“A path is always between two points, but the in-between has taken on all the consistency and enjoys both an autonomy and a direction of its own. The life of the nomad is the intermezzo.” ““ Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus
Supernatural is a story about nomads. The show follows the Winchester family, but more than that the show follows the life of the hunter, a life that in this universe is set in various motel rooms and broken down houses but always existing “in-between.” The only real “settled” space for the brothers is their 1967 Chevy Impala, which is a mode of transportation as residence. The brothers and others in their vocation occupy the margins of this fictional culture, working the boundaries of laws, dogmas, religions, and other “intermezzo” spaces and times. They are footnotes in the illuminated manuscript of the world. As a result, these hunters don’t claim territory; rather they exist in what Deleuze and Guattari speak of as a “deterritorialized” space where land is not owned but travelled.
In Supernatural, though, the deterritorialized extends beyond concepts of space to those dealing with time as well. The nomadic structure of the show is a deeply embedded approach to storytelling, one which frames how viewers experience the text and over the years, I would argue, has created a community of hunters outside the text. In other words, the viewer of Supernatural is by extension a hunter. The hunting of the textual monster is the task of the viewer; the emotional life of Supernatural is a patchwork ogre, a nomadic ghost that flits in and out of the story, and it relies on the viewer to sustain itself.
The show activates and spreads what’s tantamount to a huntingvirus through several devices. I say virus because the show makes the viewer part of its hunter group by positioning him/her into a similar time and space as the hunters on the show. First, the presence of missing time forces the viewer to speculate about gaps of time that generally revolve around emotional trauma. Missing time opens the show’s text to interpretation, leaving gaps in the narrative that act as Amy Pond’s wall did in Doctor Who ““ being both beacon and threat to the viewer, collapsing time around not only the internal narrative of the story but squeezing the viewer into that uncertain space as well.
Second, the show adopts a secret garden motif that most specifically connects to the idea of the feminine. The secret garden represents a pastoral ideal, one opposite to the hunter’s nomadic lifestyle, and the theme emerges in moments when the brothers are near to a settled space. The show highlights these secret garden storylines through lighting that diverges from the standard look of the show. The secret garden, then, becomes a pseudo-sacred place not only for the brothers but also for the viewer, giving them a glimpse of the lives that could’ve been, should’ve been, but never can be. The emotional toll of the “might’ve been” raises the stakes on the already established relationships in the show, making them crucial to the characters’ survival. Home constitutes not a place but a complex series of affiliations. Through the secret garden motif, the economy of the show becomes apparent and it is a market of wandering attachments. This trope becomes even more explicit in season eight as the brothers encounter a settled place, in the form of the secret library, and the notion of home begins to undergo a radical redefinition.
My particular interest in this structural aspect centers on the viewing experience and how it can explain the emotional attachment fans have to the relationships on the show rather than to the story the show tells. I make no claim that the show intentionally creates this structure, but instead that the show structurally aligns with the content of its story. It tells a story of nomads set to nomadic time.
The Authority of Missing Time
“I give you the mausoleum of all hope and desire”¦I give it to you not that you may remember time, but that you might forget it now and then for a moment and not spend all of your breath trying to conquer it.” ““ Mr. Compson giving Quentin his watch, William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury
Many emotionally cathartic moments happen off-screen, or in an “obscene” space, on Supernatural. In the premieres of seasons four, six, and eight, the show keeps private certain stretches of time that involve what would constitute immediate responses to trauma. In season four we fast forward four months from the time Dean goes to hell to his return. In season six, a year has passed between Sam’s self-sacrifice and his reappearance in Dean’s life. And in season eight, another year passed between Dean’s disappearance into purgatory and his reunion with Sam. These stretches of time are left fallow for the most part in the plot with little explication beyond gestures that occur in flashback episodes. In season four, we get glimpses of Dean’s time in hell, but any narrative of that time is held to a minimum, culminating in a brief emotional exchange in the episode entitled “Heaven and Hell” where Dean explains hell to Sam. We, as the viewer, start to parse out what that time entailed, including the transformation of Dean into a torturer. This same time trope happens with Sam’s time in season four, wherein we get a condensed version of his journey without Dean in “I Know What You Did Last Summer.”
But we must also remember that the show began as a story already half told. The structure of the pilot episode disrupted the timeline by introducing Mary’s death and then fast-forwarding twenty years into the future. So we as the viewers are inserted into a missing timeline. The show resists showing too much of that missing timeline, choosing instead to relate what happened and not show what happened. We hear that Dean hunted on his own. We hear that Sam left for Stanford under tense circumstances. We hear about many things in the past but rarely see them. So much of what we understand about the show is a rumored space, one that is always under threat of revision or redemption because it is told rather than shown. Such a potential trains the viewer to expect changes in storyline.
These gaps condition the audience to understand the rules of hunting and the emotional history of the Winchester brothers through a structure of gossip rather than explication, so the show employs gossip in the way that Baumeister, et al. observe when they write, “Indeed, one might say that gossip goes beyond educating the hearer about social norms; it affirms them” (113). The hearer in this case is the viewer. The story of the Winchesters is in part a rumored story, which makes a certain kind of sense. Even its fourth season meta episode “Monster at the End of This Book” signals this structure when Castiel reveals that Chuck is writing the Gospel of the Winchesters ““ a gospel is always a gospel “according to,” a prefatory note that makes known the reporting and hence the subjective nature of the telling. A gospel is gossip. Gossip is fragmented and authored somewhat anonymously, masking the source of information so that one is always chasing the initial telling, the first event. So even internally the show reinforces the viewer’s perspective as part hunter, part gatherer.
The structure of the plot sets a standard for absences. They must be confronted rather than uncovered. Even in the emotionally powerful third season episode, “Mystery Spot,” where the show reveals a glimpse of the turmoil that Sam Winchester feels under the threat of Dean’s impending death, the structure of the show takes back that experience by setting time back. So the experience Sam goes through, a downward spiral that rivals many melodramas, is taken back from the viewer. The end of the episode takes that experience out of time and while still a reality for the viewer (and for Sam), the turmoil is sent into an imaginary space for the story, making it too a speculation, one the viewer can draw on to fill in the gaps of season 4 and season 8, where Sam’s emotional reaction to Dean’s “absence” is kept hidden to a large extent.
Additionally, from the fourth season onward, Supernatural has used time travel as a plot device, which pushes the limits of linear storytelling; however, the show has chosen to keep that trope centered on travel to the past or with figures from the past, always leaving open the possible futures for the storyline. As Walter Benjamin notes, “But no fact that is a cause is for that very reason historical. It became historical posthumously, as it were, through events that may be separated from it by thousands of years” (“Concept of History,” 1940). Benjamin sees history as a redemptive exercise and so too does Supernatural. By using time travel the way that it does, the show tries to establish rules of time which protect its storytelling approach, meaning the past can’t change but the future is unknown. The fifth season episode “The Song Remains the Same” redeems Dean’s disruption of the timeline during the fourth season “In the Beginning.” The show eliminates Dean and Sam from Mary and John’s memories, in effect erasing that storyline from the timeline, much like Sam’s turmoil is erased in “Mystery Spot.” The only exception to this trope comes in “Frontierland” when Samuel Colt has the phoenix ash delivered to Sam in the story’s present, but even then it is not exceptional because Colt is a hunter and thus exempt from the human rules of order. In other words, Colt can know about time travel because he is in the “club” and so the timeline is not disrupted.
Missing time reinforces viewer interaction with the text as it provides a space for speculation. Speculation is etymologically rooted in the proto-indo-european root of spek-, which means “sees” and is related to words like scope. Sospeculation requires the viewer to fill in these spaces by seeing, by scoping, by employing the tools of the hunter to complete the story. Such a freedom is also a constraint, though, because even as it offers the viewer a powerful tool of imagination, it simultaneously invites the viewer to labor alongside the show, alongside its story, creating a false sense of connection between the viewing experience and the story. By inserting gaps of time into the text, the show denies the viewer an authorized catharsis. The absence of authority, however, mimics the story, for the Winchester tale stipulates that authority is not so simple a concept. Fathers, gods, and other traditional figures of authority are as unstable as the notion of home in Supernatural, which becomes all the more interesting in terms of gender, as we will see later on, when we view the secret garden motif as a feminized space. The gaps of time allow space in the narrative for other readings and thus make it penetrable and vulnerable, much like the hunters are, much like the audience is, much like the story has become.
The Winchesters’ Secret Gardens
“Might I have a bit of earth?” ““ Mary, Frances H. Burnett, The Secret Garden
When the idea of a settled place came into being on Supernatural I was not surprised to find that the brothers’ new home would be a library, an archive. The library is a place of memory, carrying with it the echoes of previous ages, previous libraries. Alberto Manguel sees the library as encompassing the legacies of the Tower of Babel and the Library at Alexandria, great places of knowledge and myth, language and memory, life and death (The Library at Night). Librarians are both hunters and gatherers; they are collectors of things and the library is the premier representative space for civilization. Only the settled can collect and store knowledge as material items ““ and one might argue that the show is moving from a storytelling device of orality to one of literacy. The Winchesters are moving from myth to legend.
When the library first appears, viewers should notice the distinct lighting that occurs. It’s a soft light, invoking a nostalgic feel in the scenes. The show uses such lighting to mark generally feminized spaces and the lighting tends to mimic the natural light of a garden. If you notice in the first montage of season six’s “Exile on Main Street,” the lighting is natural, almost haze like ““ a device to underscore the image as memorial, as nostalgic. The same lighting occurs during season eight in scenes between Sam and Amelia, and even the trope of the garden/the park/the picnic reinforces this feeling of nostalgia, which makes memory imaginary and hence always unattainable. To a great degree, gardens and libraries are similar in many ways ““ they, like zoos, capture and store. These archives are the grand tributes to the completed hunt. Monuments and memorials at once.
But as with all archives the items must be catalogued and indexed. And here again, the viewer becomes an integral part of the show. Through the viewing experience, aspects such as lighting give viewers the legend for indexing. These production choices train the viewer to follow and note the story’s “realtime” space and its imaginary and/or memorial spaces. This device begins early in the show, during the second season episode “What is and What Never Should Be” when Dean is held captive by a djinn. The episode focuses on a speculative world where demons don’t exist. The first series of emotional moments in this episode revolve around Dean’s encounter with his mother, Mary, who is dead in the real world but alive and well and living in a house that had been Dean’s childhood home in this alternative universe. Dean’s eagerness to go outside and mow the lawn emphasizes the idyllic nature of this world. The natural sunlight and the garden gnome tell Dean that this is a place of settlement; the lighting tells the viewer this world is not real. And it also sets the precedent that most of these idyllic places will revolve around the feminine. Such natural lighting also could indicate growth and fertility both of which the storyline resists in its real time, as exemplified by Bobby Singer’s history and the fact that it was the question of fertility. The show uses this lighting to demarcate feminized spaces as idyllic and such a move explains, in part, the victimization narrative of women on the show, for the sentimentalized must be victimized in order to be rescued.
So the show tries to redeem its “real” world narrative of women as evil or as willful victims by idealizing imaginary spaces as feminine pastorals where the world is settled, normal, and devoid of demonic presence. This turn allows the show to have a feminine presence but without the sexual confusion of having females present in the “real” narrative. These imaginary women take on the mantle of the secret garden and thus become a sacred space that can’t exist but only in the parishioner’s mind.
This move, then, trains the viewer to read lighting as a way to differentiate memorial spaces, spaces that cannot exist in the patriarchal world of hunting. The secret garden motif, though, undergoes a radical transformation in season eight with the introduction of the library; it invokes the same type of lighting that happens in other imaginary spaces, but here, the library is real and the library in many ways pushes out the feminine from the story. Libraries are repositories of literate power and literacy is a contentious gendered topic. What is counted as literacy has been the topic of reams of scholarly discourses on language use, but for the purpose of this essay, the plainly patriarchal origins of the Winchester library take precedence as an archive for a secret society whose membership gets passed down through sons, through male inheritance, through the name of the father.
And the implications of this “legacy” reach far, especially when you juxtapose the first ten episodes of the season with the revelation of the Winchester library, which is already masculinized as a bunker or a batcave, even further alienating the space from a feminine origin. The first half of season eight traced illicit acts by the Winchesters ““ Sam not searching for Dean, Dean smuggling a monster from Purgatory, and Castiel’s weakness to the mind control, all traits that seem anathema to the characters’ arcs. Each character though seemed to represent a kind of culmination of past seasons and traced choices that they may have made, but in this context, these choices are illogical, illegitimate. With the introduction of the secret society inheritance, legacy legitimizes the brothers once again. Legacy is etymologically tied to the terms legal and legitimacy, so the legacy is an act of authority, of legitimization, of unmaking the bastardization. So the secret garden gets replaced by the secret society in season eight and as a result tries to forestall and block the penetrability of the narrative that had been inherent in the show before this change in legacy. The gaps are closing ““ the spaces are being fortified against intrusion.
Where Do We Go From Here?
I’m always acutely aware that when I write these observations the question that you may ask is “So what?” Why is this important? I wrote this particular essay to unpack my own dissatisfaction with the current season. My affection for the show is alive and well but so is my frustration. I find myself affected by the story and so I asked myself what is the core of my dissatisfaction and this series of observations emerged. I submit them to you as a possible reading, not the only reading and not the right reading, but a reading.
I’m interested in how the show trains me as a viewer to interpret it. Because the show has been on for so long, it’s established patterns of storytelling, whether by intent or intuition it doesn’t really matter, but the patterns are there nonetheless. If the show has started to shut down the gaps in its narrative, then I wonder at how we as fandom get in or perhaps the better question is, how do we get out? We are in the garden, counting time.
“Every sin is the result of collaboration.”- Stephen Crane, “The Blue Hotel” (for you, Jared)