And now?Season 8 finished on a very angelic note, and it's times like these where we need to speculate about future storylines for the protagonists. And there are several ways to look at the outcome of the season finale, including the roles of our heroes.
What will the world look like with the gates of hell still open, Metatron having kicked the angels out of heaven and Abaddon still making a point of getting her regime change? And what about Dean who is literally the only man left standing, after both Sam and Castiel fell prey to the staged trials?
It's a bit of a guessing game at this point when it comes to a storyline for Dean. And we aren't talking about references that turned out to be a one-episode story, but a multiple-episode arc for Dean Winchester. Initially, Jeremy Carver explained that the finale would be a team effort, which turned out to be Dean both helping Sam and Cas, but not actively being involved in a supernatural story as an individual, since the story didn't set him up as someone being "chosen" or "affected" long-term by external circumstances. He was a valuable support system for those in need of it and it turned him into being the only player in the game who is unchanged.
|8.23 - Sacrifice|
Don't misunderstand me. I appreciate the fact that Dean Winchester is one of the most intriguing characters in terms of taking care of someone else and helping people. He's consistent in his loyalty and love for others, and it is rare to see this kind of love reflected in fiction. Jensen Ackles does an admirable and Emmy-worthy job of portraying Dean, and his acting can only be praised with how real his character has become. Rarely do you get to see a character displaying such blatant, selfless devotion, and it's sad in particular, because there were several issues that popped up in season 8, which underlined how the caregiver aspect of his personality can pose a problem from a strictly narrative point of view. Maybe you ask yourself why? And it's very simple.
Dean wasn't chosen.
Obviously for specific reasons concerning his mental health, but the fact stands that no one was gunning for Dean Winchester as the sole target. This is, of course, arguable, given the fact that Naomi actively targeted him by manipulating someone close to him, approaching Dean directly. Sadly, those circumstances turned out to be part of Castiel's story of rebellion rather than Dean's. And it makes the problematic structure of his storylines even more apparent.
Season 8 has worked on Dean's character development from a very introspective angle, developing his emotional growth and his connection to other people, but the main issue among fans seems to be that no external conflict was added to his story that made him the center of it.
I will briefly elaborate on a distinctive point that differentiates between a character arc and a mythology arc for a protagonist. And yes, there is a difference. That difference needs to be noted down.
Dean's storyIn the general sense, the chain of events in a show makes up a story and season 8 deals with shutting down the gates of hell, with goals and trials to present this coherent chain, with plots mirroring each other to foreshadow events etc. This means that the characters involved in it are directly contributing to pursuing this goal, being pursued by other characters that want to stop them or making major changes along the way that influence the journey. Sam was chosen for the trials (accidentally), and therefore continued on the path to undertake them and to contribute to the outcome of that story by taking responsibility. He became an active character rather than a passive one standing on the sidelines and watching the story unfold.
But what about Dean?
He wasn't chosen and became the one character "who can carry" Sam to his goal, as referenced in episode 8.17. Fans know that this is a direct callback to the story of Frodo and Samwise Gamgee from Lord of the Rings, as confimed by the writers. Sadly, this analogy caused a conflict and a major misunderstanding in the very definition of a character's importance.
Frankly speaking, if you asked random people on the street a simple question like "who is the protagonist of LOTR", many fans would come up with answers such as "Frodo" or "Aragorn". Why?
Because they faced their destiny, a destiny that was shaped into having these characters being the single focus of it. And Samwise Gamgee is not "chosen". He simply contributes to the success of Frodo's story in a major way, which means that Dean also influences Sam's choices, but isn't destined to overcome difficulties or supernatural conflicts by himself, because no destiny is waiting for him.
As much as I like Eric Kripke's Han Solo and Luke Skywalker analogy, we shouldn't think that both characters are of equal importance to the overall mythology in Star Wars. Just like Frodo and Sam aren't. In Star Wars, Luke Skywalker worked towards his destiny, especially in the first and third films. Han Solo technically didn't have a heroic journey or a background history shaped by mysteries we had to uncover. The climax of the third/sixth film was the confrontation between Luke and his father.
|5.04 - The End|
The pastDean had a destiny and storylines that set him up as a character of importance, not a character contributing to the importance of someone else. He is known as the "righteous man" who began it, and the only one who could finish it. He is also an archangel's vessel or Michael's Sword;
|4.22 - Lucifer Rising|
Back in season 4, Dean became an active protagonist simply by having these outside forces like Castiel and Zachariah pushing him towards it. This is a storyline that carried over to season 5, because it wasn't just about Dean helping someone else, but Dean struggling with his own problems that had nothing to do with the problems of his brother. Both characters were equals, so to speak.
Right now, my impression is that they are not, although it is arguable, given that he landed in Purgatory, and his conflict became central in the first half of the season. Sadly, no after-effects of Purgatory were linked to the overall mythology of closing the gates of hell, and no long-term mental health problems occured, even though he was fighting for survival 24/7. Dean experienced clarity and expressed what he wants to do; hunting side by side with his brother. And his desire initially conflicted with Sam's, before the MoL storyline was introduced. Sam found his destiny and the conflicts from the first half of the season barely carried over to the second half. The trials took center stage, pushing Dean's issues with abandonment to the background in the finale, as confirmed by Jensen Ackles.
What about his mental health?There is one thing that I keep in mind when a character expresses what he wants for his future. I don't necessarily believe everything he says, and this comes from the very fact that Dean's internal conflict is one best summarized with the term trauma, which skewes his perception and ability to express his own wants and needs properly. We can argue that Dean doesn't really have a goal outside of hunting, because he believes it is the single thing in life that makes him happy and gives him a purpose.
This impression stems from the trauma he experienced, and we need to summarize his very being to understand that not everything verbal should be taken as fact for what he really wants.
Dean's core characteristics are shaped by his experience as a child. Early on, he was exposed to trauma at the age of 4, effectively cutting off any normal childhood he could have had.
John Winchester insisted on him becoming his brother's protector. And it goes even further than that. Dean became mother, father and brother all in one by assuming the role of a caregiver rather than an older brother who can voice his own needs. At the age of 4, this is no burden a child should bare, including being forced to practice shooting, putting his physical and emotional needs below the needs of other people, experiencing hunger and having no opportunity to simply indulge.
The enormous responsibility that was placed on his shoulders is quite frankly detrimental to his mental health, and it just hammers into his brain that he will never be as worthy as Sam. His existence only matters as long as Sam is happy. And previous episodes made a point of criticizing it, using Sam's own resentment toward John because of the way Dean turned out to be.
|4.10 - Heaven and Hell|
Romanticizing that concept and saying it's beautiful that Dean puts Sam before others is quite problematic in that regard, as it firmly puts Dean's agency below the agency of his brother. This is not love. This isn't even equality. This is sacrifice.
It doesn't even matter that Dean exclaims how happy he is in that position, because it means that taking his words as fact over the bigger picture glorifies something that shouldn't be glorified. Of course, he would say he is happy in his caretaker role, because that's what his life was defined as, and he simply doesn't know better. But the hidden resentment is definitely still there and shouldn't be brushed aside. Otherwise, Dean wouldn't have lashed out at Sam the way he did in season 8. Remember episodes like "Dream a little Dream of me".
No. No, all there is is, "Watch out for Sammy. Look out for your little brother, boy!" You can still hear your Dad's voice in your head, can't you?Those aren't issues Dean will overcome if he doesn't get the necessary treatment. And Dean expressed it quite explicitly.
....all he ever do is train you, boss you around.
But Sam.... Sam he doted on. Sam, he loved.
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-
Who wasn't there for Sam? I always was! He wasn't fair! I didn't deserve what he put on me.
And I don't deserve to go to hell!
|1.18 - Something Wicked|
Watch episodes like "Something Wicked" and you see the extent of his guilt that a young boy carries around, that even enjoying something just for himself can mean that his brother is in danger.
It's no wonder Dean developed mental health problems, and those are not just easily going away by declaring that he will always put Sam first. No, in fact, they trigger him on some level and send an overall bad message for sibling relationships in extreme circumstances: Putting someone's needs above your own is apparently okay. Taking care of someone at all times and "carrying" him, while not dealing with your own issues, is okay.
And it's not. It's far from okay.
Dean has a low self-esteem and he will blame himself for choices other people make, such as leaving Castiel behind in Purgatory. That's also why he sacrifices himself so easily for other people. He takes on the role of a parent who feels responsible for his child, which should not be glorified at all. Dean is Sam's brother, not his mother or father. And being siblings also means that both should have the opportunity to be individuals, to want something just for themselves without the other one judging them for it or dragging them along by assuming that this is something the other one wants. Dean's wishes are his own, just like Sam's are, and both are fundamentally different in how they see themselves, which is why it's difficult for them to be equals. A parent and child aren't equals.
Control issues, anger issues, abandonment issues, the list goes on and on with Dean, which is why it's easy to root for him to get better. On top of that, Dean is the underdog on the show from a very social perspective. Elitism doesn't favor him and just puts him into the category "worthless" simply because he has a GED and nothing more.
And his talents aren't as easily recognized, which means people automatically assume he is dumb just because he's not book-smart. The show likes to play with that, and after a while, it gets irritating to see Dean not knowing what a "familar" is. Hopefully, season 9 improves in that regard, because from what fans remember, the rural, blue collar roots of the early seasons have been arguably turned over in favor of white collar principles, such as the Men of Letters (researchers), something that shapes Sam's destiny, but leaves Dean strangely on the sidelines, practicing with swords while Sam researches. According to Robert Singer, “Sam is more the brain, and Dean is more the brawn.”
|8.12 - As time goes by|
CodependencyBefore it's assumed that codependency is legitimate simply because Sam and Dean are fictional characters caught up in an extreme environment, and therefore shouldn't be equated with real life sibling relationships, let me explain the major issues with that argument.
TV Shows don't work in a vacuum, which means that they explicitly draw on real life material and social discourse in fictional settings regardless of the genre. A SciFi show deals with humanity just as much as a romantic comedy would do. If a show glorifies issues such as consent, because it's a bad guy/good girl trope, it sends a negative message to teenagers watching the show. And Supernatural established Dean and Sam as codependent, which is a very real life issue that people struggle with on a daily basis. Dean is very codependent on Sam, and it's a problem for Dean.
Codependency means making the relationship more important to you than you are to yourself, which means that a codependent person becomes some sort of martyr who "goes out of his way and sacrifices his own needs to accommodate other people". As this reliance increases, the codependent develops a sense of reward and satisfaction from “being needed.” In fact, these symptoms heavily reflect on Dean's psyche.
To counteract Dean's problems, it's important that he has a stable support system, which is a good reason, why it would be great for season 9 to have Sam and even Castiel supporting Dean, as he struggles with an external conflict that affects his health, mental or physical. It would change the dynamics between the characters, because it reveals that Dean is not invincible and that expecting him to always have the answers would just add more pressure; pressure he doesn't need. Dean's codependency is rooted in his childhood, and it matters that he confronts his own fears to make him realize that his life and health are of importance and that he is allowed to crumble and express his needs regardless of what others expect of him. Sam already possesses the ability to want something for himself (whether it's a normal life, or the MoL destiny), to strive for independence, because unlike Dean, he was being taken care of. Dean wasn't. As a conclusion, Sam can be the strong one rather than the person in need of help.
|8.21 - The Great Escapist|
In the end, equality is reached by letting both characters become individuals rather than two people in an unstable dynamic, and if you appreciate them as two separate people and as a unit, you want what's best for them. Dean becoming his own person and less of a codependent substitute parent doesn't mean he will love Sam less. Why would he? In fact, he will love him in the way he was always supposed to; a brother loving his younger brother and a brother valuing himself, which in turn makes Sam happy.
Why a mythological storyline helpsSimply put, an arc that focuses on Dean as the "chosen one" in need of help exposes his vulnerabilty and conflict with himself, pushing him towards a more active role.
Overcoming a conflict related to the supernatural would give Dean a boost in confidence, but even his doubts and fears would lead to exposure of his problems such as PTSD. With Sam, Castiel and even Charlie as support, he would surely get to know that his own life matters for the people that love him. A simple sacrifice won't cut it anymore, and with Sam's help Dean would also get to reach the "light at the end of the tunnel". In fact, Sam would get an emotional focus, having to deal with a brother who's in danger. By supporting Dean, Sam can overcome his own doubts regarding his flaws and constant disappointment in himself for not being able to help Dean.
In the beginning, I talked about the differences between storylines focusing on emotions and storylines focusing on the supernatural conflicts. It's a win win for both characters when Sam and Dean both experience a supernatural story and a character-related one. We get to see inside Dean's head when we watch his solo scenes, for example Dean decorating his own room. Both characters deserve these storylines in order for the fans to relate better to them, seeing them struggling with their inner demons as well as the outside forces of hell. Partnership, understanding and equality can be reached, if the show steps out of the codependency issue, which forces Dean to be a caretaker rather than a person expressing his own desires.
He desperately needs to.
IsolationSupernatural is the story of Sam and Dean, and it shouldn't be the story of a tortured hero and his brother accompanying him on the road, but the story of two heroes overcoming what others throw at them individually and as a unit.
Another difference is that Supernatural is not an ensemble in nature, which means that side characters can fall into the trap of becoming mere plot devices. Castiel somewhat steps out of that with own storyline, and he helps Dean becoming his own person simply by being a friend. The same goes for Benny and Charlie who actively contribute to dismantling Dean's lack of self-worth and dependency on a single person.
Furthermore, I think Sam really needs to have some friends of his own and more side-characters to interact with that aren't necessarily interacting with Dean. Sam, on a more abstract level, is dependent on Dean's approval, which just underlines how isolated both brothers are from the world they are supposedly protecting. By walking out of the lives of other people, leaving them broken in the process, they aren't exactly being heroic. And to be honest, I felt pity for Benny and Amelia.
Additionally, season 9 needs to let more characters live, so they can help to break down the cycle of codependency.
In turn, Sam and Dean can learn to love other people, which directly reflects how healthy sibling relationships work. When I watch TV shows, I want to see progress and characters overcoming their issues, not submitting to them. Moreover, minor characters aren't mere plot devices leading from A to B, but characters with their own needs. Seeing Sam and Dean working together with other people exposes them to the world as is and makes the Winchester Family Business more meaningful by repopulating their world.
|8.05 - Blood Brother|
And finally, I'd really love to see Jensen Ackles stretching out his acting skills and playing Dean as someone who is not just emoting, but confronting danger. There are several ways, in which we can see Dean having a different role, perhaps even one leading to him becoming the bad guy. Trauma and external conflict go hand in hand and it would be interesting to see Dean dealing with both; maybe as the one undergoing the real trials to stop Metatron.
Dean Winchester is more than a protector or John's shadow. It's time to uncover all the layers that make him more than Sam's big brother. After all, he's his own person, isn't he? To conclude, here is a favorite fanvideo of mine. Hopefully, you enjoy it as much as I did.