Yes I know I’m going to get some flack for this and I know a lot of people aren’t going to agree with me but that’s ok, I’ve always been one for a lost cause. I started thinking about this when I saw an interview with Jeffrey Dean Morgan on ‘The Losers’ in which he was asked about Supernatural. What struck me was how angry he seemed about how the character of John Winchester had been handled in the later seasons. This got me thinking. It’s true in the later seasons John is suddenly being described as a “deadbeat dad” which, for all his faults, I never believed John Winchester was, let me explain why.
John Winchester had many faults and failings but as I was sat in my team meeting I began to consider what exactly those were and I came out with three. In my opinion all of the criticism of John Winchester can be filed under one of these three things: the burdens placed on Dean, not trusting anyone else especially his sons and leaving the boys.
1. The burdens placed on Dean
Dean and Sam were left alone a lot so it fell upon Dean to look after his brother, he took him to school, he cooked him dinner and he was even left to protect him when he was nothing more than a child himself. There was far too much expectation on Dean to pick up his fathers slack, to take on the role of an adult to watch over and protect his little brother. It often seemed that John forgot that Dean was a kid himself, that Dean might need protection and comfort and the reassurance that he was doing a good job. John treated Dean more like a colleague or a companion then as his son and as such gave him the burdens and responsibilities of a colleague. The two prime examples of this come in Something Wicked and In My Time of Dying.
In ‘Something Wicked’ John leaves his sons in the motel room for the night while he goes to hunt down a creature that is attacking children. Aware his children are possibly at risk he tells Dean, who I imagine is about 10 (if I have the ages wrong I’m sure someone will correct me) to protect his brother and hands him a weapon with which to defend himself and his brother if necessary. Now what comes later, Dean’s absence allowing the creature to attack Sam and John’s reaction, is all part of the same idea. John leaves Dean in charge of Sam, to look after him and to protect him if necessary and when Dean lets him down he seems to react as if he were dealing with an adult and a colleague not a scared boy who didn’t quite understand the full implications of what was going on. When John assigns Dean the responsibility of protecting his younger brother and then the responsibility when it almost goes wrong, he does so looking at Dean as a cohort not as his son.
In ‘In My Time of Dying’ John has made the deal but places the burden on Dean of the secret about Sam, (if he doesn’t find a way to save him he has to kill him). That is a huge burden on anyone to be responsible for saving someone without being given a steer on exactly what from or how to do so, but your own brother? That just makes the burden all the heavier. John asks Dean from a very early age take on responsibilities that a lot of adults would bulk at and continues throughout his life to treat him as a fellow hunter and gives him responsibility as such.
The burdens placed on Dean are too much, especially when he is a child, I’m not denying that but in a certain respect who else did John have to rely on? There were other hunters but they are people he barely knows with whom he may be able to leave is kids for a couple of nights maybe a even a couple of weeks but not for long, they had their own lives to live, hunts to do. He has no family, no close friends and he broke ties with the community he lived in once he found out about the supernatural world. From John’s point of view something evil killed his wife, was probably after his son and he had no back up and no one to rely on. He was a single parent with a dangerous job with no family, friends or support system to rely on it seems almost inevitable, rightly or wrongly that he comes to rely on his eldest son. John admits as much, in his speech to Dean in ‘In My Time of Dying’ he says he placed too much on Dean, that he grew up too fast. This often happens in single parent families where the parent either works long and/or irregular hours or has care needs, the burden often falls on the children and most often on the eldest to take up the slack. John and Dean are not alone in their situation or predicament. I read an interesting statistic in the London Evening Standard a couple of weeks ago which stated that in London alone there were at least 17,000 known child carers and that’s for families with care needs and doesn’t include single parent families like the Winchesters which suggests that this situation is actually fairly common. As such and facing so much John I feel puts Dean into the role of his number two, his fellow hunter and his decisions and reactions to Dean are more often as a fellow hunter rather than his son.
When faced with his immanent demise John has a decision to make over whether telling Dean about Sam. We’re never told how much John knows about the Yellow Eyed Demon or his plans but he opts to give Dean a warning as he will no longer be around. Yes it’s an awful burden to give someone especially about their brother but what was John’s other option… not to tell Dean? Let Dean go on in ignorance not knowing that there was a very real danger lurking. I think that John told Dean because he was trying to protect him to let him know that there was danger in their future and that he felt he needed to make it very clear to Dean about the choices he may have to make (John doesn’t strike me as a sugar-coating-it kind of guy). Yes it’s harsh and yes it’s a heartbreaking burden but I believe that John felt he couldn’t leave Dean in the dark, that he was trying to protect his sons – to be forewarned is to be forearmed after all. So yes John puts too much on Dean too young but I can see how it happened, it doesn’t make John a bad man or a bad father, just a man without a whole lot of options.
2. Not trusting anyone else, especially his sons.
This is a character flaw more than anything, even young John as seen in ‘In the Beginning’ and ‘The Song Remains the Same’ is a stubborn character who likes to do things is own way. He’s an ex-military man with a set way of thinking with a stubborn and competitive streak which is well known long before he gets into the demon hunting business (as Dean and Sam found out from his ex-business partner in Home). Then faced with the horrific death of his wife and the sudden revelation of the evil that surrounds him and is stalking his family it’s no wonder he has little trust in anyone else. He ends up falling out with a lot of other hunters, including Bobby, due to what I imagine is his ‘my way or the highway’ attitude. He never gives much reasoning to his orders just expects people, especially his sons, to follow without question. He doesn’t tell his sons anything unless he feels it is necessary and expects their blind obedience. This is a very military style of leadership one with which he was familiar and one he would have relied on when starting out as a hunter. His Marine training would have given him resources to plan, train and survive as a hunter. He gives the boys orders, sends them on missions like he would have as a marine, treating Sam and Dean like squaddies and keeping with the militaristic line ‘information is on a need to know basis’. This is a somewhat unhelpful trait as John has two smart sons who are both capable and resourceful but he never really makes the most of them, which isn’t a good idea from a tactical point alone let alone a family one. He lies to them, disappears on them and they have to find out he’s not dead via voicemail. He seems to work on the premise that he and he alone can protect his family and that all dissenters aren’t welcome. Which makes for a somewhat fractious relationship with anyone, let alone a son who shares a very similar personality (yes I’m looking at you Sam).
He doesn’t trust anyone, not even his sons and in a way that’s understandable. John Winchester suddenly finds himself in a world where something evil and unknown has killed his wife and is stalking is after his son, people don’t believe him about the death of his wife and again he has no family, no friends and no support network to fall back on. Hunters in general seem to be a distrustful bunch and on the whole loners, with all the demons and shapeshifters and creatures that appear human you can see why hunters tend to be on the distrustful side. John also happens to be a single parent to two small children while doing this dangerous job which means he has to resort to illegal methods to support him and his children. He’s trying to avoid the evil, avoid the law, avoid people who don’t understand what he’s doing and think he’s some murderer or sociopath, protect his children from the evil stalking them and the well-meaning do-gooders who don’t understand why he allows his kids to handle a .45. He’s trying to protect his kids from the evil he sees all around and to make sure that they’re prepared and capable to face what’s out there.
Later on when his sons are grown up he still doesn’t tell them anything just carries on treating them the same way. I think this is in part military training keeping the flow of information on a need to know basis with him making the decisions and the boys following orders and in part a natural parent reaction – no matter how old their children get it’s still a parent’s job to protect their kids. I believe John’s reaction to Sam going to Stanford is less about wanting him to stay in the “family business” but more about being scared, his little boy being out in the world facing the danger and evil he knows is out there all alone. Of Sam being in a place where John can’t be on hand to watch over him and protect him if needs be. My mother informs me that there is nothing quite so terrifying as letting your children go out to make their way in the world, letting them make their own way and not being able to protect them. I think John was scared and that he’d rather his sons were where he could keep an eye on them no matter what they wanted. I think John took the line that he was older and more experienced and it was his role to protect his boys and he was going to do it whether they liked it or not. This might not be the best line to take but it’s not unusual and it is understandable.
3. Leaving the boys
He leaves them alone to fend for themselves as children. He goes away at the beginning of season 1 not letting them know if he’s alive or dead, they find out he’s still alive because his voicemail message changes. There are so many times he seems to leave the boys alone and in the dark (both literally and metaphorically) choosing to pursue his hunting obsession over the welfare of his boys leaving them to cope with so much with only themselves to rely on.
Jesse’s parents in ‘I Believe the Children are Our Future’ and Adam’s mum both leave their kids alone at times to fend for themselves, John isn’t alone in this but it still doesn’t sit right. I was re-watching ‘Something Wicked’ the other day and I noticed that the show never is exactly clear how often and how long John left Sam and Dean alone for. In ‘Something Wicked’ he leaves them alone for the evening but it’s not clear if he’s not a gone for days, just is gone during the nights. When things go wrong he takes them to Pastor Jim’s then goes back. This made me think when they were younger that maybe he left them alone for hours maybe a couple of days at a time but he never seemed to leave them for long periods, it’s only when they’re older in ‘After School Special’ and Dean is around 18 that he seems to be leaving them for weeks at a time probably figuring that adult Dean can take care of 14yr old Sam.
The only exception seems to be in ‘A Very Supernatural Christmas’ where John is gone and supposed to be home for Christmas but doesn’t make it. We don’t know how long he’s been gone (a couple of days seems to have been implied) but we still never know why he didn’t come back when he said he would. I figure that there are several reasons, we know that on at least several occasions he ended up in hospital as a result of a hunt, including the time he met Adam’s mother. If you uses Dean and Sam’s hunting jobs as typical examples of hunts then think that John had to do all of that work by himself, the tracking down of witnesses, research, digging graves etc all without that extra pair of hands that Sam and Dean have without realising it. I’m not excusing John’s behaviour, but I can see where he is coming from, and who could he leave his boys with? He could have handed the boys over to someone to look after on a permanent basis but I doubt he trusted anyone to protect them. Who could he have left the boys with, not Pastor Jim or Bobby because although they both, unlike John, had permanent residences both would have been away frequently on jobs and both would have felt that they weren’t in a position to raise two small boys. He has no close family or friends and no one he can leave them with longer than a couple of weeks. Again as I’ve said earlier with no friends, no family and no support network to rely on his choice of options was limited.
I’m not saying that I agree with all the decisions made or the reasons behind why he did things the way that he did, the case I’m trying to make is that actually he wasn’t a “deadbeat dad”, that title should be left with the likes of Max Miller’s father, that he did care about his boys and that, although he made mistakes and went about things the wrong way, actually John Winchester for all his many faults was just a man faced with overwhelming odds trying to protect his boys the only way he knew how. John’s major problem was that he became obsessed with the supernatural and the thing that killed his wife. He put everything into tracking it down and protecting people from the supernatural as and when he finds it. His life became a battle with supernatural forces played out on the back roads of America and he took to the role like a military man, often becoming John the Hunter at the expense of John the Father; he admits as much to Sam in Dead Man’s Blood “somewhere along the line I stopped being your father. And I became your drill sergeant”. I maintain that John Winchester was a good man (not a righteous man) and not a bad father. He was a man with misguided priorities, a man who saw his wife murdered was thrust into a world surrounded by evil and monsters and darkness with something evil and unknown stalking after his family, people didn’t believe him about the death of his wife and he had no family, no friends and no support network to fall back on. He didn’t know who or what he could trust. He was scared and alone with only himself and his wits to rely on to protect himself and his children. Faced with the same conditions who’s to say that we would have done any differently?
I will leave the final words on this matter to John himself. For me this speech says all you need to know about John Winchester.
“You know when you were a kid I’d come home from a hunt and after what I’d seen I’d be… I’d be wrecked. And you, you’d come up to me and you’d put your hand on my shoulder and you’d look me in the eye and you’d… You’d say “It’s okay, Dad” Dean, I’m sorry. (pause) You shouldn’t have had to say that to me, I should have been saying that to you. You know, I put, I put too much on your shoulders, I made you grow up too fast. You took care of Sammy, you took care of me. You did that, and you didn’t complain, not once. I just want you to know that I am so proud of you.”