Supernatural starts out with a missing father, and spends the majority of the season giving us glimpses of just how badly he fucked up his sons before they’re (briefly) reunited as a family. On a show that’s rather notable for its toxic masculinity and toxic relationships, this one really stands out as messed up. Let’s have a look.
To briefly recap: when his wife was killed, John took their boys and started a life of hunting for the demon that killed her. We’ve seen glimpses of his sons’ lives, left behind to fend for themselves for days at a time in hotel rooms while Daddy’s off chasing evil things. Dean’s been forced to grow up and shoulder the responsibilities of keeping Sam fed, clothed, entertained, and safe. We’ll see much more of that in the future, but we’ve been given enough glimpses to know that Dean got the lion’s share of the responsibility. And he’s the one who always toed Daddy’s line, who never questioned orders, while Sam got it into his head to live his own damned life. While Dean stayed in the family business, Sam went off to college, and his dad stopped talking to him altogether.
When Dad goes missing, Dean goes to Sam for help – but doesn’t get it until Sam’s girlfriend is fridged by the same demon that killed their mother. Sam’s got a dual quest: find the demon and find their dad. Dean’s pretty focused on just finding Dad. They came quite close in Home, when we finally glimpse John Winchester. We learn in that episode that before Mary’s death, John was a stubborn man who doted on his family. We know Mary’s death changed him. And when he calls his sons in Scarecrow, we see that he still has that deep caring, but it’s overlain by a drill-sergeant demeanor that rises up when they don’t do exactly as they’re told. We see how Sam fights it, while Dean falls immediately into line.
We’ve seen in the boys’ behavior how each of them has been messed up by their dad in different ways. Sam loves his dad and is desperate to be loved in turn, but rejects his authority and asserts his independence. Dean is the good soldier, and if he had any rebellious spirit when it came to their father, it was beaten out of him by circumstances and a fair amount of emotional abuse.
But even if you didn’t know that history, you’d be able to guess it just from this scene in Episode 16, Shadow.
See, Dean gets a manly hug, while Sam hovers uncertainly, unable to exchange more than a “Hey.” So you know there’s something up there. Youngest son? Shoulda been getting massive hugs from dear ol’ dad. And then Dean, instead of asking how Dad’s been or where he’s been, jumps straight to explaining they got caught in a trap, he didn’t know, he’s sorry. The words tumble out fast, like he’s trying to stay ahead of getting into deep and painful trouble. And look at his face. He’s still nervous, almost terrified, after John just sort of chuckles and says it’s all right.
And notice how the boys respond when he asks them he’s right about Meg being the bad guy: an instant “Yes, sir!” in perfect unison. These are boys who were raised to give instant, unquestioning obedience. Even Sam the rebel hasn’t entirely shaken the effects. And that look Dean gives his brother when he begs John to let them help him hunt.
That one scene says everything you ever needed to know about the relationship between father and sons. It says everything about how they were raised and how that turned out. While the rest of the episode is, for the most part, poorly written, that scene is utterly perfect. Both the writing and the acting are dead on.
It amuses me quite a lot that John is useless for the entire battle, just pinned against a cabinet howling in pain. Dean, his mini-me, his yes-man, his proper little soldier boy, is also helpless. It’s Sam who saves them. Sam, who has to endure Dean’s jokes about his bookish ways. Sam, the boy who left for college and ended up having a shouting match and years of no contact with his father over it. Sam, the man who wants to get rid of this fucking demon and then get back to having a normal life. It’s deeply satisfying that he’s the one who saves their bacon.
And then, after he does that, Dean decides it’s their fault John almost got killed and that he’ll be better off without them.
Notice how John shows an instant’s fatherly concern. He doesn’t want to leave them, but decide Dean’s right. And Sam tries to argue him out of it, but John begs for his trust, and he reluctantly gives it. For now, the rebellion is quelled.
Most of this episode had me rolling my eyes and left me cold, but these scenes with John make it one of the more important episodes in the series. There’s a wonderful complexity to this character. He’s titanically flawed. He was a terrible father in many ways. But he does love his boys, and he does the best he can with the terrible situation they were handed. He does want them to have a better life. He wants them to be safe. And that’s his weakness, and why he thinks he has to abandon them.
Keep all of this in mind as we go forward. The way John Winchester raised his boys and treats them in their adulthood explains a lot about them. You’ll need to refer back as toxic family dynamics cause epic issues and you want to scream “Dudes! What the fuck?! Why the fuck?!”
It all kinda comes back to John.