John in Something Wicked: the making of a warrior or the breaking of a son?
Dean: "Dad sent us here for a reason"
Dean: "Dad sent us here for a reason"
a little aside
About the STREGA lore: it usually is a very old woman, in Italian lore at least, only with the Inquisition widening its range to include young women too. I just wanted to point out the interesting conundrum of the strega being a usually-personified-by-a-female evil, juxtaposed with John (Dean, Sam) fighting it, and then the trick of the Strega being in fact a male doctor.
Something for a longer essay on gender and parental figures issues in SPN. *g*
In Something Wicked, we finally get to see flashbacks of how life was for the wee!chesters, how they were raised; although there is very little proper information, still it's enough to get at least some ideas. It's also another episode in which John's skills and dedication as a hunter are pointed out, by Sam of all people, in very clear terms. I've divided my thoughts on John's significance in the episode in 3 parts.
1 - JOHN AS A HUNTER
present time - outside the 2400 motel
Dean: "I know why Dad sent us here. He's faced this thing before, he wants us to finish the job."
Sam: "But if Dad went after it, why it's still breathing air?"
Dean: " 'cause it got away."
Sam: "It got away." [tone of disbelief]
Dean: "Yes, Sam, it happens." [cranky]
Sam: "Not very often."
Dean: "I don't know what to tell you, man, maybe Dad didn't have his wheaties that mornin'." [between exasperated and sarcastic]
Sam: "Since when does Dad bail on a hunt? Since when does he let something get away?"
The impression I got from Sam's comments - considering how critical he is of his father in other moments and about other issues - is that John's dedication to hunting and his rate of success, at least as long as his sons are concerned, is at least sky high.
But, as much as John is a trained, Vietnam-tested Marine, I can't envision him getting it right since the very beginning. From another of Sam's comments in The Hookman (right before the local sheriff finds them walking around in the darkness near the first killing's place), we gather for example that shooting ghosts/evil with rock salt-filled bullets is something relatively new, something that Sam didn't know and therefore it must have been developed by John and Dean during Sam's stay at Stanford. It is only feasible to think that John had his ass kicked a few times, before he found enough information and tested enough ways to kill the supernatural as he could.
So, how much of Sam's disbelief of John's failing to kill the Strega at the time of their first encounter is based on Sam's knowledge of John's finely honed hunting skills and how much of it is a child's faith in his father?
John always came back, after all; it's only fair to assume that a baby/child Sam thought that meant the bad guys were defeated each time. Which, in turn, brings forward interesting questions on Sam's feeling overwhelmed by the perfect older brother-dad's soldier AND a perfect hunter-father figure. Before he goes to school, before he gets to compare his family life and experience with that of the other kids, Sam's whole world is John and Dean.
How much would the young kid see the hunting as a lie in reverse, and as the reason why his father (brother-world) is so often taken away from him?
How much is Sam's need for normal and safe just that and not hate of those skills, that talent that make his father so much 'more' than (as a child) he feels he can be?
In any case, John comes across through adult Sam's words as someone that never fails, whose objective is always reached, a ruthless, I suppose, and determined, dedicated, kill-your-enemy-at all-costs, hunter. As far as Sam is critical of the man, he certainly doesn't doubt him as a supernatural hunter.
2 - JOHN AS A FATHER
flashback - inside motel room 768 - day
*John comes out of the bedroom, getting the shotgun ready for Dean, collecting weapons and other stuff from the table and kitchen counter. Dean is near the table, looking at John's notes.*
John: "Alright, you know the drill, Dean, anybody calls, you don't pick up. If it's me, I'll ring once then call back, you got that?
wee!Dean: "Uh uh, don't answer the phone unless it rings once first."
John: "C'mon dude, look alive, this stuff's important."
wee!Dean: "I know, it's just, we've gone over it a millioin times, and, you know I'm not stupid."
John: "I know you're not, but it only takes one mistake, you got that?"
John: "Alright, if I'm not back Sunday night..?"
wee!Dean: "Call Pastor Jim."
John: "Lock the doors, the windows, close the shades, and most important.."
wee!Dean: "Watch out for Sammy. I know."
John: "All right, someone tries to bust in?"
wee!Dean: "Shoot first, ask questions later."
John: "That's my man."
*With a squeeze of the boys' shoulder, John's out of the door*
(Let me first squee for a moment on the great photography and the light and film grain choices for the flashbacks - I sure hope there will be more in season 2, not just for that, but to see the wee!chesters again, because I thought they were both adorable.)
What we see here is a father leaving his kids alone, putting the older one in charge. Which wouldn't be that terrible, if the rest of it wasn't leaving his child with instructions on shooting intruders and the eventuality of his father not even coming back!
Is John really an abusive father?
I've had many conversations on this topic, read many essays, and my resolute, convinced answer is that no, John isn't an abusive father.
The concept of 'abusive father' for me includes physical violence, psychological violence, neglect, lack of proper care. An abusive father isn't a father that, once you're an adult, you stride forward to in order to hug him tight (see Shadow), an abusive father isn't one that you go to look for when he disappears.
There's an important difference between neglect, carelessness, obsessive desperation, singlemindedness, abuse.
We see John give Dean a series of instructions, in order to protect himself and his little brother. Sure, a boy so young shouldn't be put in this position, but John Winchester isn't living in a perfect safe world: the world he lives in it's populated by evil monsters and demons, hiding in the darkest corners, and John's only thought is to learn as much as possible in order to defend his sons, to teach them to protect themselves. Yes, avenging Mary's death certainly is part of John's stubborness in persuing hunting, there is no denying that.
Are the boys neglected?
The place is clean, if small. There's a table and chairs, at least one bedroom that we see, a TV set, some books. Normale, average furniture, but let's not forget John is a single father, too, without a supporting net of friends and family to help him out - mentioning the supernatural is probably the best way to get Children Services on him.
I don't mean to defend John in his choices: the boys should have had a better childhood, that innocence that Sam wishes he still had at the end of the episode, and that Dean wishes for Sam too. But it wasn't John's CHOICE to get that innocence away, but the Demon's.
In the flashback, John leaves the boys alone. For how long?
He mentions Sunday to wee!Dean, and grown up!Dean says that he was stuck in their room for three days. It's a long time to leave two kids on their own, there is no denying that.
John's arrival later on just in time to save Sammy, in the last flashback, again shows him in full protective father-mood. After shooting the Strega away, he runs to grabs Sammy, lifts him almost in his lap, hugs him to his chest, with both hands, the gun abandoned on the bed. John calls his youngest thre times: "Sammy. Sammy? Sammy. Are you okay?" John checks on him, looks down at the boy, his hand holding the boys' neck, petting his head.
wee!Sam: "Dad, what's going on?"
John: "You alright?"
John's voice breaks at this point, almost teary in tone, he's breathing as if in pain, sighs, holds Sammy tightly to him, possibly uncomfortably so, judging by how the boy shifts.
That doesn't comes across as the behaviour of a dis-affectionate father, on the contrary: John's protectiveness towards his youngest comes across loud and clear. Which makes it even harder to accept how differently he treats Dean in this event.
flashback - inside motel room 768 - night
John: "What happened?" [John's still holding wee!Sammy SO tight]
wee!Dean: "I just went out."
John: "What?" [the tone is of anger mixed in with disbelief]
Dean: "Just for a second. I'm sorry." [lying to your father, Dean, tsk tsk - not about being sorry, of course]
John: "I told you not to leave this room. I told you not to let him out of your sight." [tone is angry, scolding, voice somewhat raised]
*John turns away from looking at Dean, his chin on Sammy's head, still holding tight on to him*
Responsability and Guilt:
Dean: "This isn't about YOU, Sam. I'm the one who screwed up, it's my fault, there's no telling how many kids got killed 'cause of me."
Dean: "Dad never spoke about it again , I didn't ask...but he..he looked at me different, you know? Which was worse. Not that I blame him, he gave me an order, I didn't listen, almost got you killed."
This a clear case of unreliable narrator: Dean tells us what as a boy he thought his father was thinking of him, but we have no information on what really John was thinking.
Does John put too much responsability on his eldest son's small shoulders?
Yes, he does. Not because Dean has to feed Sammy or look after him in general, many single parents kids can testify to having had the same role at a tender age (or kids from working parents). But trusting him to handle a shotgun and shoot a MONSTER in order to protect himself and his little brother, that's a bit too much, indeed. (As an aside, it's my opinion that wee!Dean didn't exactly freeze: he switched the safety off, the click alerted the Strega and it looked at Dean, but I think Dean would have shoot, in a short time, but John arrived first.)
There is no doubt that John's has delegated at least part of Sammy's care to Dean, and therefore we can see Dean behaving like a father would to Sam, in many instances (Dean saying: "That's my boy" when Sam kisses Sarah, in Provenance, hits me as one of those instances).
In this particular case, we only have Dean's words to testify to John's reaction, and Dean's interpretation: he is guilty of disobeying John, and as he says to his father in the flashback, Dean is not stupid. It's all too possible that Dean's interpretation of John's "looking at him differently after that" is colored by own fear at the time, by his own child's sense of guilt.
Did Dean deserve a scolding?
Yes, he did. He did disobey his father intentionally, by going out, and that would a reason for being rebuked in any case.
Did John do well in not talking about the event with Dean later on?
No, he didn't.
He should have discussed it with his son, which wouldn't necessarily mean absolving him from his older brother/carer duties, but making sure, as a father should, that his own love for his son or respect or trust wasn't really in dscussion, and that even if there was disappointment in the moment, that disappointment wasn't forever lasting.
3 - JOHN AND DEAN: LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON
In this episode we have once again a nice play on symmetries, by using the relationship of older/younger brother between Michael and Asher as a mirror for Dean and Sam's relationship as brothers. Both older brothers are extremely protective, both come from a single parent family unit and are therefore given more caring responsabilities than in other families.
One of the big questions Something Wicked raises is:
Was John using hs own kids as Strega-bait as Dean uses Michael in present time, or is Dean's use of Michael the result of John's general teachings? Using whatever and whomever in order to get your enemy?
In the flashback, we see John entering the motel room just as the Strega hisses at wee!Dean...you can see John's hand going to switch the lights on (although it looks like as if the lights actually come on before he clicks the switch, but I re-watched the episode on YOUTUBE, so it may depend on the media). Then, he yells "Get out of the way", and shoots, arm straight, striding forward, without hesitation: 10, 11 times (once you slow down you see the sound/flash f light are not in synch?), maybe 12.
This is down to interpretation, until someone asks Kripke. I personally don't think John would ever use his own sons as bait if he wasn't present in order to be able to intervene in case of danger. It has been argued that his entrance was so much ON TIME that it looks suspicious, but personally I think that that is down to drama and suspence.
Dean's mastiff-like wish to kill the Strega certainly stems from his personal wish to regain the respect he felt he lost at the time, and maybe that colors his using of Michael as bait, but Dean never puts the boy in danger and until the very last moment gives him the chance of getting out.
John sends Dean back to finish the Strega, why?
What is known is that John sent Dean the coordinates for this town, because of the Strega. How much did John knew at the time of the Winchesters first encounter with the Strega is not known, either. We know he had an imprint of It, and that's how Dean recognises it's the Strega attacking the kids, by seeing the same imprint on the window sill. But that's all he knows, that and that consacrated iron rounds will work on it, because that's what John's gun was loaded with when John shot the Strega. It doesn't seem to me that Dean knows more on the Strega, not for example that it works on siblings, which would have been quite important.
As Dean says to Sam, John knows this is unfinished business for Dean...which means John knows how important and formative that episode has been for Dean, how deep an imprint it has left on his boy, and thus John gives him a way to break it even with the evil thing.
Which is something that a decent father, if not a good one, would do.
I don't pretend to convince fans that John is a good father, naturally. That's not the scope of this meta, anyway.
What I am convinced that comes across loud and clear in Something Wicked is that John's personality is a Gordian Knot of Fatherhood and Hunterhood (erm, I sure hope that's a word in English), and that his sons get the flaws and the virtues of both these aspects of John's persona, one entwined with the other, and that Dean's idolatry and admiration of his father runs really deep, and shows up in many things, like his adopting a leather coat in the very same John's style that we can see in the flashback, and adopting the hunter habits, keeping a hunting journal (black leather) in which he jots down his own notes.
Did John's parenting skills make a warrior out of Dean (and Sam), or broke Dean forever, making him incapable of being other than Sam's protector and John's soldier?
I don't know, possibly both.
I'd say that Dean (and Sam) are good, trust-worthy, generous and caring men, more than capable of engaging in proper relationships and friendships, which says a lot.
Thanks for reading, and apologies for eventual mistakes. Feel free to point them out, so that I can edit. Comments and opinions welcome :)