Sam and Dean Winchester are demon hunters. They can’t help but fight the powers of darkness as they have inherited this profession from their father. Demon hunting is the family business, and they are bound and determined to hang on to this legacy. For the past five seasons on the CW network, the Winchester brothers have run through a gauntlet of supernatural terrors and urban legends, culminating in their current struggle with rebellious angels and what seems to be the imminent arrival of the apocalypse. Sam and Dean’s father disappeared a few seasons ago. I do believe that he got the raw end of the deal in some kind of Faustian contract, after which he disappeared into hell or some other parts unknown. Luckily, the brothers have allies in their struggles: a grizzled and grumpy veteran of the demon wars named Bobby and an angel, Castiel, who is engaged in his own quest to find God (who, like the Winchester’s father, seems to be nowhere to be found).
Complicating matters for the brothers is the fact that Sam has acquired a taste for demon blood, a gruesome habit that enables him to gain control over the powers of darkness but at the cost of his own humanity. According to the twisted metaphysics of the show, consuming quantities of demon hemoglobin is not only an effective tool for exorcisms, it is also highly addictive and Sam is ready to fall off the wagon. All he need is an “ends justifies the means” excuse, and he is willing to imbibe. In addition to Sam’s struggles for sobriety, Dean has his own inner demons with which he has to contend. Dean sold his soul to save his brother, a foolish bargain that merited him a brief sojourn in the underworld, until he was saved from his fate by the intervention of Castiel. As if all this wasn’t enough, the brothers learned recently that they have been chosen as “vessels” for Lucifer and the archangel Michael in the final battle of Armageddon. Sam and Dean are literally between hell and a hard place.
Is Supernatural all just super ridiculous? My answer is yes and no.
The series seems to be a successor for another prime time offering from years ago, Buffy the Vampire Slayer,
a show which tried its best to raise the bar in terms of the television fantasy genre. To their credit, the creators and writers of “Buffy” took its characters seriously, and this earnestness is likely what allowed many viewers to care about Buffy and her misfit friends long after the novelty of the show degenerated into the formulaic. However, this same earnestness also ultimately undermined the show’s ability to impart meaning in the midst of its muddled metaphysics, until everything imploded in the series finale: a heavy handed display of politically-correct liberalism. Supernatural seems to be different in this regard. The creator of “Buffy” thought he was being Homeric in his narrative and as such took it all too seriously. The creator of Supernatural
is best likened to Apuleius
- the story is unapologetically, despite all its blood, emotion, and terror, a farce.
However, as Apuleius
demonstrated, even a farce can be a means by which an audience can be provoked into some serious thinking about the nature of existence. Though the metaphysics of the series is a Gnostic pastiche of religion, myth and superstition, Supernatural
is one of the few shows on television in which theological questions are at least being entertained. Sam believes in God, though his faith has become rather shaken and tenuous of late. Caziel is searching for a God that he is certain exists but, oddly enough for an angel, has never seen. Dean, despite all his protests, seems ever more desperate to believe. Dean’s grasping for God reached a particularly poignant expression in a recent episode where his desperation at his brother’s addiction led him to a rare moment of vulnerability expressed in petitionary prayer. The series seems to be getting to the point of admitting that the only real solution to the Winchester’s predicament is for God to show up. Whether or not God will actually make an appearance remains to be seen. I wouldn’t count on it, and if God does finally show up, I doubt that it will be the God revealed in Christ.
God’s absence from the series seems to be another piece of evidence concerning our culture’s current inability to articulate or accept a coherent theological narrative, a failure that is represented in Supernatural by the angels, demons and humans struggling to find their way as orphans in a God forsaken universe. The absence of a credible, theological narrative is not without its consequences, and in terms of Supernatural the consequence is action and adventure without ultimate purpose or meaning. Sam and Dean are drifters, tossed aimlessly from place to place, their wanderings the image of a culture that has lost its spiritual moorings.
If I was pressed to identify one theme in Supernatural
that isn’t just super ridiculous, it would be how the series seems to have correlated the experience of an absent father with an absent God. In the absence of their father, Sam and Dean are handicapped in their mission. They lack the one person they need, not just to keep the demons at bay, but to teach them how to negotiate a world that is not theirs to command and control. They long for their father, for even if he cannot set their world right, his presence would give them the will to endure and fight the good fight. The angels and demons in the series, all power and no love, are struggling with the desperate experience of their Heavenly Father’s absence, a predicament which affords them no redemption from the struggles of their existence and no possibility for forgiveness and reconciliation. Without the provident power and abiding presence of the Father, both the natural and supernatural, tends toward chaos and dissolution.
Our culture has been in an ambivalent struggle with not only our Heavenly Father, but with earthly fathers, for some years now. At modernity’s origins, the attempt was made to banish our Heavenly Father so as to assure that nothing could mitigate the exercise of our freedom. As patriarchy has been summoned to the dock over and over again and lambasted as the source of all our woes, men seem to be taking the hint and stepping aside from their paternal responsibilities. If we believe that sending both our Heavenly Father and earthly fathers into exile is a good thing, Supernatural might be, in its own ridiculous way, telling us to reconsider that idea.
Father Steve Grunow is the Assistant Director of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries..