Every Second Counts: John in Salvation
Note: I’m attempting to make this meta free of spoilers for season 2. The meta is only about the episode Salvation, but it’s hard to completely avoid things that might point to spoilers, as episode 2x01 starts just a day or so after the events in Salvation and is like the conclusion of the sentence that started in Salvation. My thoughts on John I this episode were mostly the same before I saw 2x01, but it’s impossible to not take what happened there into account when thinking about this meta. So, if you’re terribly sensitive to spoilers and haven’t seen the episode you might want to steer clear, even though I will do my best.
In John’s dialogue for this episode, references to time are prominent. He’s a man ticking down the minutes to some kind of ending, an ending he’s been working towards for more than two decades.
In the beginning of the episode, we see all three Winchesters in John’s motel room. The camera pans around to show us the maps and newspaper clippings on the walls. Clipping-covered walls tend to be television shorthand for a person who is obsessed to the point of instability, crazy even. John’s not crazy, but he’s clearly obsessed and willing to do just about anything to bring his long fight against the demon to an end.
He tells the boys, “Our whole lives we’ve been searching for this demon.” This is interesting because while the search has taken place over very nearly Dean and Sam’s whole lives, it’s been less than half of John’s life, perhaps two-thirds of his adult life. That he says “our whole lives” at this point gives us a clue that he’s lost the ability to look back at whatever good or bad things may have existed in his life before Mary’s death. He’s focused on the near future, counting down to some kind of end.
In that same conversation, he tells Sam, “I’ve always been one step behind it. Look, I’ve never gotten there in time to save...” He breaks off in the middle of the sentence, apparently overwhelmed with guilt for the people he’s failed to save. He wasn’t fast enough in the past; he got there too late. This go-around, he’s concentrating on the timeline, focusing on not letting time get away from him.
It’s worth noting that, even with the tremendous time pressure, he’s gentle with Sam when he has to mention Jessica. Jessica’s death is another one of his failures--a time when he didn’t figure things out and get there in time to stop it--and he hates that Sam’s had to suffer for that failure.
Later, on the road into Salvation, he pulls over to tell Dean and Sam about Pastor Jim’s death, taking the time to share his grief. The death of a man who was apparently an old friend hits John hard. Sam and Dean are shocked and sad, but John looks truly beaten down by the news. It’s another chunk of guilt for him to carry around on his shoulders, and he gives himself a moment to grieve before turning back to the task at hand.
He says, “Now we act like every second counts,” and lays out the plan for the day--getting information on six-month-old babies in the Salvation area. He plays the gruff drill sergeant, but he’s still overwhelmed by Jim’s death.
“This ends now,” he says. “I’m ending it. I don’t care what it takes.” This is John’s mission statement for the episode and pretty much for the whole plot arc.
Later, when Dean and Sam tell John about Sam’s visions. John is frustrated and a little angry that he didn’t already know. In the context of his focus on time and strategy, I see his frustration coming from learning only now about this new complication, which is also a new tool. It’s going to cause him to have to rethink his plan, and he’s worried that it will cost him time, a very precious commodity.
He gives in easily to Dean’s reprimand, recognizing the truth of Dean’s words and also probably acknowledging that what’s done is done and arguing will only eat up more time. When Meg calls, and John has to listen as another old friend dies, that just adds more pressure to end things as soon as possible. Meg gives him a nearly-unreasonable time limit for getting to Jackson to hand over the Colt, which only increases John’s need to manage every minute.
When he argues with Dean over the plan to get a fake gun to give to Meg, he basically acknowledges that the plan is flawed, perhaps doomed, but he explains, “I just need to buy a few hours, that’s all.”
When Sam confronts him, he confirms with his silence that he’s buying the time for Sam and Dean. This decision is clearly tearing him up. He gets upset, nearly or actually in tears, listing the things he wants, all of which are on a continuum between unlikely and impossible, at least at that moment. For Sam to go back to school. For Dean to have a home. For Mary to be alive.
There’s one thing he wants that he can do something about--“I just want this to be over.”
He apparently divides up the duties in order to get the fake gun and get ready to leave for Jackson as quickly as possible. He verbally and physically passes on the responsibility for killing the demon to Dean and Sam. “You finish what I started,” he tells them as he passes the real Colt to Dean.
Dean asks John to promise to get out if the plan goes bad, and John acknowledges him but doesn’t make any promises. He takes a brief moment to look back at his boys before he drives away from them for what he knows could be the last time.
When he arrives in Jackson, he quickly goes about making his preparations, casing the place and turning the water in a cistern into holy water. When he meets up with Meg, he clearly has no patience with her chatter. He wants to get the job done quickly, get them to accept the gun and then get away, hopefully back to his boys in Salvation.
When the demons realize that the Colt is a fake, he does try to get out. His grin as he watches the demons get stopped by the holy water is interesting. This is the John who enjoys hunting evil things, even if he does it out of necessity. He’s outsmarted them for the moment, and that gives him a moment of something like glee in the middle of all the stress and fear and grief.
Most likely, he knows that he can’t truly get away from them, but at that point the goal becomes buying as much time as possible for Sam and Dean. He tries to call them, assumedly to check on them and to let them know what was going on, but the demons catch up to him. Even though it’s a losing game, he fights them, fights for every second.