Supernatural’s Halloween episode “Mint Condition” was, above all things, a glorious celebration of the fact that Dean Winchester is a huge fanboy.
Who’s the nerdiest Winchester? If you ask someone with a passing familiarity of Supernatural, there’s a fair chance that they’d say Sam. Ask any lifer and we’ll tell you – likely forcefully – that that particular crown is firmly lodged on Dean’s well-formed skull.
Supernatural is certainly wrapped in a paper-thin premise that Sam is “the smart one” and Dean is “the tough one,” but this brains/muscle divide is really a reductive approach to two of the most richly drawn fictional characters of all time.
An actual analysis of their mental and physical prowess is a conversation for another day (tl;dr they’re both bad-ass geniuses) but given that those generalized roles lend themselves to a further presumption that smart equals geeky, tough equals cool, we need to nip all those stereotypes in the bud right there.
Sam is, undoubtedly, an intellectual. It is a fundamental part of his nature, and it’s how we were introduced to him in the show’s pilot. He cared about his studies enough to defy his family and attend college.
These days, he’s often fascinated by much of the research and lore that his current work entails, and while his interest in all the world has to offer isn’t exactly something I’d label as recreation – it’s more like a curiosity, a yearning, and somewhat sadly, evidence towards the idea that he struggles to embrace any real personal joy – it’s certainly an immense source of satisfaction for him.
Sam likes educating himself, and he is captivated by new discoveries and esoterica about the scope of both human and paranormal existence – be it science, technology, psychology, anthropology, history or mythology. He is a scholar, devoted to the act of imbibing as much knowledge as possible and expanding his understanding of the universe at large.
It’s this academic streak that leads Dean to frequently dub Sam a nerd, a dork, a geek, a “walking encyclopedia of weirdness” and countless other affectionate insults. Dean’s worst scoffing is generally based on the perspective that flaws like “being well-read” or “knowing facts” are a sign of way too many criminally wasted moments that one could have, for example, spent having sex with women. (Yes, this exact wording actually happened, unfortunately.)
Dean’s attitude in these moments is sometimes merely brotherly teasing, but it sometimes has a sharper edge to it, tied to his performative masculinity (the idea that he is too tough and too cool to be interested in such things) or his inferiority complex (when he feels self-conscious about his rough edges and his lack of formal education) – the video link above shows Jensen Ackles injecting shades of all of this into his delivery.
But this shit, even at its fondest, is a gigantic fallacy and it always has been, because while Sam might be your typical academia nerd, what the British would call a swot, Dean is a full on, balls-out geek. He’s a dyed-in-the-wool, genuine, bonafide fanboy.
Dean Winchester is his very own walking encyclopedia of weirdness, which one hand, as a Sam fan, is infuriatingly hypocritical. At least Sam’s oft-mocked penchant for absorbing information like a sponge proves beneficial on the job.
On the other, as a Dean lover, it’s exquisitely adorable, because Dean’s internal wiki isn’t even particularly useful. It has saved the day a few times, but that’s down to luck or fate or coincidence. It isn’t topical. It’s just proof of his personality.
The thing is – the thing that I know, and you know, if you’re reading this article, if you’re the kind of person who has followed a genre show like Supernatural for 14 seasons – is that being a true nerd, a geek, a fangirl or fanboy or fanperson, isn’t ever really about the subject. It’s about the spark.
There’s a certain intangible quality that makes someone irrevocably fannish, no matter what their primary area of interest is, or whether they ever participate in a fandom in the most conventional sense. It’s psychosomatic, behavioral, and largely uncontrollable. Dean has this in spades.
Dean is never casual about the things that interest him, because it’s more than interest, it’s investment. Like his brother, he has a perfect memory for particulars, but his ability to recall facts, faces, quotes, lyrics or minutiae is not a mindset of observation or intrigue, like, for example, Sam and his serial killers.
Dean doesn’t study. He groks. It’s a measure of meaningfulness. He uses his tendency to fan out as a form of healing, for escapism. He holds every touchstone close to his heart, not only because he delights in these things but because he depends on them.
Dean is obsessive. He is excitable. He is indulgent. He is nostalgic. He is deeply sensitive, literally and figuratively: he’s both very in tune with his physical sensory experience and he trusts emotion over logic most days of the week. These traits have offered him the opportunity, his whole life, to find moments of true comfort amidst the chaos.
Dean doesn’t do much for himself in the way of self care, but he does allow himself to be swept up in something so wholly – be it a song, a meal, a story, a body – that his day-to-day contentment often relies on it. Dean’s burden has always been heavy, but his ability to give himself over, forget reality and just feel good for a while has probably saved his sanity, if not his life.
But for that to work, he had to be intrinsically available to it. It’s how he’s wired. Despite being a control freak – or perhaps because of it – it’s in Dean’s nature to grant these things the power to transport him, to submit to being affected by them. It happens both consciously – obsessively pursuing something that he knows he loves – and unconsciously – compulsively getting caught up in something that he didn’t set out to care about.
That fervor is rarely a result of like, a rational choice to pursue a leisure activity in your spare time. It’s just part of the cerebral chemistry of the type of people who were born to belong in fandom. Like me. Like you. And like Dean.
The susceptibility to getting submerged in some sort of subculture hits some of us harder than others. To empathize with its stories, to rearrange the standard structure of our lives in order to spend more time engaging with it, to be not merely entertained but moved. From a hobby to a passion to a lifestyle, even sometimes a career, your love for the things that you’re a fan of transcends fun and becomes formative.
That fannish spark means being more subject than the average citizen to these kinds of feelings, in a way that said average citizen may find hard to understand. Believe it or not, normal people can enjoy a thing without becoming its acolyte, but I, for one, don’t understand them. What’s the point of loving anything if it doesn’t have the power to crush you?
Be it sports, music, or fiction in all its forms, the same impulse drives us in fandom to learn every detail that we can about The Thing and its history, go to concerts or conventions or comic stores, collect memorabilia and merchandise, read and write about it, wait in line for days or hours to get close to it, or reach out and tell its creator how their work makes us feel.
Even if Dean only exhibited these displays about, say, his favorite bands – which he does – that’d still be more than enough to place him firmly in the fanboy category. However, it’s much, much, much more than that.
Supernatural is very famously packed full of pop culture references, mostly thanks to Dean’s huge mental library of movies and television massively affecting his language and the way he processes information. When he quotes off-hand, when he makes metaphors, when he adopts aliases – like so many of us, fiction is his way of relating to real life.
It’s a product of his upbringing – in-world, it makes perfect sense, and the show has addressed its origin a few times. Given the Winchesters’ transient upbringing, with their father often leaving them alone for weeks at a time, a television would always be available in any motel, and a movie theater would be one of the only accessible treats.
They lived out of a car. They had nothing – no home, barely any possessions – and they were discouraged from forming any sort of investment in any place or person in a town they happened to pass through. So Dean Winchester, softer than he was ever allowed to show and so fucking alone, lost himself and found himself on the screen.
Immersing himself in this way has influenced his identity. Combining a capaciousness for emotional investment that he’s had time to unpack with a belated childish eagerness that he won’t be scolded for embracing means that as the show has progressed, it’s become more and more apparent that Dean has the heart and soul of a big ol’ nerd. Last week’s Halloween episode, “Mint Condition” not only played into that fact – it relied on it.
We soon discover that since the boys’ ill-fated attempt to retrieve Kaia’s spear, Dean has kept himself cooped up in his room, living his very best depression life: binging on pizza and beer and horror marathons in bed, hugging pillows, wearing henleys and generally being snuggly – I mean sad.
He’s fine, mostly, but he’s feeling vulnerable – on top of being violated by Michael, he’s come home to find the status quo entirely shifted and his home no longer a refuge. There’s autonomy issues atop autonomy issues leaving him super spun-out, and he’s not ready to cope with functioning in the world. Sam is diligently picking up on this and saves the day by providing Dean with a dream-come-true case of the week.
It’s a fascinating contrast to last year’s Dean slump, when Sam tempted his brother with what he assumed was Dean’s ideal bro-hunt: bullets, bacon, booze and boobs – his pandering was very unsuccessful. We saw Dean faking enthusiasm and going along with it, and then casually and nihilistically killing himself.
That was admittedly a darker time, and nothing was really going to help Dean in that moment, but that episode. “Advanced Thanatology,” went out of its way to show that Sam’s attempts were misguided.
This time, Sam has Dean pegged precisely. In what must have taken a fair bit of internet trawling, Sam finds a case for the brothers to investigate that involves a ThunderCats action figure (Panthro, to be precise) coming to life and attacking the employee of a comic store.
Sam lines it up, he shoots, he scores. Dean is thrilled to bits for the entire trip, especially when he gets to go toe-to-toe with a living life-size model of his favorite horror villain.
“Mint Condition” is a pure and cheerful affair. No one actually dies in this episode, one of the very few in the show’s history for which that is true. It may be the cutest Supernatural episode of all time. But it’s got some serious substance – it’s a full hour of deep-cut character scrutiny.
Upon arriving in Salem, Ohio, Sam and Dean meet the as-yet-unharmed co-owners of the comic book store – Sam (Samantha) and Dirk. Yeah. Really. As if the S/D name match wasn’t clear enough, Dirk’s surname is Winchell. Think horror title formula. WINCHE(STER) II: The Second Coming.
The name thing isn’t actually lampshaded in the dialogue, but what’s going on here is obvious to the viewer, and the boys outright play “tag yourself” while observing their new pals, contrasting the pair’s presentation and body language with one another.
It’s such a blatant device, yet so validating. Throughout the episode, the respective “twins” are teamed up and so we get to see more of how Samantha and Dirk are intended to be kindred spirits for Sam and Dean, both in general and in terms of their engagement with nerd culture.
The Sams are utterly reasonable – interested but measured – and both are more visibly thrilled by the science experiment that Our Sam conducts to blow the door off than by any of the memorabilia surrounding them, living or stationary.
They’re grounded in reality, and they’re awestruck by the capabilities of the world around them. They’re focused on the problem at hand as the big-picture issue, they exchange no pop-culture small talk, instead opening up about their actual lived experiences, and they very clearly bond over their admiration of each anothers’ problem solving skills rather than any common interests.
Dean and Dirk are much more consumed by their passions. They’re excited to share their expertise and ebullience about the All Saints’ Day franchise with one another, and their lengthy discussion of their fandom is not small talk – it’s genuinely important to them.
It’s also their way of being able to talk a little about their personal feelings. We learn that they both associate the ritual of watching movies as something dependable and comforting, a respite from the trauma inflicted by a terrible father. Spot the difference.
As representation of professional nerds, it’s a nice juxtaposition that neither Samantha or Dirk comes close to the aggressive toxicity of the episode’s victim Stuart (well, I say victim, but he’s not a casualty – he does survive.) He’s more of your typical basement-dwelling internet troll, and his terrible behavior demonstrated throughout the episode feels pretty unforgivable – I don’t think anyone’s real mad that he got beat up by a ThunderCat and slashed with a chainsaw.
Well, except Dirk and Samantha. The fact that his friends – both decent people – are really gentle with him, and worried about him, the fact that they care about him so much and keep giving him a pass, the fact that try to make up for his lack of impulse control, even stealing, knowing how it looks from the outside but continuing to forgive him – that speaks to something bigger going on.
I personally suspect that Stuart is meant to be on the autism spectrum, but whatever it is, there’s something that they understand about him that newcomers Sam and Dean don’t. It’s something other than just turning a blind eye to a friend who everyone knows is a dick.
And that, my friends, is why Stuart represents Cas in Salem’s geeky little edition of Team Free Will. Not even scraping enough shavings off that iceberg to fill a snow cone, but Cas has, in the past, pulled some fucking nonsense on this show – unforgivable to an outside observer, water under the bridge to the Winchesters. Dean’s knowing look as he listens to Dirk’s explanation of his unconditional love for Stuart means certainly adds weight to the idea.
I could go further into this episode as a reflection of the whole series – Hatchet Man, once a mechanic named David Yaeger – German for hunter – was an honest man making an honest living. He was corrupted into a monster after a fire destroyed his life during a Halloween prank. All Saints’ Day became his haunting day – presumably the anniversary of his death, November 1, 1983.
I remember another mechanic, who was also an honest man making an honest living, until he was corrupted into a monster after a fire destroyed his life. It was November 2, 1983, and the man’s name was John Winchester.
The fake movie trailer for All Saints’ Day literally used back-of-the-head footage of Matt Cohen as John Winchester to represent Yaeger pre-fire. Recycled footage of establishing shots is not uncommon, but come on. Accidents don’t just happen accidentally. This is the movie series that Dean has been addicted to? This is the bad guy he’s taken comfort in knowing will always lose?
Then there’s the fact that for Samantha and Dirk, their ghostly attacker was their found father, their own personal Willy Wonka, Jordan, who – given that it sounds like his death wasn’t a fresh wound for the kids – seems to have been hanging around for some time looking after his store and probably his charges until his spirit became corrupted and he became vengeful – you know, the same thing that happened to Bobby in season 7.
Just in case anyone needed an extra reminder that Sam and Dean went through this exact experience with a parental figure, Dean actually offers some sympathy to the spirit of Bobby Singer – I mean – Jordan, when he takes over the role of their monstrous real father John Winchester – I mean Hatchet Man. “Mint Condition” really is a crazy distorted Halloween funhouse mirror of the boys’ entire lives.
It says profound things about their character growth and their relationship with one another. “Mint Condition” does a lovely job of handling Michael’s wreckage in passing – in “The Scar,” Sam was ready to listen while Dean said finally opened up and his piece, and now, he’s able to tell Dean the things that he didn’t want to interrupt Dean’s repression-breaking stream of consciousness with earlier – that he did a good thing saying yes to Michael to save his family, and that absolutely no one blames Dean for making that decision.
Dean’s delivery when he says “I’m never gonna get over it” isn’t rejecting Sam’s statement, it isn’t defiant, it isn’t aggressive, it’s just the candid recognition of someone acknowledging that they’re going to suffer from PTSD forever and that they’re going to have to learn to live around it.
It’s painful, and I am sure that Dean is going to get triggered – this kind of disability is recursive, the healing is not a single forward line – but I think that eventually, he’s going to be okay.
Most importantly, Sam’s gift did the trick – Dean returns to Lebanon refreshed and confident, ready to rejoin the team and contribute in whatever way Sam needs. If the visual metaphor of Dean tossing Sam keys throughout the episode not once but twice didn’t hammer home the idea that his acquiescence of the Bunker’s new normal becomes authentic acceptance, then maybe his verbal confirmation will do the trick. I am really very proud of both of them.
Anyway, back to the nerditude. Fanboy Dean is one of my very favorite things about Supernatural, so this episode was a blessing. Because it’s a fundamental part of his character, there’s no better moment than right now to look back on that history, and because we’re talking fandom, I’m going to apply a famous fic structure to do so.
Five times ‘Supernatural’ nailed Dean’s fannishness…
1. Stories are his safe space.
In a moment that made the entire fandom mutter “mood” in unison, Dean admits that he’s been hiding out watching countless horror movies because the house is full of strangers and he feels anxious about it. He’s shockingly emotionally available this episode, and in his chat with Dirk about their shared interests, he really opens up about what draws him into the genre. “I like to watch movies, where I knew the bad guy’s gonna lose,” he reflects, making me feel every human emotion possible in the space of that sentence.
Losing himself in a fantasy and finding hope, inspiration, relief or validation in it has been a lifelong coping mechanism for Dean, but I love that he’s recently started to talk about it and actually identify that all of this is more than just stuff he likes. The unexamined life is not worth living, Dean Winchester. Know thyself.
Season 13’s “Scoobynatural” had a fun and surprisingly moving bent on one of Dean’s earliest sources of fandom. “Growing up on the road, no matter where Dad dragged us, no matter what we did, there was always a TV. And you know what was always on that TV? Scooby and the Gang. These guys, they’re our friggin’ role models.”
We got to spend a whole episode with Scooby last season, but in truth, but if we’re to take Dean’s ability to pull references at the drop of a hat as a sign of his dedication to fiction and evidence that it is the lens through which he views the world, that show is just one of dozens of media properties that Dean has spoken about with a level of familiarity that implies long-term investment and consistent consumption.
Dean loves everything – cult horror, westerns, fantasy and sci-fi, sitcoms, soaps, classics, cartoons, even, as he’s finally has the cojones to admit, romcoms. Over the course of his life, from Star Trek to Shawshank, Full House to Frozen, stories socialized him. Sam had a Zanna, but Dean had this. The characters who populate these fictional worlds – they’ve been his teachers, his therapists and his team of imaginary friends.
As I mentioned above, Dean had nothing to form attachments to, so things like serialized television became his only constants and the characters, in a way, became his first companions. His determination to protect the purity of the Scooby Doo characters was a touching and surprisingly sad attempt at preserving one of the very few untainted parts of his childhood.
That’s why the reclusiveness that kicks off “Mint Condition” is really important – it’s tied into all of this uncorrupted safe space stuff too. The introduction of the Bunker is the single most significant turning point in this show’s history and the Winchesters’ character progression. I am grateful for it every single time I see a new episode, and I think Dean is grateful for it every time he walks through the door. To have its comfort compromised for him is nothing short of tragic. Those first shots of Dean, in his novelty socks, do not represent the typical image of a gruff 40 year old man – he looks so youthful, and so small. That’s intentional.
As soon as the boys moved into a permanent residence, Dean did everything he could to make it a home, relishing the chance to do so for the first time. “Scoobynatural” includes an expansion of Dean’s nesting as we’re shown his recreation room – his Deancave – full of all the music and movie memorabilia that he was never able to surround himself with before. Given the security of a space all his own, we are currently seeing Dean in the midst of a second adolescence, whenever circumstances are relaxed enough to allow it, as his first one was so stolen.
I mean, upon first arriving at the Bunker, his only possessions with which to decorate and make his space his own were weapons. That is heavy, man. Now, he wants toys. This episode alone, Dean’s chasing Vintage Hot Wheels, a full-size Hatchet Man figure – he even swaps the drink offered by Stuart’s mother, reclaiming the cartoon Flash mug and leaving Sam with the mother’s cat-print cup. It’s too precious.
2. He’s a historian of his “cultural heritage.”
One of my favorite episodes of this entire series – top five, for sure – is season 2’s “Hollywood Babylon,” which you could maybe call the ‘sister city’ episode of “Mint Condition.”
Dean’s experience on the LA film set of a horror movie (Hell Hazers II: The Reckoning) is one of the show’s earliest and most memorable examples of his fandom, and this week’s homage to slasher flicks had some cool easter eggs referencing that experience, including advertisements and posters for the Hell Hazers franchise.
The whole episode takes Dean’s obsession and rolls around in it with glorious abandon, plus the solving of that particular case actually depends, in part, on Dean’s proficient knowledge of film history ranging from the Golden Age of Hollywood to today – he’s able to identify a custodian murdered on set as a bit part actor from several of his favorite movies, and expose the death as a publicity stunt.
This kind of minutiae is candy to Dean. Cinematic urban legends in particular – he refers to these as his cultural heritage in “Hollywood Babylon” and he’s absolutely entranced by any potential for the reality of his world to cross over with or be compared to that kind of lore – James Dean’s cursed car, the history of haunted productions, and so on.
But even without incorporating the more monstrous elements of his life, even when he’s using his fandom as escapism from all that, he’s like this about most media that he’s invested in – he loves the legacy surrounding his all of favorite things, and he loves trading tales with others who sip from the same cup.
He does so with Dirk, and their time together watching over Stuart and regaling one another with ASD trivia is just a wonderful moment. But Dean’s had his exuberance in this department exploited as a weakness before, and it almost got him killed.
Remember the siren episode? In season 4’s “Sex and Violence,” after several men were killed by a more traditional temptress, Dean was seduced not by a beautiful stripper, but by a man: Nick, the FBI agent allegedly working the same case as Sam and Dean.
Aiming to win Dean’s love and force him to kill Sam, Nick presents himself as the world’s greatest wish-fulfilment friend, a little brother who actually shares Dean’s passions. Dean is very drawn to him, and Nick seals the deal by taking Dean out drinking and quizzing him on obscure Led Zeppelin recording history details.
This camaraderie builds a trust which Nick exploits in order to infect Dean, because believing that people who love what we love are eminently lovable is an unfortunate but deeply human trait that often bites us in the ass.
I’m just going to take this moment to bring up something else. Dean’s love of classic rock is an foundational part of the series, and it’s always been something he built into his tough-guy persona, but it’s probably worth pointing out in this article that his fannishness over it isn’t as cool as he thinks it is. It’s certainly not of his own era, and from the pilot, Sam references it as dated.
Dean has also had moments of admitting that his attachment stems from nostalgia – of course – and is aware that it’s obsessive and repetitive, but I wish we’d get some acknowledgement that these are actually really nerdy bands. These were never the height of mainstream cool, they were always the weird subculture, and many of them – Styx, Sabbath, The Doors, Metallica – literally wrote songs about sci-fi and fantasy concepts.
Dean’s favorite band is Led Zeppelin, and his favorite song by them is “Ramble On.” You guys, “Ramble On” is a Lord of the Rings fan song. Can someone please do something about this?
But I digress.
3. His fictional obsessions fuel real ones.
Be honest – who among us hasn’t developed an area of interest – in history, science, technology, a certain skill or era or public figure – because of an initial attachment to it through fiction? We’ve spoken already about the way that storytelling is a tool that some people use to translate the world and all its inhabitants and find a commonality. This is a huge part of it.
Even if it’s a subject matter that you are well aware of in the general sense, the way this kind of stuff affects us matters. Fandom is a constant journey of invested education. You can know your facts as well as you please – it’s the stories that elevate those facts from rote data into something real.
From pursuing a new hobby – say, a Lord of the Rings fan choosing to train in archery – to widening your awareness of current events, chasing the facts behind the fiction from something like The West Wing, to expanding your generic empathy for the people of a past that seems distant into something present and painful when reading about the conditions that WWII soldiers faced in order to write a Captain America fanfic, personal interest in a specific story or character, even a fictional one, can remove the element of distance between you and something outside of your realm of experience.
Sometimes it’s as simple as exposure – an introduction to music or art or fashion that shapes your taste. Sometimes it’s just stuff that you think is cool. Dean’s wonderfully guilty of all of the above, from in ways ranging from stunningly revelatory to really superficial, but not for nothing has this show spent not one, but two, episodes highlighting Dean’s cowboy fetish.
Both Season 6’s “Frontierland,” in which the brothers travel back to Sunrise, Wyoming in 1861 in pursuit of Samuel Colt, and Season 13’s “Tombstone,” in which Team Free Will 2.0 visit Dodge City, a contemporary Western-themed town, show off how Dean’s passion for Western movies has lead to a solid grounding in the real history – although it seems like some of that study may have occurred in between the two.
“Frontierland” initially paints Dean as a green idealist who is somewhat disheartened to find out that the harsh realities of the Wild West were a lot less fun than they appear on film, though he soon adjusts and accidentally ends up as the town’s sheriff. Dean’s love of all things Western actually stems from Jensen Ackles’ own personal obsession, and the combined excitement of both actor and character is a joy to behold.
By “Tombstone,” Dean’s fire has not been dampened, and we learn just how solid his grasp is of the era as a whole – at the themed motel, he’s able to identify all the photographs of famous gunfighters displayed in their room, talking to the portraits like they’re old friends, and telling the others all about them.
It’s ridiculous, sweet, and entirely relatable, but it’s also really important, because the case they’re in Dodge City investigating actually ends up hinging on Dean’s ability to recognize cowboys as historical figures, not just movie characters. That’s the power of fandom, y’all.
4. He cosplays every chance he gets.
In addition to his encyclopedic info, “Tombstone” also shows us that these days, with a home of his own to keep them in, Dean owns all the gear of a contemporary cowboy – boots, hat, bolo tie, the whole bonanza, and has been waiting for the right moment to bust it out.
Slight tangent – that combination of your own space plus your own disposable income often leads fandom folk to begin collecting the things they dreamed about when younger. I have Thoughts about where the Winchesters get funding these days, but they’re not strapped for cash anymore. The biggest spenders on any fandom are always aged 30+, and Dean proves this in “Mint Condition” too, when he’s ready to buy that full-size Hatchet Man model on sight.
But back to the costumes. Way back in the day, it was actually Sam who introduced the idea of undercover outfits to their hunter work – boiler suits, I think it was, to pose as maintenance workers – and Dean balked at it, citing the expense and the embarrasment. But he quickly got used to it, and oh, how the turntables.
For years, and to this very day, whenever the boys required to wear anything – anything at all – outside of their street clothes or their basic fed suits, Sam does the bare minimum, and Dean does the mostest. This episode, this week, is a perfect example. Sam has his casual tan jacket and short sleeves, sure. Basic. Passable. Undercover, Good job, Sammy. Dean? Dean’s absurd in a gingham blazer and fake specs. Why? Why? Why?
Because he loves it, that’s why. He loves clothes. He loves putting together fun outfits and luxuriating in the permission to become something outside of his standard self. He loves the freedom of it, he loves that he has an excuse to embrace and experiment with a look or a persona that he would usually be questioned on. My lord, there is no character on television who relishes the chance to dress up and roleplay more than Dean Winchester does.
The gym teacher in season 4. The cab driver in season 11. The wannabe rockstar in season 12. Time and time and time again, Dean is just so damn extra about dressing up, especially when juxtaposed against Sam. Both times that they’ve worn knitwear, for example, posing as social workers, Sam’s choices are demure, streamlined, and forgettable. Dean’s are… not. If he’s going to wear a sweater, he’s going to wear the chunkiest, fluffiest, coziest sweater available, thank you very much. He’s going to commit.
Sometimes, he gets it wrong to the point of suspicion. I’m surprised no one called him on that checked jacket, honestly, but his store-bought cowboy outfit in “Frontierland,” despite his best efforts, was so badly received by the locals that he was visibly disappointed and needed to make excuses for it. Luckily he was able to obtain some authentic gear from 1861, which I’m sure made up for it.
But this element of Dean’s clothing is, in my opinion, a big piece of evidence towards the theory that Dean’s impression of the world around him – all the normal that he’s personally missed or only experienced via osmisis – was formulated by the stereotypes he’s seen on screen. I mean, what gym teacher actually dresses like that? What insurance agent? You know what I mean? His undercover outfits are meant to be camouflage and he makes them into full-on cosplay.
Best of all is when Dean’s is granted cosmic allowance by means of some external necessity to actually get into a totally extreme outfit or a really perform a role in order to pass – when it’s required rather than over-the-top. and how much he adores those chances.
Whether it’s admiring his new appearance or “going native” in the position he’s in, there’s quite a few examples – taking a guy’s naval uniform on a WWII submarine in “The Vessel,” for one, his approach to jail in “Folsom Prison Blues” is another, and of course, his time as a PA on the set of Hell Hazers II in “Hollywood Babylon.”
But there are a couple of true stand-out achievements in this department. One is his trip to 1944, where he teams up with Eliot Ness, the real-life hero of one of his favorite biopics, The Untouchables.
The gods kindly bless us with an indulgent scene of Ness, who knows the truth about Dean’s time travel, taking him to a tailor’s shop to have an era-appropriate suit fitted, and Dean is feeling himself. He has never looked better, and he knows it. But the effect is more than just physical or aesthetic.
Dean is very tactile, and, as mentioned, very sensory. As someone who always had certain obstacles and certain expectations that dictated his self-expression, the opportunity to simply touch and wear things of quality, classier and more elegant things, things that serve a purpose outside of practicality, things for fun or pleasure, is one of the highest forms of self-care available to him, so it’s really no surprise that he goes in for this so hard whenever he can.
The other episode that deals with this element of Dean from top to bottom, inside out, is of course “LARP and the Real Girl,” in which the brothers find Charlie at her Moondoor live-action medieval roleplay, and, showing a gift for battle strategy, Dean is sucked into the events of the game while serving as Charlie’s “handmaiden” in order to solve the case.
It doesn’t take much convincing to get Dean into a squire’s armor, and again, we get the full shots of him taking care to dress himself correctly and consider how it makes him feel. Dean’s enjoyment of Moondoor is so great that we later – in a future episode – learn that he’s continued to make LARPing with Charlie a regular part of his life offscreen.
He and Charlie share a lot of common feelings about such escapism – they were so very close, after all – and another episode involving her features Dean in another gorgeous military uniform, within Charlie’s djinn dream. I’m very excited to dive deeper into the new Charlie and the way that Dean relates to her as season 14 progresses, as it’s sure to cause some delicious pain.
Cosplay is about confidence. It’s about control. It’s about choice. It’s about creation. There’s something of Oscar Wilde’s “man is least himself when he talks in his own person” idea at work here, and it’s comparable to drag. It’s the freedom to be who you want to be, rather than being shackled by the stigma of what’s expected of you.
Dean Winchester has spent his whole life not only lacking the chance to employ those concepts to his sense of self, but lacking the ability to conceive they were even an available option. So you wear that garish blazer, Dean. If wearing it gives you a sense of agency long absent from your life, you get those kicks wherever you can.
5. He freaks out over his faves.
One of the greatest things about Dean’s fannishness is how starstruck he gets – and then how he handles himself with it. If his excitement level is already extra-heightened by getting to be involved with his favorite things in a tangible way – to see a location, handle an artifact, wear an outfit, whatever – then his reaction to actually getting to meet the people involved sends those thrill spikes through the roof.
Oh, but we’ve had some glorious ones. There’s plenty of incidents that occur within some of the episodes already explored here: Eliot Ness in the “Time after Time,” who Dean is beyond honored to work with when he discovered that was a hunter himself; Tara Benchley, the star of Hell Hazers II, who appeared in other movies that Dean enjoyed; the Scooby Gang, of course.
Even when the object of Dean’s fannish affection takes on the role of the episode’s antagonist – like Dave Mather, the legendary 19th century gunslinger found alive and well in “Tombstone,” or Hatchet Man himself in “Mint Condition,” Dean is stoked to be able to say he saw them in person, fought them and won.
But there are many more instances of the same core drive in Dean throughout the series. It’s always great, but a couple of them are extra-special. Of course, who could forget the time that Dean got up close and personal with Dr. Sexy, MD?
Dean gets really caught up in soaps (including telenovelas, as witnessed in another episode) so when the Trickster – Gabriel – sends the boys into a series of TV universes, Dean almost has a meltdown. I’m talking flustered, blushing, stuttering, starstruck wide-eyed bliss. But of course, it wasn’t the real Dr. Sexy – and again, it’s Dean’s intimate knowledge of the show’s finer details that crack the case and expose what’s really going on.
But he’s got some real face time with some faves too, and the result of that kind of situation is even better. In season 11’s “Beyond the Mat,” Dean requests that he and Sam attend the funeral of their father’s favorite competitor from Top Notch Wrestling, a touring wrestling show that the Winchesters sometimes came across on the road. Attending a match was one of the family’s only leisure activities, and so for Dean, it holds both a romanticized nostalgia and, like Scooby Doo, a somewhat dependable consistency.
At the funeral, Dean is able to meet his own personal favorite from the team, Gunner Lawless, and admits to the athlete that he got his first B&E as a kid breaking into a house to watch one of Gunner’s matches. One thing I love about this is that it’s such a recognizable sort of hype, very different to a generic A-list sort of awe.
Gunner isn’t objectively stopped-on-the-street famous, but he’s important to some people (like Dean) specifically, and that dynamic lends itself to a very particular sort of fan/artist interaction that Supernatural gets just right.
Dean also expresses a combination of warm over-familiarity and selfless enthusiasm that is often present in fans – it’s part excitement, yes, but it’s also part gratitude, the very recognizable urge to reach out to this figure that you feel like you know and tell them that what they did mattered to you, that it made your life better in some way.
While it’s easy to get inappropriate – Gunner has to remind Dean to let go of his hand – that natural instinct is a mark of the best type of fan.
Some people, when meeting a celebrity, may act in a way that I like to call the Pokemon approach – gotta catch ‘em all – thoughtlessly treating the person like a tourist attraction, using their moments together to snap a selfie as proof without even looking them in the eye or treating them like a human being.
Not Dean. All Dean wants for himself is a chance to give back an iota of what this person meant to him by letting them know that they were important, in some way, to some little lost boy.
His fannish behavior when meeting Tara Benchley was similar – he showed his appreciation and then respected her personhood, and that actually resulted in a great little romance, one with absolutely zero shade of conquest on Dean’s part. He just got to know someone he’d always liked and was taken along for the ride.
Fascinatingly – and this is another thing I love about Dean – this kind of respect and appreciation that Dean has for anyone he’s a fan of extends to porn. “Rock and a Hard Place,” in season 9, is sort of an iffy episode, especially when one of the born-again virgins, Suzy, being targeted is dealing with turns out to be an adult actress that Dean recognizes from his favorite videos.
Suzy is ashamed of her history, but Dean’s reaction upon discovering it is nothing short of affirming. I have some pretty strong and positive feelings about Dean’s relationship to casual sex (it’s mostly fairly healthy – he treats it as a valid form of intimacy and is never exploitative, unlike a lot of similar male characters) but this incident was really one of the sweetest.
Dean is unable to help himself acknowledging that he knows her secret, and though he’s awed, he isn’t lascivious at all. He doesn’t equate her role as a sex worker with the assumption that she’s “open for business.” Rather, when Suzy is down on herself about the past she’s trying to escape, he simply reminds her that she was really talented at what she does and that her work has made a lot of people, including him, very happy.
It sounds like an almost insurmountable impossibility, to see a red-blooded American male kindly, and without agenda, comfort a porn star and tell her what her career means to him, but that’s Dean for you. (The misconception that Dean is a misogynist and a hound dog is yet another conversation for another day, but in a word: no.)
He doesn’t make a pass, but his wholesome respect and appreciation for her means that she does, so Dean, to his surprise, gets to reap the benefits of being a good little fanboy and happily joins forces with Suzy for some meta analysis of their mutual interest in the pleasures of the flesh.
…And one time they didn’t.
+1. The ‘Slumber Party’ Situation
While this is a fantastic episode for other reasons – I included it in my last article, about putting together the perfect Supernatural Halloween marathon – “Slumber Party” infuriates me as the source of the most egregious bastardization of nerdy Dean in Supernatural’s history, perpetrated by none other than – and it genuinely pains me to say this – the show’s lead actors Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki.
The episode contains a passing scene in which Sam, Dean and Charlie watch Game of Thrones together, and Charlie, about to comment on Joffrey’s future crimes, was stopped from spoiling by Sam, who says he’s still making his way through the novels. Dean then queries, with surprise, the fact that Sam is going to read the books, and Sam quips back “Yes, Dean. I like to read books – you know, the ones without pictures.”
The thing is, this was written in reverse. Dean was meant to be the spoilerphobe in the scenario, with Sam surprised that his brother is going to tackle all 49 million pages of George R. R. Martin’s epic saga.
The actors swapped the parts on set, as they felt like it was more true to their idea of the characters, and while I usually cherish their lived perspective on their characters – I’m sorry for my frankness, guys, should this ever cross your desks, I adore you, you’re some of the most important actors on television – this ain’t it, chief. This time it was dead wrong and they honestly should have been prevented from doing it by the director.
As the scene appears in the episode, it achieves nothing – in fact, it’s regressive, dumbing Dean down by making him act surprised over a fact he already knows: that the little brother he constantly calls nerdy wants to read fantasy novels, the same brother who he’s seen bond with Charlie over Harry Potter canon.
The chiding response makes Sam appear amazingly condescending, belittling his brother, and implying that only picture books are on Dean’s reading level, which leaves Dean affronted and a little hurt.
As written by Robbie Thompson, who confirmed what happened very graciously on Twitter but whom I just know, in my heart of hearts, would have been screaming into the void about it in private, it spoke much more clearly – SAM is surprised that DEAN is reading the books of a TV show, and Dean is defensively defending his right to do so.
What I’m saying here is not that these actors don’t know their characters best. In many ways, they do. It’s just that they probably don’t think of these things in terms of the show’s narrative direction because they are too busy living it.
There’s a reason they don’t write the show. There’s a reason that they’ve always said that they don’t want to claim producer credits. It’s because part of what makes their work so powerful is the fact they’re too deeply embedded in their character performance to think objectively about the way that people behind the scenes are constructing Sam and Dean.
The idea of the actors thinking about Sam and Dean as fictional puppets is the direct antithesis of the actors delivering the performances that set Sam and Dean apart as so real. It is not Ackles or Padalecki’s job to think about their lines as a building block of story, it’s to ignore that a story that uses subtext, foreshadowing, irony and many other tools is being constructed at all and live Sam and Dean’s experience as truthfully as possible.
Usually, that works in everyone’s favor and sometimes, the actors have made really important calls that were in line with a better interpretation of the characters. But here, that failed. Flipping those lines may have felt more true to the characters in the sense of the actors’ immersion in their performance, but that’s a very different kind of awareness to intentional tools that a writer uses to show someone’s truth.
If you weren’t approaching this from a place of omniscience as the writers do, you may not see that the way this went down was not cute or clever – it was an accidental incident of the brothers a) proving that they don’t know each other very well and b) treating each other badly, which I don’t think is what anyone involved in the scene was going for. And yet.
Jensen Ackles knows that Dean is performative. He’s spoken about it as recently as last month, in terms of playing Dean three times tougher than he needs to be, which highlights his vulnerable moments. He must know perfectly well that Dean is a big ol’ nerd – even about books- and he’s delivered enough ‘hey, I reads’ to prove it.
But perhaps the actors have never paid quite as much attention to what all those trivial little moments of casual characterization actually add up to in the same way the audience does – working on it constantly and rarely rewatching, it must understandably all turn into a blur.
Maybe they don’t do the same math that we do – for example, given the Bunker’s huge library, the fact that we know that Dean’s bedroom, as seen again in “Mint Condition” is full of books leads us to solve for X and conclude that the stacks he keeps above his bed are his personal collection, the ones he cares about keeping close.
And the other thing is, I am certain that Dean doesn’t think of himself as a fandom geek either. He still recoils at external nerdity in others – in this episode, which proved Dean’s niche knowledge at every turn, he still balks at Sam translating Stuart’s internet slang, in a very “why do you know that, loser” way.
That’s great. That is perfect characterization. Because the point of that moment as a narrative device is that it calls out something about Dean to the viewer. It is intentional irony. Dean himself has no idea of this. Dean doesn’t know he’s in a TV show where we can spot the irony and allow it to add layers to his character. That’s the point. Just as the “Slumber Party” line was making a point.
I get where Ackles and Padalecki were coming from. I do. But it was written the way it was written with a strict narrative intent. It served a purpose. Reversing the lines on the grounds is that Sam is Bookish, Dean Is Tough negates that purpose. We know that Sam is Bookish and Dean is Tough. We know that THEY think that about themselves. The precise point of those lines was to invert that – that’s why there was a surprise factor. It was intentionally revelatory.
So the switcheroo not only undoes a progressive ownership of his real wants in terms of Dean’s history of performative machismo, but it also makes Sam, who has always looked after Dean’s self-worth and tried to validate him, sound like a dick for being so snobby and cruel about his brother’s intellect, rather than pleasantly baffled at his new interest. I feel certain that the actors didn’t think about deconstructing it from that angle. If they did, they wouldn’t have done the scene that way.
But there’s been plenty – like “Mint Condition” – to make up for it since.