John, we all know, was missing for most of season one. In that time, nineteen episodes in all, we mostly saw him through the somewhat unreliable eyes of his sons. We then got four episodes in a row (albeit with a season break in between) in which John was very much present. Everybody Loves A Clown is the first episode in which we go back to the familiar pattern of seeing John through others' eyes. It is also the first episode following his death, so inevitably there is a huge John-Winchester-shaped hole in this episode.
The episode does not open with the funeral scene. It opens with the teaser setting up the monster-of-the-week, but as in so many Supernatural episodes, the MOTW reflects the Winchesters. In the opening teaser, a little girl looks at a monster and sees something fun and friendly. It's almost a perfect mirror of the way we, the audience, saw John: Sam continually described a monster where there was a man trying desperately to keep his kids alive. Not to say John did a perfect job of it, by any means, but he certainly wasn't the ogre Sam so often described.
Following the opening teaser, we see Dean and Sam burning their father's body. The scene has meaning on several levels. There is an obvious parallel to the scene near the end of Return of the Jedi where Luke burns the body of his father: Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader who gained his redemption through sacrificing his life...I don't really need to spell out the similarity, do I? Of course it's not an exact parallel, but the visual reference cannot be a coincidence. Then, the funeral pyre is a warrior's tribute in several cultures: the Viking funeral is the one I'm most familiar with - the body laid in a barge, the warrior's hands on his sword, and the barge set alight as it floats out to sea. But it wasn't just the Vikings who honoured their fallen warriors with a funeral pyre. And that's what the pyre really means: it's an acknowledgement that John is a warrior fallen in battle, and perhaps even in victory.
On a practical level, it makes sense that John would have left instructions for his sons to burn his body, should the worst happen to him. As a hunter, he must have seen some horrible things done to the bodies of the dead; cremation would be a way to ensure that couldn't happen to him. It also (or so earlier episodes have implied) would prevent him returning as a ghost or a spirit. It makes John's death very final, both to his sons and to the audience.
Neither of the boys is dealing too well with losing their Dad. Throughout the first season, John was very much present, even though he appeared in less than a third of the episodes. Here, we see the huge void he has left in their lives. The purpose that drove them for a year is gone, shattered.
Dean's speech in Bobby's junkyard is very telling:
Revenge, huh? Sounds good. You got any leads on where the demon is? Making heads or tails of any of Dad's research? Because I sure ain't. But you know, if we do finally find it - oh. No, wait, like you said. The Colt's gone. But I'm sure you've figured out another way to kill it. We've got nothing, Sam. Nothing, okay? So you know the only thing I can do? Is I can work on the car.
On the one hand, Dean is taking a very logical approach to the situation they are in. This is where we stand, this is what we should do, this is why we can't. I can imagine this is an approach he learned from John: identify the mission, don't waste time on what you can't do, do what you can do. It fits, for example, with John's approach to the hunt in Salvation: he identified his priorities and did what he needed to do to achieve the goal. Yet at the same time, it underscores Dean's utter lack of direction because repairing the car (John's car) isn't going to fix anything.
At this point, Sam brings up the voicemail message he has found on John's phone. I love that, even now and even if indirectly, it's John who shows them in which direction they need to go.
John, it's Ellen. Again. Look, don't be stubborn, you know I can help you. Call me.
Even before we meet her, we know a great deal about Ellen just from that message. She's important to John, because he saved that message for four months. He is important to her, because this isn't the first call she's made. But there's much more to learn about their friendship.
John was like family once.
From some people "like family" would be meaningless hyperbole. From others, it's the highest compliment possible. It's difficult to tell, until later episodes in the season flesh out these new characters, where Ellen's statement falls, but I never took it as a casual statement. Given the strong theme of family in this show, it's a hell of a thing to say.
Two more details stand out for me from the boys' conversation with Ellen. Firstly, after learning that John is dead, she says, "I know how close you and your dad were." Now, this is down to interpretation, but Ellen is looking at Dean when she says this and there's nothing to indicate that "you" includes Sam. I think she's speaking specifically of Dean and his father. This stands out to me because it gives us an indication of how long Ellen has known John: although she's never met Dean before, she knows him as a partner to John, as a hunter, not merely as John's child.
The second thing...well, this might be an editorial error. But when Sam asks Ellen how she thinks she can help them, her reply references the demon. Remember that in the pilot episode, both Sam and Dean referred to it only as "the thing that killed mom". This is true right up until Scarecrow, when John tells Sam that what killed Mary and Jessica is a demon. The strong implication is that this is news to him: something he's learned since he went missing. Yet Ellen's reference has a "well, duh" quality - as if to say "what else could it be?" So just how long has John known he was hunting a demon? Has he kept that knowledge from his sons all these years? Or has Ellen, like John, learned about it in the past year? (Or, as I said, it could just be an editorial mistake. But it's more interesting if it's not.)
Sam, at least, notices all the unanswered questions, because John's relationship with Ellen clearly stays on his mind as the episode progresses. When he asks Dean, "Hey, you think, uh, you think Dad and Ellen ever had a thing?" I think it's an attempt to engage Dean in conversation more than a serious thought, but it shows he's put the clues together and come up with the obvious conclusion. Dean, on the other hand, shoots that theory down immediately. Which is odd, because Sam isn't picking that notion out of thin air. Ellen's reaction to hearing of John's death - well, she didn't burst into tears or anything but it was clear that she'd never really considered that he might be gone, despite his (apparent) failure to return her calls, and that it mattered to her that he's dead. It's natural to conclude that they may have, as Sam suggests, "had a thing".
Dean's "No way" could imply several things. It could be a judgement of Ellen: not Dad's type. It could be (though I think this unlikely) an "eew" reaction to the notion of dad having sex with some woman. Or it could be Dean's knowledge (and there are other strong hints, in Home and Salvation) that John never got over losing Mary; it's easy to surmise that John has been essentially celibate since she died.
You ever notice Dad had a falling out with just about everybody?
Everybody? Sam, Sam, you should know better. Sure, John has had some fights with friends over the years. But what stands out - and Ellen is yet another example - is how loyal his friends are despite this. Daniel Elkins: may not have spoken to John in years but his legacy was to leave John what was probably his most precious possession - the Colt. Bobby Singer: we're told he seriously threatened to shoot John after their last argument but on hearing that John is in trouble he's willing to put himself at considerable risk to help. And Ellen. If, as Dean suggests, they had a falling out, here again is a friend who is loyal to him despite their differences. Poor Sam: he sees that people fight with John (oh, I wonder why!) but he seems to completely miss how much those same people still love him.
Finally, I've got to mention the role of the Impala in this episode. Others have illustrated, far more eloquently than I can, how the Impala represents Dean himself. But it's hard to escape how, in this episode, she also represents John. She was, after all, his car; passed on to his son like a baton. She is the connection between them.
As the episode begins, Dean is trying to put the Impala back together. Having seen how badly damaged the Impala was, I'd have to agree with Bobby: it's an impossible task. But he's there, plugging away at it all day, trying desperately to put things back the way they were, the way they're supposed to be. Then, at the end of the episode, we see the explosion of anger and frustration from Dean, the way he beats up on the car with a fury that may be directed at himself, but is certainly directed at John. Very little is said in this episode about the peculiar circumstances of John's death, but neither Sam nor Dean is stupid: they both know, at least in general, what happened. At the very least, Dean must realise that John knew his death was imminent when they had their last conversation. Dean's terrible fury is the confirmation that, yes, he knows much more than he's saying, and is our first real glimpse of the terrible weight John has left on his shoulders.