Infernal redemption

Babak Zarin

Fredericksburg, Virginia, United States

[0.1] Abstract—Supernatural and Luminosity's fan vid "The Fifth Circle" use allusions to Dante’s inferno to display Sam and Dean’s sins and how they are absolved.

[0.2] Keywords—Dante; "The Fifth Circle"; Hell; Inferno; Luminosity; Supernatural

Zarin, Babak. 2010. "Infernal redemption." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 4.

1. Which hell the Winchesters went to, and why

[1.1] As a result of selling his soul to save Sam's life a year before, Dean is torn to shreds by hellhounds at the end of season 3, giving audiences a glimpse of hell (3.16 "No Rest for the Wicked"). During season 3, LiveJournal user Luminosity created a notable fan video entitled "The Fifth Circle," a character study of Sam in which he descends into hell to search for Dean.

Find more videos like this on BAM Vid Vault

Vid 1. Luminosity, "The Fifth Circle" (2008).

[1.2] Supernatural never clearly states what religion the Winchesters follow, drawing instead on folklore from throughout the world, but considering the show's frequent use of the Bible, the symbol of the cross, Catholic priests, and Judeo-Christian occultism (for example, Enochian magic), and the Winchesters' origin in predominantly Christian Kansas, the show's hell is most likely intended to be a Christian one. Yet neither Luminosity's vid nor the depiction of Dean in hell at the end of "No Rest for the Wicked" matches the arguably more common biblical images of hell as a fiery place or a state of separation from God. They depict instead a dark and gloomy hell filled with suffering souls (figure 1). The precedent for Supernatural's depiction of hell, The Inferno, by Dante Alighieri, is often considered to have firmly established the West's view of hell, and it holds cultural significance within the fandom. Dante describes hell as comprising nine circles: Limbo, Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Wrath, Heresy, Violence, Fraud, and Treachery. The first six hold those guilty of sins of incontinence or unreasonable desire, while the final three are for the brutish and malicious (Dante 2000, chap. 11). Sinners are placed in the circle corresponding to their most grievous sin; punishment in hell thus depends on a sin's nature and consequently reveals the sinner's nature.

Figure 1. Dean in hell

Figure 1. Dean in hell, from 3.16 "No Rest for the Wicked" (2008).

[1.3] Since normally only sinners go to hell, the question of whether Sam and Dean have sinned is important. For Dean the answer is an emphatic yes, as before his death Dean's aggressive behavior suggested that he was guilty of wrath, and a personified Envy itself identifies him as "practically a walking billboard of gluttony and lust" (3.01 "The Magnificent Seven") (note 1). In addition to these there is also blasphemy, demonstrated by Dean's statements that he has faith only in what he sees and that "there's no higher power, there's no God…just chaos and violence and random, unpredictable evil that comes out of nowhere" (1.12 "Faith," 2.13 "Houses of the Holy"). These comments indicate that Dean was an atheist or agnostic prior to his descent, beliefs traditionally considered blasphemous in and of themselves.

[1.4] Whether Sam has sinned is not as clear. Prior to his brother's descent to hell, Sam is never depicted as overly violent or aggressive. Not only is his behavior moderate, but he is a faithful person who believes in God and angels and even prays "every day" (2.13 "Houses of the Holy"). None of the Seven Deadly Sins identify themselves with Sam. In fact, the only conflicts he is shown to be involved in are between him and his family, and even in them he only broods (Dean remarks on Sam's "broody and pensive shoulders" in 4.18 "The Monster at the End of this Book"). It seems a stretch to call broodiness a sin. However, Dante's model suggests a sin of which Sam could be accused: sullenness, punished in the fifth circle, much as Luminosity's "The Fifth Circle" suggests.

2. Moderation

[2.1] In Luminosity's vid, Sam's fall into hell begins "as soon as he came back to life," although he only becomes aware of it upon killing the crossroads demon about five months later (sockkpuppett, May 1, 2008, LiveJournal post; 3.05 "Bedtime Stories" is also being referenced). At the point in Supernatural when he summons the crossroads demon, Sam has been spending all of his energy attempting to prevent Dean's fall, becoming increasingly desperate. This desperation is both visually and audibly represented in "The Fifth Circle" by the identification of Dean as Sam's "one grain of sand," to which Sam clings among the imagery of the "three drops of water." The depiction of Sam's fall into hell takes 22 seconds, at the video's climax, and he certainly falls into the hell described by Dante's Inferno: the video begins with a woodcut of the Inferno, an image reaffirmed by the background during Sam's fall. The circle Sam falls to is similarly identified by the visual imagery, as the video is bracketed by images of a person (presumably Sam) riding on a boat over dark water, and then being pulled into the water by angry people. This matches Dante's description of the fifth circle of hell, where "water…darker than the deepest purple" is filled with the wrathful, "people with angry faces in that bog, / naked," who "struck each other with their hands" (Dante 2000, 7.103, 110–12); hidden in the water are the sullen, "souls whose sighs / with bubbles make the water's surface seethe" (119–20).

[2.2] Sullenness is clearly Sam's sin; fans have long noted his tendency toward it. "The Fifth Circle" also highlights Sam's reliance on his brother for support: lacking that support, Sam will apparently drown unless he is able to expiate this sin. How this is to be done is not made clear. Luminosity offers a suggestion, saying it is Sam's refusal to embrace his destiny as "a very powerful demonic force" that prolongs his stay in hell (May 1, 2008, LiveJournal post). If Sam embraces his demonic nature and uses it, he can release his pent-up anger and bitterness by essentially burning it up; to use Dante's language, if Sam's incontinently keeping his anger in is causing his soul to suffer, he must release it in order to become more moderate. Once he has done so, Sam will be out of hell (note 2).

[2.3] And what of Dean? Dean has certainly felt lust, but he does not suffer Dante's punishment for this sin in the hell depicted in 3.16 "No Rest for the Wicked," that is, being flung on whirlwinds. Why? Simply put, Dean is not incontinent. In The Inferno, Dante describes his conversation in that circle of hell with Francesca de Polenta, who reveals that she is being punished for having an affair with Paulo Malatesta. Instead of accepting the blame, Francesca blames the affair on Paulo's beauty, her husband's cruelty, and the story of Lancelot and Guinevere (Dante 2000, 5.121–38). This is not how Dean thinks; he may sleep around, but he wouldn't betray family for sex. In fact, Dean apparently wants to settle down, as his reaction to Cassie Robinson's rejection and his dream of living with Ben and Lisa show (1.13 "Route 666," 3.10 "Dream a Little Dream of Me"). Dean may be a little lustful, but he is not flung on the winds of his passion, so his lust is unlikely to damn him. Dean's continence also explains why he doesn't suffer punishment for gluttony and violence, while his agnosticism about God (Dean would believe in him if he had sufficient proof) explains why he doesn't suffer for being blasphemous. He is certainly guilty of committing fraud, but considering that he does so merely to obtain supplies necessary for his lifestyle, the only type of fraud he could be condemned for is schism, which will be dealt with below.

[2.4] That Dean is depicted as moderate is important. This moderation is perhaps only seen by his family within the space of the show, but fans also notice it. If Dean were a crazed and sinful person, he would deserve punishment. Instead, fans emphasize Dean's restraint and care for those around him, and by not using imagery drawn from Dante's vision of the other circles of hell, the show acknowledges these aspects of him. Conversely, Sam's emotional state, also most visible to his family but noticed by fans, is indicated by the imagery drawn from Dante's Inferno in "The Fifth Circle."

3. Dean's scandalous nature

[3.1] In Schism, a subdivision of Fraud, the eighth circle, a devil hacks sinners open, repeating the action every time their wounds close; there are so many wounded that "neither thought nor speech / has the capacity to hold so much" (Dante 2000, 28.5–6). This closely matches Dean's description of a hell where demons "sliced and carved and tore at me…until there was nothing left. And then suddenly I would be whole again…just so they could start in all over" (4.10 "Heaven and Hell"). Dean has company in Schism besides those who deviated from church doctrine. There are also those who "sowed scandal" (Dante 2000, 28.34–36), which, according to Thomas Aquinas's Summa Theologica, means they were stumbling blocks causing spiritual downfall (1997, Sinners in this circle have prevented their own or others' spiritual growth by splitting with the church; Dean seemingly follows no doctrine, so he cannot split from it, but his refusal to believe without proof is scandalous. This refusal's effect on Dean is enacted literally: as his spiritual being has been cut, Dean himself now is. This direct and simple symbolism briefly makes Dean's sin clear to fans, especially those who were unaware of his relation to scandal, while laying the groundwork for some of Dean's later actions, such as breaking the first seal.

[3.2] That Dean's role in the myth arc of Supernatural is important is clear—Reverend Roy Le Grange tells Dean he has a job, and upon their return from hell Castiel tells Dean God has work for him (1.12 "Faith," 4.01 "Lazarus Rising"). When the final seal is about to be broken, Zachariah tells Dean he is to kill Lucifer, giving Dean a holy role (4.22 "Lucifer Rising"). Unfortunately, Dean's scandalous nature has prevented him from accepting angels and the existence of God, limiting him; as Castiel says, Dean's problem is that he has no faith (4.01 "Lazarus Rising"). The simplest way to fix this is by providing proof; since only angels and God can take someone out of hell, Dean must go there so they can unequivocally prove their existence by rescuing him, allowing him to accept their existence on his terms while absolving his scandal and allowing him to become the desired holy warrior. This need for unequivocal proof explains the length of Dean's stay: any shorter and Dean might claim that he had survived by his own willpower.

[3.3] Yet after thirty years in hell, Dean accepts Alastair's offer to stop his torture in return for Dean's torturing the other sinners, an action seemingly uncharacteristic for moderate, holy Dean (4.10 "Heaven and Hell") and one that breaks the first seal. Dean's making this decision is significant, as Dante comments that sinners in hell "have lost the good of the intellect" (Dante 2000, 3.18). Still, if Dean is no longer a sinner, why did he break the seal? Castiel states, "The first seal shall be broken when a righteous man sheds blood in hell. As he breaks, so shall it break," linking the seal with Dean's righteousness as a holy warrior (4.16 "On the Head of a Pin"). Clearly, punishing sinners is righteous, and Dean punishes with skill comparable to Alastair's, but he admits he felt good while torturing: "That pain I felt? It just slipped away" (4.11 "Family Remains"; see also 4.16 "On the Head of a Pin"). Escaping pain by inflicting it is not righteous, but it is human and understandable, and it is this split between human need and righteous behavior that breaks the seal. Nevertheless, once Dean is rescued his scandal is absolved: he is no longer damned, and thus is released from hell (note 3).

4. Conclusion

[4.1] Sam's actions during Dean's absence and after his return are notably unlike those prior to his brother's fall: he embraces his demonic nature with assistance from Ruby, in part by drinking her blood, and throughout season 4 consistently uses his abilities to fight, exorcise, and kill demons (4.01 "Lazarus Rising," 4.16 "On the Head of a Pin"). He is initially excited at meeting angels, but his first encounter with them leaves him disillusioned; however, no reference is made to any change in his behavior as a result of this disillusionment (4.07 "It's the Great Pumpkin, Sam Winchester"). Finally, at the end of the season, Sam kills Lilith, using up all of his demonic abilities and breaking the final seal in the process (4.21 "When the Levee Breaks"). What Luminosity's vid predicts thus comes to pass. By embracing his destiny, Sam finally stops drowning in the misery his brother's fall caused him and leaves hell by releasing all of his withheld anger in the form of his demonic abilities; this release finally ends when he burns out upon breaking the final seal. Sam has purged himself, though he will have to deal with the consequences of doing so.

[4.2] Dean breaks out of his grave; he then reconnects with Sam and ultimately accepts the existence of angels after exhausting all other possibilities, although he struggles with the idea of suffering for the greater good (4.01 "Lazarus Rising," 4.02 "Are You There, God? It's Me…Dean Winchester"). Dean undergoes his first test of battle readiness, but no one can tell him if he passed; later he is called to torture Alastair, with arguable success, and ultimately joins the angels to prevent Sam from becoming demonic (4.07 "It's the Great Pumpkin, Sam Winchester," 4.16 "On the Head of a Pin," 4.21 "When the Levee Breaks"). Such actions demonstrate the change that has occurred in Dean. Although he previously did not believe in either God or angels, he now treats Castiel as a peer and has openly sworn to follow the Lord's will; he also increasingly considers the morality behind difficult choices, such as Sam's decision to drink demon blood (4.21 "When the Levee Breaks").

[4.3] Therefore, allusions to Dante's Inferno operate on multiple levels in Supernatural. The imagery's simple symbolism quickly develops the Winchesters through one-to-one correlations with their personalities, and its richness enables them to foreshadow the scope of the upcoming apocalypse by emphasizing the drama of their descents into hell. Finally, the cultural significance of the images in establishing the West's view of hell and in inspiring media is well known; consequently, the images are familiar even to fans who haven't read Dante, and particularly to those responsible for creating most of the fandom's view of hell. By drawing on these elements, Supernatural and "The Fifth Circle" manage to both emphasize the aspects of the Winchesters that fans are drawn to (for example, Dean's caring and moderate nature, Sam's angst and connection with Dean) and simultaneously show what was sinful in the brothers, what they needed to be absolved of to continue smoothly toward Armageddon.

5. Notes

1. Dialogue is quoted from episode transcripts at Horror News (, the Roadhouse (, and the Super-wiki (, all accessed April 14, 2009.

2. The idea that Sam can free himself this way seems more appropriate to Dante's purgatory, wherein those who are willing to redeem themselves from their sins work out their time. As neither "The Fifth Circle" nor Supernatural ever mentions purgatory, and sins cannot be atoned for in heaven, it makes sense that this possibility is placed in hell.

3. This raises the question of whether Dean wouldn't have broken the seal if rescued sooner; the description Castiel gives of the angels' urgency to reach him suggests that he wouldn't (4.16 "On the Head of a Pin").

6. Works cited

Alighieri, Dante. 2000. The inferno. Trans. Robert Hollander and Jean Hollander. New York: Anchor.

Aquinas, Saint Thomas. 1997 (1945). Basic writings of Saint Thomas Aquinas. Ed. Anton C. Pegis. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett.

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