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.
(Previously: Part 4)
13 – The Slice Girls
“The Slice Girls” is a story about rebounds. We’ve all had them. We all know how they work. And that makes this episode probably the most depressing in the season, because as we all know, rebounds never end well for anyone involved.
Your classic rebound follows as such: You’ve just gotten out of a bad break-up. Heady with newfound freedom, you rush too fast into a new relationship. You convince yourself of feelings that aren’t there. And maybe you end up clinging a little too tightly, seeking too much approval, because on some level you hope, through sheer force of will, that you can make this person – who’s really just a substitution for the one you can’t have – fill the hole inside you that the original left. It never works, of course. Usually, it just blows up in your face.
The thing about rebounds is: where there’s smoke, there’s fire. If there’s a rebound, then there must have once been a romantic relationship one is rebounding from. So keep that in mind as we step through this episode – if you want proof that Dean’s feelings toward Cas are romantic, not platonic, then the smoke signals we see in “The Slice Girls” should spell out a pretty convincing case.
The episode opens with Dean explicitly acknowledging what I’ve been saying for several episodes now, which is that his alcoholism is connected to grief:
Dean: (takes a swig from Bobby’s flask)
Sam: I didn’t know you kept that.
Dean: Yeah, mine sprung a leak.
Sam: You know, most people would just carry a – a photo or something for a momento.
Dean: Shut up, man. I’m honoring the guy, all right? This is grief therapy, kind of like you and your wild-goose chase.
Although Dean says here that he’s drinking because of Bobby’s death, we already know that this pattern of self-destructive behavior goes back much further than that; that it in fact stems back to Cas’s betrayal in “Meet the New Boss”.
Another call back to Cas? Eddie, the nerdy-cute, blue-eyed forensics officer with the wayward dark hair and the dashingly long labcoat. Dean has remarkably genuine chemistry with Eddie, certainly much deeper than he has with Lydia, and Dean chats him up so easily and comfortably (heck, he even tries to impress him by lying about his health benefits) that Sam gives his brother a strange look, as if to say, “dude, this isn’t the time nor the place to get your mack on”.
It’s not the first time this season Dean has maybe-sorta-flirted with a dark-haired, blue-eyed man in uniform – remember Ranger Rick? –and its presence here in this episode serves two purposes. One, it continues to build the case for Dean’s potential bisexuality (as I covered in “Time After Time”). And two, it shows the audience that Dean, consciously or not, is seeking a replacement for that other dark-haired, blue-eyed man in a uniform he has lost. Consider that if we the audience can see shades of Cas in Eddie, then just think how startling the similarity must be for Dean.
Therefore I think it’s no coincidence that after leaving the morgue, the first thing Dean does is hightail it to the nearest bar, and begin chatting up Lydia, because clearly he’s feeling a little lonely, and in need of some comfort.
So: Lydia. Lydia is a bit of a puzzle. Whether it’s the lighting or the strange camera angles, we are meant to feel that something is definitely off about her.
But more than that, it’s hard to tell what has really drawn Dean to her. After all, Lydia doesn’t really look or sound anything like who we know of Dean’s type of woman – he prefers minorities, such as Cassie, Lisa or his “busty Asian beauties”; or women who are obvious social outcasts, like Anna Milton and Bela Talbot. In contrast, Lydia is white, blonde, slim, unathletic. She looks like a former cheerleader, or a queen – the kind of woman who dominates any room she walks into. Her confidence borders on man-eating, and she’s so laser-focused in her appraisal that she almost devours him, like a lioness at prey. In fact, Lydia is so outside the normal realm of what Dean goes for that if you made a list of all the qualities he liked in a woman and picked their opposites, I bet you’d end up with her.
We don’t overhear much of their conversation, but we do see enough to know that, like with Eddie, Dean lies to impress her, telling her he is an investment banker who recently came into a lot of money. It’s the usual rigamarole, the patented Dean Winchester blend of whatever lies the other party wants to hear, and it’s a sales pitch we’ve seen him use before, with gusto, particularly back in the first three seasons.
Yet for all his efforts, Dean doesn’t seem to connect much with Lydia, personality-wise. For example, he has to ask her to clarify whether or not she considered “Human Centipede” an appropriate date movie, even though from context it’s clear that the only reason she told the story was that, duh, obviously it wasn’t. What’s more, even though her eyes remain fixed on him throughout their conversation, his continually slide away — to the table, to his glass, anywhere but her increasingly appreciative gaze.
In fact, the only time he shows the slightest bit of genuine interest is at the start of the conversation, when she shrugs her shoulders at the idea of commitment:
Dean: Dating, right? Ugh.
Lydia: But what’s the option? I don’t see settling down any time soon.
Dean: (pauses) Well, that’s something you don’t hear every day.
Lydia: (laughs) Oh, what, are you ready for the big commit?
Dean: Me? (looks away and chuckles) Not exactly.
The chuckle Dean makes when he looks away is much different than how he laughs not ten seconds earlier during Lydia’s “Human Centipede” story. This one is tighter, shorter, lower. It’s forced. It’s the laugh of a man trying to convince himself that the very idea of commitment is funny.
Anyone who’s ever had a rebound from a long-term commitment, I’m sure, has had this exact conversation, and you know how unsettling, even wrong, the prospect of a one-night stand can feel. And this is clearly how Dean feels too, evidenced by his body language. As the conversation continues, his smiles become smaller and more forced, until they disappear entirely. Tension settles into his shoulders. He hunches, and begins to talk into his drink, or down at the table. We can tell that the more Dean lies, the more he hates himself (even though it makes Lydia like him more), until the conversation comes to this awkward close:
Lydia (clearly impressed): Well. Look at you.
Dean: (looks down at the table). Yeah. Look at me.
Dean does not raise his eyes from the table, and his smile is so frozen it looks almost like a grimace. There’s no joy or humor in his voice, even though Dean knows that he’s most assuredly about to get laid. Quite the contrary: He almost looks ashamed of himself
And then comes the sex scene. I’ve written about this scene in great detail elsewhere, but the Reader’s Digest version is: This is not how the Dean Winchester we know behaves in bed. In fact, it’s the exact opposite. The Dean we know is tender, gentle, attentive. But here, he is clearly disconnected from his partner; he gives into her violence, lets himself be pushed around without any protest. Far from being proof that Dean likes to be dominated in bed, this scene is about how comparatively lackluster his lovemaking is with Lydia. It’s like he’s only along for the ride.
And after the sex – which doesn’t seem to last all that long – he is not out of breath, he is not smiling, he is not relieved or satisfied. Instead, he lets out a sharp exhale and stares up at the ceiling, looking spooked, maybe even a little sad.
The next morning, Dean clearly regrets his actions:
Sam: You look like crap.
Dean: Yeah, well, I feel worse than I look.
He tries to cover it a beat later, of course, adding “I do recommend the Cobalt Room, by the way. Awesome night”. But he can’t maintain the pretense for long, because in the next breath he admits to Sam that this whole one-night stand thing doesn’t really sit well with him anymore, that he’s “getting too old for this”.
And then Dean begins exhibiting all the classic rebound signs: checking his phone obsessively: calling Lydia only hours after he’d left her place; visiting her house uninvited, etc. It would be funny, if it weren’t so sad, and adding insult to injury is the fact that Lydia is actually not human, but Amazonian. That is, Dean tried to bury his memories of Cas and replace him with Lydia, only to end up sleeping with a monster. (Clearly, Sam’s not the only Winchester whose prick has a taste for the supernatural.)
The worst part is, though, that Dean not only slept with a monster but made a baby monster, one whose brief existence is nothing but a story of pain, torture, and loss. I don’t want to really get into the specifics of the Emma storyline too deeply here, except to say that Dean’s interactions with his biological daughter are certainly frostier than those with the two faux “little sisters” he encounters in Season 7 – Krissy Chambers and Charlie Bradbury. He’s sweet enough when he thinks Emma’s just Lydia’s kid, but once he learns she’s actually his, he shuts down, unable to process, unable to feel, unable to do much at all.
For many reasons, I really struggle with the idea of Dean as a father. Yes, he relates easily with children and can earn their trust in a way that still eludes Sam, and yes, he has this deep, instinctual need to nurture, to be everyone’s big brother. (He’s also pretty good with babies.)
Yet, when placed in a role that resembles traditional fatherhood, he flounders. As a gym teacher, he is cruel. With Emma here, he is lost. And as Ben’s adoptive father, oh man, he fucks that up so badly that it physically pains me to think about, and in the end, I think maybe the best thing he probably ever did for the Braedens was to wipe their memory.
Ben lived so long with a father-shaped hole in his life that when Dean comes along in Season 6, the boy immediately cleaves to him, idolizing him, adoring him, wanting to become just like him. This, of course, is the actual, literal worst possible thing Dean could ever imagine. Dean hates himself so much that the mere concept of a young boy looking up to him and wanting to be just like him scares him so badly that I think it’s probably a large part of why he runs away with Soulless!Sam in “Exile on Main Street”. (For evidence, look no further than his kind of terrifying freak out when he sees Ben with the gun.)
Dean was a loving father to Ben, but he wasn’t a good one. He didn’t just leave Ben with a broken home, because Ben already had that. But he gave this boy who’d never before known a father one year with a surrogate, just long enough for him to believe Dean would be around forever – only for Dean to retract his promises the moment his biological family showed up on their doorstep. It’s cruel. It’s unfair. And it’s quite possibly one of the worst things Dean has ever done. And Dean knows it.
Don’t forget, either, that Dean physically struck Ben not once, but twice. The first time might be chalked up as an accident; it occurs when Dean becomes a vampire, and he shoves Ben against a wall as he’s attempting to flee. (Lisa, though, still breaks up with him for it. Good girl, Lisa.) The second time, though, is in cold blood: In “Let it Bleed”, he slaps Ben as the kid is panicking over his dying mother sprawled on the ground before them.
You can say Dean’s just trying to snap Ben out of shock. You can say he’s trying to keep everyone safe, and alive. You can say whatever you want. But the truth of it is: Dean struck a child, not once, but twice; and when it comes to children, the ends never, ever justify the means.
For me, that second strike is the most horrific moment of the entire series, made all the more chilling because this is the true legacy of John Winchester, this callousness, this fear, and the enduring truth that sons always become their fathers in all the worst ways.
Thankfully, Lisa and Ben will forget Dean. They will forget the man who stumbled into their home, broken and lost, and in turn broke everything around him. Wiping their memories is the last gift Dean can give them, and the kindest one, and the only one that probably ever mattered. But Dean, Dean will never forget. Dean will always remember his mistakes, his failures, and that one time he struck a thirteen year old boy across the mouth, and in so doing became his father.
So do I think that Dean regrets Emma’s loss here? Not really, because I think in Dean’s mind, it’s a relationship that never really could have happened. She was his daughter, yes, but Dean was not her father, and never could be. By now, he’s realized he shouldn’t be anyone’s father. Not yet. Maybe not ever. For Dean, Emma’s brief flicker of life really only serves to reinforce what he already believes: that he breaks everything he touches.
In the end, of course, Sam shoots Emma, when it becomes clear that Dean won’t. It’s an obvious callback to the Amy storyline – Sam even explicitly references her – but the parallel only makes Dean feel worse. Indeed, the brothers’ argument in the car in the final scene really emphasizes just how low Dean has fallen:
Sam: Look, man, she was not yours. Not really.
Deam: Actually, she was, really. She just also happened to be a crazy man-killing monster. But, uh, hey.
Sam: You know what? Bobby was right. Your head’s not in it, man. When Cas died, you were wobbly, but now…
Dean’s answer isn’t to deny it so much as deflect it back to Sam, but the tactic doesn’t work, and the fight just deflates out of Dean – which of course scares Sam even more.
Sam: Look… Dean, the thing is, tonight… It almost got you killed. Now, I don’t care how you deal. I really, really don’t. But just don’t get killed.
Dean: I’ll do what I can.
Sam: What’s that supposed to mean?
Dean: It means I’ll do what I can.
Those are the words of a man who is so depressed, who has so given into his grief that he no longer cares if he lives or dies. And for a hunter, that aimlessness is nothing less than suicidal.
You’ll want to remember this moment when we get to “Repo Man”.
14 – Plucky Pennywhistle’s Magical Menagerie
Ah, a much happier episode. Sort of. Kind of. Not really. I mean, this is Supernatural, after all.
But at least we get a change of perspective, in that Sam finally gets some significant screen time. Season 7 is so heavily dominated by Dean’s struggles that Sam can sometimes be back-burnered – which I’m okay with, honestly, since Season 6 was mostly driven by Sam (and Cas). But it is still nice to see him shake out his antlers now and again, so we can appreciate how much he has grown as a character since Day 1. In fact, he’s grown so much that despite the hallucinations and the PTSD, our beloved moose acts and sounds downright healthy most of the time (which of course highlights the fact that Dean looks and sounds healthy, but really isn’t).
All that said, though, “Plucky Pennywhistle’s” is another episode that comes back to Dean, and the A plot is written such that it very obviously mirrors the C plot of Dean’s grief. The lesson Sam learns here – that the only way to dispel your worst fears is to face them head on – echoes that which Bobby learned in “Death’s Door”, albeit in a much more lighthearted way:
Sam: You know what, man? Honestly, getting my ass kicked by those juggalos tonight was therapeutic.
Dean: (smiling) You faced your fear.
Sam: Exactly. And now what else could a clown possibly ever do to me? I feel good.
Different words, same message: The only way out is through.
In this episode, Sam punches through his fear of clowns – literally, I mean, with his fist – and in so doing the audience learns that the fear stems not so much from the clowns themselves as from the abandonment a young Sam felt when his older brother would leave him to go “troll for chicks”. His fear seems like it’s about one thing, but it’s really something about deeper. We will see this repeated in Dean’s confrontation with Howard later on.
Note too how the episode really belabors the point about how one must name a fear in order to confront it. The children in this episode draw pictures of their worst fears – unicorns, sharks, robots, and so on – and it serves as a foundation from which they can begin to overcome the emotions that threaten to seize control:
Jean: The place mat is a safe way to get kids to talk about their fears. You know, we get them to sketch it in a little box, and – voila! – Plucky magically transforms it into rainbows and candy. Personally, I think it’s a load of hooey, but they say that if these fears run wild, then it affects kids long into their adulthood.
Of course, naming alone doesn’t solve anything, not really, since that fear, once named, can still be used against you, as Howard does with the children’s drawings (and Dean does to Howard). But naming your fears is really the most important step in confronting them, because a fear unnamed is the most powerful force to sway the human mind. After all, nothing terrifies us more than the unseen, the unspoken, and the unknown.
In the climax, we see Howard’s attempts to name his greatest fear, which is of the day his brother drowned: In the boiler room hang two pictures he once drew of a boy swallowed up by a lake (in one, it even looks like the boy’s actually being eaten by fish, which, yuck):
We also see a picture of Howard’s brother:
(Note: The boy who drowned and comes back to life is, not coincidentally, the one with the dark hair and blue eyes. Parallelism, you’re doing it right.)
The similarities between Howard’s brother’s death and Cas’s are easy to miss the first time around, but Dean sure as hell sees them. In fact, once he notices the pictures, his face visibly softens and his voice loses some of its gravel, and when he eventually resumes talking to Howard, his tone is gentler, like he understands what Howard feels – maybe even sympathizes with it:
Dean: I’ll bet you still have nightmares. In fact, I’ll bet you haven’t been in the water since. Because you’re afraid.
The grit is gone, and there’s none of the anger that characterized the opening lines of their dialogue. It makes sense, because when it seemed like Howard was just pissed about a promotion, it was easy for Dean to discount him as a nutjob – but now they have something in common.
But the commonality doesn’t stop there.
When Howard’s brother returns, Howard shoots him three times. The camera even makes a point to linger on the three bullet holes in the boy’s shirt, black gaping holes from which no blood spews. This should be a bit of an a-ha moment for the audience: it’s visual shorthand, a cue that reveals to us that that what Howard is really afraid of isn’t the memory of his brother’s death – he’s afraid that he himself caused it. (This is further reinforced by the fact that in one of the pictures, there is a second boy floating on top of the water, implying Howard was present at the scene, as well as in how much effort Howard expends in placing the blame on his parents, and away from himself.)
Like I said above, this episode is all about the A plot mirroring the C plot, and this moment sheds a great deal of context on why Dean struggles so hard to face his memories of Cas’s death. It’s not so much that Dean is afraid of death, or even afraid that people he loves might die. No, like Howard with his brother, what scares Dean about Cas’s death is that Dean believes he caused it. If only he’d said the right thing, done the right thing, or gotten to him sooner, he might’ve been able to prevent what happened.
Or worse, maybe, just maybe, Dean believes there was never any hope of preventing Cas’s death, because its cause was simple: Dean got too attached. That is to say, Dean is afraid that the people he loves die because he loves them. We’ve seen hints of this mindset throughout the earlier part of the season, such as Dean’s overwhelming guilt throughout the Amy arc and the way he interacted with Jo in “Defending Your Life”, but the idea was actually explicitly addressed at least as far back as Season 5, when “Mary” says in “Dark Side of the Moon”:
“Mary”: Everybody leaves you, Dean. You noticed? Mommy. Daddy. Even Sam. You ever ask yourself why? Maybe it’s not them. Maybe it’s you.
Dean hears the same message again from Bobby, right after Cas’s death in “Hello Cruel World”.
Dean: Dumb son of a bitch.
Bobby: Well, he was friends with us, wasn’t he? Can’t get much dumber than that.
Dean believes that the very fact of his attachment inevitably ruins the people he loves – in other words, that he breaks everything he touches; and that as soon as Cas laid a hand on him in Hell, he was lost. He is the real reason Cas is dead, he thinks, and it happened because of his own weakness; Dean became so seduced by the comfort of “profound bonds” and brotherhood and an angel who always came when he called that he forgot that his love gets people killed. And for that, the entire world must pay the price, as meted out by the Leviathan.
That’s not just guilt. That’s so far beyond guilt, I don’t even have a word to classify it. It’s like Dean’s invented a new and special brand of self-annihilation, and we’re about to see just how far he’ll take it in the next episode, “Repo Man”.
A few final notes before we leave behind Plucky’s forever:
One last note: the amount of feedback and response I’ve gotten for this meta series continues to astound me. The posts just keep gaining notes. I get new followers literally by the minute. My ask box overflows, not just with compliments but genuinely thoughtful questions I wish I had more time to answer. And honestly, it’s all a little overwhelming. For almost ten years now, I’ve been writing media critique for various spaces and outlets, and nothing, nothing I’ve ever written before has come this close to offering such personalized feedback and connection with the people reading my work. It’s awesome, really, the stuff writers dream about. So, from the bottom of my heart: Thank you. I really appreciate it.
Next time: “Repo Man”.