On John Winchester and Parenting
Why I, Ellipsis Black, do not actually believe that John Winchester is a bad father.
I have been re-watching certain episodes of Supernatural, I have been struggling around my feelings about John Winchester. The consensus (correct me if I'm wrong) about John Winchester is that he is a Bad Father, even among the apologists and John-lovers. In fact, I even went along with this myself, because certainly the vibe one gets from the final arc ("Dead Man's Blood" through to "Devil's Trap") is not a positive one. Then, through a discussion with wickedtruth
on one of her fics, I realised that the issues I was having reconciling my views on John was not between my liking him as a character and his being a bad father, but that my liking him as a character was based on his being a good father (well at least, a decent one), and this was being contradicted by my active rationalisation of his character. I have no problems with liking characters who are bad parents or who have other faults; I write them myself, and tend to lean towards the flawed characters in general. And I'm not arguing that John isn't broken: I think he is more broken than either of his sons, to be honest, but that is a view based on speculation not canon, and so I'll leave it aside.
Before I get into the serious meta, I'd like to throw a quote out there. It's from Savage Garden's "Affirmation
," and, leaving aside comments about the band, I think this line is directly relevant:
"I believe your parents did the best job they knew how to do."
I'll discuss that quote more later, but I believe the dislike of John's parenting skills is based on four propositions.
- He treats Dean and Sam like soldiers in his war on the Demon instead of like his sons.
- By extension, he constantly puts his sons in danger.
- He is emotionally repressed and inaccessible.
- He went off the rails after Mary died and everything else was subsumed in his quest for revenge.
I'm going to address these one by one, with specific reference to "Pilot," "Bloody Mary," "Home," "Asylum," "Scarecrow," "The Benders," "Shadow," "Something Wicked," "Dead Man's Blood," "Salvation," and "Devil's Trap." This is simply because those are the episodes I have access to. If anyone would like to comment with pro or contrary evidence from other episodes, please do, and I will most likely incorporate it. "I believe your parents did the best job they knew how to do."
The reason that I think the "Affirmation" quote is so relevant is that I really do think that John is doing the best job he knows how to do. Without making excuses for his actions, one has to remember that John has had his wife incinerated on the ceiling, and consequently has discovered that the things that go bump in the night exist
and apparently want his family dead. That's a scenario that doesn't show up in the parenting handbook, so safe to say that John is flying blind, raising two sons by himself, in circumstances that would strain two ideal parents working as a team. We also have a very striking comment by Sam in "Nightmare":
"I'll tell you one thing: we're lucky we had dad. … it could have gone a whole ‘nother way after mom. A little more tequila, a little less demon hunting, and we would have had Max's childhood."
Yes, alcoholic John is directly contradicted in canon. More importantly, I think the episode, "Nightmare" had two purposes: one, to show the link between psychic abilities and mom's burnination, and two, to show Sam (and the audience) that while the boys' childhood may not have been apple pie, John had handled it as well as he knew how
, and, "all things considered, [they] turned out okay, thanks to [John]" (again, to quote Sam). Given Sam's obvious tendency to be highly critical of John's modus operandi, this comment cannot be dismissed as some sort of rationalisation, like it could be if Dean had said it (though Dean agrees with an unusual lack of aversion to "chick flick moments").
The flipside of the "doing the best job they knew how to do" argument is that, of course, he made mistakes. Dean, we know thanks to the Shapeshifter in "Skin," has a pretty severe abandonment complex, partly because he "did everything Dad asked me to and he ditched me too," (though more because Sam left) and also (again, from "Skin"), we know that Dean had dreams of his own, but unlike Sammy his were subsumed because John "needed" him. We are not told in what capacity John needed him: as a hunting buddy, or a companion. We don't know whether John said he needed Dean or whether Dean just came to that conclusion himself, but given that John says something similar to Sam in "Dead Man's Blood," it's a fair bet that John did
actually say it.
Sam is carrying a lot of baggage over the fact that he and John had a fight before he left for college and John told him not to come back ("Dead Man's Blood"). So, John had a roaring argument with Sam because Sam was leaving them, Sam internalised John's words because he was a kid and kids do that, and he's been carrying around the baggage ever since. Big whoop. I've done the same with comments from my dad. Is my dad a bad father? No, he's great and I'm very lucky that he's my dad, even if he is not the most emotionally accessible person ever, and I had the constant feeling when I was growing up that I could never match his expectations. Most parents don't, I think, understand how much kids can be affected by what they say when they're angry, or as throwaway comments. I have never forgotten the time (forgive the anecdote) when I brought home 5 A's and a B+ on a report card and my dad said, jokingly, "what, not straight A's?" Trivial, but definitely a contributing factor in my eternally unrealistically high standards. That doesn't make my dad a bad parent any more than John is a bad parent. Max's dad, who blamed Max for his mother's death, and beat Max, was a bad parent. John didn't blame Sam for Mary's death, nor is there any evidence that he was wilfully physically or emotionally abusive. Given the traumatic events they went through, there would be a desire to find an accessible target for blame, and Sammy would be an obvious option, given the givens. But John does not do this.John Winchester treats Dean and Sam like soldiers in his war on the Demon instead of like his sons.
All the evidence is equivocal. If John viewed his sons as soldiers, they would be an acceptable casualty in the war. Are they? In "Dead Man's Blood" John uses a colt bullet without hesitation to kill Luther who is threatening Sam. In the grand scheme of the war on the Demon, the colt and its ammunition are infinitely more important than Sam. Of course, it could be argued that John used it as an opportunity to confirm that the colt really could
kill anything (since we know that the only [other] way to kill vampires is by beheading), and it's pretty clear from his expression that he's thinking this afterwards. But it can't be that alone. Similarly, in the Pilot, Sam says,
"When I told Dad I was scared of the thing in my closet, he gave me a .45."
Again, this quote is equivocal. John may have given Sam a .45 so he could defend himself, but it is also possible to argue that it was because John wanted the thing in Sam's closet dead
and thought Sam should be the one to do it. Yes, giving a nine-year-old a gun is pretty screwed up. But as I've said and will saya agin, the rules changed when Sam was six months old. John is just trying to cope with it as best he can.
"After your mother passed, all I saw was evil. And all I cared about was keeping you boys alive."
John says this in "Dead Man's Blood", explaining why he got so mad when Sammy went to college. I think the only way this comment can be reinterpreted is by assuming John is outright lying to manipulate Sam, which I just don't buy. The primary objective for a commander with soldiers is not to keep all the little soldiers alive. It's to neutralise the enemy. Soldiers are acceptable casualties.
I think the strongest evidence that this theory is incorrect is the fact that as soon as John caught the Demon's trail he took off. He subsequently spent most of the series trying as hard as he could to keep the boys out
of the fight, and only agreed with extreme reluctance in "Dead Man's Blood" that they should be involved at all. Although he might justifiably be concerned that Sam might screw everything up (given that Sam hasn't been in the hunting line for years), he does, as previously mentioned, tell Sam in "Dead Man's Blood" that they "needed" Sam and Sam just left. He also trusts Dean enough to let him work his own gigs, so his elusiveness seems more like drawing the fire than the fear that the boys will do something to ruin everything. This also tallies with what he says towards the end of "Dead Man's Blood" (which I will discuss later).
We do know that John is the "command and control" type, because it drives Sam batty not only that Dad bosses them around (even in absentia) but that Dean follows Dad's instructions. Dean's motives are debateable: fear, desperate need for approval, trust? John, we know, is ex-USMC. It is also not surprising that John wants to run the show rather than making an open debate of everything. There is a good
reason why the military is run like that. In life-or-death situations, the last thing you need is a committee. It is my opinion that Dean understands that and believes it is better to trust John than to waste time arguing, not that he is scared. It is more (and I've used this example before) that Dean and John have the same sort of connection as Mal and Zoe in Firefly
. Although Zoe doesn't believe Mal will make all the right decisions all the time (and she's patently not a doormat), she follows his orders because she trusts his judgement and trusts him to get them out of whatever situations he gets them into.
John also says in "Dead Man's Blood" that somewhere along the line he stopped being their father and started being their drill sergeant. Honestly, I think the fact that he is able to admit he lapsed from being their father into being their drill sergeant shows that he's been soul-searching, presumably after Sam left. I think he's right, and he regrets it, and is trying to make amends. Then, also in "Dead Man's Blood" he shows that in some respect he is trying to be their father by keeping them out of the Demon's line of fire. Does this mean John sees the boys as soldiers? Or does it mean that he is trying to keep them safe the best way he knows how to? Are the boys a means to the end of killing the Demon? Or is killing the Demon a means to keeping the boys safe? Note, in "Scarecrow," John says he would have done anything to protect
Sam from the pain of Jessica dying, and by extension, the pain of the Demon's influence. Then he says that Dean and Sammy can't be any part of the hunt for the Demon. He doesn't say why.
I don't know that this theory can be proven either way. All the evidence I can provide can be interpreted depending on what your bias is. I don't think John sees the boys as the means to an end. I don't think he sees them as soldiers—to be more precise, I don't think he sees them as only
soldiers. They may be soldiers in the way where he knows they're trained and capable of carrying out missions, and trusts them to get their job right, but not
in the way where they are acceptable casualties of a war that is bigger than them.By extension, John Winchester constantly puts his sons in danger
I split this out of the previous segment because it was getting long and chaotic. I'm going to transcribe the relevant dialogue in "Dead Man's Blood" to begin with.
Sam: "You're leaving again, aren't you? You still want to go after the Demon alone? You know, I don't get you. You can't treat us like this."
John: "Like what?"
Sam: "Like children."
John: "You are my children. I'm trying to keep you safe."
Dean: "Dad, all due respect, but that's a bunch of crap."
John: "Excuse me?"
Dean: "You know what Sammy and I have been hunting. Hell you sent us on a few hunting trips yourself. You can't be that worried about keeping us safe."
John: "It's not the same thing, Dean."
Dean: "Then what is it? Why do you want us out of the big fight?"
John: "This Demon? It's a bad son of a bitch. I can't make the same moves when I'm worried about keeping you alive."
Dean: "You mean you can't be as reckless."
John: "Look, I don't expect to make it out of this fight in one piece. Your mother's death? It almost killed me. I can't watch my children die too. I won't."
So what does this dialogue tell us? John considers the Demon to be a whole other level of dangerous, so that while he trusts his sons to keep themselves alive in the little league, he doesn't want to risk them in the big league. This, I think, puts the audience in an interesting bind. On the one hand, if you're of the opinion that John isn't being a father to the boys by being constantly absent and letting them get themselves into danger hunting, then his refusal to let them here must be the first time he is actually acting like a father (self-destructive rhetoric notwithstanding). On the other hand, a lot of things about this dialogue are deeply disquieting. John is still keeping his kids out of the decisions—which could be being infuriatingly autocratic, or protecting them like a father should—he also expresses for (I think) the first time his willingness and nay, his intention, to die in this fight, which is not really something a father should say to his children. It's almost like he's priming them to lose him (which is beyond the scope of this meta, but an interesting observation on John's character).
But, in relation to the proposition that he is constantly putting his sons in danger, yes, he is, but he's only putting them in danger he believes they can handle. His obstinate insistence on keeping them out of serious danger is driving Sammy, at least, batty.John Winchester is emotionally repressed and inaccessible.
Nope. This one I definitely disagree with. Actually, I think Dean and
John are a lot less emotionally repressed than we tend to portray them as. Dean is perfectly able to express his own emotions, as he does in the Pilot when he says to Sam, "I can't do this without you… yeah, well I don't want to", in "Phantom Traveller" when he admits to being not okay with the plane thing (there were a lot of emotions expressed about that), and in "Salvation" where he says he's barely holding it together, to name a few of instances. Sure, he doesn't express all his emotions, but who does
? What he's not comfortable with is other people (ie, Sam) expressing their emotions, but I digress (see this
for pretty much the best treatment of Dean I've seen). The first time we actually see present-day John is sitting in Missouri Mosely's living room in "Home". He says,
"You have no idea how much I want to see them."
The next is when he's talking to Sam on the phone in "Scarecrow." I won't transcribe the dialogue, but basically, he asks how Dean and Sam are doing, then
says (because Sam brought it up) that he's after the Demon, then
says he's so sorry about Jessica. Someone who had trouble expressing emotion, would have trouble saying to his until-recently estranged son that he was sorry for his loss. It's a difficult thing to say for many people under any
Another interesting observation with this is in "Nightmare":
Max: "When my dad used to look at me, there was hate in his eyes. Do you know what that feels like?"
As I mentioned earlier, part of the purpose of "Nightmare" was actually to demonstrate to us how much worse it could have gone for the Winchesters. It is telling here that Sam never thought that his Dad hated him, considering the baggage he has with the college fight, and that he says at some point (I caught it in "The Road So Far" so I'm not sure where exactly) "When we find Dad, I'm not even sure he'll want to see me". The implication of the "No," is that Sam may have seen a whole range of emotions when his father looked at him, but none of them were hate. Does that sound emotionally repressed?
Somehow, John has found a way to express some emotion other than hate when he looks at Sam. Indifference, maybe, but anyone viewing "Shadow" could call John's expression indifferent, or repressed, or masklike, or anything like that. He actually cries. He's teary when he turns around, and by the time he has hugged Sam, he's crying, and can't stop smiling. That is not
emotionally repressed. Even his dialogue with Sam at this point,
"Last time I saw you we had one hell of a fight…. It's good to see you."
is not, to me, the dialogue is someone who can't express his emotions. In fact, this was an extremely emotional scene. In the finale arc, it is true that John is distant. But (again, at the risk of offering excuses rather than evidence), it's a pretty damned stressful time. He discovers the colt exists and that Elkins had it all along. He has to go retrieve it from a pack of vampires (when he thought vampires were extinct), then he discovers that the Demon and Co are killing everyone he ever held dear, and will only stop if he bring the gun to them. This goes wrong and he gets possessed by his arch-nemesis who then comes damned close to killing his elder son. Then his younger son lets the Demon go rather than killing John (who, remember, had basically written himself onto the casualty list a long time ago). Forgive me, but he is justified to be a bit terse. It doesn't make him a bad parent, it just makes him human
. Dean and Sam have a roaring argument in this arc too. That doesn't make them bad brothers, despite Sam's wall-slam manoeuvre.
During John and Sam's exchange in the middle of "Dead Man's Blood," John doesn't go distant at all.
John: "Get back in the car."
John: "I said, get back in the damn car."
Sam: "Yeah, and I said no."
John: "Yeah, you left. Your brother and me, we needed you. You walked away, Sam. You walked away."
John practically shouts the last bit, and Dean has to physically separate them, and act the adult while Sam and John have regressed to the maturity of teenagers. Although this was probably an undesirable display of emotion on John's part, it shows that he is not distant and unreachable at all. In fact, even having been away for years, Sam knows exactly what to say to get John riled up ("This was why I left in the first place."), and we know that John and Sam had some screamers in their time. Later in the same episode, despite all the pressure from the vampires, John and Sam have The Talk where John tells Sam he had college funds for both the boys (I'll discuss this in more detail in the next segment). I think I forgot, in the face of "Salvation" and "Devil's Trap" how much John actually smiles when he's around the boys. He smiled in "Scarecrow" when they were on the phone, and in "Shadow" when they were reunited; both times we only saw him briefly. Now, in "Dead Man's Blood," again, he's smiling as he tells the story.
We know from "Skin" that Dean felt John needed him, and then in "Dead Man's Blood" John says outright that they needed Sam. This is a double-edged sword, of course, because on the one hand, it meant that Dean and Sam must both know they have a place in their Dad's life, that he needs
them (and it is sometimes nice to know you're needed). On the other, Dean gave up his ambitions for that need, and Sam was expected to. He went off the rails after Mary died and everything else was subsumed in his quest for revenge.
I've already mentioned that the alcoholic John was directly contradicted in "Nightmare" by Sam, so I'll leave that aside. I think three big areas where people think that real life was subsumed in revenge and hunting are first that they moved around a lot, second that hunting became the only important thing, and third the whole "college funds" thing. This segment is going to be a catch-all for the things that didn't wind up in the other three, because it covers a lot of the same themes.
A common assumption among fans (including yours truly) is that the Winchester moved around with almost the same frequency that Dean and Sam do now, throughout their childhood. New school once every few months, etc. I don't know if I'm reading too much into this, but there's an exchange in the Pilot that really rocked my assumption of this.
Dean: "Dad hasn't been home in a few days."EDIT: embroiderama has explained to me that Sam is basically saying his dad is an alcoholic on a pub crawl here, which I didn't get, being not down with American lingo. ;) That invalidates most of my comments about this exchange, and I've edited them accordingly.
Sam: "So he's working overtime on a Miller time shift. He'll stumble back in sooner or later."
Dean: "Dad's on a hunting trip and he hasn't been home in a few days."
Sam: "Jess, excuse us, we have to go outside."
What stopped me dead was that when Dean said "hunting trip," Sam really reacted. One would expect, if hunting was John's full-time job, that when Dean said "Dad hasn't been home in a few days," Sam's mind would have jumped to "hunting!" even if he brushed it off with a comment about John's drinking habit because of Jess' presence. But Sam's mind clearly doesn't
jump there, because he reacts when Dean actually stipulates "hunting trip". To me, at least, that suggests that John has another job that he does when he isn't hunting, which suggests (as does Dean's use of the term "home" rather than something like "he hasn't checked in in a few days" or "I haven't heard from him in a few days") that they have a permanent location out of which they're based. This, however, seems so contrary to later series that I wonder if it is a mistake (like the "almost two years" comment later in the Pilot) that has been retconned since or if I'm just reading way too much into it. Because if it hasn't then it certainly challenges the assumption that John uprooted the family to wherever the hunting was whenever he had to. We also know from "Shadow (?)" that Sam was in one school for long enough to be in a production of "Our Town", and that he did, in fact, clock enough school hours to graduate (though we don't know whether Dean did, do we?). Conversely, we know ("Something Wicked") that John did take the boys on hunting trips, and left them in hotel rooms for long periods of time. I won't argue that this is acceptable; I don't think it is, especially when we know Pastor Jim lived a few hours away because John took them straight there when he returned to find the Shtriga chowing down on Sammy.
Did hunting become the only important thing? John left his job and vanished with the kids ("Home"). He left them alone in motels when he was on hunting trips ("Something Wicked"). We also have a picture of him and the boys leaning on the bonnet of the Impala and smiling like an ordinary family would (is this shown in "Wendigo"? I saw it in the "Road So Far"). EDIT: sdl_uncommon tells me this is actually in the Pilot (I must have missed it) in the hotel room and that Sam picks it up and smiles. Aww.
We know Sam finished high school with good enough grades to get accepted to Stanford, probably on a scholarship. As I've said before, although I think that hunting did
probably become more important to John than it should have, it is hardly surprising that hunting came to be so important to him given his USMC background and the fact that he was suddenly and traumatically ripped out of apple pie suburbia and into hostile territory. It is surprising, to me at least, that it didn't become more important. Hunting became the primary means to the end of keeping the boys safe. When they were little, every ghoul and ghostie John killed must have seemed like one less that could hurt the boys. In "Something Wicked," when he discovers the Shtriga attacking Sam, his first action is to get the boys out of danger, then
he returns to finish the job. One thing that never became more important than hunting was keeping the boys safe.
A funny little specific example that a lot of people object to, I think, is that John spent the boys' college funds on "ammo" ("Dead Man's Blood"). So? Given the choice between keeping them alive in order to be old enough to attend college, and saving a nice little nest egg for an eventuality that might not occur of he or they got killed for lack of bullets, the first one is an easy choice. Sam got to college anyway, Dean, we don't know whether he wanted to go to college (we know he had dreams of his own—"Skin"), but we know that the reason he didn't pursue his dreams was because John needed him, not because he couldn't stand the thought of student loans.What John did right.
So, in conclusion, I would like to look at the things I think John got right
in raising the boys. I think there is plenty of literature (which I have looked at in this piece) about what he got wrong, but not much about what he got right.
- He instilled in them a strong moral compass. Even though Dean at least has no problem with lawbreaking, he believes that what he's doing really is "fighting the good fight," "saving people, hunting things," and so forth. Dean seems to see a line over which he will not step (as in "Nightmare" where he states firmly that Max is a monster). My impression of both the boys is that they know where their morals are. I don't care if their morals aren't precisely in line with society's: the situation they are in is really outside the reasonably foreseeable scope of the law. phantomas' meta on John in "Skin" also draws attention to the distinction that Dean inherited from John between lying on credit card scams and lying to friends.
- He equipped them to survive in the world they found themselves in. When Sam was six months old, the rules suddenly, abruptly changed. And John had to make a choice, either he taught his boys to survive in under the new system, with the weapons training, the supernatural lore, the hunting, and even the credit card fraud, or he stuck his head in the sand and let them live normal childhoods while knowing that there was something out there that not only had killed his wife but might (for all he knew) want the rest of his family dead as well.
- We know from the entire series that Dean and Sam are both damned good at the hunting gig. That is all thanks to John.
- He gave them a sense of trust. This might seem like a strange one, but I really think that John trusts the boys in such a way that they couldn't fail to feel it. As early as the flashback events in "Something Wicked" he's giving Dean responsibility (for better or worse). We know he trusts them to hunt and fight and keep each other safe. We also know that he is willing to change his position when they give him convincing evidence, because he does this in "Dead Man's Blood," where, at the end, without any prompting, he says that Dean was right, they are stronger as a family, even though it scares the hell out of him to put them in this kind of danger.
As I stated at the beginning, "I believe your parents did the best job they knew how to do." Faced with a difficult, entirely unforeseen situation where he perceived danger everywhere, this is exactly what John did. Trained the kids like soldiers, yes, but what else was he supposed to do? It doesn't mean he saw
them as soldiers, that was just the training he had and could use. Put them in danger? Yes, but this actually gave them, among other things, a sense of his trust in them, and they are grown men, after all. How well do you think they would deal with his mollycoddling? Badly, considering their reaction to his trying to keep them out of the Big Fight. Was he emotionally inaccessible? I don't think so. Was everything else subsumed in his quest for the demon? Maybe, but I think his prime directive was not "kill the Demon," but "protect the boys," and in order to do that, the Demon had to die. Later, after he sees that else the Demon is up to, he wants it dead for its own sake. Frankly, faced with the same situation, I could only hope my father would cope as well as John did.
I am a big believer in judging parenting efforts by the children they produce. Nobody gets parenting one hundred percent right. People bring their own childhoods, their history, their personality and their weaknesses to the mix, and don't realise, often, how much little things can be internalised by their children. This doesn't make them bad parents. If the boys had turned out cold-blood killers, soulless fighters, immoral lawbreakers, or anything like that, then I would say that John had raised them wrong. However, I would have no hesitation in saying that despite their faults and issues, both Dean and Sam are fundamentally good people. As Sammy says in "Nightmare," "all things considered, we turned out pretty well, thanks to him."
Like Plato, I believe that dialectic, argument, is the path to truth. I am happy to engage in discussion with anyone who has read this (the whole thing, please; nothing is more annoying that people calling you on points you've covered and they just haven't read properly), as long as you are willing to engage in actual debate. If you diagree, tell me so, and point me to parts of canon that I have missed or interpreted against your view. If you agree, tell me that too! :D However, if you hate John and that is that, then we have nothing to say to each other, because I like him a lot as a person and a character.
I'm sure I've missed things, especially since I'm working off only half the episodes, and I will probably come back and change this later when I get my hands on the rest. I hope, at the very least that this (all 5,000 words of it *headdesk*) was a thought-provoking read. I wanted to get my own thoughts down before I dove into reading anyone else's meta, because I have a bad habit of morphing my views based on what other people say, and I wanted this to be mostly my starting throughts in their purest form. Of course, any essay is a bit sad without references, so I may go back later and add any responses I have to meta I subsequently read. In fact, if you know any meta (yours or others') that I might find interesting in relation to this subject, please don't hesitate to link me to it!