By Sarah James
“It was bloody. Messy. Thirty-one flavors of bottom-dwelling nasties. Hell, most days it felt like 360 degree combat. But there was something about being there.”
These are the words Dean Winchester of The CW’s Supernatural chooses to describe his experience in purgatory. The idea of purgatory is not new; many religions have believed in its existence for centuries. The Encyclopedia of Imaginary and Mythical Places defines purgatory as “a realm where a soul will atone for offences it committed in life [if it] did not merit eternal damnation,” making purgatory almost like jail: a place to wait before final judgment (Bane 122). This concept of purgatory is a part of the Abrahamic religions, but it also can be seen in Pagan mythology. However, the long-running television show Supernatural does something completely different with purgatory; in this show, purgatory is the realm of fallen monsters, a place apart from heaven or hell and reserved specifically for creatures after they die. A distinct departure from the original concept, this version of purgatory is first discussed in Season Six of Supernatural and explored even further in the following two seasons. In the premiere episode of Season Eight, “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” the audience is provided the first in-depth look at the Supernatural version of purgatory through the eyes of Dean Winchester, who finds himself fitting in with its monstrous inhabitants perfectly.
Season Eight begins with Dean Winchester returning from purgatory, where he was sent after defeating the leader of the Leviathan – ancient monsters and first residents of purgatory. Dean spent a year in purgatory before being able to escape with the help of his vampire friend, Benny, whom he met in purgatory. Through flashbacks in the premiere episode, we see Dean’s and Benny’s first interaction; Benny saves Dean’s life from a vampire attack, and the two promise to help each other get back to Earth. Dean makes a comment on the purity of purgatory during this episode, and Benny brings it up again at the episode’s conclusion, stating that he “kind of wished [he] would have appreciated it more… like [Dean]” (“We Need to Talk About Kevin”).
What does Dean mean by saying purgatory is “pure?” Actor Jensen Ackles, who plays the character of Dean Winchester, has stated that his scenes in purgatory were some of his favorites, saying, “We should just have an entire season of the Winchester brothers in purgatory” (“JIB 7” 26:32 ). Like Jensen and Dean, fans of the show also fell in love with the grittiness and constant fight that existed in purgatory. It is this concept–that fighting to survive is the only way of life in purgatory, that one doesn’t have to justify that killing another monster isn’t wrong, that at the end of the day everyone is on their own–that makes purgatory so pure: no moral conflict, no battle between good and evil, only survival.
Dean embraces the purity he finds in purgatory without hesitation, threatening the first monsters he sees and killing them without remorse when they don’t give him what he wants. Dean thrives in purgatory, continuing to have flashbacks of his time there as recently as Season Ten. After years spent hunting monsters on Earth, Dean was free to hunt without any hint of emotional fallout. Purgatory is a constant battle, and Dean had always been raised a soldier. Does embracing the purity of purgatory make Dean a monster? Translate the things he does to survive in purgatory to the real world and society would label him a psychopath without a second thought; yet, Dean’s experience in Supernatural’s version of purgatory blurs the line between human and monster. This show is built around “saving people, hunting things,” and over the past twelve years, the Winchesters have shifted from killing monsters, to perhaps becoming monsters themselves (“Wendigo”).
At the 2016 Jus In Bello Supernatural Convention, which is held in Italy every summer, a fan asked actors Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles if the Winchester brothers would go the heaven, hell, or somewhere else when they die. While the actors didn’t come to a consensus in their answer, an argument can be made that they belong in purgatory (“JIB 7” 26:06). After all, for twelve seasons, the brothers have been fighting to rid the world of monsters, but after so many years, they’ve seen themselves turn into the very things they hunt. When two humans work alongside demons, angels, witches, and vampires, all to take down what is perceived to be a greater evil, do they become monstrous themselves? Season Twelve is only beginning, but it’s hinted that the Winchesters will finally have to atone for their sins, perhaps having to pay the price in a purgatory of their own design.
Ackles, Jensen, performer. Supernatural. The CW, 2005-2016.
Bane, Theresa. Encyclopedia of Imaginary and Mythical Places. McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2014.
“JIB 7 Jared Jensen Full Panel.” YouTube, uploaded by Jus In Bello Convention, 27 May 2016, https://youtu.be/XjYdYh5ONno
Padalecki, Jared, performer. Supernatural. The CW, 2005-2016.
“Wendigo.” Supernatural, season 1, episode 2, The CW, 20 Sept. 2005. Streaming Service Used, insert link
“We Need to Talk About Kevin.” Supernatural, season 8, episode 1, The CW, 3 Oct. 2013. Streaming Service Used, insert link