This week Supernatural served up an old school episode, complete with ghosts, grave digging and a brother moment over the Impala. I loved it. It’s not that I don’t love the myth arc, because I do, and I’ll be glad when it kicks into high gear, which it will soon.
But I also love the episodes which advance the themes of the season and explore Sam and Dean in a way that will resonate when they have to face the fallout in the overarching narrative. “Bad Boys” does an excellent job giving Sam a peek into Dean and reminding the audience that Dean too has a complicated emotional life. Last season, Dean was often presented as if his only need is to protect Sam and keep him close, and this episode paints a more nuanced picture—while still keeping Sam at the centre.
The episode had a few canon nitpicks. Writer Adam Glass forgot Dean had never heard of a Rougaru in season four. Young Dean (an excellent Dylan Everett) is beautifully acted, but should have been the fourteen he was originally scripted to be, rather than sixteen, given how much younger he seemed than Brock Kelly’s Young Dean just a year later in show time.
But I can forgive these issues, because the overall story caught me. I loved that it picked up and gave more exploration to past episodes, like “Dark Side of the Moon,” “Dream A Little Dream,” “Something Wicked” and “Devil’s Trap.”
When we met Dean in the pilot, he idolized John and was daddy’s good little soldier, in contrast to Sam’s rebellious younger son who butted heads with his dad. However, we were soon shown that neither characterization was the whole picture.
Sam learned he shared a hard headed obsessiveness with his dad, while the audience got hints that Dean’s relationship with his father was equally complicated. He both idolized him and resented the way his dad took him for granted. Dean loved his family, but worried they didn’t love him the same way back. When the Yellow-Eyed Demon possessed John in season one, he taunted Dean by saying, “You know, you fight and you fight for this family, but the truth is they don’t need you. Not like you need them. Sam – he’s clearly John’s favorite. Even when they fight, it’s more concern than he’s ever shown you.”
Dean isn’t able to admit how much anger he has at the way his father forced him to grow up overnight and shoulder adult responsibilities, judging Dean harshly every time he stumbled. In “Something Wicked,” nine or ten year old Dean is left to care for Sam for days, with instructions on how to fight a shtriga if it strikes. When Dean leaves his post to play some pinball, his father holds him accountable not just for putting Sam in danger, but for all the people the shtriga will go on to kill. John Winchester loved his boys, but his obsession made him focus on discipline instead of support. As he tells them, he became more drill sergeant than parent, until he faced the possibility of losing them.
John tries to reach out to Dean in “In My Time of Dying,” saying, “You know, I put, I put too much on your shoulders, I made you grow up too fast. You took care of Sammy, you took care of me. You did that, and you didn’t complain, not once. I just want you to know that I am so proud of you.”
But John’s attitude is so foreign to his elder son, he can’t take it in. Unlike Sam, he has hidden his issues with his dad for so long, he can’t bring them up to air them. It isn’t until “Dream a Little Dream” that Dean’s buried hurt comes to the surface in a dream.
Dean has a conversation with himself in which he brings up his fear that he was just a blunt instrument to his father rather than a loved son. He allows himself to get angry and shout, “My father was an obsessed bastard! All that crap he dumped on me, about protecting Sam. That was his crap. He’s the one who couldn’t protect his family. He- He’s the one who let Mom die. Who wasn’t there for Sam. I always was! He wasn’t fair! I didn’t deserve what he put on me. “
Clearly, Dean had as many issues with his dad as Sam did, though they were different issues. Just as clearly, he loved his father and patterned himself after him in many ways, though Bobby Singer was also an influential father figure. In “Bad Boys,” we get the genesis of many of older Dean’s choices and feelings.
In the episode, we learn the shtriga incident was not the only time Young Dean acted his age and made an understandable but poor decision while taking care of Sam. He was cocky enough to gamble and lose the food money John left him, and then try shoplifting food to make up for the loss.
John again focuses on discipline, not support, and allows Dean to be taken into a home for troubled boys while awaiting arraignment. It’s very harsh—but I imagine John felt he had to be able to trust Dean would always be responsible for Sam. He couldn’t allow his elder son to make mistakes, because the cost could be so high. As Dean said in “Dream a Little Dream,” it’s not fair, but current day Dean understands his dad was trying to do his best.
Young Dean feels abandoned and hurt, though he covers over his feelings with bravado. Fortunately for him, he lands in a caring environment, run by the fatherly Sonny, an ex-con with a good heart. Glass creates a believable alternative life for Dean, filled with child-sized responsibilities and normal milestones like a girlfriend and a high school dance. Taken away from his family by force, Dean is given a taste of a life where he can concentrate on his own goals and feelings, where he can, in Sonny’s words, become his own man.
Glass does a good job constructing a situation that believably makes Dean think seriously about whether he belongs in this life. We learn that he isn’t sure he wants to be a hunter, and that he is trying to please his dad in being so gung ho. This seems a huge change from Dean in the pilot—but only if we take it at face value.
The episode introduces Dean’s first girlfriend, Robin. They bond over their shared doubts about following their fathers’ plans for them. Young Robin is sure she wants to travel and would hate to be stuck in the town she grew up in, running her father’s diner. But present day Robin is happy to run that diner and live in that town. She and Dean have a sweet exchange where they both admit their teenage selves didn’t necessarily have all the answers.
Young Dean thinks he wants to be a rock star mechanic, and we have seen through the seasons that Dean turns to fixing cars when he is stressed. And he kept a bit of that dream of a civilian home alive deep in his heart. John, showing he was not as oblivious as he seemed to his boys’ dreams, knew it was there. In season one, he wished Sam could go to school and Dean could have a home.
We saw Dean dream of a home in “What Was And What Should Never Be” and of a family in “Dream a Little Dream of Me.” He finally got a chance to have that home with Lisa, only to find he doesn’t fit into the kind of environment a family needs. Like Robin, his teenage dreams didn’t reflect the core of who he grew up to be. Dean is a hunter and needs to be in that world. Present day Dean’s dream is to hunt monsters with his brother by his side.
I think Young Dean’s rebelliousness against his strict life of adult responsibilities fits in very well with Dean’s growth through the seasons. Sonny’s home gives him a space where he is free to dream and to try on a different face, which is exactly what he should be doing at his age.
But he is still Dean Winchester, which means his decisions come with a huge price tag attached, and even at sixteen (and the originally scripted fourteen), Dean knows that. Sonny, understandably sceptical about John’s parenting skills, tells Dean his own story. He was loyal to a gang family, rather than trying to be his own man, and all that led to was a stint in jail.
The parallel is not as close as Sonny thinks. Dean’s family fights monsters. The world needs the Winchesters. Dean may be weighing the pleasures of normal life, but he admires the man his father is, despite his poor parenting skills. He believes in the work they do.
And he believes in the charge his father gave him: taking care of Sam. It may be a huge responsibility, but Dean’s greatest gift is his ability to love. Having to choose between Robin and Sam is another unfair choice, but there is no doubt what choice Dean will make. Sam needs Dean and the huge grin that spreads across Dean’s face when he sees his little brother reminds us that we’ve seen through the seasons Dean needs Sam as well.
And that brings us to the present arc and Dean’s huge decision to deceptively manipulate Sam into accepting possession. Dean’s flirtation with normal life is juxtaposed against little Timmy’s murderous ghostly mother who is possessing her son to save him. The parallel with Zeke possessing Sam is clear.
Dean tells Timmy he has to tell his mother to go and that sometimes we have to be prepared to hurt our family to do what’s best for us. It’s the same message Sonny had for Dean and seems also to apply to Sam, who wanted to die and perhaps only chose life to avoid hurting Dean.
The thought that Sam wanting to die is something I should root for doesn’t sit well with me. I know he will feel violated when he finds out about the possession and that Dean will have to accept the consequences of his actions. But will Sam also remember that not so long ago, he wanted to teach Dean about hope when Dean was prepared to die? Will he remember his desire to die was rooted in the distorted thinking that he always let Dean down, that he was a flawed human being and that Dean was willing to give up the Trials to convince Sam how wrong those thoughts were?
I suspect one purpose of this episode was to remind Sam of the sacrifices Dean has made over the years for him and that the protective feelings he has about his little brother cannot be turned on and off. Sam can read Dean better than anyone else, and he knows Sonny’s home offered Dean the kind of change Stanford offered Sam, but Dean chose not to leave him. The role of older brother is different than that of younger brother, and Sam only now has the distance and experience to see Dean had to give up things that meant a lot to him to keep Sam at the centre of his life, a place that “Sacrifice” showed us is where Sam wanted to be.
All of this emotional exploration is leading straight to Dean’s lie and Zeke’s possession. Dean and Sam are each going to have to define for himself how to be his own man and what that means for their relationship. I suspect Dean’s decision at sixteen that he belongs with his family and Sam’s recognition of the value of that choice will resonate when Dean and Sam have to work through the hurt of Dean’s willingness to override Sam’s consent. I liked that the story raised a lot of questions without spelling out how the story will play out. Well played, Adam Glass.
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