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In honor of Father's Day, we are reposting this great analysis on John Winchester from Naismith that was originally published in April, 2009. The original article was a two parter, and both parts are here for your reading pleasure. So Happy Father's Day John Winchester, wherever you are.
The Mechanic From the Family of Mechanics
Not So Simple Beginnings
John, that flawed wreck. That absent father. That stubborn fool. That bastard who put so much on his sons. That obsessive, single minded, revenge driven man who alienated his friends, and formed his children into warriors.
I like him.
No doubt, Sam and Dean are close to my heart, but I am a John girl. Why this choice of father over (uber-cool) sons? Well, John Winchester was a separate person, a man apart. I am going to set aside the fact that this is only a TV show (not as big of an effort as it should be) and look at John the man. This article is about taking off the ‘I see John through Dad colored glasses’.
I’m relatively new to fandom. I found the show at the beginning of Season 4 and fell in love as I never have with a TV show before. Ridiculously in love. No one else I knew watched, so I had no one I could talk to about it. Since I, and most of the people I know, have never really been a huge TV watching crowd, I was fine with staying solo in my enjoyment. I didn’t know any better.
The idea that there would be others out there as in love with this show as I, didn’t even occur to me. Then, as I trolled the internet looking for earlier episodes (the thought of buying seasons of TV on DVD was foreign to me), I ran across some YouTube vids of conventions, and my mind was blown. There was evidently an entire community out there so passionate about the show that they went out of their way and pocketbook to meet each other. How very, very cool!
All the same, I didn’t think of joining in until a few weeks before the Season 5 holiday hellatus. My edge of the seat anxiety and white knuckled need to know what was going to happen drove me to look for others with who I could discuss it. I found message boards and discovered, to my complete surprise, that there really was such a thing as ‘Sam girls’ and ‘Dean girls’. What? One could like one above the other? Ok, cool, I get it. I found out about Kripke&Co., some pretty cool articles, spoilers, spoilerphobes, Wincest (you mean that’s real!?), and I found the negativity and hate that is surprisingly easy to trip over. That made me sad and caused me to back away from my initial discovery of fandom. That isn’t to say I didn’t spend time enjoying the talents of vidders and watching con clips, where I found myself to be a fan of the actors as well as the characters they portray.
I’d also bought the DVD’s near the summer’s end, before season 5 started. There was no point any longer in pretending I wasn’t as hooked as I was. Finally being able to watch the seasons in order and fully, brought John more under my scrutiny. I’d noticed him before, loved him, but he was part of my trifecta of Winchester loving. Quite honestly, I thought both Sam and Dean were much more fun to look at, though John certainly wasn’t an eye sore. Not at all! But the more I considered him, the more intrigued I became, and the more I fell for him. John’s enigmatic character hooked me in and I’ve been a John woman since.
Why this trip down memory lane? I’ve no doubt that there are encyclopedias worth of view points, beliefs and perspectives out about John. I haven’t read them. Mostly because I was not a part of fandom during the first seasons. So if I reiterate already well agreed upon perspectives, or completely step on cemented ideas; my apologies. This is my first foray into written opinion for the show, other than comments, and my influences come almost solely from watching the show, and my own mind.
I love John Winchester the most, because out of the three Winchester men, I can step into his skin the easiest. Time for a little self disclosure to help explain. I’m a veteran. Not a rough, tough, blood and guts veteran in the style of bad movies and action figures. I was a mechanic. A year of my time in was spent in a combat zone, true, but I’m far from the steely eyed warrior. All the same, there is much I know and understand about living under those conditions, because I did live under them.
John was a Vietnam vet. That is what first struck me about him and attracted me to his story and character. Before all the Hunting started, he’d already lived and fought in a war. While ‘my’ war was much different than John’s, in at least one way they were similar; the enemy didn’t necessarily wear a uniform. Which meant they could be anyone, at any time. When I returned home, the fear and suspicion slid away with time. It was safe again. John apparently also readjusted. As Mary said, “He’s sweet. Kind. Even after the war, even after everything, he still believes in happily ever after.” He dropped his guard, and for 10 years led a life that was good. It had its ups and downs, arguments and trouble, but I’m guessing no more than that of a ‘normal’ married couple.
Then one night he wakes to hear his beloved’s voice raised in fear. And he sees a horror unlike anything he dreamed. Within minutes, his wife is dead, his house burned and life turned upside down and inside out. What he has left is the charge of two young sons, one still in diapers and one traumatized. He also has questions.
“I went to Missouri and I learned the truth.”
Those words, and what lay behind them, kill me a little inside.
The truth of monsters. The truth of not being safe. The truth of still being surrounded by an unrecognizable enemy. The truth that he had let his guard down in a war zone.
He thought he’d left it all behind him. All the danger, all the ugliness. He, a warrior, came home to what he believed was a safe place, and found out that after all NOTHING was safe. There were things out there worse than he’d ever seen or imagined. And because he wasn’t vigilant, his wife, his partner, his love, was murdered. Horribly. “They”, “them”, the faceless and unnumbered enemy were out there, unrecognizable, unseen, and out to kill him. But this time it was not only his life in danger, it was his family, his sons.
The war was at home.
I cannot speak for all veterans, but from my own experience, and from what every other soldier I’ve spoken to about it says, one of the very worst things to do before entering a potentially bad situation, is to contact home. It is awful. Hearing the voices of those you love cuts your knees out from under you. There were times I thought I was fine, happy even, and then a phone call home would find me almost doubled over from heartsickness and fear. The game face, the war-face, the right head set…whatever you want to call it, evaporates. You are just a scared kid who wants to go home. And to lose the game face is a big step toward losing your life, or your friend’s life.
John needed his war-face, yet his home was with him. His sons needed a father but the boys needed protection. Compiled to this see-saw of emotional choices, would be the daily stresses of learning how to deal with life without Mary. How to provide for hungry stomachs while on the road. How to learn every single thing about the evil entity that had invaded his life, while making sure Sammy stayed dry and changed. How to convince Dean that everything was going to be ok, while his heart cried out that everything would never be ok again. In the end, he trod the path of providing for their safety by training them up as Warriors, instead of being their father.
“We had a bucket of extra crispy and Dad passed out on the couch.”
Holidays especially would have been hell. When away from home, and Holiday season came around, the absolute last thing I wanted was to be reminded of it all. The very mention of it simply reminded me of everything I was missing. The ideal was to have them as just another day on the calendar. But there were always reminders, music, lights, and the very worst, the dreaded, yet longed for, call home. I love my family, but contacting them on those days put me in a black mood. Was it selfish of me to feel that way? Yes. Was it something I tried to overcome? Yes. Was I in a good mood after the call? No fecking way.
Evidently, John sometimes tried to mark the holiday season, with (in my opinion, predictably) dreadful results. From what we’ve heard from the boys, John commemorated with bad decorations, bad food, drinking and not showing up. No Hallmark memories, which was doubtlessly very selfish and very bad fathering. But this is about seeing John as more than a Father, he was also a man in pain. He was a soldier on the battlefield, full of hurt, hate, revenge. I cannot imagine the struggle it would have been to attempt to put the ‘war-face’ away in order to rejoice in the holiday season. That he tried on any level is a testament to his love for his children. Should he have done a better job? Yes. While this neglect on his part hurt his boys, I cannot hate him for something I myself would doubtless be guilty. Yes, I celebrated with my fellow soldiers, but there was a different intensity to it. There was the common knowledge that we all must be ready to pick our weapons back up at a moment’s notice. The ‘war-face’ was never gone, just temporarily painted over.
This was not a soldier home on leave for the holidays. This was a bloodied warrior, returning to his children directly from the trenches. He walked through that door every time, knowing the enemy was outside. There were no front lines, no safe havens. The only safety lay in constant preparation and readiness. One of the mottos of my unit was “Stay alert, stay alive.” This would seem to apply for Hunters as well.
My heart aches for Sam and Dean and they way that they were raised. No question about it, it was awful. Whereas John knew the difference of peacetime verses wartime, Sam and Dean only knew wartime. (Though I know Dean remembered and longed for a return to the safety of when his mother was alive.) ‘War-face’ was natural to their state of mind. Both the boys, in their own way, longed for a peacetime frame of mind. Sam ran away looking for it. Dean apparently experienced it best as having his family around him.
“But, oh, he sure loved Mary. And he doted on those kids.”
“Anyway, my point is, Sam, that... this is never the life that I wanted for you.”
“Anyway, my point is, Sam, that... this is never the life that I wanted for you.”
John’s actions as a father were enough to have his sons taken away from him. They deserved more, better. Yet they had each other. John, being the stubborn bull headed man that he was, was alone. He lost Mary, his source of support and strength, and never accepted another supplier. He had a habit of alienating his friends. Being revenge driven appears to do that. (I am looking at you Season 4 Sam!) As a result, John chose to lean heavily on Dean. This was one of his greatest mistakes. He trusted too much in the strength of a child, who was desperately pretending (in part) to be strong to please his father. Shame on you John. For shame.
Yet, as with all family dynamics, I’m certain it didn’t appear over night. After all John, from all accounts, was not a naturally bad father. It took grief, trauma, exposure to continuous horrors and years of practice to become the paternal debacle we met. That journey probably started out with small steps, “Dean, watch Sammy while I study this book.” “Dean, get him his bottle would you?” “Dean, I’ve gotta step out for just a minute, watch your brother.” “Dean, this is a gun and this is how you use it.” “Dean, don’t tell Sammy about what I do, he’s too young to understand.” “Dean, lock the doors, the windows, pull the shades and most important, watch out for Sammy.” “Dean, I told you not to let him out of your sight!” “Dean, we need to swing by Stanford to check on Sammy cause I love him more than you.” (Ok, this last one is taking creative license a leetle bit too far, but I’m pretty sure that is what Dean’s heart sometimes heard.)
John didn’t plan for their Hunting life to be permanent. “Dad always said it was temporary, Dean. He said it for 22 years.” He never meant to raise his sons in that way. I wonder how many times Mary’s ghost haunted his dreams, accusatory looks and questions about what the hell he was doing.
“You know, I finally get why you and Dad butted heads so much. You two were practically the same person.”
It has been impressed upon us that Sam and John are alike in temperament. We know that John was sweet, and we all remember that sweet natured college boy who we met in the Pilot. Much of what I surmise about John, beyond what we see on the screen, comes from two places.
1.) Sam’s character.
In some ways, their two lives parallel, and by watching the progression of Sam as he underwent similar experiences as his Father, one can judge who the man John was when away from his sons. I imagine someone not entirely unlike Sam was in “Mystery Spot.” Driven, alienated from those who would befriend him, focused, meticulous and somewhat frightening. John evidently kept SOME charm, since he was able to uh, befriend, Kate Milligan. But overall he obsessed over the scent of the hunt. The main difference between Sam and John, other than when the similarities of their paths began to diverge, was the fact that Sam had Dean. All the way through Season 1, we see Dean again and again, reigning Sam in, urging him to talk, get back on the path of living life, being a brother and so on. John was alone. He had no partner to support him, knock him over the head or give him a patented right hook when he was acting stupid. He had many responsibilities, fears and faults, but no one to say “I know you and I know you’re having a rough time. Let me help. And if you’re not going to let me, I’m going to anyway.”
2.) The end result of who Sam and Dean became.
Those two boys certainly did turn into impressive men. They put others before themselves, they are loyal, have a good work ethic, are intelligent, socially competent, brave, confident, and they know what is of true value. All this tells me that while John will never be put up for Father of the Year, he must have been doing something right. The inner core of Sam and Dean are good. We hear again and again what a bad dad John was, but that does not mean that he wasn’t a good man. And it seems his sons followed his example.
Just to reiterate, I am NOT saying he was a good dad! But I will submit a theory as to why John treated Sam and Dean as he did. In Dean, he saw Mary, and Mary had been the one in whom he could trust, find strength and resistance. In Sam he saw himself, or at least the sweet and gentle part of himself. Little Sammy/Young John; two people Older John wanted to protect. In Little Sammy, John saw the last remnant of his own innocence. As Sam grew older, John saw the beginnings of the man who had let his guard down and allowed Mary to be killed. He wanted to protect Sam from that, and went about it in ways that he should not have. Instead of protecting him, he drove his youngest away. In the mean time, he kept leaning on Dean and assuming him to be in agreement with everything he decided. John may have ‘Maryized’ Dean to the point of assuming there would be disagreement voiced if there was any. Since Dean was a child who idolized his dad, this never happened, and the relationship morphed into an unhealthy Drill Sergeant/soldier role. Yet when Dean finally stood up to John, interfered, disagreed; John listened as he never listened to Sam. With Sam, he may have chosen to hear his own Young John vulnerabilities and doubts. With Dean, he heard the ghost voice of Mary.
This isn’t to say that he only saw his sons as reflections of himself and Mary. But I believe that many of his parenting failures came from emotional transference, instead of seeing them as whole beings in and of themselves. In leaving Sam and Dean to go hunt down YED, I believe he wasn’t only doing it to retain his ‘war face’, and protect his boys, but to avoid the potentially challenging voice of Dean (ghost Mary) and to further distance himself from his own gentle nature (Sam).
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