Dear Readers, in case you were unaware, I am in the Supernatural fandom; a Supernaturalyte, if you will.* This week’s episode, aside from destroying my feelings and burying one of my favorite characters, had a small, key moment of ambiguity that complicated an important moment in Dean Winchester’s character arc. So, let’s take this moment to explore this moment and how deliberate ambiguity can enhance a reader’s experience and complicate how they feel about their hero’s actions. Beware the spoilers, sweetie, below.
If you are unfamiliar with the show, the basic premise is two brothers, Dean and Sam Winchester, hunt the monsters we all (mostly) stop believing in by the time we are adults. The bump in the night is not the house; it is a ghost/demon/wendigo/djin/etc. They travel the country in their Impala and occasionally (read: always) make questionable decisions in order to save the world [ed. note: I have a whole other theory on what kinds of sacrifices each of the brothers is willing to make that really reveals something core about their personalities, but that is a whole other post. [ed. note within ed. note: I realize that I
might be am in deep.]].
Currently, in its 10th season, older brother Dean has taken on the Mark of Cain, which makes him stab-happy and one mortal wound away from becoming a demon. Younger brother Sam found the Book of the Damned, which may hold a cure for the Mark but will also probably fuck a lot of shit up in the process. Charlie – the fantastic geek, ginger lesbian and aforementioned favorite character – was killed in last episode by a member of the (Franken)Styne family. Dean has vowed revenge, in the form of slaughtering the entire clan.
The Styne family was behind the rise of Hitler and a ton of other destructive forces in the world in order to amass wealth. They also surgically enhance themselves, by adding hearts (someone watched a little too much Doctor Who) and other organs, or replacing lost limbs. Enter Cyrus Styne, 17 year old kid who hates his family. Cyrus is not like the rest of them. He wants to leave the family home in Shreveport and move to LA, but he’s afraid his family will kill him if he does.
One of Cyrus’s family members sees a bully push him, and they – without Cyrus’s knowledge – grab the kid in a back alley. Cyrus is then brought down to the family basement of horrors and told that he is has to cut the kid up for spare parts. Cyrus balks and tries to get out of it. His father tells him cut the bully up, or the father do it for hiim and then lay Cyrus on the table. Cyrus cuts the kid up. The ambiguity here, because we know the family enhances the members, is that we don’t know if Cyrus’s father meant that he would kill his son for spare parts or if he would enhance him. We aren’t told (until later) that Cyrus at this point has no enhancements, but we can guess based on what we know about him. So, does Cyrus kill the bully to save himself or to stop his father from making him one more family lab rat? One is forgivable, but the other is a much more complex moral question.
Cut to the end of the episode. Cyrus has been dragged to the Winchester’s home where his relatives are pilling up books and the brother’s memories to burn (yes, show writers, we get it, they were/are Nazis). Cyrus does not want to do this. He says out loud that they don’t have to do this, and his cousin (brother? – they all look alike. See Previous parenthetical.) replies, “I know; we get to.” Then Dean shows up, kills the two adults, and turns to Cyrus. Dean has vowed to kill the whole family. Cyrus tells him he’s not like them and shows Dean that he has no stitches, no scars. But Dean says the evil is in his blood, that he will become a monster. Cyrus repeats, “You don’t have to do this.” Dean says, “Yeah, I do.” He shoots Cyrus in the head.
Dean doesn’t know anything about Cyrus and the bully. But we do. And we don’t know if Cyrus is monster or not. He’s seventeen and obviously under the thumb of his family, but he also killed someone and maybe not to save his own life. The seed is there; we don’t know if it will grow. Because we don’t know that in this show about good and evil and the ever-growing grey area between, we are left in a complex and complicated space over Cyrus’s death and Dean’s actions. A space that even the other characters in the show are not privy to (Castiel, former angel of the lord and Dean’s best friend, calls it a murder).
As writers, ambiguity can be a useful tool for creating a more complex experience for the reader. Like here, that the characters are not aware of several facts actually increases this experience, because those facts and actions are not filtered through them. If Dean knew about the bully, he might feel more justified. If he thought Cyrus did it to save his life, he might feel less so. If he wasn’t sure why Cyrus did it, he may think better safe than sorry. We would be given the feelings we should have because we are taken through the story by our hero.
But small, ambiguous plot points hidden from our characters can help us complicate our heroes, villains, and plots. They need to be deliberate and purposeful; it is not about confusing the reader, but about giving their minds something to wonder over and question. It gives the reader the space to be critical of the character(s) and their actions. To question how much we need to know before we can act. To wonder whether the morally correct action is somehow not so.
As an actor, I was taught that every character thinks they are the hero of the story. Using ambiguous plot points allows you to keep your character their own hero while also making them more complex, less mythical for the reader. Layers make your stories and your characters pop.
I loved the character Charlie, and I was fully prepared to forgive Dean these murders. Cyrus was written to make that forgiveness harder, generally, and that one simple, ambiguous moment made it even more complex. I know the world in which the Winchesters operate, I know what they risk letting even one monster go. Days later, I still do not know how I feel about Cyrus’s death-murder. And that is a wonderfully challenging place to be. It might be the first this season has done given me that complex moment that keeps me thinking for days/weeks/months. Ambiguity can be incredibly exciting!
*No one else in the fandom calls themselves this, but I am here to amuse myself.