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

Part two of Season One analysis (darn post size limits!)
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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 II

Hero

“Devil’s Trap” is the Season One finale and final stage of the Departure: Crossing the First Threshold. There are three reasons for this identification: (1) the emotion at the beginning of the episode, (2) the villain’s changing the rules, and (3) the confrontation with not one, but two threshold guardians. And all of this in fewer than fifty minutes!

After the demonic Meg cruelly informs Dean he will never see his father again, he quickly slips into “’panic’ fear, a sudden, groundless fright” (Campbell 81). Here Campbell is describing the effect of the god Pan, whom he cites as a traditional threshold guardian. The demon possessing Meg – hereafter simply referred to as Meg – is one of the two threshold guardians in the season finale. And she functions as Pan well: Dean bolts to his bag and begins hastily packing. He orders Sam to flee with him.

The panic is more than warranted: the Winchesters’ plans have been obliterated. Now one of the family is in mortal danger. Meg is an "external force which changes the course or intensity of the story. This is equivalent to the famous ‘plot point’ or ‘turning point’…A villain may kill, harm, threaten, or kidnap someone close to the hero, sweeping aside all hesitation” (Vogler 128). Where the Winchesters are on the offensive in the previous episode, in “Devil’s Trap” all mental and emotional states are shot from the hip, whirled into being in a moment and having to be dropped, unprocessed, as the next situation flings itself up. There are two segments where Sam and Dean are proactive and in control: Meg’s exorcism and rescuing their father. Both succeed. But the consequences are morally ambiguous and only temporarily – ignorantly –victorious.

Meg is the first threshold guardian in “Devil’s Trap.” The audience has been previously introduced to her and can see her coming as a force to be fought. She has always been a progress blocker; it just escalates from persuasion to outright violence. In “Scarecrow,” still disguised as Fellow Human, she tries to turn Sam from his family by playing on his independent nature. In “Shadow” she sics devas on them…after failing to seduce Sam. Finally she captures John and tracks the boys down, intending to rip them open to find the Colt.

            Luckily, Meg walks under a Devil’s Trap sigil on Bobby’s ceiling and is imprisoned. “The task for heroes at this point is often to figure out some way around or through these guardians” (Vogler 129). Meg is their only information source, and Dean spots a path to their goal. Even if it is a questionable act of mercy. He orders Sam to perform an exorcism. Both the youngest Winchester and Mentor Bobby jump up against him, citing the demonic possession as the only factor keeping Meg’s body (and trapped, innocent human soul) alive; in previous episodes she fell seven stories and was shot.

            But Dean pushes his point through: he would rather put her out of her misery than let her live confined in her own body. With weighty moral debate temporarily won, Sam continues the exorcism. Meg’s demon gave up its information for naught and is sent back to Hell. They release Meg from her bonds and as they lie her down she does thank them. Yet its tone becomes ironic and ambiguous when she dies, mouth stilled in the midst of telling them where their father is being held.

            Meg’s exorcism is more the threshold guardian than the demon itself. Throughout the season the Winchester motto of “saving people, hunting things” has not been an intrinsic either – or. Sometimes they did lose people, and it tore them up emotionally. Especially Dean. In the episode “Faith,” their successful hunt meant the death of all the terminally ill they may have had their lives restored by an enslaved Reaper. Dean struggled as Sam tried to explain that no one had the right to play God. In “Devil’s Trap” they are precariously close to that action. Therefore, the hesitation. The exorcism foreshadows a Season Two theme: the moral strife of killing someone to save them.

            The second threshold guardian of “Devil’s Trap” is the Demon: the Winchester family’s arch nemesis. This is the episode in which he finally manifests. In “Salvation” he was but a blip.

            Sam and Dean rescue John from the demonic guard. In the alley, the possessed man who had accompanied the demon Meg jumps Sam and begins to beat on him. Dean rushes to help and is easily thrown aside. So he fires the Colt. Only two bullets are left. Sam is saved. And another possessed human is simultaneously saved and killed.

            Dean begins to feel the moral stir of his actions. Far escaped and holed up in an abandoned shack in the country, the Winchesters recover. After Sam thanks Dean for saving his life, the elder Winchester’s memory is reopened and he suffers the meaning of the exorcism and the bullet. It is a rare glimpse into Dean’s character, unveiled from joke, anger, or even grief. It is the precise moment he realizes he murdered:

Dean: Killing that guy, killing Meg…I didn’t hesitate, I didn’t even flinch. For you or Dad, the things I’m willing to do or kill…It scares me sometimes.

(“Devil’s Trap”)

Though murder is disturbing, what is more disturbing is the violence of Dean’s protection, that he had no limits defined when his family is endangered. The bare shock of this realization stills his usual flamboyant behavior. John walks into the room, reassuring Dean that his behavior shouldn’t scare him, because he “looks out” for the family.

            Dean blinks in puzzlement at his father’s attitude. He knows John’s temperament, and he would be furious Dean used a bullet. But although he is suspicious, the approval is just as overwhelming. After a brutal day, Dean would rather accept the rare paternal warmth.

            The moment, of course, is all too fleeting. This is the stage of rapidly changing and wildly shifting centers of emotional gravity. The shack’s lights begin to flicker and a wind stirs: signs of the Demon’s presence. The seasoned hunters immediately leap to action. John stalks to the window, flipping into the general. He orders Sam to go recheck the demon-halting salt lines in front of every door and window. His youngest walks off. Then he asks Dean where the Colt is.

            Initially, Dean pulls out the gun. But the prior odd sense is stirred when John demands the Colt…a little too harshly. Dean backs up, gaze fierce from fear and panic. He cocks the safety, points the Colt at his father, and rasps “You’re not my Dad.”

            Sam walks in on an impossible scene: Dean insists their father is possessed, and John tries to persuade Sam to trust him. By a bond forged through months of physical and emotional trial and assisted by enduring mistrust, Sam chooses to believe his brother. John, passing through shock and bargaining, says, “If you’re both so sure, go ahead. Kill me.” He hangs his head. This surrenders tears Dean. It pains him to doubt his father and see himself pointing a gun at his Mentor. The supposed demon within John wasn’t fighting back, causing Dean to waver.

            As soon as the Colt’s barrel dips, an eerily croaking voice comes from John: “I thought so.” He looks up with demonic yellow eyes and a triumphant smirk. The Yellow-Eyed Demon flings Sam and Dean against the wall with an force pressing them still. Their arch-enemy in their father’s body, the Campbell theme of father as villain is literally represented. “For the ogre aspect of the father is a reflex of the victim’s own ego…sealing the potentially adult spirit from a better balanced, more realistic view of the father, and therewith the world” (Campbell 129). Dean’s perception of his unbreakable father is destroyed. The “godlike father” is a child’s view. John is infallible and immortal in Dean’s eyes, a father in every protective sense. John was physically hurt in “Shadow” and “Dead Man’s Blood,” but for Dean to see that John’s spirit has been compromised drops him into oblivion. The “father as villain” is the hero coming to grips with the imperfect father and the inherently virulent aspect of life. And Dean is clearly not ready for that.

            The Yellow-Eyed Demon saunters around the shack, relaxed, in control and enjoying the Winchesters’ pain. Like all good villains, the Demon talks a lot when he has the heroes under his thumb. He teases Sam about his powers. He mocks John’s helplessness. He scoffs at God’s absence. He also fumes over the fates of his son and daughter – the alley demon and the Hell-exiled demon inside Meg. Then he insults their mother’s memory.

            Before Dean explodes, Sam asks the Yellow-Eyed Demon why he killed their mother and Jessica. The exchange that follows would feed the arching plot for another season.

Yellow-Eyed Demon: You wanna know why? Because they got in the way.

Sam: In the way of what?

Yellow-Eyed Demon: My plans for you, Sammy. You…and all the children like you.

(“Devil’s Trap”)

Rightly, this is turned into a teaser. A little hint of information about a deeply lurking plot to pull the heroes into a world they couldn’t even have fathomed: the Initiation, the Special World. Season Two.

            Dean cuts the Demon off with a quip, and possessed John spins around with a response on his lips to cut deep into Dean’s heart:

Yellow-Eyed Demon: Funny. But that’s all a part of your

M.O., isn’t it? Mask all that nasty pain. Mask the truth…You know, you fight and you fight for this

family,  but the truth is…they don’t need you.

Not like you need them. Sam? He’s clearly John’s

favorite. Even when they fight, it’s more concern

than he’s ever shown you.

(“Devil’s Trap”)

            The biting speech is every truth of Dean’s inner fear. It’s scathing that the Demon, having access to John’s mind, claims Sam is their father’s favorite. Dean’s whole life has been an endless toil to not let his father down. To be needed by the ones you love most is not as important. But the Demon hits the mark exactly: Dean needs his family. Whether or not they need him isn’t the point. He will always be there for them. Rather, it is what could come about from their independence: that they will abandon him.

                        Dean: And sooner or later everybody’s gonna leave me.

                        Sam: What are you talking about?

                        Dean: You left. Hell, I did everything Dad asked me to

and he ditched me too. No explanation, nothin’, just woosh. (“Skin”)

Sam already did. John did also. The actions of those closest to him reaffirm that he will be alone. And he desperately doesn’t want to be alone.

Dean’s emotional repression is the greatest character conflict the Yellow-Eyed Demon exposes. This flaw becomes the main battle Dean fights with himself in Season Two. And rightly so, because the atonement between the impulsive id (Dean’s emotions) and controlling superego (Dean’s “game face”) is a stage in the second portion of the Journey – the Initiation.

So in one scene, the writers have set up two main conflicts of Season Two and the Initiation. First, the Winchesters hear a secret plan set in place for children like Sam. Digging into this mystery is the outer Journey. Sam’s inner Journey is reconciling his independence (free will) with an apparent manipulative plant put into motion since birth (determinism). Second, dealing with Dean’s emotional bottling, which manifests outwardly as a polarized morality. A slated reconciliation between guilt, responsibility, duty, loyalty, and love awaits Dean on his inner Journey. Throw in even more horrific creatures for the Winchesters to overcome – some of the creatures being fully human biologically – and Season Two bursts open with all the philosophical and ethical issues it ambitiously seeks to undertake.

But first Sam has to finally listen to his brother.

Dean, of course, pushes down his pain and goads the Yellow-Eyed Demon. In response, the Demon lazily draws invisible claws through his flesh, bleeding Dean so much he passes out. John gains control over his own body again through the sheer agony of watching his son tortured. Sam is released, and with a well-placed flesh wound, he weakens the Demon’s grip on John’s consciousness and body. Dean is released and knocked awake from the drop.

            Then Sam’s soul is ripped in two.

            John begs his youngest to shoot him in the heart. To end it all. Sam cocks the Colt and aims…but hesitates. This is the exact moment where Sam’s inner beasts of the first season must be overcome. This is where he must distinguish himself from his father. This is where he listens to his vengeful, bleeding heart, or his pleading, bleeding brother.

            John is convinced this is the end of the Journey for him. Willing to die, John holds onto the Demon inside him, trapping the Demon in flesh to kill it. All of twenty-two years of self-imposed exile, horror and death would come to an end.

            If only his son would kill him.

            Sam’s mind at this fateful (fate-filled) moment is echoing. It’s echoing with John’s strained screams to kill him. It’s echoing with the strangely resonant whispers of Dean’s pleading not to kill. It’s echoing with his own promise to find and finish his true love’s killer. And it’s echoing with Dean’s consistent deeds and words of months upon months about how family is most important.

            He listens to his brother. John cannot hold the Demon forever, and it expels from him in an oily cloud of darkness. With a face contorted in grief, frustration and disappointment, John glares at Sam. But Sam made his choice. He answered his emotional conflict for Season One.

            The Departure isn’t about to wrap up just yet. First of all, the Departure doesn’t “wrap up” like a gentle fold of bathrobe. Like every threshold of the Journey, it requires violence.

            It requires death.

            It requires a semi-truck.

 

 

            Sam drives Dean and John down a dark road, racing to the hospital. John beside him rebukes Sam again for his priorities. Sam glances at the rearview mirror, at the barely conscious Dean, whose face is lost in blood. No, family is most important.

            And before he can finish the reassuring speech, a semi-truck barrels into the Impala, scraping it across the asphalt.

            The last image left to the audience is an agonizing pan across the still bodies of John, Sam and Dean. Swathed in blood, cocooned in twisted steel.

 

 

            This is not the willful step into the Special World after the meeting of the threshold guardian. It is shock. It also successfully replicates the realm of the unknown in the hearts of the audience, who had to wait months to learn the fates of the Winchesters.

            If they were even alive.

            The Winchesters did not even conquer the threshold guardian. The Yellow-Eyed Demon merely fled before a Colt-wielding Sam. “The hero, instead of conquering or conciliating the power of the threshold, is swallowed into the unknown and would appear to have died” (Campbell 90). This is the special transitory stage between the Crossing of the First Threshold and the second portion of the Journey. This is the Belly of the Whale. “The idea that the passage of the magical threshold is a transit into a sphere of rebirth is symbolized in the worldwide womb image of the belly of the whale” (Campbell 90). The Impala can be seen as a protective womb for the boys. It traveled from their childhood with them, and is the only familiar ground for the nomads. The Impala is their only Home. It is only fitting that the Winchesters would be sent off the threshold’s precipice in the car. Winchesters trapped in its sturdy hulk, the protective shell mutates into the harrowing belly of the whale.

            Vogler recognizes the death at the threshold. In fact, he seems to be channeling the exact scene of the mangled Impala: “Heroes don’t always land gently. They may crash into the other world, literally or figuratively” (Vogler 131; emphasis mine). The Imapala is the last image of the Ordinary World that the Winchesters see. The crash may have been literal, but figuratively, it delivers them into the Special World.

            Again, there may be problems with the fact the Winchesters have lived in a Special World (according to the audience). It is their World Navel – their Beginning Point or Ordinary World. How do the writers on Supernatural concoct a foreign world to those who have seen it all?

            Rip away all emotional and mental stability and make their very values questionable.

            And for good measure, hit the third angle and destroy the physical.

            Oh, hell, just take everything.

 

 

            Season Two opens with the episode “In My Time of Dying,” everyone still firmly falling into the unknown. Everyone – Sam, Dean, John, viewers – remain swallowed in the Belly of the Whale. In the pile of ex-Impala.

            After scaring away the demon inside the possessed semi-truck driver, Sam yells incessantly for his father and brother. Even as his body is broken. Will he lose them just when he rediscovered them?

            At the hospital the doctors must toil to bring Dean to a living state. But they cannot bring him to consciousness. Sam watches his comatose brother as the doctor spells out a diagnosis of severe cerebral edema. Basically, Dean will never wake up.

            The Belly of the Whale is a spiritual, emotional and mental death. It just so happens a physical one is thrown into the episode, but that’s because a certain Winchester’s Journey is further along than the others’. But that is discussed later. Campbell says the lesson of “the passage of the threshold [is that it is] a form of self-annihilation” (Campbell 91). The self he means is an individualistic temperament that refuses to reconcile with its impulses – whether because of fear or disgust, it doesn’t matter. For Sam, this means pitting his individuality against his family. For Dean, this means throwing out his desperate need to be useful, his self-destructive drive.

            The Season One’s finale worth of threshold guardians fufill the purpose of “ward[ing] away all incapable of encountering the higher silences within” (Campbell 92). And Dean enters the temple of inner silence, where dwells the impulsive beast. His body is deep within a coma. The physical is stilled as the mental, spiritual and emotional walks about the hospital in an out-of-body experience.

…instead of passing outward, beyond the confines of the

 visible world, the hero goes inward, to be born again.

The disappearance corresponds to the passing of a worshipper

 into a temple – where he is to quickened by the recollection

of who and what he is, namely dust and ashes. (Campbell 91)

The lesson Dean must learn? That he is mortal.

The coma is necessary. Dean’s manifestation as a spirit close to death is necessary. Dean is a physical character. He expresses himself through capability, dependability, and action. His deepest, most desperate insecurity? That he is useless. That he cannot protect his family. He is now unable: stripped of all power, helpless, he stands before the awaiting Reaper.

            Dean: I’m serious. My family’s in danger. You see, we’re

                        kinda in the middle of this, uh…war…and they need

                        me.

            Reaper: The fight’s over.

            Dean: No, it isn’t.

            Reaper: It is for you. Dean, you’re not the first soldier I’ve

                        plucked from the field. They all feel the same. They

                        can’t leave. Victory hangs in the balance. But they’re

                        wrong. The battle goes on without them.

            Dean: My brother…he could die without me.

            Reaper: Maybe he will. Maybe he won’t. Nothing you can do

                        about it.

           

            Dean: There’s no such thing as an honorable death. My corpse

                        is gonna rot in the ground and my family’s gonna die.

            (“In My Time of Dying”)

When Dean refuses to go with the Reaper, she warns him he will remain disembodied. He will turn into a vengeful spirit: just like something the boys hunt. The consequence helps Dean step back from antagonism and rethink his position. “…the devotee at the moment of entry into a temple undergoes a metamorphosis…Once inside he may be said to have died to time” (Campbell 92). Dean appears withered before a grand decision, one with grave consequences. It is a choice. Dean chooses what to be. She gently coos: “Moment of truth. No changing your mind later. So what’s it going to be?” Dean pauses.

Then he turns to her.

This is the moment where Dean either lets go or stays. It is the moment where he accepts his mortality and fate or his stubborn anti-determinism. This is the moment where he remains with family whom he cannot protect or “gives up the ghost” because he cannot bear losing control of himself.

He appears ready to speak – and is interrupted by flickering lights. The Yellow-Eyed Demon possesses the Reaper. The Demon presses the Reaper’s hand against Dean’s forehead and he wakes up, gasping, back in his body.

We never hear Dean’s choice.

The doctor pronounces Dean completely healthy. Alone in the room with Sam, Dean professes that he does not remember anything from his out-of-body experience. He does not remember, and therefore cannot process the lesson of the experience. He cannot reconcile his impulses with his mental control. Before they become too concerned about how Dean managed to slip a Reaper’s grip, John walks in.

The entire time John was away. Plunged into his own Journey. And he is about to finish a stage…and the Initiation.

John is passing through the last bits of Apotheosis.

What spirit-Dean perceived as uncaring inaction, and Sam took as uncaring, unhealthy obsession was all along John’s essential realization: he is father first and foremost.

And he had to save his son. Before himself, before everything.

John secreted away to the hospital’s boiler room. He summoned the Yellow-Eyed Demon and with the Winchester arch-nemesis bare feet away, lowered the barrel. The trade is simple: the gun, remaining bullet, and John’s life for the life of his eldest. Then the Demon departs to snatch Dean from Death.

Their father stands before them in a rare un-provokable mood. He beams at his sons. “’When the envelopment of consciousness has been annihilated, then he becomes free of all fear, beyond the reach of change” (Campbell 151). Seeing Dean alive and his wayward Sammy beside him fills him with un-breachable peace. John knows his real life mission: to save his sons. To protect them. He has given all a father could; he has given his soul. “Needless to say, the hero would be no hero if death held for him any terror; the first condition is reconciliation with the grave” (Campbell 356). Of course John would fear his approaching death: it is Hell. But he is reconciled with his death.

Sam’s belligerence cannot even phase him. When he bluntly pushes off Sam’s stab for a fight, Sam suspects something is up.

Like Dean, Sam is in the Belly of the Whale. At the brink of losing his brother, Sam stands by Dean’s comatose body and weakly asks for him to return. “We were just getting to be brothers again,” Sam whispers. Just when he realizes what a treasure family is, it is taken away. Sam is floundering in a realization of the ephemeral, just as Dean is.

Sam is helpless, just as Dean is helpless.

And right when Sam gains back his brother, he loses his father.

John asks Sam to get a coffee for him. Alone with Dean, John bestows love and pride upon him. Lavishly. Uninhibited. His tears – like his self-drawn blood in the summoning ritual – is the flow which “shows that the old men have the source of life and nourishment within themselves; i.e., that they and the inexhaustible world fountain are the same” (Campbell 155). This references the world fountain at the base of the world tree, the eternal spring of life. Within himself, John found the way to save his son. His life was the source of life for his son. “That father was himself the womb, the mother, of a second birth” (Campbell 162).

And wasn’t that the only way for Dean to return? “…to be born again” (Campbell 91)?

John simultaneously travels through Apotheosis and The Ultimate Boon. In this Hero’s Journey, the boon is not a magical sword or the holy grail, because it never really is. It is not even the Colt. Campbell’s boon is life energy. In other stories it manifests “simply as a symbol…stepped down to the requirements of a specific case” (Campbell 189) and thus becomes a blade or cup.

But in Supernatural, it is pure.

The long-struggling John Winchester had to put down his weapon and seek life over death. Giving over taking. His son Dean over an avenged Mary. “The agony of breaking through personal limitations is the agony of spiritual growth” (Campbell 190). It broke his being. It broke his obsession. And the id and ego are reconciled.

John Winchester, the Mentor, can bestow his final gift – life – as a father. Which is all he ever wanted to be.

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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