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14 November 2006 @ 04:52 pm
Supernatural University: Good, Evil, and the Problem of Pain  

Last mid-week, I killed time by psychologically typing the brothers Winchester. This week, to avoid going insane waiting for Cross Road Blues after that incredible trailer, I’m venturing into the realm of the spiritual with yet another treatise on Sam and Dean. Feel free to join in!

 

Here’s my thesis:  Both of the boys believe absolutely in the substantive reality of Evil, but only Sam believes equally in the corresponding substantive reality of Good, making Dean’s personal universe much darker and more closed off than Sam’s. I posit that this stems from the night their mother died, and that the key factors in making the difference were the boys’ respective ages; John; and Dean himself.

 

Okay – so that came out of left field. Bear with me, and I hope that it will get interesting. I also hope that it will stay philosophical, because it’s not my intent to offend anyone of any religious persuasion.

 

Supernatural is not a show about religion. Our boys definitely aren’t churchgoers in any given faith. They use the scriptures and symbols of many belief systems as tools in their war against Evil: note, for example, the Roman Catholic exorcism ritual employed in Phantom Traveler and Devil’s Trap; the voodoo ju-ju bags made at Missouri’s direction in Home; the Christian symbolism of holy water; the Native American dreamcatcher that hangs inside the armory box in the Impala’s trunk; the Catholic rosary that John used in blessing the cistern water in Salvation; the bundle of assorted religious texts tossed on the bed by Sam in Shadow. They rely on the convention that symbols associated with the worship of benevolent deities – whether a singular God or a pantheon of spirits, whichever appears suitable to oppose the specific evil they confront – are potent weapons against malevolent entities.

 

Believing in the existence of Evil as a discrete force presupposes the existence of an opposing force of Good. This duality is intrinsic to our manner of thought. In Judeo-Christian-Muslim culture, the belief is that Good is stronger than Evil: that God is Good and existed first and foremost, and that all else by definition is lesser. Thus, faith staunchly held in Good will prevail ultimately over Evil, although not without cost. That tip of the balance isn’t necessarily the same in other belief systems, but it’s the prevalent one here.

 

Now, finally, on to Sam and Dean. That they both believe in Evil is, I think, obvious, but the flip side was only discussed between them once, as I remember, in Faith. And that’s the source of this exchange between the brothers:

 

Sam: Maybe it’s time to have a little faith, Dean.

Dean: You know what I got faith in? Reality. Knowing what’s really going on.

Sam: How can you be a skeptic, with the things we see every day?

Dean: Exactly! We see them. We know they’re real.

Sam: But if you know evil’s out there, how can you not believe good’s out there, too?

Dean: Because I’ve seen what evil does to good people.

 

And that’s the crux of my argument. Sam does believe in Good, in opening himself to faith in something beyond knowing, while Dean’s perception of good isn’t of an external force, but of the existence of kindness and innocence in others. For Dean, it seems, good is in people, and that makes it fragile: people can be hurt, people can be lost, people can lose their kindness and innocence and become other than good. Good people who have faith, who have belief, suffer and die for no apparent reason, and in despite of their prayers; witnessing that, Dean acknowledges that he’s not a believer. He’s not a praying type. And while Layla’s resolution in  Faith prompted him to say that he would pray for her, that’s the only moment of faith in anything beyond himself or his family that I recall Dean professing.

 

My take on Dean’s absence of faith in abstract Good or a benevolent personal god traces back to his mother’s death. At the age of four, his life was upended. The opening of the pilot showed us a happy child secure in his parents’ love – and that’s the last security he ever seemed to have. From that moment, he was raised in rootless isolation by a father who admittedly could see only evil, as John confessed to Sam in Dead Man’s Blood, and who lost the gift of openly expressing his love. Dean was made responsible for Sam, and assumed responsibility for everything. He lost his innocence before he even knew what it was, and with it, his faith in anything beyond his core: his family.

 

I think that Dean was overwhelmed too young by what’s been called the “problem of pain:” the challenge to faith presented by the dichotomy of a supposedly omnipotent and benevolent deity allowing good and blameless people to suffer. Religions have tried to address this in many ways. One explanation is that humans were given free will and some chose to exercise it for other than good, opening the way for evil. Another is that trials are sent to test us, to forge us from base metal into our shining steel ideal. The concept of karma would hold that present suffering is a payment for wrong choices in the past. And none of these would have meant spit in the ocean to the boy who was Dean.

 

The irony of it all, I believe, is that Dean is the reason why Sam does have faith. Dean had only his embittered and frightened father to look to for answers and as a model; Sam had not only their father, but Dean. And judging from the flashback sequence in Something Wicked, Sam had more experience of Dean than he did of John. In In My Time of Dying, John acknowledged that it was Dean who had been the heart of the diminished Winchester family; that Dean, no matter his youth, had supported them all. We saw in season one that Dean, for all his snarky ways, embodied Good: that caring for others over himself was at his very core. From his first conscious awareness, Sam always had Dean. He always had something Good – pushy and big-brother-irritating, yes, but innately Good – protecting his innocence, and he was too young when his mother died to even remember her loss, much less mourn it.

 

Dean, however, doesn’t see himself as Good: by his own internal scoring system, he ceased to be good when he lost the innocence that speaks of good to him. He had no real sense of self-worth even back in Faith, when he resisted being singled out for healing ahead of anyone else; now he knows himself to be a killer, to be willing to do what others might see as evil, and to do it without hesitation when his family is at stake or when he hunts something he was raised to hate.

 

From the end of Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things, we know that Dean believes that it was his fault that their father died, and that he was and should have stayed dead. He lacked faith already, long before that revelation … so what will the choice offered to him in Cross Road Blues mean to his tired and beleaguered soul? What will he see as the greater good for Sam and for John, since we know that he won’t attend to what would be good for him?

 

I sincerely hope that, despite his fears about his own potential future, Sam still does have faith enough for the both of them, and finds a way to help resolve the problem of Dean’s pain.

 

Thursday night can’t possibly come fast enough.

 
 
Current Music: "Hallelujah" by k.d. lang
 
 
 
(Anonymous) on September 23rd, 2007 10:08 am (UTC)
Dean's personality
Doesn't Dean have some sort of reverse hubris? That he can't be anything without any external source of salvation? He's like Judas Iscariot in a way, who thought that with his betrayal, he can't be anymore saved and thus committed suicide.

Dean defines himself as how he is useful to John and Sam, and never has an idea of standing alone. That's why he can't bear to lose anyone in his family or he loses himself. I think it's an extreme form of selflessness that often bears consequences that leaves him very damaged inside. But as far as Dean thinks, as long as John and Sam are happy, he is happy.