It's probably the one episode in the first season where the Monster of the Week is really weak, in a way - bugs! - and also sort of disgusting. Surely the Woman in White was at least attractive, in her human appearance *g*
However, and that's why Bugs is a favourite episode of mine, the Winchesters family issues are prominent in this episode, and like in other episodes, even if John isn't physically present, his influence and actions are evident in the boys' interaction between each other and with their surroundings and the people they get in touch with.
In fact, the very first scene introduces this theme: Sam and Dean's differing opinions on how they were raised and how they see/relate to John, further discussed in the episode.
First of all, we see the setting reflected in the large water puddle on the road. A neat trick to let the audience enter in the scene - the camera moves up and then focus on Sam's sitting on the Impala's hood. It's also a subtle visual forecoming of the mirrored family situation Sam (the first of the Winchester we actually see) will encounter later and react to in the episode.
Notice also how the red neon bar sign over Dean's head keeps flickering, thus attracting our attention. It's missing the 'd' from Billliard, leaving us with a double reading: Billiard (the basic information) and bilLIAR...right over Dean's head. It's subtle, but we know that later in the episode Dean will support the boy lying to his father in order to make them leave their cursed house, and before that, the old Native American they go to in order to learn about the curse calls Dean a liar three times, and right in his face.
Sam: You know, we could get day jobs, once in a while.
Dean: Hunting is our day-job, and the pay is crap.
Sam: Yeah, but hustling pool? Credit cards scams? It's not the most honest thing in the world, Dean.
Dean: Well, let's see. Honest, fun and easy...it's no contest. Besides, we're good at it, it's what we were raised to do.
Sam: Yeah, how we were raised was jack.
Dean: Yeah, says you. We got a gig or what?
Here Dean divert the conversation on safer grounds.
As you can see, as soon as Sam start with criticising their education, and we can assume the step to criticize John directly is a short one, Dean changes the subject. However, the contrast is neatly set.
John's method and choices in educating the boys is a matter of discussion in the fandom, of course. Here, we are informed without doubts that John taught them how to provide for themselves with more or less illegal means, because hunting comes first - in Dean's words: hunting is their day job. Which means that whatever methods John used, his teaching were definitely aimed at making hunters of his boys too. I support the idea that John's Marine mentality - once a Marine, always a Marine - has strongly influenced his reaction to Mary's death and his subsequent choices.
He doesn't simply tell his boys that there are dangerous things in the dark, nor he keeps them in the darkness. No, he goes on the offensive, takes the initiative, and passes on his knowledge, becoming the drill sergeant instead of the father (as John says to Sam in DMB).
Another meaningful exchange comes as Sam and Dean approach the house with the free bbq organised by the sales agent.
Dean: Growing up in a place like this, it'd freak me out.
Dean: the manicured lawns, 'how was your day, honey'... I'd blow my brains out.
Sam: There's nothing wrong with normal.
Dean: I'd take our family over normal every day.
Again, the boys contrasting positions are very clearly marked, ready to take opposing sides, and the person, not yet mentioned but responsible for Dean's attitude and Sam's rebellion to it, is John. He's the one that, as we can extrapolate from Dean's words, moved the boys around, enough for Dean to never get used to live in such a house as the ones they are looking at right now. John's the one whose (obsessive/obsessed) behaviour made Sam long for normality.
I love that the first time John is mentioned in this episode, Sam uses him as an excuse for visiting the houses on sale, and what an excuse.
Sam: Our father is getting on in years, and we're just looking for a place for him.
Isn't this the first and only time that Sam uses John as an excuse to gather information? And is it just by chance that Sam comes up with this particular excuse, after the brief exchanges about 'raising methods' and 'normality'? I'd say that John was probably very much on Sam's mind, at this point. And if we want to go all Freudian, Sam may actually unconsciously be wishing for his father to get old and out of the way.
And, just on cue, Sam meets Matthew, the developer's son, who confides in Sam and tells him that his father Larry skips him in the family introductions. Sam's comment is: "Hang in there, it gets better." When Dean reaches Sam, Sam asks him if the now arguing Larry and Matthew (Larry severely scolding Matthew in the background) remind him of someone else.
Sam: Remind you of somebody?
Dean (incredulous expression): Dad never treated us like that.
Sam: (snorts) Dad never treated you like that, you were perfect. He was all over my case.
Sam: You don't remember?
Dean: Maybe he had to raise his voice, but some times you were out of line.
Sam: Right. Right. Like when I said I rather play soccer than learn bow hunting.
Dean: Bow hunting is an important skill!
Sam: Whatever. How was your tour?
And this time, it's Sam that provides a change of subject.
John Winchester has been finally and officially introduced in the discussion and latent hostility between the brothers. In a way, it's as if the boys are walking the perimeter of a topic - John - that both know is controversial and will bring trouble, so they sort of work around it and both, once they reach a point that's too close to the real issue, step back and move away from it.
We also get to know that Sam possibly always felt excluded by the circle of two formed by Dean and his father - which again makes sense, Sam being just an infant and having no memories of 'before'. It also explains why John has much more troubles in bringing Sam in line in comparison with Dean, why John never manages to 'reach' Sam, to understand where the boy comes from.
John - and Dean - come from a burning nursery. Sam comes from motels, and moving around. His experience is completely different, and John doesn't seem to understand that all.
Later in the episode, Sam imparts advice to Matt, and Dean really doesn't like it.
Matt: (...) Larry doesn't listen to me.
Sam: Why not?
Matt: Mostly? He's too disappointed in his freak son.
Sam: I hear you.
Dean: You do?
[look between Sam and Dean]
Sam: Matt, how old are you?
Sam: Well, don't sweat it 'cause in two years something great is gonna happen.
Sam: College. You'll be able to get out of that house and away from your dad.
Dean: What kind of advice is that, kid should just stick with his family..
More hostile looks between the brothers. The implication in Sam's words is that that is exactly what he's done, waited for college to go away from his Dad. I think that this episode in particular is responsible for much of the hostile attitude towards John, especially for those of us that identify with Sammy. This dialogue once again hammers into us how longingly Sam wanted out of his family and how his relationship with John was on a basis of rebellion and mis-understanding.
Finally, the topic comes up in the open, because Dean, who cares for nothing else like he cares for his family, and he's quite protective of John, just can't let it go.
Dean: ...How about telling him [Matt] to respect his old man, how's that for advice.
Sam: Dean. C'mon. This isn't about his old man. You think I didn't respect dad, that's what this is about.
Dean: Just forget it, alright. Sorry I brought it up.
Sam: I respected him. But no matter what I did, it was never good enough.
Dean: So, what you're saying, that dad was disappointed in you?
Sam: Was, is... always has been.
Dean: Why would you think that?
Sam: Because I didn't want to go bow hunting. Or hustle pool. Because I wanted to go to school and live my life. Which in our wacked up family, made me the freak.
Dean: Yeah, you're kinda like the blonde chick with the Munsters.
Sam: Dean. You know what most dads are when their kids score a full ride? Proud. Most dads don't toss their kids out of the house.
Dean: I remember that fight. In fact I seem to recall a few choice phrases coming out of your mouth.
Sam: You know, truth is? When we finally do find dad, I don't know if he even gonna want to see me.
Dean: Sam, dad was never disappointed in you. Never. He was scared.
Sam: What you talking about?
Dean: He was afraid of what could happen to you if he wasn't around.
Dean: But even when you two weren't talking? He used to swing by Stanford whenever he could. Keep an eye on you, make sure you were safe.
Sam: Why he didn't tell me any of that?
Dean: That's a two way street, dude, you could have picked up the phone.
Cue violin music *g*. No, really. Violins play as Sam is confused by this revelations and Dean gets them back on track and on the job.
Later on, they try to convince Matt to get his family out of the house, since the curse is going to bring bugs o'plenty on him and his family.
Even after the exchange about John, the boys still pursue different actions. Sam calls Matt and tells him to tell the truth to his dad. "Make him listen," he says to the boy, and Dean grabs the phone off Sam's hands, instructing Matt 'under no circumstances' to tell the truth and instead to pretend appendicitis. 'Make him listen' he mutters back at Sam, as if that's the most absurd thing to say or want. And there is no doubt that it's again John they're talking about. Sam's full-on forceful approach versus Dean's...well, compliance borne out of respect, trust and affection. It also speaks to me of Dean well knowing how difficult it is to 'make' their father listen, and knowing that Sam's approach wouldn't and has never proved fruitful.
After the Shortest Night in the WB Calendar, everyone is safe, and Larry has redeemed himself in Sam's eyes by being overprotective of his son and by not caring about his financial disaster, but only that his son is safe and sound. Which makes Sam all nostalgic.
Sam: I wanna find dad.
Dean: Yeah, me too.
Sam: Yeah, but I just..I wanna apologize to him.
Dean: For what?
Sam: All the things I said to him? He's just doing the best he could.
Dean: Don't worry, we'll find him. And you'll apologize. And then within five minutes you guys will be at each other's throats.
Sam: (laughs) Yeah, probably.
John doesn't appear in this episode, but apart from the conversations about the curse and the bugs?
Every other single word is about him, about his relationship with Sam, about how Sam can now see different sides to his dad, aspects of John that before were unnoticed by Sam.
We learn that John is stubborn - like Sam - proud - like Sam. We learn that John likes to have his way - like Sam - and that compromize really isn't his way. Like Sam.
We also learn that John is protective, worried about Sam's safety to the point of checking upon him at Stanford, in secret. That the fight that marked Sam leaving the house was a huge one, Dean present, and that 'choice phrases' were exchanged. The whole episode is a feast for the Winchesters' "How to NOT communicate with your Family" manual, and it reveals us a softer side to John, his more fatherly side, previously unknown.