The Importance of Being Ambiguous (On Purpose)

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.

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23 thoughts on “The Importance of Being Ambiguous (On Purpose)

  1. I really admire them for killing Charlie, actually. She was a fan favourite, and they knew how the fanbase would respond, yet they went ahead and killed her anyway. I’ve seen tons of hate for that decision- some people are even stopping watching the show. But it’s retaining it’s integrity. Which is the most important thing.

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    1. I think if it had actually served the story, then it wouldn’t have bothered me. I’ve certainly forgiven things I didn’t want to have happen that seemed like they needed to have happen to serve the plot or the story writ large. But this time, there was … nothing.

      I agree that the fanbase’s favs are not to be protected at all costs, but this death felt wasted and just does not add up for me.

      ESPECIALLY because the Styne’s are savvy. And Charlie clearly didn’t have the book. So, death seems like the last thing they would do in this case. They would hold her hostage and exchange.

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      1. Hmmm. I think it did serve the story, though- it certainly served the emotional arc by tipping Dean over the edge. And doesn’t the fact that it seemed to tip most of the Tumblr SPN family over as well prove that they were doing it right?
        I agree about the hostage exchange thing, though. That would have been smarter.
        It kind of reminds me of Ellen and Jo’s deaths, actually. They were meaningless because they died for nothing, and that very fact served to cause Dean to spiral into depression and Sam into anger-management issues…

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      2. I have to heartily disagree with the Tumblr comment, because that ignores why we were upset and paints in broad strokes some incredibly nuanced and well considered emotional responses.

        And I don’t think Charlie had to die to tip Dean over the edge. I don’t think that is what they used it for anyway. They used it do the Dean is mad at Sam thing (again) and then resolved both that and the tipping over the edge in a couple of episodes (poorly, IMHO).

        Both Dean’s anger and the Sam blame game could also have been accomplished with the kidnapping and exchange route. Dean already has the Mark, already is living on the edge of murderous rage. He only needs to think someone he loves in is grave danger to tip over. He only needs to think Sam “made” that happen in some way to do the blame game.

        Plus, even if they still killed Charlie, it would have been such a better story if they had kidnapped her first and had Dean slaughter the family only to find out that his rage couldn’t save her, to find out the Mark does him no good. Her death was so boring compared to the other deaths in that show. I think it was more like Ash’s than like Ellen and Jo’s.

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      3. Oh, Ash’s death is my one major beef with the show. I get angry every time I think about it. Totally purposeless and with no emotional resonance. And how stupid to kill him off in such a perfunctory manner and then highlight what a crappy death it was with Sam’s heartbreaking, riveting death scene at the end of the same episode.
        That’s true about the Tumblr responses- I have seen some very intelligent ones amongst the flotsam of keyboard-bashing. But I still think its purpose was to set Dean off. His anger at Sam was established in a single comment- it wasn’t dragged out, and it didn’t feel to me like the point of the episode. And Dean’s anger at Sam didn’t feel to me like a major player in Brother’s Keeper.
        Is your issue with her death or with the way she died?
        I don’t think the whole tipping over the edge thing was badly done- we had one episode of absolutely out-of-control Dean, and then in Brother’s Keeper he regained enough control to be able to try and put a stop to all the madness.

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      4. A little of both. Like if you are going to kill a fan fav make it a good death. And the turnaround from serial killer dean to deal with dean … Idk just felt forced. Like stories I would write as a kid where I’d get to the point of “well I guess I gotta end this now” and something just didn’t fit right. Maybe I should rewatch them and see if I still feel that way.

        What did you think of this season overall?

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      5. I thought the motel-trashing scene served as a pretty good bridge between serial killer Dean and dealing Dean (lol, serial killer Dean is a thing now). It makes sense that what he did to Cas would wake him up a bit.
        Overall, I actually loved this season. It was messy and totally all over the place, and I absolutely love that. Jodie and Donna. BAMF Sam. Demon Dean. The gorgeous LOOK of the season, oh my god. Cas’s ragged wings. Claire. The devil’s arsehole joke in About A Boy. Rowena. Cain. The MoL.
        Yeah, I’m feeling the love.

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      6. I’m a season 5 and 8 lover in terms of the whole season. I loved several of the episodes in this season (and yes to all the things you listed) but as a season, the mess did not feel intentional. Maybe it was because they did not know if it would go for another season and then scrambled? My friend and I are very concerned that an end of show deflation could happen and do not want it to (of course) so it is possible that I am too on edge looking for that stuff that I am missing some of the great things the writers are doing.

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      7. Frankly, I don’t care whether the mess was intentional or not- the messier SPN is, the more of my buttons it pushes, I find. I mean, what was messier than Season Six? But I love it so much.
        Seasons Five and Eight were strong. With Eight, I think the first half was patchy- I don’t like the way the Samelia flashbacks were filmed tbh- but the second half was brilliant. It had this really unique feel to it. And I kinda loved the trial sickness stuff. Cuz, you know, mama bear Dean.

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      8. I wish they had delved into Sam dealing with dean gone then dean back. Mostly because it was so reflective of my own experience of having a sibling come back from war that I thought it could have used some more airtime.

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      9. Wasn’t that what Paper Moon was all about, though? And yeah, I know the feeling. My father works abroad and he’s just returned for a holiday- it’s the first time I’ve seen him in a year and a half.

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      10. I thought it wasn’t as sensitive as it was to Dean’s struggle coming back from purgatory. Which I also appreciated. Sorry to hear that about your dad.

        Liked by 1 person

      11. It was a different situation, though- everyone was just so done by Paper Moon. I liked that there was no big catharsis either, in contrast to Sam getting his soul back. It was all very uneasy-feeling.
        And it’s totally fine, I’m used to it 🙂 but thanks.

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      12. Why not?! I am studying for the bar until the end of July so I can’t seriously work on it until then. If you really want to, my email is cjrenewriting AT gmail and we can do some planning there.

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