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25 November 2007 @ 05:40 pm
Supernatural University: On Making Deals With Demons  

Supernatural University: On Making Deals With Demons


We’ve seen four explicit deals made with demons during the course of Supernatural thus far: John’s deal for Dean’s life in In My Time of Dying; Robert Johnson’s deal for his musical prowess and Dean’s deal for Evan Hudson’s life in Cross Road Blues; and Dean’s deal for Sam’s life in All Hell Breaks Loose, Part 2. Each of these deals was unique, and none of them actually matched the classic form exhibited by the other deals about which we’ve learned, including the other four deals involving Evan, the architect Sean Boyden, the surgeon Sylvia Perlman, and the artist George Darrow in Cross Road Blues. This latest class in philosophy and psychology at Supernatural University explores the elements of deals with demons, and what defines their terms.


 

A lot of fan speculation on demon deals has its origin in comments made by Azazel, the yellow-eyed demon, in AHBL, P2. Azazel taunted Dean with never having stopped to think about the difference between the deal he made for Sam and the one John had made for him, implying strongly that the difference in price – Dean having a year to live, while his father had only minutes – was because inexperienced Dean got less of the real Sam back, while John had traded more carefully and paid a higher price to get Dean back intact. My thesis for this class in speculation is that Azazel’s taunt was a lie intended to draw Dean into the sin of despair, and that other independent factors went into the design of each demon deal that we’ve seen.


The overall lore on deals made at the crossroads, as reflected in the deals made by Evan, the architect, the doctor, and the artist, was that the person summoning the demon and trading his or her soul, usually out of either desperation or greed, would get ten years of whatever they’d wished for before they would die and be dragged off to Hell. Why ten years? Ten years could be a valuable incentive for a soul hesitating despite temptation, but my guess would be that it’s more than that:  that ten years is a long time, long enough for someone to put the deal out of his or her mind, to convince that mind that the deal was nothing but a bizarre dream, something unreal and unrelated to the good times – until the terror starting to build told its own truth and turned ten years of good memories into ash on the way to Hell. That classic ten year timeframe could lull a bargainer into complaisance until the stinger in the tail of the deal plunged home with more fear and horror than the person would have felt without the ten years of fulfillment coming first. But although ten years were in the lore, and indeed reflected what happened with the deals made at Lloyd’s bar in 1996, they clearly weren’t automatic.


The lore pattern was violated even by the deal made by Robert Johnson, according to the chronology of Cross Road Blues. In that episode, we saw Johnson make his deal in 1930, and die in 1938 – two years shy of the “normal” ten. We saw him tell the demon that he wanted to be the best blues guitar player ever, but he didn’t specify for how long. No time was discussed by either of the parties to that deal before the kiss sealed it. Ten years may have been a default setting for crossroads deals, but Johnson meeting his end in eight meant that it wasn’t something to take for granted.


I would speculate that Johnson may have fallen afoul of another default setting; that in the absence of a specified time duration for the deal, the deal could end at any time in the demon’s discretion after what had been requested had been fulfilled, and in that case the demon would choose the time calculated to cause the greatest anguish to the bargainer: a time unpredicted, a time unknown, a time when life was sweetest and  thus hardest to lose. Ergo, Johnson died at the height of his prowess, when he had a woman who loved him and many who appreciated his music, and when he had almost forgotten that there would be a price for all he’d gained.


The first deal we actually saw was the one John made for Dean’s life in In My Time of Dying.  That deal was made not with a traditional crossroads demon, but with Azazel himself, the one demon with the biggest interest in the Winchester family and the most to gain from destroying John, with terms dictated by the demon. John proposed the first deal – the Colt and its last remaining bullet for Dean being brought back – but Azazel required further “sweetening of the pot,” which translated into John’s death and his soul in Hell for torment by Azazel. We learned later, in AHBL, P2, that the Colt had even more importance than John had evidently known; not only could it kill Azazel, but it was the necessary key to open the devil’s gate to Hell. But Yellow-Eyes was a consummate bargainer and knew that he had John over a barrel, with his son’s life in the balance; John accepted an extortionate deal for substantially more than the Colt because he couldn’t bear to watch Dean die. John’s only limitation on the deal was that he be able to verify with his own eyes that Dean was all right before he paid the price and died.


Why did John agree to the deal? Because he loved his sons more than life – both of them – and couldn’t bear to see either of them die. He sacrificed himself to save Dean, and used what little time he had to prime Dean to save Sam. He thought about it long and hard before he did it, and he clearly wasn’t surprised at the additional price that the demon demanded; he didn’t hesitate to make the deal when the time came. Leaving his boys hurt him, especially knowing that he couldn’t make peace with and say goodbye to both of them, and that he was leaving them both still in danger and pain, but it was far preferable to seeing either of them die.


Why did the demon agree? Because he thought he got the best of the deal: he got the Colt and the bullet, both the only thing that could kill him and the means to open the gate; he got John’s soul to play with and torment in Hell; and he deprived Sam of his father, who would have stood in the way of the demon’s plans for Sam. What did it cost him? Nothing more than possessing Tessa the Reaper and through her, granting life to a man he discounted as unimportant – wrongly, as it turned out.


John’s insistence as part of his deal on seeing Dean recovered before he made payment made sense given whom he was dealing with:  a powerful demon acting outside any codified bargaining tradition. Despite the common knowledge that demons lie, things said in Cross Road Blues suggest that the crossroads demons have to play by certain rules, including abiding by the terms of the deals they made. Azazel, however, as a being outside those rules, could be expected to take advantage of any potential loophole, and guarding against a cheat was prudent.


Fast forward to the next contemporary deal: Dean summoned the crossroads demon and bought back Evan Hudson’s soul, not failing carefully to include the provision of a long life for both Evan and his wife, in exchange for nothing more on the surface than freeing the demon from the devil’s trap that he’d tricked her into entering. I would submit, however, that the demon gained far more than what the deal’s terms made apparent, and that she exacted her real penalty in Dean’s pain, because Dean’s agony over his father was substantially greater at the end of the encounter than it had been before the demon had taunted him with his father’s torture and his ability to end it in exchange for his own soul. I would posit that the demon actually spoke the truth when she told Dean that his misery was the whole point; it seems to be the point of every demon deal that the person making it suffer the maximum possible torment. Evan and his wife were small potatoes compared to the Winchesters.


And that, I believe, is what also set the stage for the last deal: Dean selling his soul for his brother’s life and only one more year of his own. Why did Dean come away from that deal with more personal time than John had gotten, when the father bought his son’s life? I would submit that the primary reason is that Dean having a year to live would cause both Dean and Sam the greatest degree of pain, even more than Dean’s immediate death would have done. Had Dean, like John, died as soon as he’d made the deal, or immediately after seeing Sam alive again, Dean would have been in Hell and Sam would likely have gone through emotions similar to what Dean experienced after realizing his father’s deal. That would have been tasty to a demon, but not nearly as tasty as what actually happened, because having Dean alive under a finite death sentence has put the brothers at odds with each other and thus increased their pain exponentially. They’re both suffering the anticipation of Dean’s upcoming death and damnation, they’re both afraid, and as time ticks steadily away, they’re scarring each other with the strain – Sam through his anger, resentment, and grief, and Dean through his resignation and refusal of help.


I think that a secondary reason is simply that Dean’s deal was with the crossroads demon, a traditional bargaining unit primed to secure human misery, rather than directly with an independent demon with other specific benefits to gain, such as Azazel, who profited immediately by removing John from Sam. Dean’s deal, unlike John’s, was subject to standard rules, and there was no clear benefit that might have accrued from Dean’s immediate death. On the other hand, there was all that tasty pain to gain from leaving him alive.


Had John not died immediately after verifying Dean’s recovery, he’d likely have found a way to hide the deal and his upcoming fate from his sons, as he’d always hidden so much else; the pain wouldn’t have been the same, because the awareness wouldn’t have been there. John’s immediate death, however, took him off the playing board, removing his support from his sons and putting him into Hell and torment, and them into vulnerable grief, understanding what he’d done. Dean is different from John, and his most effective punishment is different as well. In Born Under a Bad Sign, the demon formerly known as Meg realized it: But whatever I do to you, it’s nothing compared to what you do to yourself, is it? That intimate knowledge of Dean’s self-punishing nature figured into the price Dean agreed to pay to get Sam back; at least in part, he’s always made his own Hell, in which he’s suffering already. And the other piece of it is that Dean suffers even more because he can see what he’s putting Sam through, and Sam’s pain has always been more important to him than his own.


Given these considerations, there would have been no need to justify the price difference between John’s and Dean’s respective deals by making adjustments to the Sam who came back. The simple terms of the deals themselves were both designed to inflict maximum pain for maximum effect on the deal makers and on those around them. I believe that Azazel’s intimation to Dean that he had further failed his brother by bringing back something that wasn’t 100% pure Sam was simply another irresistible twist of the knife, a way to deprive Dean in the moment before he died of the comfort he could otherwise derive from believing that he’d done something good with his life. Azazel had fully expected Dean to die mere seconds after being presented with that horror, and to carry despair with no vestige of hope into his sojourn in Hell; instead, John intervened, and Dean destroyed Azazel. Despite that, the poison of his uncertainty continues to taint the last hope of Dean’s life. That simple suggestion was a masterstroke of malicious evil on Azazel’s part and has further multiplied Dean’s torment, even though I do not believe it to be true.


The crossroads demon, in granting Dean his deal, intimated that she could get in trouble for bringing Sam back, and we know now that she might have been telling the truth to some degree. Clearly, Azazel was delighted with the deal since it returned Sam to the playing board, but we’ve learned since that other demons opposed and resented Azazel’s power and plans, and that some of those demons have carried over that animosity to Sam because he had been Azazel’s chosen one. Presumably those same disaffected demons could have resented the deal that the crossroads demon made to restore Sam. This division in demon politics could be why Sam’s attempt to intervene in Dean’s deal ultimately failed. Conjured by Sam, the crossroads demon said that someone else, someone more powerful than she was, holds the mortgage on Dean’s soul and is determined to collect. One suspects that this unnamed player may have opposed Azazel’s plans and may have different plans of his or her own, plans in which Dean’s fate may be a bargaining chip, if not an end in and of itself.


There is one other demon deal still on the table, and it’s the one about which we know the least. We don’t even know what rules may be in play to govern it. That’s the tacit deal between Sam and Ruby. It hasn’t been confirmed explicitly on either side, but it’s effectively running simply because the offer hasn’t been overtly rejected. The terms of the deal are themselves odd: Ruby has claimed she just wants to help Sam from time to time for reasons of her own, and that she will, if only he trusts her. And she’s offered an irresistible incentive: And if you’ll let me, there’s something in it for you. I can help you save your brother. 


One has to wonder whether Ruby is telling the truth or not, and if she is, what relationship she has with the demon holding the contract for Dean’s soul. And given the usual human emotional coin of misery, fear, and pain exploited in demon deals, one has to wonder about the as yet unspoken price that this one would exact from Sam and Dean.


Your assignment is to wonder.

Class dismissed.

 

 
 
Current Mood: contemplativecontemplative
Current Music: "Broken" by Seether with Amy Lee
 
 
 
ladymirth: !!!ladymirth on November 26th, 2007 06:50 am (UTC)
Brilliant meta, as usual.

Although in real life, Robert Johnson started getting recognized for his music at the age of 17 and died at the age of 27. Real life may have been more true to the typical crossroads deal than the fictional depiction. Strange, huh? Personally, I think they just got the date wrong.
bardicvoice: Awkward by Galatheabardicvoice on November 26th, 2007 11:55 pm (UTC)
Of course, the other part of the fun is that the legend started with an entirely different Johnson ... *grin*

Thank you!
ladymirth: !!!ladymirth on November 27th, 2007 01:59 am (UTC)
HONESTLY?! Who? I just read his Wikipedia article.
bardicvoice: SU weebros by Cakehole_Catbardicvoice on November 27th, 2007 11:35 pm (UTC)
Sorry - been offline a bit. Courtesy of Catherine Yronwode, the following:

"The crossroads ritual is currently best known in popular American culture through the recent acceptance of a spurious legend that the famous 1930s blues singer Robert Johnson claimed that he had learned how to play guitar by selling his soul to the devil at the crossroads, somewhere in Mississippi. In truth, the blues singer who publicly made this claim was Robert's rather less-well-known contemporary and friend Tommy Johnson, not related to Robert. Tommy Johnson is remembered for his classic recording of "Maggie Campbell Blues." LeDell Johnson, Tommy Johnson's brother, spoke with the blues scholar David Evans about Tommy's sudden guitar playing skill and Tommy's claims about it. His account of the ritual is typical of others collected throughout the South. Note that LeDell did not say that Tommy Johnson called the crossroads spirit "the devil" and he did not mention selling his soul.

"If you want to learn how to make songs yourself, you take your guitar and you go to where the road crosses that way, where a crossroads is. Get there, be sure to get there just a little 'fore 12 that night so you know you'll be there. You have your guitar and be playing a piece there by yourself...A big black man will walk up there and take your guitar and he'll tune it. And then he'll play a piece and hand it back to you. That's the way I learned to play anything I want." Quoted from "Tommy Johnson" by David Evans (London: Studio Vista, 1971).

Back to Catherine Yronwode:

"As far as I have been able to determine it was a writer named Robert Palmer who bears the responsibility for transferring Tommy Johnson's crossroads story to Robert Johnson, probably because Robert Johnson was so much better known and Palmer thought it made a better story.

"Unfortunately, Palmer and the other European-American writers who propagated his fictional story, were unfamiliar with the teacher at the crossroads and they conflated Tommy Johnson's "big black man" with Goethe's Mephistopheles in "Faust," and then painted false "spooky" images of those who received the gift of learning. It particular, they took their cue from "Faust" to cast Robert Johnson into the role of a tormented and tortured soul doomed to suffer the wrath of God. Needless to say, Palmer's take on the black man at the crossroads does not accord with oral histories collected in the South in the 1930s, the time in which Robert and Tommy Johnson were friends."

Interesting take on things, hey? In one of the interviews with either Sera Gamble or Eric Kripke - I forget which - they mentioned having learned that the story really originated with another musician, not Robert Johnson, but kept with the generally accepted story.

Incidentally, you can find Yronwode's stuff on www.luckymojo.com, which has collected some fascinating source material on hoodoo.
ladymirth: !!!ladymirth on November 28th, 2007 02:24 am (UTC)
Wow, thanks Mary! =D