“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.