A typical episode of Supernatural opens with a ghastly attack by the monster-of-the-week. Soon after, Sam (Jared Padalecki) and Dean (Jensen Ackles) Winchester roar into town in their muscle car, its trunk stuffed with weapons and rock salt. They whip out counterfeit badges, claiming to be Homeland Security agents, CDC doctors, park rangers, or (most entertainingly) priests, inflict swift vengeance, and take their leave. Scruffy and lawless, the brothers invoke the romanticism of living in transit (reportedly, they were named after On the Road‘s Sal and Dean).
Despite their apparent freedom, the Winchesters are constrained by familial obligations. Dean, Sam, and their father John (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) have spent the past 23 years tracking the demon that killed the boys’ mother, wiping out hoards of other nasties in the process. Their vengeful quest defines them, obliterating any chance of homes, careers, or stable relationships. As a result, the Winchesters have only each other.
Though Supernatural entertains as a weekly mini-horror film, it is also a family saga, using battles with ghosts and urban legends to chronicle the Winchesters’ slow process of recovery. The pilot episode began with the Winchesters separated: Sam at college, Dean and John on individual “hunting trips.” As John raised his sons “like warriors,” they connected to one another only through their desire for vengeance. “Why do you think I came to Stanford and got you in the first place? I want us to be a family again,” Dean confessed in “Shadow.”
Over the course of the season, however, the boys redefined the family goal: killing the demon came second to keeping the family safe and intact. “I thought we agreed killing the demon came before everything,” John lectured in “Devil’s Trap,” the season finale. “No, sir,” Sam responded. “Not everything.” Reunited, Dean and Sam began to see a “future” beyond the quest. To get there and keep the series moving, though, they had to defeat a slew of demons, real and figurative.
Like most TV brothers, the Winchester boys are differentiated as “good” and “bad,” even if they define the opposition a bit backwardly. “Rebellious” Sam once broke away to attend college and have a steady girlfriend, while dutiful Dean stayed behind to pummel demons, sleep around, and hustle pool games. “It doesn’t matter what Dad wants,” Sam groused in “Asylum.” “That attitude right there? That’s why I always got the extra cookie,” Dean responded.
By (literally) taking the driver’s seat, the brothers found freedom from these childhood roles, instead contending with inner “demons” of guilt and obligation. In “Something Wicked,” they battled a shtriga, a creature that appears every 17 years to feed on children’s life force. In flashback, Dean remembered its last appearance. At 10 years old, he disobeyed John, and left Sam alone long enough for the creature to attack him. “You were just a kid,” San consoled. Dean refused to be comforted: “Dad knew this was unfinished business for me.” By reenacting this childhood event, Dean redeemed himself by killing the demon before it attacked another young boy (who is also a smart-mouthed older brother). Fearful of being “freaks” themselves, the brothers find solace in saving others from that same fate.
They’re right to worry: in a way, the Winchesters resemble the villains they fight more than the innocents they save, pursuing their “unfinished business” as relentlessly as any angry spirits. Also like many of their targets, they see themselves as outsiders. In “Skin,” a shapeshifter disguised itself as Dean, and accessed his thoughts and memories. “I kind of understand him,” the shapeshifter commented. “He’s all alone, close to no one.” Dean asserted the distinction as best he could: “I want to find that handsome devil, and beat the holy crap out of him!”
In “Nightmare,” Sam saw himself in a murderous abused child who shared his psychic abilities, and feared that he, too, would become “a monster.” After a lifetime of pursuing, studying, and battling demons, the brothers understand straightforward wickedness better than complex humanity. “Demons I get, people are crazy,” Dean muttered when a family of West Virginia yokels kidnapped Sam in “The Benders.”
Appropriately, the “person” Sam thinks he connects with turns out to be possessed by the daughter of the “scary son of a bitch” who killed his mother and girlfriend. (“Sam, next time you want to get laid, find a girl that’s not so buckets a’ crazy,” Dean advised.) Like the Winchesters, Meg (Nicki Lynn Aycox) acted out of family devotion: “I’m doing this for the same reasons you do what you do. Loyalty. Love. Like the love you had for Mommy and Jess.” The Winchesters seemed to have met their match: a demon as committed to her kin as they are.
Despite the silliness of this concept, it sets up provocative questions, pushing the Winchesters to their own self-defining limits. To defeat monsters, they must be willing to kill innocent humans who have been possessed. They draw the line only at sacrificing each other. “For you or Dad, the things I’m willing to do or kill, it scares me sometimes,” Dean said in the season finale. As the boys go about their ass-kicking mission, Supernatural ponders how far heroes can go before absorbing the darkness.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/supernatural-060515/