This week, in honor of the Season 7 finale on Friday, I’ve decided to do a five-part meta about why I love flawed, beautiful, broken Season 7 so much. Yesterday I introduced the idea of the descent story and the Heroine’s Journey, which I think is being used as a storytelling blueprint for Supernatural seasons 6 and 7. Today I’m going to elaborate a little further on exactly how, using Dean’s story arc as an example.
ETA: I know this meta series is supposed to be a defense of Season 7, but today I spend a fair bit of time on Season 6 — a necessary side-trip to make the rest of the week make sense. Sorry for the bait and switch, but hopefully you’ll bear with me for a bit longer.
Previously: Part One
The finale of Season 5, “Swan Song”, left the writers of Supernatural in a bit of a bind. With the apocalypse averted and all external foes either vanquished or sealed away, what was left as a source of conflict for our characters? Who or what could Team Free Will struggle against? Moreover, what could possibly present a challenge worthy of our protagonists, who could now smite demons and archangels as easily as wendigos or vengeful spirits?
Even in the most open-ended of fictional universes, this wouldn’t be an easy question to answer, and personally I think the writers opted for the best solution available: That is, when all external conflicts have been neutralized, any new conflicts must come from within. And as uncomfortable as it is to see Sam, Dean and Cas turn on each other and become their own worst enemies, it was really the only choice that would’ve made any sense whatsoever, because Team Free Will was simply too powerful to be believably threatened by any outside force.
So how do you tell this story?
Enter the Heroine’s Journey, an archetypical storytelling pattern well-suited for characters who need to battle inner demons instead of outer ones. The writers took this blueprint and applied it to Team Free Will, each in their own ways. Not all initiate their Journeys at the same point nor end at the same time, but each of the three main characters – Sam, Dean and Cas – have embarked on a descent story, to come back down the mountain, so to speak, towards a place of rest and inner peace.
Cas and Sam’s Heroine’s Journeys, which take place mostly in Season 6, serve as mirrors of each other: one character starts with no soul and, through his own choices, recovers it; while the other starts with a soul and, through his own choices, loses it. Neither character has completed his Journey yet – indeed, I think the Mental Patient! Cas we’re seeing now is about to undergo Round 2 of his own Journey – but both come pretty far along in Season 6, and seeing as this is a meta essay about Season 7, I’ll save that (admittedly much meatier) analysis for another time.
Dean’s journey starts in Season 6, but really hits its stride throughout Season 7. Today, I’m going to focus on the first half of the Journey we’ve seen travelled so far.
According to 45 Master Characters, by Victoria Lynn Schmidt, the Heroine’s Journey can be broken into nine steps or stages. Let’s take each of them in turn:
Stage One: The Illusion of a Perfect World
As I wrote last week, this stage can be summarized as follows:
The story opens with the heroine ensconced in her perfect glass bubble, in a world designed to protect her. She’s safe, yes, but she’s also “shielded from the pain and uncertainty of taking risks for her own growth. She is asleep to the world around her and ignorant of the power she has to awaken herself.”
Deep down, the heroine knows this perfect bubble isn’t so perfect. In fact, the heroine generally relies on some manner of coping strategy to abide living there. This might include living in denial, becoming an extreme people-pleaser, or – for the more self-aware heroines– feeling depressed but helpless to change.
Sound familiar? I think it’s pretty obvious that Dean’s “apple pie life” with Lisa and Ben fits this description. Fixing houses, eating family breakfasts, weekend barbecues in the suburbs – this idealized version of what “normal life” is totally Pollyanna, and it fits Dean about as well as Jared Padalecki squeezing into a miniskirt.
What’s worse is, Dean knows it. As far back as Season 2, Dean remarks that as normalcy is not for him, and as we see in “It’s a Terrible Life”, Dean likes the Hunter’s Life, despite its drawbacks. He thrives on the challenge of the hunt, the sense of accomplishment when he saves someone in need. But Sam’s dying wish was for him to get out of the Life, and by Heaven and Hell, Dean’s gonna make good on that promise, for Sammy’s sake.
Thus Dean tarps the Impala and lives in denial, clinging hard to a life that isn’t his, a life that deep down I’m not sure he even really likes but still thinks he needs. And in a way, he does need it: as a standard of comparison, a means of better understanding who he is – and the chaos he wreaks on himself and everyone around him when he lives in denial.
On the surface, Dean and Lisa seem reasonably happy, but at a recent convention, Jensen Ackles admitted that he thought Dean wasn’t so much in love with Lisa herself, as drawn to what he thought she represented – stability, acceptance, and unwavering, unconditional love. And she does offer that, it’s true. But it’s taken to such extremes that their relationship becomes depressingly twisted – a dangerous codependency that makes monsters of both of them and leaves Ben caught in the middle.
When we meet Lisa in Season 3, Dean describes their brief fling in 1999 as the “bendiest” weekend he’d ever had (high praise for Dean), and the feeling is more than mutual; Lisa apparently described Dean to her friends as “the best night of my life”. Their fling, however, was brief and mostly sexual. Despite both characters apparently idealizing the other for years to come, no indication is given in Season 3 or elsewhere that they ever had or developed any chemistry beyond the physical. What do they talk about? What do they have in common? We as viewers have no idea. And you don’t have to be Dr. Phil to know that when two people have nothing in common beyond sex, the relationship is doomed for disaster.
We already know Dean’s baseline character is kind of a dick, but up close, Lisa fares no better. I adore the character, but she’s, for a lack of a better word, a doormat. In the opening episodes of Season 6, she never questions him, never fights back; whenever Dean expresses any anger, she immediately backs down and accepts what he says, even when he is obviously lying to her. She says nothing about his drinking, his PTSD, his undiagnosed psychiatric issues, and by staying silent she enables his self-destructive behaviors to continue, rather than supporting his healing process.
The worst, though, is that each time he leaves, she welcomes him back with open arms, never demanding more of Dean either for herself or for her son (who, for what it’s worth, sees Dean as the only father figure he’s ever known). She just takes what she’s given and never complains, because, as she says midway through the season (I’m paraphrasing here), Dean always had one foot out the door anyway. Remember how Lisa reacts in Season 5 both times Dean shows up on her doorstep? She doesn’t question, she doesn’t press. She simply asks – no, begs – him to stay.
I mean, imagine what kind of person welcomes into her life a man who she knows for a fact will leave her and her son. What kind of mother does that to her son? Not a healthy one, I’ll say that much.
I refuse to attribute Dean and Lisa’s unlikablity in the opening episodes on poor writing, because quite the opposite – I think their whole relationship is brilliantly conceived, in that it illustrates just how wrong it is for Dean to be out of the Life (and for Lisa). Being in the wrong environment does more than make you feel like an outsider. It changes you. It makes you the wrong version of yourself, a worse version, cruel and cold and distant. It’s wrong for Lisa to be with Dean – before him, she was a fighter, a survivor; for eight years she somehow managed to take care of her son all on her own, and she did a pretty darn good job. Then Dean comes around and she transforms into a masochistic doormat. And as for Dean, well, being around Lisa turns him into his father, which is pretty much the bleakest possible fate imaginable.
Eventually Lisa begins to re-assert herself when Dean shoves Ben in “Live Free and Twihard”—nevermind the emotional abuse and neglect he’s put both of them through – but by then the damage is done. Dean, Lisa and Ben have warped around each other like wood left out in the rain, and I think Ben’s future as a Hunter is all but sealed. Which is why I rather liked that by the end of the season, Dean asks Cas to wipe Lisa and Ben’s memories of their time together. Far from a cheap narrative cop-out, I think Dean giving them a second chance is truly the kindest thing he can do for the Braedens.
But it’s more than just kindness, because I think the action demonstrates Dean’s growth as a character. Dean spent the first five seasons comparing himself to his father and coming up short. But at the end of Season 6, when he slaps a nine-year-old boy for crying over his dying mother, Dean finally succeeds in becoming John Winchester. And he realizes just how awful that fit is, how broken a man John really was. So by wiping the Braedens’ memory, by giving up this attachment to an unrealistic ideal of “normalcy”, Dean demonstrates his willingness to stop torturing himself over similarly ill-fitting, unrealistic ideals of who he thinks he should be or could be, if only he was strong enough. He finally gives up asking himself “what would John Winchester do?” because he knows the answer isn’t a path worth taking.
Note, though, that he doesn’t wipe his own memory, because Dean knows he must never forget; he must always remember that given the right circumstnaces – or the wrong ones, as it were – he could once again become a monster.
Stage Two: The Betrayal or Realization
In this stage, we see:
Something out of the heroine’s control shatters her perfect world, and everything the hero thinks is important is taken away from her. The heroine realizes that the system she’s tried to work within doesn’t reward her quite like it’s supposed to, and as Schmidt says, “she’s pushed toward a fork in the road where she must decide whether to go into the world to actively face her fears, or staying where she is and becoming a passive victim”.
This stage is about the heroine finally understanding that her coping strategies don’t work. It’s about her the motivation to change—not the actual changing part yet, that comes later, but why she will change, what the impetus for her journey is.
Dean’s Betrayal is, of course, when Soulless!Sam returns, shattering the false life has built up for himself. The main reason Dean clung so hard to the “apple pie life” with Lisa is because he thought Sam was dead—guilt, the one constant motive in why Dean Winchester does anything – but now that Sam’s apparently alive, he realizes there’s no reason to stay where he is.
But the Betrayal goes deeper than just Sam’s apparent defiance of the Cage, because everyone betrays Dean at this point — Bobby didn’t tell him Sam was alive, the Campbells didn’t tell him, Castiel sure as hell didn’t tell him – everyone did their damndest to keep Dean oblivious, withering away in his perfect, ill-fitting bubble. They thought they were doing Dean a kindness, when in fact, it was anything but.
While many in the fandom disliked the way Dean’s return to Hunting unfolded, I think this was actually fairly well-executed, especially the fact that Dean so ambivalently embraces his old Life, even though, as I said before, I think he misses it with every fiber of his being. The Betrayal stage isn’t about changing one’s life, but about finding the motivation within to make the change, and Dean going with Soulless!Sam isn’t so much him changing his life as much as an acknowledgement that what he’s doing now doesn’t work.
That is, Dean goes with Soulless!Sam because being Sam’s older brother is something he understands. He knows how to protect Sammy, how to watch out for him and be his partner. What he doesn’t realize, however, is that the Sam he goes with is not the Sammy he knew, and that a return to the pre-“Swan Song” days is impossible.
But for the time being, Dean copes with the shattering of his Perfect Bubble by trying to have it both ways – go with Sam, stay with Lisa –because now he’s at war with himself about who he is and who he thinks he should be. Now that Sam’s back, Dean doesn’t know what he wants, he doesn’t know his place. All he knows is that he can’t stay here.
Stage Three: The Awakening, or Preparing for the Journey
As I wrote last week:
While the previous stage was about the motivation to change, this stage is about the choice to change, and as anybody who’s embarked on a great journey will tell you, that’s usually the hardest step.
Someone – often many someones – will emerge to tell her that she can’t accomplish her goal, that it’s too hard or painful, and they’ll offer to rebuild the glass bubble for the heroine. But by this point, the heroine realizes that the bubble sucked, and rebuilding it is no longer worth the effort. Thus, by the end of the stage she steps out into the world, ignoring those who try to talk her out of it.
Of course, the heroine doesn’t really know where she’s headed, so she gathers any and all weapons and tools she thinks will help her on her journey (whether they actually do or not, well, we shall see). As she says goodbye to her old life and coping strategies, she makes her first new ally – as Schmidt says, “whether she realizes it or not, she has friends who support her”. Note that this is support staff only: This ally isn’t someone who’s going to save the day for her.
Dean’s Awakening occurs not when he leaves Indiana with Soulless!Sam, but during “Live Free or Twihard”, when Sam sits back and lets him be turned into a vampire—something his “real” brother never would have done. Later in the episode, in one of the most heartbreaking sequences of the series, Dean visits Lisa, terrifying her, and shoves de facto son against a wall.
It’s this moment, I think, that makes Dean realize that, not only can he not have it both ways, he can’t even have it one way. On the one hand, he can’t return to the way things used to be between him and Sam, because the Sam he knows and wants no longer exists. On the other hand, he can’t return to Lisa and Ben, because he’s demonstrably a danger to them both. Either way he slices it, there is no old life he can return to.
So what does Dean do? He trusts in himself, and chooses his path.
After Cas reveals the problem – that Sam has no soul – Dean decides to get Sam’s soul back by any means possible. Like the Impala, like the apocalypse, Sam can be fixed, and Dean, the ultimate mender, fix him. And no matter that those around him – Bobby, Samuel Campbell, even Cas – tell him that it can’t or shouldn’t be done. Dean is going to do it anyway, because he knows that it’s the right thing to do.
Make no mistake; Dean’s choice to restore Sam’s soul isn’t about squeezing his eyes shut again and trying to go back to the way things used to be. Instead, it is him actively recognizing one of his strengths – that he is a mender of broken things – and deciding, for the first time in a long time, to place his trust in himself and his own abilities. And it’s that newfound, persistent belief in himself that will carry him through the rest of Season 6 and the beginning of Season 7.
Even, of course, when he utterly fails to fix a damn thing.
(Tomorrow: We Talk Descent and Eye of the Storm. Read it here.)