You can find it here: Family in Four Parts: Dead Man’s Blood, Salvation, Devil’s Trap, In My Time of Dying
I think this -- as a book club entry -- will also have to count as a Supernatural University literature entry, hmmm?
And just in case the SPN Un-Book Club community goes down someday, I'm replicating it here, a couple of years later ...
Family in Four Parts: Dead Man’s Blood, Salvation, Devil’s Trap, and In My Time of Dying
It’s not given to any of us to see in advance the consequences of our choices. Looking back, we can wonder if we would still have done the same, had we known what would happen, but even then, we couldn’t say what would have followed if our actions had changed.
In this four-part story – and I can’t help but view these episodes as telling a single tale – the murder of solitary old hunter Daniel Elkins by vampires reunited the brothers with their father on a hunt for the Colt, a mystical and historic weapon Elkins had owned able to kill anything. With the Colt in hand and its power proven, John finally shared with his sons his knowledge of the patterns surrounding the demon that had killed their mother, and his discovery that the omens pointed to the demon appearing in Salvation, Iowa. As they closed in on the next family to be threatened, however, demon Meg from Scarecrow and Shadow began killing the Winchesters’ allies, and demanded that John bring her the Colt as her price for ending her killing spree. Buying his sons time to deal with the demon using the real Colt, John took a fake to his rendezvous. The boys saved the family but missed the demon, and John was captured. Turning to hunter Bobby Singer for help, the boys trapped Meg, interrogated her for information about their father, and exorcised her, but her human host died in the process. They rescued their father, only to discover that he had been possessed by the very demon they were hunting. The demon in John’s body taunted the boys and tortured Dean, but was distracted long enough for Sam to get hold of the Colt. Sam unexpectedly shot John in the leg, further disrupting the demon’s control, but didn’t obey John’s orders to kill him while the demon was still inside him in order to kill the demon, too. The demon fled. En route to the hospital, the Winchester’s Impala was broadsided by a semi driven by yet another demon, who fled its host when threatened by Sam with the Colt. The crash left Dean in a coma from which he wasn’t expected to recover, and John, unable to bear watching his son die, secretly summoned the demon and made a deal, trading his own soul and the Colt to see his son miraculously healed. Dean recovered, and John died in his place.
Watching these four episodes from the end of the first season and the beginning of the second, I can’t blank out my knowledge of all that happened later in seasons two and three of the Winchester family story. The resonances from these episodes and across time that I particularly want to explore are the Winchesters themselves; the Colt; and Daniel Elkins.
Dead Man’s Blood, viewed in retrospect, contained many teasers not only for the future, but for the past as well. Daniel Elkins was the first hunter outside the Winchester family whom we ever met. We had heard earlier of a few others in the hunting community – Caleb and Pastor Jim, for example, were mentioned in Asylum, and Sam named more hunter resources in Faith – but Elkins was the first one we ever actually saw.
Ironically, as our first glimpse of another hunter, he was also the first clue dropped to the existence of an entire hunter community of which the brothers were unaware. His name and phone number were in John’s journal, but nothing of John’s relationship with him was recorded. Dean and Sam were surprised when John said that Elkins had taught him a lot about hunting, because he had never even mentioned Elkins to either of them. When John admitted that he and Elkins had a falling out and that he hadn’t seen Elkins for years, he set the stage for similar realizations about John’s tempestuous relationships with others, including Bobby and Ellen. We and the boys learned in season two that John had known many more hunters than he had ever let the boys meet. Elkins was just the first of many.
This was also the first real clue that John had sanitized the information available to his boys by leaving some things out of his journal. In addition to not mentioning learning from Elkins, the journal contained nothing about vampires, not even John’s speculation that all of them had been killed off by Elkins and other hunters. We had learned back in Phantom Traveler that the journal had little information about demons, but it had at least a smattering about everything that John had encountered, heard about, or guessed at – or so both we and the boys thought. The boys wound up reading about vampires from Elkins’ journal, not John’s. I’ve often wondered what happened to Elkins’ journal once this adventure was over, and whether the boys ever found time to read it – and if they might have found mentions of John in it, to teach them things they never knew about their Dad.
With eyes informed by three whole seasons of the show, I found myself speculating on the relationship between Elkins and John in ways I hadn’t done the first time around. Several things fascinated me. I couldn’t make out the postmark date or the denomination of the stamp on Elkins’ letter to John, but it seems clear that he had mailed that letter well before the vampires showed up as insurance against the eventual day of his death to a safe drop that John, using the training Elkins had given him, had been intended to discover. Despite their long estrangement, Elkins had obviously expected that John – not just any other hunter, but specifically John – would investigate his death and follow the clues he had trained John to look for; the very same clues and techniques that John had trained his boys to spot and use. By means of that letter, he had obviously intended the Colt to go to John if he died, but he had deliberately hidden his ownership of the Colt when he and John had been together, evidently either telling John the origin story or listening to him recount it while letting him still think it only a legend. Reading Elkins’ letter, John said, That son of a bitch … He had it the whole time. Like every other hunter, Elkins had known that John was searching for the thing that killed his wife, and for a way to kill it when he found it. Elkins had exactly what John was questing for, knew it, and chose not to share it. Since John didn’t know the gun was real until he read Elkins’ letter, that hadn’t been the cause of their falling out.
But it made me wonder. When they were together, why didn’t Elkins tell John about having the Colt, or at least confirm that the story about it was real? Why didn’t John tell the boys about Elkins? When did John spend his training time with Elkins, and how did it relate to the timing of his gradual discoveries about Sam and the demon? Since they didn’t know about Elkins at all, where were the boys when John was learning from Elkins, and how much time did John and Elkins spend working together? In the end, and after a falling out that evidently left them not on speaking terms, why did Elkins still essentially will the Colt to John?
They’re all questions for speculation and likely for fanfic, but I suspect we’ll never learn the real answers.
Finally, Elkins was also our first depressing glimpse at the likely fate of a successful hunter: a solitary old man living alone in an isolated spot, considered a harmless nut job by the locals, still plotting hunts forty years after his hunting life began in the 1960’s. From the first appearance of Elkins, we had to consider whether his life was a portent of the future for the boys; whether anything even remotely approaching a normal life would be possible for a hunter. Later glimpses gave us a little more hope that hunters could at least be successfully socialized, with glimpses of Jim Murphy serving a parish, Bobby and Ellen running businesses, and Isaac and Tamara maintaining a marriage, but the overall picture remains bleak, and now more than ever. Who hasn’t at least once visualized Sam or Dean sitting, like Elkins, alone at a bar making notes in a journal, with unkempt hair streaked with grey?
The only part of the Colt’s legend that John knew and passed on to the boys was its oddly phrased creation story and the report that its first owner used six of the thirteen bullets that were made. I say, “oddly phrased” because, while Halley’s comet first became visible in September and was at perihelion in mid-November 1835, the climactic battle at the Alamo was March 6, 1836. The comet was still visible in the sky when the Texans first fought for and occupied San Antonio and the Alamo on December 10, 1835, but it disappeared a few days before February 23, 1836, when the main siege began, so John saying the same night those men died at the Alamo always struck me as a curious word choice. There were obviously some Texas revolution-related deaths at the Alamo during the five months the comet was visible in the night sky, but they weren’t the ones most people normally think about.
When the Winchesters acquired the Colt, only five of the original thirteen bullets were left. We don’t know where or when the other two bullets were used, but Elkins might have known. He might even have been the one to use them. He was certainly familiar with the operation of the Colt, judging from his speed in loading it when the vampires attacked, and that would not simply come naturally to someone generally familiar with firearms, because that 1836 Colt model is very unusual; unlike later revolvers, it actually has to be disassembled in order to be loaded. Either he had practiced a lot when cleaning it or against the day he might actually need it, or he had used the gun before.
I wonder whether he might also have known that the Colt had another purpose: serving as the key to a devil’s gate. We didn’t discover that until All Hell Breaks Loose, Part 2 – but if Elkins had known it, that might have explained his reluctance to share knowledge about the gun with anyone, or to let it out of his custody until his life ended. And since we don’t know the whole of what was in Elkins’ letter to John, we don’t know whether John realized that particular significance of the Colt. I would prefer to think that when he made his deal for Dean’s life, John hadn’t realized that he was handing the yellow-eyed demon the veritable key to his kingdom, but I suspect that he might still have gone through with the deal even if he had known that particular truth simply because watching his son die was more unbearable than anything else.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the Colt was the historical weight it gave to the concept of hunters. John said that Samuel Colt created it for a man like the Winchesters, but on horseback. That immediately conjured the image of a whole line of hunters ranging back through time to the very origins of the myths and legends they hunt, and it multiplies the image across every culture, every land. We started the show following one contemporary family’s response to inexplicable tragedy; the device of the Colt served to broaden that vision to say that hunters have existed throughout time, waging their secret war against the things that the rest of society can’t admit are real. The Colt – rather ironically, considering their name – gave the Winchesters a heritage and made them part of a grand vision of heroes opposing the dark throughout history. Suddenly, the story of these two brothers and their father became mythic – all because of the device of a tool created by a figure out of U.S. history, placed in the hands of an archetypical American Western figure, the cowboy version of the man on horseback riding in to save the day and then riding off into the sunset.
I think I’d like to see our boys metaphorically riding off into the sunset when the series ends. Or better yet, literally riding the Impala toward the sunset and the next hunt at the end of the final episode.
That would mean that it’s time for the movie to start shooting.
The Winchesters: Family and Hunters
These four episodes will always be a single story to me because they represent the only opportunity we’ve had to see the Winchester family as a whole on the hunt. Although the brothers managed to reconnect with John during Shadow, they didn’t hunt together then; we never got to see the full family dynamic until Dead Man’s Blood. That continued through Salvation and Devil’s Trap, and we saw it shatter and lay the broken foundation for the future during In My Time of Dying.
The family dynamic was a core of the story right from the pilot, where we first saw Sam’s and Dean’s divergent views of John, hunting, and their family history. Throughout the first season, we saw Sam forced to confront and revise his view and resentment of John and Dean, slowly learning to appreciate that John had always loved him and feared for him and even was proud of him, and that Dean had always been obedient to John in large part because he cared for Sam’s welfare above his own. We saw Dean beginning to accept Sam as his own man, not just as his kid brother, and to reveal himself emotionally to Sam in ways he’d never done before, sometimes (Shadow, Something Wicked, and Salvation being cases in point) even openly admitting his own weakness and vulnerability. We saw Sam becoming more understanding and accepting of John, and Dean becoming more willing to question John’s orders and decisions.
All of that came to a head in Dead Man’s Blood. Unlike his boys, who had spent nearly a year together learning each other, forging their new adult balance, and developing their brother bond, John, off on his own, hadn’t experienced any new understandings or perceived any change in the dynamic of his relationship with his sons. When he rejoined them, he picked up exactly where they had all left off as if there had been no time apart, treating them as he’d always done with no immediate awareness that they had grown and changed significantly in his absence. John delivering orders without explanations just the way he always had put Sam immediately back into the claustrophobically resentful position he’d been in when he’d made the choice to leave. Caught up in that immediate emotion, Sam forgot most of the tolerance and appreciation he’d gradually developed. For the first time, we saw Dean in the middle of fights between Sam and John, and realized that he had always played the role of peacemaker and mediator. In such episodes as Phantom Traveler and Bugs, we’d seen that Dean had an understanding of John’s motivations and emotional drivers that Sam couldn’t share, but Dead Man’s Blood was the first dramatic evidence that Dean had always taken an active part as family peacemaker, even putting himself physically between Sam and John to keep them from coming to blows. Neither of them were surprised when Dean intervened in the highway fight; they’d all clearly been there before.
But while there was nothing new to the Winchesters in Sam’s furious petulance, John’s angry stubbornness, and Dean’s frustrated exasperation, that explosion and its aftermath did cause a shift, and we got to see those changes evolve, especially in John and Dean. Early on in the episode, as obviously in the past, John simply issued orders that Dean always obeyed and Sam always questioned; after the highway confrontation, John started on occasion to offer explanations, particularly when he and Sam were alone and just before they all undertook the raid on the vampire lair. Also after that fight, Dean began to challenge John, to both John’s and Sam’s surprise, first when John ordered them to take out the nest and leave him with the vampires, and then at the end, when John called them out on having disobeyed his orders to depart. By the end of the episode, they had all subtly redefined their positions within the family unit. John was still undeniably in command, but had learned that he needed to provide facts and a rationale to get Sam to invest in his vision, and that he had to moderate his own self-sacrificial tendencies if he wanted to ensure that Dean would obey his orders.
The altered dynamic continued to evolve in Salvation. John opened things by sharing with his sons all of his information on how the demon operated, if not his full understanding of what the demon had done to Sam. With the revelation of what had happened to Pastor Jim, John also shared, when prompted by Dean’s perceptive reading of his emotional state, that he was determined to end it all, no matter the cost. They aired and resolved more of their common issues when John protested not having been informed about Sam’s visions and Dean, pushed beyond tolerance, challenged John’s failure to respond when they had needed him most, when Dean had to face Home and Sam had to face Dean dying in Faith, and John had to confess they were right. Confronted by Meg killing their friends and helpers, John finally shared his ultimate weakness with his sons, admitting that he wanted things he knew he could never have, including happy futures for his sons and his own wife back. They parted on adult terms, taking on their separate missions in the full understanding that failure could mean death. They all both succeeded and failed, and then came Devil’s Trap.
Dean’s savage, naked fury and fear in Devil’s Trap revealed graphically to Sam how desperately Dean needed family, needed his father and his brother. Dean’s brutality and willingness to kill shocked both Sam and Bobby; his own fear of what he was willing to do out of love and need didn’t come out until he confessed it to Sam in the cabin. Knowing all of that made it easy for both brothers to believe the demon when it taunted Dean with his fears and his needs. The warped mirror that the demon in John’s body held up to the family didn’t so much contain the truth as it did each brother’s flawed internal perceptions of the truth. Each brother had always thought in his hidden, secret heart that John cared for the other more; the demon just brought it out into the open. Making it apparent, however, healed rather than hurt the boys because it gave them another tool to understand and appreciate each other; the one it hurt was John, made to appreciate another way in which he’d failed his boys.
When I first watched the episode, I was most immediately aware of the pain that Dean and Sam were suffering, and the delight the demon was taking in it. The more I watched, however, the more I began to suspect that, while the demon enjoyed tormenting the boys, he was most enjoying tormenting John, both because John had always been his adversary and because the demon was uniquely situated to taste every nuance of John’s despair, shame, rage, and grief at being made the tool of his sons’ torture. We had learned from Meg that the human host was sometimes aware of and appalled by what the demon was doing, but was helpless to stop it; my bet is that Yellow-Eyes was deliberately keeping John aware of every pain, emotional and physical, that he was inflicting on his sons. I think I’m in a fannish minority because I never really believed that John had managed to fight his way free of the demon in that moment after Dean passed out; I always thought that the demon had let him surface, all the better to appreciate the full, conscious flavor of his loss, and that the momentary distraction of the demon’s enjoyment of that depth of extreme sensation was what freed Sam from the wall. In a matter of mere seconds, the demon submerged John again to taunt Sam.
I think that if Sam had fired then with intent to kill, the demon would have stopped the bullet before it hit, the same way Tami did in Malleus Maleficarum; I think that the deliberately non-lethal shot came as a surprise the demon wasn’t prepared to prevent, and that was why it worked. With the demon’s control disrupted by the power of the Colt, I do believe that it was John in control ordering Sam to kill him. But of all the things warring in Sam’s mind at that moment – hate, revenge, fear, resentment, love, confusion – I think the one thing that most prevented his finger from pulling the trigger was Dean’s broken pleading for their father’s life. Sam gave his brother what he most needed, and answered Dean’s need for family.
In My Time of Dying showed the broken dynamic of John and Sam without Dean’s buffering influence. All of their communications were at cross purposes, missing the translator who could always see both sides. John was further hampered by his inability to explain what he intended to Sam, both because trading his father for his brother was not something that Sam would have approved, and because John still wanted to protect Sam from whatever he knew about what the demon intended for his younger boy. In the end, John did what he always did; he pursued the course he thought was best, and trusted Dean to pick up the pieces and find a way to save his brother.
Devil’s Trap and In My Time of Dying set the stage for all that happened later. Meg being exorcised and John being possessed by the yellow-eyed demon foreshadowed Sam being possessed by Meg in Born Under a Bad Sign. John confronting his parental failures and his refusal to watch his son die and making his sacrificial deal for Dean’s life set up Dean making a similar deal for similar reasons for Sam in All Hell Breaks Loose, Part 2. And Sam disobeying John’s orders and heeding Dean’s pleas not to kill John in order to kill the yellow-eyed demon enabled the whole course of the future, with Yellow-Eyes surviving to make his deal with John and play his games with the psychic kids, Jake murdering Sam at the culmination of those games, Dean selling his life and soul to get his brother back, and Jake using the Colt to open the devil’s gate to release an army of demons on the world, including the one who would come to own Dean’s contract and send him to Hell.
Had they known, would any of them have acted differently? Would it have made any difference if they had?
Even before the devil’s gate opened, we had learned from Bobby in Devil’s Trap that more and more demons were walking the earth; that reports of demonic possession were already up from three to four in a year to twenty-seven in less than a year. Whatever happened, that trend would likely have continued. We learned from Casey in Sin City that Yellow-Eyes had a master plan and the power to force other demons into line with it, but we don’t know what might have happened if Yellow-Eyes had been destroyed before his psychic kids game plan was complete. Might another demon – Lilith, perhaps? – have assumed his role and taken the plan forward anyway? Might things have been worse if the demon army had come out from the beginning as an organized force? And if Sam had killed John in order to take out the demon, what would that guilt have done to him? What would that act have done to Dean, and to his relationship with Sam?
“What ifs” are ultimately meaningless, because since things didn’t happen that way, we couldn’t know what would have occurred if different paths were chosen. And the other thing that makes them bootless is that the Winchesters couldn’t have chosen differently and yet remained true to themselves. John couldn’t watch his son die; Dean couldn’t live with his brother dead. Now we’re left to fear and wonder what Sam will do, all alone.
Remember what Dad taught you. Remember what I taught you.
I’m afraid he will. Self-sacrifice is a lesson best taught by example, and it runs in the Winchester family.