Happy New Year, and welcome to the new semester at
My thesis for this class is that John Winchester was the fiery yellow-eyed demon’s (FYED’s) first big mistake, and that, having failed to learn the John Winchester lesson, the FYED is repeating its error with his sons. I submit that this will be the FYED’s downfall.
I’ll start by taking us back and reviewing what we learned about John Winchester through the show up to this point, and through the few pages of his journal found on the show’s official website. Much of this is deduced from things we were shown, from things we heard filtered through the experiences of others, including his sons, and from impressions that those experiences left behind.
Judging from his values and life experience, John seems to be classic blue-collar, Midwestern American. From his affinity for hunting and woodcraft, I get the sense that he wasn’t a city boy, but grew up either in a small town or rural community where hunting and fishing are still a tradition passed from father to son, and where it’s not uncommon for a young man to go straight from high school into the military as a way to acquire his higher education. We know that John had been a Marine, and that he was in still the service when he met Mary: the photo of the happy couple on their dresser, which we saw again later in Sam’s apartment in the pilot, showed John in fatigue uniform. Although the U.S.M.C. t-shirt he was wearing in the pilot, the tattoo on his left upper arm, and his general bearing suggest that he was in the Corps for years and that it remained a shaping force in his life, he didn’t make it his career: we learned from his online journal and in Home that, by the time of the fire, he was out of the service and owned a working half interest in a garage. My guess, based on nothing but speculation, would be that John changed careers after he married and became a father, looking for more roots and stability than the military life offers.
John went from corporal in the Marines to an automotive mechanic. Being able to buy into a garage suggests either that his own father had been in the business, or that – with the foresight he displayed in setting up college funds for his boys when they were born – he had always been a careful planner, saved and budgeted throughout his military career, and made a deliberate investment of both his money and his skills. There’s always the possibility that Mary’s family was involved, but I haven’t gotten that sense at all; John seemed too fiercely independent for that. When we met him in the pilot, he seemed happy and content with his wife, his boys, his work, his house, and his already-classic car.
Enter the FYED, with its interest in Sam and its calling card of burning Mary on the ceiling of Sam’s nursery. In one night, John lost everything except his sons and his car, and that “everything” included his entire understanding of reality. We know from his journal entries, from
John didn’t just assume that he had been seeing things and crawl into the booze bottle. He took
Judging from the other special children we’ve met, the FYED arranged things to disrupt the children’s family lives, and generally succeeded. Nurturing mothers died in fires. Max’s father, who witnessed his wife’s death, became a mean drunk who beat his son. Sam lost his mother and his home, and apparently grew up constantly on the move with John and Dean, plagued by the uncertainties and emotional fallout of John’s hunting life, which clearly included an unhealthy amount of alcohol. Who knows what we will learn as Sam finds more of the children like him? I’m betting more broken homes and unstable lives.
But I submit that what makes Sam different from all the others is the legacy he and Dean took from John. The FYED clearly didn’t count on John becoming a hunter, learning from others, and training his sons to hunt in their turn. And the FYED couldn’t have guessed how tenacious and skilled an opponent John would become. Speaking on behalf of demonkind, Meg admitted how good he was in Shadow, and again in Salvation and Devil’s Trap. He had a reputation among other hunters, reflected by Gordon in Bloodlust and assumed by Daniel Elkins leaving him a dying message even after years apart in Dead Man’s Blood. His skill at assembling complex patterns from seemingly unrelated information showed up in Scarecrow, and won Ash’s respect in Everybody Loves a Clown. From knowing nothing about the supernatural world, John became the consummate hunter, all because the FYED picked on his wife and his son.
John’s sons aren’t yet in his league. He raised them to hunt, but he kept a lot of knowledge from them, and we don’t fully understand why. Some of it may have been to protect them, and particularly to protect Sam, if John realized early on that the FYED’s interest in his youngest boy could provide a reason for other hunters to consider him fair game. Is that why John never introduced his boys to Daniel Elkins or the network of hunters working from the Roadhouse, but limited their acquaintance to a relative handful of trusted contacts in the hunter community, including Caleb and Pastor Jim? John’s compartmentalized, military “need to know” approach to disseminating information may have shielded his sons growing up, but it was at the root of his arguments with Sam, and it’s left them at something of a disadvantage now relative to the rest of the hunting community. But Sam still has knowledge that none of the other children like him are likely to have, giving him resources to fall back on to circumvent the FYED’s plans.
Taking knowledgeable, seasoned John off the board in exchange for Dean in In My Time of Dying may have seemed a brilliant stroke to the FYED (who could forget the FYED saying, “There’s something else I want, maybe even more than that gun” – speaking of having John’s soul to torment?), but I would submit that it is an error on a par with underestimating John in the first place. The FYED didn’t realize that killing Mary would make of John not simply a broken drunk, but the ultimate demon-hunter. I think that the FYED believed that losing John, on top of everything else, would shatter the boys. I don’t think it realized that they may instead come out of the fire as hardened steel, precisely because they still have each other and are both John’s sons in heart and spirit.
Mind you, all of the Winchesters are damaged men. Losing Mary and becoming a hunter broke things in John that never healed: witness his despair with the combat losses in Salvation; his history with alcohol reflected in Sam’s comments in the pilot and in Nightmare; his tendency to pick fights with everyone around him noted in Dead Man’s Blood, Devil’s Trap, and ELAC; and his general inability to connect with his sons and verbally express love until the last aware moments of his life. Sam is tormented by the powers he has that he doesn’t understand and by his awareness that he was the focus of the FYED’s attention and somehow the cause of Jessica’s and his mother’s deaths. Dean is torn by the loss of his family, by lying to and seeing Sam in pain, and by the guilt of knowing that he should be dead twice over, not living while his father suffers hell. Those wounds won’t heal, any more than John’s ever did.
With John gone, Sam and Dean could still be destroyed, if the FYED played its cards right, but I think the FYED assumes too much. It assumes that it knows how they will act and react. I think that John was counting on that, when he made his deal to buy back Dean’s life and leave his sons together. John’s past shows that, in response to the FYED’s attack on his family, he became a consummate strategist: he studied his opponent, learned to scout his position, and planned to deal with him in and for the long term. I would hazard that John understood the depth of the brother bond between his sons, and believed that Sam and Dean together would be stronger in the fight than he and Sam would have been, had Dean died. I believe that John trusted the bond between his sons to endure through their grief and their fear, and that he relied on their training to let them fill in the blanks he had to leave behind. And I believe that John weighed the assumptions that the FYED would have made about the boys as individuals, and placed his own bets on the boys as a team. I think that’s a wager John’s going to win.
We haven’t seen the last of John Winchester. Even trapped in hell, he’s still standing behind his sons, and living in their hearts. And that, I think, is what’s going to defeat the FYED.