That pretty much sums up my initial reaction to Supernatural’s “Dog Dean Afternoon.”
Written by Eric Charmelo and Nicole Snyder, and directed by Tim Andrew, the season’s fifth episode features Dean Winchester (Jensen Ackles) mind-melding with a dog named the Colonel (Slater) to catch a Stetson-wearing killer (Steve Valentine) who can swallow a large, yowling cat whole. Just another day in the lives of the Winchesters, right?
I normally love it when Supernatural goes comedic, especially considering Ackles’s dexterity with physical comedy and how well Jared Padalecki (Sam Winchester) plays the straight man. However, there’s comedy, and then there’s cringedy. Season four’s “Yellow Fever” and season six’s “The French Mistake” skillfully negotiate that line, but “Dog Dean Afternoon”?
The episode does have humorous moments: There’s Game of Thrones-themed taxidermy; Dean side-eyes a stuffed owl; Dean unknowingly plays fetch; and let’s not forget the awkward animal voiceovers. Dean’s argument with the pigeon made me laugh, as did Sam’s attempts to prevent his brother from shooting the “winged rat” and to reassure concerned bystanders.
But then there’s the scene where Dean Winchester eyes a poodle appreciatively.[I can’t believe I just typed that sentence.]
At that point, the attempted humor escalates to a “Just…No” for me. Though I’m sure some find the scene amusing, I find it gratuitous in every way. To compare, while I also don’t like the belly rub extortion scene, I understand its reasoning: So long as Sam rubs, the dog talks.[I can’t believe I just typed that sentence either. Supernatural, what are you doing?]
Thankfully, there’s more to “Dog Dean Afternoon,” and I like the way its narrative is layered. When the vegan bakers describe hunters as “selfish dicks who define themselves by what they kill,” we’re reminded of the Winchesters’ show-long grappling with their profession. When Foreigner’s “I Wanna Know What Love Is” plays in the background of a scene, we’re reminded of the season premiere’s “The Road So Far” sequence, set to “Who Do You Love?” A perhaps more subtle reference is made when the killer, Chef Leo, says to Dean, “What was your mom smoking when she had you?” I immediately thought of the cosmic manipulations that ensured Dean and Sam’s births and their supposed destinies.
When Dean mind-melds with the Colonel, he does so without the dog’s permission. However, the Colonel doesn’t seem to mind the intrusion, and Dean means well; once the spell wears off, everything ostensibly goes back to normal. Let’s contrast that with the Ezekiel and Sam situation that has happened without true consent. We know that Sam will mind the intrusion, and we only have Zeke’s word that he means well. When Zeke and Sam are healed, will all go back to normal?
If the season follows through on what it’s setting up, Dean should wind up in a very different (and eventually better) place than where he started. As is, the shattering of Dean is coming: He’s isolated and becoming more so. He’s not confiding in Sam or, so far as we know, Castiel. Kevin’s more of a charge than a peer, and Charlie’s in Oz. There are moments where Dean is more closed off than usual, especially with Sam and Cas. Ackles is such a careful actor that I assume this portrayal is intentional. Regardless, an off-center Dean creates ripple effects throughout the show – from characters to narrative to audience.
The most intriguing part of the episode occurs after Leo has incapacitated Sam and restrained Dean. With his doggie powers, Dean deduces that the chef has cancer, which Leo confirms and explains as the reason he began dabbling in shamanistic magic. Dean shows no sympathy: He alludes to Leo “breaking bad,” and says sarcastically, “…if you smoke a few innocent people in the process – well, hell, at least you felt better.”
Leo counters that the deaths were “collateral damage,” and states matter-of-factly, “Guess you eat enough predators you start to become one. You are what you eat, right?” This loops the storyline right back to the earlier comment about hunters defining themselves by what they kill, symmetry that points directly to self-identification and the question of “Who am I?” And in case we haven’t gotten it by now, the rest of the scene drives the message home as Dean derisively challenges Leo:
“You really think the power you hold over other people’s lives can make up for what you lack in your own?”
Nothing at this point suggests that Dean realizes the full implications of his question. But those of us who have watched Dean’s evolution for over eight years know that John Winchester trained Dean from an early age to protect Sam above all else, and Dean’s struggles with self-worth and depression have marked several seasons. Dean’s stint in Purgatory initiated him establishing a certain sense of self, but some lack remains or else he and Sam wouldn’t still be in a codependent tangle. And whatever his reasoning, Dean did exercise power that wasn’t his to wield over his brother’s life and death.
Now, how far will this parallel extend? How far will Dean’s disconnection go? What will it take for him to understand “love…and love” (9×02). I predict that the culmination is going to be epic – as in, get the Kleenexes ready and be prepared to scream at the television screen.
How Leo is taken down offers hope regarding the resolution of Dean’s arc, though. When a wolfed-out Leo taunts, “wolf trumps dog,” Dean replies, “Maybe. But not a whole pack.” A whistle calls the dogs that Dean had freed from the animal shelter and, led by the Colonel, they attack Leo. If the dog pack is symbolic, will Dean’s family assemble and come to his aid when that time comes? (We know that they will, but not without the season putting us all through the emotional ringer first!)
The episode doesn’t end without taking us from parallel to progression. As Sam puzzles over Leo wanting to know “what [he] was,” Dean reassures his brother. And in this scene, Ackles’s expressions convey the exact moment that Dean realizes the correlations between Zeke and Leo:
“He was all jacked up on juice, you know? He was possessed by something he couldn’t control. It was… It was just a matter of time before it completely took over. You can’t reason with crazy, right? …Trust me, Sammy, you got nothing to worry about.”
Once they’re in the car, the sidelong look that Dean gives Sam suggests that he’s finally recognized just how wrong things may go.
I appreciate that “Dog Dean Afternoon” connects to the larger storylines, though the animal antics remain mostly lost on me (especially the poodle bit. To quote Dean, “Never do that again!”) Fingers crossed that we’ll get even more substantive arc-action, along with the Dean and Cas reunion next week. “Heaven Can’t Wait” airs Tuesday, Nov. 12, on the CW network. See the preview here.
- Dean is called several names in this episode, including douchebag, bitch, sally, asshat, pretty boy, sweetie, softie, and dog boy. I realize that he’s a name-caller and often instigates such exchanges, but this seems excessive. Beyond nodding to the identity theme, the range of names also emphasizes that Dean is often the target of sexualized language and violence.
- Once more, Zeke saves Sam from certain death, and Padalecki skillfully shifts from Sam to Zeke to Sam. We can tell who’s who even without the flashing blue eyes.
- I want to know which animal’s entrails gave Leo matrix-level bullet-dodging abilities.
- So Leo has carefully labeled containers of animal entrails in a refrigerator with a clear-glass-door, and no one’s asking questions?
- Considering that episode four’s action was catalyzed by a desire to help Cas, it seems odd to have no mention of him this week, especially since the brothers sit at the very computer table that Sam wanted to convert into an angel tracker.
- Did the dog attack scene remind anyone else of what happened to Dean in the season three finale?
- Winchester Quotations:
Dean to a pigeon: “Aw, shut it, you winged rat.”
Sam: “…are those bleeding hearts actually witches or just hippies?” Dean: “What’s the difference?”
Carnivore Dean to Sam: “I always knew I’d find the source of all evil in a vegan bakery.”
- For those who’d like some behind-the-scenes details, Padalecki live-tweeted the PST airing of the episode.