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Performers Of The Month - Readers' Choice Most Outstanding Performer of February - Jensen Ackles

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The article was written by Ellys Cartin. Article edited by Donna Cromeans (@DJRiter). Article prepared for publication by Aimee Hicks.

Lebanon (14x13), the milestone 300th episode of Supernatural, put the Winchester family front and center for a surprise reunion. Jensen Ackles gave a bittersweet, unforgettable performance as Dean Winchester saw his happiest dream come true. The miracle, in turn, brought the character face to face with the most horrible tragedies of his life. Ackles left no stone unturned as Dean basically navigated the five stages of grief all at once. The episode didn't hinge on the sadness though, with Ackles's sharp comedic timing providing a welcome contrast. Ackles brought an intensity to this episode which saw Dean's heart sneak up onto his sleeve. Sometimes you see him lean on his family in this episode, and sometimes he makes them lean on him. Ackles's performance makes it possible for the emotional devastation to also be cathartic and even satisfying. Like his costar last month, Jensen Ackles was a fan favorite and easily selected as SpoilerTV Readers' Choice Performer of the Month for February.

The episode begins with a typical day in the life of the Winchesters. Dean and Sam (Jared Padalecki) enter a slightly skeevy pawn shop and offer the owner (Donny Lucas) some extra cash to show them the good stuff. He leads them back into a room full of relics. Sam picks up a teddy bear with a string, intending to pull that string, only for the owner to warn him not to. Ackles shakes his head with an impromptu sigh to show Dean's exasperated patience. His posturing establishes his character as the older sibling. The brothers ask the shop owner about a particular skull, which he shows them. Up to this point, Sam has taken the lead in the conversation with Dean hanging back. When the skull comes out, though, Ackles steps forward and takes over the conversation. He calmly informs the shop owner they know the skull was recently stolen from a murdered hunter. His tone is level and his gaze never breaks away, from the slight tilt of his head and his taut neck you can see that Dean is coiled and ready to strike. He is ready when the shop owner tries to distract the brothers with dragon's breath and cleave Sam in two. One shot is all it takes. Afterward, Dean meanders over and toys with the dragon's breath, jumping back when he sets it off again. A quick look of mischievous glee is replaced with one of feigned innocence. Sam gives him a weary admonishing look, in a playful flip on who is the more focused brother.

The next scene focuses on Lebanon itself, the town the brothers have come to think of as home. Ackles really sells this feeling through his actions and responses. Dean is repeatedly the one shown to have more personalized connections to the townspeople. He exchanges greetings and asks the proprietor, Jackson, for double his regular when they go into the liquor shop. When Sam interrupts his exploration of the beverage options, Dean kids around. Sam hints that the Baozhu artifact could help with things, alluding to the murderous, anarchic archangel trapped in Dean's head. Ackles responds to the hint with confused alarm, jesting that he doesn't know what Sam is referring to, before nearly rolling his eyes with annoyance that Sam would bother to water it down. That annoyance is sharply upended by astonishment as Dean's eyes widen and his mouth falls open in panic when he looks out the window. You then see the empty street where Baby was parked a moment before, and, as the brothers scramble out the door, their car speeds past them. The sole witness to the theft, Ethan (Cory Gruter-Andrew) stands across the street, and they rush to question him. Well, Sam does the questioning, because Dean is beside himself. Ackles adds frantic energy to his performance, his voice almost husky with rage. The strength of Dean's emotion there makes the transition appears in the next scene more humorous. Sam asks local postal worker Marta (Catherine Barroll) for car thief Max (Skylar Radzion)'s address. Marta is clearly put off by the request, staring warily up at Sam who towers above her. Dean then rather casually enters the shop but makes sure the door closes behind him in a courteous manner. He beams at Marta, who instantly relaxes and cheerfully asks about her grandson. He positions himself in front of the counter but leans against it so that he's right at Marta's eye level. Tipping his head slightly downward, Dean looks directly at Marta and tells her their intentions are good. She gives in just a little by saying she can inform them where Max's mom, Caitlin (Rose Ranger) works. Dean doesn't get up and rush away, instead, he gives her a grateful smile that ripples across every part of his face, unfolding his forehead, crinkling his eyes, and relaxing his jaw.

The Winchesters learn from a coworker of Max's mom that the young car thief is likely at an off-the-books school party. They pull up to find Baby parked in the drive, and Dean launches toward her, with arms outstretched, cautiously surveying her perimeter for damage. Just as he reaches out to give the car a gentle pat, Sam alerts him to the empty backseat. They encounter a teenager running from a ghost and enter the house with FBI badges blazing. Sam quickly identifies the haunted item responsible and goes to work trying to burn it. Dean hangs back, nonchalantly pointing out how a serial killer clown is the best and worst of things. Max and her friends rush in just as the ghost goes up in smoke. Ackles has Dean first attempt a sheepish look of innocence which transitions into what's meant to be a smile but definitely comes across more like a dog's snarl. After telling the teenagers the truth and securing their secrecy, Dean and Sam return to their home. Sam finds the Baozhu and gives it to Dean. He asks his older brother if he wants to wait for their mom or friend Cass (Misha Collins). There's a quick flash on Dean's face that is equal parts scared and wistful but with a roll of his shoulders, he replaces that look with a more determined one. He squeezes the pearl inside his fisted hand, his face scrunching intently as he tries to will his wish into being. The lights dim and flicker, a stranger appears in the darkness and quickly overcomes their attempts to struggle. But when the stranger speaks, Dean just stops moving, just stares upward, then he shakes slightly. He seems to have to try once or twice to finally get the word out and address their long-dead father resurrected before their eyes.

The reunion with John Winchester (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) shifts Dean's focus from possible apocalypses to his loved ones, and Jensen Ackles accordingly infuses his performance with joyful warmth. His eyes are shining when he tells John that their grandfather helped them find their home, though he does have to look away for a moment when John says he wishes he had been with them. And when their mother Mary (Samantha Smith) tenderly reunites with John in front of them, Dean freezes on the spot, looking at his parents with dazed wonder. Sam gets Dean to leave the room, and Dean continues to marvel. He presses his folded hands against his mouth to hold in another chuckle. When Sam questions how this has happened, he speaks quickly and happily, reminding you that he's wanted this forever. And he's agitated when Sam suggests there could be consequences. His eyes narrow, and his tone becomes more authoritative. At the same time, Ackles clues you in that Dean is aware this miracle has come with a reckoning. He wants Sam to stand down for the moment, but he doesn't express disbelief just frustration.

The brothers come to a truce and head into Lebanon to get supplies for a family dinner. Dean hits up the liquor shop, walking in briskly with a loud hand clap to announce his arrival. He excitedly tells Jackson they are having a celebration. When Jackson doesn't recognize him, Dean doesn't want to acknowledge what is happening at first. He tries more than once to jog Jackson's memory until the shop owner seemingly recognizes him. Dean stands there with an expression that's more irritated than concerned. However, by the time Sam returns to the car, Dean has gotten some answers from the internet. He shows Sam a video of this new timeline's Sam, lover of kale and treadmill desks. When Sam starts to comment, Dean holds up a finger to shush him, saying there's more to see. He shakes his head in disbelief when Alternate Sam says there's no room in a perfect life for hobbies or family. And Ackles follows that up with a perfectly delivered jab on how Alternate Dean (wanted for multiple beheadings) is cool while, and he inserts a gagging sound here, Alternate Sam is a successful attorney. Their conversation is interrupted by a disturbance at the pizza parlor across the way. Inside, they find Alternate Cass and a similarly "plucked from the past" Zachariah (Kurt Fuller) threatening Max and her friends. The crux of this scene is Dean futilely trying to find their Cass in the alternate version, but this Cass brutally subdues both brothers. Even when it comes down to being seconds away from death, Dean doesn't stop pleading. At the last second, he just slumps, no spirit left, saved only by a desperate measure from Sam. He pulls his arm inward against his chest, in a reflexive but late defensive move.

Unable to deny the consequences of the time change, Dean must break the news to John. Ackles keeps Dean's grief subtle in this scene. There are moments where Dean can't meet his father's eyes, like when he tells him that without fixing time Mary will likely fade away. His face is bruised and cut, but it is through the wounds around Dean's heart that Ackles lets you see his pain. John tells Dean he wished that one day his son would find a peaceful life with a family. A smile sort of cracks across Dean's face, as he tells his father he does have a family. But as he sits around the table with his first family, his eyes are angry. There's bitterness in how he picks up his glass and unintentionally buries his face inside it. John must bring everyone out of their sorrow and remind them they can be grateful for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Dean winces at first, but, over the course of the meal, he gradually yields to the laughter and company. After the dinner, Sam is feeling the hurt of the impending separation. He brings up his feelings to Dean, as the brothers wash the dishes. Sam suggests they might find a way to warn John about his future. Dean admits he's thought about the past and what they could do if they tinkered with time. He asks what it would make them if they tried to pass their burden to someone else. It's a somber scenario, but it never hits harder than when Ackles says he wouldn't know who that alternate Dean Winchester was. He breaks from the heaviness, the fog of reflection, and asserts his identity. There's power and courage in how he says he knows this version of himself and how he is the product of everything that has led him to this version. He feels every bit of the hardship they have encountered, and viewers feel it too, but the moment he straightens his back and head, that history of hard-fought battles and costly losses become a bit lighter.

As the episode draws to a close, Ackles shifts Dean into the central position. He is calm. As his father and mother tearfully say goodbye and Sam freely cries, Dean maintains his composure. He tells his father it was good to see him, holding in his feelings so completely that it only makes the faint quiver of his chin and lower eyelid more devastating. When John pulls his sons in for a last hug, he tells his boys he loves them. Dean is unable to respond at first, so intent on keeping his eyes open and holding those tears in check. He finally whispers back the I love you. When John pulls away, there's a brief glimpse of Dean, feet firmly planted to the ground, holding his arms at his sides in an uncomfortably rigid position, as if he doesn't trust himself to not reach out to somehow keep John from leaving. John looks at Sam's face then Dean's once more, and Dean's cheeks are wet. When Sam smashes the pearl, Dean jumps just a little, and one suppressed shudder escapes. A lingering shot of his tearstained face sees him start to loosen the invisible grasp he had on himself, and, as his body returns to normal, the physical symptoms of his grief do too. When their own regular Cass returns home and asks what happened, Dean looks up with an almost smile and says there's a story to tell.

Jensen Ackles has been telling Dean's story since 2005. Along with costar Jared Padalecki, he has made TV history. The show wouldn't have such a legacy without their performances. From the beginning, viewers have been drawn to Dean's mix of charming bravado, brotherly love, and rueful sensitivity. He's both a brother and fighter first, someone who has turned every kind of trauma into fuel in a never-ending war against darkness. Ackles has created an icon and inspiration, while also bringing tears and thrills to the table every time. His performance in Lebanon moved a curtain that is rarely drawn back, rewarding both Dean and viewers with a cathartic journey into the land of what if. Every moment you knew what this experience meant to Dean and what he was wrestling with in having to let go of it. It's no surprise that our readers recognized Ackle's incredible work by voting him February's Outstanding Performer of the Month. This article has just scratched the surface of the depth of his work in this episode. What did you think of his performance? Discuss in the comments below.

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