand on his shoulder.
This isn’t healthy, of course. Any social worker would take one look at how John raised his sons and yank them away so fast, they’d leave smoke in their wake. But it’s clear that John is trying to do what he thinks is right for his boys. He isn’t drunk on his own power or unnecessarily cruel; he’s only necessarily cruel, preparing them for a world in which the monsters are real and out to get them. And you can absolutely see how it creates Dean as the man he is today: the responsibility to “watch out for Sammy” is both a burden and an honor. His father is relying on him, and carrying out his duty is the way to win Dad’s respect, his affection. Failing in that duty . . . Sammy is the one John embraces in the aftermath, not wee!Dean. Sure, the shtriga was after Sam, not Dean. But both of John’s sons have just had a traumatic experience. Both of them need comforting. For Dean, though, there is only rebuke. He had a job, and he didn’t do it. There is no worse sin in John Winchester’s eyes. (Nor in Dean’s, for that matter.) And for all that Sam thinks his father didn’t care about him, the truth is that he is the one John sheltered and loved, like a father should.
The skiving off is well-calibrated, too. There’s no suggestion that Dean resents Sam for needing protection — or even that Dean resents his father for placing that burden on him. (Not yet, anyway.) Dean is an awesome brother. When Sammy says he’s bored with spaghetti-ohs and wants the last of the Lucky Charms, Dean gives them to him, even though he hasn’t had any himself. (And then Sammy, in return, gives him the prize from the box. Awww.) When Dean goes to play the arcade game in the lobby, it’s described as him needing “air” — a few minutes out of the room, and maybe also the chance to pretend for little while that he’s a normal kid. The burden may weary him, but he doesn’t blame anybody for it, at least not right then.
For all that John has a relatively small role in this episode, it’s really crucial. We only saw him briefly in “Home” and “Shadow,” and won’t see that much more before he’s gone for good. If that departure is going to carry any impact, the audience needs to believe in its emotional weight, and that means selling us on the Winchester relationships, fast. I love the little touch at the beginning of “Scarecrow,” when John calls them: Sam’s talking to him at first, with Dean twitching and reaching for the phone, full of questions, but then half a second after Dean gets on the line, he’s sitting up straight and reverting to “yes, sir” and swallowing his orders without any hesitation. The transition alone speaks volumes.
So while the plot of “Something Wicked” isn’t terribly significant — there was a shtriga; it got away; this is Dean’s chance to redeem his past error — the character content absolutely matters. We need this before we get to “Dead Man’s Blood,” before we round the corner into the season finale and the opening of Season 2. And even once those episodes are over, the underlying points are going to be relevant from here to the end of S5: brothers and their father, and the way those three interrelate.