The Impala as negotiator of melodrama and masculinity in Supernatural

Melissa N. Bruce

State University of New York at Potsdam, Potsdam, New York, United States

[0.1] Abstract—This article explores the implications of the binaries of masculinity and melodrama as they pertain to the television series Supernatural.I examine the significance of Dean's beloved Impala as a negotiator of both the masculine and the overtly emotional. The Impala directly provides Dean with both physical and emotional support throughout the series, while it does not directly interact with Sam. As Supernatural moves through its fourth season, the dramatic uses of the Impala are shifting, signifying and providing insight into a distinctive change in the relationship between Dean and Sam, where emotion cannot yet be overtly expressed.

[0.2] Keywords—Gender; Television

Bruce, Melissa N. 2010. The Impala as negotiator of melodrama and masculinity in Supernatural. In "Saving People, Hunting Things," edited by Catherine Tosenberger, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 4.

1. Introduction

[1.1] At first glance, the CW series Supernatural,which is currently airing its fifth season, can be read as primarily masculine. The series appears to be a standard horror text and centers around its two leads fighting supernatural evil. The brothers Dean and Sam Winchester (played by Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki) live on the road, killing demons and hunting monsters, traveling in a classic 1967 Chevrolet Impala. Supernatural includes a soundtrack consisting primarily of strategically placed classic rock tracks and on the surface presents its audience with an overload of blood, gore, and action. Beneath its tough exterior, however, Supernatural calls upon strong melodramatic conventions, offering a glimpse into a genre typically read as feminine. To find a balance between the seemingly contradictory elements of the horror/masculine and the melodramatic/feminine, Supernatural relies on Dean's beloved Impala. The Impala offers a visual space that is typically masculine, yet the series uses it as a device through which to filter the more intensely emotional moments that characterize television melodrama and the Winchester brothers' relationship. By offering both a marker of Dean's emotional condition and a physical connection to the current state of Dean and Sam's relationship, the Impala allows certain emotional exchanges to be negotiated that may not be typically acceptable in the realm of the masculine within our culture, thus directly connecting the brothers to melodrama.

[1.2] In an article dealing with melodrama and masculinity, Sasha Torres points to a similar issue when she states, "The tension produced by the possibility that femininity will be diffused onto men forces TV melodrama to reveal some of the ideological and representational stakes it tries to manage" (Torres 1993, 286). Through the use of melodramatic elements in Supernatural, viewers are being asked to set aside preconceived notions of the masculine to allow for the negotiation of emotional displays and exchanges between the characters. Within Western culture, emotion is typically equated with the feminine. Because of this, Supernatural's intense focus on the emotional as the driving force for the main story arc could easily present an extreme source of tension for a series that relies so heavily on the framework of the horror/masculine. The emotional elements that Supernatural presents, however, expand and develop the relationship between the brothers, which, in turn, drives the series. The Impala offers a negotiating tool for this tension between the feminine form of the melodrama (the emotional connection between the brothers) and the masculine form of the horror genre (the basic story plots). The Impala itself is a primarily masculine object. Not only is it a classic muscle car, but its trunk contains what can only be termed an arsenal, holding everything from rifles, shotguns, and machetes to rock salt and holy water. Nonetheless, even as the Impala presents a primarily masculine visual space, for the Winchester brothers it also serves, significantly, as home—a domestic space—thus connecting it directly to the traditionally feminine. By setting the Impala on these two seemingly oppositional planes, the series foregrounds it as a space through which multiple genre lines may be explored.

2. Melodrama in Supernatural

[2.1] The melodramatic genre, according to Nick Lacey, is characterized by the "identification of moral polarities of good and evil within the narrative…character[s,] [who are] generally of lower social status…the use of music for dramatic emphasis… [and the] celebration of overt emotionalism" (2000, 203–4). All of these elements can be found within the confines of Supernatural. Lacey also points out, however, that "more than anything, melodrama is characterized by excess; if it isn't 'over-the-top' then it probably isn't melodrama" (204). In Supernatural, the entire premise of the series is decidedly over the top—demons and monsters, complicated boundaries between good and evil, pacts with the devil, etc.—Dean literally sells his soul to save his brother's life and is then dragged off to hell, only to be pulled out four months later by an angel. With this in mind, it is clear that, regardless of its masculine surface, these elements strongly situate Supernatural within the genre of the melodrama.

[2.2] In his discussion of melodrama in film, Jon Lewis expands on the definition by equating melodrama specifically with "serial suffering." As Lewis explains,

[2.3] Whereas other genres neatly reward the good and punish the evil, melodrama is characterized by serial suffering. What the characters learn in the end is not that things can or will be righted but rather that the world is unfair, suffering is inevitable and people don't always get what they want or deserve…The ironies and tragedies outweigh the sweet and the good. Heroism lies in the acceptance of that unhappy fact. (2008, 123–24)

[2.4] A similar realization lies at the heart of Supernatural. The series makes it clear very early on that any kind of happy ending for Sam and Dean is extremely unlikely, and perhaps impossible. Though their fates may not be laid out in every detail, Dean and Sam are hunters, and whatever paths they may choose will more than likely end in tragedy. Regardless of Supernatural's outwardly outlandish context, the core of the series exists on the more realistic basis that good does not always get what it deserves. The brothers' emotionalism, therefore, in a world where there is little chance that good will be "neatly rewarded" and evil punished, allows for necessary and profound workings out of melodramatic conventions. Still, the outward displays of emotion that characterize many of Supernatural's most important moments do not come without difficulty. Though the series may take on a strong melodramatic tone, it holds a specific grounding in the masculine. Therefore, Supernatural makes use of the more masculine elements it presents to offer insight into character and emotion through both overt and covert means and, through the use of the Impala, effectively grounds both the masculine and the emotional.

[2.5] In an online posting of his thoughts on Supernatural, Henry Jenkins points to the masculine appeal of the series when he states, "On one level, it is made up of classic masculine elements—horror, the hero's quest, sibling rivalry, [and] unresolved oedipal dramas" (Jenkins 2007). Such elements are prominent in Supernatural, clearly situating the series in the horror genre, for which the expected audience is male. The horror genre is only roughly defined in mainstream television, and as a result, Supernatural is commonly referred to as a science fiction series. Given this, there is some expectation that the audience for a series like Supernatural will overlap with the expected audience for a science fiction series. Indeed, Supernatural has employed a significant number of actors, producers, and directors from the science fiction hit The X-Files (1993–2002) (most notably the late Kim Manners). While there is a long history of female fan involvement with science fiction, the producers and creators of such shows have, until very recently, imagined their audience to be primarily adolescent males. Since the general expectation is that both horror and science fiction will appeal to a largely male fan base, Supernatural's inclusion of overt melodramatic emotion may seem out of place. However, it is important to remember that in airing on the CW network, Supernatural also has the important task of appealing to a largely female demographic. As Jenkins goes on to discuss, despite its initial masculine presentation, Supernatural "seems ideally situated to the themes and concerns which have long interested the female fan community" (Jenkins 2007). Because the CW's target demographic is women aged 18 to 34, the survival of the series undoubtedly required that it appeal to this audience, especially early on. Of course, this is not to assume that Supernatural lacks a substantial male fan base. In fact, I would argue that Supernatural's successful genre negotiations manage to hold the interest of a number of different types of viewers, rather than simply the CW network's most targeted audience. Finally, we must remember that a network's targeted demographic is never fully equal to its actual audience. Supernatural works to appeal to multiple audiences, but nonetheless leaves some people out—people, for example, who would never watch a "horror" show. Still, by negotiating multiple genre frameworks, Supernatural attempts to draw a relatively diverse audience.

[2.6] In both appealing to the network's largely female demographic and negotiating the necessary emotionalism that drives the relationship between the Winchester brothers, Supernatural strategically employs multiple themes common to television melodrama. With the careful interweaving of both the horror/masculine and the melodramatic/feminine, "everything [in the series] seems designed to draw out the emotions of the characters and force them to communicate with each other across all of the various walls which traditional masculinity erects to prevent men from sharing their feelings with each other" (Jenkins 2007). As Jenkins makes clear, these melodramatic elements most often deal specifically with the intense relationship between the two leads and seem extremely out of place in such a masculine text, according to the norms that pervade our culture. I argue, however, that the inclusion of the family connection between the brothers makes such melodramatic elements allowable, especially when the family connection appears in conjunction with the Impala. Furthermore, by offering a space in which both the masculine and the feminine can be negotiated, the Impala works to strengthen the brotherly bond, while making some of the most overt melodramatic emotion acceptable to a general audience.

3. The Impala as masculine and melodramatic negotiator

[3.1] As a typically masculine object, the Impala offers a visible means of constructing and keeping the series in a masculine context. Considering our society's cultural constructions of masculinity, it is unlikely that a mainstream audience could ever accept the connection between the boys without such a tool's being employed. Of course, such emotional displays between Dean and Sam may also be acceptable because, as Catherine Tosenberger notes, "as brothers, they are given a pass for displays of emotion that masculinity in our culture usually forbids" (Tosenberger 2008, 1.2). Even so, the show flirts with the intensity of the relationship between them, and it is often read by fans as incestuous, a reading that Tosenberger deals with extensively in her article. Through the series, it is made clear that neither Sam nor Dean has ever truly had access to the "normal" society that enacts the strict gender binaries viewers are accustomed to. As a result of both their separation from "normal" society and their status as brothers, a general viewership is more likely to accept some of the melodramatic emotion that is often displayed between the two.

[3.2] When some of the most intense emotional moments occur—those that may still cause tension for a general audience—they are often grounded in the masculine through the use of the Impala. In discussing the depiction of the automobile in film noir, Mark Osteen makes the point that the automobile is itself connected, like the film genre, to masculinity and masculine cultural markers. "In these [noir] films, automobiles also become overdetermined symbols of characters' aspirations and disappointments," and to take away a man's car is essentially to take away his "identity and hope" (Osteen 2008, 184). In Supernatural, the Impala acts in a similar way for Dean in particular, functioning as an emotional filter and a direct extension of his character. Dean touches the Impala and emotes beside it more than we see him do with any other object, or even person. To separate the two is to leave Dean remarkably unstable. By situating the Impala within the tradition of the film noir automobile, Supernatural places it specifically within a masculine space, while also using it as a symbol of emotion—a means through which the relationship between Dean and Sam can be read and understood, particularly in moments when their connection is under extreme stress, as in much of season 4. The Impala offers insight into the surface emotional stability and more turbulent hidden emotions of each of the brothers, providing a stable and masculine space through which to explore the scenes of obvious emotion that so commonly pervade television melodrama. For example, the scene in the wake of their father's death when Dean takes a crowbar to the Impala offers particular insight into Dean's emotional condition, as I will discuss more specifically later.

[3.3] According to Osteen, what he calls film noir "automobility" offers the apparent freedom to become anyone, anywhere, but it perpetually ends in the solidification of the main characters' role as social outcasts—a fact of which Dean and Sam are consistently aware. As cars do in noir films, the Impala offers a homelike space for the two men, who do, in fact, fall into the category of roving criminals that Osteen stresses is a key factor in the film noir. The struggle between the brothers in season 4, therefore, is not a struggle for social class mobility, but instead a struggle for mobility within their relationship. They are both desperately seeking control over their own lives and, by direct correlation, control in their relationship. Because the show is a television drama centered on the boys, it must remain impossible to separate Dean and Sam completely through any logic internal to the show, and therefore any change in one demands a change in the status quo for both—they are tied together by a bond stronger than any ever presented in the Supernatural universe. Sam and Dean are brothers, living practically in each other's pockets for most of their lives, each willing to die for the other—and the most physical embodiment of that connection is the Impala. It is the one constant in their world, outside of one another—it is arguably even more constant than John.

[3.4] The importance of the Impala in some of the most heavily emotional moments of the series can be seen at the end of the season 2 finale, when Dean reveals to Sam that he has traded his soul for his brother's life (2.22 "All Hell Breaks Loose 2"). Interestingly, the Impala is only actually visible for a moment at the beginning of the scene, when the boys approach it and Dean opens the door. The key emotional exchange between the two begins with the sound of Dean shutting the door, which resonates as he turns back to Sam, the two of them resting against the Impala. During this exchange, Dean, in particular, uses the Impala for physical support as the conversation becomes heavier. Though the Impala is not visible again until the very end of the scene, after the emotional exchange, viewers are aware that it is there in the background. The distinctive noise of the car door shutting shifts the mood from relief at Azazel's death to emotional distress. Thus the Impala acts not only as a means of physical support for Dean, but also as a means of emotional support for him—and for the viewer, it is a sign of the emotional content to come.

[3.5] The Impala is used most commonly to indicate Dean's emotional state rather than Sam's, at least in earlier seasons. As Julia M. Wright points out, it is "Dean who is at the centre of the series' exploration of competing ideologies and values," and his "'bad boy' masculinity is repeatedly marked as a mask or performance" (2008, ¶14–15)—one that is visibly shaken by the return of his father. In a short essay, Andie Masino discusses the significance of the Impala's physical appearance to Dean's mental state in season 1. She points out that "as Dean start[s] to internally deteriorate, so [does] the Impala's exterior condition" (Masino 2006, 217). I would argue that once we move beyond the first season, the correlation is no longer so consistent. However, Masino's argument that the Impala negotiates some of Dean's more covert emotions is still worth considering in light of John's return. When the car stops looking pristine, their father is back, and his presence always strains Dean's relationship with Sam. As Wilkinson points out, "When John reunites with his sons in 'Dead Man's Blood' (1.20), he makes a crack to Dean about the state of the car… [thereby] reasserting his paternal authority—reminding Dean where the car came from and who the car represents" (2009, 204). With John back, Dean is suddenly forced into his former role of peacemaker between his brother and his father, as well as the role of subordinate to John. In order for Dean to step back into these roles effectively, he has to defend their father against Sam's anger. Dean is no longer able to act as an equal to Sam. It is during these episodes, when the boys reconnect with their father, that the Impala begins to appear unkempt and dirty. Masino points out that "the state of the Impala's cleanliness directly reflect[s] Dean's crumbling emotional state" (2006, 216), and it also reflects the state of the relationship between the boys, stress in which is often caused by issues involving their father.

[3.6] As I mentioned earlier, there is a moment in early season 2 (in 2.02 "Everybody Loves a Clown") when Dean takes a crowbar to the Impala. Immediately before this, Sam, with no provocation, confides to Dean his feelings about their father's death, and Dean remains silent. Such an exchange is uncommon between the two. At this moment, the Impala is almost completely destroyed, its condition reflected in Dean's unwillingness to open up to Sam. In fact, his only two words to Sam are merely a question—"About what?"—that sets off Sam's tirade. Throughout the entire exchange, there is a disconnect between the two brothers, mostly coming from Dean. Once Sam leaves, Dean takes out his anger on the half-restored Impala, taking a crowbar to its trunk and destroying much of the work he had put into restoring it. Considering this, I argue that the Impala's condition here reflects the loss of connection between Dean and Sam more than it does Dean's general emotional state.

[3.7] In 5.04 "The End" we see the damaged Impala as a marker of separation once more. Here, Dean is thrust into the future, where he discovers the Impala in what is probably the worst condition we have ever seen it—it has not been destroyed in a wreck, as we might expect, but rather abandoned and all but forgotten. And it is here that the worst possible scenario has become a reality. Dean and Sam have not spoken in five years and Sam, as we learn later, has become Lucifer's vessel. At this moment, when the Impala is literally falling apart, we are also presented with the complete and utter separation of the brothers' lives.

[3.8] The Impala, therefore, offers a clear and concise indicator of Dean's emotional condition as it relates to his relationship with Sam. Through its own physical condition, the Impala offers insight into Dean's hidden emotional state by helping to bring forward some of the melodramatic/feminine emotion that is not yet acceptable for Dean and, therefore, cannot yet be explicitly stated. Such a marker is necessary when Dean cannot be honest with Sam, as the audience is offered little other means of seeing through the mask that Dean constructs at these times. Often it is John's presence, whether literal or metaphorical, that so destabilizes Dean's emotional condition that he shuts himself down, even to Sam. In these moments, the Impala functions strategically as a device through which the audience is allowed glimpses of Dean's emotional state. The Impala, therefore, filters the extreme emotion that pervades television melodrama, providing insight into the hidden emotional state of Supernatural's characters when certain emotional exchanges are not yet acceptable.

4. The question of ownership and shifting relationships

[4.1] In season 4 of Supernatural, the Impala is placed in a battle of wills between the boys, as each struggles for control over his own life—they are suddenly closer to being separate entities than ever before—and, by association, for control over their relationship. This struggle is embodied in the Impala, as Sam's relationship to the car has taken a significant turn during Dean's four-month imprisonment in hell. Before this moment, the Impala had been Dean's, unquestionably, and had in fact helped to solidify the roles of protector and protected that the boys had always played in each other's lives.

[4.2] Before season 4 it is always Dean, as the older of the two, who acts as protector in their relationship, a role he assumes when a six-month-old Sam's life is placed directly into his four-year-old hands at the very outset of the series and that is solidified when Dean takes ownership of the Impala. The bond they share holds strong and even intensifies as they move into adulthood as hunters, and it eventually begins to place strain on Sam in particular. For both Dean and Sam, these roles translate smoothly into their relationship with the Impala. Dean has always been the one to look out for Sam, and a large part of doing so meant taking the wheel—in this case literally—making the hard decisions and doing what had to be done, handing over control to Sam only when necessary to offer comfort or solidify trust. Such expressions of trust can perhaps easily be seen when we remember Dean's edict "No chick-flick moments" in the pilot. As Wilkinson points out, "Dean…of the 'no chick-flick moments' mentality, often relies on the Impala to help him express what he can't" (2009, 203). This distinctive use of the Impala as a tool of expression is never clearer than in 3.07 "Fresh Blood," when Dean allows Sam under the hood. Wilkinson explains, "Dean allows Sam back into his emotional sphere by lifting the hood of the Impala to expose her broken inner workings, trusting that Sam can help fix things. There can be no clearer sign of unconditional trust and love from Dean than letting Sam near the Impala's carburetor with a wrench" (2009, 203). Not only is Dean offering a clear sign of love and trust, but he is also allowing Sam back into his own emotional workings. As the Impala functions essentially as an extension of Dean's character, this is a moment in which Dean is entrusting Sam with a piece of himself. He is taking the first steps in accepting the fate that will take him to hell in fulfillment of the deal he made to restore Sam's life, and preparing Sam for life without him. Sam, however, is holding on to a glimmer of hope that he may be able to save his brother. At this moment, Dean is still acting as protector, brother, and, in many ways, parent to Sam, as we can see when he tells Sam flat out, "That's my job, right? Show my little brother the ropes." Still, by letting Sam under the hood, so to speak, Dean is making a silent promise that he will "drop the act," as Sam had previously begged of him, while simultaneously beginning the transfer of the Impala into Sam's hands. Essentially, Dean is handing over a piece of himself—and offering Sam the possibility that he may one day be able to protect Dean. At this moment, Dean specifically uses the Impala to indicate some of the intense melodramatic emotion he is unwilling to express outwardly, while beginning an important shift in control over their relationship, as embodied by the shift in ownership of the Impala.

[4.3] Though Dean may not be officially handing over the Impala just yet, this emotional openness and pure trust is no small feat. Dean has always been the one to protect Sam and, by doing so, Dean has maintained a role equivalent to that of parent. At the very beginning of the series, we learn that the loss of Sam and Dean's mother resulted in the loss of both parents. Julia M. Wright points to this idea when she discusses the "lower-class children's vulnerability" and speaks of Dean "as his brother's primary caregiver and armed protector 'for days at a time'" (2008, ¶12). Throughout the series, it is made clear that from a very young age, Dean was forced to take over the role of caregiver for his brother and obedient subordinate to his father, both of which were later expressed through the use of the Impala. The Impala is, in fact, Dean's most precious possession, his home. It is the same for Sam, but always with Dean behind the wheel. As the only constant physical space in their lives, the Impala offers a stability that can be provided by no other object, and Dean's ownership of the car only solidifies his role as protector. By acting as the sole space of home, therefore, the Impala is placed within a specifically feminine framework, which allows Dean the freedom to display overt emotionalism that might not otherwise be acceptable.

[4.4] A struggle begins when Dean sacrifices himself to save Sam's life, an act that makes sense if we consider Cawelti's criteria for the melodramatic hero: "if the melodramatic hero meets a catastrophic end, it is either as a noble sacrifice to some good purpose or because he has become deserving of destruction" (1976, 46). It is at the moment when Sam learns of Dean's deal that he truly begins to fight to usurp Dean's role as protector. In the penultimate episode of season 2 (2.21 "All Hell Breaks Loose 1"), we watch Sam die in Dean's arms, and in the next episode (2.22 "All Hell Breaks Loose 2"), Dean makes a deal with a crossroads demon to bring his brother back. Dean sells his soul and is given one year to live: this is a melodramatic end, as he has sacrificed himself to save his brother. When Sam discovers this at the end of the episode, he insists that it is his turn to take on the role of protector, stating firmly, "You save my life, over and over. I mean, you sacrifice everything for me, don't you think I'd do the same for you? You're my big brother. There is nothing I wouldn't do for you. And I don't care what it takes, I'm gonna get you out of this. Guess I gotta save your ass for a change." Even in this scene, however, it is made clear that this is not Sam's place. In Sam's own words, the roles they play in their current relationship are solidified. Even as Sam points out that it is Dean who does the saving, he uses the phrase "big brother," which stresses the established patterns of their relationship. When he speaks of saving Dean, it is "for a change." And his speech is followed by a touched but noncommittal "yeah" from Dean. At this moment, both brothers are well aware of the roles they occupy, regardless of Sam's hopes of changing them. This is the scene described above in which the audience is made aware of the Impala's presence primarily through auditory cues. As this new struggle for the place of protector begins, therefore, the Impala is foregrounded as a means of both physical and emotional support for the boys.

[4.5] For the entirety of season 3, Sam tries desperately to move into Dean's role, that of protector, but never succeeds. He comes close in the season finale, in which Dean does in fact die. The last image we are given is of Dean in hell, calling for Sam's help (3.16 "No Rest for the Wicked"). This is the moment when Dean becomes the one in need of protection, and Dean's final words to Sam—"take care of my wheels"—support my claim that the Impala functions as an extension of Dean. Dean hands over the wheel at this moment, passing the Impala on to Sam and thus entrusting his brother with a piece of himself. With Dean gone, Sam's relationship to the Impala changes. It now belongs to Sam, a symbol of both freedom and family, as it likely was when John passed it on to Dean. Wright argues that the Impala is simply something Dean received from John in order to do the job (2008, ¶15), but I am more inclined to agree with Wilkinson:

[4.6] We know John gave Dean the Impala, and while we don't know exactly when, it must've been a significant occasion—an anointing, if you will, of his oldest son. To Dean, the car represents John and his mission. In accepting it, Dean stepped into his role in the "family business" and acknowledged that he wanted to be just like his father. (2009, 204)

[4.7] The moment when Dean gives Sam control operates similarly. However, Dean has never truly become "just like his father"—Dean's main focus has always been Sam, rather than a blind, self-destructive hunt for revenge. When Dean passes on the Impala, one might expect Sam to accept his place in the "family business" much as Dean did, but with the aspiration of becoming like his brother, who has been the one to act as parent to him. Earlier in the season, Sam expresses this desire when he tells Dean, "The way I see it, if I'm gonna make it, if I'm gonna fight this war after you're gone, then I gotta change…into you. I gotta be more like you" (3.09 "Malleus Maleficarum"). In the next scene, we see Sam drive off in the Impala. The camerawork here is similar to that in key scenes in 3.11 "Mystery Spot" and 4.01 "Lazarus Rising," both of which deal with Sam's extended separation from Dean, signaling Sam's changing connection to the Impala and marking his similarities to John. The irony here is that Dean has always been utterly incapable of surviving on his own and that Sam is becoming more like John, not Dean.

[4.8] Sam's newfound similarities to John, therefore, are the catalyst for the clear shift in the brothers' relationship throughout season 4. Sam is finally beginning to usurp Dean's role as protector, moving into a space he has never occupied before. This role shift is marked by Sam's taking ownership of the Impala, as he does fully while Dean is in hell. In those four months, Sam becomes accustomed to thinking of the Impala as his own, and he doesn't stop when Dean is brought back. Sam's assumption that the Impala now belongs to him parallels John's own inability to release ownership after he gives the car to Dean. In 1.20 "Dead Man's Blood," John chastises Dean for failing to keep up the car: "Why don't you touch up your car, before you get rust. I wouldn't have given you the damn thing if I thought you were gonna ruin it." His scolding indicates that he still has a sense of ownership and affirms his control over his relationship with Dean. Sam expresses a similar possessiveness in season 4, which begins with the revelation that Sam has spent the time away from Dean doing little more than seeking revenge against Lilith. This desire for revenge is similar to their father's, and it has already been made clear in earlier seasons that Sam is just as single-minded as John. Before Dean's death, however, Sam does not succumb to this obsession in the same way John did, despite the fact that Jess's death is coded exactly like Mary's. Instead, it is only when Sam is left without his brother and with a mission of revenge for an extended period of time that he, like John, begins behaving obsessively.

[4.9] Now that Sam sees the Impala as belonging to him—after all, he has spent the better part of four months believing it—the ways that it is used begin to change. The shift is immediately obvious in the season 4 premiere (4.01 "Lazarus Rising"). When we first see the Impala again, we discover that Sam has gone so far as to install an iPod jack, something Dean clearly does not approve of, and Sam's immediate response to that disapproval is "I thought it was my car." Sam similarly asserts ownership when he goes to meet the demon Ruby. When Dean calls and chastises him for taking the Impala, Sam's immediate response is "Force of habit." The assertion is not overt, but the fact that Sam does not give a second thought to taking the Impala in the middle of the night makes it clear. Sam makes a show of handing the car back over to his brother and does not overtly claim ownership of it now that Dean has returned, but his actions speak differently. Just as telling is the camerawork when Sam takes the car, which seems to confirm Sam's feelings of ownership. When Sam pulls away, we see a beautiful shot of the Impala that makes the audience aware of both the car and the fact that it is Sam in the driver's seat. The camerawork here is what might have been expected upon Dean's reunion with the Impala. Instead, the moment comes with Sam behind the wheel. Anyone with a good knowledge of the series would be familiar with such scenes of the Impala, but these scenes almost always have Dean behind the wheel. Added to Dean's extended separation from the Impala, the use of Sam in this shot indicates a change in the boys' relationship to the car, and consequently to each other.

[4.10] Similarly, Sam seems to occupy the passenger seat only grudgingly throughout season 4. We see Sam driving more often than might be expected, considering Dean's long absence, and he seems to allow Dean into the driver's seat more because he has to than because he considers it Dean's place. In 4.04 "Metamorphosis," for example, Dean is driving when the brothers get into a heated discussion. Sam gets angry and orders Dean, "Stop the car, or I will!" Not only does Sam issue an order to Dean, but Dean obeys without argument, something that has never occurred before in the context of the Impala. Such an exchange might be expected between John and Dean rather than Sam and Dean.

[4.11] As Sam's relationship to the Impala changes, therefore, so does his relationship to Dean. For at least a year, Sam had tried to take on Dean's role of protector. He is finally beginning to succeed, but in an arguably unhealthy manner. Sam convinces himself he is protecting Dean when, in fact, he is on a blind hunt for revenge against Lilith, even after Dean's return. In his single-minded pursuit he instead manages to almost completely destroy the trust Dean has always had in him. The first indication of this destruction of trust occurs in 4.01 "Lazarus Rising," when Sam has taken the Impala. As Dean rides in the passenger's seat of Bobby's car, he calls Sam, who answers the phone while sitting in the driver's seat of the Impala. At this moment, both of the brothers outright lie to one another. Here, therefore, instead of offering a site for the revelation of emotion, the Impala marks the changes that are occurring between the two.

[4.12] As these shifts are occurring in Sam's relationship to the Impala and his relationship with Dean, we also see Dean's overt emotionalism begin to change. Having lived through four months in hell, which felt like forty years for Dean, he is an emotional shambles. Previously, the most important emotional exchanges in the series, particularly those negotiated through the Impala, were related to Dean's relationship with Sam. In season 4, however, we are presented with some of the most extreme emotion Dean has ever displayed when he begins to open up about hell, and his overt emotionalism begins to reflect his own emotional state. The change is first apparent at the end of 4.10 "Heaven and Hell." The scene begins with a full shot of the boys resting against the Impala, Sam sitting on the front of the hood and Dean leaning against it on the passenger's side. Significantly, the two are positioned in such a way that Sam is able to look at Dean, but Dean cannot face Sam without turning. As Dean confesses that he finally gave in to Alastair's demand that he torture others in hell, in order to escape more torture of his own, he uses the Impala for physical support. A shot shows Sam watching his brother from over Dean's shoulder as Dean looks off to the side. Though he has turned his head toward Sam a bit, Dean never actually looks at his brother, and his refusal to do so indicates the separation between the two. Dean is being honest, but from a distance, and this distance is emphasized even further as each turns away from the other and the scene cuts to black. In this scene and others like it, the Impala remains present and offers Dean the same emotional and physical support it always has. The pain Dean displays here, however, is for his own self-image—something he has always before put second to his concerns for Sam.

[4.13] Exchanges like this one leave Sam with the impression that his brother has become weak; in 4.14 "Sex and Violence" he tells Dean, flat out, "You're too weak to go after [Lilith], Dean. You're holding me back…You're too busy sitting around feeling sorry for yourself, whining about all the souls you tortured in hell." Sam is, admittedly, under the influence of a siren's spell at that moment, but his speech's impact on Dean is no less significant. At the end of this episode we are given another scene of both boys propped up against the Impala. Here, however, Dean avoids expressing emotion, and his discomfort is directly connected to the fact that Sam has admitted that he views Dean's overt expressions of emotion about hell as weakness. Sam has never before seen Dean as weak, and now he does so at the same time as he is growing obsessed with defeating Lilith. Dean recognizes the change in Sam, specifically pointing out in 4.19 "Jump the Shark" that Sam is just like John. Sam takes this as a compliment; Dean is not so sure.

[4.14] As noted above, one of the defining elements of the melodramatic is Lewis's notion of "serial suffering," and such suffering is never more apparent in Supernatural than in the battles that wage in season 4, whether it is Sam and Dean, Sam and Ruby, or Dean and the angels who are suffering. As Dean and Sam struggle for control over the Impala, they also struggle for the upper hand in their relationship. The Impala negotiates both masculinity and emotion while offering a space in which the emotional state of each of the brothers can be explored. By framing the Impala as both a masculine and feminine space and allowing it to provide consistent support for the Winchester brothers, the series offers insight into those emotional factors that are not otherwise accessible. The Impala acts within a specific context for each of the boys, marking both their connection to one another and the struggle for control in their relationship that begins in season 4. In allowing emotion to be filtered through a quintessentially masculine object, Supernatural acts to negotiate both its surface presentation of the stereotypical horror/masculine and its more unconventional use of the melodramatic/feminine.

5. Acknowledgment

[5.1] I would like to extend my deepest thanks to Dr. Christine Doran for all of the time and effort she dedicated to helping with this project and for all of the invaluable feedback that she provided throughout the process. I am also extremely grateful to Dr. Jennifer Richardson and to the anonymous readers for providing such helpful and detailed feedback.

6. Works cited

Cawelti, John. 1976. Adventure, mystery, and romance. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

Jenkins, Henry. 2007. Supernatural: First impressions. Confessions of an aca-fan: The official Weblog of Henry Jenkins, January 15. (accessed October 28, 2008).

Lacey, Nick. 2000. Narrative and genre: Key concepts in media studies. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Lewis, Jon. 2008. American film: A history. New York: W. W. Norton.

Masino, Andie. 2006. Impala meta: Season one. In Some of us really do watch for the plot: A collection of "Supernatural" essays, ed. Jules Wilkinson and Andie Masino, 216–18. San Mateo, CA: CafePress.

Osteen, Mark. 2008. "Noir's cars: Automobility and amoral space in American film noir." Journal of Popular Film and Television 35:183–92. []

Torres, Sasha. 1993. Melodrama, masculinity, and the family: thirtysomething as therapy. In Male trouble, ed. Constance Penley and Sharon Willis, 283–302. Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press.

Tosenberger, Catherine. 2008. "The epic love story of Sam and Dean": Supernatural, queer readings, and the romance of incestuous fan fiction. Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 1. (accessed October 28, 2008).

Wilkinson, Jules. 2009. Back in black. In The hunt: Unauthorized essays on "Supernatural," ed. with Leah Wilson, 197–207. Dallas, TX: BenBella.

Wright, Julia M. 2008. Latchkey hero: Masculinity, class, and the Gothic in Eric Kripke's Supernatural. Genders Journal 47. (accessed October 3, 2008).