Welcome to the inaugural “Meta Thursday”! I’m kicking things off by starting up a new 30-Day Challenge, this time for “Supernatural” (of course)—although “30-Day” is a bit of a misnomer, because I don’t plan to do more than one of these essays a week, given that the Dragon Age one nearly killed me. :) I know many of you don’t watch Supernatural, or have (very valid) objections to its often problematic representations of women/POC, but hopefully I can address a few of those concerns and maybe get a few of you to check it out, because despite its flaws, it really is one of the best shows on TV today.
Enough blather. On with the meta!
Day 1: Your Favorite Character
Dean Winchester is a douchebag.
He’s cocky. Sexist. Petty. Judgmental. In early seasons he’s a bully. In later seasons he’s a drunk. He’s not particularly smart, or clever, and he thinks his jokes are much funnier than they really are. Often he tries too hard to be sexy, or cool, or manly, and as a result, he comes off fake, even desperate. He’s incapable of relating to women as real people, or, for that matter, men. He’s a “C-“ in bed that thinks he’s an “A+”, and he probably smells bad from all the cheeseburgers and liquor and sitting around in cars. He’s codependent, emotionally constipated, terrified by real intimacy, and lonely, so intensely, painfully lonely, that he pushes everyone away, or marginalizes them by turning them into a victim or someone he has to protect, because then his feelings too can be marginalized and contained; because to Dean Winchester, nothing, nothing, nothing in heaven or earth is more frightening than the most basic human endeavors of trusting, loving, or meeting someone halfway.
Also he’s addicted to hentai—which, dude, seriously?
Dean is all of these things and more—he is “a great big bag of dicks” as a certain Trickster might say—and yet, somehow, surprisingly, I love him anyway.
Very early on, despite his many flaws, Dean became my emotional anchor in this show instead of Sam—who, as a Hero on a Hero’s Journey, embodies the very archetype of relatability. And it doesn’t matter that Dean’s collection of foibles is almost custom-tailored to piss me off, because while I can’t excuse his flaws, I still accept them. His flaws give my love something to stick to.
Why do I love him? Easy: Dean Winchester is one stubborn son of a bitch.
No matter what he’s up against, not Heaven, not Hell, not Sam, not even himself, he doesn’t give in or give up. He might flinch, he might get scared, he might flee Hell Hounds or demons or God when He takes a familiar face, but Dean Winchester never, ever cries uncle. He sasses off to the Reaper and insults the Host of Heaven and shoots the devil in the face, because as he says himself, “I never did know when to quit”.
Sure, Dean Winchester has a few other admirable qualities – his loyalty to Sam and his adopted family, his taste in music and movies, his rational skepticism and cool under pressure, and of course, his talent for nurturing — but it’s his stubbornness, I think, that precludes all others; it is his saving grace, the reason for which he always deserved to be saved.
— Spoilers for Season 3 and beyond after the break —
My first time through the series, I don’t think I ever quite understood why Sam was so angry with Dean in the first half of Season 3. But on a rewatch, the reason is obvious: Dean appears to have given up. He tells Sam that he’s accepted his fate, and stopped fighting it. But that’s not who Dean is. It’s a lie, one that Dean tells because he thinks it’s kinder than the truth, but it’s a lie nonetheless. And Sam knows it. Sam calls him on it, again and again, until Dean drops the act and takes up the fight once more. For all the times Dean saved Sammy, this is one time Sammy saved Dean, by reminding him of exactly who he is: a fighter, a soldier, a stubborn son of a bitch.
Likewise, I think this the reason why Season 4 Dean hates himself so much; why he may never truly forgives himself for getting down off that rack, why giving in will always be his greatest regret and shame. Because that’s not who he is. Even when the situation is hopeless, Dean fights. Dean resists. Yet in Hell, he gave in. So in Dean’s eyes, he doesn’t deserve to be saved. No matter that Hell is designed to break a man; or that nobody, not even God, blames him for stepping down off that rack —because hey, when it comes to guilt and self-recrimination, Dean never knew when to quit that either.
So why did he break?
For love. Or, more accurately, the absence of it.
In seven seasons there have only been two men who could ever make Dean Winchester submit: John Winchester and Alastair. The Tyrant King and the Demon Inquisitor. Both are father figures, of course, two sides of the same coin: Alastair was the father John never was, while John was the torturer Alastair could only mimic. John Winchester had a son and molded himself a soldier. Alastair took a soldier and molded himself a son.
It’s evident in the way the two men talk to Dean. Even when Alastair taunts Dean, he does so in a kind, patient, loving tone. He calls Dean “son” and tells him “you’ve never disappointed me”. Compare that to John. John loves Dean, no doubt, but when he talks to his son, it is as a drill sergeant to a recruit, no kindness, no softness, no quarter. Even as he tortures Dean, Alastair offers love, acceptance, the likes of which Dean had never before experienced, and that is the reason Dean Winchester gets off the rack. Because pain is pain is pain, but Dean only ever did anything out of love.
Both John and Alastair are long gone now, thankfully, but that doesn’t mean that Dean can’t still be broken. One of the things that’s so hard about Season 7 – and one of the reasons I think it settles so sourly in many people’s stomachs – is that Dean has given up. He has lost his will to fight. He just stumbles through life aimlessly, unable to cope, unable to shrug off the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and move on.
The reason, of course, is that the betrayal Dean experiences at the end of Season 6 is so powerful, so vast, that it breaks him as effectively as Alastair’s false love ever could. Dean’s greatest fear is emotional intimacy – he has no friends, no long-term lovers, nobody but Sam and Bobby and Cas – and the one time, the only time, Dean has ever opened his heart up to someone who wasn’t family, that trust was ripped apart and thrown back in his face.
I mean, no matter where you come down on the Destiel ship, it’s telling, isn’t it, that Dean doesn’t have nightmares of Lisa and Ben but of Cas walking into the lake, his arms raised in jubilance and divine purpose.
How does Dean bounce back from that? That’s the question of Season 7, and the answer is: One day at a time. As difficult as it is to watch, I think Season 7 is a necessary experience, if Dean is to grow as a person. The narrative arc this season is one of coping and recovery, of an emotional apocalypse instead of a physical one, and, well, that’s painful. It’s uncomfortable, and messy, and it doesn’t have any of the metaphor and glamor of saving the world or fighting off Heaven and Hell. It’s human. It’s real. And it fucking sucks.
But as Urgl said in The Neverending Story, “it has to hurt if it’s to heal”. And if Dean is ever going to learn to trust, to transcend, he has to go through this emotional Purgatory first.
Personally, I think Dean can do it; that he’ll come out the other side of Season 7 stronger, better, braver. Because now the unthinkable has happened, and he has survived it. What’s more, when he tells Cas “so what?” and hands that trenchcoat back to him, Dean demonstrates that he’s taken the lesson he needed to from his experiences, which is: True loyalty isn’t a thoughtless act. It requires courage.
People are cruel, selfish, mean. They hurt you, even when they try to help. They leave you, even when they try to stay. They break your heart. But that’s part of the package. Because if you can’t conceive of someone hurting you, betraying you, breaking your faith, then it’s not real loyalty, is it? It’s just blind acceptance, an angel receiving revelation from the Lord, a dutiful son following Father’s orders. It’s only when you know that pain could result -– when you know that the person you love and trust could one day walk away, or lie to you, or break your heart – and you choose to have faith in them anyway—you never know when to quit them – that takes real courage. That’s real faith. That’s real love.
It’s a similar lesson to what Dean learned in Season 5, after Sam chose Ruby over him—the worst betrayal imaginable. And yet, somehow, their relationship healed then; hell, it’s never been stronger or more equal than it is right now. So now Dean has to realize that that lesson, like family, doesn’t just end with blood-kin, but it extends to anyone who you love who has hurt you.
But I have faith he’ll figure it out, because I believe in Dean.
So yes, my favorite character is Dean Winchester. I love him most ardently, like a brother, like a best friend. I love Dean Winchester because he and I are so similar. I love Dean because he is what I wish I could be. I love Dean because I understand things that he does not, and because we both still struggle to understand so much about life and love and loyalty, and most of all, I love Dean because he never, ever, ever gives up, and that makes him the strongest, bravest douchebag I’ve ever known.