Supernatural S1E2: Wendigo
Catch up on the set-up for these recaps, what questions I’m trying to answer in them, and my review of the pilot here!
Okay, I’m a white Scottish person, and probably the least qualified to talk about the Wendigo myth as part of Supernatural. But for some reason, I decided that I was going to look at the way it handled folklore, and that means that I can’t just lightly skip over the title of this episode to talk about what kind of bi Dean Winchester is, you know?
This episode, the second of the show’s run, is all about a Wendigo. The Wendigo (also spelled Windigo and Weendigo) is a creature from the folklore of the Algonquin people (a term used to describe a collection of First Nations groups across Canada and North America), a large, humanoid creature driven by an insatiable need for human flesh, often borne from excessive greed or gluttony (and sometimes from the consumption of human flesh during times of famine). Again, I am literally the furthest thing from an expert on this, so please, if someone reading this has more knowledge than me and wants to correct in the comments, go right ahead.
The Wendigo is a particularly interesting choice of monster for the second episode of Supernatural. Much like the pilot, I understand that they were trying to use something which was relatively easily-recognized by much of the audience (we were only a couple of years out from a few relatively mainstream movies based on Wendigo mythos, like Ravenous and Wendigo). The Wendigo, however inaccurately, has been adapted into mainstream stories for years, so Supernatural could use it as a shorthand. But I really don’t think that this was the way to go about it.
Eric Kripke said about the first season of Supernatural “You can’t just hold up a cross and expect a vampire to cower away—that’s not real. Everything that people know classically about vampires is wrong, so that just gave us an opportunity to plant our own flag and create our own creature.” And honestly, I think that’s one of the things that I enjoy so much about Supernatural – the way it retools and plays with the cultural context of certain myths and legends, certain supernatural creatures, to fit them into this modern setting in a way that makes sense (there are some episodes coming up in this first season which I think are just sublimely brilliant takes on those ideas, and I can’t wait to get to them). But to play with that cultural context, first, you have to understand it, and I don’t get the feeling from Wendigo that the writers really care much about the audience doing just that – or that they even really wanted to.
At worst, the Wendigo as translated through non-Native storytellers is an opportunity to position the Wendigo as an antagonist to and representation of every negative stereotype applied to First Nations people – violent, consuming, savage. As Joe Nazare put it in his criticism of Algernon Blackwood’s 1910 story The Wendigo, the first really notable example of a non-Native writer using the myth in their work, “subtly-demonizing rhetoric transforms the Wendigo from a Native myth into a descriptive template for the Indian savage”. Over the course of the twentieth century, the Wendigo underwent this transformation in popular culture that shifted not only its physical appearance (to something more like an animal-human hybrid as opposed to a humanoid figure), but also pulled it further and further away from its Native origins; books like Pet Semetary and depictions like Marvel’s Wendigo served to start stripping the cultural context from the legend, which is where Supernatural comes in.
In all fairness, I don’t think that the conversation around the importance of respecting the cultures you lift ideas from was really as alive in 2005 as it is now. But still: this episode is almost comically stripped of the cultural context of this monster. Sam and Dean figure out what the beast is by flicking through their dad’s journal as opposed to talking to people with cultural knowledge about it; they toss in some strange side-note about the monster only coming out to hunt every twenty-three years, which I couldn’t find a source for in any of the research I did. The monster is recognized as a Wendigo, but everything else about what it means to use that name and that folklore is basically completely sidelined. It doesn’t feel like an attempt to update or subvert folklore; it feels like complete ignorance of it, whether or not that actually was the case.
I don’t think every single episode has to be upholding Kripke’s mission statement about folklore to the Nth degree, but this feels like a really missed opportunity to delve into established mythology as opposed to just jabbing at a stick figure on a page and calling it a day. They connected just enough with the original folklore to make it seem weird that they didn’t do more, you know?
So that’s the big folklore question out of the way for today. But what of my other two: is John Winchester the real villain, and is Dean bi?
The most I have on the latter is that, if he is, Dean is a leather jacket bi (like my fine self, I might add). As for the former, though, there is quite a bit more to go on this week – in fact, Wendigo acts as sort of a flipside to the depiction of John in the first episode. That pilot had him as the driving force behind his sons’ going out on the road to hunt demons, and that wasn’t necessarily a good thing – it was invasive, compulsive, obsessive in a way that superceded everything else. But this week investigates the importance of helping people as part of John’s gospel, as Sam and Dean come to the rescue of a family (one of whom is Alden Ehrenreich, which feels wrong on so many levels) in need of their help, and reflect on how central that notion is to their journey. If the point of this season is to find John Winchester, then there have to be pretty compelling reasons for them to take a break along the way for our cases of the week – having his, his legacy being the protection and preservation of family, makes for a strong grounding.
If anything, it’s John as a hero in this episode, a reason to do good, which, as we all know, is just a step in the journey to making the most interesting kind of villains.
So, that’s us for episode two – I promise I won’t be ranting as hard as this most weeks, but I hope enjoyed it anyway. What do you think of this episode? Let me know in the comments!
If you enjoyed this post and want to see more stuff like it, please consider checking out my other recapping projects – Jericho, Lost, Sex and the City, Doctor Who, and Carrie are good places to start! Please also have a look at my fiction work, such as my short story collection, Misandry. And you can always support me on Patreon for access to exclusive blog posts!
(header image via Fangasm)