9:00 am EST, February 16, 2017

‘Supernatural’: What episodes like ‘Regarding Dean’ teach us about the inner workings of the Winchesters

Last week’s Supernatural showed us a Dean without his memories, and the show has often relied on truths coming out when a Winchester’s mind is messed with. What hidden depths did “Regarding Dean,” and other similar episodes from the show’s tenure, reveal to us?

“Regarding Dean” is a well-executed monster of the week episode, smoothly managing to write around the absence of Mary and Castiel — something that’s becoming necessary to acknowledge as the Winchester family unit grows more and more solid — by opening up while the brothers are already away from the Bunker, mid-inquiry on a run-of-the-mill case. While Dean pursues and takes down Gideon Loughlin, a powerful witch whose family is responsible for the murder they’re investigating, the man uses his last strength to exact revenge, cursing Dean with a memory loss spell which slowly deteriorates his mind.

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Starting with the smallest slips (saying “one” and “B” when listing items, mixing up his keys) Dean loses context, details, words, his memory of the supernatural existing (it’s not accidental that the two creatures, the siren and the djinn, that Dean namedrops in this episode are ones that caused similar — if you’ll excuse me — mindfucks) and eventually his own history and identity. Jensen Ackles — a phenomenally gifted actor at the best of times, one who in another life I’d say should be pursuing statuettes instead of monsters, but I never, ever want Supernatural to give him up – really stretches himself in this episode, paring Dean’s base personality back into the inner wirings and showing us an innocent goof who hasn’t been honed and repressed by all that’s happened to him, hysterical and tragic by turns. He progressively becomes more cheerful and flippant as he forgets all that’s happened to him – he’s extremely chill when he’s not aware that he doesn’t remember. When it does manage to stick, the fact that this state isn’t normal and he realizes what he’s losing, that’s when the tears come out.

In order to try and break the spell — one that will prove fatal if it keeps progressing – Sam calls in a favor from another witch who has history with the Loughlin family: Rowena. I’d call her an unlikely ally, but that ship has sailed — the MacLeod clan are generally pretty happy to help the Winchesters out whenever they’re needed these days, even if their motivation is simply keeping Sam and Dean somewhat in their debt. Rowena is a wonderful ally to have – she’s knowledgeable and powerful, and this episode explores the idea that season 11 set her on a new path — she’ll always be a bit cheekily self-serving, but after witnessing beings like God and the Darkness fail to be happy even with all the power possible in the universe, she’s realized that power in and of itself won’t grant her any fulfillment. “What a gift not to recall the things you’ve done,” she tells Dean, knowing he won’t remember her emotional outpouring, and assuring him that his own horrific deeds, the ones he’s so much happier not remembering, were done for the greater good. So yes. More Rowena, please and thank – she’s the perfect third player alongside Sam and Dean in this semi-humorous, semi-heartbreaking situation.

Dean’s forgetfulness made this one of the cutest portrayals of the character ever. Dean Winchester without memories — without his fears, his hang-ups, his performative toxic masculinity – was never once mean or sarcastic. He was filled with a sense of wonder and smiled more than we’ve seen in a decade. He was earnest and loving and giving – easily pleased and easily complimentary. He was expressive, garrulous and unguarded. He was kind to bunnies and he talked about loving Finding Dory and he rode a mechanical bull. It was adorable. It was also far from the first time that Supernatural has done this — not this specifically, but used magical or monstrous means to strip away some element of the mind and reveal inner truths about one of the Winchesters, in some way.

One question that must be asked when exploring this concept is “how true is true” — we’re not talking about Meg wearing Sam as a meatsuit and revealing things that may be secrets and may be lies, not moments when the boys are possessed or corrupted or made, in some way, something other than genuine – Supernatural’s other amnesia episode “It’s A Terrible Life” is the biggest question mark there for me, were those personas a real representation, or sheerly Zachariah playing puppetmaster? We’re talking about things that really are there in Sam and Dean’s minds, things that they’d say or ways they’d react, when something about them is stripped away — their true inner selves at work, due to a lack of coping mechanisms, or self-preservation, or, in this case, memory.

Two of my very favorite episodes of Supernatural, “Yellow Fever” and “Sam, Interrupted,” both penned by showrunner Andrew Dabb and his former writing partner Daniel Loughlin, and both of which I’ve written about in other articles this season, stick out as deeply important character moments, showing us Dean’s real feelings and reactions, particularly about hunting, if his capacity to manage fear was taken away, and Sam and Dean’s genuine potential for mental illness, if their coping mechanisms were taken away, or, as the wraith in that episode admits, their inner crazy was turned up to 11.

What all these stories have in common with “Regarding Dean” is that they’re all examples of what’s naturally in a Winchester’s mind when put in a different circumstance — when some sort of barrier is removed. This device is often used when an emotional arc comes to a head — when something is wrong between the brothers and the real talk just ain’t happening without some sort of supernatural intervention, like in season 1’s “Asylum,” in which Sam, under the influence of a ghost psychiatrist, has a dark and critical outburst at Dean and tries to kill him — but thankfully, the Supernatural writers in recent years have actually allowed the brothers to communicate and not had their drama depend on secret beef.

That’s not the purpose that “Regarding Dean” serves, so the question I have right now is: what does it serve? What was the point of this, outside of forty minutes of cute post-it humor? I’m not saying that in a disparaging way — it’s a real ponderance. I found it interesting that Sam claimed that watching Dean lose himself was worse than watching Dean die — much like I found it interesting that Dean claimed, in “First Blood,” that his time in that prison cell was worse than his time in hell. Could this be the takeaway? The open admittance that death is a preferable option, perhaps — gulp — preparing us for something? The whole bouncing back from the dead thing sounds like an unlikely option for the Winchesters these days, given the season’s ongoing thread involving the reaper Billie.

Was it perhaps not the cementing of a resignation — the idea that they will never, ever, ever get a chance at being happy, that they would not exchange their lives for ones of oblivious happiness? That’s one way to eventually end the show, I guess — but I’ve already made my thoughts very clear on how I think the show needs to end with the guys getting a Buffy-esque unexpected break, not just dying for the greater good because they never had a chance at something better. Was it the reference to Rowena being run out of the U.K. by the British Men of Letters, or could it be something as simple as the fact that they now have in their possession the Black Grimoire, one of the most powerful books of magic in existence? Nah, that’ll probably just end up getting used to prop open a door somewhere in the Bunker. But the point is, there is a point. Something about this episode is going to stick. It’s just a matter of working out what it is.

“Regarding Dean” was a highly anticipated episode for Supernatural fans, who long ago parsed out the basics of the plot, thanks to its title (an homage to Harrison Ford’s Regarding Henry) and to various comments and references made in interviews and at conventions, comparing the comedy of Dean’s regressive state to the work they did in “Yellow Fever.” Whatever the hidden depths to this episode end up being, it’s certainly going to hold its own among lists of Supernatural’s funniest episodes, most unusual performances, and, of course, as a prime example of the whole “truth comes out when your mind is messed with” trope. Here are five more that you may or may not have forgotten about — depending on whether you’ve encountered any witches lately.

‘What Is and What Should Never Be’

This episode starts in a remarkably similar way to “Regarding Dean” — it opens mid-job, and Dean, out alone, gets attacked by the thing that the guys are in town hunting: in this case, the aforementioned djinn. Djinn “grant wishes” by keeping their victims in a blissful coma-like state where their wildest dreams come true, in order to slowly feed off of them. Dean’s subconscious fulfills his deepest desire – that his mother had never died – and his new life seems joyfully average. Living in his hometown with a cool girlfriend and a job fixing cars, visiting Mary whenever he wants — it’s all great, until Sam comes into the picture. Because Dean Winchester can’t even wish himself into perfect happiness, his relationship with his brother is terrible — mostly caused by Dean’s own bad behavior and Sam’s detachment.

Given that this scenario is a projection — what Dean’s mind thinks may have happened if the boys had never been forced into hunting and Dean hadn’t been forced to raise Sam — it’s a pretty stark look at what Dean believes his brother would think of him if he’d gotten the chance to be normal. It’s also kind of an interesting take on Mary — at this point in the series, Dean didn’t know she was ever a hunter, so his childish memories of her created the perfect homemaker, something we now know to be false. And it’s pretty telling that in this universe, John Winchester died — from natural causes, yes, but he still isn’t there in Dean’s attempt at a dream life. Dean’s aware of his old life and he has all his memories, so when he starts to notice news of tragedies that occurred across America – things he and his father and brother prevented, in the real world — he begins to question his right to happiness at the expense of so many other lives. It’s a poignant moment exposing just how much Dean wants to opt out of “the life” at this point in the show, but eventually he does choose to go back, by committing suicide within the fantasy.

‘Sex and Violence’

The other Monster of the Week incident that Dean gets reminded of after his memory loss, “Sex and Violence,” deals with the investigation of a siren that can turn itself into whatever its victim most desires, influencing the production of oxytocin in the target’s blood to create a feeling of love, and manipulating the target into killing their current most beloved in order to prove their dedication. The actual murders aren’t exactly an example of the truth coming out — they’re very much a corruption, rather than a reveal — but given that the siren can read minds, how it chooses to appear is an honest reflection of the wants and needs of the target. It’s discovered that the siren has been posing as different strippers at a club, using Disney aliases. Enter Nick Munroe, another FBI agent on the same case, who’s at first suspicious of the boys and calls to check their credentials, and then ends up working with them and sharing intel.

Nick and Dean quickly bond over drinks, cars and obscure rock recordings, and while there’s a bit of a red herring about Sam’s new hook-up, the doctor Cara Roberts, being the monster, it of course turns out to be Nick, who’s trying to win Dean’s love and begins to ask him to kill Sam. Dean isn’t the first siren victim who’s pushed to kill a family member rather than a wife — “Belle” coerces a young mark into killing his mother — but even that iteration of the siren was posing as a lover, not as a replacement relative. Nick tells Dean he wants to take Sam’s place as the perfect brother and be exactly what Dean needs, however he also reveals, after infecting Sam alongside Dean and ordering them to basically duel to the death to win the chance to stay with him forever, that “I wanna fall in love again and again,” so… you fill in those gaps in whichever way works best for you. During this altercation, Sam and Dean unleash the pent-up anger they’ve had since Dean’s return from Hell — Dean’s feelings about Sam’s secret relationship with Ruby, and Sam’s rather harsh judgement of Dean’s slightly fragile and reluctant state, in the wake of his torture trauma. They’re not even able to pull themselves out of this one — Bobby bursts in with the required weapon at just the right time.

‘Dark Side of the Moon’

This is a little bit of a wild card — it’s not a mind-control situation, but I think it hits a lot of the same notes that I’m trying to address in this article. When Sam and Dean are shockingly murdered in their beds by fellow hunters with a vendetta against them for kicking off the Apocalypse, they wake up in Heaven. It’s the first time that the show tells us what actually happens to human souls upstairs: it’s a realm of private personal paradises, each person — with the exception of a few soulmates, or talented hackers like their buddy Ash — contained to a peaceful solitude in which they relive all their best memories. Not only do Sam and Dean find out what Heaven is like, not only do they find out that they’ve been there before every other time that they’ve died — the real clincher here is that they find out what memories actually make the other’s “greatest hits,” what they value most and makes them happiest, and these memories don’t, in turn, make the other feel super great.

As Castiel advises the boys to follow the axis mundi, a spiritual road through the center of Heaven in order to find the angel Joshua, who talks to God, we discover that Dean’s memories involve moments in which he feels cherished by his family — giving a young Sam a secret surprise of fireworks on the Fourth of July, or being his mother’s emotional support system at only age four or so (the discovery that John and Mary had marital problems was also a big deal) – and that Sam’s all involve the opportunities he had to get away from his father and brother, from a normal Thanksgiving with a schoolfriend to the times he ran away from home. Dean’s especially crushed to learn that the night Sam left for Stanford — one of the worst nights of his own life — makes the cut. More than once, Sam references how good it made him feel to get away on his own, which really highlights the difference between the brothers: yes, this was early on, and yes, they’re inextricably close after all they’ve been through, but at their cores, Sam isn’t a needy person. If all was calm in the world and they didn’t need to life-or-death look after each other, he may always have his brother’s back, but he’d be perfectly happy having a normal amount of distance from Dean. Dean would probably not be perfectly happy in return.

‘You Can’t Handle the Truth’

If you’re a genre show and you don’t have a truth spell episode at some point, do you even really exist? This one came at the perfect time, because it’s right in the midst of the whole soulless Sam debacle, which could fit, as an arc, on this list all on its own, in exploring what comes out in Sam at this point – he’s still him, but he’s reduced down to his Freudian id. The lack of a soul does not make one evil, and it affects different people in different ways — we saw a little of it in “Lily Sunder Has Some Regrets,” and there was an interesting example in “Thin Lizzie” — but at this point, right after he had his vampire experience, Dean is starting to notice that something is deeply wrong with Sam and feels disturbed being around him. The case is very much designed, in this one, to further the personal drama — a spate of suicides and killings due to some inappropriate truths coming to light. The culprit is the goddess Veritas, who was summoned by the first victim.

Dean ends up affected, and gets some incidental honesty from random strangers, a few cute comments from Bobby, including his love for Tori Spelling and the fact that Dean is his favorite (Dean, in his life, has never been told that he’s anyone’s favorite at anything, so bless this episode for giving him that tiny validation,) and some seriously harsh feedback from Lisa, with whom he’s still trying to carry on a relationship, but it does not apply to Sam — he’s able to lie to Dean about the vampire incident, regaining his trust. When the boys are captured, Dean himself is the one spilling the beans about his baggage, but it turns out that Sam can also lie to the goddess herself, cementing the fact something about his make-up as a human being is not right. He himself doesn’t even know that he’s missing his soul, but he does admit to Dean the truth about the vamp nest and the truth that something is wrong with him — he knows he should feel fear and love and everything else, but that he just doesn’t. Dean’s response is to beat him unconscious.

‘Southern Comfort’

This is one of Supernatural’s best examples of the whole “truth is revealed” trope at work — a paranormal force amps up the emotion in its victims to a dangerous degree, bloating and enhancing the reactions but coming from a real place of inner turmoil. The MacGuffin is a coin belonging to an Confederate Unknown Soldier whose grave was disturbed — his ghost is now a spectre, a spirit who seeks revenge wherever it can find it — and as the penny changes hands around the town, those who handle it are driven to murderous rages over betrayals large and small that they were personally and privately pissed off about. “Southern Comfort” is another one of those episodes which the monster exists in order, narratively, to get the truth out of a Winchester and further the season’s emotional arc.

Coming right off the back of Sam’s introduction to Dean’s vampire buddy Benny, the brothers are somewhat on the outs about the year they missed – Dean in Purgatory and Sam opting out of hunting. The lovely Garth, who’s also present on this case, tries to mediate, and also ends up reading them the riot act about their behavior and about the slack he’s picked up for the hunter community in the absence of Sam, Dean and the late Bobby. Garth is a beautiful character so healthy and at home with himself that the coin legitimately does not work on him — he doesn’t have any revenge grudges because he doesn’t hold on to any negativity — but it sure as hell works on Dean, who rages at Sam for not looking for him in Purgatory and for his hatred of Benny, comparing the vampire’s loyalty to all the times Sam has made not just mistakes but choices that betrayed Dean. Garth manages to deescalate the spectre situation, but things aren’t left in a good place after the outburst, with Sam claiming that Dean didn’t need to be under the influence to say such things.

How does “Regarding Dean” compare to Supernatural’s other mind-meddling episodes? Let us know in the comments.

‘Supernatural’ airs Thursdays at the new time of 8/7c on The CW

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