Supernatural has spent a full quarter of its 13th season utterly gutting Dean Winchester, and I’ve never been so delighted by the show.
Can you believe that it’s almost time for the Supernatural mid-season finale? This season’s seventh episode “War of the Worlds” seems to have finally set up season 13’s major mytharc, but let me tell you a secret: frankly, I barely even care.
It isn’t that the potential adventure ahead is bad, or boring or anything – quite the opposite. It’s just, up until now, the show has offered something even more valuable, to many viewers, than a snappy plot: a deeper, more delicious dive into the psyches of Sam and Dean than we’ve had the chance to dwell on for many years.
In “War of the Worlds,” pieces start to move around the Supernatural gameboard very quickly. We’re rapidly force-fed a lot of information about what Team Free Will 2.0 (!!!) are actually up against – a plan for the Apocalypse World’s Michael to take over this world, brought to our attention by a depowered Lucifer, who attaches himself to Castiel as they search for Jack.
Other angels and demons also want to use Jack’s power for their own gain, including the Prince of Hell Asmodeus, who does not submit to his old lord, and instead imprisons Lucifer – and Cas, as a Winchester bargaining chip – in the dungeons of Crowley’s old topside throne room. Sam and Dean don’t yet know any of this.
We know that Heaven wants Jack to make more angels, to replenish their near-extinct ranks. We know that Arthur Ketch, for whatever reason, has been retconned back to life as an ally of Asmodeus. We know that Rowena is most likely alive too. We know – thanks to crazy hopped up alt!Kevin – that there’s at least one Jackless way to open a rift between the worlds.
Where last season was all about facing up to a decade’s worth of grey area regarding the personhood of the preternaturally powered, this season looks like it will kick that concept up a notch and see the Winchesters putting the lessons they learnt overthrowing the British Men of Letters into practice, making sure that Jack’s right to choose his own path is protected. Along the way, it looks like we might be forced to endure a Lucifer redemption arc too, which… like, no, but whatever.
It’s fine. All of this is fine, and it was all lightly touched upon in the initial episodes. However, it could have been weighted much more heavily before now – the creative team could have chosen to build this arc in the background way more prominently in conjunction with Sam and Dean’s week by week monster mysteries.
After all, the last three consecutive seasons, plus several others in the past, have hit the ground running, dropping us immediately into a big-bad-based story – Dean’s descent with the Mark of Cain, Amara, the British Men of Letters, Lucifer being free – that remained the through line until that particular season’s finale, or even beyond.
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But season 13 is a different animal. In a departure from those aforementioned patterns of the past, the showrunners chose instead to spend a full quarter of the season – six episodes, an entire cycle of contributions from every staff writer, an arc in and of itself – focusing on something else entirely.
It has, primarily, been an extended period of mourning. This choice is a very different sort of lesson for – and about – the boys, and I for one am overwhelmed and elated by them choosing to take the time to teach it to us, by what we’ve learned.
Picking up immediately where their May finale left off – with Jack the nephilim, born and fully grown within the space of a heartbeat; Mary trapped with Lucifer on the other side of a portal to a post-apocalyptic alternate universe; and Castiel’s body lying in the dirt, an unprecedented level of wingprint-burn dead – the first five episodes were almost exclusively dedicated to the differing responses and priorities of Sam and Dean in the wake of this trauma, with the sixth solidifying the message being broadcast by showing us Dean’s complete paradigm shift when Castiel returns to them.
Unless you count Jack (which I absolutely do not, given the lengths to which Supernatural has gone to force us immediately to root for him) no big bad was introduced from the get-go. Instead, the overwhelming problem during those first six episodes, the continuing cloud hanging over heads, is solely this sense of loss and how it is affecting the boys.
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Supernatural’s ongoing story arcs have always been a tightly linked chain – each new plot point is always directly borne from the last, but this time, the fallout they have to deal with isn’t any type of villain or immediate threat – it’s their own mental states.
There is no respite from this – we watched them drown in it, and it’s the best choice the writers could have possibly made.
This show has had an unfortunate habit, in the past, of resolving a situation that deserved a much deeper dive very quickly, in order to get back to the show’s Sam-and-Dean-solving-cases bread and butter without a lingering mess that would make that status quo inescapably impossible – Dean’s transformation into a demon being rapidly cured in time for the show’s meta comedy 200th episode leaps out as an example.
However, the aftermath of season 12’s deadly conflict has been handled in such a way that it seems like we’re looking at a potential cultural shift. Gone are the days of a throwaway line here or there to remind you that, oh yeah, that whole other thing is totally going on in the background, isn’t it, before getting back to the monster of the week.
This grief was given such an intense focus during every second of Winchester screen time that it felt like a true A-plot in its own right. Every moment, every breath, is loaded. Everything comes back to these losses.
But here’s the thing. We know – we’ve known every step of the way – that neither Castiel nor Mary was actually gone for good. For the viewer, that’s never been a question – Castiel’s future on the show was confirmed by the cast within a few days of the season 12 finale, and Mary’s survival in the apocalypse world was a major talking point for the showrunners during all their summer promo.
Misha Collins as Castiel in particular has been paraded around as an equal third alongside Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki in all the PR leading up to season 13. Offscreen, the CW has been making damn sure to push the importance of his presence and to tap into the anticipation of those viewers worried about his fate.
We saw lots and lots and lots of high-profile joint interviews at San Diego Comic Con, we saw Ackles, Padalecki and Collins as a united front gracing the cover of Entertainment Weekly together for the first time, we saw exclusive articles hyping the precise moments we could expect to see Cas a) return and b) reunite with the boys.
So why even do it? What does it mean for the story, if you kill off a main character, a ten-season fan favorite, and then elevate that same character to more of a central focus than ever before? What’s the goal, if the tension for the fans isn’t actually about their investment in that character’s return? What is Supernatural trying to prove?
The short answer? Their endgame. Losing Cas was never actually going to be about losing Cas. Losing Mary was never actually going to be about losing Mary. This was always going to be about the effect this would have on the Winchesters. The extended exploration of the brothers’ grief in the wake of these losses was never about the raising the stakes for those “dead” characters, or to hype the shock surprise of their return.
It was to force the audience to recognize who Sam and Dean are now, where they’re at on their journey, what they want from their future, and, quite simply, what they can’t live without. It was to force the audience to recognize exactly how much the priorities of the Winchesters – and therefore the priorities of Supernatural itself – have changed.
During this first act of season 13 – and what a tight, cohesive, immersive journey it’s been – several things that the show has been trying to imply for quite a while now have been made explicitly clear, in ways that there’s no going back from, particularly – and very loudly – in regards to Dean.
The season’s fifth episode, “Advanced Thanatology” – this Community-esque title literally refers to the study of death – saw Dean Winchester once again take his own life.
When he enters the Veil, the realm between the living and the dead where unhappy ghosts dwell, Dean comes face to face with a new incarnation of Death herself: the former reaper Billie, who reads him a few home truths about his behaviour and his future, teases a huge, fateful, potentially final mission for the brothers, and kicks him back into the land of the living.
Dean’s most recent death isn’t quite a suicide in the traditional sense – it’s more like recklessly playing fast and loose on a day trip away from life with no guaranteed return ticket – but given that his actions are absolutely due to the culmination of his depression? From that angle, it also kind of is.
What leads him to this point is the deepest and most well-sustained arc that Supernatural has ever offered about grief, one that tells us more overtly about how the Winchesters have grown and changed over the past thirteen years than any other storyline in recent memory. It’s all been building to this.
I’m trying to recall a moment in Supernatural where we’ve actually seen such a truthful and prolonged aftermath to such a significant loss. On this show, deaths that aren’t permanent are usually resolved fast, either in real-time or via an immediate time jump, say from one finale to the next year’s premiere. Yes, Sam and Dean have both canonically lived for months or years grieving the other, but that’s not a process we ever got to witness onscreen.
During season 7, Dean nearly drank and repress-grinned himself to death over losing Castiel – both through death and betrayal – and over Sam’s fractured mental state, and did threaten, early on, to kill both himself and Sam at the idea of losing Bobby too – another blow which did, indeed, eventually come to pass.
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That period was maybe the darkest emotional state, the steepest descent into unhealthy despair, that we ever saw from Dean before now, though it mostly remained unspoken amidst some extremely hectic plotlines, and it was jarringly punctuated by many episodes that had nothing to do, either plot-wise or tonally, with his current state of emotional distress.
The thing that makes this focus on grief and depression in season 13 so remarkable and so different is, as I wrote after the season premiere, that this time, nothing about his desperation and misery is tied to an imminent external threat. Nothing about the losses is treated like collateral damage amidst a world-scale problem to fix.
Rather than grief being a symptom of the story, buzzing along in the background, it is the climax. It is, if you like, the monster under the bed, and it is most definitely real and it is most definitely dangerous.
It’s not that surprising that Dean’s taking this one harder than he’s ever taken anything before. It makes perfect sense to me, a viewer who cares a thousand times more about the inner life of these characters than about their supernatural surroundings.
I just truly didn’t think we’d get to see it lingered upon this much. I didn’t think they’d be allowed to – dare I say it – “waste time” in this way, and I’ve never been so delighted to watch someone I love get so thoroughly eviscerated.
And yet, here we are – and the fact that here is where we are means that this is an arc that was deemed just as crucial and game-changing for the future of this show and these characters as any big bad, new universe, or fateful mission.
It’s not big news, that every time Sam or Dean has dared to love someone else, anyone, in any way, they have been taken from them. The reason that the bond between Sam and Dean is so crucial and so unbreakable is because they have, historically, been the only thing the other has been allowed to keep and to depend on.
Every other love leads to heartbreak, and that inevitability is something that Dean has always counted on. Don’t let other people get close to us. Save others from being associated with us. They’ll wind up hurt, wind up dead. Save ourselves from being burned as we inevitably are forced to burn them.
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But you see, Dean got complacent. Through friendships trialed by fire, through finding a place to come home to, through miraculous maternal resurrections, through saving the world without having to sacrifice himself or his brother, through divine approval, he actually got used to having nice things.
He got comfortable with the unconditional love he held in his heart, with his extended family being a safe and permanent fixture. Dean thought, just for a moment, that the reward of loving someone had outweighed the risk. In fact, he didn’t just think it – “I thought we had it made,” he outright told us, in season 12’s penultimate episode “Who We Are.”
For a short window of time, Dean Winchester truly believed that he’d won. That he’d gotten a goddamn break, and he’d accepted that he deserved to have it.
If only. Dean Winchester, my man, I am so sorry, but you are in the wrong show.
The one-two punch of losing Cas and Mary, right when all Dean wanted was to take his people home safely and figure out the devil baby situation later, once he’d patted them down and cuddled them for a while, tosses him into a state of shock and depression which contains no channel for him to redirect his emotional energy and transform his grief into something else.
This isn’t season 7, where Cas’s “death” is mixed up with the sting of his betrayal – there was much to complicate that grief for Dean then. There’s nothing to complicate it now – just six more years of forgiveness and friendship to heighten it.
This isn’t the loss of John, where his death both devastates Dean and removes a massive burden from his shoulders, plenty of rage when coming to terms with how much love he felt for someone who treated him so terribly. Dean got to have his childhood damage closure moment with Mary, and had a fresh start with her, filled with adoration and gratitude.
At the moment of losing Cas and Mary, this time around, Dean was in such a good place with those people. He was primed to be the happiest, the most content with his life and his family situation that he has ever gotten the chance to be. This man is built to nurture, to gather, to cherish. He has so much love to give, and there is nothing to complicate that love now, in the face of such pure loss. Nothing to disguise it.
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“Grief, I’ve learned, is really love,” wrote Jamie Anderson in a rather famous and oft-quoted blog. “It’s all the love you want to give but cannot give. The more you loved someone, the more you grieve. All of that unspent love gathers up in the corners of your eyes and in that part of your chest that gets empty and hollow feeling. The happiness of love turns to sadness when unspent. Grief is just love with no place to go.”
Over the course of those first five episodes, as Dean allows this grief to take hold of him more fully than ever before, he’s swept into a downward spiral which culminates in his own death.
At no point does he adjust, cope, “get over” or come to terms with what he has experienced – rather, he’s rescued from it, wrenched out of it when Castiel returns. He’s doused in elation, a living embodiment of Hyperbole and a Half’s “maybe everything isn’t hopeless bullshit” comic. Before that? He has checked out, he has left the building.
What we witness here is Dean’s absolute rock bottom. The thing is, it’s not Sam’s. And that’s the one of the crucial conclusions that Supernatural is guiding their audience to draw.
Firstly, the time that season 13 dedicates to exploring the differences in how Sam and Dean are handling this turn of events implies a lot about their individual self-worth or lack thereof. It’s a fascinating dichotomy, mostly because the world of the Winchesters is a world where anything can – and has – happened.
“It’s funny,” Billie muses, in “Advanced Thanatology,” “to hear a Winchester talk about the finality of dying,” and therein lies the rub: if you’re a Winchester, the loss of your own life, or the life of a loved one, is a total Schrodinger situation. It could be real, it could be permanent, it could be the end of the road. Or it could be a temporary setback, a minor speed bump, something that there’s a solution to.
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To give the boys their due credit, they aren’t exactly egocentric about their ability to bounce back – it’s been made very clear that they haven’t bought into their own legend. They know that they could just as easily be taken out via a stray bullet or a dodgy taco as via a huge, martyrish, world-saving sacrifice, and Billie’s magnificent library of potential deaths reinforces that quite soundly.
However. Plausibly, logically, mathematically – these guys know that there is always a chance, because they’ve seen it. They’ve lived it.
What we see in season 13 is two ends of a bell curve – while prior experience dictates that there’s always that chance that death might be a minor inconvenience, and always reason, too, to believe it’s truly curtains, logic does not dictate the heart, so what we end up with is a Dean with no belief that there’s any way to overcome this tragedy, and a Sam with a potentially delusional level of optimism.
Sam’s reaction to losing Cas and Mary, and his initial conversations with Dean as they get through those first few days with Jack in tow, give the impression that this will be just another thing that they’ve gotten back up from.
Unlike Dean and his pleading prayers, Sam is not acting as if this is the end of the road. He’s not dismissive, and he’s not unaffected, but he’s proactive, because Sam believes in miracles. More than that: he believes he deserves miracles.
Sam is our big picture solution guy, on Supernatural. Unlike Dean, Sam is very rarely portrayed as truly happy at any given moment, and to me that’s always been symbolic of his lack of contentment with the way things are in general.
I feel pretty confident in saying that Sam didn’t believe they “had it made,” back when Dean did. His bar for an ideal future is set much, much higher than Dean’s, because he truly believes that they can have, and that they deserve, more.
Dean’s nihilism and uncontrollable despair hits him (and us) so hard because he believes that he’s lost the best chance at happiness that he’ll ever have, but for Sam, it’s more a case of same shit, different day, we’ll get through it, we’ll find a way. His needs weren’t being met yet anyway – he simply did not have the “everything” that Dean feels they had lost in the first place.
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It doesn’t mean he loves the other individuals less – though he certainly has different relationships to Dean with each, representing different things, another factor that this season highlights in multiple ways. Sam loves differently, wants differently, and is affected differently, sometimes, in the past, to the point of his needs being in direct opposition to Dean’s.
Our boys have done some growing, though, so rather than this emotional discrepancy being a source of conflict in season 13, it’s more just an open discussion about how, while they’re very much still on the same side, right now they’re not on the same page.
Sam Winchester is persistent, calculating, ruthless – all qualities that to help make him a skilled, if not particularly happy, optimist. If these losses rang true to him, if he had to face them head on, he’d be ruined. The day that Sam Winchester actually lets himself accept that he can’t win, that something is outside of his control? He’ll be a bigger, darker, scarier, more dangerous mess than Dean could ever be.
I’m oddly reminded of the episode “Bad Day at Black Rock,” where Sam is cursed with bad luck and is just utterly incapable, to great comedic effect, of handling it, mentally and emotionally. That episode always stands out to me as such a uniquely perfect portrayal of character because if that had happened to Dean, he would have been mostly fine.
You know why? Because Dean expects the worst, he takes the hits as they come, he juggles problems and pleasures, drops balls and picks up new ones, never expects to keep them all in the air at the same time. Dean’s a master tactician, but Sam is all strategy.
Instead of juggling, Sam spins plates, and focuses on his plate-spinning, and often willfully ignores everything else around him that may interfere with his plate-spinning goals. Nudge one saucer out of sync and you know what happens. It all comes crashing down, irreparably shattered.
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It’s a different kind of resilience, to me – to mix my metaphors, it’s like bamboo vs. oak. Dean bends and resists and bends back until one day all his fibers splinter and disintegrate, but he can regenerate given a little TLC.
I’m getting pretty curious about what could ruin Sam or shift his solid immovable trunk, the way that Dean has been ruined, but I do know that the day Sam breaks, that he truly accepts that he is broken, that he is not going to get out of this with the solution he believes he’s owed, there will be a reckoning.
Remember also, if you will, that Sam’s experience with rock bottom literally initiated the series that is Supernatural. We don’t throw back to it every third episode or whatever, but the girl he was planning to spend the rest of his life with was killed not only in front of him but also because of him.
He has been down there and he has gotten back up, but there is, to quote another Supernatural episode in which a side character suffered a similar loss, no normal after that. The universe owes him, big time, and he knows it.
Dean knows it, too – his prayer to Chuck in the season opener proves that, and even the fact that he verbalizes the idea that he’s owed a scrap of happiness is pretty huge personal growth wise – but Sam actually expects the universe to pay up, and pursues every opportunity that arises in order to fast-track that debt collection – it’s why he went along with the British Men of Letters, after all, it’s why he did the Demon Trials.
And it’s why, within minutes of polite conversation, he’s testing the waters for Jack to help him out, open the portal to the other world in order to save Mary. It’s Sam, too, who questions burning Castiel’s body, instinctively rejecting the finality of death. After all, he refused to burn Dean – twice – and twice, he was rewarded.
Despite his many past traumas, Sam has been witness to enough miracles for the idea of them to stick, and like I said – while he may have technically, on paper, made the correct call (Mary is alive, Cas’s death was not permanent) his belief in their ability to “solve” these losses is delusionally faithful, just as Dean’s apathetic depression is delusionally faithless.
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This comes to a head brilliantly in “The Big Empty,” where this very issue is aired on the couch of a real-life, actual bereavement counselor. (I mentioned that the grief was the A-plot the week-to-week cases were serving, didn’t I?)
Rather than painting one brother’s coping as right and healthy and the other’s as wrong and unhealthy, it exposed the fact that even though Sam was claiming the high ground – and even though we knew, narratively, that he was right – that emotionally, realistically, Sam’s acts of repression are just as deep as Dean’s, if not deeper. He just pretends that they aren’t.
Sam represses his own repression, if you like. Trees, circus skills – here’s another one for you: we saw Sam, the sudden aneurysm, explode all over that therapy episode, while Dean has been freely hemorrhaging all season.
Nevertheless, delusional as it may be, Sam does keep that faith, that there are answers and solutions and fixes, and it enables him to function, to look after his brother, to look after Jack, to look forward when Dean can only look down.
And while he does begin to recognize just what’s going on with Dean, to untangle their hearts and perspectives and to sympathize even when he doesn’t empathize, he’s still pretty damn blindsided, as one would be, when Dean decides to handle a slightly tricky salt-and-burn haunted mansion job by killing himself in order to talk to the ghosts.
If you’ll cast your mind back, you’ll remember that Dean has done this twice before. The first time, in season six’s “Appointment in Samarra,” he used this same stop-restart medical procedure to meet with Death and successfully bargain for Sam’s battered, Caged soul.
The second time, via a straight-up O.D., was in season 11’s “Red Meat,” a reckless spur-of-the-moment decision, again, in an attempt to make a deal for Sam’s life, in a moment where he believed Sam to have met a pretty standard risks-of-being-a-hunter death, one that would not have been out of place as a story in Billie’s library.
This latter occasion, Sam still doesn’t know about to this day, as, when the situation proved to not be quite as dire as Dean believed, he never told his brother, seemingly ashamed of his toxic actions. It was, in my opinion, a subtle but sure turning point for the show, and we have seen Dean course-correcting about his codependency issues ever since.
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But the situation stands – when Dean did this before, he knew there was a chance it might go wrong for him, but he didn’t care because he was doing it to save Sam. Not great, admittedly, mental health wise, but not unusual for the heart and soul of Supernatural.
This time, he didn’t do it for Sam. He didn’t do it for anything. He did it because nothing mattered anyway, so why the hell not. After “Thanatology” aired, there was a middling amount of horrified commentary, fans claiming that this was wrong, and out of character, that he would never do that, just to save a bunch of trapped spirits who are already dead anyway.
I’m sorry, but what? Are we watching the same show? Because like, you: arrow graphic curving one way; the point: dot graphic way over here. People claiming that this didn’t make sense, because Dean would never do something so meaningful for someone who wasn’t Sam, particularly when Sam was alive and well beside him? Hoooooo boy.
Okay. Remember the Rick and Morty debacle a couple of months back? With the Szechuan sauce episode, and the thousands upon thousands of diehard fans who made fools of themselves because they apparently don’t understand their own show, or have the ability to recognize dramatic irony, like, at all? It’s like that.
The thing itself, the Szechuan sauce, these ghosts? Are not important. Their very unimportance, their utter lack of value in relation to anything that matters to our characters at all, IS THE ENTIRE POINT. There is no divine plan, there is no meaning, there is no hope, there is no worth, there is no future, so why not unfold the fabric of the universe in order to get some limited edition McDonald’s Mulan promotional dipping sauce?
Why not, in order to maybe, possibly solve a random case of the week, just kill yourself?
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It isn’t that the sauce itself has any value. It isn’t that saving these ghosts is Dean’s biggest, most heroic move. The insignificance, the waste, the meaningless recklessness, the Szechuan sauce of it all, is the signifier, here, of just how low Dean has sunk. Of course Dean’s actions are “out of character.” They’re telegraphing that something is deeply, unusually, unsettlingly wrong with him. Does this really need to be spelled out?
Lesson the first: This was Dean’s rock bottom. It wasn’t Sam’s.
But how, they cry, how can this be the lowest moment of Dean’s life, how can he claim that he has lost everything when Sam is still right there next to him? How can this possibly be the same Supernatural I fell in love with four score and seven years ago? Now, now, we talked about this, remember? Growth, change, progression, endgames? This is all a part of that. It’s gonna be okay, I promise.
In the best possible way, this plot is making it crystal clear that Sam and Dean against the world is not enough for Dean any more, in the same way that it has NEVER been enough for Sam. The one-and-only codependency dynamic between Sam and Dean has always been unusual and unbalanced, a product of circumstance rather than an active choice – it’s always been shown that Dean is needier than Sam, that Sam copes by detaching while Dean copes by clinging.
They certainly both love each other more than they each love anything else, but the way they express that love, and what they can live through because of it, is not a mirror image. Their ideal relationship with one another looks very different from either side. But what we’ve watched unfold during season 13 is a huge confirmation that Sam is no longer the only person capable of breaking Dean’s heart, that having Sam by his side is not enough to keep him going.
It’s hard to say which loss is the more tragic and the more unbearable for Dean – his unexpected second chance with Mary, or Castiel, who, over the past ten years, has earned his unconditional and unshakable place in Dean’s heart, right next to Sam.
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It’s also hard for the viewer to weigh those losses as equal, because we know that Mary is alive, and – even though his return was promised – we also had to mourn Castiel. We knew he’d be back, but we didn’t know how – or even who, if the Cas we got back would be the same Cas with the same well-earned development.
For the viewer, and for the Winchesters, the loss of Mary is conceptual, and the way each brother feels about that is a major window into their individual psyches – like we covered above, Sam, the miracle worker, automatically assumes a hopeful outcome, and not only that, he assumes that Dean will also assume it, whereas Dean immediately begins punishing himself for ever believing in something too good to be true.
But the loss of Castiel is tangible, and is treated as such. The air is thick with it, it is on the tip of every tongue. His very absence is a presence, and that is a stark, stark contrast to the farewells and funerals of the friends they’ve lost before.
Charlie, Kevin, Ellen, Jo, Lisa and Ben, even Bobby and their father – once they’ve lost someone, Dean tends to tamp it down, refuse to even remember them. He, to paraphrase his own quotes about pain and loss this season, mans up and moves on – not in a healthy, coming to terms with it way, by golly gosh no, but in a “let’s never mention that again so I don’t have to remember that that situation ever existed” way.
This was different. Every crucial conversation, every climax, every screaming match or every pause where more is left unsaid that said – it’s all Castiel. Even in “The Big Empty,” where Sam’s grief about Mary takes center stage, Cas is in the empty spaces in between – his own battle with The Empty is also a central part of that episode, and the amount a time a sentence about the boys’ grief is left hanging and then cuts to him, the narrative conclusion to the statement, is staggering.
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While the cast and creators have been careful to describe the losses of Mary and Castiel as both very important, and the combination of them being more important still, we still see a… leaning, shall we call it, one way or the other, from each brother. Whenever the boys remember what they’ve lost, particularly when it gets heated, it’s always cries of “Mom” first, ripped from Sam’s mouth, and “Cas” from Dean’s.
There’s even the parallel of Dean taking three episodes and an screaming match to even manage to say the words “Cas” and “dead” in the same sentence, only for him to then turn around and accuse Sam of the same kind of behaviour about their mother the following week.
These two fights – at the end of episode three, “Patience,” and in Mia’s office in “The Big Empty,” cover a lot of ground emotionally, and reveal a lot about what’s most prominently on their minds. Seeing Dean bellow at Sam about Jack’s part in Castiel’s death (“You might be able to forget about that, but I can’t!”) shows his hand in a way that is truly shocking, and Sam’s explosion about Mary does the same.
Both of these incidents are examples of a deeply unreliable and pretty hypocritical narrator – of course Sam isn’t unfeeling about Cas, and in turn, Sam’s statements about Mary’s relationship differences with him and Dean aren’t objectively accurate – they’re his own perception. That’s intentional.
All in all, there’s a lot of “you just don’t care about this like I do!” implications getting slung around, and this unreasonable behavior is hugely telling. But rather than measuring the slivers of love in their hearts like a pie chart, a better way of looking at it might be to talk about acceptance.
Sam accepts Castiel’s death. He doesn’t like it, but he accepts it and seems to view it as a sad loss that he can move on from. He cannot accept the great unknown of Mary, because there’s a chance that she could be saved and because he feels personally wronged.
Dean accepts Mary’s loss, because he’s already grieved her, and come to terms with losing her long ago. He cannot accept the finality of Castiel’s death, because he’d gotten to the point where the idea of living without Cas is as impossible as the idea of living without Sam.
The grief for Castiel is also exacerbated, of course, by Jack, also mourning his chosen father, a wildcard that I, for one, really did not see coming, just as I did not see coming the moments where Dean, alone, ritualistically prepares Castiel’s body and is visibly overcome, in a scene so bleak and so private that it sucks all the air out of the room.
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Let’s call a spade a spade. Despite that lakeside funeral representing all their losses – Cas, Kelly, even Crowley, as well as revealing Dean’s belief about Mary’S DEATH – narratively, it’s Cas. Cas is the biggest deal, both to the audience and to the boys as the actual dead body that they had to burn. But that’s not the point. The point is that Mary, Cas, Crowley, Kelly, random extra #12: Sam and Dean are reacting like this about something that is not each other.
Lesson the second: Sam and Dean against the world is not enough for Dean anymore.
This shift has been subtextual for some years – it’s something that I don’t think Dean’s thought about head-on very much. Mary’s return was the clincher, but it’s just straight up text now: Sam is no longer the only thing that Dean needs to maintain his heart, life and purpose, his sole reason for being, and yes, this is a good thing.
Some fans may see this as negative, but to me it’s actually amazing – because it shows that their relationship is finally balanced. Sam is not Dean’s job any more. They are equal partners. The fact that there are other people that have the capacity to break Dean’s heart is a GOOD thing, a healthy thing – inasmuch as this level of grief can be healthy – because this love from him shows a trust and a widening of his safety net.
While Dean still has plenty of issues with responsibility and failure, the development of his and Sam’s relationship has reached a point where Dean no longer feels like his only purpose on this planet is to look after Sammy. It is, no longer, his identity.
It cannot be a coincidence that the ghost of John Winchester has been summoned (er, not literally, I should specify – this is Supernatural after all) several times this season, right when we’d thought they’d thoroughly exorcised his toxic influence. But one thing’s for sure. Dean is allowed to love Sam – and other people – on his own terms now.
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Sam is a powerful, commanding adult, a better and more natural leader than Dean. It is, quite simply, not Dean’s job to take care of him any more, and Dean accepts that. Of course, they’ll always take care of each other because they want to, but you cannot overlook the cruel weight of Dean’s childhood and how his own dreams, wants and needs were completely disregarded, his autonomy diminished, because he was conditioned into believing that his only purpose in life was Sam.
This is not Sam’s fault, it is John’s, but but as beautiful and unbreakable as the bond between the brothers is, you cannot argue that this single-minded obsessive obligation ever went both ways.
Sam’s classic youngest child syndrome is really a topic for another day, but the point is, after masses of catharsis and acceptance about their roles, season 12 saw a (hopefully) permanent change in their relationship – a step slightly further apart, maybe, but for good reason – Dean’s custodial duty took a backseat in the name of trust and respect.
I’ll admit, after the wondrous progression cemented in “Who We Are,” I really didn’t know if that dynamic shift would be permanent. I had hopes, but not expectations, and so, it seems, did Sam. Hopefully, we’ll see it put to better use in future, but in the season premiere “Lost and Found,” this factor comes out to play in the form of Dean’s lack of protectiveness over Sam.
What makes this discovery extra-interesting is that Sam fully calls it out. Operating on autopilot after losing track of Jack, it becomes noticeable that something has changed when the boys make a stop at Pirate Pete’s, which Sam – correctly, it turns out – assumed may have been the first place Jack encountered. Even when they’re suspicious that Jack might be in there, Jack, who might be a real threat – he did just attack them, after all – Dean waves Sam off when Sam had assumed he’d be following as back-up.
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This could be excused as just a bit of convenient shuffling – Dean says he’s going to call Jody – but Sam calls him on it so we are meant to notice it. Sam’s totally fine with it, mind you: it just clearly does not fit his mental image of Dean’s behavior. He leaves Sam to go after Jack undefended, and later, we discover that he used this time to pray to God and cry and beg, just beg for his loved ones back.
This was another huge moment that took this lesson a step further than I thought it was going to be taken – this is the “we’ve lost everything” speech, and to hear Dean say that he’s lost everything while Sam is still doing just fine, a few yards away looking at the cheesebutt menu, is a pretty bold move for Supernatural.
Yes, it’s a “we,” as in “me and Sam have lost everything aside from each other,” but it’s still a little bit of a “Well, what am I, chopped liver?” situation. In the past, Sam was that everything. Dean got back up from every hit as long as he had Sam (see above: he had no other purpose) but over the course of these episodes, Dean is not getting back up, and even Sam struggles to understand it.
If you’ll allow me to take a casual sidebar for a moment, I’d like to say a few words about divine faith and the lack thereof. This is also a huge element of the season which I feel certain will come into play in a major way. Dean, it’s safe to say, most certainly does not feel God in this Chili’s tonight, and that is a huge and crucial part of why he’s not handling anything.
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What has happened to Dean is more than just the loss of his friend. It is more than just the loss of his mother. Dean believes that he has been abandoned by God, the very real God who tasked him with being “the firewall between light and darkness.”
Sam suggests asking God to help Cas, as a last-ditch attempt before Dean burns his body, and that’s when we learn that of course, Dean has already done that, as soon as he got the chance. God’s not answering. God is gone, and the lack of God’s presence – this prayer, the discussion of the bible, Donatello – is becoming a feature of the season.
Dean used to believe – and was directly told – that there was an order to things, that what they did mattered. He believed that, so he forced himself to keep doing it – I’m basically quoting his own speech in “Thanatology” here – and now, because this has happened to them, he feels like it’s all a sham, and that his existence is just a senseless hopeless exercise in pain with no purpose. Put a pin in this conversation, we’ll return to it in a bit.
But anyway. This lack of preservation of Sam continues later, both in this episode and down the track, as Dean really doesn’t express any need to protect or defend Sam from Jack, even though he fully believes Jack to be a walking time bomb.
When Dean agrees to take Jack home to the bunker, he does it because there, the only things Jack can hurt are “you and me” – a disregard not only for his own potential destruction, but also Sam’s, and again, this is something that Sam gives him full “what the hell” sideeye over.
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This whole “leaving Sam to his own devices” thing is exacerbated when they argue over Jack in “Patience,” – Dean leaves to help Jody and Missouri, feeling that his responsibility lies there, and leaves Sam alone with Jack in the bunker.
Nothing actually happens, of course, because Jack is a cupcake, but that’s not what Dean believes, so it’s fairly significant that he feels okay about leaving Sam alone with a live weapon of mass destruction.
Either a) he’s too messed up to care about what happens to Sam (bad), b) he genuinely respects Sam’s autonomy and right to make his own choices (good), or c) his head doesn’t believe the same thing about Jack than his heart does (maybe good??).
Overall, though, it’s overtly clear that “armed bodyguard of Sam” is no longer Dean’s sole reason for existing, nor is it his number one priority. And it’s overtly clear that Sam as a companion is no longer the only relationship that Dean needs in order to feel emotionally fulfilled.
All of this is good. All of this is healthy. All of this proves that Dean loves Sam like an equal, not a responsibility. All of this proves that they can co-exist without burdening each other with the more toxic elements of their relationship. Thumbs up for this. High five for this. A fruit basket for this. Okay, moving on.
At the end of “Patience” it’s made obvious that both Sam and Dean have some biased emotional baggage about Jack, and the argument that Jack overhears, culminating in Castiel’s resurrection, is one of the greatest pieces of writing the show has ever done, because it’s a no-holds-barred fight where each viewpoint is 100% valid. There is no right or wrong – I was firmly, tensely in both corners. It was horrible. It was incredible. And it was – miracle of miracles – honest.
Lesson the third: Dean’s done performing, and the truth shall set him free.
Aha. Ahahahahaha. I can barely believe I’ve gotten to just write those words. But it’s happening, it is really happening, and it is beautiful. Dean Winchester is being honest with himself and the universe is rewarding him for it.
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Let’s skip the other 10,000 word essay I’d need to insert here in order to showcase the denial of self and the performative toxic masculinity that has been Dean’s entire journey since day one. Dean’s battle with his own heart is like, his main character arc. You know this, I know this, the writers know this, Dean knows this. Let’s just take that as a given and dive right in.
Another startling and sad and wonderful theme of this grief arc is simply just watching Dean not repress. It isn’t always for the best, exactly, it isn’t always healthy, but it is a damn good start to the whole “live your truth” endgame that he so sorely needs. In season 13, Dean… feels… things? And he allows himself to feel them? And reacts accordingly as his feelings dictates? Give that boy a gold star.
Okay, like, some of it is super bad. Some of it is a symptom of his severe depression. He’s rarely without a drink, he’s bitchy, he’s impatient, he’s judgmental, he’s rude and curt and unreasonable and even cruel, especially to Jack, and he’s blithely uninterested in working out what’s going on with Sam in the way that Sam puts effort into trying to work out what’s going on with him.
But there is a real purity to it as well, as he allows himself to fully experience these feelings without trying to twist them into something else, or tuck them away, and it leads to some truly groundbreaking moments in which we see him open up, bare his soul, lay his cards on the table and – most importantly – ask for help.
As the boys are thrown into their first adventure of the season, Dean operates with a single-minded aggression, not wasting a drop of the very little life force he has left. As soon as he has to interact with the real world again – when he meets Sheriff Barker – we get a real shock, because he does not attempt to maintain any type of cover.
He refuses to lie, he doesn’t perform – he just absolutely cannot be bothered. He tells his real name, he tells her the truth about monsters and angels, he tells her that he’s just a guy doing a job, and it is the most listless interaction we’ve seen from him in years. He doesn’t care if he’s believed. He is done trying. He is done caring. He is just done.
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Dean “I lie professionally” Winchester’s facade is shattered. It’s made explicit that his life is a performance that he cannot be bothered maintaining. And as he leans into that, it seems like he finds it easier to tell the truth – about everything – to those around him, and also to himself.
We’ve always known it, but it’s only now, as we watch Dean make absolutely zero effort to cope, that we can really compare how much energy he was putting into faking it before. He’s exhausted, he appears both somehow aged well beyond his years and simultaneously vulnerable and small.
Ackles is giving the performance of his career in these episodes – scraped raw, without a shade of melodrama, he’s swallowing and chewing every word he can bring himself to utter, reacting to every statement with the finest microexpressions that tell us every thought process in the most static of silences.
This turn of events has made Dean a slave to his grief. He is swamped. His lack of control is written all over his face. Just look at him while that pyre burns. Sam is beautifully sad, and generous with Jack, and he has his nicest Concerned Eyebrows on.
Dean is a portrait of total and utter slack-jawed devastation. I’m surprised he’s even standing upright. That is not two men who are experiencing the same emotional journey. That is not two actors who have been given direction to both give the same performance.
For better or worse, he accepts his feelings. We watch him eventually talk through it, actually acknowledge and spell out his own coping mechanisms, recognizing and correcting them, but long before that point, his truth comes across without words.
What a striking scene it was, to see him dead-eyed in his room, surrounded by bottles and listening to his music, to know that he is projecting the despair he’s feeling so strongly that Jack is able to read it through the wall.
Even Miriam, the strange and sassy angel who first accosts them about Jack, has got his number – she reads his grief too (and it ties into one of the points above, because when the boys learn a little about Jack’s abilities, it’s saving Mary that occurs to Sam first, but it’s the power to bring Cas back that’s on Dean’s mind) and promptly taunts him about it.
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After all, we know that angel radio can pick up on longing, almost as clearly as direct prayer. I don’t know about you, but that “Oh, sweetie…” told a thousand tales about what Dean was projecting, and it left me shooketh.
As the season unfolds, the conversations Dean ends up having are shockingly honest. Some of them are blunt, angry, accusatory, but they are true. Sometimes they are, at least, constructive – “We’re not on the same page. Like, at all,” he tells Sam calmly, when Sam is being pigheadedly presumptuous about their plans regarding Jack, and it is a miracle that we can watch them disagree to this level without it blowing up in their faces. Yes, baby, use your words.
But it goes even further. In growing increments, Dean begins to express himself more clearly, and after the events of “The Big Empty,” after he learnt a lesson or two from his time with a counselor, he does something I genuinely thought we’d never see.
There’s a thing that you do, when you know you’re unstable. It’s this tactic where, in the moments that you’re self-aware enough to call yourself out on your own bullshit, you ask someone else to help you take care of you.
You warn them about your own behavior, in the moments when you’re rational, in the moments when you have that behavior within your own control, and ask them to handle you in a certain way, despite any contrary actions that may arise when you lose that control again.
Watching Dean do this at the end of “The Big Empty,” was a revelation. When they’re forced to talk about their feelings, he pushes at the idea that Sam is repressed and in denial. He spends the episode scorning Sam for his optimism, claiming that Sam won’t accept the direness of their circumstances because then he’d have to deal with it, and Dean probably has a better idea than anyone just how much posturing Sam does. After all, it takes one to know one.
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This wears on Sam, and at the end of the episode, when they both cede to the other’s perspective a little, he’s close to admitting defeat. Dean’s made his point, and Sam might start to give up – except that’s not actually what Dean wants, is it?
Dean knows emotionally that he does not have the capacity to hope, or to believe. But he knows intellectually that that hope isn’t fruitless, that there might be a possibility of something. So he fully admits this to Sam. He says yes, I know. I know this is how I’ve been acting, I know I’ve been telling you how wrong and stupid you are, but I need you to keep believing anyway, because you can and I can’t.
Dean, you’re doing amazing, sweetie.
This moment clearly shakes Sam up quite a lot, and really gives him some insight into just how different his experience is right now to his brothers’, because in the following episode, he becomes Mr. Supportive. This turn of events is another fantastic exposure of just how thorough and just how detrimental Dean’s posturing can be, and just how much it’s being dismantled.
Sam’s chat to Jack earlier in the season, about Dean’s crossed wires, is pretty observant, but he still doesn’t know his brother quite as well as he thinks he does. It’s pretty common, actually, that those closest to us don’t always notice gradual changes, and hold onto old ideas about us, and we see this in “Advanced Thanatology,” when Sam uses all the wrong tools to try and help cheer Dean up.
Sure, Dean plays along, but what Sam is offering him – booze for breakfast, a turn at the preferred Zeppelin alias, a night out at a strip club, is so not what’s needed. It’s like trying to fix a broken leg with a band-aid. Sam genuinely seems to believe that this might help, and so for his sake, because he knows he scared him, Dean begins to perform once more – he pretends that this depression is something he can bounce back from.
There’s a scene I’m fascinated with, where Sam discovers Dean asleep, covered in stripper detritus, and seems pleased that his cunning plan has worked, that his brother has found is joie de vivre once more. It’s such an obvious tableau, though, that for a moment I truly expected Dean to open his eyes, fully alert, as Sam left the room – that the whole thing had been faked to console Sam.
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It isn’t played that way, but that doesn’t matter, because the message becomes clear even without that added aspect: Dean starts faking it again, it only adds to his state of crisis, and just when Sam thought things were a little bit normal again, Dean pulls out that syringe and falls dead to the floor.
One of the greatest strengths of genre television is its potential to take an aspect of the human condition and make it into something physical for our heroes to face, to spell it out larger than life.
The occurrences that follow, with Billie, are the supernatural culmination of Dean’s very real descent into suicidal ideation, and thankfully, he is given a second (third? Eighty-fourth?) chance. He’s made to truly face his own behavior, to verbalize all his darkest thoughts.
Dean’s meeting with Billie is one of the most intense conversations to have ever taken place on this show, and it feels deeply important in a way we’ll get to momentarily, but the crux of it is this: he tells her all about Jack, makes a deal to free the ghosts he was trying to save instead of bargaining for his own life back, she twigs that he wants to die, and teaches him a thing or two about his own fate.
When she sends him back into his body, it’s an immediate turning point. When Sam asks to talk about what happened, Dean tells him, straight up. The mountain of damage that these boys have buried from one another – have had to bury, to continue functioning as relatively normal human beings – is so huge that it’s really impossible to wrap one’s mind around.
But here, now, after sharing what he’s learned, Dean is asked by his brother simply if he’s okay, and after thirteen years, he says no, no he’s not. He’s not okay, and he explains why he’s not coping, and though all the pieces have all been laid in front of us, the big picture finally appears.
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It becomes clear in this moment, to Sam, and to us, that Dean is not just mourning Mary and Cas. Losing them was the last straw, but their losses represented something even greater. He has been mourning everyone he’s ever loved and lost, reliving every trauma he’s ever experienced, because if there really is no big picture to make those past losses in any way worth it, then he can’t repress them any more. He has to feel every single one of them, and know it was all for nothing.
And he needs a win, he tells us. He needs something to help him believe in the value of their past sacrifices. Well, as a friend of ours so recently said, this universe can be so many things, and sometimes, it is poetic.
Lesson the fourth: It’s never too late to start all over again.
Dean’s win, of course, the cosmic reward that the narrative grants him for his personal growth, is Cas. There’s a whole other story to be told here, about Castiel’s own representative battle with depression, his own sense of purpose and duty, but the the fact that Cas’s return IS the win that Dean needed to believe in his own worth again, is a huge statement for both of them.
It’s particularly poignant as a mirror to the moment last season where Cas used the same term, about needing a win, in order feel worthy of the boys’ unconditional love. There’s always been a huge discrepancy between himself and by Dean about the value of Cas’s mere presence, and what it means when Dean Winchester says he needs someone.
This is an issue Dean has had with many, many friends in the past and I feel like the natural conclusion of showing Dean learning to embrace his honesty and showing Dean so destroyed over Cas specifically – because he was, regardless of every other weight – includes Dean and Cas actually hashing (or hugging) this whole issue out.
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Honestly, one of the reasons that I think that Dean thinks that Sam is delusional in his optimism – and I’ll admit, I’m with him on this – is because a lot of the miracles that happened to them, a lot of their biggest wins, weren’t self-made. Sam, in his first speech of encouragement, says that when things go badly they fix it, because that’s what they do. How, Sam? When? To what are you referring?
These fixes, when they’re taken into the Winchesters’ own hands, usually include a huge sacrifice from one or the other of the brothers. Like I’ve written about many times, the solution to one major problem or death usually begets a season’s worth of other problems. When they get out of something without collateral damage, it’s usually not because they’ve fixed something. It’s because they’ve been saved. And Dean just lost the one being that represents his salvation.
Cas always was the game changer, the symbol of just how much bigger their role in universe is than the boys had ever dreamed. And now, just like in Hell, Cas pulls Dean out of something he’d thought inescapable. Once more, Dean is Lazarus, rising to begin again.
I mean, it’s almost indulgent – during that Steppenwolf montage (one of my favorite musical moments in the show’s history) Dean gets the call, and while we’re not privy to the conversation that occurred – it’s not for us – when the light illuminates his face as he drives, filled with new purpose, we know.
That montage serves as more than just the soundtrack to that cherished reunion, though – in the wake of Dean’s conversation with Billie, it feels extremely thematic,way like the start of something huge. We learned, down in the library, that the big picture is bigger than the boys know of – and what with God making them pancakes and all, they know quite a lot.
Of course, they’ve always had fated parts to play in various apocalypsi, but this feels bigger still, as does the implication that the fates have aligned to keep them alive and keep them headed down this path, whatever it may be. We know that the Winchesters are important. That old refrain: they have work to do.
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While I don’t want the show to end, I do think that it’s going to, in maybe the next two years, and this feels like the key, perhaps, to the final arc – the mission to end all missions that allows them to finally find their freedom in some way. The good news is that if that’s what is being implied here, it reads as ultimately hopeful.
So far, no hints about what that situation might be, but it seems certain that whatever path the Winchesters take, it will eventually end up here. As mentioned when we kicked this off, the actual villain-based plot of the season JUST started, though the brothers don’t really know the details yet.
In the meantime, we were able to enjoy the utterly glee-filled “Tombstone,” in which Dean’s complete 180 upon Cas’s return proves every point I’ve been making about the differences between him and Sam.
If Supernatural did not want us to read a difference between Dean’s grief for Cas and Sam’s, they could have made up the ground here and equaled out their reactions. Instead, they exacerbated the divide.
Dean’s behavior here – towards Cas, towards Jack, towards the cowboy case at hand – reminds me of nothing so much as when you have a migraine and later realize that it’s gone – you’ve gotten so used to living with the pain that when it is relieved, you become hyperactively elated.
He’s utterly consumed, worry about every other problem – including Mary – flying out the window, whereas Sam remains firmly on his plateau of discontent and repression, a little boggled by Dean’s capacity for joy.
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The reunion episode is a love letter to Dean’s unique relationship with Castiel, and while we know that Dean’s crisis was about much more than just Cas, he seems to have managed to heal it all by himself. That’s kind of a mixed message, but it’s one that I’m happy to take.
Of course, Cas is now, once again, in mortal peril, but thanks to Asmodeus’s handy shapeshifting abilities, the boys don’t know it yet. The Casmodeus trick does buy us a grace period in which the boys are allowed, narratively, to chill out and do some fun episodes, like last week’s lovely “Scorpion and the Frog,” without the urgent anxiety that the audience knows they should be feeling.
Yes, Jack is missing, but Jack is also both indestructible and not evil, so until something goes down (like it will this Thursday, as we begin our Wayward Sisters journey in earnest) they’re kind of as okay as they can be right now, and Asmodeus is playing Cas, on the other end of the phone, well enough to fool at least Sam into believing everything is normal.
I’m interested to see how that plays out, because given the emotional journey we have just witnessed Dean go through, and given the fact that Dean invited himself along on Cas’s latest Heavenly quest – sans Sam, mind you, there’s a very clear “we” vs “I” distinction going on this season – it is impossible to believe that he wouldn’t completely lose his mind over the idea of losing someone so close once again.
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Dean has lived his entire life in denial of his own value and terror of his own truth. This arc has shown us, rather brilliantly, and not very quietly, that these are the things he most needs to embrace in order to progress, and while he won’t be allowed to fully achieve it yet – the day that he’s healed is the day that the story ends – I don’t think he should be taking any steps backwards at this point.
Do you see what I mean now, about this all being done for the sake of the show’s endgame priorities? Do you understand what they are trying to prove?
To paraphrase every creative writing teacher ever, in a good story, you figure out what the characters most want and then take it away. That’s the journey, and the satisfying conclusion comes from them overcoming the obstacles to finally get what they need.
Last year, when the rumblings of a 300th episode series finale began, I predicted that Andrew Dabb would have to take a few seasons to coast towards a close, and that his ending would be inspiring rather than tragic.
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I truly believe that this journey, these losses, are above all things a wake up call, to both the boys and the audience, of what they really want, and that when the show finishes for good, they’ll have figured out how to get it.
Aside from all the beautiful specifics, this arc goes a long way in achieving that goal, in getting the audience’s wants for the Winchesters in line with the Winchesters’ wants for themselves – most prominently, a permanent family lifestyle that does not solely include one another.
This might be tough sell for some old school fans or casual viewers who think Sam and Dean alone on the road is the best the show can be, but if this arc didn’t prove to every viewer that like it or not, that old status quo is so clearly and canonically not what Sam and Dean want for themselves, then nothing will.
For everybody else, the show is giving us progress we never thought possible. It’s clearly too good to be true, so we should probably be terrified about what’s to come.