I’ve often said that Season 7 convinced me of the canonicity of Dean/Cas, and to this day it boggles my mind that so many fans blame Sera Gamble for “ruining” the characters’ relationship. So I thought I’d step through my favorite season, episode by episode, and point out exactly why I’m so convinced their love is not only of the romantic sort, but also very, very canon.
Ah, filler. Tasty, tasty filler. Every season has it. Every season needs it. Not that filler episodes can’t be excellent or worth watching on their own – I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched, say, “Criss Angel is a Douchebag” or “The Curious Case of Dean Winchester” – but filler doesn’t really serve to advance the plot in the same way as the rest of the season; its function is strictly for the audience’s sake. It develops character, offer new perspective on past events, and highlights heretofore unexplored relationships – and maybe, in the case of “Plucky Pennywhistle’s”, offer a little bonus foreshadowing.
The next three episodes could be classified as filler, although I think each one exists in this season for a very good reason; and while familiarity with their events isn’t strictly necessary to understanding the Leviathan storyline, they do shed some interesting perspective on Dean’s ongoing struggle to define his masculinity while reconciling his grief.
Originally I’d intended to tackle “Time After Time”, “The Slice Girls” and “Plucky Pennywhistle’s” all at once, but this episode really just got away from me, which is basically the story of my life. I swear, by the time we get to “Reading is Fundamental”, this meta series will be the size of the entire Internet. Ah well.
12 – Time After Time After Time
“Time After Time” is an elegant study in the question of what it means to be a man – in particular, how a man expresses and relates to his own emotions. In 1944, Dean confronts two opposite extremes of manhood: Eliot, the hunter who has such tight control over his emotions he no longer even feels them; and Ethan, the god so controlled by his emotions he will kill anyone, do anything, just to stay by the woman he loves. They’re like the yin and yang of masculine emotional health. Yet neither approach is presented as healthy or “correct”, and the contrast of these two characters serves to highlight Dean’s own struggle toward balance, especially now that he has been brought low by his grief over Cas (and Bobby).
As I’ve written before, Eliot Ness is a hunter’s hunter, a competent straight-shooter with a clear sense of purpose in life. He is Dean’s Platonic Ideal of Man – or, at least, the Kevin Costner movie version is; Dean admits he’s seen “The Untouchables” upwards of 50 times.
Yet the real Eliot Ness is also the exact opposite of every hunter we’ve ever met, because Ness wasn’t forced into the life through personal tragedy or emotional trauma (at least none that he will admit). He got into it simply because there was a need, and he stayed because he liked it. That’s so far out of the realm of our experience and Dean’s that it should raise immediate red flags, because, basically, the real Eliot Ness is a psychopath.
On the flip side, there’s Ethan, who isn’t just an image of masculine power like Ness but is actually masculine power incarnate, in that Ethan is really a god. And not just any god. He is the Ancient Greek deity of Chronos, who in the Orphic mythos was the personification of Time, the Father of Light and Chaos, the first God there ever was. You don’t get more powerful or important than him. (Chronos is different, by the way, than Cronus, Zeus’s daddy, though the similarity in names is serendipitous, as Cronus and Zeus had one of the most dysfunctional father/son relationships in recorded mythology.)
Just like the Greek and Roman gods of old, Ethan is completely governed by his emotions; he does whatever he wants and considers it his due, consequences to humanity be damned. And what he wants is to get back to Lila’s side, because he loves her so much he defines himself by it. So he’ll adopt a human name, he’ll wear human clothes, and he’ll eat however many souls he needs to in order to stay with Lila.
It’s hard not to draw parallels between Ethan and Cas – both men are supernatural beings that essentially became human (and gods, actually); both consumed souls in order to remain at the sides of the ones they love; and both lost sight of the forest for the trees, not realizing that the whole soul-eating thing kind of makes them monsters. Heck, even the way this episode resolves is a callback to “Meet the New Boss” and “Hello Cruel World”: Ethan dies separated from and unreconciled with the one he loves; and in his dying moments, he gives that fun prophecy about the “black ooze” – aka, the Leviathan – directed at Dean personally, no less.
Likewise, it’s hard not to draw parallels between Eliot and Dean – both are hunters trapped by their own machismo; both have structured their lives around a self-given mission to save innocents; and both naturally work better as part of a team, and assemble one wherever they go (Team Free Will for Dean, and the Untouchables for Ness). They also share a love of snazzy overcoats.
And yet, neither man is a perfect analogy for their 2012 counterpart, and the ways they differ serve to highlight the strengths of both Dean and Cas’s characters.
Let’s start with Cas. The difference between Cas and Ethan is that Cas is, and never was, motivated out of selfishness. The opposite, actually. Everything he did with the souls and Purgatory was in order to avert the Apocalypse – that is, to protect others, especially the Winchesters. Even when he became Godstiel in “Meet the New Boss”, he did so not to seize power for himself, but to become a more just and loving Father to the children his own had left behind. Cas might have lost perspective, yes, but he never stopped dedicating his life to serving and protecting those who needed it. I really can’t stress it enough: Cas loves Dean (and Sam) so much that he always, always puts their needs before his own, and he will do anything, even become a God, to protect them. (It’s not exactly healthy behavior either, but the intention is good… but we’ll get to that later, perhaps in “Reading is Fundamental”.)
Ethan, on the other hand, is motivated entirely out of self-interest. He doesn’t care about serving or protecting others; all he wants is to stay by Lila’s side – nevermind what Lila herself might think or want. Notice that when Lila she asks Ethan why he wants to her to pack a bag and run away with him (a perfectly reasonable question) he offers no explanation – in fact, he loses his patience and screams at her. Does Ethan love Lila, or the idea of Lila? It’s hard to tell, but either way, he certainly doesn’t put her needs first. Ethan’s primary loyalty is to Ethan.
Then there’s Dean and Eliot. The difference between these two men is pretty obvious, I think. Dean once told Cas that he’d “take the pain, and the guilt”, because it was better than the alternative. Well, Eliot is that alternative, in that he’s so out of touch with his pain and guilt that he no longer feels them; he’s so defined by the Ideal of Masculinity that he has actually forgotten how to be a man.
What is a man? Storytellers have asked this question since the beginning of civilization, and Supernatural’s answer is surprisingly mature: A man is whatever he defines himself to be. A man accepts his freedom and responsibility both, and he owns his choices, even if those choices are mistakes or counter to what others might want for him. A man is who he is, and nothing less.
Notice in that nowhere in that answer does it say a man is a father, or a brother, or any other familial role; nowhere does it say a man is only heterosexual, or that he only thinks instead of feels; nowhere does it say that a man listens to classic rock and drives fast cars and sleeps with lots of women. A man may choose all of these things, or none. The point is: the man defines the choices, not the other way around.
But Eliot doesn’t buy into that. Instead, he clings to a very strict, unyielding idea of what Manhood is. To Eliot, a man dresses a certain way (notice how he mocks Dean as a “bindlestiff” for his clothes). He talks a certain way (he also criticizes Dean’s lingo). He keeps his own self-interest always in mind (the crack about going after Capone’s hooch) – which makes him a lot like Ethan, actually. He doesn’t care about mercy or collateral damage (he grabs Lila), and he gravitates toward a black and white worldview (the advice he gives Dean about how hunting is the only clarity you’ll get in life).
And, above all, a Man does not have feelings, much less talk about them:
Dean: I used to do it because that’s what my family did. But they just seem to keep dying. Tell you the truth, I don’t know much of why I’m doing anything anymore.
Eliot: Boo-hoo. Cry me a river, ya nancy. Tell me, are all hunters as soft as you in the future?
This hyper-machismo is reinforced by the episode’s curious choice of setting. Oddly enough, “Time after Time” takes place in 1944, which is long after Eliot Ness’s most famous exploits, which occurred with the Untouchables in the late 1920’s. (By this point, the historical Ness had actually just left the Chicago PD to become chairman of the Diebold security company.) So why set this story now?
I believe it’s meant to viscerally evoke thoughts of WWII (particularly the D-Day invasion, the most famous WWII battle in American consciousness). Then and now, there lingers a certain culture of machismo around WWII vets, the so-called “Greatest Generation”. We have this mythos of the brave American soldier storming the beaches of Normandy, liberating the concentration camps, sticking it to all the evil Nazis; we make them into crusaders, even superheroes. (Heck, just look at the enduring popularity of Steve Rogers.)
And yet, all this rah-rah bombast belies the truth, which is that WWII-era 1940s were also a time of great social oppression and repression. We lambast the Nazis for their concentration camps but conveniently forget that, at the same time, we forced Japanese-Americans into homegrown versions (to say nothing of the systematic, government-encouraged genocide and internment of the native American tribes just decades earlier). And when the Allies liberated the concentration camps in 1945, they famously did not free all the homosexual prisoners, but instead forced some to serve out the full term of their sentences under Paragraph 175.
Greatest generation, my ass. The people of the 1940s were a generation of men and women like any other, and they made terrible mistakes, and they lost perspective, and they hurt people who didn’t deserve it – but they still did the best they could under the circumstances.
That kind of got away from me, but the point is: Ness is walking, talking machismo, and the environment in which he thrives prizes machismo above all other things, and everywhere in this episode there’s so much testosterone I’m surprised Ezra didn’t have a beard too.
Dean, on the other hand, does little in this episode but express himself in ways that run counter to Eliot’s Ideal of Manhood. He is far more connected to his vulnerabilities than Eliot is. In fact, when Dean gets sent back in time, he’s even wearing the same jacket he wore when he watched Cas walk into the reservoir in “Hello, Cruel World”. That is, Dean dons the same clothes – the same “armor” — to confront the hyper-machismic Eliot Ness as he did during his weakest and most vulnerable moment, the moment that has dogged him for 12 episodes and has served as the primary source of his grief.
To that point, actually, “Time After Time” also offers several moments that hint at – even nudge-nudge wink-wink at – Dean’s possible bisexuality:
I think these moments aren’t so much queerbaiting as they are an attempt to further explore the conflict between Manliness vs. masculinity, and they do so by exploiting the popular conception that you can’t be manly AND gay. Real Men sleep with lots of chicks; all gay men are affeminate; etc. – but these ideas all prevail strongest in cultures dominated by hyper-machismo, like the 1940s, and that the episode plays so comfortably with the fact that Dean does not match these “Manly Qualities” is meant to show that Dean himself is becoming more and more comfortable with his own definition of manhood.
To that end, I don’t think Dean’s as seduced by Eliot Ness’s tough-talking image as he might’ve been back in, say, Season 2. That he even admits to another man who isn’t Sam – a man he just met, actually – that he’s suffering from depression and a lost sense of purpose demonstrates a comfort level with his own masculinity that we never would’ve seen in earlier seasons. For example, contrast how vulnerable he appears in this episode with the macho-macho tough guy talk in his his drunken conversation with Gordon Walker in “Bloodlust”. Dean isn’t immune from questioning his own manliness, but the past several years – and his stint in Hell – has just left him with less to prove.
So when Eliot Ness gives him some really terrible advice:
Eliot: Everybody loses everybody. And then one day, boom. Your number’s up, but at least you’re making a difference. So enjoy it while it lasts, kid, ‘cause hunting’s the only clarity you’re gonna find in this life. And that makes you luckier than most.
I suspect Dean’s secure enough in himself to realize that there’s something wrong about this, even if he can’t exactly define what it is.
Note that this is the second bit of bad advice about grief that Dean has gotten since Bobby died. The first, from Frank, was that he should cover up his grief with a smile. The second, from Eliot, was that he should just stop feeling said grief. The rule of threes suggests that there’s a third piece of advice still to come. And it will, oh it will — but in case you haven’t figured it out, I won’t spoil the surprise, since I thought it was one of the most gratifying moments in the show to date. :) We’ll get there when we get there.
In this episode, Dean is presented with two equal and opposite approaches in dealing with his emotions, and for most of “Time After Time”, he’s stuck between them, like a pendulum swinging back and forth. I don’t know that he really finds resolution about it here, because of course that’s not really the point of the episode – the point is to show the audience the two extremes and have us realize that the only way Dean will get through his grief is to strike some balance between the two. It’s made clear to us that Dean must find some center path between feeling everything all at once, and feeling nothing at all.
One last thing about “Time After Time”: I know I’ve just spilled almost 2500 words on Dean here, but the thing I actually love best about this episode, and what keeps me coming back to it over and over, is the repartee between Sam and Jody. I love, love, love their interactions. Sam has never had a mother – even Ellen liked Dean better than she liked Sam – and this is the one relationship remaining in the Winchesters’ lives that’s still mostly driven by Sam’s thoughts and feelings. Jody is Sam’s friend, not Dean’s. She’s his surrogate mom, not his brother’s. And when she calls at the top of the episode, it’s Sam’s number she dials, not Dean’s.
I can’t tell you how much I appreciate their connection or that, even in an episode and a season so dominated by Dean’s problems, the writers allowed Sam the flexibility to nurture a healthy, mature friendship. I consider Jody Mills one of Sera’s greatest enduring gifts to the series and to Sam, and I really, really hope we’ll see more of her in Season 8.
Next time: Episodes 13 and 14.