There are two main observations to make about John in this episode:
1. How Elkins serves as an example of a hunter's future life, life expectancy, and social deviation; as comparison between him and John, and what, if anything, makes John different from him. If John is different from Elkins at all.
2. The Winchester men dynamics; finally we get to see an episode long interaction between John and Sam, John and Dean, and how Dean poses as peace-makes between his father and brother.
1. Daniel Elkins: a hunter's future and demise
Daniel Elkins as the most probable future of a Hunter, possibly John's future too: alone, obsessed, spending his time hiding, researching, being considered a carzy old man, a loner, being pitied when things are okay, who knows, possibly mocked and insulted in other environments.
Daniel Elkins represent choices that John has made, along the way: to dedicate his life to hunting the supernatural (revised by Sam in Bloodlust "Hunting Evil") and might represent the future that Sam refuses for himself.
We don't know what Elkins motivation is for hunting and specialising in Vampire lore, whereas we have plenty of evidence and reasons for John to be hunting the Demon, but we can assume already that loss is probably the most common motivator to embrace a life of hunting.
There are other ways in which we can see Elkins as a parallel to John: he keeps secrets. He's had the Colt 'all along' says John when reading his letter, and kept it to himself, to use possibly and probably against his own personal obsession, Vampires, instead of letting John know that it was more than a legend.
We don't know exactly how and when John and Elkins met, for how long they were friends, how much Elkins taught John. In interviews, Elkins is referred to as 'John's mentor', and in the episode John says:
He was a good man. He taught me a hell of a lot about hunting. We had a kind of a falling out. I hadn't seen him in years.
What we know is that John, apparently by misterious ways, gets to know of Elkins' death and goes to check on it.* However, he trusts the boys enough to let them swipe the house, trust them enough to know that they will do the hard work for him - clever, Johnny - which is possibly the biggest difference between Elkins and John. John has his sons. He keeps secrets from them, he's obsessive and obsessed, but he's shared his know-how with them.
* it's probable, given the hunters network that we fans suspected existed and that it's come out in the light now in season two, that someone informed him (John only says that 'he read the news about Elkins'), just as it is probable that the hunts the brothers went on were talked about in the same network, and that's how John might have known about Jessica, for example.
2. The Winchester Dynamic, or
Alpha Dogs don't Answer Questions, but Puppies Grow Up and Come Back to Bite You in the Ass.
John is an alpha dog. He's used to work on his own, used to not have to explain himself. As we know, Sam challenges him each step of the way. Is Sam's attotude a result of Dean's total worship and dependance on his father? Possibly. After all, Sam has grown up with only Dean and John, whereas Dean has been through the trauma of losing his mother at an age that, even if not enough to leave him with clear, articulated memories, still was enough to well realise the difference.
Dean depends on John as the surving half of the parental unit, whereas Sam only knows John as the authoity figure he has to overgrown in order to become a man himself. Dean, who loves the status quo, is stuck in the middle.
What about John?
He is a man that can admit he's wrong. He does it about the existance of the Vampires, which is an anticipation of his apologies later offered to Sam. But he still is a man that WILL NOT share all the information he has, because the NEED TO KNOW base with him has turned into a way of life, and as much as he wants his boys ready and able to defend themselves against what they know it's out there, he also wants to protect them.
And this, protecting his children, is a priority for John, as much as hunting is, indissolubly entwined with John's revenge and obsession.
We see a banal instance of this when the boys are sleeping and John is awake listening to the police radio - shouldn't one of the younger people stay awake? In part it's certainly John's need and habit of being in control (a need and a habit that has helped him well, since he;s been hunting for more than 20 years), but in part is also the natural taking control of a parent that will make sure his children are covered, fed, and had enough sleep. How many times in the past have they slept like this, I wonder? In how many motels, the boys sleeping and John researching and ready to take off? I'd say, many many times.
But, right now?
Every single time John says something, Sam answers with a question. Every single time. I counted them.
First scene with Daddy and the boys in the Impala:
on nine sentences Sam says, seven are questions.
Second scene, leaving the motel room:
Sam has two lines, and both are questions.
Third scene, after talking with the police:
Sam has three lines, and two are questions.
And so on.
That seems to be a pretty much established dynamic between them, according to Dean's comment to Sam: "Don't tell me it's starting already". And the we get to the incredibly impressive Impala Takes Over Truckzilla scene, where John keeps doing his alpha male act and Sam...well, Sam refuses to complay. It's an impressive scene because it tells us all so much about how life must been before Sam left for college, how their feelings are still SO raw and complex, how John is hurt by what he's seen and experienced in part as a betrayal and abandonment on Sam's part, of all that John believed in. That scene shows us Dean physically separating John and Sam (and most of the fanom believes firmly that it hadn't been the first time), that scene shows us Dean autoritatively controlling his brother AND his father.
That scene shows us two strong-headed, stubborn men that couldn't be more similar even if they were consciously trying to be. And I think that tells us a lot about Sam but also a lot about John, as he was, as he could have been without The Demon destroying the life he was building for himself, with his family.
Can John adapt to really see his children as men, which is what Sam wants, as grown up adults that John not only KNOWS can take care of themselves, but that he can't protect anymore?
Can he change?
And that could be the most important difference between John Winchester and a Daniel Elkins future. Can John change?
He starts sharing information about the Vampires in the next scene, as the Winchesters stake out the Vampires' nest. Of course, that's in part needed as expostion for the audience (how to kill the vampires and so on). But in part, it also shows that at least once action is needed, he's not going to keep necessary info for himself (not like Elkins did, keeping the Colt a secret).
If John's alpha male attitude wasn't explicit by now, with the need-to-know secrecy and the quip about Dean's lack of care for the Impala, the o'so cracking scene with John's truck's mechanized weapons secret compartment (is there a precise name for that thing in English?) compared to the Impala's home made disorder helps bring it to the fore, and the not-subtle-at-all macho contest of My Machete Is Bigger than Yours works as an exlamation mark to the concept. Yes, I'll leave the 'big, long weapon' innuendoes aside *G*
And right there, however, there's part of the brilliance of this show. Just after this demonstration of upmanship, John pauses and asks if the boys still want to know about the Colt. Which of course they do.
He can change. He can and does listen to Dean, and now he's realising he has to listen to Sam, too. It's hard for a parent to let go of their baby, and there is no question for me that Sammy has been the Winchester's baby all his life. And because Sam is the baby of the family, is Dean that goes out to procure dead man's blood, John totally confident about it ("Dean's got it"), whereas Sam wants to be involved.
And the big change and revelation comes with the "Sam and John have a chat" scene.
"After your mother passed, all I saw was evil. Everywhere. And all I cared about was keeping you boys alive. I wanted you prepared, ready. Since somewhere along the line, I stopped being your father, and I became your drill sergeant. So when you said you wanted to go away to school, all I could think about, my only thought was, that you were going to be alone. Vulnerable. Sam, it's just never occurred to me what you wanted. I just couldn't accept the fact that you and me, we're just different."
That's it, John Winchester's top priorities in life: fighting evil, and protecting his boys. This changed him, of course, as he himself says, and nothing says that change was for the worst or the best. But it's right in this moment that John demonstrates that he can change again, he can talk to his son instead of barking orders at him. He's not a perfect father, but he's not an ogre either (if you close an eye on his spending your college fund on ammo, that is *g*.
The fact that he can change, though, doesn't mean that his priorites have changed. He's forthcoming with the information on how to cover their scent from Vampires, but he still wants the boys to go away and leave him to take care of getting the Colt and going after the Demon.
Sam: You can't treat us like this!
John: Like what?
Sam: Like children.
John: You are my children. I'm trying to keep you safe.
John: Look I don't expect to make it out of this in one piece. Your mother's death? It almost killed me. I can't watch my children die too. I wont. [see IMToD]
This is when we all realise that if John can in part change, well, so can Dean. So much so, in fact, that just like in Shadows it was Dean saying that John was vulnerable with them and that they should split, it is now Dean that says that they work better together, it's Dean that turns the situation around, it Dean that says that they are stronger as a family.
John reverts to his drill sergeant routine and orders the boys to get out of the area. As we know, they don't obey him. They clear the nest, and (miracolously!) manage to find out where the Vampires have ambushed John and are threatening him, changing the situation.
I'd like to point out at you the enigmatic expression on John's face after Kate and the surviving Vampires have escaped, and the exchange of looks between him and the boys. The half-smile on his face? To me, it says that the boys have passed a test. They've taken the initiative, they have taken the situation in hand and by intervening they have proved to John that they do work better as a family.
Yes, of course he's happy he's got the Colt. But I am positive that he is just as happy, if not more, to see his boys united and standing up to him.
Which segues into the following and last scene of the episode.
John: You ignored a direct order back there.
Sam: Yes, sir.
Dean: But we saved your ass.
[Sam 'OMG' look at Dean's words is to die for]
And John, once again, listens to Dean. Because the two that need to grow up, the two that haven't in fact moved from their positions until now, are John and Dean. In order for Sam to find a space in this family, Dean and John have to change. John has to leave his alpha male role, and Dean has to stop being just his father's second in command, and this is what happens. Dean needs confirmation from John:
John: You're right.
Dean: I am?
And John needs to give up his parental rights to worry about his children and start looking at them as an active, independent part of his family:
John: It scares the hell out of me. You two are all I've got. But I guess we are stronger as a family. So, we go after this damn thing. Together.
And there it is, this episode with Vampires and older hunters and legends on fantastic weapons, an episode where a puppy rears his head and shows his alpha male that he needs to let the team work together, only that puppy isn't Sammy, but Dean.
Has John really changed? I guess not. Change doesn't come easy at his age, and when it comes down between his hunt and revenge and his children, he'll choose his children. Which is another difference between him and Elkins. Even if John has managed to alienate a good number of his friends (as Sam will say aloud in ELaC), he hasn't alienated his children.
Stubborn, reckless, obsessive, but still a father.
With a bitten ass.
NOTES: Comments and opinions are very welcome; I found out that it's very difficult in a way to write meta about a past episode when newer episodes have revealed more than expected. Are we supposed to ignore what happens later? To incorporate it in our meta? I sort of went for a compromise mid-way, but I'd love to hear what you think.