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Supernatural is truth
1x04 Phantom Traveler: Reflections on John 
11th-Jun-2006 11:06 pm

Reflections on John
1x04 "Phantom Traveler"

On first blush, perhaps there doesn't seem to be much to say about John in "Phantom Traveler," beyond the throw-away "He talked about you [Sam] all the time" line, but I think, if you look closer, you can find a good bit more to say about him. This episode shows us what John's done, how he feels, and how his life affects both of his sons.

Let's start with what John does: fights evil. Now, you might say "Duh, Dean. That's kind of the whole premise of the show, right?" And of course, you'd be right... to a point. John's drive in life has been given to us by the boys up to now, and their stories are conflicting: Sam says Dad's obsessed with finding the thing that killed Mom; Dean says the family business (meaning John's business) is fighting evil and hunting things. They're both right, of course, but, as always, neither tells the full story. Supernatural, in these first few episodes, has been very much about the human variable. In the Pilot, that variable was Sam and Dean, in "Wendigo" and "Dead in the Water," it was both Sam and Dean and the families they helped. In "Phantom Traveler," while the nameless, faceless people on the plane are the ones who ultimately get saved, it's Jerry Panowski who can be identified as the human variable. He's the one who comes to them for help, he's the one who, in the end, knows what they've done and shows his appreciation for it. And Jerry knows about thanking the Winchester family, because he's done it before.

Which brings me back to what John's done.

Jerry's poltergeist is proof that John is more like Dean's image of him than Sam's (please remember, I'm talking about the image of John in these early episodes, before we find out just how whacked he really is *g*). Obviously, this poltergeist had nothing to do with Mary's death, so, by Sam's estimation, it shouldn't have been a miniquest on the way to John's unholy Grail. Just as Sam would have done in "Wendigo," John should have shoved Jerry's problem aside and focused on the bigger picture: "The thing that killed Mom." The fact that he didn't tells us that he's both intent on stamping out all evil and at least cognizant of (if not actually compassionate about) the plight of others who are afflicted with evil.

And it appears John and Dean were around the Panowski house long enough to get to know Jerry well--after all, even if you subscribe to the belief (that I do) that Dean is engaged enough with each and every job to remember them all, he still comes up with Jerry's plight and circumstances pretty damn quickly, and Jerry certainly gives every indication of knowing both John and Dean well. He even seems to feel comfortable enough with his knowledge of Sam to treat him as a friend by association, which leads me to the revelations we receive in "Phantom Traveler" about what John thinks.

First, there's Jerry's comment that John talked about Sam all the time. Now, this is obviously meant by the writers to say something to Sam, but it also says something about John. Namely, that he was proud of Sam, even if Sam wasn't aware of the pride. Pretty fatherly, all told. I know I've pointed out the twist of fatherly love that is John's relationship with his sons before, but seriously--who hasn't had the experience of finding out, long after the fact, that a parent or sibling or whatever was proud of/impressed with/jealous of one's accomplishments? The fact that John threw his son out of the house for getting into Stanford now takes on another layer, and we're left with a little puzzle piece to ponder while Waiting for Godot John.

Second, there's Jerry's utter faith that Sam will be as much of an asset as John would have been. It sounds like a throw-away line--a way of buttering Sam up, perhaps--but Jerry's quite content to treat the boys as equals and experts--both of them. He doesn't see Sam as a college boy off on holidays and wasting time in Dad's garage, doing odd jobs because he can make a few bucks off Dad that way. He sees him as a hunter, like his father and brother, and I'm not certain he'd have been able to do that without John and Dean both talking a good story about Sam's abilities and intelligence. To that point, the fact that Jerry happily welcomes Dean back, sans Dad, says that Dean showed himself to be capable in the poltergeist incident, and very likely that John gave Dean all the trust that led Jerry to feel comfortable with him taking the job alone (with Sam, of course).

Which dovetails right into the voicemail at the end of the episode.

"Call my son, Dean... He can help." Total trust in his son's hunting. Without referencing episodes that follow (which might call this trust into question), this voicemail shows that John finds Dean a fitting replacement for himself. And the fact that the voicemail is both compassionate-sounding and universally offering of assistance just underscores John's quest to rid the world of not only the thing that killed Mary, but all evil things that hurt anyone.

"So, great," you say. "John's a compassionate hunter, out to put right all the supernatural wrongs of the world, and he loves and trusts his kids. Wonderful. So... why are his kids so screwed up, again?"

Yeah. We've covered the whole "in the real world, John's a sucky father" thing. We've both been there and done that. What I want to talk about here is how this episode in particular paints the morals and responsibilities that John has instilled in his children.

Dean is obviously proud of the resolution of the poltergeist incident, as evidenced by his satisfied smile to Sam when Jerry remarks that he'd be dead without the Winchesters' help. As I said before, Dean also obviously takes his hunts to heart, remembering Jerry quickly and greeting him as a late-met friend. And, while at times consumed with his fear of flying, he does set it aside long enough to actually get on the plane, find the demon, and help Sam kill it (though the show is really Sam's by that point), because that's what needs to happen. It's evil that needs to be stopped, they're all people who need to be saved, and that's the over-arching theme of Dean's life, because John, while zealously pursuing the thing that killed his wife, managed to focus on helping others often enough that Dean took that mandate to heart.

And Sam may have rebelled against his father's quest, but, as briarwood pointed out this week, he's fallen back into the family business pretty quickly. And not just the "hunt, find, kill" part of it, but the helping people part, as well.

All in all, John is presented as complexly in this episode as he always is. Yes, the voicemail shows that he's not dead, or in huge dangerous trouble, but just hiding, and yes, that really, really sucks for his kids and he has to know that Dean, at least, would be worried about him by now. But we're also shown glimpses of a proud father--a father who cherishes and trusts his sons--both of them. A father who taught his children to help those who can't help themselves, and who taught them well enough that they can actually pull off the helping. I'll say it again: John's not really a bad father, given the fucked up world in which he lives.

He's just a little... absent. *g*

13th-Jun-2006 12:00 am (UTC)
Can I trade in my mom for John? Please? cuz my mom hides her (I almost wrote "supposed" because I honestly don't know) love for both her daughters, apparently so well, that one of us is in therapy. Dont mind me, I'm having a bad day. Maybe I'll go work on the John-vid...

I do like how Sam's getting to know his father by the people John and Dean have helped, and by Dean himself. It's a father he didn't "recognize" while John was there, but I'm betting he wishes he'd known all along. And now why am I identifying with Sam? Argh! I swear, that boy keeps popping up in the oddest places for me...
13th-Jun-2006 01:40 pm (UTC)
I love that voicemail message. In just a couple of sentences it manages to capture the best and worst aspects of John's character. The good: even in the midst of finally, after over two decades, chasing down Mary's killer, John takes the time to make sure that strangers who need his kind of help know where to go in order to get it. And he has complete confidence in Dean's ability to do the job. The bad: TALK TO YOUR CHILDREN, ASSHOLE!

Those early episodes really did a fantastic job of building up John's characterization in his absence. All these little things coming through in other characters' reactions, creating this John-shaped presence even when John wasn't there.
14th-Jun-2006 01:18 am (UTC)
That's some beautiful meta you've got there!

I agree with your assessment that in Phantom Traveler, at this stage of the season, the glimpses we see of John paint more of a positive picture than a negative one. Sure, he's absent but in this episode he's this sort of background hero figure, a bit larger than life. At the time it gave me the impression that his actual presence would give off a sense of "now everything's going to be fine." (The reality of his presence later proved different, much as I love the guy, he wasn't as comforting as his absent presence was. His absence-presence comes across as so much more self-assured. In person we get to see just how broken he is.)

And the fact that the voicemail is both compassionate-sounding and universally offering of assistance just underscores John's quest to rid the world of not only the thing that killed Mary, but all evil things that hurt anyone.

Well put. That's exactly how I feel about the tone of the voicemail.
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