May 28

“The Boy Smoked the Pages”: Parallels With the Personhood of Monsters

Originally posted March 2 2013 on Tumblr.

The scene in “Everybody Hates Hitler” in which Aaron reveals the use to which he put the pages of the Golem book is fascinating in its potential parallels to one of this season’s themes—the personhood of monsters. The monster as a person with rights of self-determination, who can make their own choices, and who does not simply exist to be hunted, has been an occasionally recurring theme this season. It’s not as constant and persistent as the human-supernatural being relationship theme—although they could be read as interrelated—but it is definitely something that is being explored this season.  Aaron’s destruction of the book, and the consequences in his relationship to the Golem, morally and symbolically reflect the changing relationship of hunter to the hunted.

I want to look at the moral implications of that scene first, before getting into its symbolic dimensions. It’s obviously intended to be funny on one level, ha ha, the boy smoked the pages so now he doesn’t know what to do, but on another level it’s obscene and really not funny at all. And that’s there, as much as the humor, and it’s absolutely deliberate. Look at the scene: We have Aaron being defensive, Sam and Dean basically reacting like dude, you’re an idiot, and the Golem is enraged. This scene is definitely not intended to be only funny. I don’t know that Edlund understood just how deep Aaron’s offense went, although I rather doubt it. The interrelationship between Jews and Judaism and the written Word is fairly complex. You are supposed to treat holy books with respect–you aren’t even supposed to set them on the floor. Traditionally, old holy books that are no longer able to be used are buried.  To actually burn a book—not just a book, but a holy book with the Name–is an obscenity, even if he was burning it for a secondary purpose. It’s important to understand Aaron’s actions as profoundly obscene, and not just as a funny mistake, because if Aaron’s attitude that I have the right to destroy the book; it’s only paper and ink is an offense, then the hunters’ view that I have the right to destroy the monster—without consideration for its personhood–it is only a supernatural being is also an offense. The parallel is not just in the symbolism of his act, but in its moral implications.

Aaron burns the pages of the book not to be offensive or rebellious (although presumably there were elements of both) but because they are there, and he sees them as useful. He explains that they were perfect, thin pages, ideal for his purposes. He disregards the words on the pages, the purpose of the book, because it seems irrelevant to him. He sees the physicality of the book and ignores its substance. He mistook the physical form of a thing for the essence of that thing. And hasn’t that been another theme in this season—learning not to mistake the form of a creature for its nature? There’s an increasing presence of monsters who are interacted with and judged – by some characters at least—as people, on the substance of who they are and what they do, not what they are. And we see that again in this episode—the Golem may not strictly speaking be a monster, but he’s definitely a supernatural creature. Human-created, but supernatural.

The first example of this that we met was Benny. The first introduction to him is that of Dean hugging him, and that is the first indication of how Dean feels towards him and potentially how we as an audience are supposed to feel towards him. Benny’s history is then explored in “Blood Brother”, and it is revealed that he is a vampire who “drinks blood, not people.” This isn’t the first time we’ve been shown monsters (and specifically vampires) as choosing the least harmful path—Lenore and her nest from “Bloodlust” were an earlier example. In “Blood Brother”, we’re also specifically reminded of Benny’s (and by extension all monsters’) ties to humanity. “You take away the fangs and the fun, I was born human too,” he tells Dean. And Benny is not the only example of a “nonmonstrous monster” this season. Kate, in “Bitten”, also chooses the less harmful path. Dean and Sam recognize her choice and decide that as long as she is not harming people, she is not to be hunted. This represents a shift in the hunting ideology that the show has generally—though not without exception–presented before. Monsters and supernatural beings are not hunted and killed for their nature, but for their actions. This is not the only time this has been presented in the show, although it seems that sympathy for the monster was more often presented as a mistake and a weakness. This season, however, there is a more consistent tendency to present the monsters as thinking, feeling beings that are capable of making choices, and to present Dean (and Sam) as hunting them based on what they do rather than what they are. Monsters have always been presented as people in Supernatural, but they’ve also generally been presented as rightfully condemned to death for being monsters, rather than for being monstrous.

The Golem is certainly a supernatural creature, although not particularly a monster as “monster” has been previously defined in Supernatural mythos—that is, as a creature which was previously human. He is, however, potentiallymonstrous. The brothers recognize that potential and see the Golem as something that may need to be hunted. But significantly, even from the beginning they do not take eliminating the creature as inevitably necessary, but as something that might become necessary (so they’d want to know how.) Their discussion of methods leads to a confrontation with Aaron and another interesting commentary on the shifting attitude towards hunting and the monstrous that the show seems to be taking this season.

In a later scene, Aaron confronts the brothers when he hears them discussing methods of decommissioning his golem. “What makes you think you have any right to make that decision?” Dean responds that if necessary, “We’ll take [the right.]” We take the right has been essentially the philosophy of hunting and hunters in relation to the supernatural. Supernatural creatures – including both monsters and demons—have generally (although there are exceptions) had their rights of self-determination summarily taken by hunters, and this has been presented as rightful by the show’s narrative. So how does this statement fit in with the (again, not new, but increasingly prominent and consistent) narrative view that hunting should be based on the choices of the hunted (i.e., do they harm humans) and not on the nature of the hunted? At first glance, it really doesn’t – it’s a throwback to an older way of thinking. This isn’t the Dean that defends Benny and agreed to let Kate the werewolf go. This is the Dean who killed Amy Pond; the Dean who once told Sam that “if you were not my brother, I would want to hunt you.” But this scene does demonstrate the shift in the show’s point of view. The hunters’ blanket right to eliminate the supernatural is being openly questioned. In this case, it is not questioned by a supernatural creature—the Golem presents no point of view on his continued existence—but by a human being with custody of a supernatural being. The hunter asserts his right to take away the rights of the hunted—and that very right is being openly questioned. What gives you the right? Sam and Dean are basing their suspicion of the Golem on the possibility that he could be dangerous, not on harm he’s actually done. And even in this scene there is a definite change.  Sam and Dean are investigating how to destroy the Golem if it becomes necessary, not assuming that destroying him is a necessity simply because he is a supernatural being.

Returning to the “smoking the pages” scene, the exchange between Aaron and the Golem is also enlightening as to the show’s shifting presentation of the relationship between hunter and hunted.  Aaron asks the Golem, “Why can’t you just tell me what I need to know?” He’s recognized at this point that his grandfather’s gift was more than what it seemed on the surface, and he’s embarrassed about his mistake. But that mistake isn’t easily rectified; he can’t simply be taught what he needs to know by the object of this lesson, presumably because the Golem can’t simply tell someone how he works; it’s not in his design. “It’s not my place,” he roars at Aaron. “It’s not my place to guide the rabbi, to teach the teacher. It’s not my place!” This is a powerful confrontation, in which Golem makes it clear that it’s Aaron’s place to figure out how to move forward and what his relationship with this being should be.

The Golem’s response is illuminating in what it potentially tells us about the shifting dynamics of the relationship between hunter and hunted.  Limiting our examination to Kate and Benny, we see examples of monsters pleading their case(s) to the hunters.  I’ve never harmed anyone human, Kate tells them as she begs them to give her a chance.  I saw something in humanity, Benny tells Dean. In both of these cases, the monster has taken it upon her or himself to teach the hunter.  I am a thinking, feeling being who can make choices, is the essence of what they are saying.  I am not my fangs. I am not my appetite. I am a person. So what does the Golem’s statement have to do with this?  After all, these monsters clearly considered it their place to teach Dean (and Sam) about the personhood of monsters. Yet I think it illustrates that it is ultimately up to Dean and Sam to decide what their relationship with hunting and the supernatural should be.  It’s ultimately not the monsters’ place to teach them anew every time—it’s the hunter’s place to take that and forge a new understanding of hunting. This is, I think, part of Dean’s journey this season.  He’s been confronted many times in past seasons with the idea that monsters are people who can make choices (i.e., choose not to harm), but this season is about him learning from that idea and growing as a hunter (and as a character.)  It’s about the hunter assimilating this new understanding of monster personhood and taking charge of his role in the hunter/hunted relationship.

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