As there is no episode this week I thought I'd post some thinky of one of my all time favourite TV characters - Dean Winchester.
I was replying to a comment on my last reaction post and I typed (about Dean) "He was once a hero to me, I just don't see that Dean any more. Sadly".
It really made me stop and consider what that actually meant. How could Dean not be a hero to me anymore? He's always held that place in my heart. My LJ profile has forever stated "I'm a Sam!girl, but not without my hero Dean".
What changed? When did I stop seeing a hero? I decided to write this down to make some sense of it.
This isn't about Dean "bashing" (seriously? How could I ever "bash" a character who has been dear to my heart since the show began?). This isn't about loving one brother over the other, or thinking one is in any way better than the other. At all!
This is actually about trying to piece together Dean's journey and find out when he went from being my hero to someone I don't recognise that quality in any more.
Before I start I will say that I fully understand that Dean's heroism isn't why everybody loves Dean. We all have different aspects of a character that we love. For me, his heroism is an aspect of his character that I have always loved and admired and the thing that I find I am really missing now.
I'm going to put aside quibbles about the writers not getting the characters "right" any more, or thoughts of character assignation. I'll even put aside thoughts that the characters I once knew just "wouldn't do that!" and take what we've been given at face value. I could say that Dean (and Sam) aren't characters I recognise anymore. And actually that's true. They have
changed and as much as I'd love to see the Sam and Dean we started out with, the fact is these characters are older and have been through SO much it makes sense that they have changed. It also makes sense that they might not have changed for the better. Sadly.
I fell in love with Dean for many reasons. Initially it was his drop dead gorgeousness and cocky smile. Then it was his snarky-ness and carefree attitude. It was his brazen contempt for the law and superiority over "idiots" who didn't know what they were getting into when facing the supernatural. It grew even deeper when his love and protectiveness for Sam became really obvious. And deeper still when seeing his loyalty, his love for family, his commitment and dedication.
And on top of all that it was the way he embodied the modern day hero. We discovered in episode 1.02 (Wendigo), what drove Dean - helping people out. "Saving people", being the first of his life's motto. During season one we really saw that motto being played out. In Dead in the Water (1.03) he connected with a child (Lucas) that he could share a childhood memory with and then later risked his life to save that child from drowning.
As the seasons progressed we not only saw many acts of saving people but we began to see a multi-layered character who wasn't quite has cocky as we first thought. In Home (1.09) he let his guard down and his vulnerability came to the surface. We learned about his father issues, his low self esteem, his initial inability to see the "grey" in the "black and white" he'd been taught to see in monsters and his overwhelming need to protect his younger brother.
By the end of Season 2 we got to see the lengths he'd actually go to save Sam. He sold his soul and started a new journey toward valuing his life and facing eternity in Hell.
At this point Dean was still very much my hero. Dean had proved his willingness to face an eternity of misery and suffering so his brother could live (whether it was a good move or totally selfless is a point for another essay. And one I'd love to explore further one day).
During seasons 4-5 the dynamic of both Sam and Dean changed quite dramatically. Dean returned from Hell suffering PTSD and Sam was in a very dark place. However, they still continued to fight the good fight - not only with their own personal demons but with angels and demons being introduced to broaden their epic battles. During these seasons Dean became even more heroic to me as he fought for the human race. He was not only confronted with a brother who had turned down a dark path he seemed destined to take, he was battling Hell memories, dick angels, manipulating demons and his own sense of self worth. It all came to a head when he had to finally trust his brother to resolve the potential apocalypse that both of them were responsible for starting. One of his most heroic acts was standing by lucifer!possessed Sam as he beat him, but told his brother "I'm here for you".
There were a couple of moments in season 6 where Dean's shiny heroism started to dim. Both moments made a lot of sense in Dean's journey and were given context, but they were both moments that started to raise questions about Dean's compassion and ethics. First he beat the crap out of Sam when he discovered Sam didn't have a soul (You Can't Handle the Truth) and then he asked Castiel to wipe Lisa and Ben's memories of him in Let it Bleed. I remember watching Dean beat Sam and I am (now) ashamed to say that at the time I was almost cheering him along. I was as frustrated and pissed off with soulless!Sam as Dean was so I understood where that motivation came from. Looking back, I can see how horrible that was, particularly as Sam had no control over the fact that he didn't have a soul and was as scared and messed up as Dean was. It was brutal and showed the depths of Dean's anger and lack of trust in "this" Sam.
Wiping Lisa and Ben's memory was highly problematic and we started to see Dean elevate himself above others and their choices. We can see what Dean was doing in context and understand that he was saw this as protecting them. He almost got them killed and he thought erasing him from their memories was going to help them. On the surface it looked heroic - removing two extremely important people from his life (and him from theirs) for their own sake, but in terms of an ethical (and actually nonsensical) stand point it was neither heroic nor morally sound. At the time it could be seen as a "slip up" but as this issues emerges in later seasons it can be seen as part of his fallibility.
In Season 7 hero Dean was back Defending His Life and letting Sam know he can be his brother's "stone number one". No sooner is Dean seeming to find his heroic feet when he decides to kill Sam's monster friend, Amy, in The Girl Next Door (7.03). He not only did this after reassuring Sam that he supported him, but he kill her in front of Amy's son and left him just standing there. It was a blatantly cruel act and made me wonder what had Dean learned all those episodes ago when he understood "shades of grey". We can perhaps understand why he did it - he couldn't trust Sam so he had to make the hard decision and kill the monster because that's what they do, but it just seemed particularly callous, especially after working hard to get Sam to trust him during a time when Sam's brain was messing with him.
During the rest of the season though, Dean was still fighting the good fight against the Leviathans, and he still held the place of my hero.
Season 8 and 9 were the big turning points for me and it's only really taken me until right now
to actually admit out loud (even to myself), that Dean is no longer the hero I once saw him as. I could say that it's merely Carver's "take" on him or that I'm not "seeing" him as I should (wrongly interpreting him etc.) but with the accumulation of the things he's done and said I'd say that what we are seeing Dean's heroism stripped away. I would like to think this is deliberate and part of his character journey - part of seeing what happens when a hero like Dean suffers as much as he has. If it isn't it would be pretty devastating. If this is a "new" version of Dean, then he may well be lost to me for the remainder of the series.
As with past Dean "problematic" moments I can see that they (mostly) have reasons and context. Dean chewed Sam out for not looking for him and, more importantly, ignoring Kevin during Dean's stint in Purgatory during We Need to Talk About Kevin (8.01). It makes sense - he was bitter and feeling hurt and responded accordingly. It's understandable, but the introduction of "bitterness" to his character is a layer that I didn't (and don't) find particularly endearing. I connected with purgatory!Dean and loved seeing his struggle with that darker side of himself. The introduction of "best buddy" vampire Benny was another fascinating layer. I loved his connection to a monster and after my initial unease with Dean's sense of disappointment with Sam I was starting to feel the love again. Then he did something that, to this day, I struggle with. It put a major black mark on his character and even in the given context - (save Benny) - I find it hard to look past. He used Sam's history with women (them dying) to trick him in leaving the hunt. It was manipulative and cruel. It then brought about the uneasy "resolution" to part one of Season 8 - the boys back together in a not so happy truce (and believe me, there's plenty that troubled me with Sam but as this is all about Dean, I'm focussing just on him).
By the second half of S8 I was able to almost
forget the bitterness, jealousies and consequent meanness that started to appear and saw Dean back to fighting the good fight. The discovery of the bunker brought new life to Dean and his returning focus to looking out for Sam
helped the love return. And as much as many don't like Dean in "care taker" mode, it's one of his qualities that I consider one of the most admirable in Dean (That is, of course, when he cares
about Sam's welfare. Cares about his health - both mental and physical. And not just wanting Sam alive or feels that he has to call all the shots on what's "right" for Sam. That's very different - and thinky for another time).
After Dean listing all the things that Sam could repent for in Sacrifice (8.23) I was back to feeling let down and genuinely sad that it's come to this between them. Sure, Dean will tell Sam that there's "nothing I'll put in front of you", but that doesn't mean he'll hide what he really thinks of him at times - particularly when he's disappointed or even hurt by Sam. Again, in terms of character context, it makes sense. It's totally understandable that he was hurt by Sam "losing" his soul and by Sam not looking for him etc. But it felt unnecessarily cruel and even knowing how it was needed to motivate Sam to make his confessions, I was saddened by it.
Then came season 9. You might think that Sam forcing an angel inside Sam is the ultimate act of non-heroicsm for me. In many ways it is, but I can actually understand Dean doing this. As "saving Sam" is one of his main directives it makes sense that he'll do everything he can to achieve that. I also believe he did it because he felt like he was doing the right thing - and maybe he was. In order to keep saving the world it needs two Winchesters and if that means crossing a line to do so, well, they are the sacrifices that need to be made. I kind of get that.
For me though, the nail in the coffin and the thing that I now realise is the reason Dean is no longer a hero to me is that after everything - using Gadreel to heal people who died while he was inside Sam, not telling Sam what he'd done, Gadreel killing Kevin whilst inside Sam, Sam having needles stuck into his head, his tattoo burnt off and him being momentarily possessed by Crowley - after ALL that - the pain, the defeat, the sense of betrayal Sam felt he said four words:
"I'd do it again".
It's from this moment that the accumulation of all those "little" things finally added up and that was the final straw. It was the moment that told me that Sam's suffering mattered less than Sam being alive. That's not the Dean that I fell in love with, the one that said this in season one: SAM: I wish I could have that kinda innocence.
DEAN: If it means anything, sometimes I wish you could too.
And there was nothing much in the end of S9 that changed my mind about that. There really wasn't the chance for him to either. The Mark had taken hold and his actions were governed by that itch. There were moments that it felt like Dean was fighting to get back to the Dean we used to know, but with him knocking out Sam and deciding to face Metatron by himself, his fate was sealed.
Then Dean was really
gone. It was a wonderful relief watching demon!Dean because there was no longer a pretence of trying to do the right thing anymore. He could let loose and be who ever he wanted to be. He was, in fact, an absolute delight. Demon!Dean made sense because there was no hiding anything. There was no real inner struggle and he could allow his violence and verbal abuse to be free. Ironically, there were moments that reminded me of early Dean - possibly the lack of weight on his shoulders (?). Demon!Dean was far from being any sort of hero though. The complete opposite in fact. A reminder of what was truly missing from real Dean.
The problem for me is that the Dean I knew and loved hadn't really been around for quite a while. Demon!Dean was a way of escaping watching the "real" Dean become less and less like the original one.
And now, after 10.03, Dean is back, cured from his demon-ness. I should be celebrating and feeling great to have him back (like I did with soulless!Sam) but I have mixed feelings about him. Those niggling little things that existed before he became a demon are still there. It's not just things like telling Sam that Lester is all on him, but that overwhelming feeling that Dean hunts purely because he likes
it. I know that Dean has always liked hunting, but the "saving people" aspect of their job seems long gone. Victims are almost dismissed (or not trusted, perhaps even nuisances). It's the killing and the thrill of the hunt that's more important. The fact that vessels are no longer considered victims or not seen as people that could be saved adds to the feeling that they are both, in fact, less heroic.
But I have hope (*clings to hope*). Dean's final words in Paper Moon (10.04) were "But I am just trying to do the right thing, man. 'Cause I am so sick and tired of doing the wrong one".
This signalled not only that Dean knows it's been a while since he been all those things he used to be, but also that he maybe he's now on a journey of rediscovery. Hopefully discovering that the hero is still in there and even with all the shit he's been through (including the Mark!) he'll rise above it, acknowledge his mistakes and start to make decisions that might be tough, but hopefully more morally and ethically sound.
We'll see. All I know is that I miss him. I enjoy Dean's struggle, but I want to see him win in a way that doesn't continue to compromise the character he once was.
I think the moment when "saving people" becomes more important than "hunting things" we may begin to see a re-emergence of Dean Winchester - modern day hero. :)