Supernatural’s “Bad Boys,” written by Adam Glass and directed by Kevin Parks, has been eagerly anticipated since Jeremy Carver first mentioned it at San Diego Comic Con. And, as promised, the family mythology episode certainly delivers in the feels department.
An old friend, Sonny (Blake Gibbons), contacts Dean Winchester (Jensen Ackles) about a potential case, and Dean reveals to Sam (Jared Padalecki) that when he was sixteen, he was caught shoplifting and sent to “Sonny’s Home for Boys.” The brothers then head to upstate New York, and we’re treated to an old-fashioned ghost hunt that includes a classic, though unsuccessful, salt ‘n burn before the Winchesters realize that Timmy Conroy (Sean Michael Kyer), a young orphan, is being haunted by his mother.
The heart of the story lies in the flashbacks about sixteen-year-old Dean (Dylan Everett) and his experiences at the farm. Everett is the latest actor to portray Dean, and he does so believably; he’s expressive and mimics Dean’s classic head tilting, brow furrowing, and jaw clenching. His preparation, which included watching Supernatural’s first five seasons and observing Ackles, pays off. (Did anyone else wonder why he’s not wearing lighter-colored contacts, though?)
The past storyline centers on teen Dean’s time at the boys’ home. In July, Carver had teased, “We and Sam are going to learn a side of Dean that we’ve never known before.” Spoilers revealed that teen Dean had been arrested and would contemplate a life outside of hunting. Neither of these disclosures is particularly surprising, considering that Dean mentions wanting to be a firefighter in 1×22, works in construction in 6×1, and has a fairly notorious police record.
For me, the surprise lies in the revelations that teen Dean doesn’t enjoy hunting and that, to quote Sam, Dean’s stay at the farm “was the best time” of his life. Dean thrived at the home, particularly under the care of Sonny, whom he tells Sam “looked out for me.” That poignant comment makes me think of how few people actually “looked out” for Dean during his childhood. It’s also unexpected that Dean and Sonny have apparently stayed in touch. They are familiar with one another, and Sonny’s farewell (“Always hate to see you go, D-dog”) heavily implies that this isn’t Dean’s first visit.
During teen Dean’s time at the farm, he makes friends, joins the wrestling team (and is Sullivan County’s 135-lb wrestling champion), does well in school, and meets Robin. Sonny’s proud of Dean, and through flashbacks, we see one particularly revealing conversation: Though Sonny gets the charges against Dean dropped, John Winchester cannot be found. The fact that Dean’s father has seemingly abandoned him sparks a conversation about blind loyalty and its effects.
Sonny shares his story, about being loyal to a gang he considered family: “You know where it got me? 15 years in a correctional facility…I should’ve been loyal to myself. Because you get one shot at this game, Dean. And when you look in the mirror, you want the guy looking back at you to be his own man.”
Now, why does Sonny tell teen Dean this story? I think it’s because even then, Sonny can see that Dean put his ideal of family above himself, stifling his own desires and natural abilities to maintain the status quo. And this flashback is important 18 years later because Dean still hasn’t learned his lesson, which he’s proven by enabling Sam’s possession and evicting Castiel.
This reminder about Dean calls attention to Sam, too. Both brothers are complicit in perpetuating their codependency. Ezekiel manipulatively approaches Sam in disguise because he knows that Dean is his younger brother’s “Achilles heel” (5×4). However, we have to remember that Sam’s mind projects Dean, Bobby, and Death, so while he’d supposedly been ready to die only moments before, Sam allows himself to be persuaded by Zeke-as-Dean’s grammatically horrifying claim, “there ain’t no me if there ain’t no you” (9×1). I’m curious to see how these behaviors will be reshaped and how the changes will impact their relationship.
In the present-day timeline, Dean befriends Timmy, teaching him to shake hands and defending him against bullies. Sam is the one who discovers Timmy’s drawings (and did anyone else, upon seeing what Timmy drew about his mother dying, wonder what four-year-old Dean drew?) and investigates the employee records, eventually figuring out that the boy’s mother is the ghost.
When the Winchesters’ confrontation with the ghost occurs, Dean, Sam, Timmy, and Robin (Erin Karpluk) are alone in the farmhouse. It’s a rather symbolic moment, where present and past clash on multiple levels: Robin has admitted to remembering Dean, though she’s still upset over what happened 18 years ago; as Sam has investigated Timmy, he’s also pieced together more about Dean’s life at the home; and Dean’s confronted once more by the choices he’s made.
Timmy is at the center of the conflict: His mother’s spirit came to him after their car crash to offer solace, and now he has to release her. Dean tells him, “She’s a ghost, Timmy, and because she can’t move on she’s going crazy… Sometimes you gotta do what’s best for you, even if it’s gonna hurt the ones you love.” Wise words, Dean Winchester.
Dean’s reminder of “kung fu grip” sparks Timmy to forcefully tell his mother to leave, while promising that he’ll be okay. The grotesquery burns away, and a blonde woman, who reminds me somewhat of Mary Winchester, stands there smiling before she dissipates. The scene ends with Timmy running to Dean, already a substitute paternal figure, and hugging him as Sam looks on.
This scene can be interpreted in several ways; I tend to read it as a mirroring of Dean and Timmy. In order to be “free,” each has to let go of the person he is anchoring (Dean = Sam, Timmy = mother). For both, holding on changes the people they love; Sam is unknowingly possessed, and Timmy’s mom has become an angry spirit. Though I expect all hell to break loose – perhaps literally – when Sam discovers Ezekiel, I don’t expect Sam to exit the storyline as Timmy’s mother does.
I can also see the scene contrasting with teen Dean’s decision to leave with John, despite Sonny offering to fight for him to stay. That John shows up after at least two months of silence, on the night of Dean’s first school dance with Robin, and takes his son away with no consideration of what the night means is infuriating and heartbreaking. Yet Dean looks out the window, sees Sam, and makes his choice without hesitation.
This pivotal scene is a prime example of how “Bad Boys” erodes the complexity of John Winchester’s character. A polarizing figure at best, Jeffrey Dean Morgan portrayed him as a haunted, obsessed man with decidedly questionable parenting skills who genuinely loved his sons, even if he did not always show it. However, according to the cop who brings teen Dean to Sonny’s, John said to “let [Dean] rot in jail.” There are suspicious bruises on Dean’s arm, and while Glass confirmed via Twitter that a werewolf caused them, the image’s suggestion lingers. John doesn’t contact Dean until he needs him for a job, and then he demands that Dean leave immediately. All of this casts John in an unflattering (to say the least) light and suggests that Dean’s choice to leave the support network he’s found is based upon sentiment for Sam, not John. While Glass exchanged tweets with fans discussing his authorial reading of the character, the episode, as a text unto itself, presents a one-dimensional, unsympathetic John.
Historically, Dean expresses a greater degree of empathy for his father than Sam does, and it seems that he does the same early in “Bad Boys.” When Sam is incredulous that John left his brother, Dean responds, “Look, I know how you think. None of this was dad’s fault.” But I don’t see this as just another “defense of dad” moment: Dean’s time at Sonny’s is one of the few when he’s safe and truly supported, and I believe that Dean is reluctant to place blame in this instance because without John’s actions, he wouldn’t have had the experience.
It’s significant that at no point does Dean verbally acknowledge what his time at Sonny’s really means to him. Though Winchester lore has always emphasized Sam’s desire for a regular life, discovering that Dean could have actually had a normal teen life yet forfeited it helps explain how his identity became so enmeshed with his brother’s. By episode’s end, Sam seems to realize just what Dean had given up and why, and the last scene is heartfelt as Sam, in a choked voice no less, thanks Dean “just for always being there, for having my back…”
Dean listens to his brother, but as we know from his season arc, he’s still sussing out how to deal with “love…and love,” and he pushes away the emotional moment with a classic, “I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.” But I’ve learned to pay close attention to the subtext that Ackles creates for Dean, and in this instance, Dean’s physical response, which includes breathing heavily and clenching his jaw, belies his declaration. Is his obviously restrained emotion Dean’s reaction to revisiting memories of the farm? Or is he further realizing the situation that he and Sam are in, and the role he played in putting them there? Or both?
Thus far, season nine has drawn specific attention to the Winchesters’ codependency, and identity continues to be a central issue. Right now, the focus is mostly on Dean, which structurally makes sense. Dean is the patriarch of the Winchesters’ makeshift family, and he has to progress first in order to facilitate Sam learning about Zeke, which will jumpstart Sam’s arc. Interestingly, Castiel’s arc is developing alongside Dean’s, though largely off-screen. As the season arcs continue to create ripple effects, we’re reminded that the characters simply aren’t themselves (yet): Dean’s deceptions are spiraling out of control; Sam isn’t “just Sam,” since, per “Slumber Party” (9×4), Ezekiel is always somewhat aware; and Cas continues adjusting to humanity. Add in the heaven and hell storylines, and I’m quite anxious to see just how far everything progresses before the mid-season hiatus.
- In a brief moment of downtime, Sam sets down to read The Marvelous Land of Oz.
- Continuity Issue: According to “Bad Boys,” Dean and Sam knew their dad was on a rugaru hunt in 1995, yet in “Metamorphosis” (4×4), neither Dean nor Sam knew what a rugaru was. Dean actually says, “Is that made up?…That sounds made up.” And Dean knew John’s journal by heart at this point; if the entry had been in there, he would have known.
- Dean on why Sam wasn’t told about his time at the boys’ home: “It was dad’s idea. And the story became the story.”
- Even this episode isn’t entirely Ezekiel-free: Early on, Dean asks if “everybody’s okay with heading out to the Catskills.” And as the Winchesters enter the farmhouse, Sam learns that Sonny is an ex-con and makes a comment, Dean responds off-handedly, “And we’re such angels?”
- Sonny uses a paperclip to unlock Dean’s handcuffs, a trick Dean uses in the pilot episode.
- Dean calling out the ghost: “Alright Casper… where you at?”
- We get to see Dean’s homemade EMF reader. (yay!)
- I really enjoyed seeing Sam discover Dean’s bed, though that is amazingly durable masking tape!
- Dean comments about his time at Sonny’s: “Nobody bad touched me, nobody burned with their smokes or beat me with a metal hanger. I call that a win.” Am I the only person concerned by this remark? It makes me wonder what other stories haven’t yet been told.
- Did anyone else look twice at the restaurant’s name? The font makes the sign look like Cas’s Place rather than Cus’s Place at first glance.
- Dean is four years older than Sam, and seeing a supposedly 12-year-old Sam innocently playing with a toy airplane didn’t make sense to me. According to Glass, teen Dean was written as 14, but the 18-year-old Everett looked older, so post-filming, the character’s age was changed to 16. Young Sam, however, was played as 10, and he, disconcertingly, looks it.
- Adam Glass, Osric Chau, and Sleepy Hollow‘s Orlando Jones are among those who live-tweeted the episode.
- There is so much to this episode — What details did you notice? Favorite lines or scenes? Problematic points? Share in the comments!