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the island of conclusions

4.19 and Fanfiction (spoilers for both)

the island of conclusions

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4.19 and Fanfiction (spoilers for both)

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Before I say anything else, I want to say that there can be no unified field theory of the relationship between Supernatural, the TV show, and the fanfiction generated by it.  There is so much of it, and people read and write fanfic for so many different reasons, that no single explanation could apply to the whole phenomenon. What I say below is both local and speculative.

 

            If we didn’t know already, we sure as heck know now that the show is pretty intensely aware of the fandom that surrounds it.  At this point, even its protagonists know that slash is being written about them (although they will probably never speak of it again!).  But, even aside from the infinitely regressing meta of TMATEOTB, the episode plots have intersected with well-known fanfiction plots a couple of times at least this season—ASS had some striking similarities to

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“Dazzleland,” and IATL mined the conventions of a fanfic genre missyjack has dubbed “Temporary AUs” here--and then inspired a whole new subgenre of SPN fanfic—Smith/Wesson—in a beautifully kinky feedback loop.  

 

 

            Furthermore, even as the show has upped its investment in its mytharc, it has also devoted more scenes to fanservice this season than ever before (at least I think it has)—giving us a lot of visual evidence of the weirdness of Winchester domestic life, something that has been a wellspring of fanfic, but hasn’t had much place on TV: the pool-hustling in IKWYDLS, the patching up scene in the same episode; SamnDean sleeping in the car, twice; and yes, the laundry scene in TMATHOTB—though that was probably part of the elaborate in-joke of the episode.

 

            I’m not sure why this would be happening now.  Certainly, the fic surrounding SPN has grown so vast that the TV writers are going to have a harder and harder time coming up with stories that haven’t appeared in fic before.  But the latter category, fanservice scenes, even if they are done half-jokingly, can’t help but have an effect on the texture of the TV show.   In that case, I’d be willing to believe that fanfic has had a pretty direct influence on TV.

 

            One important thing that fanfic does is to offer deeper, more satisfying interpretations of characters who may be only sketchily portrayed on TV—sometimes putting those characters in AU situations so as to view aspects of their personalities in different, or sharper, light.  And that brings me to JTS, and its “third-brother” narrative, which does just that (though it, too, turns out to be a “temporary AU” in the end).  There are a fair number of pieces of AU SPN fic out there in which the Winchesters have brothers or sisters, but the best known of these (and IMO the best) is stele3’s brilliant gen epic, “One Father’s Sons" (here ) which goes AU after the S1 finale, and imagines Sam and Dean reconciling themselves to a third, younger, brother named Reese.  There are enough differences between OFS and JTS to make it clear that the writers weren’t just lifting stele3’s ideas, but enough similarities between the two narratives to make the intersections intriguing.

 

            Like JTS, “One Father’s Sons” posits that John, on one of his solo hunting trips while the boys were young, got torn up by some creature, then had a liason with a nurse in the MN hospital where he was treated (yes, it happens in the same state).  In both cases, John is unaware of the third son for a long time—in OFS, he only finds out when the YED kills the boy’s mother in the fall of 2005/S1.  John scoops up the boy, who’s a high school senior, and who has only ever seen pictures of his father—and installs him in a church/sanctuary for his own protection, while he tracks the YED (ie, carries on with the canon events of S1), leaving word with Bobby that Sam and Dean should head to the church if anything happens to John.

 

            And we all know how that ends.  Except that in OFS, the events of IMTOD don’t happen; instead, the YED possess John’s body after the accident, and proceeds to track the remaining Winchesters (yes, in John’s meatsuit, and yes, the fic gets maximum creepiness out of that scenario).  Sam and Dean find Reese in the church, half-crazy from the isolation of having lived there alone all winter fighting off demons.  The three brothers set off together, and the rest of the plot of the story has to do with them working together to defeat the YED.  Most of the body of the fic, however, finds them holed up in Rocky Mountain campground, trying to adjust to their changed family relationships (and this goes on for a while, since fic, unlike TV, has no pressure wrap up in 22 episodes).  Like JTS, one aspect of the story concerns Sam’s struggle with the nature of his powers—though, since this is a post-S1 AU, the danger seems to be that those powers will turn him into a tool for demons, not, as it is in S4, that he will be deeply, morally, corrupted by them.   

 

            Aside from these plot points, the major, and most interesting point of intersection between fic and epi is in Sam and Dean’s differing reactions to having another brother.  As in JTS, OFS imagines that Sam, at least initially, is more open to the idea (remember, this is friendly, S1!Sam); Dean, in the absolute depths of his mourning for John, and still at the height of his protectiveness of Sam (yes, it’s S1!Dean, too), doesn’t trust Reese at all, and thinks he has no place in the family dynamic. Unlike JTS, though, it’s Sam who thinks that Reese should remain innocent of hunting, and tries to convince him to return to a normal life, and Dean who thinks he should learn to protect himself, and teaches him how to shoot, etc.  The jealousy inspired by knowing that John had a relationship with Adam, so much motivating factor in JTS, doesn’t play a role in OFS, since John appears so briefly in Reese’s life.

If you put the two narratives side-by-side, though, you really notice what fanfic can do that TV cannot.  Reese is a fully developed character, and over the course of the story establishes detailed, plausible, distinct relationships with Sam and Dean. (JTS actually gets around this cleverly: it doesn’t matter that Sam and Dean don’t have real relationships to Adam, because he’s not really Adam in the first place).  You see Reese’s similarities to his brothers, but also his differences from them (in a nice touch, he turns out to be a tougher, colder-minded hunter than Sam or Dean—more like John himself, maybe?).  A related benefit is that Reese can serve as an outsider POV on the SamnDean relationship, which he finds alternately fascinating and just plain weird: “a dance,” he calls it.  (Interestingly enough, JTS is able to get a similar effect in the very brief rock-paper-scissors pantomime Sam and Dean do while Adam looks on, their abbreviated gestures signaling the well-worn intimacy of their wordless communication).   In OFS, both Sam and Dean eventually come to accept, indeed, love, Reese, and they hunt as a threesome.  He serves as a new middle term in their relationship, even looks like a cross between them, and, as Dean says, “no one thinks we’re gay anymore.”  This most emphatically does not happen in JTS, and the brothers remain locked in their increasingly uncomfortable dyad.

 

            The idea that Sam resembles John doesn’t get much play in OFS—even though it does come up a couple of times in S1.  So perhaps the most striking similarity between the two narratives is that in both OFS and JTS finding a second, younger brother forces Dean to cut through his adoration for John, and recognize that he is a different man than his father was, has made and will continue to make different choices than John, and would be a different kind of parent/mentor: most clearly in a beautiful passage about  Dean teaching Reese how to drive a stick shift ( here.).   Now, as many posters on JTS have noted, the show and its fans have known this about Dean since midway though S1: because we know, even if the Winchesters don’t openly speak of it, that Dean already has been a different kind of parent to Sam than John was.  But there is something significant, in both cases, about seeing Dean recognizing this for himself.  

 

            The repetition of this recognition makes perfect sense—signals a nice consistency in the canon characterization of Dean.  What’s interesting about it, though, is that in both cases, Dean’s greater self-awareness, his increased sense of having an autonomous identity distinguished from the other members of his family, can only come about by being triangulated through a third term.  In other words, Dean cannot straightforwardly differentiate himself from John or Sam; he can only do so through by noting that they have had (or would have had) different relationships with another person.

 

            In this regard, it’s perhaps worth thinking about the difference between OFS and JTS in terms of the difference between S1-S2 and S4.  In the former, the displacement of the parental dynamic onto a third, younger brother (ie, Dean realizing that he will be a different caregiver/ teacher/ mentor/ role model to Reese than John would have been), allows Dean to re-think his relationship to his father; in the latter, a similar dynamic (Dean realizing just how different Sam’s attitude is towards Adam than his own) forces him to rethink his relationship to Sam.  Since S4 has been so strongly about the problem of Dean and Sam separating, differentiating, untangling themselves from each other and revising their expectations and presuppositions about each other, the moment at the end when this is vocalized is less heartwarming and more of a gut-punch than it is in OFS, in which the boys’ epic love isn’t really questioned. 

 

That is, Dean saying “I am not like Dad” and “Sam is like Dad” is his way of saying “I am not like Sam” and “Sam is not like me.”  It is like the outburst from Metamorphosis we see in the previouslies (“If I didn’t know you, I’d hunt you”), but here, in the context of fathers and sons, it has a different, possibly even more painful resonance: Dean is realizing, “Sam is not the person I wanted him to be/ that I raised him to be.”  And we remember that John’s paternal skills are not the only model of parenting under the microscope in JTS.

 

            We could say, then, that SPN is finding the generic conventions of fanfic (“temporary AU”) helpful here, as it tries to push Sam and Dean’s bond in new direction.  The territory it is trying to explore, however—the possibility of the boys truly being antagonists—is one that much SPN fanfic has been (understandably enough) reluctant to entertain.

 

 

  • Thanks for the background. I'm sure a lot of people are already very familiar with all this, but I've come a bit more recently to the fandom and it's good to see some perspective on the "fanfiction episodes".

    Add-a-Winchester seems to have practically been a sub-genre since the beginning though, for all that it tended to be their sister Mary Sue Winchester.
    • I'm kind of new too, so am trying to sort things out for myself! I guess people think if two Winchesters are good, more would be even better--though, more seriously, it does put certain aspects of the family dynamic in a new light to add a bro.

      (can't say I've read much Win!sister fic, though...do you know any good ones?)

      Thanks for reading!
      • Like I was saying about Mary Sue Winchester, most of the sister fics aren't very good and I avoid them, so I don't know of any good ones.
  • “Sam is not the person I wanted him to be/ that I raised him to be.”

    This plays quite nicely into the parent/child dynamic that is at the core of their conflict, IMO - Sam is outgrowing Dean, and Dean has trouble accepting it. (Or as that saying goes, every parent is disappointed in their children, and every child is ashamed of their parents.)

    Very interesting meta, thanks for sharing.
    • the parent/child dynamic that is at the core of their conflict, IMO

      I'm in complete agreement with you there! (and seem to come back to it every time I try to write meta, ie: http://ariadnes-string.livejournal.com/1736.html ) It seems to somehow make things worse that this element of their relationship is so tacit, so unspoken. Maybe because acknowledging his own role would mean Dean would have to confront more about what John was not... Not that I would expect, or even want, them to have a heart-to-heart about it--

      Thanks--and thanks for reading!
  • That was fascinating.

    Sam is not the person I wanted him to be/ that I raised him to be

    So heart breakingly true.
  • That is the most interesting thing I've read in a good long while. Awesome.
  • though that was probably part of the elaborate in-joke of the episode

    I wouldn't be surprised -- though I don't care ::hugs laundromat scene:: Actually I could think of a meta topic on just why we are so constantly writing laundry scenes and the like but that'll just have to go on the growing list.

    And that brings me to JTS, and its “third-brother” narrative, which does just that (though it, too, turns out to be a “temporary AU” in the end)

    Hmm, I like that argument.

    And wow, I hadn't even remembered it had been the same state! Not impossible as their travels tend to stay largely in the midwest combined with the other stuff, huh.

    JTS actually gets around this cleverly: it doesn’t matter that Sam and Dean don’t have real relationships to Adam, because he’s not really Adam in the first place

    True. Moreover I never get the sense in the episode that either actually sees him as a real person. They're too busy seeing themselves. Which makes you wonder, if they had been doing more observing and less projecting, would they have figured Adam out sooner?

    Similarly the show only ever treats Adam as a plot device -- even his name is symbolic. On the other hand, we learn to accept and care about Reese just as Sam and Dean do.

    But there is something significant, in both cases, about seeing Dean recognizing this for himself.

    Yes, with Sam he can see it as part of "how things are" whereas with another person, he starts to see it as how he is.

    the moment at the end when this is vocalized is less heartwarming and more of a gut-punch than it is in OFS, in which the boys’ epic love isn’t really questioned.

    Yes, I do see this as significant mostly in terms of Sam and Dean's trajectories since S1. On the other hand, it is an interesting example of what TV shows can do that fanfic could but often doesn't. I have my problems' with SPN's writing, but I give them props here for doing the heavy lifting in terms of making unpleasant choices that fanfic more often "fixes" than breaks new ground on.

    Dean is realizing, “Sam is not the person I wanted him to be/ that I raised him to be.”

    Makes me think that the real-life parallel here would be disovering your child had grown up to be just like your ex.

    I really enjoyed this, thanks for writing it!
    • with Sam he can see it as part of "how things are" whereas with another person, he starts to see it as how he is.

      Really well-put!

      it is an interesting example of what TV shows can do that fanfic could but often doesn't. I have my problems' with SPN's writing, but I give them props here for doing the heavy lifting in terms of making unpleasant choices that fanfic more often "fixes" than breaks new ground on.

      I completely agree with you here. I love SPN fanfic--so much of it is well-written and inventive and emotionally compelling--but, yeah, there's a way in which the TV show, which is often sloppily written, is much more interested than fanfic in familial conflict, the unbridgeable fissures within families, etc.

      It's interesting: I think SPN's really dark vision of family conflict (especially without the typical corresponding belief in autonomy--a person's ability to go it alone) is one of the unusual and compelling things about the show--and fans must like that about it, or they wouldn't like it so much. But, yeah, so much fanfic tries to fix things...

      the real-life parallel here would be disovering your child had grown up to be just like your ex.

      nice! and also ::ouch:: I've had a taste of that feeling, and it's not pretty...You're giving me some insight into my Dean-identification!

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting!
      • It's interesting: I think SPN's really dark vision of family conflict (especially without the typical corresponding belief in autonomy--a person's ability to go it alone) is one of the unusual and compelling things about the show--and fans must like that about it, or they wouldn't like it so much.

        It's definitely an area where they excel. They occasionally have other moments of truth on the show, but the family dynamics tend to be the most real.
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