Supernatural University: Tragedies, Bloodlines, Legacies – The Evolution of the Family Business
“Saving people, hunting things: the family business.”
That's been the tagline of Supernatural from the very beginning, memorably given voice by Dean way back in the second episode, Wendigo, and repeated multiple times every season since. But it's never been a static concept; every part of that phrase has undergone evolution as the seasons progressed. In this discussion, I look at how the show has changed our understanding of family and the family business from its original presentation of hunting, hunters, the Winchesters, and saving people to where we stand at the beginning of season nine. Welcome to a multidiscliplinary Supernatural University analytical session!
Retconning Is A Way Of Life
I have to start this discussion by talking about retcons, because they are the way much of the show's world was built.
Retroactive continuity (aka “retcon”) – the device of adding information to the backstory of a fictional character or world through revelations in a new story that alter the interpretation of events previously related, even if they preserve the facts of those prior events – is used most often in fandom as a perjorative term. Sloppy retcons that dismiss, ignore or even contradict history and character as presented in a show without providing a solid basis for such difference deserve that scorn, but retcons done well can also enrich the story.
The simple truth is, retcons are pretty much inevitable in any television show that runs for more than a couple of seasons, the same way they appear in book series that span years of creation, and for the same reason. It's impossible at the outset of any long-running, truly complex story for an author (or group of authors) to fully create both the past and the future of the complete universe the story inhabits. As a story develops, concepts and ideas – both brilliant and bad – that weren't remotely in the writers' minds in the beginning are going to strike like lightning. Sometimes they crystallize unconscious connections that were always present but not recognized. Sometimes they reflect growth in the writers' own ability to handle psychological, philosophical, or political complexity, providing the opportunity to add layers to characters and fictional world events that the writers weren't originally equipped to perceive. Sometimes, they're positively inspired. And sometimes they're just downright awful, done purely for convenience, surprise, or to get the writers out of a corner they hadn't realized they were painting themselves into.
Many of the developments I'm going to discuss here are retcons, and I don't mean that in a bad way. Some made more sense to me than others; some worked for me better than others. All of them together painted the canvas we now enjoy.
In The Beginning Was The Word …
Our introduction to hunters and hunting in season one established the idea that most – like John Winchester – came to the life through a personal tragedy involving supernatural malevolence. Hunters were presented as predominantly solitary beings comprising a loose network of like minds to share information and offer training and support to each other while concealing their life as hunters from everyone not already in the know. Searching for John, the brothers called on the few others they knew in their father's network, including Pastor Jim Murphy and Caleb, in search of information. They also discovered Missouri Moseley and Daniel Elkins, contacts John had known but never shared with them, and turned at the end of the season to an old friend new to the story and to us, Bobby Singer. Everything we understood from that season suggested hunters were few and widely scattered, and the brothers' situation of growing up in the life from early childhood was almost, if not absolutely, unique. The brothers' only legacy from their father was their hunter training and the journal containing all the information he'd collected on monsters.
Season two brought our first hunter retcon with the creation of Ellen and Jo Harvelle and their Roadhouse in Everybody Loves A Clown. Right along with Sam and Dean, we became aware of a much larger and more connected network of hunters than season one had ever suggested existed, and learned things about their father's hunter history they'd never known. It kept basic consistency with season one ideas by still casting hunters in the same overall mold as John: blue collar types who became hunters through personal loss. It worked in some ways because it made sense that John would have protected his sons when they were very young by isolating them from all but those few hunters he considered absolutely trustworthy. John also wouldn't have shared with them things that made him ashamed, such as the death of Bill Harvelle, and denying his sons knowledge of the roadhouse even after they were grown was the only way he could keep his personal history with the Harvelles safely buried. Introducing the brothers to that larger hunter community after John's death expanded the brothers' world by connecting them with others to replace contacts killed in season one, and also served to shine a new light on John even as the brothers struggled to accept his death and figure out their own newly parentless adult status. It was problematic because the continuing “paranoid loner in flannel” hunter stereotype made Harvelle's a fairly ridiculous clubhouse and turned the common hunter persona into a pretty limited caricature.
Season two also complicated the “saving people, hunting things” concept by introducing in Bloodlust monsters worthy of being saved rather than hunted. Lenore and her vampire family were more human than hunter Gordon; technically human Gordon – like The Benders in season one – turned out to be the monster.
The season two view of the hunter universe continued throughout season three. On the “family” side of the ledger, however, Dream A Little Dream Of Me powerfully illustrated Dean's changing view of his father, and Bobby's iconic observation in No Rest For The Wicked that “Family don't end with blood, boy!” made it very clear that the show's concept of family extended beyond the normal list of relatives. The secret cache in Bad Day At Black Rock added even more things the brothers had never known to John's history, hitting both the “family” and “business” notes.
And then came season four, and the universe changed.
She's Chosen. It's In Her Blood, As It Was In Yours
Season four began the biggest changes to our understanding of hunters, hunter history, and the legacy inherited by the Winchesters. In The Beginning introduced us to the Campbells, a family living a surface-normal existence while carrying on a long-established heritage of hunting that simply assumed children would be raised in the business. Knowledge passed down by ancestors took the place of a direct personal tragedy to start the hunting process. But young Mary Campbell, the latest rising generation, wanted to escape the life and just be normal; to marry her supernaturally innocent, wholesome small-town mechanic and Vietnam vet boyfriend John Winchester and have children who would never know about monsters, ghosts, and demons, much less hunt them. And it was Mary's past that haunted the brothers' present; her deal with the yellow-eyed demon led to Sam being fed demon blood and Mary herself dying in fire on the ceiling to kick-start John into becoming a hunter without the benefit of the Campbell knowledge.
It's not clear how much of that was pre-planned and how much qualified as a retcon. Kripke admitted that when he first had the image of a woman burning on the ceiling and used it to launch the pilot, he didn't know why she was up there. I'd love to ask him someday to lay out the timeline of the show's development, noting when certain ideas got integrated into the show, and particularly to say when Mary being a hunter from a family of hunters entered the picture, and when he decided that her deal would result in Sam's curse and the Winchesters' fate!
Season four also brought us angels for the very first time. I've talked a lot about that before so I'm not going to get into it here, except for noting how it relates to this whole family discussion.
From Castiel's first appearance in Lazarus Rising, we learned that angels needed to occupy willing human vessels in order to communicate with most people, because very few humans – ones such as Pamela Barnes, who could hear Castiel trying to warn her not to look at him – could understand angels in their normal celestial forms. The Rapture further presented us with the concept that angels couldn't simply possess any willing body, but needed to find humans with the right genetic propensity to be able to become vessels. Castiel voiced the idea that only humans born of certain bloodlines were suitable vessels for angels. I had a few practical logic problems with that, starting with the point that if the angel/human interface had always been designed that way from the earliest days of humankind, human breeding over thousands of generations would have diffused that trait across pretty much the entire human population by this time even if it had been crafted into only a relative few humans – say, one potential human vessel for each angel – in the beginning. Still, I hand-waved that one away pretty easily.
Season four also played with the “saving people” part of the equation. One incentive for Sam to use his powers to wring unwilling demons out of their human hosts was that the host could often survive, if his or her body hadn't been seriously injured during the possession. To kill a demon with Ruby's dagger, you needed to kill the host; to use an exorcism ritual, you needed time to get through the prayer/spell, and the demon's struggles could overstress and kill the host. That provided Sam with both temptation and justification for using something evil to bring about a good end.
Finally, in Jump The Shark, season four brought us Adam, a younger brother Dean and Sam never knew existed; an accidental son John conceived with a nurse met on a hunt and chose to protect by keeping him hidden from and ignorant of the same supernatural dangers he'd pushed Dean and Sam to hunt. I know many fans hated that turn of events, feeling the unfairness of the treatment he accorded his different sons made John thoroughly irredeemable. I saw it differently; I loved the exploration of family, fathers, sons, and brothers that ensued.
To me, the biggest thing season four brought us in family terms was the concept of bloodlines for both select hunters and angel vessels. That was a new twist: that you could be born to be a hunter or a vessel, and have that be something you inherited.
You're The Vessel
Season five took that whole “bloodline” idea a step further by positing that the ability to host angels wasn't a general characteristic, but was coded to match certain individual human bloodlines with specific angels, at least when it came to angels of massive inherent power such as Michael, Lucifer, and Raphael. Dean was told repeatedly that he was Michael's vessel, and although he learned that both his father John and his half-brother Adam carried the same trait and could also be used (which, by the way, suggested Sam genetically could have been a vessel for Michael, too, and Dean could have been one for Lucifer), they didn't match the “older brother/younger brother” prophetic circumstances that made Dean and Sam ideal to mirror and embody the Michael/Lucifer conflict. Sam was labeled the perfect vessel for Lucifer seemingly because he both had the right high-power-level angelic-vessel bloodline and had been prepared in infancy by his developmental dose of demon blood to be able physically to tolerate Lucifer's corrupted power as poor Nick – who evidently had the bloodline but not the early preparation – couldn't. We were told in My Bloody Valentine that the angels had deliberately engineered the match between John and Mary to bring about in Sam and Dean the perfect vessels for the apocalypse.
This was definitely a retcon because we know Kripke hadn't intended to have angels appear at all, and said in 2008 that he always knew we'd never see Lucifer. Look at my long angel meta for the full discussion of this point, including all the many ways it worked to simply expand on everything that had gone before and give the story more layers.
Here, however, I'm going to share why I wish Kripke hadn't gone this way. With the whole “bloodline engineered by angels” aspect of the Winchesters' story, we lost something the show had from the beginning: the sense that the Winchesters were ordinary people like any of us catapulted randomly into extraordinary circumstances and responding with heroism. The bloodline thing made the Winchesters “Chosen Ones” set apart from all of us. The Campbells being historic hunters hadn't done that precisely because Sam and Dean grew up outside the clan and ignorant of their heritage, with no genetic or other predisposition to become hunters.
Season six, while ostensibly expanding on the Campbell family history, actually diminished it to my mind by departing from any sense of the Campbells as still being a true family intent on preserving and extending its heritage by raising more generations in the family business. Instead, the uniformly young cousins were largely presented as generically stereotypical hunters who shared a last name. In Two And A Half Men we were told Christian was married and he and his wife wanted children, but that was the only reference made to anything remotely resembling actual family life. Before the season ended, all the Campbells we knew of were dead, leaving only the library the brothers and Bobby raided in Frontierland, with old family journals that also played the role of providing answers in Live Free Or Twihard and Let It Bleed.
Season seven was mostly quiet on the family front, apart from emphasizing through Bobby and Rufus the importance and reality of the families we make, not just the ones we're born to. Adventures In Babysitting also gave us in Lee and Krissy Chambers a look at another family following the path of John Winchester and his boys, with the brothers encouraging the Chambers to get out of the hunting life to save their family one. With Eliot Ness, Time After Time showed us a hunter who hadn't come to the business through either personal tragedy or family tradition; instead, he was a law enforcer open-minded enough to accept that vampires were turning people in Cleveland.
Season eight brought a massive retcon with the introduction of Henry Winchester and the Men of Letters in As Time Goes By. As we'd learned in season four about the brothers' maternal Campbell family hunting heritage, we were told the Winchester family also had a supernatural background of which the brothers and their father had been unaware. According to Henry, they should all have been raised to become erudite loremasters in the secret society of the Men of Letters, who would have looked down on mere brutish hunters.
I must admit I found this one hard to swallow. While I confess to loving the MOL bunker itself, particularly for the resources it provides to expand the story, the sense of home and belonging it gives to Dean, and the purpose and intellectual satisfaction it gives to Sam, the Winchesters' brand-spanking-new supernatural family history irritated me no end. Part of it was the same thing I mentioned in connection with the bloodline developments expounded in season five: it distanced the Winchesters from all of us by making them doubly “chosen” rather than being otherwise normal, ordinary people flung into extraordinary circumstances.
The biggest part of my overall dismay, however, was what this revised history did to our understanding of John. The young man we met In The Beginning and again in The Song Remains The Same didn't seem to have any core of bitter resentment toward his own father, least of all one so strong he would communicate it to his own sons decades later with enough passion that it colored Dean's attitude toward Henry. That specific part of this retcon felt the most “off” to me precisely because something so integral to the brothers' past and to their internalization of the meaning of family – a core concept of the entire show – should have come out long before this in the brothers' many conversations on the topic. Other things, such as knowledge of the Campbells being hunters or the existence of Adam and the MOL, were as new to the brothers as they were to us, so we all assimilated them together at the same time. This bit, however, was jarringly dissociative because it severed our assumed knowledge of the Winchester family accumulated during eight years of the show from what the brothers now said they always knew about in the past, and that was a problem.
My third issue was the artificial “brains versus brawn” setup between the Winchesters and the Campbells suggested by Henry's disparaging attitude toward hunters. What we saw in the collected Campbell family journals and resource archive, not to mention Bobby's collection of artifacts and books, Ash's considerable computer skills, and Ezra Moore's research support for Eliot Ness in Time After Time, demonstrated a fair bit of scholarship on the part of at least a subset of the most versatile hunters. (And I would be pleasantly amused if we discovered Ezra had secretly been part of the MOL and Ness was one of the select few hunters the MOL utilized!) Admittedly, the hunter focus seemed to be purely on how to kill monsters while the MOL seem to have sought more broadly to understand the supernatural and use that understanding as a way to save people without necessarily killing; hence the “curing a demon” concept and Henry's ability to tap the power of his soul to fuel his time travel spell. I felt the writers were being a bit intentionally cutesy in uniting these two disparate attitudes in the brothers, generally suggesting intellectual Sam epitomized the Winchester brains while instinctual Dean embodied the Campbell hunter brawn. At least the stories have always made clear that both brothers carry the complete heritage from both sides of their family – Sam is a much more than physically capable hunter and Dean has an uncanny knack for analyzing an unfamiliar situation to craft an appropriate response.
The final major thing tweaking me about the MOL was simply the idea of a secret society powerful, organized, and intelligent enough to have survived for centuries being somehow wiped out in a single night, leaving no trace behind in any of the sources available to the characters we know. That hoary old narrative chestnut is just a practical logic problem for me, though, not one concerning the family business.
Anticipation, It's Making Me Wait …
Season nine promises to continue exploring the Winchesters' MOL legacy and – through the consequences of Sam's trials, Dean's decisions, the angels falling, and Castiel being rendered human – the tensions in both the Winchesters' immediate and extended family. I suspect we'll see even more evolution in the family business concerning what it means to save people and hunt things.
But no matter what comes, I know family will always remain at the heart of the show. After all, this all started with another family business that diversified from its origins – Kripke Enterprises, a metal scrap dealer in Toledo, Ohio!