This is the fifth in a series of lessons drawn from characters in Supernatural. Of all the recurring characters in the show, Ellen Harvelle may well be the most complex one, about whom we know the least. Owner of hunter haven Harvelle’s Roadhouse, mother of rebellious would-be hunter Jo, widow of long-dead hunter Bill Harvelle, Ellen is a strong woman who doesn’t hesitate to pick up a gun and confront danger, especially any threat to her family, whether core or extended. Family is her driving force as much as it is Dean’s, although her choices in dealing with her family have been different.
Ellen’s core was captured in a nutshell in Hunted when she called Dean to let him know where Sam was going, and said: “They say you can’t protect your loved ones forever. Well, I say, screw that – what else is family for?” Ellen and Dean both share that imperative to protect, but they pursue it in different ways. I would submit that Ellen’s approach, particularly with regard to her daughter, can teach some valuable lessons about holding on and letting go.
We know vanishingly little about the Harvelles, which is a particular disappointment because they are the only other hunting family we have met. (And before you say it, the Benders don’t count; we’re talking supernatural here.) When you think about it, the hunting life lends itself to becoming a family business. The premise behind Supernatural is not just that ghoulies and ghasties and things that go bump in the night are real; it’s also that most people are not equipped to deal with this reality of the supernatural, and will thus find ways to rationalize away the things they’ve thought they’ve seen. In the essential mythology behind the show, the few who can accept the truth of what they’ve seen and who, moreover, can develop the skill sets necessary to deal with supernatural events and things act on behalf of the rest of ignorant, innocent humanity. They do it for many reasons, from personal revenge for losses to fear and hatred to a desire to save others from the dangers they don’t even know and couldn’t believe are there, but the essence is that they hunt.
With both the Winchesters and the Harvelles, we saw families in which the parents either already knew or came to know about the supernatural, developed the skills to deal with it, and passed the knowledge and skills on to their children. It suggests that there may have been other families who passed down hunting the supernatural as a tradition across generations, because parents aware of the dangers would not choose to have their children grow up without the essential knowledge to be able to protect themselves. I would posit that at least some of the other hunters out there in the wide world are, like Sam and Dean, the children of hunters, raised to hunt, and that some few of them might even be third or fourth generation, or more.
We don’t know when or how Bill and Ellen Harvelle learned of the supernatural and began to hunt it. Did one of them grow up in a family where the knowledge had been handed down? Did they encounter the supernatural themselves directly, and if so, did that happen before or after they were a couple, and to only one or both of them? We know from what Jo said in No Exit that at least after Jo was born, Ellen didn’t accompany her husband on hunts, but we don’t know whether or not they may have hunted as a team before they became parents. Ellen demonstrated comfort and familiarity with guns from the first moment we met her, so the ability was clearly there, but we know none of the details.
We know from the comic book (not the most reliable source, alas, but good enough for this) that the Harvelles were already the owners of the Roadhouse and intimate with hunting when John first began his journey of discovery. We know from the show that Bill Harvelle died on a hunt in the company of John Winchester when Jo was still in pigtails, and that Ellen blamed John to some degree for her husband’s death, although she’d mostly forgiven him for it and considered him a friend even though he hadn’t frequented the Roadhouse afterward. We know that Ellen continued to run the Roadhouse as a hunter hangout after Bill died, and passed potential cases on to hunters passing through. We know that she understood the gravity of demonic activity increasing to the potential of a war, and took steps to unify hunters against it. And we know that Ellen was dead-set against having her daughter Jo following in Bill’s footsteps by becoming a hunter.
And that’s where Ellen’s approach to family differs dramatically from the Winchesters’ and offers a different example from which to learn. Trying to protect his sons, John not only trained them to hunt, but gave them the actual experience of it, despite the danger of live fire exercises with monsters. Determined to protect her daughter, Ellen clearly did teach Jo weapon skills, and didn’t hide from her the truth about hunters and the supernatural. But she prohibited Jo from getting involved in real hunts, both trying simply to keep her safe and not trusting herself, Jo, or other hunters to protect her daughter in the field. In trying to protect Jo, Ellen refused to let her take chances and tried to keep her tied to places and activities that Ellen thought would be safe, despite Jo’s craving to be closer to her father by imitating him. It worked – up until the moment that Jo, having had a taste of independence on her hunt with the Winchesters, refused to accept any further strictures and struck out on her own.
I would submit that in trying to protect her daughter, Ellen went too far, and wound up holding her back from maturity by not letting her learn her limits and experience the reality of the life she fantasized about. The Jo we met in Everybody Loves a Clown and No Exit was immature for her age, confident and cocky on the basis of her untested, unchallenged belief in herself, which was cultivated only by winning in games. No Exit was clearly her first taste of real danger – further exacerbated by her inexperience – and of true mortal fear. She learned some things then both about hunting and about herself, enough to refuse to accept her mother’s prohibitions again. And because Ellen, fearing losing her daughter as she’d lost her husband, couldn’t stop herself from holding on using the same autocratic approach she’d employed since Jo was little, the end result was that Jo went off entirely on her own.
Ellen wanted what she thought was best for both her daughter and herself: safety. She didn’t count on her daughter wanting something different and having the determination to pursue it despite her mother’s wishes. In that way, Ellen reminds me somewhat of John, who had similar problems raising a son who wanted different things out of life than the goals and values forced on him by his father. Ellen and John each saw a child depart in angry, independent rebellion. But that, I think, is where the similarity ends, because I think that Ellen is more flexible than John, more willing to learn and move on.
In Hunted, Ellen told Sam about her fight with Jo and Jo’s decision to leave, and admitted that she couldn’t blame the Winchesters for what had happened. She seemed resigned to letting Jo choose how much contact she wanted to have, waiting for the occasional postcard that would tell her where her daughter had been and assure her that Jo was still all right. Ellen wasn’t trying to find Jo against her daughter’s will or push on her a contact that she didn’t want. But her resignation was a sad thing, a concession to reality, a choice made as a wish not to lose more of her daughter.
We don’t know what happened in Jo and Ellen’s relationship between Hunted and the end of season two. Given Jo’s surprise at seeing Sam in Born Under a Bad Sign and her question about how he’d found her, however, it’s a reasonable bet that Jo hadn’t alerted the Roadhouse to her current whereabouts and bartending situation in
I believe that Jo is still out there, and I would expect that, with a demon war underway, Ellen will reconnect with her daughter if only to ensure that she’s well and to try to keep her that way. But I would also expect that things between them would be different, because I think that Ellen has learned that holding on too tightly and letting her daughter take no chances of her own is the surest way to lose someone she loves.
And that’s the lesson that I take from Ellen Harvelle. However much we love someone, however much we want to keep them safe and insulated from all harm, we can’t take away their own choices, not without making them less than who they could be. We can teach and we can help, but we can’t control. Making mistakes is how we learn; we have to be given the opportunity to make our own mistakes and give that opportunity to those we love, and do our best to survive the experience.
All of life is risk; our choice lies in how to meet it, and how to help others meet it beside us.
(Tributes go to Eric Kripke and Robert Singer for creating excellent characters; Samantha Ferris for her gutsy portrayal of Ellen Harvelle: Alona Tal for embodying Jo; and Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Jensen Ackles, and Jared Padalecki for the Winchesters.)