The new season of “Supernatural” has begun. Dean is back from the dead, and Mr. Kripke, with that delightful “pulling the wings off of flies” sensibility that he brings to his creation, has already signaled ominous omens for the relationship between the Winchester brothers. That is why it is serendipitous that “De Miraculis Sui Temporis” (DMST) has come along. It is a piece of fan fiction that is not so much about Sam and Dean Winchester, as it is a moving tribute to the relationship between two brothers and how it gives them the strength to face the powerful evil arrayed against them.
It might seem strange to refer to a “Teenchester” story as a tribute, but in fact it is an accurate description. For in truth, not a very great deal happens in DMST. In very brief compass, thirteen year old Sam is stricken by a mysterious illness that progresses rapidly and has taken the lives of a number of other children. John Winchester determines that the cause of the affliction is a supernatural entity, and goes off with Bobby to destroy the creature, while 17 year old Dean stays behind to comfort and nurse his stricken younger sibling.
Paradoxically, the monster element of the story works out to be no more than a subplot, effectively taking John and Bobby out of the way so as to explore the depth of the relationship between Sam and Dean as the younger Winchester faces death. This is an unusual approach that may leave some readers a bit befuddled, but as a dramatic technique it proves surprisingly, if counter-intuitively, effective because it allows the reader to explore the motives of each of the three characters.
With John Winchester there is the fight between his paternal instincts and his need to hunt down a force that is killing not only his child, but many other innocent children. There is a tendency in some fan fiction to portray John as an indifferent father and ruthless automaton. However, in DMST, with the monster element in the background, John’s dilemma takes on a surprising reality. It is not so much what John is doing on the hunt, it is the fact that to do what he needs to do, he must leave behind the son he loves.
Had the monster story been more to the fore, invariably the reader’s focus would have been on how John attempts to save Sam. By making the hunt a subplot, DMST gives sharp relief to John’s dilemma. Interestingly, it is a dilemma that fathers (and many mothers) face every day, if not in quite such a dramatic way. Namely, that of leaving the family they love behind to go out into the work world. Brilliantly, the author has made the eldest Winchester seem human and real and all the more poignant and heroic for it because, its macabre nature notwithstanding, John’s choice is a choice many of us share have to make, too.
Just as John’s anguish is given powerful reality, Dean’s situation is even more profoundly illustrated. The author again shows incredible insight. Many writers would have Dean chomping at the bit to go out and hunt down the beast suspected to be killing his brother. The author of DMST tries something different. Intuitively she understands that Dean’s role is to hold the family together and that therefore his motives are more conflicted.
Dean understands the need for his father to go out on the hunt and ultimately he acquiesces to it. However, that does not stop Dean from arguing with John, begging his father to stay behind so that the three of them can be together. Echoing across the argument is the line that Dean will utter in the season one episode, “Salvation:” “The three of us. We’re all we have. We’re all I have.” While Dean knows that his father’s choice is the right one, it conflicts with his instinct to hold the family together and it is breathtakingly painful to read.
The rest of the story then turns on Dean’s efforts to comfort his brother. Here we have Dean not as mediator, but as protector. At one level this becomes just a series of touching conversations between the brothers and a few small and otherwise nondescript actions. Dean takes his brother for a ride in the Impala. Sam complains about his brother’s choice in television programs. Sam, even as he struggles for breath, attempts to make jokes and humor Dean, knowing the older brother is always uncomfortable with the dreaded “chick flick” moment. At the same time, Dean finds different ways to engage his younger brother’s inquisitive mind and to be that source of strength that John’s circumstances do not allow him to be for his youngest.
Each brother tries to be strong for the other and at the same time each struggles to find ways to reach out in sympathy to his sibling. The effect is not just deeply emotional, but it becomes an exploration of the elements of brotherly love and the strength that it can give.
What makes this especially remarkable however is that the author is not really successful is conveying the “voice” of the brothers. As always in “Weechester/Teenchester” fiction, the problem is how to make the brothers recognizable, yet take account of the fact that they have not yet grown into the men that they will become. Most writers approach this problem by attempting to replicate in dialogue the way Sam and Dean “sound,” and then attempt to tweak it to account for the boy’s age in the story.
The author of DMST does this to some degree, with the typical Winchester banter and the mandatory “bitch/jerk” exchanges duly appearing in the story. However, it does not stand out and there are moments when, at least in terms of voice, the brothers almost sound, if not interchangeable with each other, at least not distinctively themselves. This should be a flaw, but instead, the author attempts something far more surprising and daring.
In effect, she uses action to convey character. So yes, Dean may not sound exactly like Dean, but in everything he does the reader is left in no doubt that it is Dean we are seeing. In effect, we know Dean not because we hear him, but by seeing him. The skill it took to make this work is remarkable and the author deserves high praise for executing such a complex literary maneuver. While this could have been a disaster, she manages to pull it off like a pro. It could have flopped. It definitely does not.
DMST has other weaknesses. The monster subplot gets perhaps more space than it deserves and is almost a bit of a cheat. After all the time spent on it, the story’s resolution does not really depend on anything that happens in the course of the hunt. The reader is given numerous theories and leads and a requisite scary moment or two, but in the end, they don’t matter all that much. Thus, while keeping the hunt as subplot works in the end to give the story its power, as part of the story itself it is a bit of a distraction.
Similarly, the resolution to the story turns on the improbability that Sam would never have had the occasion in ten whole years to tell his brother just what it was that ultimately saved Sam’s life when all seemed lost. Given that, at a minimum, it is unlikely that John would have left the mystery of his son’s recovery unexplored, no matter how much he would have been relieved by it, this is one detail that just fails to ring true
That said, this second false step is one for which the reader should be grateful. Because it sets up what has to be one of the most elegant and moving resolutions ever in “Supernatural” fan fiction.
DMST concludes by flashing forward ten years later as Dean and Sam are travelling back through the area where 13 year old Sam had come close to death. It is getting on in the evening, and the brothers visit a farm to which Dean had taken Sam to cheer him up in the days when it did not look like Sam would live. The farmer who had been there a decade ago is still there and welcomes the boys amiably. One of the animals that Sam had played with still lives and happily greets his now grown former companion. The crickets chirp, and as in the words of C.S. Lewis, golden evening light pours a dreamlike mildness over the world and “light seemed to be a liquid that you could drink.”
There is peace and for a time the brothers are not struggling against the forces of darkness, but are seemingly alone and safe, for however brief a time, in the pleasure of each other’s company. In that moment, as they reminisce, Sam has occasion to tell his older brother how it was that Dean’s love and strength saved him from demonic forces. In that moment, the power of the brother’s bond is given dramatic witness.
It is a riveting scene in its quiet beauty and it highlights not just the relationship between Sam and Dean, but in the end it reaffirms what “Supernatural” is really all about. We are assured no protection from evil, and our past points the way to our duty. Yet love endures, and when we commit ourselves without reservation to the good of the other, the gates of hell will not prevail against us.
At the moment, when all does not seem to bode well for Sam and Dean and the future of their relationship, DMST is a potent reminder. It brings us back to just what that relationship has meant to the Winchester boys – and strangely, to us as well.
Thank you so much! I'm sorry I've taken so long to reply to your review, but I was digesting and rereading and basking. I actually printed it out, it came at an odd time and well, moved another writing project along.
I think the core of the show is the relationship between the boys. Sometimes I think Kripke has strayed from his vision just a little. The characters as flesh and blood people with hopes and fears and love and all the things that make us human are getting lost in this overwhelmingly large story arc. I was thinking about it the other day, trying to express what it means to me. I think what missing sometimes are the little moments, the small choices that save a life and in the end save the world. Not big things, but the small Love, devotion, brotherhood. Nothing big, but those things change the world.
I try and put some of that into my stories, even the silly ones. I was thinking (forgive me, I'm about to make a Star Wars reference) about Luke/Han and Sam/Dean. Kripke has mentioned this comparison himself, and when you think about it, in light of those characters, it is the small choices for love and devotion that changed the galaxy. Han returned to fight beside his friends, Luke chose to end his battle with Vader because of his love for his father, which led to Vader saving his son... which led to the end of the Empire. Small choices changing the world. So too it should be with Sam and Dean. It is their relationship, that has always moved the story along. I miss it.
Thank you again for you very kind words. I am still stunned, but had to reply before anymore time slipped by.