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Sacrifice Yourself – Good, Evil, and "Supernatural" Activism

A year ago, BenBella Books organized an essay contest with the website, with three winners to be published along with professional writers and essayists in a new book called In The Hunt. I submitted an essay entitled, Sacrifice Yourself - Good, Evil, and Supernatural Activism. I didn't win a place in the book, but BenBella has published my essay -- and will continue to publish the essays of 11 other runners-up -- on a little mini-website dedicated to the book. You can find that website here: Supernatural.TV/Smart Pop Essay Contest Finalist Essays. Click on "Sacrifice Yourself," and you'll open the PDF of my essay. Just remember that it was written a full year ago, before Dean had died and gone to Hell, and before angels had appeared on the scene!

While you're at the site, check out the book, which will be published in March: it looks pretty tasty!!  And read the other essays; they'll be publishing three more every Monday until the book comes out.

Sacrifice Yourself – Good, Evil, and Supernatural Activism

At the heart of Supernatural is the idea that all of the frightening things of legend and myth are real: that grotesque monsters lurk just out of sight in the shadows pooling beyond our lights, that demons hide behind human eyes and feed on our base impulses, and that the figments teasing our peripheral vision may be lost or malevolent spirits. As we watch the Winchester brothers dealing with their own internal demons in the guise of fighting external evils, the show sucks us in. It makes us ask ourselves what we would do if we learned that those things, those evils, those dangers, were true. Would we close our eyes and try to explain them away? Would we just deal with the immediate situation and then try to return to the world we thought was normal? Or would we change our worldview, and in so doing, also change ourselves? And if we chose to change, what would we become? What choices would we make?

Through the example of the Winchesters, Supernatural preaches a gospel of activism, espousing the principle that discovering an evil carries with it the obligation to do something about it, and most particularly, to save other people from it no matter the cost to yourself. The peculiar doom of the Winchester brothers is threefold: first, that they know too much; second, that they cannot in conscience choose not to act on what they know; and third, that the only approach they were raised to pursue when dealing with evil is to hold nothing back and keep nothing in reserve for themselves. Although the brothers share that common essence, each of the Winchesters – father and sons – has developed and expressed it in different ways.

But that activism itself is not without its own dark side. To preserve family, all of the Winchesters have done things that crossed the self-same moral lines they had dedicated themselves to defend. All of them sacrifice themselves unhesitatingly even when they shouldn’t: even when the sacrifice they deliberately choose to make violates nature and comes not from selfless altruism, but despair.

And that begs the question: is it ever acceptable or right to do evil in order to do good? Can good come out of evil? That question is as much at the heart of Supernatural as all the stories of monsters and demons and things that go bump in the night, and attempting to answer it forms the core of all the Winchesters.

John Winchester – Vengeance and Sacrifice

John Winchester, seeing his wife Mary gutted, inexplicably pinned to the nursery ceiling, and burning to death, wasn’t satisfied simply to save his sons from the fire, mourn Mary’s loss, and move on, dismissing as impossible or unreal the things he’d seen that made no sense. Instead, his stubborn nature compelled him to pursue the truth however insane it seemed, and he fell back on his Marine Corps training to identify his enemy, establish a safe perimeter around his dependents, entrench in his charges the skills they needed to survive, and take the fight to the enemy. He learned the truth – that evil forces exist and maliciously stalk humanity – and his response was to do something about it, to accept responsibility for the things he could do. He became a hunter not only to avenge his own, but also to protect those innocent of the knowledge he now had. Through his vivid example of helping others even as he sought his own revenge, John taught his sons to live by the simple Winchester motto that Dean professed in Wendigo: Saving people, hunting things – the family business.

In the process, however, John unwittingly sacrificed the very thing he was trying to protect: his family. He never realized until too late that his obsession with ensuring his sons’ safety through the non-stop hunt for evil was what doomed them the most. His insistence on training them to fight and survive at the cost of normal childhood experience warped them both in different ways, and as he himself observed in Dead Man’s Blood, transformed him from father to drill sergeant. Dean was deprived of innocence before he even knew what it was, not just by his mother’s death, but by his father’s reaction to it and to the revelations of the supernatural world and its terrors. Sam’s innocence was preserved longer, but only through an artificial tissue of lies that sowed the seeds of an irreparable schism when they finally came to light in the flashback sequence in A Very Supernatural Christmas. The end result of John’s activism was that Dean, consecrated to family responsibility and the hunt before ever having the chance to consider a different path, swallowed corrosive resentment that he couldn’t admit even to himself, while Sam resolved to escape that trap and estranged himself from his family to quest for a normal life. John didn’t fully understand what he had done until he was reunited with them both, only to see Dean struck down and Sam conflicted.

Under normal circumstances, Dean should have died from the combined injuries inflicted by the demon torture and sustained in the car crash in Devil’s Trap. As he sat by his dying son’s bedside in In My Time of Dying confronting a perceived lifetime of inadequacy and loss, knowing and fearing more than he revealed about his younger boy, and realizing that his own choices had brought them all to this, John yielded to despair and did the unthinkable: he surrendered all of his life up to that moment – his vengeance quest, his honor, the unique demon-killing weapon he’d finally obtained – to the very evil he had hunted. When that still wasn’t enough to buy his oldest son’s life, he sweetened the deal by selling his own soul into torment in Hell.

If one accepts the common precept of Judeo-Christian tradition that the natural course of events represents the ongoing manifestation of divine will because it was set in motion by the act of creation that established the laws dictating that course, then through his despair and his actions to save Dean, John rejected that divine will and chose instead to pursue intervention from Hell to satisfy his own desires. Self-sacrifice for the benefit of another is something that we normally consider noble and good, but John’s action was ultimately for his own benefit, accepting a punishment he felt he deserved for his failures in exchange for the singular reward of seeing his son alive. What he did, however understandable, was ultimately wrong precisely because of how and why he did it. His action produced something arguably good – Dean’s continued existence – but it violated nature and was achieved only by evil. Making a deal with the demon contravened everything that John had believed in and taught up to that point, but he did it anyway because it was the only chance he saw of keeping Dean alive, of not having to watch his son die.

John’s sons were always good at learning from his example. Unfortunately, this was a lesson they – especially Dean – could have done without.

Dean Winchester – Love and Sacrifice

Despite having been given little choice in the matter while growing up, Dean accepted the saving people, hunting things activist mission with a will, almost as a natural extension of his big brother responsibility to take care of Sam. Unlike John who undertook it grimly, always fueled by vengeance, fear, and hate, Dean seemed to come to it mostly out of duty and love, and even found joy in it. We learned from John’s final exchange with Dean during In My Time of Dying that even when he was still very young, Dean had always tried to take care not only of his baby brother, but of his father as well, as if he felt the need to fill the void of emotional nurturing left by his mother’s death. Throughout the first season, often to Sam’s angry exasperation in such early episodes as Wendigo and Dead in the Water, Dean was always the one to pursue the hunt even when it clearly had nothing to do with finding John or solving the mystery of what had happened to Mary and Jess. Perhaps more than anything else, that demonstrated graphically that saving others, whether family or total strangers, was always his mantra, and he delighted in being good at it.

Dean faltered in his acceptance and resolve only when his entire world imploded. In season two, after being burdened with the secret and the fear that he might have to kill his brother, suffering his father’s loss, and realizing that John had forfeited his own soul and gone to Hell to save his life – a sacrifice he would never have condoned, not believing himself worth the price – Dean lost his balance. Forced to assume a responsibility he couldn’t accept in the very idea of killing Sam, obliged by his father’s order to act against his nature and lie to someone he loved, Dean labored under fear, uncertainty, fatigue, and despair as the weight crushed him. Rather than being a positive goal in itself, with the reward of saving people, the hunt became a brutal catharsis, an opportunity to unleash on acceptable targets the violence of his rage at his father and his frustration with his burden.

As the second season progressed, however, we saw Dean slowly coming to terms with his grief, his loss, his guilt, and his fear, and with each step he took, and particularly each hidden thing he finally shared with Sam, he regained something of himself. Dean recovered himself fully only after the events of Born Under a Bad Sign, when he finally came to terms with John’s orders by making his own personal resolve that he would never confront the need to kill Sam because he would save his brother if it was the last thing he did. Stepping away from he thought of killing Sam restored Dean to himself, and for the rest of the season he focused simply on fulfilling his lifelong mission to take care of Sammy while helping others along the way.

And when Sam died in his arms in All Hell Breaks Loose, Part One, that mission brought him to the exact same choice John had made. At the beginning of Part Two, sitting deathwatch with Sam’s corpse as John had sat with him, Dean’s soliloquy probably wasn’t much different in essence from the silent thoughts John had perused: that this was his fault, that he couldn’t accept it or live with it, that it was his responsibility to change it, and that no punishment he could suffer to make it right would be any more than he deserved. Like father, like son: Dean did the only thing he knew would work and sold his soul to see Sam alive again. He committed the identical ultimate sin of despair and self-destruction, choosing to damn himself as an acceptable price for Sam’s continued existence. He knew what he was doing was selfish and morally wrong, and couldn’t bring himself to care – not when not caring meant that Sam could be alive again. A world without Sam was a world in which Dean simply couldn’t bear to live. Facing the choice of either committing suicide or bringing Sam back, Dean chose both.

Even before making that choice, Dean had crossed the moral line of choosing to kill people, specifically including innocent people, where he deemed it necessary for his family to live or to free a human from suffering possession. From the moment he ordered Sam to proceed with the exorcism of Meg in Devil’s Trap knowing that it would result in the death of the possessed host, Dean committed himself to violating one of his principles in pursuit of another. He had always been quicker than Sam to consider killing humans he believed were doing evil – witness his reactions to Roy LeGrange in Faith and Max in Nightmare – but when it came down to actually killing people, all of his victims were innocent, including the host of Meg’s demon “brother” in Devil’s Trap and the infected Mr. and Mrs. Tanner in Croatoan. He hardened himself to do it, but it took a toll; well before the end of Croatoan, he said it was too late for him to have a clear conscience, but he still had enough of one that he couldn’t bring himself to kill Duane knowing that Sam opposed it. Throughout season two, he relied on Sam to be his moral compass – Sam, who always opposed killing; Sam, who was ready to concede that supernatural did not necessarily equate to evil; Sam, who hadn’t yet faced the same wrenching choices he and John had confronted, to which they ultimately surrendered their souls.

Then it was Sam’s turn.

Sam Winchester – Fear and Sacrifice

The youngest and most sheltered of the Winchesters, Sam had the luxury for a long time of being able to criticize his father and his brother without sharing the responsibility both of them carried. He differed from Dean in many ways, but perhaps the biggest one was that he’d never known the security of a normal life in order to be bereft by its loss. Sam was too young when his mother died for her to have left an impression, or to have memories of a father who wasn’t a hunter. Never having known a normal life, he craved it; never having had security to lose, he didn’t cling to it.

Sam was older than Dean when he learned the truth, and his reaction to the knowledge was different. He resented having been sheltered and lied to. Without the spur of personal devastation that John and Dean shared, Sam didn’t share their commitment to the hunt, to the sense that the things they knew obligated them to act precisely so that others wouldn’t need to know. Sam resented the choices that made them different, that kept him from being normal. When his rebellion over going to college sparked John’s angry response that if he went he shouldn’t come back, he accepted the sentence of exile and left. He joined Dean in the hunt for their father in the pilot only with reluctance, grudging the time away from Jess. Only when Jess died in the very circumstances that he had dreamed, the bizarre repetition of his mother’s death, did Sam accept the activist Winchester mantle of duty.

But his reasons for accepting it were different than both his father’s and his brother’s. In the beginning and on the surface, he shared John’s motivation of vengeance for loss, but he had another key: personal fear. What we learned in Bloody Mary and Dean didn’t learn until Home was that Sam’s main stimulus was fear of his visions and of what they implied about him. Throughout season one, as the visions increased in frequency and intensity, he wondered why he had them and what they meant. His motivation for hunting, rather than being just gaining vengeance for Jess or echoing Dean’s desire to save others, transmuted gradually into finding John and the demon in order to learn about himself. After meeting the monster that Max had become, Sam feared becoming the same. All of his terror was exacerbated by the demon’s taunts in Devil’s Trap that he had plans for Sam, and that what had happened to his mother and to Jess – and by extension, to John, Dean, and himself – was all because of him.

Along the way, both we and Sam learned that Dean was his weakness, his greatest temptation. When Dean nearly died in Faith, Sam faced the immediacy of real and devastating loss and couldn’t deal with it. When he found Roy LeGrange, he was too desperate for hope to look closely at a deal too good to be true. Admittedly, he didn’t understand before the fact what was going on, and after he learned the price of Dean’s life he apologized to his brother for it, but he clearly didn’t feel the same depth of horror as Dean that someone else had died for him. Sam couldn’t regret that Dean was alive, no matter who else had died. Later, when he was desperate again to find hope for his brother’s life during In My Time of Dying, he pressured John and talked about having found the faith healer without mentioning the dark catch that had come with that deal. The sense of his argument was that he would have paid that price again, had he been given the chance. It seemed to demonstrate that morality and right largely ceased to have weight for Sam when Dean’s life was in the balance.

As Sam continued to try to learn to understand himself throughout season two, his motive for hunting became personal redemption, trying to offset the evil he increasingly believed was inside him by saving others, as many as he could. Where Dean sought to save people simply to adjust the warped balance of his own life by protecting others from the losses he had known, Sam started a ledger sheet, hoping to stave off the dark by racking up points in the service of good. Desperate to refuse evil, he found himself instead possessed by it in Born Under a Bad Sign. Desperate to save people, he had to choose to kill in Heart. At seemingly every turn, his choices narrowed and his hand seemed steadily forced toward becoming what he feared and never wanted to be.

Sam’s ultimate triumph over all of this temptation and fear came in All Hell Breaks Loose, Part One when he refused to play the demon’s game. Even after Jake had attacked him with intent to kill, he resisted the temptation to kill Jake himself. He clung instead to himself and to his ultimate sense of right, to the voice that said that killing people was wrong. As if in reward for that choice, he heard Dean’s voice calling his name, and his relief and joy in the sight of his brother were absolute. That he died the next moment precisely because he had left Jake alive behind him took nothing away from that personal triumph; he had faced his fear of becoming evil and banished it. In that moment, he knew no more pain, no more fear, no more terror of becoming something dark; he had resisted temptation, he had refused evil. He had won.

And that victory, that positive good, is what Dean’s sacrifice took from him, precisely because Dean couldn’t let him go.

Brought back to life by Dean’s deal, Sam had to resume his struggle as if his victory meant nothing. He faced Jake again, and this time, killed him. With hundreds of demons released from Hell because of what he saw as his fault and his failure, he concluded that he’d been wrong to be moral and gentle. Learning that Dean had only a year to live, Sam determined that he had to save his brother, whatever it took. In season three, even as Dean began to wonder whether the demon was telling the truth with his sly suggestion that what Dean had brought back from death wasn’t pure Sam, Sam decided that he had to be more like Dean – harder, faster, stronger, more decisive, more ready to kill and willing to accept the consequences – if he was either going to save his brother or live to survive and fight a war without him.

With Dean’s life on the line and a war in the offing, Sam again stopped worrying about morality and right and focused only on the immediate goals. Like John and Dean before him, facing prohibitive loss, Sam began yielding to despair. In Mystery Spot, presented by the Trickster with a situation in which he saw Dean die over and over again no matter what he did, and then experienced the bleak horror of what life would be like without Dean if he continued his obsession, Sam was given a bitter, lonely taste of where his mono-focused course could lead. We still don’t know whether Sam learned the lesson the Trickster was trying to teach about the vicious circle that ensues when those who love sacrifice themselves for each other when they shouldn’t, when their sacrifice goes against moral principles and the natural order. John’s sacrifice led to Dean’s; at this point in season three, Dean’s seems well on the road to leading toward Sam’s.

Bringing Good From Evil

Sam found a way to prevent Dean’s death once, learning too late that someone else had to die in his place. John sold his soul to Hell to save Dean’s life again. Dean unhesitatingly killed innocent people possessed by demons or infected by demonic viruses to save his father, his brother, and others from the demons involved. Dean sold his own soul to bring Sam back to life. Sam hardened himself to doing things he never would have approved before in pursuit of keeping Dean alive, including killing innocent possessed hosts.

All of them did evil things in the hope of preserving something else good. In every case, however, unintended consequences shadowed the good, including Dean twice suffering crippling guilt and loss of self-worth for being alive when he shouldn’t be, Sam being brought back to new fears both of himself and for his brother when he had finally triumphed over the fear he’d previously known, and both Sam and Dean changing in personality under pressure to the point where each brother has had trouble recognizing and relating to the other. The strong suggestion appears to be that using evil means to pursue good ends is always doomed to fail, even if not in the way one might expect.

And yet – that conclusion, stated as an absolute, overlooks the infinite potential for good in the divine postulated in Judeo-Christian philosophy. Supernatural has given us at least two hints that even evil choices, when made for good ends, can be redeemed and forgiven. Those two cases involve Father Gregory (Houses of the Holy) and John Winchester (In My Time of Dying; All Hell Breaks Loose, Part Two). Killed by random violence, Father Gregory unwittingly became an angry spirit, deluded into believing himself transformed into an avenging angel. Inciting others to murder hidden sinners was clearly evil and yet, when Father Reynolds read the blessing of the last rites, the repentant Father Gregory dissolved into light with a peaceful face. Similarly, although John had sold his soul and gone to Hell, he escaped through the open gate and distracted the demon long enough for Dean to fire the Colt. He shared a silent moment full of joy and pride with both his sons before he vanished into light in smiling peace.

This would seem to suggest that there is hope as well for Dean and Sam, despite some of the choices they have made and might yet make as the show goes on. We’ve never seen an embodiment of good in the show other than the courage and generosity of ordinary people. We’ve seen no flashy angels counterbalancing the myriad demons. And yet, we’ve seen demons vanquished and redemption granted. Supernatural suggests that good is subtle, but that its quiet power can triumph in the end through good, brave, and loving hearts, even those that sometimes despair and make mistakes.

And that, perhaps, is what Supernatural calls for in us: to oppose evil wherever we find it not with holy water, rock salt, and guns, but by example. To find our own courage to help others even through our own uncertainties, and never to defeat ourselves through despair. To think before we act, but not to be afraid to act because we might be wrong. To be willing to sacrifice ourselves for the right reasons.

Let’s be real Winchesters.


Tags: dean winchester, john winchester, meta, sam winchester, supernatural, supernatural university

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