Daddy Issues: Dean Winchester
I originally wrote a post on Tumblr about John and Dean’s relationship, and in it I wrote, John Winchester: Bad father or worst father ever? O.o
Hah, okay, not worst father ever but pretty damn lousy.
I know a lot of fans like John, and I know even Sam forgives him because he was “doing the best he could.” But seriously guys, he was a lousy dad. Yes, he gave Sam and Dean the skills they needed to survive it all, but he also fucked them up. And he fucked Dean up worst of all.
From the moment he hands Sam to Dean and tells him to get Sam out of the house, Sam is Dean’s responsibility. Maybe John tried at first when they were still in Lawrence, but in Dean’s mind Sam was his. And once John started dragging them around the country, he became more and more Dean’s responsibility. Sure, there were times John left them with Bobby or Pastor Jim, but mostly it was just the three of them – or the two of them when John was off hunting.
I wonder at what age Dean was first left alone to care for his little brother. Dean was four when Mary died, and in the show, he’s probably about 10 when we see him left alone with Sam. But when did that really start? It is no wonder that Dean has the issues of worthlessness that he does. There was no way that he could live up to the responsibilities he had dumped on him. He was Sam’s ‘dad’ when he was just a little kid himself.
In the show, we see him breaking into other people’s homes and stealing Christmas gifts for his little brother. We can only speculate what else he has done – both illegal and immoral – to make sure Sammy had what he needed, whether that was food or books for school or medicine when he was sick. There’s no doubt in my mind that Dean loved Sam more than anything. He wasn’t just a burden that John put on him, but Dean was still just a kid. I’m sure he also resented never getting to be a kid.
We saw how the boredom got to him the night he went out to play pinball and the striga almost got Sam. It was driven home to him that he couldn’t be a kid. He couldn’t have the things he wanted. His place in life was to serve others – his dad and Sam. What he wanted or needed didn’t matter. That moment when Dean looks in the bedroom and sees John hugging Sam is heartbreaking. Here’s one of those moments where – as Dean says later – he let down the people he loved. But the fact is, Dean never should have been put in that position in the first place.
I would hate to think that John took the boys with him on that hunt as bait, but it begs the question why did he? He knew who the victims were; so why didn’t he keep the boys well out of harm’s way? Dean wasn’t responsible for Sammy nearly being killed; John was. But certainly John allowed Dean to think it was his fault.
And that brings us right down to the essential issue: Dean thought he never measured up. He thought his dad was a hero, and no matter what he did, he was never as tough, as smart, as good as John Winchester. That is heartbreaking. Despite his assertion that he always got the extra cookie, he was never quite good enough. He might do better than Sam at sparring or shooting, but it wasn’t as good as John. I’d think this was just some internal issue with Dean, but there is evidence that John reinforced that thinking. There’s a scene in particular that I’m thinking of where the three of them are stopped along the road. John looks over at the Impala and tells Dean that if he’d know that he’d take such bad care of it, he wouldn’t have given it to him. The statement comes completely out of the blue and is gratuitously cruel. That moment more than any other tells me why Dean feels so worthless. He was, I would argue, consistently criticized and belittled by the person whose opinion of him mattered most.
And that leads me to something that I have gotten a lot of flack over. I don’t think that John was only verbally abusive. I think he hit Dean and probably Sam too. It may not have been often. It may not have been horrible beatings, but hard spankings when they were little or the occasional backhand for mouthing off or rough shove for not moving quickly – yep, I have no doubt. Could it have been worse? Maybe. Why do I say that? Because it is not uncommon for Dean to express his anger with Sam by punching him. That is a learned behavior. That’s how John behaved when he was really angry at Dean, and Dean learned to do the same to Sam. Dean took it from John, and Sam takes it from Dean. It’s really sad that in those instances that Dean punches Sam, Sam doesn’t defend himself – not even when he was soulless. That’s how ingrained the behavior is.
The irony is that John did love his sons, and I think he was proud of Dean. He did think Dean was capable and brave and responsible. Unfortunately, instead of telling Dean, he thought that being hard on him would make him tougher. He wasn’t good at expressing his feelings, and Dean gets that from him. John took out his anger and frustration and pain on Dean. But the worst thing he did, the cruelest single act, after making Sam the center of Dean’s universe, was telling Dean that he might have to kill his little brother. Of course, John didn’t intend it to be cruel. He was just being the commander giving an order to a soldier who may have to take out a fellow soldier if he turns yellow or proves to be a traitor. He doesn’t understand his sons’ inner emotional lives. He really hasn’t been watching. So, he does what he has to do. He’s saved his Dean’s life by selling his soul – an act of love certainly – and he’s only asking Dean to do what he knew he might have had to do. His leaving Dean to do it really does show how much he believed in Dean.
The act of rebellion that followed was beautiful in its tragic consequences because instead of leaving Sam dead in All Hell Breaks Loose, Dean sold his soul to bring his brother back. That meant when Dean’s time was up, he left Sam alone, crazy with grief, to be manipulated by a demon into becoming the monster that John warned Dean he might become. It is strangely enough confirmation of Dean’s statement as Sam lay dead that he always let’s down the people he loves. He hadn’t initially saved Sam from being killed, and when he brought him back he unintentionally let John down.
I think part of Dean’s struggle in S4 is that he thinks he’s responsible for what’s happened to his brother. He knows that he was supposed to be watching Sam, that he had orders to kill him, which he can’t do. And as the one who raised Sam, he feels responsible for Sam’s mistakes. If he had done a better job, Sam wouldn’t be acting the way he is.
It’s interesting that over the years, the façade of John Winchester that Dean wore – from the leather jacket to the Impala to the silver ring – has fallen away. Now in Season 7, what’s left is John’s heavy drinking and inability to share his feelings. I’d like to think that Dean could continue to shed the remnants of his father and become himself. It would be wonderful if he could quit seeing himself through his father’s critical eyes and see himself as Sam and Bobby see him – as brave and resourceful and caring.