Genre and the “Main Character”
When I first watched Supernatural without any input from the fandom, one of my favorite things about it was the dynamic between Dean and Sam, not in the sense of some transcendent “brotherly bond”—because, honestly, they resent each other at least as much as they love each other—but in terms of their differing positions in the narrative.
So when I saw all the Dean hate and Sam hate here on Tumblr, I can admit that I had serious trouble understanding it at first. I was baffled. How can you watch the show and hate either of the main characters? But I think, now, that I’m starting to understand why it happens—and actually find the reasons for it fascinating—even if I don’t particularly like that it does happen.
For me, personally, Dean has always been the more interesting character. This, however, does not mean I like him more than Sam. I like them both equally. But the root of this is, I think, not simple character preference, but genre preference. Sam and Dean, I think we can agree, are both the “heroes” of the story. However, they are heroes in regards to different genres, and are therefore more or less heroic depending on the frame of reference through which the show is interpreted.
Now, genre is a sticky concept. It requires us to put thousands upon thousands of diverse stories into a handful of categories and judge them accordingly. However, though genre distinctions can be more than a little ingenuous, we are nevertheless conditioned to make them, and they influence our interpretation and subjective valuation of the narrative to an extent that we aren’t always even fully aware of. For this reason, when a narrative—whether it be novelistic, filmic, theatrical or otherwise—refuses to entirely conform to one set of genre expectations, conflict arises in interpretation that can produce wildly divergent estimations of what a story is about and how its heroes should behave.
Supernatural, fascinatingly, bridges a number of genres. Sometimes it’s horror, sometimes sci-fi, sometimes fantasy, sometimes allegory, sometimes adventure, sometimes romance, sometimes psychological, sometimes superhero, sometimes bildungsroman—and many of these genre distinctions share elements between them, allowing us to interpret different events, actions, and characters against different standards.
For a show with only two main characters, then, Supernatural needs to place an enormous amount of narrative weight in an incredibly compact character space, and, because many of its genres are somewhat at odds with each other in terms of what they require of their characters—(the superhero genre, for example, usually doesn’t merge very well with the bildungsroman)—different elements need to be split up in order to create cohesive characterizations.
For this reason, Sam and Dean are not only very different characters (as people), but very different heroes (in terms of genre).
Sam is the hero, primarily, of the adventure/fantasy genre. He’s an eminently good person coming to grips with an inner darkness and a fate he never asked for. He has inhuman powers and has to struggle to find the best way to contain and direct them for the good of humanity. We see this trope again and again in these genres—Harry Potter comes to mind—and it makes sense that people who like these genres (and therefore interpret Supernatural in terms of these genres), would prefer Sam’s storyline.
Dean, on the other hand, is the hero of the psychological/horror genre. He’s not an unambiguously good person; in fact, he’s a rather emotional individual who forcibly suppresses his emotionality, and he fashions himself a hero while barely keeping his deep-rooted anger—and even sadistic tendencies—in check. His struggle is, just like Sam’s, a struggle with inner darkness, but the genre though which his darkness needs to be understood is wholly different. It is not an embodied fantasy darkness, but a formless psychological darkness.
Of course, these aren’t hard and fast distinctions. Sam isn’t unambiguously good either; he proves himself time and again, for example, to be remarkably stubborn and obsessive, and he’s often just as convinced of his moral superiority as Dean is of his. (We don’t notice this with Sam, interestingly, because his moral superiority often coincides more easily with ours—but, then, that’s a whole other can of worms.) At the same time, Dean isn’t just an emotionally-stunted bucket of anger issues; he’s genuinely driven to save people and protect those he cares about, an unrepentant nurturer who often can’t help but let his strong emotionality show through, despite his best efforts to keep it at bay.
Of course, this same inner antagonism of otherwise discrete genres can be seen, also, in Sam’s more typical association with various myth arcs—in his capacity as the epic hero—whereas Dean’s story usually focuses more on his coping with the actions and fates of those closest to him—in accordance with the role of the psychological hero. (This dynamic too, nevertheless, often finds itself somewhat challenged, for instance, when Dean is constantly being dragged back and forth through different planes of existence while Sam would, for his part, do anything to avoid getting caught up in any more myth arcs.) Just as Dean is the psychological hero struggling to be an epic hero, then, Sam is the epic hero ready to give it all up and learn how to deal with a “normal” life.
It’s no wonder, then, that the Winchesters ceaselessly project their fears and desires onto each other. The show, in its tendency to muddle genres and focus on its two more or less generically distinct heroes, creates a dynamic in which the Winchesters’ tension is often, first and foremost, genre tension. Not only are the brothers attempting to cultivate a personal relationship balance, but also, on a narrative level, they need to find a way to balance out their roles as characters in order to coexist in the same narrative space.
For Supernatural, then, as a show which straddles various genre distinctions—and is, for that reason, widely appealing to people with diverse genre preferences—unusual interpretive issues are bound to arise. Although both boys’ narrative weight is, of course, essential to creating the narrative complexity which keeps me, personally, interested in this show, it is also completely understandable that someone with a preference for fantasy heroes might think Dean’s an asshole, or that someone who likes the fucked-up antiheroes of the psychological novel would find Sam a little boring. This is fine, it’s a matter of preference, and Supernatural is great precisely because it does appeal both to those who want to see good triumph over evil and those who want to watch broken individuals stew in their own Oedipal issues. Sam and Dean are like Yin and Yang, but with even more dimensions, a solid gray mass that never lets the viewer forget that gray is in fact a mixture of blacks and whites, even if we’re fated to never be able to separate them. Sam and Dean are thus both heroes, but they are heroes in completely different worlds with starkly different rules.
For me, then, the “brotherly bond” is indeed fascinating, but not in terms of their actual, apparent relationship, but for the way that it bridges and destroys genre boundaries. Sam’s and Dean’s characters technically shouldn’t share narrative space, let alone love each other. But Supernatural is fascinating precisely because they do. So, while there’s no accounting for taste and I’ll never tell anyone they can’t hate Sam or can’t hate Dean, I do challenge everyone who watches the show to take a step back and take a look at how their characters interact—both in where they differ and in where they bleed into one another—and to consider just how necessary those interactions are for crafting a complex story.
Sometimes I like one Winchester more than the other, and sometimes I like neither of them, but I’m always invested in both of their stories, because one without the other isn’t the full story, and the full story is as beautifully complex as the best literature has given us—and literature at its best isn’t about confirming our biases or making us happy or making us love or hate characters as if they’re real people, but about making us think about why and whether or not we should love and hate the things we do.
So, before you decide you hate Sam and Dean, examine why you do, what they do that bothers you so much, and look at those qualities and actions, not as you would if you saw them in your acquaintances, but in terms of their meaning in the narrative and the effects they produce. Maybe the show wants you to criticize their actions. Maybe it wants you to see their hypocrisy. Maybe—just maybe—a show can’t deal with issues effectively without its characters actually having some.
I’d suggest, then, that not only does Supernatural start to make more sense and become easier to deal with when you look at the ways in which Sam and Dean are framed against each other and against the narrative as a whole (without simply putting value judgments on their actions), but that it’s also a way more relaxing and enjoyable way to watch the show.
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