“Defending Your Life” picks up the shocking ending of “The Girl Next Door” and shows us why Supernatural is still so intriguing in its seventh season. Using the device of a trial presided over by Osiris, we get a rare glimpse inside Dean Winchester, known for holding his feelings close to his chest, mostly by drowning them in alcohol. We’ve had a lot of good exploration over the years of Sam trying to define himself in light of his flaws; now it’s Dean’s turn.
Dean and Sam have both been, literally and figuratively, through hell, but they handle the inevitable shades of gray in their lives very differently. Sam has been tormented by knowing he is somehow different, perhaps not quite human, since he was a boy. He’s always worried whether he falls on the black or the white side of morality, making him sympathetic to the idea of gray areas. His questions about his own identity came to the fore when his soul was stripped away.
Sam without a soul showed through contrast just how much troubled Sam always cared about the important stuff. And, now, perhaps because Sam has always shared his feelings rather than bury them, he can live with that. In a lovely piece of irony, Sam has been healed by getting his damaged soul back, despite the wounds to his psyche. In Sam’s eyes, he may have made many mistakes, but his stint in hell paid his dues. Hallucinations or not, Sam is now emotionally healthier than he was at the start of the series. Dean is in a very different place.
Bobby immediately knows why it is a very bad thing for Dean to cross paths with a god who is the judge, jury and executioner of guilty people. Dean is a natural guilt magnet. At the age of four, he was given charge of his brother, denying Dean a childhood and at the same time making him feel responsible for Sam’s happiness.
At the trial, Sam argues very successfully he was destined to be a hunter, bred for the purpose by angels and demons. He does not blame his brother for that fateful night Dean showed up at his door, asking him to join in the search for their father. Nor does deceased friend Jo blame Dean for helping her become a hunter. But the trial is not about whether either of these two blames Dean.
Despite Sam’s excellent defence skills, Osiris is actually measuring how much Dean blames himself. Dean has been shaped by competing forces. He was made into both a hunter and a caregiver as a young child and given no help in how to balance these huge responsibilities. His response has been to deny the conflict and bury his feelings in alcohol or women.
Season six forced Dean to admit the conflict. With Sam apparently gone, the older Winchester tried to leave his life as a hunter for life as a lover and a father. Dean always seemed the one who accepted the hunter’s life, more so than Sam. But underneath his cool facade, Dean has always been centered on family. Oddly, for a character who does not share his feelings easily, he is the emotional centre of the show. We love Bobby in part because Dean needs a father so badly. We saw Castiel through Dean’s eyes, playing the older brother to a being older than the universe. Dean values his relationships more than anything else. Unfortunately, his very presence often endangers those relationships.
Dean’s life with Lisa and Ben taught him first of all there is no black and white, and secondly, that he has to make choices like there is. He truly valued his family and yet he never fit within it the way he fits as a hunter, mostly because he knew he would draw trouble into their lives. He did everything he could to protect Lisa and Ben, which only served to drive them away because he could not simply be present and loving. He was caught between two worlds. He hurt Ben by abandoning him, but had to abandon him to save him. One of the saddest moments of last season for me was the scene where Ben lied to Dean to get him to come home. Dean had no words to answer his son’s accusations of leaving his family. But he knew he was the very danger he was always trying to fight.
That lack of words to express this inner conflict is Dean’s biggest Achilles heel. Sam has also been very dark places, but while he sometimes hides what he’s doing from Dean, he will in the end always share how he feels. Sharing the burden helps him not feel alone and take comfort from what others have to offer. Dean seldom opens up about how much people mean to him—though it always carries great weight when he does—but he even more seldom opens up about how he feels about himself. When he erased himself from Lisa and Ben’s life, he rebuffed Sam’s efforts to get him to talk. And because Dean seems so strong and so able to keep on going no matter what gets thrown his way, Sam backed off.
Yet there have been many signs over the years Dean is paying a terrible price for his stalwart marching on. He has been turning more and more to alcohol as a coping mechanism. Losing Castiel was a terrible blow to Dean, as he regarded the angel as family. Jensen Ackles did a wonderful job showing just with his eyes what finding Cas’s iconic coat meant to him. But it is very much in character that the most obvious sign of Dean’s grief currently is the amount of alcohol he’s putting away.
Dean also puts aside his grief through his old standby—worrying about Sam. It is particularly unsatisfying this time around, though, because he can do little about his brother’s mental health. Sam has to fight this out himself. The scene where Dean helps ground his brother in reality by using pain to know what is real is a typical Supernatural move, tangling love and pain together in Dean’s mind and tying it off with a feeling of helplessness. Dean Winchester does not do helpless well.
Sam chooses a very poor time to test Dean’s trust when he sneaks out to handle an old case based in his childhood. Sam recognizes the killer he reads about in the paper as a monster from his childhood he hid from Dean. Sam feels guilty about the people she’s now killing, but he also knows this “monster” is a being with a name and a history and a morality. She killed her own mother to save him and truly wishes to deny her need to eat fresh human pituitary glands. Sam is comfortable enough in gray areas to decide she gets the benefit of the doubt, because he owes her. He tells his brother, “She’s done. Trust me, Dean, please.”
Dean has no comfort areas. He hates that he is a killer, but accepts the need for killing. He is a caretaker at heart, but feels he only brings and receives pain when he tries to trust people. He had to look at his relationships in black and white terms in order to walk away from Lisa and Ben, even when Ben begged him to see the shades of gray. In the end, there was no gray when Crowley used his family against Dean.
Dean doesn’t trust the gray areas with Amy Pond, either. Unlike Sam, he cannot trust Amy to stop killing. She started because her son got sick from eating carrion rather than fresh kill. Inevitably, her son will get sick again. Dean chooses to kill Amy, telling her, “You are what you are. You will kill again. I’m sorry.”
Yet even here, in the most black and white of moments, fate insists on making Dean see the gray. In full killer mode, he looks up to see a terrified young boy, something which always triggers his protective instincts. Clearly, he can’t protect this child, having just killed his mother. He cannot kill him, either. Dean allows the boy to live, collapsing the black and white world view which he has been clinging to for stability.
This episode caused some upset in the fan community and with some critics, because Dean appeared to be reverting to a black and white insistence on what defines a monster. I think the writers are playing with Dean’s definition of monster quite deliberately. Having collapsed the dichotomy Dean was relying upon to justify his actions to himself, he’s still left with the fact that he killed Amy and lied to Sam. He can’t change what he did and he’s not sure he should even if he could. Does this make him a monster? Dean is very aware of gray areas. He just doesn’t know how to live in them.
And that leads Osiris straight to Dean. Despite Sam’s spirited defence of his brother, he misses the real point. Dean feels responsibility for taking care of anyone he defines as family. Yet the very nature of his job means he puts people in danger every time he interacts with them. Jo and Sam can tell him not to feel guilty until the cows come home. Dean is very aware of the ugly side of his job and he feels he ought to do it alone, so others can be untainted.
That feeling is what led him to lie to Sam and kill Amy on his own. Far from feeling no remorse, he knew this killing would feel awful. He decided he had to do it anyway and chose not to drag Sam into it, as Sam had such a debt to Amy. He allowed Sam to stay untainted—or at least that’s the way he saw it at the time. Now he feels the full weight of how gray that situation really was, which makes him even more reluctant to open up to Sam. The last thing he wants to see is judgement in his brother’s eyes.
Dean’s guilt over Amy is Osiris’s trump card. Sam may be able to argue convincingly that Dean is not responsible for the bad things in his and Jo’s life, but would he even try to do so about Amy’s death? Dean feels the answer is no and he chooses not just to continue lying, but to accept death rather than risk his brother’s love.
The irony is the biggest threat to Sam’s continued love is Dean’s lies, but having gotten on this merry go round, Dean doesn’t see a way to get off. And ultimately, he’s not sure he deserves to find a way out. A man who feels he is 90 percent crap is open to Osiris’s outlook: “People want to be judged. They really do. When your heart’s heavy, let me tell you, real punishment is a mercy.”
At heart, Dean feels it would be fitting to die at Jo’s hands. I think he will find it fitting for Sam to judge him when he finds out about Amy. But in the meantime, he will continue to be a killer when he thinks the situation needs it, and he will continue to lie to and love Sam. He’ll try to resolve all this inner conflict in a bottle.
I think Dean’s arc this season has been well set up and will be fascinating to watch. The show has never avoided the gray areas, so it makes sense Dean has to grapple with his inner conflicts just as Sam did. It will make an interesting change for Sam to feel he is in a good space and worry about Dean’s mental health instead.
Sam has not often had the role of caretaker. He’s already showing his worry over Dean’s drinking. Whether Sam will be able to handle what he pulls out of Dean is a real question. I find it a compelling one, as Dean has never needed his brother more.
How about you?