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You can still find my reviews here of North Carolina ghost story books, and notes about my folklore research on Patreon. Contribute monthly via Patreon (which includes perks), make a one-time donation through Paypal, or buy us a coffee. Due to the Coronavirus outbreak, production of season 15 was interrupted and 15.13 will be the last episode aired “for a while.” The show was supposed to finish up this fall, as the only original programming on the CW before January, but so far, the Creation cons have been postponed into next year and the cast and crew remain at home. They did put out a poster for the final episodes and include the show in a new promo. So, there’s that.
Note that I heartily endorse the cast and crew staying home until it’s safe. I sure hope CW head Mark Pedowitz is taking that safety of his employees a lot more seriously than it seems in his most recent interview.
If you’re enjoying these articles and reviews, any contributions are welcome. Even in a pandemic, the kitties still gotta eat.
My collected recaps and reviews of season one, which first appeared on Innsmouth Free Press, are up (with a few extras) on Kindle. The Kindle version is available through Amazon. The print version is also up. If you buy the print version, you get a Kindle copy thrown in for free. I also get paid if you get it on Kindle Unlimited (for free), read the Kindle version, or lend it to a friend via the Kindle Owners Lending Library. Reviews also help with sales. Just FYI.
spoilers but no proselytizing ahoy
I’m happy to report that I’ve received enough “coffee” from Ko-Fi to achieve the goal of posting one new retro review per week of the show until I’m all caught up. With this article done, expect me to get back in the review saddle with season nine’s “The Purge” this coming week.
When I wrote the first part of this article, it was just one part and season 10 had not yet begun. Since then, I’ve been asked to discuss what has happened after season 9 in Christological terms. There has been a lot of Christological material, particularly in season 11, though it’s become increasingly scattered since that season. Still, between Dean being the Firewall Between Light and Dark (and saying yes to an alternate version of the Archangel Michael, before becoming his Cage through sheer willpower and the Power of Family), and Jack the Super Sparkly Archangel Naphil son of Lucifer, there’s a lot to unpack here (that’s not even getting into the Mark of Cain). And since the first article was so long, it seemed likely this coda would get lost in the wash at the end. So, I made it its own article. Which is good, because this one ran really long.
Ripping off the Bible
You want to know what I’d like to see in the final scene of Supernatural? Dean as the new God, flanked by Castiel and Billie, watching Sam, finally retired, with the rest of the surviving Team Free Will after the final battle. After assuring himself that his family is safe and reasonably happy, he turns to Castiel and Billie, and says, “We got work to do.” Because making the SPNverse the happy and fair place envisioned by the Family Business motto would take a whole other show.
Let’s roll back a few seasons. Dean had some labels attributed to him from season 4 onward that were Christological. For example, he was referred to as the “Righteous Man” in “On the Head of a Pin” (4.16) in season 4 by Hell’s Torturer, WED Alastair. According to Alastair, the breaking of a Righteous Man by getting him to choose to become a torturer was the First Seal. Note that many fans often incorrectly say that Dean broke the First Seal, while Sam broke the Final Seal, but this is not true. Just as Lilith became the Final Seal when Sam killed her, Dean became the First Seal when he broke. Dean was the First Seal.
Biblically, the Righteous Man was a series of allusions to a figure in the Old Testament that Christians later identified as Jesus Christ. The most striking example is the first verse of Psalm 22, which is evoked in the description of Jesus’ crucifixion and its immediate aftermath: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Thus, in Christian thought, the Righteous Man isn’t just an innocent or righteous person who could be anybody, but a singular title for Christ.
So, when some fans claim that John was a Righteous Man who didn’t break, first of all, it’s unlikely he didn’t break. When the Hell Gate opens at the end of “All Hell Breaks Loose, Part 2” (2.22), in the season 2 finale, his soul is both free and near enough to the gate to escape. That means he couldn’t have been on Alastair’s rack. Second, there is only one Righteous Man identified in the show and his identity is revealed by what he does and by what happens next. Third, there’s little onscreen evidence to indicate that John was righteous. Even before Mary died, he was innocent, not righteous. As a Hunter, he crossed that moral line many times and while he showed remorse over it, he never actually changed his ways.
Similarly, there is the Servant of the Lord in Isaiah, Chapter 42 (rendered as the Servant of Heaven on the show). Rabbinical scholars identified the Servant in Isaiah as a metaphor for the faithful remnant of Israel, following Babylon’s conquest of Judah in 587 BCE. Ecclesiastical scholars identified the Servant with a prototypical version (or a prophecy) of Christ. Other such biblical references are to Christ or to Ancient Israelite prophets, especially Moses.
In the show, the Servant of Heaven is only referenced in one episode, season 5’s “99 Problems” (5.17), which leads into “Point of No Return” (the episode where Dean tries to say yes to Michael and ends up stabbing Michael’s emissary, the seraph Zachariah, instead, when backed into a corner by the torture of his brothers).
In “99 Problems,” Team Free Will discovers that they are up against the Whore of Babylon. The Whore is lurking inside the dead body of an alleged prophet, Leah, the wholesome daughter of a non-denominational minister. In this guise, she is tempting his overzealous flock into a murderous witchhunt against a plague of demons (who are working with the Whore) that is beleaguering their town. It was actually a belief among many churchmen in early medieval Europe that the Devil tempted gullible peasants into damning themselves by persecuting others under the belief that they were witches. So, it didn’t just start in the skeptical Enlightenment wake of the Reformation era witchcrazes.
As Dean sarcastically puts it (foreshadowing his calling out the angel Metatron for doing the same thing in the season 9 finale, “Do You Believe in Miracles?” (9.23)), the Whore is leading this wayward flock “to slaughter and kill and sing peppy little hymns.”
There is much debate within the episode about who can destroy the Whore. Castiel insists she can only be killed by a “Servant of Heaven.” But even Castiel has no way of identifying one, though he’s pretty confident none of TFW is one. He is fallen, Dean lacks faith, and Sam is an “abomination.” Dean’s lack of faith is perceived as weakness by Castiel.
In the final battle, though, as the
Leah!Whore is exhorting a grieving couple to burn alive a bunch of
their friends and neighbors, she attacks Dean during the fight. When
he tries to grab the special weapon needed for the Servant to kill
her, she scoffs, mocking the idea of his being the Great Vessel
(Michael’s), let alone that he might be a Servant of Heaven. She
calls him “pathetic, self-hating and faithless.”
Right before he stabs her to death, to the astonishment of everyone in the room (including her), he says, “Don’t be so sure – Whore.” In typical Kripke-and-Gamble-era fashion, where nothing that Dean does is actually that big of a deal and is given the least exciting possible reason, Sam chooses to see this as an indication that Dean is about to say yes to Michael and nothing more momentous than that. Never mind that Dean being a vessel of Michael is significant in a Christological sense. Michael has been seen as the pre-mortal version of Christ in sects such as the Seventh Day Adventists. So, it goes by the wayside along with the rest of Dean’s season 5 Michael storyline in the next episode.
Ripping off comic books
Fast forward to season 10, after Dean is “cured” of being a demon, but continues to bear the Mark of Cain that he took on in the middle of season 9 as the only way to slay another evil demon, Abaddon. Now, there are many Christological allusions in this storyline, especially once it morphs into the Amara storyline in season 11, and it was very popular (so buckle up). But first, let’s talk about its origins. The most obvious is the antihero/villain Saint of Killers from 1990s Vertigo comic Preacher.
I’m going to be honest here. I never
quite warmed to Preacher during its run and I’m not a huge fan
of Garth Ennis. Ennis’ Preacher is a classic case of 90s
edgelord comics, with a lot of intentional blasphemy, gross-out humor
(especially in the art), and less-than-stellar writing about gender,
race and GLBT tropes. Despite the success of the TV adaptation, I
don’t think the comic has aged all that well. I mean, way to give
Tulip a great intro and then turn her into a useless Girlfriend
character for the rest of the story, dude.
Now I don’t mind edgy writing when it works and I don’t care about “blasphemy,” either (it’s largely in the eye of the beholder), but I do object to rendering large subjects petty and small when you’re not actually doing satire. Or, at least, not very successful satire. So, yeah, might be a bit harsh on Ennis from here on out.
There are two fairly obvious steals from Preacher by the Supernatural writers. One is the Saint of Killers. The Saint is your classic Western cliché of a bad man reformed by a good woman. Think Unforgiven (1992), or The Outlaw Jose Wales (1976), or early John Wayne vehicle Angel and the Badman (1947). In his mortal life, the Saint even fought on the side of the Confederacy, a common part of this trope.
After his new family is murdered, he goes on a bloody rampage of revenge, but is killed before he quite completes it. Upon his arrival in Hell, his hatred makes it literally freeze over. To get rid of him, the Angel of Death agrees to trade places with him and gives him two pistols made out of the Angel’s own sword. They can kill anything. The Saint’s first victim is the Devil himself. He then returns to Earth and completes his vengeance, with a high body count of innocents. The Saint doesn’t care about collateral damage. Heaven then puts him to sleep until he is awakened over a century later and sent after one Jesse Custer (JC – Jesus Christ, geddit? Hahahahaha).
This where the other Supernatural, uh, “borrowing” comes in. Jesse is a young preacher from a very screwed-up Louisiana family (cough-liketheStynes-coughcough) who is accidentally fused with a being known as Genesis in the middle of a sermon. God had Genesis created from the union between an angel and a demon because He got bored and wanted to create a worthy adversary that would love him entirely of its own free will (God’s a creep in this story, too). Possession by Genesis gives Jesse the power of the Voice of God, where he can compel almost anyone to do whatever he wants them to do.
Jesse eventually dies (he gets the Saint to kill him so the Saint is free to go kill his real enemy), loses Genesis, is resurrected, and wins Tulip back (she had become disgusted after acting as a point of conflict between Jesse and his vampire BFF for most of series, and bailed on him). But not before Jesse has told the Saint who really killed his family – God. The Saint enters Heaven, slaughters the angels, kills God as God tries to bargain with him, sits on God’s celestial throne … and goes back to sleep. Because peace and being done are all he ever wanted.
Now, it’s fairly obvious that Supernatural has put Dean Winchester in the Saint of Killers role and Jack Kline in the Jesse Custer/Genesis role (which does imply that Dean will eventually be the one who kills God). With some serial numbers filed off, of course. The Mark of Cain storyline works much better, though, than pretty much anything to do with Jack. The reasons can be found both in the source material and in the show’s own universe.
There’s nothing particularly wrong with Supernatural doing its own take on this hoary old tale. The creators of Preacher themselves admitted that they based the Saint on a combination of characters played by Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin. A lot of what they did in the comic was hardly all that original. It was the way they used it to tell a story that made it popular.
Further, Supernatural has always been an intentionally metatextual commentary on the horror genre – a horror movie every week, as Kripke originally put it. Hence the MOTW and urban legend format. So, it shouldn’t be any shock that the writers do riffs on various horror storylines and tropes, past and present. That’s the whole point.
But the show has done this with varying success. In the case of the Saint of Killers vs. the Mark of Cain, I think the show improved on the comic. In the comic, the Saint is a one-dimensional antihero, notable mainly for his implacable hate.
The Mark of Cain storyline, on the other hand, was given to one of the two leads and damned if it didn’t fit like a glove. It became an amazingly apt metaphor for Dean’s series-long simmering rage and madness, his struggle to control himself, not to harm innocents. Dean is a Hero (albeit a very dirty one), but he has an enormous dark side (what Jung would call his “shadow”) that could turn him into a monster like those he hunts if he’s not careful. He and Sam keep each other (mostly) human.
Dean stands out from other Hunters, indeed every other character in the story, with his philosophy of the Family Business (“Saving People, Hunting Things”). The basic, and revolutionary, idea is that it is as (in fact, more) important to save people and make their lives better, as it is to kill the supernatural things that threaten them. Dean attributes its origins to John, but there is very little (okay, no) evidence that John cared enough about saving people to make it a primary philosophical tenet. He was all about the revenge and if innocents got killed as collateral damage, oh, well. The story of Jo Harvelle’s father pretty much sums that up.
Dean has modified and fine-tuned this philosophy over the years. Mostly, it involved changing the definition of “people.” He began the series hard-wired to believe that all humans were “people” and all monsters were “things.” But he has (thanks in large part to Sam’s influence and example in episodes like season 2’s “Bloodlust” (2.03)) changed that to believe that some humans are monsters and some monsters are people. It all depends on what they do, not what they are. That’s a novel concept in Supernatural, where, from the start, biology is destiny.
Dean, the founder of Team Free Will, introduces a dangerous and revolutionary idea in the show’s second episode, “Wendigo” (1.02). He proselytizes and spread this idea with increasing success over the years because it provides Hunters (and some monsters) a way out of their dark and bloody worldview, a light in the darkness. It is the Supernatural version of Jesus’ message of peace and reconciliation in the New Testament.
So, where Dean gets into most dangerous territory during the Mark of Cain storyline is when he kills humans/almost humans in two major incidents in season 10. One occurs when the daughter of Castiel’s vessel Jimmy Novak (and a former vessel of his, as well), Claire, pops back up in season 10 in “The Things We Left Behind” (10.09). She had last appeared in season 4’s “The Rapture” (4.20). Her mother having disappeared years before, Claire has fallen in with a Fagan-like low-level criminal who uses street kids to commit crimes for him. When he finds himself in major debt to a local drug dealer, he sells Claire to the dealer, but TFW saves her at the last minute. Playing the rear guard, Dean is ambushed by the dealer’s gang, while Claire’s “mentor” looks on apathetically.
At this point in season 10, for dealing with the Mark, Dean has already tried self-control, heroic suicide (in a sacrificial battle against an Angel Tableted-up Metatron at the end of season 9), and is now back to self-control by the skin of his teeth, along with a hefty self-medicating dose of his usual drinking and prescription drug abuse. He is acutely aware of the consequences if he dies in the fight and tries to warn off the gang. They, of course, have no idea and their own bloodlust is up, anyway, so they commence trying to beat him to death. This … doesn’t end well. For them.
Back in the car, TFW clues in that they have accidentally abandoned Dean when Sam hears Dean’s roar of fury as he loses control and cuts loose. They burst into the house to find the gang all dead (including Claire’s creepy “mentor”) and Dean covered in blood, per his recent and recurring nightmare. Claire freaks out and spends the next episode trying to kill him, but after this backfires spectacularly, and he is stuck babysitting her at one point, they end up bonding over miniature golf. From then on, Claire holds a big hero worship torch for Dean and tries to emulate him as a Hunter.
The other incident is later, darker and far more clear-cut in its moral risk for Dean (no self-defense involved here). In the process of secretly working to lift the curse from Dean’s arm, Sam recruits (forcibly, in some cases) a crew with different talents. One of them is Sam and Dean’s perky, Mary Sue-ish Kid Sister From Another Mother, Charlie.
After Charlie steals the Book of the Damned (a book that mysteriously calls to Dean, in an intriguing storyline that sadly goes nowhere) from a sinister family of body-parts-stealing necromancers known as the Stynes (yes, as in Frankenstein), they catch up to her and kill her. Furious with Sam for putting her at risk, Dean seeks bloody vengeance against the Stynes in the penultimate episode of the season, “The Prisoner” (10.22). And he kills every last one, including one reluctant boy who may (or may not) have been redeemable.
Dean’s rampage is brutally satisfying. When he returns to the Bunker to find the remaining Stynes ransacking it and about to set his home on fire, the scene is strongly evocative of the dragon Smaug returning to his cave in The Hobbit to find Bilbo and the dwarves raiding it. He comes very close to the line here when he kills the last Styne, the well-meaning but weak Cyrus, but he doesn’t quite cross over it.
The main problem here is not that these people do not deserve it or even that they are humans and not supernatural monsters (albeit the Stynes, like witches, are in a very gray area). Because they do deserve it. Even Cyrus never quite meets the threshold of redemption because he never has the courage to do anything actually redemptive. The most he does is stand by and wimper some protests that his relatives ignore. He even commits a murder (however reluctantly) because he’s too afraid to stand up to his family. He knows what he is supposed to do morally, but he never actually follows up on it. It takes more than knowing what you are supposed to do – you also have to do it.
Compare him, for example, to Christoph Nauhaus in “The One You’ve Been Waiting For (12.05). Christoph, after much waffling, stands up to his crazy Thule father and helps the Brothers kill the resurrected Hitler, saving an innocent in the process. Yeah, it’s not until his father orders him executed, but still, Christoph chooses to help the Brothers instead of just running away. Christoph is definitely a gray character, but he ends up choosing a side and the Brothers let him live (however reluctantly) afterward. That’s a redemption arc.
The problem with Dean’s killings of these humans in Christological terms is not that they don’t deserve it (they all do), but that the justice he metes out is Old Testament, not New Testament. Compare this with Canadian indie horror film Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter (2001). In this amiably bloody homage to 70s exploitation horror flicks, Jesus has returned to earth in preparation for the Second Coming. But he takes a sidetrip from the Apocalypse to save the lesbians of Ottawa from a gang of mean-spirited and homophobic vampires (the film is very pro-LGBT and even includes a campy, but holy, trans Good Samaritan).
Jesus has no problems with kicking vampire ass, but he only really loses his temper and unleashes his divine wrath near the end. In a junkyard, in the middle of the fight, he turns almost all of the vampires to dust. But his two closest and most faithful disciples beg him to spare two of the female vampires, with whom they have fallen in love. This actually includes the vampire henchwoman of the head bad guy, who has racked up a considerable body count of her own. With a bemused shrug at the mysteries of human romantic love, Jesus grants their request, and even restores the vampires to full life and humanity. At the end of the day, what makes him unique is his infinite capacity for divine compassion and lack of jealousy.
Compassion is what Dean is (mostly) lacking as the Mark of Cain increasingly takes hold of him. He starts to lose his grasp on the “saving people” side of the Family Business equation, though he never quite lets it go. Even as a demon, he only beats Cole, but doesn’t kill him, in “Reichenbach” (10.02). he also chooses to spare the life of a woman whose unfaithful husband sold his soul to have her murdered when she engaged in adulterous payback and drives off his waitress girlfriend’s abusive ex with a brutal beating (“Black” (10.01)). Nor is he even remotely tempted by Crowley’s offer to be Hell’s second-in-command, let alone to unseat Crowley from his throne.
While he does lose his temper against Claire’s assailants, he does try to warn them beforehand not to kill him (knowing that then, his demonic side would simply take over). And even at his coldest with the Stynes, he still warns them about coming back “with black eyes.” Dean is acutely aware of the double-edged sword of his immortality. Unable to engineer his own death, as Cain did when Cain was no longer able to control himself, Dean eventually summons Death and strikes a deal with him to be exiled forever away from humans so that he can no longer harm anyone in the season 10 finale, “Brother’s Keeper” (10.23).
He is willing to do something similar years later when Billie shows him the only way to contain alt-Michael, then trapped inside his head, in a Ma’lak Box, at the end of “Nihilism” (14.10) (keep in mind that Dean only said yes to alt-Michael to save Sam, Jack and the world, in the first place). Dean is the only character either version of Death is willing to share their wisdom with about the Natural Order – presumably because Dean is the only one willing to listen.
The Mark of Cain storyline helped boost Dean permanently out of the kind of rut that characters get into after several seasons. He resolved some of that series-long anger, especially after the Mark was lifted and he met with Amara, Chuck’s equally angry sister. He became somewhat calmer and more stable. He resolved some of his mommy issues after Mary came back. Dean is by no means perfect, but the thing that sets him apart is his willingness to put saving others – whether individuals or the entire world – ahead of his own needs.
Despite the show’s resistance to exploring Dean’s state of (im)mortality post-Mark, the moment Dean takes on the Mark in “First Born” (9.11) is a major watershed point in the show’s mytharc story. Dean can no longer be considered just human and certainly not merely mortal. With the Mark, he could basically outlive the multiverse. With it, even Chuck can’t kill him, because it would release Chuck’s vengeful sister Amara. Without it, Dean still retains its taint enough that he can’t take it on again (or perhaps Chuck fears Dean’s affinity with Amara). So, he’s never reverted to human status since Sam forcibly had the Mark lifted from his brother’s arm at the end of season 10, not fully.
I’m reminded of a discussion Bart Ehrman puts forward in his book, How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee (2014), regarding how early Christians perceived the divinity of Jesus Christ. During Jesus’ lifetime, of course, his followers believed he was the Messiah, but that still meant he was mortal and human. Shortly after his death, they came to believe he had resurrected as a divine being, a sort of angel. This quickly upgraded to the superangel Son of Man, then God’s own begotten Son.
Early on, the orthodox position varied on when this upgrade occurred, either at his resurrection, his death, his birth, or even his baptism by John the Baptist (when God’s spirit comes down in the form of a dove, in the Gospel of John). Later, there was a controversy between the Arians and what later became the orthodox, Council of Nicea position. The only difference was that the Arians believed Christ had come into being after God but before the Creation of the World, as God’s Son, whereas the post-Nicea mainstream position is now that Christ, God and the Holy Spirit are co-eternal (that means they’ve always existed).
So, there’s a lot for a fictional show like Supernatural to play with inside the Christological canon. A Christ figure in such a fictional story could begin as a human, a mortal, and later become equal to God the Father/Creator, or even replace him. This becomes important in the God Is the Big Bad mytharc that began in the season 14 finale. Chuck could indeed be replaced by a Christological figure who was originally human. That figure does not need to be of supernatural or angelic origin. The most likely human candidate at this point is Dean.
When the Author Insert God Character Is a Little Too On Point
We were introduced to the idea of the SPNverse being a multiverse in season 12. We also learned a few things about the cosmology from seasons 11 to 14. At the beginning of season 11, we met Amara the Darkness, Chuck’s primordial sister. Later, in “The Big Empty” (13.04), we met the Empty Entity, the even-more-primordial god that rules the chaos in which Chuck and Amara had once existed (were born?) and out of which Chuck created the SPN multiverse.
Chuck also told Dean near the end of season 11 in “All in the Family” (11.21) that he was the Firewall Between Light (Chuck) and Dark (Amara). Indeed, Dean had felt a connection with Amara all season 11 and eventually used this to reunite her with Chuck, thus saving the entire SPNverse (the season 11 finale title, “Alpha and Omega” (11.23), is another biblical name for the Second Coming of Christ). The implication was that this connection had come out of the Mark of Cain, the curse that had been used to seal Amara away in her prison. This had then been given to Lucifer (it drove him mad), who then gave it to poor Cain, who then shared it with Dean.
But the show was always a bit vague about what the real connection was between Dean and Amara. We only learned pieces, such as that Amara found him fascinating, the only part of her brother’s creation that interested her prior to her reconciliation with Chuck. We also saw that she either couldn’t absorb Dean’s soul as she could those of other humans, or chose not to because of something she saw in him. We saw that the attraction was mutual and that Chuck was perhaps intensely jealous of it.
This last bit came up again at the end of season 14 in “Moriah” (14.20), when Chuck engineered an elaborate assassination plot … not against Jack who had gone off the rails and become an apparently unkillable Big Bad, but against Dean. It turned out that Chuck could smite Jack quite easily, but he had to get Dean to kill himself by shooting Jack with his weird gun. He could (or would) not kill Dean directly. Once Dean refused to shoot Jack, Chuck was so furious that he smote Jack and immediately set into motion the final apocalypse. But he still didn’t smite Dean.
Chuck then set up another trap when he captured Sam (who had shot him with the same gun and formed a connection between them) in the appropriately titled “The Trap” (15.09). He manipulated Sam, by showing him a dark “future” after Sam and Dean locked him away, into losing hope that Dean would come to the rescue and make things right. Sam then lost his God wound along with his hope/faith and Chuck was free of him.
But then Dean showed up and told Chuck to get lost, to “go back to Earth 2.” Dean told Chuck to go play with his other worlds in the rest of the multiverse, but to leave this one alone. And once again, Chuck backed down rather than confront Dean directly, let alone smite him as he had, say, poor Becky in “Atomic Monsters” (15.04).
We got shown immediately afterward that Chuck had not actually created a primordial timeline that diverged naturally and independently of him, with different choices and events. Instead, there was always a Prime timeline (the one we’ve been watching for 15 seasons), and then there were various storylines and “failed drafts.” After “The Trap,” Chuck then systematically destroyed all of these drafts so that he could focus his malice on his original, the one that still surprised him and gave him “joy.” It seems that Dean inadvertently saved Earth Prime by refusing to give Chuck what he wanted, the way Sam finally had.
I’m not wild about this idea of failed cosmic drafts, to be honest, and the idea of God being a hack writer is a little too accurate an in-show metaphor for the generally poor quality of showrunner storytelling since Jeremy Carver left at the end of season 11. It probably seemed clever in the Writers Room, especially with the current showrunners (who aren’t know for their theological or philosophical subtlety). But the implications are messy and not in a good way. It basically makes the SPNverse linear, with all choices for the characters pretty much laid out for them, aside from the occasional deviation (solely by Dean).
The apparent divergent reality created by Mary’s decision not to say yes to Azazel, for example, turns out to have been just another draft. This implies that far from being an ancient being like his Prime counterpart, alt-Michael wasn’t created until Chuck began that draft, which would only have been less than half a century ago. Is this why Dean was able to lock him away in a Cage inside his own head? Or could Dean do that to the Prime version of Michael? I don’t think the writers even gave it much thought.
Different strokes for different shows
Lately, I’ve been binge-(re)watching Lucifer, in anticipation of season 5 coming out in a few weeks. Though based on another comic from the early 2000s of the same name that was a spinoff of Neil Gaiman’s classic Sandman, Lucifer the show is quite different and its writers have clearly watched Supernatural.
However, this is not a criticism of Lucifer (I happen to quite like the show). It does a cool job of doing its own spin on these ideas. For example, in Supernatural, you have a primordial Trinity (quaternity?) of the Empty Entity, Chuck and Amara (and possibly the Firewall).
In Lucifer, you have a dualistic universe, albeit not one of strict good and evil, very Old Testament. Inspired by the early Ancient Israelite pantheon of Yahweh and his wife the Queen of Heaven (usually identified as Asteroth/Ishtar), the show gives us God, who created humans and tests his angelic children, and Goddess, who was imprisoned in Hell for sending down plagues and disasters on her husband’s creations. However, the universe itself is the creation of their union, so they share it together. And when their son Lucifer finally resolves the conflict between his parents at the end of season two by cutting a hole to a new reality, it is spelled out that Goddess could easily make her own creations there.
Lucifer also has its own version of Cain (a very bad boy, not nearly as tortured and noble as the Supernatural version) and Eve (both more sympathetic and more human than the SPN version, one who came back down to Earth because she got bored with the perfection of Heaven). There is also the demon Mazikeen’s journey to grow and learn about humanity, which is somewhat parallel to that of Lucifer’s brother Amenadiel’s Fall-and-Redemption storyline.
And it has its own version of Christ tropes, though no explicit Christ character has ever been mentioned. Amenadiel’s Naphil child Charlie is just a powerless baby, but he potentially is so dangerous that the demons from Hell try to seize him to be their new lord and there are angels who want to kill him to bring him to Heaven. The demons are only subdued when Lucifer agrees to sacrifice himself by going back to reign in Hell. This is one way for a Devil character to also be a Christ character, though such an act would be completely out of character for the Supernatural version.
Cousin Olivers, Kid Tricks and Mary Sue
Let’s talk about Jack, a character everyone in the show (and many fans) believes will replace Chuck as the new SPNverse God. Jack is a character who was first conceived by Lucifer and a human woman in season 12 in “LOTUS” (12.08). He was born at the end of the season, lost his powers to his father at the end of season 13, died and then regained some of them two-thirds of the way through season 14 (when the alt-Michael-Dean storyline was abruptly and literally immolated in order just to power Jack back up in “Ouroboros” (14.14)), turned EVOL, got killed by Chuck anyway at the end of season 14, was brought back by Death over halfway through season 15 (at the end of “The Gamblers” (15.11)) as some sort of secret weapon against Chuck, and now is … kinda there, kinda being morally problematical as he’s always been.
Jack is an amalgam of three character types – Cousin Oliver/Scrappy Doo, Gary Stu (Chosen One variety) and Superbaby (aged up via the Kid Trick). Cousin Oliver was a cute little kid introduced in the final season of The Brady Bunch (1969-74) in an attempt to revitalized the franchise. Since this was the last season, you can guess how successful that was. It wasn’t especially a problem that Cousin Oliver was an adorable moppet so much as that he was also a character who made everything in the show about him in what turned out to be a literary death spiral. Every situation and every character, including the Bradys whom the show’s audience had become invested in, now revolved around this brand-new character. It didn’t help that Oliver was annoying and bland in equal measure.
Then there was Scrappy-Doo. Scrappy-Doo was introduced into the Scooby-Doo franchise in 1979, again to revitalize the franchise and prevent its imminent cancellation. This was successful, at least initially, but the producers then restructured the series around Scrappy, Scooby and Shaggy, and got rid of Fred, Daphne and Velma entirely for a while. Well, this didn’t go over well with the fans and Scrappy was quietly ditched from the regular series by the end of the 80s. Though he did pop up in various incarnations from time to time after that, they were mostly parodic. In 1998, the website Jump the Shark got a huge natural promotional boost after creating a poll involving Scrappy. So, to a large extent, you can thank Scrappy for making the term “jump the shark” popular because a lot of fans came to believe his introduction was Scooby-Doo‘s jump-the-shark moment.
Why was Scrappy so unpopular? Well, aside from his having the entire series restructured around him, he was a really abrasive and unlikeable character. Cocky and reckless, he rushed into every situation and got everyone into a lot of trouble. Worse, he was convinced he was a mighty intellect and tended to look down on the rest of the Scooby Gang, while coming off dumb as a box of hair. He was an anti-Scooby-Doo and that really wasn’t what the audience wanted.
As you can see, both of these characters had major aspects of the Gary Stu (the male version of the Mary Sue). They were Author Inserts into the story, rather than existing organically in it. The story immediately became all about them, including iconic and beloved characters whom the audience had more history with and liked a lot more. These iconic characters, in some cases, were shoved completely out of the narrative. Cousin Oliver and Scrappy-Doo were also presented as adorkable and quirky, but as with the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, those two characteristics can come off as artificial if overdone. And boy, were they overdone with Cousin Oliver and Scrappy.
Then you’ve got the Superbaby and the Kid Trick. The Superbaby is a Mary Sue-ish type of character that is a superpowered child. These characters were really popular in science fiction (both print and on screen) in the 1970s and 1980s for some reason, along with bratty tomboys (Don’t get me started on that trope). One of the most famous more-recent examples is Isabelle Tyler from USA Network show The 4400 (2004-7). The premise of this show was that 4400 people had been mysteriously kidnapped from various times and places in the previous seven decades or so, and brought back in 2004 with various superpowers. Sort of like Lost, which came out in the same year.
Isabelle spends the first two seasons as a literal superbaby who is born to interracial couple (and main 4400 characters) Lily and Richard Tyler at the end of season one. Even in the womb, Isabelle is immensely and chaotically powerful, and manipulates her own parents (sound familiar?). She continues to be a force for chaotic good (?) through season two.
The actress who played Lily decided to leave after season two, so at the beginning of season three, Isabelle drains her mother of her life force (making Lily age and die in a matter of a few days). She then becomes, in appearance and ability to speak and walk, etc., a late adolescent, though still only about two in chronological and emotional age.
This is a common tactic in soap operas. Two characters will have a baby. The baby (through early childhood) will be involved in various child-in-peril stories. Then one day, the child will go upstairs as a kid and come down as an adolescent a few episodes later, ready for a bunch of teen-from-Hell storylines.
This is known as the Kid Trick (coined by Stephen King in Danse Macabre, his overview of the horror genre). And I really hate it. It’s lazy. And it’s a cheap way of (re)introducing a brand-new character as an annoying trope, while pretending an investment and emotional connection the audience doesn’t really have with the character because the audience didn’t actually spend all those years watching this character grow up.
Played by Megalyn Echikunwoke (who also played Dean’s first girlfriend in season 1’s “Route 666” (1.13) shortly before joining the show), Isabelle proceeds to seduce another main 4400 character, Shawn Farrell, in a matching green bra-and-panty set, and basically goes on a Mary Sue rampage. She has TK, superstrength, superintelligence, invulnerability, and zero conscience or impulse control. Eventually, after she is captured and loses her powers, her father manages to regress her to a baby and grow her back up with a conscience (again, sound familiar?). Isabelle then recovers her powers, but discovers the evil future people who had basically engineered her and kidnapped the 4400 have put a kill switch inside her. She later apparently dies from this in the process of a heroic rescue.
Isabelle is an unfortunate mixed bag (and the really sad part is that there weren’t a whole lot of major WOC characters at the time). On the one hand, Baby!Isabelle was actually pretty popular with the fandom during the first two seasons and she had a major point in the story. This was, after all, a show where one of the most popular, wisest and “oldest” of the characters, Maia Rutledge, was also a little girl. Conchita Campbell’s endearing performance helped, sure, but Maia was both powerful and helpless in equal measure, creating an interesting paradox and emotional accessibility with the character. So, the fandom was hardly averse to major child characters.
Also, Isabelle acted as a visible metaphor and motivation for Richard and Lily’s love and rebellion against the authorities trying to control them. Rather less impressively, she was a major deus ex machina for the writers to use, but as she was a baby, she was more of a macguffin than a character. Thus, despite things like trees literally bending toward her as her mother was driven to the hospital in labor, Baby!Isabelle didn’t become a Mary Sue that shoved all of the other characters off the stage.
Unfortunately, the executive producers found working with the babies playing Isabelle’s character logistically difficult and when Laura Allen (Lily) left, they got the “bright” idea of doing the Kid Trick with Isabelle. That’s when she turned into a story-wrecking monster. Adult!Isabelle was a blatant Mary Sue who sucked all the life out of everyone else’s storylines and irritated many fans, and I can’t say I ever found Echikunwoke’s performance terribly compelling.
The writers also waffled a lot, trying to sell this idea that Isabelle was still just an innocent baby in a hot young woman’s bod whom we were supposed to feel sorry for, while having her do increasingly terrible and irredeemable things. For example, having her hook up with Shawn (himself an adolescent) made him look skeevy. Then later, when he tried to end it and she got threatening, the relationship turned downright rapey. Good times. The attempted back-to-a-baby reboot didn’t help and just made her dad (a very decent guy up to that point) look sketchy, too.
All of these characters are generally unpopular with audiences for a reason. All of them get introduced by incompetent writers and producers because of their alleged appeal to “new audiences” (translation: older teens), often in the twilight years of an older, but very popular, show. So, it perhaps is not a surprise that the current showrunners of Supernatural thought bringing in Jack and having him take over the narrative would be a brilliant idea, even though it never has been before.
We Need To Talk About the Antichrist
Jack is, of course, an Antichrist figure (being Lucifer’s son). Though in his case, he’s Antichrist 2.0 after Jesse in season 5, or even Antichrist 3.0, since Sam sort of had that role in earlier seasons.
In the first two seasons, the mytharc involved Sam being part of a generation of kids whose psychic powers emerged at the age of 22. All of them had been visited in their nurseries at the age of six months by a powerful demon, Azazel, who bled into their mouths exactly ten years after making a deal with one of their parents (as we found out in season 4’s “In the Beginning” (4.03)). This connection unlocked various powers in them 21 1/2 years later. Over the next two years, they were winnowed down to two – Sam and a guy named Jake. Jake killed Sam at the end of “All Hell Breaks Loose, Part 1” (2.21), Dean made a deal with a CRD to bring Sam back from the dead in the very next episode, and then Sam killed Jake while Jake was opening a gate to Hell. That left only one.
In season 3, Sam acquired a demon mistress (Ruby, of course), who tempted him with the possibility of saving his brother from Hell (it didn’t work because she wasn’t on the level) and got him addicted to demon blood between seasons 3 and 4. At the end of season 4, in “Lucifer Rising” (4.23), Sam found Ruby had manipulated him into releasing Lucifer, which was pretty much the opposite of what he thought he was doing (though that took a great deal of self-delusion). In season 5, he discovered that he and his brother were the vessels of two archangel brothers, Lucifer and Michael respectively, and that they were destined to kill each other.
Sam’s Antichrist storyline effectively ended at the end of season 5, when he jumped into a giant plothole, and took Lucifer and Michael with him. But the writers kept going with Sam Done Come Back Wrong plots, which actually made Sam more human, not less, until the middle of season 9. And then they turned him really quite dark and unpleasant. I mean, he was already heading that way in season 8, but in the second half of season 9, he no longer had any supernaturally flavored excuse. He just seemed … jealous … that Dean now had something magically special about him, even though it was an ancient and truly vicious curse.
He spent season 10, of course, trying to exorcise Dean of the Mark and then trying to make up for his own cosmic stupidity in season 11. After that, the writers starting promoting Leader!Sam for some reason and now he’s All About Jack. He did have the bullet that connected him to Chuck for the first half of season 15, but that turned out to be a red herring, not a version of the Mark of Cain.
In a curious callback to the days when Sam was worried Dean would reject him for having demon blood, Sam nearly ended the world in season 15. He lost faith that Dean would be able to rescue him or stop Chuck without causing the fake future Chuck showed him.in which everything (without Chuck’s divine light) went dark and monstrous, including Sam and Dean themselves.
Sam does play a major role in the development of the Family Business philosophy. He is Dean’s first disciple, his first sounding board for it. He is the one who reminds Dean to be more compassionate, who grounds Dean in the human world. He is much more socially savvy than Dean. He is the one who shows that the line between Human and Monster can be blurry, that the world is gray, not black and white.
But Sam’s not very good at practicing what he preaches. His biggest motivation for Hunting on the show is revenge, not protecting others. Sam’s concerns about tolerance toward monsters are all tied up in his concerns about being one. If the moral dilemma doesn’t directly involve his own issues in some way, Sam pretty much doesn’t care. He lacks Dean’s visceral emotional attachment to their job, and both the victims and predators in it.
Probably due to his deprived upbringing and loss of his mother as an infant, Sam is emotionally distant and detached from others, with the sole exception of his brother Dean. His emotional connection to Dean is very immature. He is overly needy and jealous of Dean’s exclusive attention, while simultaneously pushing his brother away, often in extremely hurtful ways. He even goes so far as to psychological project his own dependency on Dean, who actually tends to flourish without Sam. But Sam does not flourish without Dean.
Sam is no longer an Antichrist figure. But he’s no Jesus, either.
Then there’s Antichrist 2.0. In season 5’s “I Believe the Children Are Our Future” (5.06), Jesse was a kid who had been adopted out after his mother had been possessed by a demon that used her body to engage in human sacrifice and many other horrible acts. These acts, rather vaguely described, resulted in a virgin birth of a super-demonic creature known as a cambion (usually the offspring of a demon and an angel, like Genesis in Preacher). Even with this backstory, Jesse was pretty overpowered. It was said that he could wish every angel in Heaven out of existence with a single thought, even though his sphere of actual influence seemed to be only a few miles wide.
In fact, this is also a problem both for Jack and for Genesis in Preacher. Now, I’m not just saying that they have too many powers for the story and that they weigh it down, though they do. I also mean that they make no sense from a folkloric or mythological point of view.
What Ennis and Dabb both seem to have missed is that in mythology and folklore, even (non-universal) gods have limits and these limits have logical reasons behind them. But inherent sexism appears to have made these writers blind to this logic.
For example, Achilles, one of the mightiest warriors in Greek mythology, is fated to be greater than his own father, Peleus. In fact, Zeus, rather than seduce Achilles’ mother Thetis, instead got her rather forcibly married off to a mortal because of a prophecy that her offspring would be greater than their fathers.
This makes a lot more sense if you know that rather than always being a lowly sea nymph as she is described in Homer, Thetis appears in at least one Archaic era fragment as an all-powerful demiurge (creator) goddess. Thus, it makes sense that her son would be more powerful than his father because of the power and divinity of his mother. It just is more obvious when the mother is mortal and the father divine, as in the case of Heracles. Semi-divine characters were more powerful than their human parent, relatives or neighbors, but they were not even as powerful as their divine parent and certainly couldn’t overthrow that parent. Even a fully divine child like Zeus needed help from his mother Rhea and siblings to overthrow their father, Kronos.
In polytheism, as gods are spawned by primordial gods and become more numerous, they are always individually less powerful than the primordial forces from which they spring. The older the god or goddess, the more powerful they are. The younger gods need tricks, spells, magical weapons, and allies to defeat their parents. You can see these systems as pantheistic in the sense that the primordial god represents the powerful, but relatively mindless and amoral, universe that the younger gods manipulate and learn to control.
So, it makes no sense for Jesse to be so much more powerful than both his human mother and his demon “father.” Even with the blood sacrifices the possessing demon engages in, those shouldn’t give him power greater than Heaven itself. Jesse is just a pawn – a powerful one, but still a pawn, not a player. And he is part of Lucifer’s plan. Lucifer isn’t going to make him so powerful as to be unruly.
Then there are Genesis and Jack. Genesis in Preacher is the offspring of an angel and a demon. Fine, but that shouldn’t make it more powerful than God. God created both the angel and the demon, and a whole lot more besides. So, where does Genesis’ power come from? It can’t come from nowhere. That makes no sense and violates the story’s rules.
Similarly, Jack is the offspring of an archangel and a mortal human. Fine, but by mythological standards, that shouldn’t make him even as powerful as an archangel, let alone more so. Yeah, the show fudged it a bit by depowering Lucifer and having Jack go up against an “alternate” version of Michael, but Jack shouldn’t even be that powerful. He certainly shouldn’t be as powerful as Chuck, no matter how many angel hearts he eats. Chuck is exponentially more powerful even than his archangels. That’s likely why Jack’s sparkly superpowers make no sense and look so fake.
Obviously inspired by the somewhat-more-interesting (but equally improbable) Kid Antichrist in the book Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman (since turned into a successful miniseries), Jesse turned out not to be a very exciting character. Even within the episode, the writers (one of them current showrunner Andrew Dabb) very quickly wrote themselves into a corner. They therefore had Jesse wish himself into a poster of Australia, never to be seen or heard from again. Alas, it seems Dabb wanted to give this character type another go.
So, we got Jack.
The Problem with Jack
The biggest problem with Jack derives from the above character types (or, more accurately, writing flaws). One could say it’s an inherent problem in them – that is, there’s no actual room in the story for him. Sure, Alex Calvert has chemistry with Padalecki, Ackles and Collins, and that’s nothing to sneeze at. And yes, he’s garnered a fanbase for the character. But that doesn’t actually create room for Jack in the storyline, especially not as a protagonist and member of Team Free Will.
He sucks the energy out of storylines meant for Sam, Dean and certainly for Castiel (Castiel practically doesn’t have a personality, anymore, let alone a positive one, now that he’s All About Jack). That’s what makes him a Cousin Oliver or Scrappy Doo. TFW spends far more time fighting over what to do about Jack (with everybody ganging up on Dean for expressing doubts that turn out to be totally prophetic) than fighting Big Bads.
Rather than opening up the SPNverse for new storylines with Sam and Dean (as Castiel did in his dramatic entrance at the beginning of season four in “Lazarus Rising” (4.01), Jack shoves Sam and Dean right out of their own story. And of course the audience is going to resent that. They didn’t sign on for this 15-season ride (at whatever point they started and began catching up) for a character that shows up 83% into the story. That’s a ludicrous expectation and yet, that’s exactly what the current showrunners and writers expect from us.
To make matters worse, as the #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter movements have increased awareness of the lack of diverse representation in Hollywood, the show finds itself in an awkward position where any space for women and/or People of Color or LGBT people in the story has been taken up by a bland, young white boy who pretty much embodies Entitlement.
He has, as Ijeoma Oluo puts it in her essay on Medium, “The Anger of the White Male Lie,” “promise,” simply due to what he is – a white guy. The current writers try to dress this “promise” up as stemming from his being the son of the Devil (an alleged heritage he supposedly has to struggle to keep down). They present him as being some kind of divine royalty as the grandson of God, even though every single being in the SPNverse aside from Chuck, Amara and the Empty (with the possible exception of Death) is a child of one of Chuck’s creations.
Chuck doesn’t have children. Lucifer is simply his creation and he’s not even the first one. So, really, what the “promise” ends up being, in its subtext, is Jack as a privileged young white man and the projected next generation of the show (whether or not a spinoff ever occurs) because the current writers have completely missed why Sam and Dean were attractive to the audience in the first place.
Sam and Dean, despite their cosmically exalted status later on (and being white men), grow up blue collar and poor, very low on the totem pole of human society. They respond to that in extremely different ways (because that generates more drama). Sam becomes a social-climbing snob who seeks status and an escape from his impoverished Hunter’s background via an Ivy League education and going into law, hobnobbing with equally snobby (and generally white) people. Dean responds by essentially dropping out of “respectable” society and becoming a protector of the innocent, of the down and out, which includes a lot of women, PoCs and LGBT folk. Not only is he contemptuous of human elites, but of monster elites as well (only one of many reasons why “Bloodlines” tanked so hard as a backdoor pilot).
The point here is that Jack would be a bleak and disastrous choice for the new God and he’s not even a little bit a Christ figure. He’s certainly perfect as an Antichrist figure – someone who appears to be Christological, a glittering golden boy, but is the opposite of Christ – but there is nothing in his journey that makes him look like Christ.
One could argue that of course he’s an Antichrist, since he is the son of Lucifer, but the writers could have moved away from that if they’d written his father as a more sympathetic and self-sacrificial character (like, say, on the show Lucifer). They could have also done it by having Jack make better choices, more Christ-like choices. Christ’s divinity is revealed by actions, not by parentage, after all.
But Jack’s identity is all about his parentage, his privilege and his inherited power, which fluctuates, Gary Stu-like, according to the needs of the plot and whatever corner the writers have written themselves into this week. As such, it doesn’t really have anything meaningful to say about what kind of person he is or chooses to be. Not the way, say, Sam responds to his demon blood heritage or Dean to the Mark of Cain, or either one to their shared status as archangel vessels on opposite sides of the biggest conflict in the SPNverse. His powers are pretty and shiny, but they don’t illuminate his character. They are all bombastic sound, no light, so they make him look empty.
He is a powerful baby, lacking wisdom and the ability to acquire it easily. Gullible. Easily bamboozled. Some have argued that this is because he’s still just a child, but that’s actually a disqualifier for a Christological figure. Sure, you have stories of the infant Christ in the mainstream Gospels, and you have stories of an arrogant child Jesus throwing his divine weight, Trickster-like, around in apocryphal Gnostic gospels like the Infancy Gospel of Thomas.
But the main focus on Christ, where you get his message and his mission, is after he has grown into a mature man in his thirties, which was practically middle-aged two thousand years ago. The adult Jesus is wise and smart. His enemies are constantly trying to outwit him and he’s always one step ahead of them. This most emphatically is not Jack.
Whenever he has power, Jack grossly abuses it, in anger and pride. He has a very shallow moral learning curve and most of it involves trying (and failing) to be more like Dean. He is arrogant and treats others like puppets. He does terrible things, feels a little bad about it, then gets let off the hook. Everything (and I mean everything) is handed to him, completely in contrast to the Wayward Sisters or, for that matter, Sam and Dean, who grew up in poverty and misery, and have had to fight for every bit of peace, even to get a home.
The future beyond Supernatural
Now one could argue that would-be spinoffs like Ghostfacers and Wayward Sisters are similar in trying to shove Sam and Dean out of the picture. However, the characters and storylines in these have been around a lot longer than Jack. The Ghostfacers first showed up as the Hell Hounds in season 1’s “Hell House” (1.17) and reappeared in season 3’s “Ghostfacers!” (3.13). Claire first showed up in season 4 and Jody in season 5 in “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid” (5.15), which was only a third of the way through the show. Donna first showed up halfway through season 9 in “The Purge” (9.13), Alex in “Alex Annie Alexis Ann” (9.19). Yeah, Patience and Kaia were new, but the general group and premise definitely were not. And they had plenty of history with Sam and Dean. A story with them was, by its very nature, a continuation of Sam and Dean’s story, a sequel, even if neither ever appeared in it.
You all know I’m no fan of Kaia, either the “Prime” version or the Monster World version. But her redemption arc shows more Christological content than Jack’s. After being too afraid at first to help find Mary, Kaia volunteers to help the Brothers and Jack in “The Bad Place” (13.09). Later, after that goes disastrously wrong, she helps the Wayward Sisters find Sam and Dean in her nightmare place (Monster World) and sacrifices herself to save Claire, a girl she only just met (“Wayward Sisters” (13.10)). Motivated by her Prime version’s sacrifice, Dark!Kaia saves her life, then gets her rescued by Sam and Dean (coming full circle in that story). Dark!Kaia then decides to atone for her selfishness by staying with her own, imperfect world, as Chuck destroys it (“Galaxy Brain” (15.12)). This is why Kaia’s relief when Dean shows up at the last minute and hugs her feels earned. She had to work for it.
But Jack never has to work for anything. He is a crown prince character, a child of ultimate privilege. The industry, and even the nature of specfic storytelling, has changed a great deal in the 15 seasons Supernatural has been on. It doesn’t seem right for Sam and Dean, the ultimate underdogs, to hand off the baton to a privileged character like Jack and see him become their new God. I sure hope that’s not where the show is going with his storyline.
The Kripke Years
The Gamble Years
The Carver Years
The Dabb Years