Grotesque Rules of Engagement: The Ethics of the Hunt on Supernatural
To say Supernatural is morally confused might be an understatement. At times itâ€™s difficult, as a viewer, to discern the moral compass of the show beyond the relational, beyond the core relationships. This confusion often comes into relief during times when the main characters, Sam and Dean, face mortal danger. At such times the questions that drive the story, whether it is free will versus destiny or family versus duty, fade into the background and what takes center stage is an almost primal impetus or urge to protect and preserve the status quo, an urge that makes explicit the fiction of an ethical hunt.
For the sake of this essay, Iâ€™d like to focus on a few points of inquiry about the problems of hunter, hunted, and the ethics of hunting in the show. My reading of "Supernaturalâ€™s" ethics attends to three themes and is broken into three parts: the good hunt, the good brotherhood, and the good suffering and good sacrifice. I would argue that the showâ€™s seemingly Judeo-Christian perspective is a faÃ§ade that belies a commentary on contemporary ethical conundrums, especially in the latter seasons of six and seven. Furthermore, the paradigms of human/monster, brother/enemy, and sacrifice/redemption help guide the show toward ethical dilemmas that are particularly American in kind.
Part One: The Good Hunt
The quest for an ethics in "Supernatural" must begin with a simple question: What is â€œgoodâ€ in this world? Is the good a happiness of sorts? Is the good a common good? Is the good truth? What is â€œthe goodâ€ in "Supernatural"? Trying to answer this question may allow us to dissect the ethical boundaries and limitations the show has set up for itself with regards to the main activity, the activity through which the entire landscape of the series is filtered, and that is hunting. What is the â€œgood huntâ€? Can there be one?
Over the course of the series viewers have witnessed several penetrations to the very thin membrane between hunter and hunted in "Supernatural." The show has continuously dealt with the ethical dilemmas of hunting monsters, especially when one has the capacity to be monstrous such as in the case of Samâ€™s demonic powers and Deanâ€™s role as torturer in Hell. The monster, as Jeffery Jerome Cohen presents it, is â€œa double narrative, two living stories: one that describes how the monster came to be and another, its testimony, detailing what cultural use the monster servesâ€ (Monster Theory, p. 13). If we apply Cohenâ€™s frame to Supernatural, we can see that the monstrous tendencies of both Sam and Dean distort their â€œgoodâ€ natures â€“ Samâ€™s faith and kindness disappears in the demonic that must exist in the presence of an angelic; Deanâ€™s humanity and nurturing nature succumbs to the excellence of his torture.
The monstrous, then, can be seen as not the absence of good or the presence of evil in "Supernatural," but rather the corrupted familiar. And the corruption of the familiar works in the mythos of the show since we have been given fairly overt definitions of the demonic as the human made grotesquely human, and if the demonic, the monstrous, is the corrupted familiar, the unfamiliar made visible, then the ethics of hunting becomes even more important, as we must depend on a code of ethics, a creed, to determine what is hunt-able and what is simply hunted.
In the early seasons of "Supernatural" it was easy to discern an ethics â€“ whatever is other is hunted, whatever is monstrous. There was little angst or inquiry surrounding the purpose of hunting. Even in the heartbreaking second season episode â€œHeart,â€ the killing of Madison was never in doubt. Her survival depended on curing her from the werewolf â€œgeneâ€, and when it was clear she was not â€œcured,â€ she had to die. Even Madison recognized such necessity, which speaks to the absolutism of the â€œmonster is huntedâ€ ethic that the show forwards throughout its first two seasons. It is interesting to note that this episode is juxtaposed to the previous episode, â€œRoadkill,â€ which features a woman â€œghostâ€ who must be vanquished along with the male ghost who pursues her. And the final scenes of that episode clearly romanticized the ghost figure, making her sympathetic and human, even as she disappeared into the rising sun.
I would like to insert a side commentary here that has often plagued me when reading "Supernatural." When the show has pushed the envelope of its own ethics, particularly in the first three seasons, it did so through gender. How so, you may ask? If we catalog the episodes that problematized the monster definition such as â€œHeartâ€ and â€œRoadkillâ€, we still can turn to â€œBloody Mary,â€ â€œChildren Shouldnâ€™t Play with Dead Things,â€ and â€œBedtime Storiesâ€ as plots that try to deal with the â€œmonsterâ€ as empathetic figure. When the show does sentimentalize the monstrous, it is often a sentimentalizing of the female monster. Take for example Meg, who is incredibly malevolent, and yet she earns sympathy as a possessed body in â€œDevilâ€™s Trap.â€
Even â€œHouses of the Holy,â€ which had the male priest antagonist, can be seen as a gendered reading, as the priest figure is a culturally desexualized character, a character who must be a man without the common markers of masculinity or masculine sexuality. Such a reading is interesting, as season three mutates that feminine figure from one of sympathy to one of suspicion and doubt, with the introduction of the human maleficence of Bela and the demonic treachery of Ruby. I would also point to this season as the â€œturningâ€ point in the discussion of the monster, as the evolution of the monster shifts from one of episodic study, i.e. the monster of the week, toward the monstrous predispositions of the main characters.
Reading the ethics of hunting monsters through gender is interesting, but it cannot be a total reading. The show, throughout its nearly seven year run, has always kept at the heart of its narrative the question of who deserves to be hunted, and even more subtly, the question: who deserves to be a hunter? The character of Sam Winchester acts as the foundation for this debate. Sam, who we learn at the end of season two was chosen to be demonic, gradually yields to his â€œnature.â€ It is in Sam that we can see the potential cataclysm of a relational ethics. While Dean sold his soul for Samâ€™s life in â€œAll Hell Breaks Loose,â€ Samâ€™s quest to save Dean perfectly coincides with the diminishment of his virtue.
When I invoke virtue here, I cite Aristotleâ€™s notion of virtue as balance in Nicomachean Ethics. Aristotle argued that virtue was the mean point between excess and deficiency, and that virtue is a key component to any system of ethics. Sam Winchesterâ€™s excess of emotion, so brilliantly described by the Trickster in â€œMystery Spot,â€ puts him in mortal, as well as moral, danger. When the Trickster tells Sam, â€œDeanâ€™s your weakness and the bad guys know it too. Heâ€™s gonna be the death of youâ€¦Sometimes you just gotta let people go,â€ he is warning Sam, making him see what he has become â€“ a man who prioritized the kill over the hunt, the end over the means. And thatâ€™s when any hunt goes bad in this world. This episode sets up the dissolution of Samâ€™s ethical center in season four. His willingness to be seduced by Ruby reveals Samâ€™s willful descent into demonism, and also allows us as viewers to be prepared for the ethical resolution about which I will speak of later, sacrifice.
But we must not forget that Samâ€™s justification for his behavior exposes the problems of relativism and relationalism in "Supernatural." Sam lets himself go blind to serve his fear of abandonment. It is appropriate that the demonic in this show is metaphorized through the image of the eyes. The black eyed demons, as depicted in the show, are maliciously human because they subsist on nothing but emotion. Even in the most recent â€œRepo Man,â€ the demon returns to let us know that demons are hunters too. They hunt for the cruel and wicked in us so they can make it visible, make it functional. They hunt not to kill, but to make us blind to our own moral or ethical boundaries, make us transgress against those boundaries.
In the world of "Supernatural," the demonic is not the absence of human but the aggressively human, the human made purely pathos. And Samâ€™s devolution into demonism re-enacts this process. His virtue falls apart as he moves with lightning speed toward that moment where his ability to choose, which is the pinnacle moment of any ethical dilemma, falls prey to his emotion.
The final confrontation scene with Lilith in â€œLucifer Risingâ€ punctuates the ethical fall of Sam. While one might argue that his capitulation to Rubyâ€™s argument for killing the nurse, aka Lilithâ€™s handmaiden, finalizes Samâ€™s fall, I would argue that the show demonstrates his collapse in the final scene during the slow motion sequence when Dean is calling out for Sam and Ruby steps in front of him as he turns towards the door. That scene emphasizes Samâ€™s complete sensory overload. His eyes go black; he experiences both blindness and deafness. His body disappears to his â€œheartâ€ and that disappearance is his complete moral failure. And it is ironic since the icon of his descent was the very voice calling out to him from the dark, Dean.
This evolution toward demonism, which to a certain degree salvages itself in the sacrifice of â€œSwan Song,â€ never quite abandons the narrative of the show. The character of Soulless Sam, who occupies the first half of season 6, nicely juxtaposes a Sam devoid of emotion to the earlier versions of an overly emotional Sam. And returning to the notion of virtue as mean, Soulless Sam demonstrates that a deficiency can also skew or totally eliminate a code of ethics. In this case, then, I would argue that to understand the ethics of hunting in "Supernatural" we must always keep the character of Sam Winchester at the forefront of the discussion. His growth and regressions signal to viewers how to read the monster and the hunted in the world that has been constructed so far. His choices are the choices of the predator as well as the prey, and without him we cannot fathom ethical boundaries or the transgression of those boundaries. And while other characters, such as Castiel, have experienced similar descents into ethical peril, Sam is the centerpiece character for understanding the problems of forming ethical choices in a world that demands total commitment to the cause.
Sam Winchesterâ€™s monstrosity, if we can call it that, is a particular statement about the paradigm of hunter and hunted, a paradigm that becomes dilemma. This dilemma is even more apparent in season 7, which introduces a host of problematic issues that bring to light the psychological and sociological consequences of hunting. From Deanâ€™s killing of Amy to Samâ€™s gradual psychic break to Dick Romanâ€™s slow conquest of the media spotlight, the show has subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) pressed the issue of ethical hunting. But it is the figure of Dean and his continual distancing of himself from the core brotherhood that calls us toward the question of ethics of a different hunt, the hunt for purpose. Where Sam may allow us to see the hunt as process and problem, Deanâ€™s own ethical boundaries and failures give us insight into what happens when virtue is not an Aristotleian mean but rather a martial art.
In part two of this essay, then, I will turn to Dean and his soldierâ€™s code as a way to read the ethical dilemmas inherent in the war against the demonic, especially when that demonic is part and partial of a brother in arms.
Part Two: Brotherhood, Brother Good?
If you tire, give me both burdens, and rest the chuff of your hand on my hip,
And in due time you shall repay the same service to me;
For after we start we never lie by again.
- Walt Whitman, Song of Myself