Supernatural: There’s Something About Mary

Okay, I love(d)* Supernatural. I acknowledge that I tend to filter out a lot with it because of that love. The show’s about two brothers, Dean and Sam Winchester, who hunt evil. This has pretty much always been their life. Female representation on the show tends to be as victim of the week – though those victims are often very resourceful and smart and strong in their own, limited rights. I’m not here to talk about the victims of the week, though. I’m here to talk about Mary Winchester, dead mother and impetus for the guys’ hunting lifestyle.

Background for those unfamiliar: prior to the start of the show, when Dean was four and Sam six months old, the mother of the family, Mary, was killed by something supernatural (known because John, Mary’s husband, found her pinned to the ceiling of Sam’s nursery, bleeding and then swallowed by a fire). After this John became bent on finding the thing and avenging Mary’s death. As they grew up, Dean did what John said (hunted), and Sam balked, and eventually became estranged from both John and Dean.

22 years after the event, the thing that killed Mary popped up again. John disappeared to find it on his own, and Dean retrieved Sam from Stanford to help him find John. They don’t find John in the weekend Sam allotted to devote to the task, so he went back to school. Except then Sam’s girlfriend Jessica met the exact same fate as Mary, thus driving Sam to rejoin the hunt permanently.

So Mary is the classic woman-dies-to-progress-the-man’s-storyline, and so is Jessica. Mary, at least, appears to have sacrificed herself for Sam. Jessica was just in the way, apparently.

To be honest this never really bothered me as much as it should have, specifically about Mary. (Jess is another story.) Mary appeared on screen for maybe five minutes at the very beginning, but I somehow always saw her as a fleshed out character. She was as real to me as she was to John and Dean (can’t say the same for Sam, since he was just a baby). It was unfortunate that we never got to meet Mary for real, that her character was essentially seen only through her male survivors’ POVs, but I accepted their interpretation of her and liked her as a character I could never have access to any other way.

But then they did it to her again. Several episodes into S1, Dean and Sam went back to their hometown of Lawrence, KS, because Sam suddenly started having visions. In this case, that something bad was going to happen to the new owners of their childhood home. The visions were correct – the house had a poltergeist, which they attempted to banish. The first attempt failed and Sam ended up trapped in the home. Enter Mary, whose spirit appeared to the boys. She took the time to offer Sam an apology for something that wasn’t explained and then attacked the poltergeist and effectively killed her undead self in ultimate sacrifice.

Understandable, sure. Noble? You betcha. But it also played right into the trope, this time with feeling.

Now, on top of the angst that caused for Dean and Sam (my main reason for loving the show so, actually), I immediately wanted to know more about Mary. The apology intrigued me, because until that point there seemed to be nothing for which she’d have to apologize for, save being dead the boys’ whole lives, which wasn’t her fault. I got the sense Mary was indeed the sacrificial lamb, even while I overlooked the problematic message in that, but the regret she showed in that mere half-second made me wonder what it was all about.

Fast-forward a year and a half or so later, and we learn that Mary walked into Sam’s nursery the night she died and ran smack into the thing that killed her. And she recognized it, acknowledged it in a way that intimated she knew very well what it was. They haven’t yet explained what her connection was, but now there is implied guilt. Not only did Mary give her life (twice!) for her family, but she was apparently somehow complicit in the evil things that happened, or was at least aware of them. I cannot decide if this is more interesting or appalling to me, and probably won’t be able to until the story plays out more.

So at the end of the day I’m left rather torn. On the one hand, Mary’s a complex character in her own right and I like her for her. On the other hand, everything we see about Mary is actually only important to Dean and, mostly, Sam.

*I say loved, because I adored S1, really liked S2 and S3 is not working for me for reasons I don’t think I should go into here, but I retain hope they’ll turn it around.

Comments

  1. S. A. Bonasi says

    You know, I’d forgotten about Mary apologizing in “Home”. But I feel similar to how you do. She’s a woman in the refridgerator, but within those confines, she’s got a story to tell. I loved the moment in “All Hell Breaks Loose” where she recognized Azazel because it took her out and beyond the dead sacrificial mother trope. Still dead, but that’s not the end of it. Am very interested to learn more.

    Ya know, I think it’s the same with the women of the week. Like you say, they’re often resourceful, but it’s still not their story. That part of what I love about Ruby. (Votes still out on Bela.) Ruby’s an active player in Supernatural. Not in the same way the Winchesters are, as she is supporting while they are lead, but her unfolding story exists for her, in addition to for Dean & Sam.

  2. MaggieCat says

    I’ve always found Mary one of the more interesting things about Supernatural. Despite only being on screen for minutes in the pilot, she’s always been an integral part of the story– there are just so many random little ways that her personality has peeked through over the seasons that her presence has been very strongly felt even though she’s not physically there.

    On the other hand, everything we see about Mary is actually only important to Dean and, mostly, Sam.

    Even though she’s been tied into the mytharc a little more tightly recently, I’ve always thought she was much more crucial where Dean is concerned. (Which may be part of why I find her so interesting- I’ve always found Dean the more interesting character because I’m not that invested in the reluctant-bearer-of-superpowers type.) “Houses of the Holy” is the most obvious one– that she told little Dean every night that the angels were watching over him, and when they failed to protect her he lost any faith in them– but I really do think that Mary’s personality influences Dean’s interactions with the women who show up on a weekly basis. Any reflection of her we see there is coming through the eyes of a 4 year old (and who’s more perfect and important to most 4 year olds than their mommy) but despite the fact that at such a young age he saw the most important woman in his life killed by demonic forces, he never assumes that the temporary female characters are victims until they show themselves to be in need.

    As far back as “Wendigo” Sam– our supposed ‘sensitive’ one– is the one who doesn’t want to take Hailey on the hunt to find her brother saying that they’ll just have to babysit her, while Dean is the one who knows that they have no right to tell her she can’t save her own family. It would be so easy for someone who’s running around saving people who generally don’t even know what’s really going on to take that “I know better, now get the hell out of my way” view and he almost never does it. Maybe I’m reading things in, but to me that says a lot about the impact Mary made as a person in her short time with her family, which is what has always kept her away from the one-dimensional trap the dead mommy trope falls into so often.

    Recognizing the YED (I liked him better before he had a name) is just the icing on the cake: it’s the depth she was given in the Pilot, and “Home”, and “What Is And What Should Never Be”– and yes, through the reflections of her male relatives, but I’m okay with that because that isn’t all there is– that means it isn’t just new paint on a cardboard cutout instead.

  3. sbg says

    You know, I’d forgotten about Mary apologizing in “Home”. But I feel similar to how you do. She’s a woman in the refridgerator, but within those confines, she’s got a story to tell. I loved the moment in “All Hell Breaks Loose” where she recognized Azazel because it took her out and beyond the dead sacrificial mother trope. Still dead, but that’s not the end of it. Am very interested to learn more.

    Yeah, me too. For all the fact that she’s a woman in refrigerator, I do like that they’ve managed to make her more than that. She was more than that before the revelation she knew YED, but I still feel kind of ooky for somewhat supporting the trope. ;)

    LOL, we won’t talk about Ruby and Bela, because I’m certain we’re not on the same page. I do think, though, if they’d only introduced Ruby and made her part of both brothers’ storylines in a more direct way, she’d work more for me. Bela just, well, sucks and doesn’t fit the story at all.

    Whoop, said I wasn’t going to talk about them. Heh.

  4. sbg says

    I’ve always found Mary one of the more interesting things about Supernatural. Despite only being on screen for minutes in the pilot, she’s always been an integral part of the story– there are just so many random little ways that her personality has peeked through over the seasons that her presence has been very strongly felt even though she’s not physically there.

    Yeah, that’s why I can’t totally hate that they’ve used the trope. It helps, too, that I’ve never got the sense that she tossed herself into the flames (well, not that she could have). I’ve always wondered what would have happened if it’d been John who walked into the nursery. I’m betting the exact same thing. It would have been very interesting indeed to have the mother/sons dynamic instead of father/sons. I do call that one a missed opportunity on Kripke’s part.

    Even though she’s been tied into the mytharc a little more tightly recently, I’ve always thought she was much more crucial where Dean is concerned.

    Not gonna disagree with that, but I only meant what I said in regards to the mytharc. I assumed people would pick up on that since that’s really the only thing I talked about. ;)

    ETA: I realized that sounded snotty. Not intentional, sorry. You’re right in the ways facets of Mary’s personality come through, and it only makes sense that it would be Dean more than Sam. All Sam’s ever known is life without her. The influences wouldn’t be apparent, because they’d be those little genetic things we don’t know about. Except the whole demon blood thing, of course.

    And the Wendigo thing doesn’t work for me, because, dude, the kid’s girlfriend just got burned up right in front of him a week or so earlier. That kind of thing leaves wounds.

  5. S. A. Bonasi says

    sbg,

    I don’t think we’re that far apart on the page, actually. I definitely wouldn’t mind getting some scenes between Ruby & Dean, but I get why she seems more connected to Sam — She’s so trying to corrupt him. I know if I was a demon trying to lure darling Sammy to the dark side, I’d steer clear of his oh so protective big brother, too!

    As for Bela, agreed. She’s a great character, but she doesn’t seem to fit in the story. It’s like a clock where one of the pieces is in excellent condition, but belongs to a different model. I’m not definite on the facts, but I’m hearing that Bela’s the new character connected to the Notes From the Bosses. i.e. She was only supposed to be in one episode but the writers were pushed to expand the role. Anyone heard anything here? It’s definitely worth discussing how network interference interacts with gender representation, but I wouldn’t want to do so under false pretenses of what actually happened.

    Hm…maybe there could be a separate post on Bela & Ruby? There really is a lot I think that could be discussed with them, from their conception to double standards at play in fandom reaction, but unfortunately the dialogue in many parts of the fandom doesn’t seem to get past “Ew…women in our show!”

    Oh, and Mary in the place of John but with the same characterization would be interesting, to say the least. I wonder if that could have ever happened, though? Like I remember how we talked a while back about what it would be like to have a female Sylar on Heroes, and now it’s clear that the writers’ idea of a female Sylar is…Elle. John’s a fascinating character, but that comes from him being a complex parent who’s deeply flawed, well-intended, and idolized by his children (especially Dean).

    Mary as a female John would neither be the “bad mother” stereotype nor the “perfect mother” trope that’s the other side of the coin. Just something I’m don’t think wouldn’t have happened, either because of sexism on the part of the writers or network interference. I suspect that’s part of the reason I’m happy that Mary is turning out to be so complex even as she still exists within the refridgerated mother trope. More than was expected, ya know? Same reason I think I dismissed Mary’s apology in “Home”. Sure, it didn’t make any sense within the context of what we knew, but she wouldn’t be the first female character whom the [male] writers had apologizing even though I couldn’t see where she was at fault. It never crossed my mind that there could be more of a story there, and I forgot about it soon after. Until, of course, “All Hell Breaks Loose” and this post.

  6. MaggieCat says

    And the Wendigo thing doesn’t work for me, because, dude, the kid’s girlfriend just got burned up right in front of him a week or so earlier. That kind of thing leaves wounds.

    And the first thing he did was start hunting for the thing that killed her. If anything, Sam should have been more sympathetic to Hailey’s situation, and Dean who’s always ‘everyone else’s safety is more important than my own’ should have been the one trying to keep her out of danger. Don’t get me wrong, I like Sam and he certainly has plenty of justification for being the way he is, but he does a lot of things that bug me. The fact that the first victim we see him truly sympathetic to who he wasn’t already friends with is the female guest star who was the most firmly ensconced in her victimhood is just one of them. (Again, I know he has reasons. I never claimed to be completely rational.)

    but I’m hearing that Bela’s the new character connected to the Notes From the Bosses. i.e. She was only supposed to be in one episode but the writers were pushed to expand the role. Anyone heard anything here? It’s definitely worth discussing how network interference interacts with gender representation, but I wouldn’t want to do so under false pretenses of what actually happened.

    Responding in the Supernatural thread in the forum because apparently I have more opinions than I thought I did about Ruby and Bela.

  7. sbg says

    I definitely wouldn’t mind getting some scenes between Ruby & Dean, but I get why she seems more connected to Sam — She’s so trying to corrupt him. I know if I was a demon trying to lure darling Sammy to the dark side, I’d steer clear of his oh so protective big brother, too!

    I get it too, but I still think there was probably a way to incorporate her so that in order for her to be there, the guys didn’t have to be apart from each other, both physically and emotionally. She’s got potential, but she still doesn’t quite work for me the way that she could. I also grow weary of the thin young woman with super powers thing. I think Ruby could have been just as interesting if in an older package, or, gasp, one of a color not white. The fact that she’s a hottie just makes me kneejerk.

    And, LOL, I don’t even think Bela would be a good character on any show (she’s Vala mach II for me, and I never understood the Vala-love in Stargate fandom.).

    Oh, and Mary in the place of John but with the same characterization would be interesting, to say the least. I wonder if that could have ever happened, though?

    Probably only in my pipe dreams. Which are fantastic, btw.

  8. S. A. Bonasi says

    With regard to Dean & Sam being apart from each other, didn’t the writers chose to do that intentionally so as not to over-work Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki? (The bond between the boys is unquestionably my favorite part of the show, but I “get” that the actors need a break every now and then.) I guess I sort of just automatically disregard that when evaluating Ruby. Could just be me, though.

    I understand the kneejerk to Ruby being conventionally attractive – Lord knows the show could stand to see some more racial/age/body type diversity – but isn’t there a bit of a double standard there? That is, why is there no question of the choice of actors of Dean and Sam (young, hot, thin, white, male) but that is immediately pointed out when a female series regular (Katie Cassidy as Ruby) is added? It’s not just here, either, mind you. It’s not that it’s something that shouldn’t be discussed (it should), but why the inconsistancy? Thoughts?

  9. MaggieCat says

    I get it too, but I still think there was probably a way to incorporate her so that in order for her to be there, the guys didn’t have to be apart from each other, both physically and emotionally.

    I don’t think this has much to do with Ruby at all. I was totally expecting the boys to be separated this season long before Ruby was introduced. Given the setup from the finale, there wasn’t a way to have them together as much as they used to be without having long periods of completely inane and half-truth filled conversations. Dean is pulling away because being close to Sam is too hard when he’s going to die in a year. Sam can’t be around Dean if he’s going to find a way to break the deal without dropping dead himself and Dean sabotaging his attempts to keep that from happening.

    It’s the fact that they were already distancing themselves for other reasons that gave Ruby entry, not Ruby’s entrance that caused the separation. She’s a symptom, not the cause.

  10. sbg says

    I can’t really agree with that, since I see things vastly different as far as the set up goes, but I don’t think this is the place to discuss it. Heh, I probably wouldn’t discuss it anyway.

  11. sbg says

    PS – contrary to how it comes off here, my biggest issues with how SPN is for me this year have very little to do with either Ruby or Bela. I swear.

  12. sbg says

    I understand the kneejerk to Ruby being conventionally attractive – Lord knows the show could stand to see some more racial/age/body type diversity – but isn’t there a bit of a double standard there? That is, why is there no question of the choice of actors of Dean and Sam (young, hot, thin, white, male) but that is immediately pointed out when a female series regular (Katie Cassidy as Ruby) is added? It’s not just here, either, mind you. It’s not that it’s something that shouldn’t be discussed (it should), but why the inconsistancy? Thoughts?

    Of course, just because it’s not been said (by me) that I find the casting of hot, young white men in the lead roles problematic doesn’t mean it’s not so, or that I’ve never thought that. ;)

    The difference, for me, is that though it didn’t happen, I think there was a greater likelihood that not traditionally pretty men could could have been cast in the lead roles and I still would have watched. I didn’t even like Padalecki (he grew on me, and I still don’t think he’s particularly attractive, physically, most of the time), and he’s the one I remember being heavily promoted before the show aired. I watched on a whim because I like the genre. It’s all a big what if, but if the characters had been cast differently but still had the chemistry that made me love the show within the first 10 minutes of airing, I would have kept on watching.

    It’s quite likely I’m reacting to things that aren’t there, but most of my irritation with Ruby and Bela being young and beautiful white women is that, to me, neither of them are particularly good actors and I don’t feel the same chemistry. How do you suppose they landed the gigs? I know acting is probably subjective and people also probably love what KC and, oh, dear, I can’t even recall Bela’s actress’ name, are doing. But to me, they still smack of insertion-of-hot-girls-into-show to me, though as I said Ruby could possibly work out.

    *sbg is cynical and probably talking herself in circles, and into corners*

    Don’t get me started on how much I absolutely hate how many characters of color either end up dead or are “the bad guys.”

  13. MaggieCat says

    The difference, for me, is that though it didn’t happen, I think there was a greater likelihood that not traditionally pretty men could could have been cast in the lead roles and I still would have watched.

    Heh, I would have been more likely to watch if they had cast less traditionally pretty men in the lead roles. That’s one of the main factors that kept me from watching the pilot when it first aired despite loving the genre: pretty 20something guys+ WB = me running far far away. I happened to catch an episode a few weeks later by accident because unbeknownst to me the first season aired on Saturdays here. (Since in my area the WB and UPN aired all on one channel long before anyone thought of the CW, lots of stuff ended up being shown days later than the rest of the country.) I stuck around because that episode managed to scare me a bit, and I’m pretty difficult to creep out with tv/movies.

    But to me, they still smack of insertion-of-hot-girls-into-show to me, though as I said Ruby could possibly work out.

    I’ll admit that I’ve had to work to get over the impulse to hold the actresses responsible for the network’s decision to cast younger women, which Samantha Ferris pretty much said is what happened on her blog. She was scheduled to show up at least once later in the season, but that was pre-strike and probably won’t happen now. (Last I checked sbg doesn’t like Ellen, but I do and I thought it was lovely that one of the most competent (and gorgeous IMO) female characters was played by an actress who’s actually a grown up.)

  14. sbg says

    I’ll admit that I’ve had to work to get over the impulse to hold the actresses responsible for the network’s decision to cast younger women, which Samantha Ferris pretty much said is what happened on her blog.

    I probably wouldn’t whinge so much about it if I didn’t know that’s precisely what they did. It seemed pretty apparent to me, right from the get go. And I don’t blame the actresses at all, for the record. I just want their characters to make sense, and so far only Ruby does (and I don’t particularly like how her character has been executed). Bela simply doesn’t fit, which makes the pairsy-upsy-the-hot- leads-with-the-hot-women vibe I get from both of them only stand out more.

    (Last I checked sbg doesn’t like Ellen, but I do and I thought it was lovely that one of the most competent (and gorgeous IMO) female characters was played by an actress who’s actually a grown up.)

    True, and so it says a lot when I’d rather see Ellen (and Jo – they could have ‘fixed’ her instead of dumping her for Hottie Mach II x 2) back than for the show to make even more changes that I have to struggle to make work within the context of the show.

    Whoops. This isn’t about Mary! ;)

  15. SunlessNick says

    I’ll admit that I’ve had to work to get over the impulse to hold the actresses responsible for the network’s decision to cast younger women, which Samantha Ferris pretty much said is what happened on her blog. - MaggieCat

    Season 3 has just started in the UK, and I’ve seen the first ep with the Seven Deadly Sins. And I do already miss Ellen; she added a certain grounded quality that not even Bobby matched.

    I assume the blonde woman with the knives is either Ruby or Bela, and I can’t say I disliked her – she seemed like a version of Jo with some substance to back up the attitude.

    Who I’d really like to see in the game is Hailey of course, and not just because she rocked. A major trope for the various hunters is that they started because of a loved one being killed, and going after the killers and things like them – while it’s realistic for that to be a common theme among the hunter community, it would be nice to see it flipped – a hunter who started because her loved one was saved and she wants to see that others are saved too.
    Beyond just flipping the trope, that would also highlight one of the dangers of the hunting lifestyle, especially for those who start off with a vengeance kick: focussing too much on the monsters, to the point where the victims become abstracted; while Dean and Sam do a good job of avoiding that mostly, they don’t do a perfect one, and a hunter who started from the place of a saved victim could make a good counterpoint.

    Which also seques into some attention paid to topic :) … the extra flashbacks we have of Mary, including the question of what acquaintance she has with the demon does remove her from the abstract: as sbg said, she’s a character in her own right.

  16. Gategrrl says

    Ah, god, you know what I’d really LOVE to see on television these days?

    A grown-up version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, with adult issues and so forth. Doesn’t have to be Buffy herself – just something along that line, with a strong female lead dealing with day-to-day crap that we all deal with, yet doing something extraordinary while dealing with it.

  17. Gategrrl says

    I get the feeling that Bionic Woman redux was supposed to be like that, but hasn’t panned out that way. I haven’t watched it at all and from what I hear, they’ve downplayed the Jamie’s new role as an older sister taking care of a younger sister all the while battling evil with her bionic implants.

    Too bad.

  18. SunlessNick says

    The closest I can think of is Medium, but Allison isn’t a warrior type.

    The Others might have managed to go that way if it had lasted – though that was an ensemble cast, it was a woman who was at the centre of coming events.

    Poltergeist the Legacy sometimes ventured into that territory when focussing on Rachel and Kat, but not often.

  19. Veronica says

    Assuming you still watch the show; what did you think about her story in Season 4? It was only one episode but it was really all about Mary.

  20. sbg says

    I’m torn, honestly. I loved seeing that she came from a hunter family and found it interesting that she wanted out (like Sam at first, but moreso like Dean in actuality).

    But I didn’t love that, ultimately, it could all be viewed as her fault, so not only is she the original Woman in Refrigerator for the show, she’s also the human scapegoat*.

    *Yes, it was all Meant to Be so she’s not really at fault, except she is – honestly, I have big issues with the whole destiny/fate theme they’ve got going on too.

  21. Veronica says

    They had a fine line to walk giving her a voice since she is at the heart of the show through others perceptions of her and everything falls apart without that(mostly Dean). After all, that “I’m sorry” could have been much more loaded.

    I too loved that she was a hunter, wanted out and it wasn’t that big of a deal; they really felt like a family. It wasn’t portrayed as cowardly or selfish, Dean made a harsher choice to protect his family in the same episode.

    I liked that they made John bland, he wasn’t special, just the guy she chose. Still, I didn’t feel like her deal was to save his life, but to restore her world a little, if that makes sense.

    There were a lot or great details, like men made the same deal; there could be a few who got burn if they got up to check on their baby and let the mum sleep. She named her first born after her mother and kept her promise about her children’s innocence.

    Now I know Mary and it’s sadder. It was not better or worst than any of the choices her family made later. At this point I don’t think it matters who got the ball rolling; they always find a way to make it worst.

  22. sbg says

    Yes, at that point John was the only person she could save, and thus the only thing in her world she could keep. I take some comfort in knowing it wasn’t really a gender-based thing – in her situation, I believe almost anyone would have done the same thing.

    Even with a mysterious stranger around instructing not to make that call.

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