This is the second in a series of
My thesis for this class is a very simple one: that John’s ability to focus on his mission goals, aided and abetted by his military background, was the key to his success as a hunter, but that it also contributed directly to his failures as a father to understand and communicate with his sons. This is a cautionary tale about the importance of balance, something often missing in the
The John Winchester we met in the very beginning of the pilot was anything but an obsessive man. His warmth and easy love for his wife and sons were obvious and unforced, and it was clear from little Dean’s happy ease with him that he spent quality time and played with his older son. While we learned later in Home that he had a business to run, we didn’t see any sign of it in those moments at his house; evidently, when he left the garage, he left his work behind. He even fell asleep alone in front of the television set watching a movie; not the sign of a driven, type-A personality.
All of that changed with Mary’s death and what he saw that night. From fear, disbelief, grief, rage, and confusion, we know that he embarked on a single-minded, even obsessive search for the truth. Missouri Moseley provided his first signposts to the hunt and the future, opening his eyes to the presence of the supernatural. We’re starting to learn through the comic book series about his first steps along the way, about John learning of the existence and mission of other hunters, and transforming himself from ordinary family man into hunter extraordinaire. But while we wait for future issues of the comic book (one is due out today!), we can still analyze what we learned from the series about what happened during those missing years.
Long before we met him again, when the series began with his sons searching for him, John had committed himself to only two goals: avenge Mary, and keep his sons safe. Those goals became his mission focus, and I believe that virtually everything he did was defined by them. Both of those goals meant that he had to learn everything he could about demons and demon hunting, and he evidently did – although he just as evidently didn’t write everything down.
I believe that most of the things he didn’t write were left out deliberately to protect the boys, in case they ever looked at the journal.
We know about some of the omissions. His journal didn’t contain the summoning ritual he used in In My Time of Dying, for example; it took talking to Bobby for Sam to understand something of what John was intending to do with the things he’d asked Sam to get for him. We know from Something Wicked that he never wrote anything about the shtriga hunt in
John’s ability to focus on the mission of avenging Mary led to him becoming a superb demon hunter, especially with regard to his principal target, the Yellow-Eyed Demon. Ash paid tribute in Everybody Loves a Clown when he observed in disbelief, reviewing John’s notes, that no one could track a demon that way; that no one could assemble and execute so complex a strategy incorporating so many correlations between seemingly random events, assembled into a statistically meaningful whole. That was the culmination and achievement of John’s single-minded mission focus: that he learned to spot subtle signs and devise a means of deducing patterns. We saw that gift in operation multiple times: remember Wendigo, Scarecrow, and Provenance, for example, where John’s journal or his verbally conveyed research documented the existence of a pattern that led to the solution of a mystery. His example trained the boys to develop and follow the same approach: to become aware of the influence of the supernatural through the patterns left behind by seemingly meaningless, unrelated events, and to track those patterns back to their perpetrator.
I believe, however, that John’s single-minded mission focus also had unintended consequences, and that his focus blinded him both to those consequences and to understanding ways to avoid them. And I would submit that his sons and his own relationship with them were the major casualties of his focus on the mission.
John admitted it himself, to Sam in Dead Man’s Blood and to Dean in In My Time of Dying, first that his focus on keeping his sons safe led him to stop being their father and become their drill sergeant instead, to force them to develop the skills to survive and the unhesitating obedience to orders that could save them in an emergency; and second, that his own immersion in pain and the hunt had led him to drop emotional burdens on Dean that forced him to grow up before he was ready. When he made those admissions, however, it was clear that only the immediate circumstances had led him to those understandings; that he’d been blind to them for all the years before.
It wasn’t until after Sam had cut the family ties and fled to college, and then returned and rebelled yet again, that John was able to understand and admit that he and his single-minded, autocratic attitudes had driven the wedge between them, starting when Sam was just a boy. It wasn’t until he sat at his older son’s bedside, watching him dying, that he understood how his mission focus had harrowed Dean’s emotional needs and stolen his childhood. Absorbed in the exigencies and danger of the hunt, John put achieving the mission goals ahead of responding to Dean’s tearful plea for help in Home, and ahead of answering Sam’s despairing call about Dean’s impending death in Faith.
Even in Devil’s Trap and In My Time of Dying, after he’d begun to realize the cost to the boys of what his mission focus had imposed on them, John still couldn’t let go of it; he couldn’t rationalize why Sam had refused to kill him in order to destroy the demon and spare his brother, and castigated him for that failure. He still couldn’t and didn’t understand the effect that his own death would have if either of his sons thought himself responsible for it, no matter what else that death encompassed, whether vengeance on and safety from the demon or the saving of a life.
John’s focus on the mission was so complete that he literally couldn’t perceive how someone else wouldn’t share it. His goals were so self-evident to John that he believed they had to be similarly evident, obvious, and desirable to everyone else, and most particularly, to his sons, who had shared John’s life and his loss. John’s focus on the mission ahead of him, and particularly on his personal need to accomplish it, kept him both from seeing the details of the two boys beside him and from realizing that precisely because they were beside him, not inside his own skin, their perspectives were necessarily different. He couldn’t see the view of the world from either of their eyes.
The benefit and power of the ability to focus on the mission is that, with that focus intact, you can do things you would otherwise believe impossible. If your focus is on the goal and all your commitment is bent toward achieving it, you can ignore the cost of achieving it; you can set aside pain, doubt, fatigue, fear, and the crippling sense that the problem is too big for you to handle. Those can be good things, because they can lead you to develop qualities and strengths you never knew you had, and depending on your goals, they can enable you to reach out to help and uplift others. Saving people, hunting things; the family business.
The danger of focusing too exclusively on the mission is that you may discover that you’ve paid the cost in coin you would and should never have been willing to spend. John Winchester didn’t realize until it was too late that part of the cost of his obsession was the emotional stability of his firstborn son, and much of the love and trust of his second. He literally couldn’t see the cost, and thus had no opportunity to choose to change his course even slightly in an attempt to reduce it.
Ultimately, John’s mission focus led him to find his way out of hell in one last supreme effort to save his sons and avenge his wife, and he succeeded. That moment was balm to all their souls, but it can’t undo the price they each paid to achieve it. Our hope and our comfort is knowing that, while each of the boys shares in John’s gift to focus on the mission, they’ve each also displayed the ability, over the past two seasons, to see a broader picture, and to adjust their own personal course to share each other’s burdens. Hopefully they, and we, won’t make John’s mistake of being unable to see the forest for the trees.