What are little ghouls made of? The Supernatural family, fandom, and the problem of Adam

Kristin Noone

University of California, Riverside, California, United States

[0.1] Abstract—An exploration of family in Supernatural through the episode "Jump the Shark" and the character Adam Milligan.

[0.2] Keywords—Family narratives; Fandom

Noone, Kristin. 2010. "What are little ghouls made of? The Supernatural family, fandom, and the problem of Adam." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 4.

[0.3] "He died like a hunter. He deserves to go out like one."

—Dean Winchester

[1] Vampires, werewolves, suicidal teddy bears, and, lately, ghouls: these are, as Dean himself once put it, "the family business." More accurately, the Winchesters are in the business of defending family. When John Winchester offers himself in trade for the life of his oldest son in 2.01 "In My Time of Dying," when Dean Winchester quite literally makes a deal with the devil to bring his little brother back from the dead in 2.22 "All Hell Breaks Loose 2," when Sam Winchester becomes a heartless killing automaton after Dean's death in 3.11 "Mystery Spot," we see the heroes of the story defining themselves, and their heroism, by their devotion to family above all. The heart of the show, and the way in which it most actively offers a response to postmodern cynicism and malaise, lies in Supernatural's advocacy of family and familial bonds as a refuge against the monsters of the darkness, a refuge that has been eagerly welcomed by viewers in the large and active fan community. When this dysfunctional but functioning family becomes disrupted in 4.19 "Jump the Shark," the threat is not merely to the Sam-Dean dynamic but to the sense of comfort and reassurance that Supernatural has so far asserted in its privileging of family as security against unknown and powerful threats. The problem of Adam, a newly discovered son of John Winchester, is that he threatens to destabilize the Supernatural family, representing as he does a competing narrative of family. The problem of Adam must be resolved in such a way that he cannot serve as a viable alternative for characters or fans; his death reinforces the show's commitment to the choice of family as an ethical position, while emphasizing the element of tragedy in the background of such a choice. Sam and Dean choose to be together as a family because no other choice is viable. In the Supernatural world, one chooses freely to devote one's life to the family, regardless of one's family's flaws, or one does not live—literally, in the case of Adam, as well as metaphorically. In this way, the problem of Adam is resolved. As fan reaction to the episode demonstrates, "Jump the Shark" successfully upholds the compelling theme at the heart of Supernatural: in the end, the family may be broken, confused, and conflicted, but its members always choose to fight their demons at each other's side in the end.

[2] In her critical study Faith and Choice in the Works of Joss Whedon, K. Dale Koontz makes a case for both the redefinition and the importance of faith in popular television fantasy: "Whedon's work," she concludes, "has much to say about the transformative power of love, the importance of family, the possibility of redemption for past actions, and the dangers posed by fundamentalism and zealotry" (2008, 8). For Koontz, faith appears in Whedon's universe not as an element of organized religion, but as a simple core of acceptance and belief. Buffy and her friends find strength in one another's diverse abilities; the adopted misfits in Firefly accept other members of the family for who they are and have faith in the power of the bonds that tie them together. Koontz's terms can be applied equally to the Supernatural 'verse, in which the Winchesters sacrifice everything they have for love of the family, in which both Sam and Dean obsess over the roles they may play in bringing about the apocalypse, and in which Gordon the Vampire Hunter serves as a terrifying reminder of the dangers of obsessive zealotry—and perhaps a frightening glimpse of a possible future Sam, who, like his father, has become increasingly willing to sacrifice everything around him in pursuit of his goal. The importance of family, in Supernatural as in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, is paramount. Moreover, as Koontz asserts, it is a family that is repeatedly chosen, despite momentary rejections or dissolutions. Sam departs for Stanford and an attempt at normality, but when Dean asks for his help in 1.01 "Pilot," he chooses to aid his brother without (much) hesitation:

[3] Dean: I can't do this alone.

Sam: Yes, you can.

Dean: Yeah, well…I don't want to.

Sam: [pause] What was he hunting?

[4] Later in season 1, Sam temporarily leaves Dean after an argument (1.11 "Scarecrow") but returns the moment he believes his brother to be in trouble; in later seasons, John gives up his own life, and the opportunity to complete his quest for vengeance, to save Dean from death (2.01, "In My Time of Dying"), and Dean trades his soul to bring Sam back from the dead (2.21–2.22 "All Hell Breaks Loose") (note 1). Even Bobby Singer, fellow hunter and family friend, acts to protect his surrogate sons on many occasions, even speaking the memorable line "Family don't end with blood, boy!" to Dean (3.16 "No Rest for the Wicked"). The family, despite fights and flaws, remains paramount for Sam and Dean, and the desire to protect the family emerges as the driving force of the show overall. Avril Hannah-Jones suggests in her essay "Good and Evil in the World of Supernatural" that "Supernatural, like other forms of pop culture that deal with themes of good and evil, offers its viewers the hope that evil can be defeated by humans taking responsibility for their own actions and working together" (Hannah-Jones 2009, 64, emphasis mine). Hope, in other words, can be found in the choice to stand together against evil, and this is the choice that Supernatural advocates time and again in the actions of Sam and Dean.

[5] This family dynamic faces its greatest challenge in 4.19 "Jump The Shark," in which the Winchester brothers discover a younger brother they never knew they had, courtesy of John. As Sam puts it, John wasn't a monk, after all, and life is not foolproof. But the introduction of Adam raises a multitude of questions, especially as Sam and Dean, and viewers, discover that Adam's family life with John involved baseball games and birthday visits—in short, elements of a normalized American suburban family narrative that were noticeably missing in Sam and Dean's childhood experiences (note 2). The episode thus provides a potential challenge to the show's definition of family: Adam's relation to John and to Sam and Dean appears to rest primarily on the DNA he shares with them. He has not been given the choice to enter into the hunter life with them; he has not chosen, as Sam has, to place family over a world of normalcy. This is hardly his fault, of course; John made this decision for him by not informing him of his half-siblings and the life they all led. Adam is deprived of any opportunity to search for a new definition of family beyond the blood he shares with John; he therefore functions perfectly as a representation of family completely alienated from the Winchester version, set so far apart that he is unaware of the existence of another version of family life. If Adam and John could lead a fulfilling and contented existence in happy oblivious normality, the element of choice that the show has privileged thus far in the Winchester family becomes devalued, even meaningless.

[6] The problem of Adam was from the beginning correctly read as a threat to the Winchester "chosen family" by fans. Comments on the CW message boards reflected this theme of concern: one user observed, "I've never been so worried about an episode…hope it's all good by the end of the night" (Mousisita, April 23, 2009) (note 3), and another commented that "a third brother at this point would only distract from the main storyline…Supernatural is about Sam and Dean only, everyone else is just something to bounce off these two main characters and impact them" (lovepass77, April 24, 2009). Supernatural, for these fans and others, is about, tellingly, Sam and Dean only. The "main storyline" is equated with the story of the siblings who choose each other over everything else, even life itself, every time; as Sheryl A. Rakowski observes in her discussion of family strengths and weaknesses in the show, "for the Winchesters, needing family and having the ability to acknowledge and sustain that need is the wellspring of their mission" (2009, 106). The family, as it is needed, acknowledged, and actively supported, lies at the heart of the Winchester mission, the narrative quest of the show. Adam, a family member seemingly unacknowledged and unneeded, appears at first glance as a startling distraction from this main narrative.

[7] This distraction is definitively dealt with, as Sam and Dean discover that the Adam they've met is in fact a ghoul, who—along with his mother—menaces Sam in a particularly gruesome fashion until killed, with fittingly brutal head shots, by a very protective Dean. By the end of the episode, Adam has been eliminated as a viable alternative, both literally and metaphorically, and the threat he poses with his desire to devour Sam's body is shown in beautiful juxtaposition to Sam and Dean's evident concern for each other's welfare (note 4). The Supernatural family of Sam and Dean has once again demonstrated its superiority by means of its ability to overcome threatening forces, whether narrative or physical.

[8] The show, however, supports a more complicated reading than a simple assertion of its own definition of the One True Family over all. The death of Adam is presented as a genuinely tragic moment, with a real sense of loss, an emotion that Dean reinforces with his choice to give Adam a hunter's funeral: "He died like a hunter. He deserves to go out like one" (note 5). Dean, and the show, may support a specific narrative of family as a function of choice over blood and knowledge over innocence; but that does not mean that the failure of a competing narrative of family should not be mourned. In giving Adam a hunter's funeral, Dean accepts him into the family; importantly, this is not a "Winchester's" funeral, but a "hunter's." The family is not defined by blood, but by the life one chooses, the life that Sam and Dean have chosen to share. They offer Adam a hunter's pyre, demonstrating their acceptance of him as family and as a person of worth despite his seemingly oppositional embodiment of family. In the flames of Adam's funeral pyre, Supernatural suggests that the seeming opposition is just that. Adam's alternate narrative still has value for Sam and Dean; Adam himself still has value for them, and they demonstrate this value by genuinely mourning his loss. Adam, at the moment of his funeral, becomes a member of the chosen family of Supernatural, not because of his blood but because Sam and Dean choose to consider him so. In this choice, paradoxically, Supernatural makes the claim that Adam and the narrative he represents must also have value. The family whose members choose each other freely may be the strongest—after all, our heroes must prevail—but the show willingly complicates its own themes by suggesting that its formulation of family is not the only one with value.

[9] This use of Adam was embraced by fans, as it provided a resolution to their concerns while simultaneously expanding the thematic embrace of the show. One poster commented after the episode aired:

[10] I think Kripke handled this really well. Throwing the kid brother in, teaching him how to hunt and whatnot is really the stuff for fan fiction and would have completely thumbed its nose at the point of this particular episode. The truth is, the boys never got to know Adam. He was already dead by the time the boys got there and the Adam they got to know wasn't real. We'll never know if they would have gotten along with Adam and that's the, forgive me here, wonderfully tragic part of the episode. (MasterofPuppets, April 24, 2009)

[11] The "wonderful tragedy" of the episode lies in that unanswered question: could these two narratives of family have coexisted? Could Sam and Dean have "gotten along with Adam"? A second poster concurred: "The best part of the episode is that Kripke made sure that Adam was already dead so that they never really got to know him and likely never will. This episode was never about Adam, or adding a third brother to the mix, it was all about Family and Sam and Dean dealing with Family issues, secrets and showing their bond is still there" (lovepass77, April 24, 2009).

[12] For many fans, this episode is about family and the definition of family—the bonds that are still there, despite challenges to them. Specifically, some fans read this episode, tellingly, as centering on various narratives of family and the respective values of those narratives:

[13] Perhaps John, in his own way, wanted to make things right by Adam and give him some kind of normalcy (the rare times he saw him)…something he couldn't do for Dean and Sam. Everything considered, I believe John did the best he could for all his sons. He committed the ultimate sacrifice and gave his life so Dean could live. A father has to truly love to do that. (SuperFanatic, April 24, 2009)

[14] For this member of the fan community, John's dual families each represent the best John could offer; the loss of one of them in the form of Adam becomes a true sacrifice of a valuable ideal. Overall fan response, in an informal poll conducted by a forum member (table 1), displays general satisfaction with the episode (note 6).

Table 1. What did you think of Jump the Shark? [thread title]

10 (loved it!!!!!!!)40
5 (just okay)1
1 (bad)2

Accessed April 28, 2009.

[15] Fandom, clearly, responded well to the introduction of Adam on these terms: his death allows Sam and Dean, a family who have consistently chosen each other, to reemerge as the series's preeminent image of family. But Adam's sympathetic portrayal and hunter's funeral suggest the show's inclusivity and willingness to consider alternative narratives as possible sites of value. Part of Supernatural's continuing appeal consists of this inclusive approach, offering an optimistic view of tolerance that sits in a strangely comfortable pairing with the otherworldly monsters and situations that Sam and Dean face from week to week. As Supernatural makes the monsters, vampires, and werewolves into familiar sights, an accepted part of the lifestyle of one peculiar family, it also negotiates otherness and alterity in more subtle ways, providing a refuge for families of all types and compositions. Family, to paraphrase Bobby Singer's words, is reaffirmed as a connection that neither begins nor ends with blood.


1. This is by no means an exhaustive list; many of the tensions of the show manifest themselves in stress and temporary splitting of the family dynamic, and a main source of as-yet-unresolved discomfort throughout season 4 has been the emotional separation of Sam and Dean. Until this point, the show has reaffirmed the importance of family by consistently depicting a reconnection after separation; season 4 appears to be affirming the importance of choosing family by demonstrating the negative consequences of a sustained separation.

2. Excellent examples of John's absentee parenting occur most notably in episodes 3.08 "A Very Supernatural Christmas" and 4.13 "After School Special," among others. In all fairness, as at least one fan has observed on the CW forum for the show, John did preserve mementos of Sam and Dean's childhood as well, such as Sam's soccer trophy and Dean's first shotgun; the fact that the boys are surprised to find this memorabilia, however, suggests that they did not know of or expect such indications of parental pride and "normality" from John.

3. All quotations from fans are taken from the CW official message boards for Supernatural, accessed April 27, 2009.

4. This relationship dynamic, operating along lines of pain and concern, is much beloved by fandom, to the extent of its formulation as a specific category of fan fiction affectionately known as h/c, or hurt/comfort.

5. Adam's funeral pyre is one among many effective visual images linking death with fire, a pairing employed by Supernatural since the show's opening sequence of Mary Winchester burning to death on the ceiling in season 1; here, the multiple layers of meaning—the person whose body they burn has just been represented in quick succession as an innocent, a victim, a threat, and now a warrior—suggest the complicated and shifting nature of identity with regard to familial roles.

6. This poll is not in any way statistically significant, relying on only the views of the 77 members who felt strongly enough about the episode to rate it, but it does offer a representative idea of the general response to the episode among the same population who had previously expressed such doubts about the new Winchester sibling.

Works cited

CW Lounge: Supernatural Message Boards. (accessed April 27, 2009).

Hannah-Jones, Avril. 2009. Good and evil in the world of Supernatural. In In the hunt: Unauthorized essays on "Supernatural," ed. with Leah Wilson, 53–66. Dallas, TX: BenBella Books.

Koontz, K. Dale. 2008. Faith and choice in the works of Joss Whedon. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.

Rakowski, Sheryl A. 2009. A powerful need. In In the hunt: Unauthorized essays on "Supernatural," ed. with Leah Wilson, 97–10. Dallas, TX: BenBella Books.

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