Winchester Wednesday: The Hero's Journey

Finally I have my own sign in, thank you ladies (even if you are both decidedly unladyish).
As promised you'll find another installment of Winchester Wednesday below. This one centering on the surprisingly difficult answer to the simple question: who is the hero in Supernatural?

Supernatural and the Hero's Journey

One of the things that makes Supernatural so deliciously complex is the dual protagonists viewers find in Dean and Sam Winchester. Fans of one or the other Winchester can rationalize and provide support for their favorite amongst the boys as the central hero of the storyline. I myself have had arguments over "central hero" several times, and the debate usually centers on the fact that most stories contain only one protagonist. There may be subplots and side-stories, but the larger overarching plot normally (with exceptions, of course) depends on one, and only one, lead character or hero.

Think of every epic ever written. Beowulf, The Illiad, The Odyssey, The Aeneid, The Divine Comedy, Lord of the Rings (yeah, I went there), Sundijata,The Epic of Gilgamesh, Paradise Lost, any number of Arthurian romances, Norse sagas, quest journeys, and even Star Wars. There is one central and primary hero in each of these epics. It is rare to see more than one protagonist--this leaves SPN fans choosing a primary hero, because as readers we expect we will be required to do so.

Were I to pick one protagonist I would, out of devotion/obsession more than anything else, pick Dean. I could make the argument that Dean's story is a knights tale, and a pretty traditional one at that. Sam is then the equivalent of either a princess (ha!), a character foil (it is possible), a replacement for a more traditional love-interest (ask me about my wincest 1 issues!), or simply a plot device.

That's not really fair to Sam though. Ms. Shakespeare, among others, has argued that the reverse is true and that Sam is the central protagonist because the story begins with him and climaxes (sort of) with his fall from grace and redemption. The most compelling reasoning for this argument is that Sam changes while Dean does not (at least not in the same drastic ways), because it is Sam, and not Dean, who needs to be redeemed. To that I say, "okay, okay."

Now Dr. M has a very different point of view--she believes that Sam is a "whiny douchenozzle" who "isn't good enough to share a hotel room with Dean," and that were Dean not "the most forgiving, tragic, beautiful and heartbreaking demi-god" to ever walk the earth he would have "shot Sam's ass in episode 20-something.2" She is certifiably nuts and incapable of most rational conversation, or thought, when it comes to Dean Winchester...which is why I am writing these posts instead of her. She also argues that Sam is plot, while Dean is character...but that's a post and argument for another Wednesday.

The truth is neither Dean nor Sam entirely fills the role of "hero" on their own, not in a traditional sense, anyway. Joseph Campbell, preeminent comparative mythologist and all-around friend to literature, outlined the stages of the traditional, cross-cultural hero's journey in several of his books, most notably The Hero with a Thousand Faces.3 This central monomyth4 has been revisited countless times across millenia and throughout wide-spread (worldwide really) areas. Supernatural seems to be one contemporary western retelling of this monomyth, albeit with an obvious twist--neither Winchester brother singularly fills the role of traditional hero. It takes both Dean and Sam to retell this foundational myth. I contend that these brothers, soul mates really, serve as fractured halves of what is usually a single hero. It is only together that they complete the journey and find wholeness.

Let's see how these beautiful boys stack up by running down the first stage of the hero's journey as outlined by Joseph Campbell 5.

In the departure stage, the first stage of the hero's journey, the protagonist moves from the known into the unknown. It is Sam who rather clearly steps into the role of hero at this point, and he begins as the story's primary hero. It is not until later on that we see how each brother fulfills various roles in the standard monomyth. It is Sam who fulfills the traditional steps in the first part of this story. He has, as many heroes do, a birth of unusual circumstance or import which serves as a foreshadowing of what is to come, or an indicator of the hero's "special nature." The departure stage consists of several subsections, or steps, but not every story will fulfill ALL of those steps, or fulfill them in the same order. This seems to be the case with Supernatural. In fact, some of the steps are fulfilled by both brothers in different ways, indicating that not only are they serving as co-heroes, but are completing individual journeys alongside the larger collective journey.

Home Culture: Sam has, despite the rigors and limitations of his upbringing into a hidden side of life as a hunter, found a home and a sense of "normalcy" through college and his relationship with Jessica. He has, prior to the series, abandoned his uncommon family and co-dependant bonds with his brother/caregiver/soul mate for one more socially acceptable. Without the rift between Sam and his previous life, the foundation for "normalcy" could not exist, and the journey would end before it even started, in a way. His rejection of the "family business" establishes him as a rebel, but a strange sort of that desires not adventure, but the mundane existence of "normal" people. This stage is important, without it there is no "beginning" to start from. Dean cannot yet be the hero in this sense, because his role is to call Sam away from this false-life he's created and set him on the hero's path.

Dean as Call to Action/Adventure...I'd heed that!
Call to Adventure: The call to adventure in Supernatural occurs immediately with the pilot episode. Dean at this point clearly serves not as a hero, but as the call to adventure personified. His pleas to Sam for assistance in his supernatural quest to find their father interrupt the normal life Sam has attempted to create. In truth, as soon as Dean enters the scene Sam's part of the hero's journey begins. But like every hero, he is reluctant to take up the mantle, or the sword, either out of selfishness (Sam is still bitter, and angry at his father and brother) or out of disbelief (Sam does not feel that he has much to offer; if Dean cannot find him, how will Sam be able to help?).

Refusal of the Call: Again, this occurs almost immediately, in the first episode, but the refusal continues in later episodes as Sam continues to look for reasons to return to his normal life. Dean faces his own calls (plural) to adventure and puts up his own (less successful, due to his character) refusals to heed that call in later seasons, especially in Season 4, when he is called from hell by heavenly mandate to become a soldier for god, and in Season 6 when he is called from his life with Lisa to rejoin Sam. The cyclical aspect of the show and its various story-arcs further complicate the question of who the "hero" might be, and further supports my view that each takes at least part of a larger role while still following their own individual journeys. Sam's story in later seasons becomes less that of traditional hero and more of a modern-day internal journey to redemption and absolution. He is certainly a flawed hero, though his will is always for good he actually succumbs to a sort of false hero's journey in Season 4, believing he is on the right track as he is deceived by Ruby and Lilith.

Supernatural Aid: At some point in every hero's journey the hero must accept some supernatural aid. The show is called Supernatural so, it's not really unexpected that some aid comes from a supernatural source. Now, for Dean and Sam this is not always a positive thing. They do find supernatural aid in the form of Missouri and the ghost of their mother early on in the episode "home," and in Castiel in seasons 4-6, but that is part of a later stage of the journey. In this stage the supernatural aid pushes the hero further into the unknown, and convinces them to accept the journey. Campbell's steps never insist that the supernatural act, character or item that pushes the hero onto the path be a positive thing. It certainly is not in Sam's case. For Sam this supernatural event is first and foremost Jess's death. It is this act by supernatural forces that returns Sam (now motivated by vengeance) back to the hunt and back to his brother's side.

Crossing the First Threshold: Joseph Campbell provides that this step is the moment when the hero moves out of their comfort zone alone, and is "confronted with an obstacle that must be overcome before s/he can finally enter the dangers of the unknown journey" 6 . For Sam it seems that the threshold comes in episode 11 of season 1, "Scarecrow," when he abandons Dean to search for their father alone. While waiting for a buss alone he weighs his love and obligations for his family--primarily to Dean--and comes to an acceptance of his role. He also arrives just in time to save Dean from the scarecrow, which is convenient if not slightly implausible. Sam's threshold is acceptance; he accepts his journey and his place by his brother's side.

Now, if this seems like Sam is clearly the hero--think again. The truth is that Dean's journey is parallel and shaped by his own inner conflict, issues and obstacles. By the time Dean leaps into Sam's life he has at least partially accepted his awkward destiny and his role in the world. His call to adventure comes early on, at age four! And his decision to heed that call is motivated by his need to protect his brother (whom he sees as a central responsibility) and avenge his mother. The obstacle he must overcome is more internal--it has to do with pride, self-worth, and trust. Dean's personality leads him to leap headlong into danger spurred on by his love for Sam.

It is in this second stage of the hero's journey, which Campbell calls Initiation, that they boys begin to take on dual roles as hero.

The Road of Trials: This is quite literal with the Winchesters, as they are knights in shining Impala. In this step of the journey the "protagonist is found vulnerable and the outcome reveals a part of him/her that s/he did not know existed." For Sam this is literal. His demon blood is a weakness of sorts and is revealed late in season 1. For Dean this becomes literal as well, in some ways, in an early episode Dean 's heart is damaged in the hunt and he seems unconcerned with his impending death (this moment also forshadows his lack of concern for himself in season 3 after the crossroads deal). It is then that we, and Sam, realize that Dean's capacity for selfless behavior hides something equally beautiful and heartbreaking--a clear lack of self worth manifesting as a tendency towards sacrifice to help others. There are multiple moments along each brother's literal and metaphorical road of trials that reveal weaknesses, strengths, personality traits, and more. Each case, each "hunt," reveals more about the brothers to each other, the viewers, and themselves. Each case that brings them close to the Yellow Eyed Demon reveals more about Sam's infancy and destiny, while at the same time revealing more about Dean's personal scars and devotion.

Meeting a Soul mate: Well, let's call it "realizing" a soul mate for the Winchesters, because clearly they belong to one another in complex ways--they are parent/child, brothers, best friends, yin/yang, confidants, and for all intents and purposes, beloveds. We'll save the whole "beloved" argument for a later be continued! Certainly they are not only willing to die for one another, but suffer eternally so that the other will survive. There seems to be no limits to the love they have for one another, although they admittedly have communication and trust issues...that's all part of the journey as well. For Dean the "soul mate" is realized most clearly when he is faced with Sam's death at Cold Oak. The subsequent deal he makes is the act of a desperate man who cannot live without his other half. For Sam this realization comes later in what I feel is one of the most revealing episodes of the series "Mystery Spot." During the Trickster's trials he comes face to face with the emptiness and desperation of a life without Dean.
Dean realizing Sam as soul mate.

Sam realizing Dean as soul mate.

Overcoming Temptation: Sam faces temptation more than Dean does in a lot of ways. Dean's temptation is selfless and temporary, finding its center in "What Is and What Should Never Be" (season 2, episode 20) when he is tempted by a Djinn into accepting a better life for both Sam and himself. Sam's temptation has to do with Ruby and his desire for power. Even though his desire for power, and his relationship with Ruby, is motivated by what he thinks is a larger good, it is deceptively evil. His nature is taken advantage of, and the temptation is only overcome by Dean's intervention and Dean's love.

Viewing the Whole Picture: This is something difficult to come by in Supernatural. The boys only have glimpses of the whole. Dean in "The End" and both brothers in "Changing Channels" in what seems on the surface like a "fluff" episode reveals a lot about the overarching plot and has strong allusions to another great epic Paradise Lost; only this time Lucifer isn't the hero at all. The view of the whole is revealed slowly in Supernatural. Pieces of the larger picture are revealed to brothers and viewers who struggle to construct some overarching plan.

The Ultimate Goal: Every hero's journey has to have one. So, what is the goal in Supernatural? Well, in a lot of ways, the goal is status quo...the goal is that the world go on, flawed as it is, as it always has, under the power of free will, and free from overt interference from supernatural forces. In another way the goal is salvation, not just of the world but of self. And certainly Sam's journey carries with it another goal, that of redemption, in the eyes of his brother, and for himself.

The third stage of the journey, Return, is when Dean takes center stage in some ways, while Sam takes up the slack as part of Team Winchester. Some of this story is left untold still, as one conflict leads to the next and the cycle begins again. It will be hard to predict what direction the journey will take in these last seasons. The Return consists of some classic literary tropes, such as The Chase, and The Rescue (these stages are fulfilled by Dean's pursuit of Sam's soul in later seasons, and in Sam's pursuit of redemption in earlier seasons). Both boys Cross the Return Threshold with a journey into the underworld. Both are called by forces outside of their realm (angels for Dean, demons for Sam) to become Master of Two Worlds in accepting or refusing (Refusing to Return) their roles as vessels for angelic hosts. The final stage of the hero's journey is yet to be realized, and I wonder if this is where the series will take a serious detour from the traditional form. The final stage is Freedom something that the boys cling to throughout the series, but something that has not yet been realized for them.

What kind of journey is this? Is it about redemption? Is it about vengeance? Or sacrifice? Or salvation? Well, it's about all of those things--each brother faces temptation, each descends (literally) into the underworld, and each is willing to sacrifice themselves (but not the other) to create a better world. Why? Well, because for the Winchesters the world cannot (does not) exit without the other in it. They act heroic, but are spurred on more by love for one another than any other emotion or incentive.

There is, in many ways, no point in saving a world without the other in it, because the "world" ceases to be, or at least it ceases to matter (that's very Wuthering Heights). As Sam says early on in season one's "Devil's Trap" some things, specifically Dean, are more important than any vengeance or closure. Both boys battle with their need to sacrifice themselves when, to misquote someone I've forgotten--the absolute worst thing that could happen to either of them wouldn't actually happen to them, but to the other.

So, neither Dean nor Sam is a hero in and of themselves, both satisfy steps in the traditional hero's journey, turning it into a heroes' journey, something plural and driven by love.

And that, Dear Readers (as our hostesses are wont to say), is some profound shit!

1. Wincest is a term invented by fan fiction writers and fans of the show that implies that Dean and Sam are not only soul-mates, but they have the hots for one another. Normally I would wince at a blatant disregard for the incest taboo, but there seems to be extenuating circumstances to their relationship. Plus, they're hot.

2. Dr. M. "You stupid c*%tface." Message to the author. 19 Sept. 2011. Email.

3. Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. 3rd ed. New York: Pantheon, 2008.

4. A good outline of the heroic monomyth proposed by Joseph Campbell can be found via the History Through Literature Project pages produced by Berkeley's ORIAS (Office of Resources for International and Area Studies) program at: ORIAS. "Monomyth Home." History Through Literature Project. University of California Berkeley, 8 Nov. 2007. Web. 14 Dec. 2011.

5. A very nicely detailed chart of the stages of the hero's journey can be found at Seifert, S. "Hero's Journey Chart." Hero's Journey Defined. Earthlink, 18 March 2010. Web. 14 Dec. 2011.

6. Seifert, S. "Hero's Journey Chart."

7. Supernatural. Dir. Eric Kripke. CW. CNUV, Baltimore. 2005-2011. Television.


Dr. M said...

Blurgh, you are so rude. To me and to Dean.

Anonymous said...

See Kal Bashir's hero's journey at ; it's a deep, deep, deep analysis and a better version than Campbell's.