Supernatural meta, reviews & fic recs

Dean Winchester: Protector or Abuser

Dean saves baby Sammy

Now, Dean, go!

In response to all the posts I’ve seen the past few days that boil down to  “Dean Winchester is an abusive asshole whose sole motivation is controlling his brother” I say, “Go watch the pilot.”

At the age of four a helpless infant was put in his arms and he was told to run – save Sammy. He did. His big, strong hero of a dad failed to save their mother, but he saved his brother. Rather than take back that responsibility, John Winchester left it on Dean’s tiny shoulders. It was drummed into Dean day after day, year after year – take care of your brother, look out for Sammy – until it became his prime directive, his raison d’etre – call it what you will. When Dean says it’s what he is, it isn’t just some defensive excuse. He’s been programed to save Sammy. Considering the age it started, his brain may be hardwired that way. When added to the love he feels for Sam, how can he be expected to act differently?

So when he said that “they changed the rules,” he wasn’t just deflecting. From the defining moment in his life when his father handed him that baby, the rule has been “save Sammy,” and that was a good thing, the right thing for more than a quarter of a century. Even then after everything that resulted from him selling his soul, I don’t know that he saw it as a bad thing. He couldn’t. That’s why he had to lay the blame on Sam’s powers, trusting Ruby, and the demon blood – because saving Sammy couldn’t be wrong. How could the one thing that Dean can do, the very thing he is that’s good and right be wrong?

He knew when “Ezekiel” made the offer that it wasn’t what Sam would choose. He knew that at that moment Sam was willing to die, and Sam wouldn’t want possession. He probably doubted he could trust an angel, but Castiel said Ezekiel was a good guy, and his prime directive told him to save Sammy at any cost – even if his brother never trusted him or spoke to him again. That, I think, is where the gaslighting came in. Sam seemed happy at first, and the angel said he wasn’t healed enough for him to leave. Dean put off telling Sam in part, I think, because he feared that even if Sam didn’t reject the angel, he’d reject Dean, and Dean just wanted to be with him a little longer before that happened. He was trying to fool himself that it would be all right because other than feeling tired, Sam kept insisting he was fine. The angel would heal Sam completely – all  of it from the Azazel’s stain to Hallucifer to the trials – and just maybe Sam would see it as a good thing and forgive him. It wasn’t until Sam expressed doubt that he could ever be okay in “A Rock and a Hard Place,” that Dean understood just how not okay Sam really was.

guilty Dean

It’s not your fault.

For those who insist that Dean doesn’t care about how Sam feels … I don’t even know what to say. Dean Winchester isn’t just some callous abuser however abusive his behavior may appear from the outside. He is a deeply damaged person who holds grudges and takes out his pain on others, but he’s also a caregiver who loves his brother deeply. Those two sides were seen plainly in season eight when he came back from purgatory with survivor’s guilt and PTSD and proceeded to tear Sam to shreds emotionally for not looking for him. Then after Sam reassured him of his love by choosing Dean over Amelia, Dean became the nurturer again. Now, I know that some will say that Dean was rewarding Sam for his good behavior, but I don’t think it’s that cold and manipulative.

In “Swan Song” when Dean said that he needed to treat Sam like a grown up, he added that he needed to do some growing up himself. That was surprisingly accurate self-reflection because regarding one another they are both still children. We saw how devastated Sam was by Dean’s behavior in the first half of season eight and the consequences of that – his greatest sin being all the times he’s let Dean down and willingness to die for that. Interesting how he’s now saying it was about saving people. Don’t believe it. Sam is as caught up in this codependence as Dean. They can’t just magically mature out of that.

For a really interesting explanation of early childhood brain development and how that’s shaped Sam and Dean’s relationship, read here.

Dean’s greatest fear is losing Sam. We saw the results early in season eight and again with the gaslighting, and Sam’s reassurance that he’s not rejecting Dean causes Dean’s change in behavior. Look, a lot of fans are talking about how amazing Sam was for giving Dean an opportunity to continue their relationship at the end of “Sharp Teeth.” I beg to differ. Sam needs Dean as much as Dean needs him. I don’t think we’ve seen yet how devastated Sam is by Dean’s betrayal of his trust earlier in the season. I don’t see Sam’s behavior as mature at all.

Dean leaves Sam and Castiel

“Just go.”

The scene on the bridge at the end of “Road Trip” showed that Sam was hurt, and I think that Dean was waiting for Sam to walk away as he has so many times before. He didn’t, so Dean walked away. I believe that Dean did recognize how damaging he is to other people, and it wasn’t all about Kevin. He reiterated in “Sharp Teeth” that Sam shouldn’t be around him for his own good, but unconsciously Dean knows that the one way to get Sam back is to let him go. Sure enough after a few days on their own, they both recognize that they don’t want to be apart.

Sam and Dean are two extremely damaged individuals whose lives have been inextricably entwined, with only brief breaks, since they were children. If there’s one thing that Adam Glass did right in “Sharp Teeth,” it was to show that as hunters, they are still better together than they are apart. Dean’s gut feeling that there was something not right with Garth’s new family and Sam’s insistence that they dig deeper instead of just killing the entire pack showed that. They balance each other, and in this case, Sam kept Dean from becoming a monster. They still keep each other human.

It was great that Sam caught Dean in a lie and called him on it. Lying and keeping secrets is something they’ve both been guilty of, and they both need to work on it – Sam as well as Dean. Yes, Dean needs to respect Sam’s decisions about himself, but he also needs to include Sam in the daily decisions of the hunt and life in general in order for those bigger decisions to have weight with him. If he doesn’t treat Sam as an adult day-to-day, he won’t when a crisis occurs. Sam also needs to quit allowing himself to be ordered around by Dean as he did in when Dean told him to clean up the mess with the dead sheriff. While it isn’t practical to argue over every order in the midst of a hunt, he needs to call Dean on it, and he needs to take lead on some hunts. They used to work together seamlessly (oh how I long for writing like Cathryn Humphris’ “The Usual Suspects”).

The writers need to get beyond the “compromised Sam” trope and let him be the smart, strong hunting partner that we saw in the early years. Dean’s ugly descent into over-protective, controlling brother is understandable given nearly every season of the series has increasingly compromised Sam’s abilities and/or judgment. Garth calling Sam insecure was annoying, but it’s true that Sam needs to get his confidence back, and that won’t happen until he steps out of Dean’s shadow and acts like an equal. Sam is completely healed according to Castiel so I expect to see a Sam who is able to complement Dean’s abilities.

It’s time for Carver to dig these characters out of the deep, dark hole he’s dug for them since he decided that it would be cool to have Sam not look for Dean. I’m not saying he broke them, but he certainly took their broken pieces tossed them on the ground and stomped them to bits. As my mother used to say, “You aren’t getting any new toys, so you better take care of the ones you have.” It’s time for Carver to get out the super-glue. He’s going to need it.

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7 responses

  1. Chloe

    Man, I just discovered this website and I have been BINGE READING all over this mother. It’s beautiful and accurate and my god, you are saying things that I have been thinking and then adding on to that!

    I write fanfiction for this show and I try to remain true to canon and characters in my stories, so it always excites me when someone can provide such wonderfully comprehensive evidence and scrutiny of actions, plots, characters (oh my!) as you have.

    Perhaps my favorite thing I’ve read from the site is: Sam is a ‘chameleon’ (I know, different essay) was one of the most brilliant summaries of his character. As well as how Dean is emotional and Sam is empathetic.

    Anyways, back to this one. Great way to explain. I’ve noticed that Dean does have some characteristics that could be likened to abuse (the way he controls Sam and consistently brings him down), but you’re right in saying that the intent is what makes it not the same as abuse. Because they’re both broken, neither have the insights to behave in ways that are ‘productive’ or rather, healthy.

    I love all the thoughts you put into these things. You treat details as important indicators (Such as in the essay where you mentioned Dean throwing away spaghettios, so no way was he going hungry.). You seem to have a very good grasp on these characters and it’s admirable to see such an analytical approach to something I love so much.

    I’m totally pleased as peaches that you are still current and writing about this show (it breaks my heart when I find out about amazing people in this fandom who are long since gone from their Supernatural post)!

    Also, thank you for treating Sam and Dean as equally important parts of the show- showing the good and bad of both, rather than favoring one of them. (And honestly, sadly, this is something the show has not always been good about. Sam has, at times, had quite the unfortunate run in with being vilified and victimized.)

    April 11, 2014 at 8:28 am

    • Thank you so much! I’m glad you’re enjoying it! RL has kept me from writing as much as I was, but I am still doing reviews. It’s sad the number of long-term fans who have dropped out of the fandom or are just no longer watching. The ones I know are primarily Sam fans who were horrified by how he was treated in S8, but I know plenty of fans who are as disgruntled with how Dean has been portrayed this season. It does appear the exodus began when Carver took over, but I don’t suppose he cares because ratings are good.

      That being said, I love both of the boys, and I do try to strike a balance. While I’m not completely happy with where tptb have taken them — turning Dean into a John copy, for example — but I still love them.

      Thank you so much for the thoughtful comment. I look forward to hearing your response to future eps.

      April 14, 2014 at 12:19 pm

  2. Lauren

    This post was beautiful. I completely agree
    With you. Dean has been broken so much
    Over the course of SPN, but he doesn’t
    Have anybody to take his pain out on but
    Few people around him, which is normally
    Sam. He’s not an abusive person. He’s hurt
    And scarred and broken and just needs some
    Body to help him. Thank you so much for
    Posting this.

    August 16, 2014 at 6:23 pm

    • Yeah, you know, Dean has said some horrible things to Sam, he’s hit him, he’s lost faith and failed to support his brother when Sam needed him most. It is what it is, and those things hurt Sam. They can be seen as abusive. What really bothers me is the way that some fans have gone back and retconned all the way back to the pilot to try to show that practically everything Dean has done in relation to Sam has been abusive through force, coercion, or manipulation, and that is just not the case.

      Dean does need help, and he needs to step back and see that his father’s behavior hurt him, and when he behaves in aggressive or bullying manner, that hurts Sam. He needs to put that part of his father aside and embrace his better nature because Mary is in him too as the supportive nurturing part of himself. He needs to see that and so does Sam. I hope that being a demon and disconnecting from responsibility that was placed on him as a kid, he’ll see that and change when he becomes himself again.

      September 24, 2014 at 6:45 am

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  4. supernaturallydevoted

    I think the biggest problem is that each showrunner has treated the characters as their own. Each showrunner has had his/her own story to tell. What you’re trying to do is make everything cohesive when my brain refuses to see everything as intertwined. I see the imbalance and the changes of the writing from showrunner to showrunner. Sometimes, from writer to writer. Sam isn’t so much a chameleon, it’s the character changing from writer to writer. I do however, respect your views and I understand where you are coming from. I also wish I could view the show as you do.

    Both of the boys have lied. Both of the boys need to grow up. Dean needs to understand himself as an individual. Sam needs to understand himself as an individual. Unfortunately, the show seems to depend on the brothers and their drama with each other. It doesn’t have to be that way. But here we are in the show…

    In I Think I’m Gonna Like it Here, I’m not so sure “Dean” knew that Sam was ready to die. Dean wasn’t in Sam’s head. When Sam took on the trials he said it wasn’t a death sentence and he (Sam) was going to show Dean the light. The Sam we see in Sacrifice wasn’t well, he was ill. I think that’s what Dean was seeing anyway. So I can see why Dean wouldn’t trust and “ill” person to make a decision about living and dying when the trial wasn’t about a “death sentence.”

    Have you noticed that the writers really enjoy their “off screen” scripts? LOL. In the past two seasons we’ve seen the writers TELL us about the brothers without showing us what is going on. I’m suspicious. LOL.

    If we are going to talk about Sharp Teeth and or #thinman, we also need to discuss what is happening to Dean. Dean isn’t being bossy for no reason. There is a change occurring, a deep and supernatural one. I think that’s what you’re talking about, I could be wrong. Sorry if I am. 🙂 I think the MOC was slowly latching on to Dean. Also, I think Dean has a temper. When he loves someone, he also gets angry with that person and the emotions run high. Same with Castiel. Dean and Castiel fight like insane people sometimes BECAUSE of the profound bond. IF Dean didn’t care about Sam, I don’t think Dean would spend the time necessary to be angry.

    All I’m saying here as well, is that the brothers haven’t been on the same page for a few seasons. I think we are supposed to understand that and realize that they aren’t seeing each other clearly. Sam doesn’t understand Dean. Dean doesn’t understand Sam. The circle is continuing.

    As for Dean being an abuser, well, I think from a distance it’s supposed to look questionable. From an outside view from people who don’t know the Winchesters, the brothers are bizarre and peculiar. (Now if a fan says this about Dean, I’m thinking this fan doesn’t want to see Dean any other way and that’s a more personal reason; and it might not have to do anything with the show.) But from an inside point of view, they are just as messed up as any hunter who had to grow up in the life. But that’s what I found intriguing about the show. Non hunters didn’t understand them, for example Henrikson. I loved Henrikson’s character and the entire speech about John, because that’s how the Winchesters look like from the outside. Bobby looks like the town drunk with no life with a bunch of beat up cars. Rufus looks like he lives in squalor…but we are given insight to what lies beneath…and to simplify Dean or Sam ruins the concept of them being heroes dressed up in plaid. So no, Dean isn’t an abuser, that’s like simplifying Dean to a character who drives an old car who enjoys staying at motels…

    Thank you for this blog.
    Long story short. I’m interested in your views. I’ll follow you on twitter shortly.

    ~balderlou

    September 22, 2014 at 4:13 pm

    • In the past two seasons we’ve seen the writers TELL us about the brothers without showing us what is going on. I’m suspicious.

      Yeah, when I read that Carver’s interpretation of the “I’m proud of us” line was Dean being proud of Sam for being able to let him die, I thought, but dude, that’s the opposite of what happened. He keeps harping about maturity, and I’m just not seeing it.

      You know, I just can’t help comparing Dean going dark in season nine with Sam drinking demon blood in season four. Sam’s descent was told so well. It was dramatic and clear as hell. We could see the struggle he was going through and the way he rationalized his behavior. I just didn’t think they did a particularly good job of showing us Dean’s descent. I mean, he’s already bossy and angry and violent — how do you make that change clear? I didn’t get much of a sense of it until he lost control killing Abaddon.

      I’m not going to lie. I have big issues with Dean hitting Sam unprovoked on several occasions just because he was pissed or worried. I think it is hard to not see those actions as abusive, but given the life they lead and the casual everyday violence they live with, I don’t think those issues are viewed by them they way they would be by the average person. Certainly Dean can be domineering and pushy, but to retcon the entire series and twist his every action to look manipulative or controlling the way some have is just disingenuous, I think.

      You are absolutely right about people viewing them from the outside without the context of them being hunters and the forces that they face and fight on a day to day basis. I’ve loved the couple of times that we’ve gotten outside POV on them. I’d really love an episode that is just that — a really gritty Tarantino kind of POV where they are foul mouthed and violent and scary because I think they totally would be.

      thanks for commenting
      Ren

      September 24, 2014 at 7:02 am

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