John first appeared in the Pilot, there was his phone call to the boys in Scarecrow, then he went to Lawrence but kept hidden from his sons in Home - all considered, just a handful of minutes worth of screen time in each of these episodes.
And yet, thanks to Sam's antagonistical and critical comments, thanks to Dean's full out defence of their father's behaviour and choices, John has been present in most episodes, in how the boys relates to each other, in a throw away comment, in an old photograph, and all of it culminates with, finally, in Shadow, John waiting for Sam and Dean in their hotel room.
John says, "Hi, boys," and this could the end of the brothers' journey. Since Windigo, Sam has been all about "We need to find Dad." Since the beginning, Dean has been saying, "We'll find him". John is there, with them; but the Daevas attack the Winchesters and Meg's previous words to Sam and Dean underline the rightness of John's decision of staying away from his sons, of disappearing.
Shadow establishes that:
a) John's reason for staying away is to protect his sons, since he's been on the tracks of The Demon, engaging directly with It, at last, and that was the reason why he left Dean alone.
b) Sam and Dean are John's Achille's Heel, his 'weakness', his ONLY vulnerable spot. Even if he was aware that the meeting in Denver might be a trap, John went anyway. (questions raised are: why he didn't show up in Home, but we know he thought it wasn't safe for them, and in my opinion we will discover he knows more about Sam's powers than what he's letting out; also, why didn't he answered Sam's phone call in Faith, and we have no canon answer for that).
Shadow is, in fact, a reharsal for the Winchesters' standing at the end of the series, the preparation of a set piece that will be dismantled and broken and reversed by the season Finale.
In particular, when Dean insists that they have to split at the end of Shadow, that is not safe to stay together, John has first a fatherly reaction, betrayed by his observation: "You boys are beat to death", and only after that he agrees that Dean's suggestion makes sense. As much as Dean is John's 'little soldier', he is also John's second in command and John evidently listens and trusts him - we can see canon instances of this in how is Dean reaching for John and helping him out of the hotel after the Daevas attack, in how in both Salvation and Devil's Trap Dean is the one sent on solo missions, John reassuring Sam with: "Dean's got it."
In Shadow, John's first choices as far as decision making goes are to stay together, and only after Dean's insistence he decides to go his way: family is still most important, and their safety, the safety of the three of them, is still paramount. By Devil's Trap, John's willingness to end this fight is stronger than caring for his own life AND Sam and Dean's feelings.
Another point underlined in Shadow is the similarity in character between John and Sam, embodied in their using the exact same words: "You've got to let me go", Sam to Dean and then John to Sam. This is not the only instance in which their similarity is pointed out through what they say. It's nicely foreshadowed in Home, by Sam saying: "Take your brother outside, don't look back, now!"
What is then John's role in Shadow?
Is he just serving as a hook and bait for the boys, just a flame to their moth, something to give them motion, and therefore unable to stay?
In part, yes, of course. John started it all deciding to go after whatever killed his Mary, and then acted as starting point for the show narrative, disappearing so to provide Dean with a reason to go seek his little brother.
The episode title refers at a first reading directly to the essence of the Monsters of the Week, the Daevas. They are unsubstantial, we can only see their - dark - shadows on the walls as they attack, and they are defeated by Sam's use of lighting flares, blinding light.
But also, John's appearance in Shadow, seen from behind, silouhetted against the window, is framed in such a way that instantly points at the appearance of The Demon in Sam's nursery in the Pilot. It hardly looks like a casual framing, if you compare the two scenes, enough so that it provoked some fandom speculation as to whether John might in fact be possessed, ever since the beginning of the series.
We could see in these filming choices allusions to mythology, to psychology, to the running 80s theme in Hollywood's productions of absent fathers (slowly being reversed, say from th elate 90s onward), to this patriarchal overwhelming and possibly sons-castrating figure enlarged in this 'shadowy' figure. But, keeping it tighter to what we see on the screen, I'd suggest that the usual of visual similarity in the representation of John and The Demon more simply indicates the tight connection between these two characters' roles, as will be expanded upon on Devil'sTrap with Demon!John's speech in the cabin.
John and The Demon are both fathers, bot have children, but they exists in a yin-yang bynary system of opposites universes: human/demon; right/wrong; light/dark; flesh/shadow. As the situation stands, of course, one element is missing, that is, there is no parallel killing of a Demon's Wife/Mother. The Demon ,therefore, is clearly positioned on the side of Evil, drawing first blood.
John's appearance in Shadow is charismatic. His voice is deep, his presence on screen undeniable. What's most relevant and revealing is how Dean strides towards him, how th etwo hug without hesitation, a hug that is forceful, spontaneous, honest and intense, given and received in earnest.
The way in which John turns then to Sam, after a few words, the dynamic between them, the apology offered and receveid: as much as we can and have found faluts and flaws in John's upbringing of his boys, these two hugs highlight the strong love and caring between the three Winchesters. Fans shouldn't forget what kind of men these are, a Marine and his 'brought up like warriors' kids, the life experience these men have had, and that there won't be satisfying long speeches of apology, but truces, half-truths, gravely intended nods and manly pats...until the next time they clash again.
After the hug, the Daevas attack. As much as John has been presented as this tireless, relentless, unstoppable, almost mythycal hunter, he is vulnerable, just human after all. Like Sam and Dean are, which works for making the whole series concept more intriguing to me, to be honest, because even Sam's powers are unerringly 'human', erratic and uncontrollable. John is just a man, fighting a war with weapons that are untried and limited. As in as much as he is human, he is fallable, capable of committing mistakes.
To summarise, Shadow and John's presence in it work on several levels:
- John's shadowy appearance: mythycal hunter and/or father figure (parallel with The Demon)
- John's hugging his sons: the Winchesters as a family unit, the family as a primary value
- John's Christ-like position when attacked by the Daevas: his human frailness
- John's leaving again and introducing Truckzilla as a representation of his being independent, able to stand on his own
These four points foreshadow the motifs/themes of the season Finale (as a trinity motif recurs in several ways: the Winchesters are three, the season Finale is actually composed by three episodes, The Demon's own children being two, etc.):
- The Demon will reveal being a Father and in fact will be one with John, re-inforcing the mythical structure of the father-sons contrast
- Family as a priority: Sam will turn around on his position and actually join Dean's
- John will partially move into a castrating father figure, actually asking Sam to kill him in order to kill The Demon, Oedipus at his most clear, ready to sacrifice himself as pre-announced by his once again the Christ-like sprawled figure on the bed
- the macho contest represented by John's vehicle vs. the Metallicar, the weapons stash, the bigger machete, etc. and John's abandoning of the boys made physical by The Demon possessing his body, making him Other and Alien
John's appearance in Shadow serves mostly as a pivotal moment in which themes and contrasts that have been introduced during the previous 15 episodes are highlighted and pointed out for the audience, marked for future remembrance, not a point of arrival, but a starting point.
As usual, more questions about John are left hanging than answered:
1- does he somehow follow the boys' movements? Why was he in Chicago?
2 - he does listen to his voicemail, and he will come if the boys are involved (if Dean tells him to), in Shadow and Home, but then, what happened in Faith?
3 - he definitely seems to know more than what he lets on: "This fight has only started, and we'll all play a role in it". What does John know? What does he really know?
Shadow, true to its title, only offers us glimpses of a truth to be revealed much later, but nothing tangible, if not the show of a hug that testify to something so impalpable as a family's love for each other.
Thank you for reading. Apology for a less than accurate form, between pc issues and RL, I didn't have the time to have this beta-edited: feel free to point out any mistakes :) comments welcome, as always