I never thought about it until I sat down and rewatched the episode for this project . . . but this is a really weird episode to open your season with.
Think about it. What do you want a season premiere to do? It should be a good entry point for people who are new to the show, since this is pretty much your best chance to pick up fresh viewers. That means it needs to give a good sense of the flavor of the show, while also not relying too heavily on stuff those hypothetical new viewers don’t know.
From that standpoint, this episode fails resoundingly — in fascinating ways.
This is not a Monster of the Week episode. It does not feature the Winchester brothers saving anybody from some supernatural threat. It does not end with an exciting battle; the closest thing it has to a fight is Dean trying to pull the Reaper off his comatose body. What it does feature is the fraught family dynamics that have been built up over the last few episodes of the previous season, and the final playing-out of the relationship between father and sons.
I have a suspicion, actually, which is that Kripke originally intended this to be the S1 finale, rather than the S2 premiere. Certainly the next episode, “Everybody Loves a Clown,” looks more like an entry point to the story than this one does. Kripke may very well have meant to close on the emotional punch of John sacrificing himself for Dean, but then either changed his mind or was pressured by the network into doing so. (Am I right? I have no idea. But I would find it very plausible.)
As payoffs for the family arc go, this one is quite well-constructed, especially in the bits where Sam leaps to the conclusion that his father cares more about killing the demon than saving Dean, and John reverts partially to form by not telling Sam what he really intends. This is probably one of the most important moments in the series from a thematic standpoint, because it’s the first iteration of the Deal With the Devil motif you get over and over again from different angles. John sells himself for Dean; pretty soon Dean will sell himself for Sam; Sam will then try to sell himself for Dean and fail; and so it goes.
It’s also an excellent conclusion to the shift we’ve seen with the three Winchesters since John showed up. Yes, John plays his cards close to his chest, which is regression in terms of treating his sons like partners instead of subordinates. But he’s always been 100% fixated on killing the demon — to the point where Dean figured out John was possessed when John praised him for using the Colt, rather than reaming him out — and now, when the moment comes, he lets that go in order to save his son. Furthermore, though it never gets said directly, there’s a sense that John is willing to do this because he trusts his boys to pick up the torch. He let them go to face the demon in Salvation, while he went to delay Meg; now he relinquishes his role in the battle entirely. It isn’t the kindest thing to do, given that he’s saddling them with that responsibility — but they’ve proven their willingness to take it up.
Speaking of relinquishing your role in the battle . . . .
I think the Reaper’s conversation with Dean is one of my favorite moments in the series. The Winchesters are the heroes of the story, which means it’s up to them to save everybody, and so it’s easy to fall into the trap of saying, of course they have to survive. The world needs them. But when Dean presents those arguments to the Reaper, she doesn’t buy them. Sometimes your time just ends. Sometimes — often — you’re not ready when it happens. Those around you have to go on alone. If he wants to say, he can . . . but at the cost of becoming exactly the kind of monster he fights.
I love that. Of course it doesn’t get taken to its full conclusion, because Dean’s life is saved, again; he doesn’t actually end up having to accept death. (Nothing can actually kill these guys for good.) But it certainly looks like he was on the verge of doing so, before the demon stepped in. It’s a well-executed moment, and because you don’t actually know what John was forced to add to “sweeten the pot,” it sets up a nice reversal when, just as everything seems to be good again, the rug gets pulled out from under you.
It would have made a good season finale, I think. It makes for a good episode. But as a season premiere? It’s a really weird choice.