The following contains spoilers for the first five seasons of Supernatural.
With an election in Canada next week and a US election on the horizon, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what I want from politicians, especially as it relates to structural inequality and removing oppressive systems that compound disadvantage. I’ve also been watching a lot of Supernatural, which just launched its eleventh season (and deposited its tenth on Netflix).
Bear with me. I swear this is going somewhere.
See, structural inequality – here very broadly defined as any official or unofficial laws, networks, norms, or codes that prioritize and reward specific, usually white male life experiences over others – is so insidious because so much of it is invisible. Poverty, sexism, racism, or other forms of disadvantage can make it nearly impossible to compete against people who have never had to deal with such strictures, yet the rhetoric of the American Dream insists that the individual is the only one capable of implementing change. It leads us to search for easier explanations for our own lot in life, shifting the blame from systems that create inequality to the victims of that oppression. It’s an elegant con job designed to maintain the status quo, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a show that captures that fallacy better than Supernatural.
Now, I’m pretty sure that message is unintentional. The first five seasons of Supernatural are primarily concerned with the relationship between demon hunting brothers Sam and Dean Winchester (Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles), and it’s mostly leveraged for interpersonal drama rather than pointed political deconstructions.
But the central arc is pretty damn unambiguous. Over the course of the show, Sam and Dean are explicitly told that angels and demons have been manipulating them for their entire lives (they even brought Sam and Dean’s parents together), to the degree that Sam and Dean have never made a truly independent decision because they’ve never been free from cosmic meddling. Dean can’t even order a bacon cheeseburger without triggering a Biblical intervention.
All of which is to say that Supernatural makes the concept of structural influence almost comically visible because it associates it with living characters in that universe. Angels and demons – elites, if you will – deliberately yet remotely interfere to guide human behavior for their benefit with little regard for the pain that happens as a result. Sam and Dean are set up as modern incarnations of Cain and Abel, predestined for millennia (and prophesized in the show) to serve as vessels for (respectively) Lucifer and the archangel Michael in a pre-ordained war between Heaven and Hell that will decimate humanity.
Though Sam and Dean reject those roles, the plot works because they don’t realize they’re being manipulated. When they do, they frequently meet their fate on the road they take to avoid it because their need for independence makes their behavior entirely predictable. In Sam’s case, those closest to him – teachers, lovers, and even his best friend – have always been possessed by demons, all silently nudging him towards a destiny of which he had no pre-existing knowledge. Since his birth, it’s been one against 100 in a battle he didn’t know he was fighting.
It comes to a head in season four when Sam begins drinking demon’s blood to become more powerful. It’s a logical decision given the circumstances. There are a lot of demons, Sam needs to kill them, and Dean was dead (he got better), so Sam needed all the help he could get. He didn’t create those circumstances – again, those circumstances represent thousands of years of divine intervention – but he does the best he can, saving lives and getting rid of evil stuff on Earth.
It’s a perfect example of the ways in which disadvantage can lead to sub-optimal decisions. Drinking demon’s blood – or robbing a convenience store or doing crystal meth – is a bad idea in a vacuum, but it’s a lot more appealing when you don’t see any other options. People will do what they feel like they have to do in order to reassert control over a turbulent situation, and the lack of access to housing, employment, or basic respect can push people just as much as condescending angels.
It’s therefore infuriating to see how little sympathy Dean has when he finds out what Sam has been doing. He’s angry at the angels and Ruby (the demon Sam has been drinking) for tampering with his life (and for betraying them after two seasons as an ally in yet another example of a long con), but he burdens Sam with the sole responsibility for his actions, completely ignoring how much it took to push Sam to that level of desperation.
And Sam was desperate. He needed emotional support to help him fight the darkness, and Dean wasn’t willing to provide that because he sees only the result and not the road that led there. It’s hypocritical given Dean’s own demonic indiscretions (most notably his decision to sell his soul), but it does reflect a popular way of thinking and it explains why structural inequality is so hard to combat. In Dean’s eminently American worldview, the individual is the primary unit and the only one with any moral agency. Larger considerations simply don’t matter from an ethical perspective, so if you make a choice, only you deserve the consequences.
Which is weird, because Dean reaches that conclusion even though he knows that literally every single moment of Sam’s life is part of an ancient plot orchestrated by omnipotent beings to make Sam do that one specific thing. YOU COULD MAYBE TRY TO BE A LITTLE UNDERSTANDING YOU UNFORGIVING DICK!
Whatever the reason, Dean willfully overlooks the fact that there are forces greater than himself that have a direct impact on his actions despite being directly told that that’s the case, a privilege that is rarely extended to the rest of us. Instead of leveraging that awareness, Sam and Dean punish each other for their own fallibility, doing so with cathartic-yet-shortsighted expressions of rage in which they state their dissatisfaction with the status quo without offering any positive solutions that could lead to long-term change. The show’s soundtrack is classic rock, but its anthem is Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name.”
Meanwhile, Sam feels guilty about starting the apocalypse even though he had no idea (and no way of knowing) that’s what he was doing. It’s totally Ruby’s fault and she does get murdered, but the show regards Sam’s self-flagellation as appropriate even though his weaknesses make him sympathetic to an outside observer. The show judges the brothers as if they were omniscient (and they do let themselves be duped with alarming regularity), but that seems unfair considering that angels and demons are usually withholding vital information.
The arc culminates in the final episode of season five when Sam finally breaks with fate and defeats Lucifer to regain control of his own body long enough to imprison both of them in Hell (it’s complicated). Up until that point, the show does not feature a single moment of true agency. Sam and Dean’s stoic, masculine demeanor has the appearance of four-wheels-two-lanes liberation, but it’s an illusion, a front to mask how little freedom they have within that world. They posture to avoid addressing that insecurity, offering meaningless defiance that makes them the most quintessential version of the thing the system expects them to be.
That’s why the moments leading up to that showdown are ultimately more important. Though Dean, Bobby Singer, and the mopey angel Castiel are present in the finale, the latter two quickly die and the victory is framed as an instance of individual bootstrapping perseverance. Sam wins a battle with Satan. The lesson? If you set your mind to it, you can alter the course of heaven.
However, the reality is far more communal. When your fate is etched in stone (or Destiel fan fiction, which is more or less the same), it is extraordinarily difficult to fight against a tide of complex structural forces. Such monumental feats are simply not possible without the encouragement of those who know you and understand what you’ve been through, and you can’t offer that support if you insist on blaming individuals for reacting to things that are beyond their control. In the context of Supernatural, Sam needs to drink demon’s blood to defeat Lucifer (it turns out he was on the right track all along), but his true strength comes from Dean, who finally recognizes the bleakness of their situation and offers compassion as Sam prepares to perform a dire act that makes sense because there really is no alternative.
In other words, I THINK YOU OWE YOUR BROTHER AN APOLOGY, DEAN! Now do tumblr a favor and kiss and make out! Er, up.
But I digress. Sam and Dean seldom view themselves as victims, yet every aspect of the world they inhabit is constructed by an elitist group that fears their agency and wants to keep them confined in subservient, pre-approved roles. Their strident self-belief in the face of those odds gives them a doomed nobility, but their self-destructive need to claim responsibility for everything also makes them far more vulnerable to the systems they’re trying to escape.
It’s no coincidence that they have their greatest success when they stop fighting each other and start fighting against the deities that created the mess in the first place. It forces Sam and Dean to acknowledge their own limited mobility within a much broader social infrastructure, but their sense of freedom is more genuine because more complete information allows them to make decisions that account as the world as it is instead of how they want it to be. They consequently choose their targets more judiciously and hit them more accurately, preventing an apocalyptic war and doing more to create a world more to their liking.
Of course, statuesque white men like Sam and Dean seldom feel the effects of that kind of structural oppression in the real world, which more frequently affects women, racial minorities, and other disadvantaged groups. Supernatural is a work of popular fiction and I recognize that I’m speaking with vague, generic platitudes that don’t necessarily apply to a world without vampires, shapeshifters, and demons.
But the machinations are eerily similar. Here in North America, millions of people live in a largely invisible patriarchal system with codes that were deliberately put in place by a group of self-interested social and economic elites to compound the advantages they already enjoy over their fellow human beings. That group lives cloistered away from the rest of us, apart from a system that incentivizes sub-optimal behaviors that help perpetuate inequality and shift the blame for that inequality to the victims, just as Supernatural shifts the blame to Sam and Dean instead of the angels that set the plan in motion.
Meanwhile, the stubborn adherence to the American Dream – the fallacy that we are the only masters of our destiny – makes it far more difficult to perceive that system, which in turn makes it more likely that the cycle will continue. Meaningful change requires awareness, empathy, and collaboration in the face of a resilient superstructure. Supernatural offers a small-scale version of that – the band seldom grows beyond a half-dozen white bros – but the mentality has a broader applicability.
More importantly, it’s unfair to judge people for the non-existent crime of being human. We all make mistakes that need to be called out, but making a mistake is not necessarily a moral failing. Those kinds of normative judgments only drive people apart – it nearly ruins Sam’s relationship with Dean – and they rarely get to the source of problems that have a much deeper social history.
So what does that have to do with two upcoming elections? Not much. Supernatural won’t have much bearing on the modern political sphere and it’s not going to get anyone into or out of office. But it does increase my desire for a leader willing to admit that structural inequality exists and that we need to work together to address it. The actual details will be difficult to iron out, but it’s the right thing to do and no one ever said that breaking the invisible hand was going to be easy.