Everything I need to know, I learned from watching “Supernatural”

SupernaturalA weekend migraine kept me glued to watching Supernatural, which was about all I had the mental and physical energy to do. A couple of months ago, when I was still fairly new to the show, I blogged that it is both a moral show and a pro-Christian show.

Regarding the latter point, readers promised me that the Christianity theme gets sort of bleached out and replaced by more of a Buffy the Vampire Slayer dynamic. This is true, but Supernatural continues to be a surprisingly moral show, with really interesting ruminations about the nature of good and evil, and about individual freedom. Those thoughts, good writing, and a periodic leavening with brilliantly funny episodes that break the fourth wall make it one of the most entertaining shows I’ve ever watched.

I admit to a bit of mendacity with the promise that “Everything I need to know, I learned from watching Supernatural” (obviously not true, whether I’m talking shopping for groceries or writing a legal brief), I do think one can draw a few core life lessons from the show. Here are a few ideas that support that “Everything I need to know” concept for this post.

Human life is precious. There’s a lot of Hollywood gore in this show — lots and lots. Most episodes open with a human (or many humans) facing a particularly gory death and end with a monster (a demon, vampire, werewolf, shapeshifter, ancient god, etc.) meeting an even more gory death. Put aside the theater, though, and the storyline driving almost every episode is that human life is precious and that the good people have a moral responsibility to protect that life — even if it means making the tough call to kill a monster that hunts humans against its own will or was driven to being a monster by extremes or sheer bad luck. The only exception is when the monsters convincingly show that they are permanently committed to coexistence — and if they lie, they die.

Me being me, I can’t help but extrapolate from this make-believe existential war to the real existential war we’re fighting. We are in a war between the life-affirming West (most clearly exemplified by America and Israel, because neither nation has yet embarked upon the suicidal nihilism that characterizes Europe) and a monstrous death cult that is the radical, activist strand of Islam. The side that chooses life is precious and can survive only if it willing destroys the monsters out there. Because the monsters’ nature means that the two sides cannot peacefully coexist, the only way to end the death cult is to kill the death cult — or to drive it to a point at which it must change its ways if it wishes to survive.

Moreover, we understand that, in this war, the soldiers on the other side often didn’t choose to be there, whether they were kidnapped and conscripted as children, were unlucky enough to grow up in a radicalized household, or were blackmailed into fighting for the enemy. We cannot win the war, though — and it is a war worth winning — if we stay our hands because some of the enemy soldiers didn’t cheerfully volunteer for their mission. Regardless of their motives, once they carry arms for the enemy, they are the enemy too.

Guns can be a force for goodWittingly or not, the show makes it clear that good and evil do not reside in the weapon but in the hands of the people using the weapon.

Sam and Dean live with guns in their hands. They shoot silver bullets and real bullets. They also wield scythes, axes, serrated hunting knives, jawbones of an ass (long story there), iron bars, swords, and myriad other weapons as needed to take out the monsters they hunt. The bad guys (kind of like bad guys in the real world) also use every type of weapon, whether it’s fangs, super strength, life sucking tentacles, and whatever else the writers’ imagination lands upon.

The issue is never the weapon; it’s the person wielding the weapon. Weapons in the hands of good guys damage bad guys; weapons in the hands of bad guys damage good guys. The former must prevail.

Torture elicits useful information. The show is yuuuuuge on torture. Both sides, good and evil, do it because it does elicit information.

This is a sad but terrible truth.  It’s also true that, given time, lack of torture (gentle psychological manipulation) may also elicit truth, but the reality is that when time is short, down and dirty gets the job done. The fact that torture works most certainly does not create a moral argument for using it, but we do need to be honest about its efficacy when the clock is ticking and innocent lives are at stake.

Freedom is an inherent, and worthy, human right.  For the past several seasons, angels have figured largely in the show’s plot. These are not divinely righteous angels of the type one sees in a Raphael painting. Instead, these are more Buffy the Vampire Slayer angels:  Like humans, they’re a race created by God (who has left the building). Unlike humans, however, they have no free will. They are followers.

This angelic monolith begins to change, however, when Castiel, who is Sam’s and Dean’s personal angel in the fight against demons, spends so much time with them that he begins to learn about individualism. After a disastrous attempt at being a leader who uses his individualism to lead angelic sheeples, he ends up coming down on the side of individualism and free will, which he believes is the best way to achieve happiness for all moral creatures. Castiel’s problem, then, is selling his fellow angels on the concept, which leads to one of the best moments in the show.

Here’s the set-up (in Season 10, Episode 1): Castiel and another angel, Hannah, are on a mission to recover two rogue angels who don’t want to return to the angel collective and who have committed murder to remain free. Castiel’s goal is to prevent further murders; Hannah, who is a rabid follower, has as her goal bringing the rogues back to Heaven. When Hannah and Castiel finally find Daniel, the rogue angel, on a peaceful river, this lovely bit of dialogue ensues (emphasis mine):

CASTIEL:  Daniel, what are you fishing for?

DANIEL:  Trout, mostly. They do love a good curly-tail grub. The trick is to find that special spot, just outside the run, where the big ones — the smart ones — are holding low.

CASTIEL:  Do they — do they put up much of a fight?

DANIEL:  The ones who truly want to be free? They do. You’re here about our brother who died.

CASTIEL:  Does that surprise you?

DANIEL:  I can assure you . . . had he just left us alone, no one would’ve been harmed.

HANNAH:  His orders were to not leave you alone — and you killed him.

DANIEL:  And Heaven sends two more.  What is it about us angels that we can’t seem to get the message?

HANNAH:  Perhaps it is you who has failed to get the message? All of us serve at Heaven’s command.

DANIEL:  I suppose. But that was before the Fall [when angels fell to earth], wasn’t it?

HANNAH:  You are an angel, once and forever.

DANIEL:  Dropped unwillingly . . . unknowingly . . . into a strange land, a land that, as it turns out, celebrate the free, the individual. For the first time in thousands of years, I have choices. And with each choice . . . I begin to discover who I really am.

HANNAH:  This is nonsense.

DANIEL:  Because they don’t teach you this in Heaven? Perhaps they should. Then you would understand why it’s worth fighting for.

HANNAH (drawing a knife):  He’s taunting us.

CASTIEL:  And then what? We kill him? Or he kills us?

HANNAH:  There are orders.

CASTIEL:  And there is time.

HANNAH:  To hear more of this?

CASTIEL:  To convince him to do the right thing. Besides, Hannah, we still don’t even know where the other one angel is — the woman.

DANIEL:  You’ll have to stay for sunset. Nighttime around here is a revelation.

[Hours later]

DANIEL:  What I’ll never understand is why angels won’t acknowledge the wisdom to be found down here.

HANNAH:  What wisdom is to be gained from humans?

DANIEL:  I’m not speaking to you.

HANNAH [speaking to Castiel]:  Do you understand what he’s. . . .  [Castile nods.]  Fine.  But if you are to be free, that is to be decided by all angels. 

DANIEL:  There’s that angelic irony.

Change the costumes and this could be a dialogue between American patriots and the British in the 1770s, or it could be a moderate Muslim talking to an ISIS fanatic, or it could be a modern American Leftist talking to a modern American conservative. The core message is the same — individual liberty is an inherent right — the moment someone gives you permission to be free, you’re not free — and exercising our individual freedom brings each of us to the highest expression of our humanity.

Pretty darn deep for a silly show.