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the island of conclusions

Mothers Mourning for their Lost Children

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Mothers Mourning for their Lost Children

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    Supernatural was, at least initially, set up as the story of children mourning for their lost mother.  So it was interesting to me that one thing we got in 4.15 was a mother mourning for her lost child.  While the most explicit parallel set up between that story and the Winchesters probably has to do with Dean's ambivalent romance with death (am I the only one who thought one of the things Tessa wanted him to be honest about was his residual death wish?), it also got me thinking (again!) about what it means that Dean is as much Sam's mother as his brother.
   
    .No revelation here: it is pretty explicitly built into the canonical rendering of their relationship, and the absolute bedrock, I think, of almost all fanfiction, gen and slash.  And I do mean that Dean has a maternal relationship to Sam, not simply a parental one (and not a paternal one, thank you very much, that role was pretty definitively claimed).   Rather, we take it for granted, and are sometimes explicitly shown, that in their childhood, Dean took charge of the everyday feeding, clothing, and life-skills-teaching (holiday organizing!)  that are conventionally, traditionally, seen as a mother's job (obviously, I'm not saying that such tasks are always done by women, or are inherently feminine in any way).  I won't belabor the point, you can all think of your own examples.

    Now, this has certainly had some--well, interesting--effects on their adult relationship, but I wanted to say a few things about the narrative problem it presents for the story of separation (differentiation?  maturation?) we've been getting so far in S4.  I think that because their relationship is coded both as a brotherly bond and as a mother/child bond, the story of Sam and Dean splitting (if that's what we're getting) doesn't quite fit the conventional paradigms of familial disentanglement. 

    It can't be the story of maturation and rebellion associated with fathers and sons.  For one thing, both boys have been there and done that: Sam before the series opens, and Dean gradually over the course of S1-S3.  Besides, despite their wranglings, the boys haven't had the kind of explicit power hierarchy integral to such stories.  

    Nor do they have the conventional rivalry of brothers (Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, etc.).   The series occasionally flirts with this--in demonic taunting that John had a favorite, or, more recently, when the Siren makes them compete for his affections (quite literal flirting, here)--but it's surprisingly rare to see Dean and Sam compete over things (women, honor, what have you).

    If they are going to separate, it seems to be happening more along the lines of a child separating from a mother: the mother (yes, Dean) unwilling to accept change (maturity), unsure why unconditional love is not enough for the child's happiness; the child lashing out in an attempt to get free, unwilling to accept the parent as an fallible, vulnerable, person (because, yes, I think this explains Sam's odd attraction/ repulsion to hearing about his brother's Hell PTSD--who wants to hear about a mother's failings?  a mother's pain?).   A friend of mine is fond of saying that raising a child is the only relationship one has, where if it's successful, they leave you.  Painful, even when all the relationships are clear; how much more so when the relationship falls outside the conventional assignation of roles?

    Also, narratively hard to represent.  Which brings me back to why I think it is interesting that 4.15 showed us a grieving mother.   The first few seasons of SPN, at least, were powered by the characters' refusal to let go of the memory of dead loved ones (John's attachment to Mary, Sam's attachment to Jess), while the few times the show has dealt with the psychology of ghosts ("Road Kill," "Death Takes a Holiday"), it has stressed the importance of giving up and moving on (the difference between melancholia and mourning, if you like psychoanalytic terms).   Dean was never as caught up in those melancholic attachments, but perhaps we're seeing one in his refusal to let go of a Sam that no longer exists.   Perhaps the grief we were getting at the edges of the narrative last night is one narrative resolution to this story.

    Of course, the people who move on, in all those episodes, are the dead, and Dean was very much coded as being on the side of the dead in 4.15 (trying to help them, yes, and having been intermittently dead himself for the past two and a half seasons, as well as his desirous relationship with Tessa).  We can safely say, from past experience, that he would rather be the one mourned than the mourner.  Is that the narrative road the show will ultimately take?

    I haven't said much about Sam here, though I'm sure there's a lot to say about his position.  I do want to say that one thing that makes Supernatural so compelling is not only its interesting in the intensity of love in familial relationships, but also its attempts to deal with the schisms and fractures of those relationships.
 
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