Dean Winchester: Protector or Abuser
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.
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.
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.