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"Why do I hafta be some kind of hero?" A Hero's Journey Analysis of Supernatural: Season One Part I

This is very long (sixteen pages for just Season One/the Departure!) Grab a cup of hot chocolate and snuggle down for excessive analyzing! Links to the various parts are below.
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Season One, Part I: Introduction, The Call to Adventure (John, Dean, Sam), The Refusal of the Call (Sam, Dean), Supernatural Aid (Sam, Dean)
Season One, Part II: Crossing the First Threshold (Sam, Dean), The Belly of the Whale, Atonement With the Father (John), Apotheosis(John), The Ultimate Boon (John)

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Season Two, Part I: The Special World, The Road of Trials, Sam's Meeting With the Goddess
Season Two, Part II: (Forthcoming) Dean's Meeting With the Goddess, Dean's Refusal of the Call (!Again!), Dean's Atonement With the Father, Dean's Apotheosis, Dean's Ultimate Boon, Sam's Rescue From Without

“Why do I hafta be some kind of hero?”

A Hero’s Journey Analysis of Supernatural

Season One, Part I

Hero

                      "Heroes ain't born; they're cornered."

                                                                 - Redd Foxx

                        “Your happiness for all those people’s lives, no contest.” Right?

                        But why? Why’s it my job to save these people? Why do I hafta

                        be some kind of hero? What about us, huh? What – Mom’s not

                        supposed to live her life, Sammy’s not supposed to get married?

                        Why do we have to sacrifice everything, Dad?

 

     - Dean Winchester

“What Is and What Should Never Be”

 

            There is nothing like the Monologue at Father’s Grave to set a hero straight.

At this point in the television series Supernatural serious doubt as to the fight’s value are raised. Here Dean Winchester reflects upon his – and his family’s – life path of hunting the supernatural. He reflects on the personal cost to his family. But above all, he reflects on the idea of the “hero.”

            Because that’s what Sam, Dean, and even their father John Winchester are. At least in the Joseph Campbell sense of the word. In the monomyth narrative Campbell lays out in “The Hero With  A Thousand Faces,” there is a certain path the Hero archetype travels. It is referred to as the Hero’s Journey, and it is studded with clear signposts. The stages the Hero undergoes are essential to the cyclic renewal of the world, and the Journey is completed mentally and emotionally, physically and spiritually.

            In the case of Sam and Dean, it’s completed in a black ’67 Chevy Impala. It’s not – just – a questing knight’s horse. It’s three hundred twenty-five horses.

            The Impala carries the brothers on a continual road trip through supernatural truck-stop America. Which is a convenient storytelling device: it keeps them moving, setting them up with new scenery, people, and things to kill. It keeps the weekly energy fresh. It is also a completely overt symbol of the Hero’s Journey. Just as Middle Age peasants journeyed on pilgrimages from church to church, seeking to gain understanding, the boys journey from town to town hitting the exact emotional milestones of the Journey.

            They just have a classic American muscle car to do it in.

            The road-stops the Impala travels through in the Hero’s Journey are clearly marked in the series: certain episodes equate snuggly with their appropriate stage. More importantly, entire seasons equate with their appropriate part. The Hero’s Journey is sectioned off into three: the Departure, the Initiation, and the Return. The link between each is a threshold, an in-between, a struggle, and a death. Due primarily to emotional factors, Season One is the Departure. Season Two’s premiere, “In My Time of Dying,” is the in-between stage of The Belly of the Whale. From the premiere onwards until the Season Two finale is the Initiation. All the stages within each part, all the hero-tasks, are recognizable within their respective seasons. In fact, the stages come in stereo: Sam and Dean travel through the Journey as their own distinct Hero.

            Both the brothers perform the deeds of the hero-task and also face these story-steps in different ways. It can be perceived they together create a composite archetypical Hero, filling in the gaps the other one leaves. Yet in fact, each is traveling his own Journey, which is impossible to advance without the other. Each is an essential catalyst to the other, a mirror of character.

            Sam and Dean are riding in the same car, but they’re traveling two separate roads.

 

 

Season One: The Departure

 

            Campbell describes the childhood of the human hero as miraculous. Both Sam and Dean’s first Journey began when Sam was six months old and Dean four years: their mother’s death, and the Fire. It is also their father’s – John’s – Journey that begins. Out of the Ordinary World that is simply a happy suburban family arrives the ghastly Call to Adventure.

            One night their mother Mary is awoken by baby Sammy’s cry on the monitor. At the nursery doorway she spots a figure hovering above the crib – a shadow she assumes is her husband. Mary turns to return to the bedroom, but then notices a light flickering down the hall. She approaches it curiously and gives it a few experimental taps until the light steadies. Then – again – another light catches her eye. The ghostly blue of the flickering television screen and muffled sound lures her down the stairs. She turns the corner and spots John asleep in front of the television. Panic strikes through her. She bolts up the stairs to save Sam from the strange shape.

            John awakens to his wife’s scream. He stumbles into the nursery to find nothing. Sam gurgles serenely. John signs out the adrenalin from what seems a dreamt sound and walks over to his son. A dark spot drips near Sam’s head. Confused, John reaches out to touch it. Three more deep red drops drip on his hand. He looks up to the horrified face of Mary, pressed against the ceiling, midsection bloodied. Before he can even fully register the gruesome scene, Mary bursts into flame. John yells, cringing at the flood of fire. His moment of terror is broken by Sam’s screams. He grabs his son, and running out into the hall, intercepts little Dean. Quickly he hands Sam to Dean’s care, giving him the enduring Order:

            “Take your brother outside as fast as you can! Don’t look back!”

            Dean carries his infant brother outside while John returns to the nursery to save his wife. But it is far too late. A spit of flame licks out to consume him, yet he emerges at Dean’s side in the front yard, snatching his children away from the house as the nursery windows explode. The prologue ends with the Winchester boys huddled together on the hood of John’s Impala as the emergency crews swarm.

 

            The Call to Adventure is a dying and rebirth. Old concepts and ideas - the whole World as once was known – “no longer fit” (Campbell 51). John begins to keep a journal after the Call, and his entries echo this sense of detachment from reality.

November 6, 1983…I feel like I’m going crazy…I’m

wandering around, alone and lost and I can’t do anything…

November 17, 1983My friends think I’m going insane.

Who knows, maybe I am… (Super-wiki, The Journal)

What he witnessed doesn’t settle into the rationalizations of the former World. His behavior is inconsistent, erratic, and his whole being is bent on finding an explanation. The Call is always unsettling and “signifies that destiny has summoned the hero and transferred his spiritual center of gravity from within the pale of his society to a zone unknown” (Campbell 58).

            John meets Missouri Mosely, a local psychic, who initiates him into the esoteric knowledge of the supernatural world. “December 17, 1983then today, I went to Missouri…she told me she believed me…I think she can help me” (Super-wiki, The Journal). Missouri takes the Journey’s role as Mentor to John, a figure in the stage of Supernatural Aid. This seems to skip the stage of the Refusal of the Call, but “for those who have not refused the call, the encounter of the hero-journey is with a protective figure…who provides the adventurer with amulets against the dragon forces he is about to pass” (Campbell 69). John never wanted to settle for the police report’s version of events; faulty wiring could not explain away the disturbing image of Mary pressed against the ceiling, nor how the flame seemed to “reach for” him. Campbell describes the Refusal as “essentially a refusal to give up what one takes to be one’s own interest” (Campbell 60). John’s Call is so strong, and his family loyalty so pervasive, his own interest transforms into what is in the best interest of his family. For him, this means protection against whoever murdered Mary. After Missouri’s instruction, this widens to protection against all supernatural forces. And since John’s character is not one to waggle amulets and sit around passively, his Marine spirit infuses his quest to exterminate the “dragon forces.” Protection manifests as hunting.

            And as hunters Sam and Dean were raised. Theirs is an Unordinary World. They are privilege to special wisdom and training. In the pilot episode, Sam doles out the exposition:

Sam: When I told Dad I was afraid of the thing in my closet, he gave me a .45.

                        Dean: So?

                        Sam: So? I was nine years old!

                        (“Pilot”)

He later sums it up with “We were raised like warriors.”

            But Supernatural’s main character is not John Winchester. His Journey is essential, but it is through the eyes of his sons that this story is told. This fact brings up a large problem with the Journey meshing nicely into the show. Sam and Dean’s childhood is nothing but the Supernatural World. This is not the departure point that the audience can relate to.

            Luckily, the hero’s childhood includes the “infant exile and return” (Campbell 323), “a long period of obscurity” (Campbell 326). In the pilot episode, directly after the fire prologue of “22 years ago,” Sam pops his head into the scene. A college student and happy in love, Sam is soon to interview for law school. He left his father, his brother, and the hunting lifestyle two years prior to live his own independent life. Away from the controlling father and an endless crusade. Sam lives as a normal twenty-two year-old, where exams – and not spirits – are the most imposing part of his day.

            The audience thus begins with a day in the life of College Sam. It is familiar ground for a diving board. This is “the remote land of exile from which he returns to perform his adult deeds among men, [this] is the mid-point or navel of the world” (Campbell 334). The college experience is the Ordinary World Sam departs from.

            But what about Dean?

            The older brother Winchester introduces himself. Sam wakes up in the middle of the night, and spies a shadow breaking into his home. He confronts the burglar in the dark and a fight ensues. The silhouettes skillfully swap blows and blocks. They slam into the walls. Finally the burglar pins Sam to the ground, who finally sees his brother’s face. The scene illustrates the special training of the Winchester boys and that it has never left Sam.

            Dean comes as the herald of the Call: their father is missing, and he wants Sam to help find him. This premise drives the story for Season One. The simple, yet powerful, two-word motivation of “Find Dad” threads Season One as the Departure of Campbell’s monomyth. Here is Sam’s Call from his Ordinary World back into the Supernatural World, the realm which he left in self-imposed exile.

            But how close are we adhering to the steps of Campbell’s Hero’s Journey in terms of Dean Winchester?

            Dean never left the special childhood. He was always comfortable with the life of a hunter, and from his father’s first order to him at four years old he is bound to an obedience that Sam does not share. “I had to stay home. With Dad” (“Skin”). He has embraced the rather claustrophobic Special World, where his only companions have been his father, and until two years ago, his brother.

            Considering this, the hunting life is Dean’s Ordinary World. Therefore, the Call (his father’s disappearance) would only be beckoning him into his usual hunt?

            Or is it?

            Even though Dean has been out working jobs on his own, the watchful eye of his father infuses his Ordinary World of the hunting lifestyle. John was the stabilizing force in the unpredictable Special World. Dean subsisted on the structure of John’s training and John’s orders, and probably had a hearty bowl of “Dad’s Rules” for breakfast each day. When his father vanishes for too long, Dean’s world is now made anew, “The familiar life horizon has been outgrown” (Campbell 51). There is no longer any familiar fatherly strength for Dean to check in with, use for backup or information. His world has always been socially small. Losing Sam to college was constricting, but losing his father is too lonely a world.

                        Dean: I can’t do this alone.

                        Sam: Yes you can.

                        Dean: Well, I don’t want to.

                        (“Pilot”)

            The elder Winchester’s transition is defined more as a subtle emotional shift than the dramatic lifestyle overhaul Sam experiences. Nevertheless, Dean’s World Navel he is Called out from differs from the Special World he and Sam strike into.

            Because Dean’s emotional and mental stability have been compromised, he feels the Call intensely. Sam, however, cut himself off from emotional dependence on his brother and father; he re-latched it onto his girlfriend Jessica. Obviously, he Refuses the Call. To compound the weight against the Journey, he has an interview for law school in two days: “It’s my whole future on a plate” (“Pilot”). He means, it’s his whole “normal” future at stake. Sam essentially is faced with two contrasting and conflicting Calls. Only with Dean’s silver-tongued convincing does Sam see that their father may truly be in danger. Yet he tags on an ultimatum. He will plunge into the Special World for two days, and two days only.

            To find John, Dean proposes they hunt what John was hunting before he disappeared: a phantom hitchhiker in Jericho, California. The hunt is both theme and foreshadowing for the show. The spirit of Constance Welch haunts a five-mile stretch of road, hitchhiking with unfaithful men and luring them to the house where she drowned her children. At the spot, she murmurs a watery, “I can never go home,” and rips the men apart. In parallel, Sam is unfaithful to his own family and their cause. When Constance says “I can never go home,” it echoes Sam’s stubborn stance, the Winchesters’ emotional reality, and prophesizes the fate of those who persistently refuse the Call. For those who are destined cannot escape their destiny.

            Sam is Dean’s foil in respects to his inner motivations. Just as Dean is John’s protégé and obedient soldier, Sam shucks controlling authority figures. His individuality clashes with Dean’s responsibility. Sam is Campbell’s “Hero Today,” the “democratic ideal of the self-determining individual” (Campbell 387). The brothers are two very distinct type of hero.

            Even through the friction, Sam can see the value in hunting and spending time with his brother. The boys “make one hell of a team,” and help save people from a world which they don’t want to know about and couldn’t possibly handle. Without the Winchesters, many would die.

            After the hunt is over, Sam traces the coordinates that their father left behind in his journal. John’s journal is the physical symbol of the Call and the gift of their Mentor (who has always been their father). It is only when Dean spots it, sans John, does he realize how significant his father’s departure is. John’s journal holds all his hunting knowledge and always is close by. Overtly leaving it to Dean is John’s order for him to “take up where he left off: saving people, hunting things” (“Wendigo”). Now it is apparent the torch of heading up the “family business” has been passed off to Dean. Now it is apparent John has moved on to some higher hunt and more dangerous territory. Clearly in the back, on the notepad, is written “Dean 35, -111”: John’s covert Marine method of directing his son.

            Sam identifies the locale as Lost Creek, Colorado. Dean says if the “shag ass [they] can make it there by tomorrow,” eyes already knowing Sam’s answer. Dean somehow is still hoping for the adrenalin of the hunt to carry a gung-ho momentum. Sam, of course, insists he has to get back in time for the law school interview. The faint tinge of regret carries on his voice, however.

            Here is the persistent Refusal of the Call: Sam watches Dean pull away in the Impala from the front of his home. He watches and wonders, and ultimately turns to enter back into the Ordinary World. Christopher Vogler, in his writer’s guide to using the Hero’s Journey, “The Writer’s Journey,” pinpoints Sam’s exact action. It will lead to tragedy. “Looking backward, dwelling tin the past, and denying reality are forms of the Refusal” (Vogler 109). Campbell insists that Refusal is rooted in the hero’s perception that the Ordinary World is in his best interests. Sam has love: Jessica. Sam has friendships. Sam has a legitimate, Normal future that most importantly he chose. Nothing could convince him to leave the Ordinary World.

            Nothing he could possibly foresee.

            Destiny is a godlike force working in the Hero. Sam’s individuality will always crash with his fate: a controlling father he could walk away from; a controlling abstract force he cannot. Sam must be severed from the Ordinary World he would not leave voluntarily. Nothing can keep his heart there.

            The fateful drop of blood sprinkles down on Sam’s forehead. He flinches, and like John in the prologue, it takes more than one drop of the terrible reality to turn his eyes upward. Jessica is pressed to the ceiling, stomach slit. As Sam shudders with his scream, a liquid fire consumes her body. And even as his own hero in his own Journey, Dean is the personification of destiny when he kicks in the front door and grabs the shocked Sam. In continual parallel with the portentous childhood fire, Dean pulls his baby brother from the supernatural flame.

            The Call to Adventure is the fearsome force of Nature. Mortal man crumbles before it, yet the hero will physically survive. But not even the hero can Refuse his destiny forever. It will either convince him to Journey, or cleave him from the Ordinary World. Sam is an obstinate character. So his persistent refusal required the most cruel of Calls: the murder of a loved one. His bright hope for normalcy and love, his Jessica, was the sacrifice for the Hero’s “first step into the unexplored” (Campbell 78). It is a bitter element, but it does reset his priorities.

            The pilot episode of Supernatural is its own encapsulation of the Departure. All Stories turn into themselves with repeating and layering of miniature Journeys, like the Golden Ratio twirling a nautilus shell towards an infinite point. Each episode, for example, contains the basic plot of (1) the Departure (Sam and Dean answer the Call of a specific hunt), (2) the Initiation (Sam and Dean hunt), and (3) the Return (Sam and Dean save a life and restore order). Expanding the mythic structure into what creator Eric Kripke calls the “mytharc,” Season One is Supernatural’s Departure. When Kripke speaks of the mytharc, he speaks of the grand view encompassing many seasons.

            The primary reason Season One is the Departure of the show is that beyond the first threshold is a realm unknown to the hero. Both Sam and Dean may be in new ground hunting without their father, but John is still alive in the world and their life’s goal is strong. Additionally, the act of hunting is nothing foreign to the boys. There are moments where Sam and Dean initially appear out of their depth (“Home,” “Faith”), but through prior childhood training and their father’s journal, these tasks are overcome.

            What occurs in Season Two is “beyond the limits of the hero’s present sphere, or life horizon. Beyond them is darkness, the unknown, and danger; just as beyond the parental watch is danger to the infant” (Campbell 77; emphasis mine). Only when Sam and Dean lose their father do they cross the first threshold.

            Supplement reasons for Season One as the Departure relate to the steps required therein: Supernatural Aid, Dean’s Refusal of the Call, Crossing the First Threshold, and Belly of the Whale (Season One to Season Two transition).

            The theme, the Ariadne’s Thread of Season One sets on “Find Dad.” Sam and Dean are essentially seeking their mentor, or Supernatural Aid. John is the hero of his own Journey, a path that began with the 1982 fire (his Call to Adventure). He is the “Mentor as Evolved Hero” according to Vogler, who has “been down the Road of Heros one or more times, and [he has] acquired knowledge and skill which can be passed on” (Vogler 125). Dean certainly perceives his father as such.

            Sam perceives his father differently. “The Mentor-hero relationship can take a tragic or deadly turn if the hero is ungrateful or violence-prone…”(Vogler 122). After briefly re-uniting with their father in “Shadow,” the Winchester three are attacked by devas. Sam rips open a flare to scatter the shadow-manifested creatures. Bracing on each other, the boys and their father escape the building. When Dean insists that they split up again for their father’s safety, Sam’s contrary attitude is stirred. He clamps down on John’s shoulder and nearly demands he stay. This scene is only hint of the conflict resonating between Sam and John.

            Dean fears this conflict erupting because it was the exact catalyst of the family scission. In “Dead Man’s Blood,” Sam and Dean again team up with the Mentor of the Story. While John speaks to the police up the road at the crime scene, Sam grumbles to Dean his irritation that John is not fully disclosing all the details of the hunt. He expects to be treated like an adult, a hunting partner. Without all the information, Sam fumes that John is making decisions for his sons. Again.

            When Sam cuts John’s truck off with the Impala and forces the hunt to a halt, the Mentor-Hero conflict breaks open to reveal its gory pus – an unhealed and ancient wound that was never tended to. It was ignored, avoided, and infected by time. Dead man’s blood is like poison to vampires. The theme of the episode is about revealing wounds and exposing weaknesses. Dean’s greatest fear is losing his family, and he has to literally pry his brother and father apart to keep them from destroying each other. Sam doesn’t understand how strong-willed Dean, decisive and persistent for months during their hunts, could voluntarily hand over the reins to John. To smile while accepting a child’s position. In “Scarecrow,” Sam yells at Dean “I don’t understand this blind faith you have in the man!” The young Winchester judges “that not all Mentors are to be trusted, and that it’s healthy to question a Mentor’s motives. It’s the one way to distinguish good from bad advice” (Vogler 122).

            In this case, Sam’s stubborn nature pries open their father’s plan, and John tells them about the Colt: a semi-mythical revolver Samuel Colt made especially for a hunter in his day, The weapon and its limited, specially-made bullets are believed to have the power to kill anything. John seeks the gun to kill the Demon, the murderer of Mary. It is the Demon’s weakness.

            For twenty-two years John’s entire existence has been bent on the destruction of Mary’s killer and the defense of his family. He protected his sons by training them.

John: I wanted you prepared. Ready. It’s just somewhere along the line I…I stopped being your father and I became your drill sergeant.

   (“Dead Man’s Blood”)

John evolved from a friendly Mentor into an oppressive one. “Mentors, like parents, may have a hard time letting go of their charges. An overprotective Mentor can lead to a tragic situation” (Vogler 122; emphasis mine). John does not acknowledge Sam and Dean as self-sufficient adults because he is afraid for their safety. Sam does not accept that excuse.

                        Sam: You know, I don’t get you. You can’t treat us like this.

                        John: Like what?

                        Sam: Like children.

                        John: You are my children. I’m trying to keep you safe.

                        (“Dead Man’s Blood”)

            John’s role as Mentor is in danger at this point. Even Dean points out that John has sent them on hunts himself; John here is a Mentor, “…teaching, training, and testing…” (Vogler 124). It is when John is pulling them back from the Journey does he fail as a Mentor. His function “is to get the story unstuck by giving aid, advice, or magical equipment” (Vogler 124). Because Sam and Dean rescue their father at the end of “Dead Man’s Blood,” John finally realizes that they are indeed “stronger as a family.”

In the midst of Supernatural Aid comes Dean’s Refusal of the Call. In “Salvation,” the Winchesters track down the Demon to Salvation, Iowa, and are preparing to shoot it with the Colt when it shows up to torch another mother. However, an old friend calls. Meg Masters met up with Sam in the episode “Scarecrow,” and the boys discovered she is a demon in “Shadow.” She threatens John’s friends and family unless he gives up the Colt. He drives off to trade a fake version, ordering Sam and Dean to confront the Demon without him. The boys rush in just in time and hustle the targeted family out. Out on the lawn, Sam spots the shadow within the flame flowing out of the nursery window. Dean has to physically restrain him from charging back inside. Back in the hotel room Dean admonishes Sam for such reckless stupidity. Sam fumes – killing the Demon has been their life’s purpose. Has Dean forgotten that?

Dean: Sam, I wanna waste it, I do. But it’s not worth dying over. I mean it. If hunting this demon means you getting yourself killed, then I hope we never find the damn thing.

(“Salvation”)

Dean Winchester’s first priority has been and will forever be the well-being of his family. Hunting will always fall away when family is threatened. When John is kidnapped at the end of “Salvation,” Dean bursts out: “Listen to me: everything stops until we get him back, you understand me? Everything.” The emotion is repeated in Season Two’s season finale, “All Hell Breaks Loose, part two.” It is the core of Dean’s Refusal of the Call. He will not Journey without family.

The stage of Supernatural Aid , or Mentor-seeking, continues after John is kidnapped. Confused and needing solid ground to regroup from, Sam and Dean seek out Bobby Singer, fellow hunter. Not only does this action prove they are still in Departure, it cleverly sets them up with a second Mentor. The first image of Bobby is a shot of him handing Dean magical equipment: a flask of holy water. Bobby is a man who commands the adjective “grizzled” and was born with a trucker’s cap on his head. He gives the Winchester boys his own Mentor gift: the Key of Solomon. The book holds many magic sigils, including the Devil’s Trap, which incidentally is the title of the episode. It is also, incidentally, a play on word emphasis.


Tags: bobby singer, dean winchester, hero with a thousand faces, hero's journey, john winchester, joseph campbell, meg masters, monomyth, sam winchester, supernatural, yellow-eyed demon
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