What most truly defines who we are as human beings isn’t our race, our gender, our nationality, our family, or the religion in which we were raised. It isn’t where we live, where we go to school, or what things happen to us. Oh, all of those things play a part, and their influence is considerable, but what truly defines each of us are the choices we make in our lives, including how we choose to deal with circumstances and each other. I would submit that it is those choices and the reasons for which we make them that determine whether we are good or evil. With that in mind, who and what are the characters of Supernatural, and how did they get that way? Welcome to a philosophy and psychology class at
Those of you who’ve attended classes here before know that I am a firm believer in free will and personal responsibility, and I will admit up front that this class will reflect that bias. I don’t discount the impact that heredity and environment can have on shaping and influencing the choices we make, but I do maintain that the choices themselves ultimately are our own. We may justifiably rail at fate or at others for putting us in the position where we must choose, but not for how we choose and then live with the choices we’ve made.
For the purpose of this discussion, I’m using “evil” to mean something or someone being morally bad or wrong, wicked, harmful or injurious, or malicious. I’m not referring to the concept of evil as a force in nature that governs and gives rise to wickedness and sin. Similarly, I’m using “good” in its sense of something or someone being morally excellent, right, proper, virtuous, kind, or beneficial, rather than denoting a positive force in nature.
Given these definitions, good and evil are not unmixed absolutes in this discussion. People can do evil things for motives that seem good to them. Most people – gangbangers and similar sociopaths aside – do not set out deliberately to be or do evil. Evil consequences or misfortune for individuals can attend inescapably on actions necessary to achieve good purposes. Shades of grey are much more common than unadulterated black and white, and every decision can become a balancing act in which the preponderance of the nature of the consequences determines whether we judge the choice, its maker, and its outcome to be good or evil.
Much of this class will involve speculative discussion on the nature of demons and their relationship to humans. I know that in upcoming episodes, as in past ones, we will learn more about demons, which may prove or disprove this speculation. This discussion does not contain spoilers about upcoming episodes; anything I put forward is purely my personal speculation.
Humans – Winchesters And Others
I would posit that all of the Winchesters, at least so far, are and have been good when judged on the basis of the decisions they’ve made when placed into situations that forced them to make hard choices, even though some of those decisions have caused injury to others or have been grounded in mixed motives that include both good and evil elements. Let me explain.
John, of course, made the first choices. We did not see directly many of the most crucial early ones that created the life his boys would lead, but we’ve learned about them from others, including his sons. We know that he couldn’t dismiss what he saw the night that Mary died; that he felt compelled both to learn the truth and to avenge her; and that he accepted enough of what Missouri Mosley told him to believe that the supernatural was real. We know that, rather than trying to rebuild and work through a normal life, he became a nomadic hunter and took his boys with him on the road. We know that, spending most of his time hunting, he supported the boys largely through credit card fraud and other illegal activities. We know that he tried to hide the frightening truth at least from Sam for as long as he could. We know that he raised Dean and Sam to be hunters, that he was strict and commanding with them, and that he sometimes drank. We know that his target goal was always to hunt down and kill the thing that had killed his wife, but we know as well from the attitudes displayed by his sons that he accepted saving other people from evils along the way as another part of his mission. We know that he was driven initially by vengeance, but also by love and fear, striving always to protect his boys. And we know that when his eldest son lay dying, he chose to surrender his quest for vengeance and his own life and soul in exchange for his son’s survival.
Some of John’s motives and methods were evil, by the definition being used here. Credit card fraud is not a victimless crime, and is indisputably morally wrong. Revenge may occasionally be momentarily satisfying, but it’s definitely not good. We don’t know all the things John did on the hunt, but he clearly gave no quarter to his targets and he taught that same uncompromising hatred of the supernatural to Dean. Many of his choices unintentionally harmed both of his boys emotionally because he left them alone for long periods and seemingly – at least from the boys’ perspective – put the mission ahead of their welfare and happiness. His choice to deal with a demon and sell the Colt and his own soul to save Dean’s life so mixed selflessness and selfishness as to make simple categorization of his motives impossible. Pure love and remorse were in the forefront, but I would posit that dealing with demons – giving Evil-with-a-capital-letter some benefit or advantage that it desires – is not itself a good thing even if some other good thing results from the deal.
Despite that, I call John good. Although the revenge motive was ever-present, the more important one in all of his choices was the safety of his sons. Love for his wife, his sons, and his friends was behind everything he did, even where he did it poorly. I don’t say that his love excuses all the things he did, but when weighed in the balance, it definitely brings the scales down on the side of good, especially when the net good of his hunting life – all the lives he saved, and taught his boys to save – is added in.
Dean is similar to John in many respects, right down to selling his soul to save another. Where he is most different, however, is that his motives have always been consistently more “good” and his attitude has always been positive; he’s chosen to make the most of what he has. Dean’s entire life has been love and protection for his little brother, obedience to his father, commitment to saving others, and joy in the hunt. Revenge for the loss of his mother and hatred for the supernatural were also in the mix but never at the top, and Dean – unlike John, at least so far as we know – began to moderate his approach when given cause to question his assumptions. Remember Dean in Wendigo and what he put first in the
Sam has always been more traditionally good than either John or Dean, particularly in his aversion to making a living through fraud, his care for the sanctity of life, and his hesitation to kill even what he was trained to hunt unless he was convinced that killing was the only course of action. The irony of Sam having been chosen as a baby by the Yellow-Eyed Demon to become the leader of Hell’s demon army is brutal. His revenge-driven reintroduction to the hunting world, his gradual realization and horror of the role he was intended to play, and now his unspoken decision to make the hard choices and take the hard actions in order to save his brother and fight the war, have all been compromises with his soul. Sam is exquisitely conscious of the reluctant steps he’s taken toward choosing to do things that he would before have considered evil in order now to do what he perceives to be good: save Dean, send demons back to Hell, save the world. Beginning in Heart and continuing through this season, Sam has steeled himself to kill where he before would have refused. The question now has become how far he would go and what he would trade away in order to save Dean, and there’s no definitive answer yet concerning whether Sam will ultimately stay good or slip the balance into evil through following the best of intentions too far down the road to Hell.
Bobby Singer lands with the Winchesters on the side of good, from what I’ve seen, and with fewer apparent conflicts shading into evil. Whatever drove him to become a hunter seems to have left him without John’s single-minded passion for vengeance, Dean’s trained hatred for supernatural beings and glee in hunting them, or Sam’s indecision and fear. Unlike John and his boys, Bobby retained enough balance to operate from a fixed base and retain a legal source of income. He seems to have made the understanding of demons his particular study, while amassing a wealth of sage information on all supernatural topics. He’s been a voice of reason and caution, of strategy, calmness, and planning. Where the Winchesters go to extremes, Bobby feels more centered. He’s clearly concerned for people and their welfare – remember his reaction in Devil’s Trap to realizing what would happen to Meg if the demon in her was exorcised, and his obvious gruff but gentle care for the boys both during and after the hunt for John – and seems, like Dean, to put the “saving people” part ahead of the “hunting things” one. In all those respects, Bobby shares many characteristics with Ellen Harvelle, who also lands on the side of good in my book. Both of them chose to respond to adversity by helping others, both innocents and hunters.
But lest you think that I would class all humans as good, let me expound on Gordon Walker and Bela Talbot, both of whom I would term evil, for different reasons. In Gordon’s case, his revenge-driven response to seeing his sister turned into a vampire took him on a quest to hunt and kill all vampires and any other supernatural creatures that crossed his path. His hate and his satisfaction in the kill were all that mattered to him; collateral damage to innocents was met with indifference. Remember his callous disregard for the possessed girl whom he had tortured in order to get from the demon possessing her the information on Sam that he conveyed to Dean in Hunted. So long as Gordon got the information he wanted, it didn’t matter to him that he’d caused the death of an innocent. Contrast Gordon’s casual brutality and contented satisfaction with Dean’s guilt and regret in Devil’s Trap for having killed Meg and the young possessed man who’d tried to kill Sam, and with the repressed guilt that Sam showed only to Ruby after killing Casey and the possessed priest in
I would propose that selfishness is a component of most evil, because the exclusive focus on one’s own desires makes consequences to others unimportant. It’s a short step from callous disregard to malicious mischief, and an even shorter one from believing your cause to be just to considering that your cause justifies any consequence incurred in its attainment.
And that brings me to Bela, who has made selfishness her religion. We’ve seen ample examples that making money and flaunting her cleverness are the only things that matter to her; she considers the consequences of her actions on others to be immaterial. Fully knowing that her actions would cause injury or even death to others, she deliberately pursued her own profit and didn’t care a whit what it cost anyone else. In Bad Day at Black Rock, she stole the rabbit’s foot from Sam and delighted in her success even knowing that losing it meant he would die within a week; she later intended to extort it from Dean knowing that he would die as a result, and she deliberately shot Sam to force Dean’s hand. In Red Sky at Morning, she planned to steal and sell the hand of glory even though she knew that people would continue to die; she never exerted herself to save anyone until the doom fell on her. In Fresh Blood, she sold Dean and Sam’s whereabouts to Gordon knowing he intended to kill them, and later helped them only because she’d heard the truth in Dean’s promise to kill her.
That Bela saw the ghost ship in Red Sky told us that she had some ugly tragedy in her past, but again – as with Gordon – the mere presence of tragedy and loss didn’t require that she choose to become a callous, selfish solipsist treating the world as if it had been created only for her benefit and comfort. Where the Winchesters chose to help others, Bela chose to fleece them and let them die. Nothing excuses or justifies that choice, and thus I judge Bela to be evil. Our Judeo-Christian-Muslim culture would propose that Bela could still repent and choose to redeem herself by becoming good, but I’m not holding my breath. She’s done nothing so far to suggest that remorse or redemption are remotely on her mind, and I fully expect her to continue to pursue her own short-term profit through the theft of powerful artifacts even if it would cause humans to lose the demon war and die in droves. And if she could find the leverage to make a deal for the demons to leave her alone and rich, I would bet money that she’d take it even if it meant that she’d be the last human standing.
Vampires, Demons, and Others
So where in this treatise on making choices and choosing to be good or evil do the non-human supernatural things reside? I’m not certain, because I don’t know enough about their natures to address their capacity for free will and choice, but I can make some guesses.
On the vampire front, Lenore and her family from Bloodlust would seem to demonstrate that vampires can choose to be other than evil; at least that they could choose to live without killing other people, once past the initial mindless raving hunger that follows being turned. Living off the blood of cattle wouldn’t make vampires all that different from humans living off their milk and meat. Arguably, vampires could choose to be actively good, providing benefit to others. It boggles the mind, but it augurs that even what we think automatically must be evil could choose to change and become good. I wonder if we might even see evidence of Lenore’s family opposing the takeover of the world by demons; the physical strength of vampires could be a boon if they fought beside human hunters.
Demons are another thing entirely, and my entire discussion of them will consist of questions. Lore holds that demons are inherently evil, and that they are distinct from humans. Casey in Sin City offered the Biblical tale of the origin of demons as fallen angels who followed the rebellion of the angel Lucifer when he refused God’s command to bow before man and acknowledge humans as God’s preferred creation, and who were thus exiled with Lucifer to Hell. But that tale doesn’t answer the questions I have. If demons are fallen angels condemned for their sin of pride and rebellion in choosing to side with Lucifer, might they choose to repent of their sin and return to the obedient fold? Could they be not inherently evil, but only judged evil because of the choice they made in the past, and thus have the potential for redemption?
Were all demons in existence at the time of that choice, or have more demons come into being since that tale was first told? Casey said that no one had ever seen Lucifer, but that the demons nonetheless believed in him. That suggests that most demons don’t actually date back to the time of the apocryphal Lucifer story, but are of more recent genesis. Casey and her lover, while claiming a relationship in Hell of hundreds of years, didn’t claim thousands or millions. The Yellow-Eyed Demon, while possessing John in Devil’s Trap, referred to Meg and to the male demon Dean had killed as his daughter and son. Was he speaking metaphorically, or do demons breed and have offspring? If they don’t actually reproduce, could they produce demons by some other means, perhaps by corrupting and changing humans? Wouldn’t it be a deadly kick if people who sold their souls to demons wound up bypassing whatever should happen to a human soul upon death, and instead became demons themselves when their human bodies died? That could truly be Hell, at least for a basically good soul.
How much choice do demons have? Most seem hard-wired to crave human pain, suffering, and degradation, but then – there’s Ruby. For reasons we still don’t understand, she’s saved Sam’s life openly once, helped Bobby revitalize the Colt as an effective demon-killer, and provided information both to help Sam and to whet his appetite for yet more data to understand the additional mysteries he’s uncovered, such as why everyone ever connected with his mother recently died. She’s enticed Sam with promises of helping Dean, but not revealed anything of substance toward that end. What she seems to want most is for Sam to be willing to let her help and stay connected with him – but why? Is she seeking to take the place of the Yellow-Eyed Demon, and perhaps become the ultimate ruler? Is she seeking redemption and release from being a demon, perhaps to attain peace or even Heaven? What was her origin, what is her story, and what does she really want, beyond Sam’s puppy-dog eyes and his gradual transformation into a hardened leader?
Casey and Ruby both present unexpected facets of demons. Casey demonstrated caring and concern for Dean when she begged her lover not to kill him. Why? She clearly had respect but no liking for yellow-eyed Azazel, yet said she had been ready and willing to follow his chosen Sam – but to where, and why? Ruby presents the conundrum of a demon apparently supporting humans against her own kind, and again, we don’t know why.
We’ve seen that demons lie, but we’ve seen even more often that demons use and twist the truth to serve their ends. The one consistently evil thing we’ve seen from every demon we’ve ever met is that all of them, with no exception, have possessed humans in order to live within our world, taking over their bodies and locking their minds away from control and often from awareness. Humans, it seems, have no chance effectively to resist or escape that possession, judging from the examples of Meg, John, and Sam. Whatever else Ruby is, unless she is truly unique in our experience, she is possessing some innocent blond chick – who, by the way, would die as soon as the demon departed, given that Bobby shot her in the chest.
Is Ruby evil? Dean would say that she’s a demon, and that’s enough to know right there. But Dean would have said the same about vampires a year and a half ago, and now he knows differently. Right now, I would say that the balance on Ruby is still evil – she’s possessing some innocent human, she’s manipulating Sam for her own ends, she’s found a lever to manipulate Bobby, she’s avoiding Dean, and she’s clearly got an agenda of her own – but I won’t say categorically that she couldn’t be pursuing a path to choose to become something else, even perhaps something not demonic, and not evil.
Only Kripke and his writer minions know for sure.
In the meantime, tune in this Thursday night at 9:00 Eastern, 8:00 Central time for a brand new episode, and maybe we’ll learn something more. The one thing we can be sure of is that we’ll see Sam and Dean making choices, and by those choices, being good or evil.