Grotesque Rules of Engagement: The Ethics of the Hunt on “Supernatural,” Part Two
In the first section of this essay (Read it here!), I wrote about Samâ€™s â€œmonstrousâ€ nature (neither good nor bad) as being an essential part of understanding the ethics of hunting on Supernatural because he, as one of the key agents in the story, re-enacts the problem of who deserves to hunt and who deserves to be hunted. I place quotations around the word â€œmonstrousâ€ for a reason. I donâ€™t want any reader to misconstrue this word as saying that I believe Sam is bad or evil. Rather my interest is in the ambiguous place Sam has in the â€œmiddleâ€ of the narrative.
In this section, I want to discuss Dean and what his habits, nature, and decisions reveal about the importance of brotherhood in the show and what impact his own creed has on the ethics of hunting, but moreso, how his ethics are informed by a deep-seeded monstrosity that only comes to light in the presence of the dilemma that is the vampire. After the season seven finale and the first episodes of season eight, the ethics of hunting are even more important for Dean, as he has been dropped in the middle of monsterland, aka Purgatory, and he is the one most likely to be hunted, and his relationship with Benny, the humane vampire, reveals the boundaries of Deanâ€™s previous rules of engagement.
Brotherhood, Brother Good?
As a fan of Supernatural, Iâ€™ve always been intrigued by Dean Winchester and especially his adherence to the rules of hunting that very much mirror that of a soldier at war. A long time ago, well perhaps only two years ago when I started watching the show, my first reading was that Dean was the â€œfieldâ€ general and Sam the â€œarmchairâ€ general in the war on demons. I was reminded of my fatherâ€™s distinction between Eisenhowerâ€™s and Pattonâ€™s roles in the second World War, roles that my father characterized as the difference between the thought and action of war. Now, my father had a Patton bias since he fought in the North Africa and Italy campaigns, but his definitions of how he, as a soldier, perceived the two generals has always stayed with me. And it was rather startling that it was the first connection I made when watching Supernatural. Since then Iâ€™ve had many readings, both posted here and discussed elsewhere, but for Dean and the ethics question, I tend to go back to my original impression about him being a field soldier.
And while Sam has often intellectualized the fight with demons and the devil, an approach that has at times led to his â€œgood intentionsâ€ and subsequent bad decisions, Dean has often followed his gut and acted sometimes with forethought and sometimes without. For my reading, which I must note is always up for question and dispute, Iâ€™d like to bring the discussion back to one key action that distinguishes ethical and moral action from basic instinct, and thatâ€™s the decision-making process. How does Dean decide?
From season one onward, we are introduced to a variety of Deans. But the first Dean we meet is the soldier, the one who is used to the rules of engagement, the strategies of war. This metaphor, the soldier at war, follows Dean throughout the series, even being invoked by Jensen Ackles in a host of interviews, such as recently when he mentioned the film “The Hurt Locker” as a way of understanding Dean in season 8. While Sam has seen the soldierâ€™s creed to be an inheritance (and sometimes a weakness), especially in the first season, Deanâ€™s absolute sense of justice, his black and white vision, helps to establish what world we are in and why these monsters need to be hunted. Deanâ€™s absolutism also sets up the emotional dilemma that emerges when he and the audience realize that the brother heâ€™d pledged to protect had the potential to become the creature he was bound to hunt.
No Mistakes, No Accidents, Just Choices
Dean Winchester has an almost religious dedication to the idea of choice. There are very few mistakes or accidents in Deanâ€™s world; rather, people make choices that have consequences. Even in a recent episode, â€œSouthern Comfort,â€ the deeply embedded anger that Dean feels is manifest as a criticism of Samâ€™s choices. Choice, free will, decisions. These terms are placeholders for a need to control, a need to be in control. And such a need informs Deanâ€™s approach to hunting; he is a strategist who also he goes with his gut instincts, but sometimes that gut instinct is based on experience rather than thought, which is why monsters that are made (werewolves, vampires) complicate his set of ethics. You canâ€™t choose what you are; you only choose what you become. This axiom is why Samâ€™s betrayals are so hurtful to Dean. Sam chose to drink demon blood. Sam chose to leave. Sam chose to not look for him. Now, on the other hand, Dean himself chooses not to see the complicated nature surrounding these choices; he canâ€™t. To do so would unravel his definitions of monstrosity. To do so would unravel his sense of self.
Dean adheres to choice as an operating metaphor, and that restricts what he can see about others, which explains why the monster that is made becomes an ethical dilemma for Dean. The ability to choose assumes options, assumes avenues of escape, but for someone like Sam, whose rage eclipsed his ability to see those choices, revenge in Season 4 seemed like the only choice. But as the seasons progress and Dean somewhat evolves as a character, he is continually challenged to change his vision of the world, to adapt and see things differently, especially when it comes to Sam, who his father charges him to save (or kill) in the second season premiere, â€œIn My Time of Dying.â€ The audience sees that Deanâ€™s commitment to choice, to decision making, increasingly becomes an abomination as the second season progresses, from his willingness to stay and die with Sam in â€œCroatoanâ€ to the selling of his soul in â€œAll Hell Breaks Loose.â€ The second season, in fact, clearly explicates Deanâ€™s idealization of choice, in a way that no other season can. So when in the sixth season premiere we see Dean living the life that Sam made him promise to pursue, it is not a surprise. In fact, it is the ultimate abomination of Deanâ€™s choice â€“ he chooses the life Sam shouldâ€™ve had as an act of repentance, of self-flagellation, of atonement, because choice demands acknowledgement, demands recompense, demands reciprocity. And that is the cornerstone of Deanâ€™s sense of right and wrong: choice and atonement. But throughout the series, Deanâ€™s sense of justice comes quickly under fire when confronted with the monster that has plagued the show since its first season: the vampire.
Vampires Create Ethical Dilemmas
In seasons one, two, three, six and now eight, we are faced with the dilemma of the vampire. Vampires, more than any other monster on this show, highlight the problem of hunting monsters. And Dean, more than Sam, seems to be the most troubled and touched by the grey moral area in which vampires reside.
Besides general demons and angels, the vampire is the most consistent creature in Supernatural. Part of the reason, Iâ€™m almost sure, is the popularity of “Twilight” and “The Vampire Diaries.” Vampires are in the cultural zeitgeist and represent a variety of cultural critiques that deserves an article (or a library of books) on its own. But for this show, the vampire perhaps occupies a marginal space, one where the hunt always is a question. From the first season episode â€œDead Manâ€™s Bloodâ€ through the appearance of Benny, it seems that the vampire is the dark mirror through which Dean must examine himself and his rules of engagement. In fact, I would argue that the show intuitively understands how closely linked vampires are to Deanâ€™s sense of identity when, in season six, Dean became one.
Unlike Samâ€™s possession by Meg and more like Samâ€™s addiction to demon blood, Deanâ€™s transformation into a vampire showcased his own vulnerability in the face of monstrosity. Unfortunately the episode, â€œLive Free or Twihard,â€ was more noted for its revelations about the coldness of Samâ€™s character, and little has been made of the fact that the vampire family emerged simultaneously with the Campbells and that it remains the only family beyond the Winchesters hunting circle and the angels/demons cadre to maintain a consistent presence on the show, from Lenore to the Alpha Vamp and now Benny. And I would further argue that it is fitting that vampires trouble this landscape, that Dean Winchester finds himself confronted again and again with the vampire as ally or as prey, because Deanâ€™s own sense of morality is offset by his emotional reality, both of which are vampiric. And his emotional vampirism has finally been recognized by his own brother, Sam.
The vampire resides in the space between life and death and subsists on the lifeblood of humans. A lot of scholarship has been dedicated to the metaphorical importance of the vampire, from cultural commentary on sexuality to the hyperliteral fear of being buried alive. For this show, the vampire appears as a disruption of the normal rules of hunting. One of the two most popular monsters that can be made (werewolves being the other), Supernaturalâ€™s vampires began as an ethical dilemma and simultaneously appeared with the reappearance of the father, John. This simultaneity is important because I would argue that John created the emotional vampirism in Dean. The impression we are left with of John Winchester is one of entry and exit. He comes and goes, nipping at the emotional necks of his sons, feeding off of them before leaving again, abandoning his sons with a psychological anemia. And both sons enact his habit, but in extremes.
When we again encounter vampires in â€œBloodlust,â€ we also meet Gordon, who at first appears as a paternal replacement for Dean, which was even noted by Sam, and then we meet Lenore, the first humane vampire we see in the show, who subsists on non-human blood. Later, when we see the vampire Gordon, Sam and Dean are pursuing him not for his vampirism but out of self-defense. And the hunter turned vampire is crueler than any vampire we had met previously. Perhaps Gordon serves as an incidental foreshadowing to the Dean who re-emerges from Hell and later, from Purgatory.
As the fourth season fades into the fifth, we see the vampire again but only briefly in â€œFree to Be You and Me.â€ It is in the sixth season that we find vampires once again at the heart of the narrative, and in a few specific ways. First, the Alpha Vamp appears as a central figure, and coincidentally, this father of all vampires appears when Samuel Campbell reappears. Again, it is hard not to read the vampire as closely tied to the Winchesters, and in my reading, the vampire is designed (intuitively, of course) as a balance and mirror to Dean. Second, Dean is turned into a vampire, and as such, is provided an intimate knowledge of how the vampire family not only looks but how it feels and what it knows. Deanâ€™s turn as a vampire also marks the conclusion of his relationship with a human family, Lisa and Ben, a family that he felt as if he was endangering and one that he was siphoning support from. So it is appropriate that at the moment Dean becomes a bloodsucker that he confronts this other family, the family that was both his and not his. Finally, in the sixth season, the vampire provides the avenue to find Eve, through Lenore. And the centrality of the vampire figure is reinforced when Sam and Dean use the Alpha Vampâ€™s blood for the murder of Dick Roman.
Now, in season eight, the character of Benny fully manifests the ethical dilemma of the vampire, especially for Dean. While it may seem to be a hypocrisy that Dean befriends Benny or even a thinly veiled brothers-in-arms tale, the slow and gradual insertion of the vampire in the narrative makes sense, and it especially makes sense for that relationship to be connected to Dean. Benny is a mirror of Dean. Deanâ€™s own vampirism is emotional in nature. To a degree, a great degree, he siphons off his relationships with others, including (and particularly) Sam, as demonstrated by his willingness to sacrifice himself as an act of defiance of that dependence. And as Kate (@Ardeospina) mentioned during our conversation about this theory, Dean stopped the circle of vampirism with Sam by making him independent; but at the same time, Dean is always subject to the cost of that independence, always resentful of Samâ€™s ability to walk away and his own inability to not be the one left behind. Itâ€™s also interesting to note that as Dean is the most evident point of view character, the increasing presence of vampires has an external reading as well, but thatâ€™s another essay altogether.
The connection between Dean and vampires provides another reading of his characterâ€™s hypersensitivity to Samâ€™s abandonment. If Sam is an integral part of Deanâ€™s life, his lifeblood per se, then any long-term absence threatens his own existence. Because Sam chooses to always leave, or if given a chance to choose a demon over his brother or a mission over his family, then Deanâ€™s sense of justice is also disrupted. Every aspect of this brotherhood pushes Deanâ€™s limits, which is good for conflict but horrible to stand witness to. Now that Benny has entered the picture (and yes, I know there is a Castiel argument here, but that will be for a future section), we can see that Dean is evolving (or devolving). Where this road leads, I suspect I know, and I hope Iâ€™m wrong.
But now we turn our attention to the extended brotherhood of hunters and the cadre of demons that always threaten the end of the worldâ€¦
The Next Part: Addressing Apocalypses and Purging in Purgatory