A Week Later
For five weeks, we have tracked The Winchesters' messages about shedding one’s past, or learning how to live with the trauma carried forward from that past. For the first time, though, 1.06 “Art of Dying”, foreshadowed a future we know awaits both John and Mary. I didn’t hear this thread the first time I watched the episode, but on rewatch, the psychological drives that we know dictate John’s and Mary’s futures unmistakably revealed themselves. This early in the young couple’s relationship, they are already beginning to define their value as individuals by their ability to protect the other person. This insight into their personalities dominated the episode’s story for me, and has reignited my excitement for watching how they became the people we came to know in Supernatural.
The Beginning of the End, and the Title Thread “Art of Dying”
Let’s first look at John.
You were right, Mary. I have wrestled with anger my whole life. And... I thought that I'd put it to bed. The fight with Neto, it woke it up... in a way I wasn't expecting. I have been using you and hunting as an excuse... To avoid my problems. I just-- I don't know how to fix it.
The rage in John was born from his father’s sudden disappearance. That immense, unexplained loss created an anger in John as a young child that has festered ever since. There are times when he feels he has it under control, but, as he confessed to Mary in this hunt, that anger is always lying in wait for a trigger to reignite it. The fight with Neto was very personal to John because it raised his guilt and grief over Murphy’s death. It surprised John, rekindling the old rage that is always looking for an excuse to escape. John’s recognition that he is using the protection of Mary as an excuse to justify his undirected anger, his head-first hunting obsession, foreshadows the exact same reaction from John years from now when he fails to protect Mary and she is killed by a monster.
Want in my head? Fine. This morning, we cremated a woman who used to be a hunter just like you. I mean, don't you get it, Mary? Every moment that you're out there hunting a monster is another moment that you could die. And I will not be the person to wrap you in a white cloth, put a knife in your hand, and send you to the afterlife in a blaze of glory. So yes... if getting you out of hunting alive means pushing myself, that's exactly what I'll do.
“A blaze of glory” is exactly how Mary dies! Can you imagine the overwhelming guilt John feels when he fails to protect Mary, his wife? It doesn’t matter that he doesn’t know anything about “the life” of hunting when she dies. Simply as a husband, a soldier, driven to protect her by his own admission, John fails to do the one thing that he has latched onto as his mission in life. When he later learns about monsters, he “pushes himself” to protect his sons, and to keep them from dying in the same way as their mother when he’s gone. This insight into his psyche is fascinating!
John: I can't--I can't end up like Mac.
Mary: That's not gonna happen, John. I promise.
Again, foreshadowing! In one regard, John ends up exactly like Mac – a spirit who comes back from the dead to seek vengeance from his killer! But Mary is also right. John may end up a ghost who reaches across the veil for revenge, but John’s motivation is love and the fulfillment of his mission to avenge Mary. He isn’t angry anymore as a ghost. He comes back to save his sons. I love this future-looking aspect of this episode!
Mary also revealed her obsessive need to protect John.
I’m want to get out of hunting, but it won’t be at your expense. You mean too much to me.
When the time comes to save John from the yellow eyed demon, Mary sacrifices everything, even her own future, to save his life. Even now, after knowing John only a few months, she repeatedly begged Tracy to spare John’s life.
Don't. For John…. Tracy, please, don't.
While John’s mission to protect Mary is fueled by a fear of again losing someone close to him, Mary’s drive to protect John is driven by the belief that’s been drilled into her since she was 5 – her mission is to protect others, with her life if necessary. She is expendable. Her dreams, her life, her future are all expendable. Her raison d’etre is to protect the innocent.
In fact, she does end up sacrificing herself for others. There’s just a delay of several years from the time she makes the bargain for John’s life and the time the price for that deal is paid.
John: Tracy seemed pretty shaken up.
Mary: Yeah. Well, can you blame her? I mean, she thought all of this was in the past, and now it's splattered over her walls. I can't wait for the day when the sight of a dead body shakes me up like that.
When Mary is killed by the yellow eyed demon, she thought the hunting life was all in her past, then it came back in the dead of night and splattered a body all over the walls of her home. Brilliant foreshadowing!
Mary: So back to hunting, then? Is that the lesson here? Is there really no escape?
Tracy: It's not that you can't escape the life, Cricket. You just can't escape the decisions you make in that life, not when you compromise what you believe in. But you're better than me, better than your folks too, for what it's worth. So when you finally do decide to get out, you're gonna do it the right way.
In the end, Mary isn’t able to escape the fateful decision she made in her hunting life – the decision to promise an unknown favor to a demon in exchange for John’s life. Her “escape” was temporary, and the price was her own life and a cursed life for her son(s). She wasn’t better than her parents, after all.
Parents and their Children
Tracy’s ominous warning and undeserved compliment that Mary is better than her parents (and her "aunt") also makes some sense out of the overly judgmental reaction the crew had to learning what Tracy had done to save her own life a decade ago.
Tracy: At that point, we knew he was too far gone, and we were afraid of what he was gonna do next.
Carlos: So you decided the best solution was to kill him.
Tracy: Think what you want, but you didn't see the look in his eye.
Each of the three hunters took a turn criticizing Tracy’s decision. That didn’t sit right with me. They weren’t with Tracy when it happened, therefore they couldn’t really judge if Mac was beyond saving. Their eagerness to condemn the actions of those who came before them betrayed the arrogance of their youth.
Mary: So you started a farm and just played make-believe, like none of this ever happened?
Tracy: There's not a night goes by I'm not haunted by what I did. Now my past has come back to get me.
Years in the future, Mary will “start a family” and “play make believe, like none of this ever happened” after she makes a decision that changes the trajectory of her life. I believe the young hunters’ indignation foreshadows that they aren’t as righteous as they think they are, and given the right set of circumstances, they’ll end up making some of the same life and death decisions as their elders.
Mary: I get it now. How it must have felt when Mac turned on you.
Tracy: Hunting sure knows how to make a gal question her morals. But that doesn't justify what we did to him.
Does Mary end up betraying her morals? She sacrifices herself to save her family… but she makes a deal with a demon to do so.
Dean: Hunting has a way of changing a person. After a while, right, wrong, good, evil, they all start to look the same. And then it makes you start to wonder, "Who's really the monster here--them or me?"
Does Mary die righteously? Does John?
Dean: Hunting's not for everyone. You have to be strong, stay sharp, make tough decisions, and it's not easy, But then again, the righteous things never are.
The kids’ harsh judgment of Tracy, Darla and the others was reiterated by Tracy’s words that “parents are idiots” and that Mary is “better than me, better than your folks, too.” Tracy's feeding the illusion that this generation of hunters will be able to make different choices than the hunters who came before them. That’s simply not true, as life has a way of repeating itself.
Shedding the Past
Except… Latika believes that we can make different choices that “break the cycle” of our pasts.
Tracy: I wish there'd been another way, but... we didn't have a choice.
Latika: Violence is always a choice…. More violence isn't the answer, not when you've spent a lifetime with it, when it's touched everything you've ever had. Your father wasn't the only one with clenched fists, Mac. When I was 13, my country was attacked, and my father went to war. When he returned, he was different. He was angry all the time. He had these violent outbursts. It was like the war infected him. I tried to make myself smaller so the violence wouldn't find me, but it did. For the longest time, it made me feel powerless, until one day, it made me feel angry. And that anger kept growing inside of me, just like it did for my father. And I acted on that anger for years until I hurt someone, and that's when I knew I had to make the change. You can keep hurting those that have wronged you, keep living in that anger and violence, but it won't bring you peace. Peace has to be chosen. It's what I chose.
Lata’s past is very interesting. Who did she hurt? Someone in her family? Is that why she had to, or chose to, leave home and doesn’t talk openly with her mother? Through meditation and pacifism, she has shed the emotional burden of her past, even if it appears she is still avoiding (rightly or wrongly) someone of her past.
Anger, Violence and its Aftermath
We also learned that Latika’s teen years were filled with abuse from her father. As well, Mac’s life was defined by the physical abuse he suffered as a child at the hands of his father. So much of The Winchesters thus far has been a study of anger, rage and violence, and the aftermath of that negativity. We’ve been tracking it as the thread “shedding the past” but last episode we started tracking it separately as "Trauma". With "Art of Dying"'s continuation of this theme, let's expand the thread to “Anger, Violence and its Aftermath” because PTSD and trauma are clearly of ongoing importance, but so is the anger and violence that preceded them.
It’s certainly a part of John’s personality profile, but I wonder if there’s more to it than that. What do you think? John attempts to learn Lata’s strategy to shed anger. Even though meditation is a lot more than sitting in a certain position reciting mantras, he is at least making an effort. I wonder if it ever works for him. Sometime between his childhood grief, his war PTSD and the time he loses Mary, I wonder if he finds peace. It will be interesting to watch that play out.
Why, why, why wouldn’t Mary have used her machete to behead the monster? That’s not a mystery we need to track. It’s just a mistake that defies explanation for an experienced hunter.
Mac turned to Black Magic when hunting wasn’t enough to dispel his rage. The Akrida are after the “essence” of unusual monsters. Is this all a hint that the Akrida need black magic to invade the world?
The Last Word
At first glance, “Art of Dying” was another solid monster of the week story. It didn’t particularly stand out for me as notably good or bad. Drake’s superb acting (as John), supported by Nida’s convincing performance (as Latika), sold the emotional story very well.
But once I heard the foreshadowing of John and Mary’s futures through their own revelations into their burgeoning obsession with each other, this episode became a fascinating entry in the development of the Winchester family’s events. I also saw Mary in a completely new light. Instead of being force-fed the idea that she’s a fierce hunter, I instead saw her as a frightened, sensitive person trapped in a cycle of violence. That makes a lot more sense out of the sweet girl we’ve seen, whose attempts at leadership and hard decision making seemed disingenuous. I began to like her for her innocence, not her strength. I saw her styled hair and teenage fashions as outward attempts at normalcy that directly conflict with the job she has been asked to do. Suddenly, I’m curious about her.
So, far from being ordinary, “Art of Dying” has piqued my curiosity about all of these characters in a way that the series hadn’t before to this point. Carlos tongue-tied? Is there no end to the surprises these characters will spring on us? I hope not, because it just got very interesting.
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Transcript courtesy of TV Show Transcripts
Screencaps courtesy of The CW