How is family defined in Supernatural—and how do we see that definition within “Inside Man?”
Family. The word invokes emotion and connotations. At its most basic definition, it is a unit of people, typically blood related, living together as a group with common goals. On Supernatural, however, family takes on different contexts, meanings, and forms than the traditional. It goes beyond the nuclear family of parents and children—as the Winchesters make their family out of an interconnected tree of people that have formed bonds through their shared struggles and triumphs. In “Inside Man,” we see what family clearly is and isn’t. The thesis statement about family is given to us by Dean Winchester himself when he tells the King of Hell, “A wise man once told me, ‘family don’t end in blood.’ But it doesn’t start there either. Family cares about you, not what you can do for them family’s there; for the good, bad, all of it. They got your back, even when it hurts. That’s family.” Within each story, we see this thesis proven—through seeing a false family in Rowena and Crowley, through Dean’s encounter with Rowena, through Sam, Castiel, and Bobby’s actions, and through the letter Bobby sends Sam. Each story gives us some insight into the definition Dean provides for family—and allows us to understand how Supernatural and the Winchester world views family within its construct.
First, let’s look at Rowena and Crowley.
Throughout the season, Rowena has been stringing Crowley along, telling him that she’s his mother—and anyone else that will listen, for that matter. She’s all but taken on the mantle of My Lady, the King’s Mother or Queen Mother—something she’s called directly by Hell’s switchboard runner. This title has given her much pleasure. She’s not simply a witch facing the Grand Coven alone—she’s backed by her son, Fergus otherwise known as Crowley, King of Hell. She points this fact out proudly to Olivette, telling her that she’s now the prisoner of the King of Hell and his “devoted mommy.” Rowena has also used the guilt card against Crowley, reminding him that she is indeed his mother—that she gave him life and therefore he owes her. If she can’t sweet talk him into giving her what she wants, she’ll force him to remember that she’s his family—dangling that coveted connection like a carrot for him to grasp at only to yank it away when she is denied.
And yet, we’re struck by Rowena’s actions in this episode, too. The witch prepares an elaborate spell that requires painting various runes all across her naked body—much to Crowley’s shock and disgust. His quote, “You’re my mother, I don’t want to see anything. I’ve been to Hell, thanks. ” says it all. It isn’t until we see her approach the switchboard runner of Hell and inquire about the whereabouts of the Men of Letter’s Bunker that we realize those runes—and the spell it must accompany—is meant for none other than Sam or Dean. This is proven when we see her enchant the men Dean hustled with another spell to turn them into vicious attackers.
Dean handles them quickly, leading her to deploy her intricate spell. It flashes outward, bright blue and as her voice rises, we can tell that it’s meant to do extreme damage. When it fails, Rowena is shocked, leaving her vulnerable. In no time, Dean has her pinned against the bar with a knife to her throat—and in her defense she tells him she’s there to “save my son.” On some level, Rowena means these words. She does want to save Crowley and she does see the Winchesters as hindering his ability to rule Hell as he should. She sees these men—hunters and Men of Letters—as obstacles to the greatness she wants her son to achieve. She wants Crowley to be more than a “lap dog” for the Winchesters—and it’s clear in the language she uses here in this confrontation with Dean.
On the other hand, we also know that Rowena’s motivations aren’t nearly as familial as she claims, either. She may want to remove Sam and Dean from the picture so they’ll quit yanking Crowley around on some demonic leash, but if anything it’s so she can grasp it in their place. Rowena has been so proud and delighted by the fact that not only has her son made it to this century, he’s managed to rise through the ranks of demons to acquire the throne of Hell itself. This is something she wants to exploit—as we see her do with Olivette and using Hell’s vast resources to exact revenge upon her enemies. Rowena sees Crowley as someone she can manipulate and use for her own means. Her use of family in the relation between her and Crowley is her method of yanking him around just as she accused the Winchesters of using him.
Rowena, needing to get away from Dean, manages to use another means than family against him. She tells Dean he needs to be the “hero” and either he can kill her and let those men die, or he can let her go and she’ll reverse the spell. He chooses the latter. In an effort to further push Crowley against the Winchesters, however, Rowena returns to cut herself up and accuse Dean of doing this to her. She, once again, uses their familial ties against Crowley to get him to go after her enemy. After all, if Crowley will let someone like a Winchester do this to his own mother, how long before he’ll let them do anything they want? How long before someone leads a revolt against him to take his throne away?
Instead of getting him to attack Dean, Crowley goes to question the elder Winchester. In pushing him to go after Dean, Rowena has laid the ground work for her own undoing. Dean tells Crowley that she lied. He wanted to slice up Rowena—but he didn’t. This isn’t so much a shock to Crowley. He says, “So she’s a liar. ” to which Dean retorts, “Must run in the family.” Family. The word crops up again, prompting a deeper discussion between the two. Now that Dean knows exactly who Rowena is and how she’s related to Crowley, he asks the King of Hell point blank, “Why you letting mommy dearest tie you into knots? ”
Crowley ponders for a brief moment and answers, “Because . . . We’re family. Blood.”
In many ways, Crowley’s relationship with Rowena has been one sided. She used his place within Hell for her own gains—and she may have meant on some level that they were indeed family, but she was never truly invested in Crowley for himself. Crowley, on the other hand, seemed to emulate the family he had seen between the Winchesters—that you are there for them, you tolerate them, and you try to work with them through it all. He had grown to see her as part of his world—that she did have a place within his kingdom as someone of importance. Crowley had started to see them building a relationship that was worth cultivating and exploring—and he sought a deeper connection with his own mother. Despite her abandoning him all those years ago, her reemergence was a second chance for them to be that family.
Upon Dean’s speech—the very thesis on family within Supernatural—Crowley sees that Rowena, his mother, simply does not live up to this definition. She wasn’t there for the good or the bad. She’s never truly had his back. She’s never been there for him when it hurt the most, and she most certainly wanted something from him in return for receiving her affection. And so, Crowley returns to her, to tell the gleeful and excited Rowena that no, he hadn’t locked Dean away—instead, he tells her coldly, “You may have brought me into this world, but you were never my mother.” After she protests that this is somehow another Winchester manipulation—that he was choosing them over his own flesh and blood, Crowley points out the ultimate truth, proving that she failed the test through and through, stating, “I’m choosing me. I put up with your lies, your sad little schemes because-because maybe you were right, maybe I did lose my edge. But that ends now. Tell me Rowena, if I were not the King of Hell, would you have ever bothered to pretend to care about me?”
It is in this calling her by her name and not by the familial title mother that we ultimately see her rejected and their false familial bond exposed.
But what about Dean? How does his story prove the thesis?
Dean, staying behind at the Bunker while Sam goes to a “French movie,” tries to find a way in on a hunt. While doing so, he spends his time messing up Sam’s room—something he was explicitly told not to do. In subtle humor, we see the bonds of family play out as Dean rubs his butt on Sam’s pillow, tape over his phone, and rub Sam’s toothbrush under his armpit. It’s playful, showing that while Dean may have given up on finding a cure for the Mark, he is still able to enjoy pranking his little brother. Of course, we all have to cringe at the thought of poor Sam unknowingly using his toothbrush later, but we can tell that this is all in good brotherly fun.
As he strikes out on joining in a hunt, Dean decides to go to a local bar and unwind a bit. He’ll eat some nachos, drink a little—and hustle the college kids for some quick cash. It’s a quiet night, meant to give him a little down time from all the rush and constant moving he’s been doing as of late. Things are going according to plan. He’s managed to make the quick cash, he’s managed to keep things rather simple.
And then, as he’s freshing up in the bathroom, he lifts his head only to see black eyes stare back at him for a brief and haunting moment. On the one hand, the Mark may be reacting to the proximity of Rowena, knowing that she’s a dangerous threat lurking just outside. It’s preparing itself for the coming fight—and so it flares a moment to ready itself against her magic. On the other it’s as if the Mark isn’t content to remain quiet with him as they take some down time. It wants to remind him that its still there and present—and that it has plans for him rather he wants to face it or not. It’s a harsh reminder of just what the stakes are—what he’ll become and perhaps what he may lose.
As he enters back into the bar, he finds Rowena waiting. Dean has no problem slinging a harsh insult at her, “Rowena, what’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this? I’m sorry did I say nice girl? I meant evil skank.”
Before he can make another move, though, the men she’s spelled have attacked. Dean, already somewhat shaken by what he saw in the bathroom, now has to find the strength within to not give up and not give in. These men aren’t attacking him because they want to—and they didn’t after they called him out on hustling them. They’re not his enemy. They’re innocent men that have been caught up in the fight between him and Rowena. Dean quickly pins one to the floor and prepares to impale him on a pool stick, only to stop and hesitate as memories of kills and acts of violence he committed while and after being demonic wash over him. He can’t do this. He can’t kill this man—or any of them—if he is to resist what the Mark showed him earlier.
That doesn’t mean, however, that he’ll let them beat him or kill him. He quickly disarms each, knocking them from the fight but leaving them alive. It leaves only Rowena to deal with—and as she invokes the spell she painted earlier, it washes over Dean to no effect. The witch is stunned and left vulnerable and Dean makes his move to go in for the kill. Unlike the men, she’s no innocent. And yet, as she invokes the reason she’s there—to save her son—we see Dean hesitate. It’s as if the fact that Rowena’s not just there to get in his face or pick a fight with him for the sake of it—but that she’s there for her family—changes things. Dean can understand that motivation. For him, family is the reason.
And yet, it won’t be enough to save her when she reveals to him that her son is Crowley. Dean is stunned by the revelation, but he won’t let her repeat her spell nor will he let her go. If anything, she’s more dangerous than he had believed. Dean moves to kill her, and instead, Rowena throws out the other card in her deck. She warns him that she’s the only one that can save these innocent men—that if he kills her they’ll die horribly. Her spell will “devour them from the inside out.” She tells him, “I think you’re a hero. You could have killed those men, but you didn’t because they’re innocent. ‘Cause you’re the good guy, and you want them to live.”
Hero. It’s that word that makes Dean completely pause. But how does this relate to his family thesis?
We see Rowena’s actions against Dean because she claims it’s meant to save her son—and we see Sam, Castiel, and Bobby’s actions because they want to save Dean—-both are motivated by family. For Dean, however, he has to fight to remember what the stakes are. He has to know that whatever Sam is doing it has nothing to do with a French film—one about nudies or mimes or anything else—he has to know that Sam’s doing something that relates to him. And the only way he should be worthy of that action is to do what he does here. It’s the only way he’ll retain any hope—however little he has left—and most importantly so that he can retain his humanity.
So, Dean lets Rowena go. He chooses to let her save these men from her spell rather than removing her from the board and allowing them to die with her. It allows him to hold onto that humanity. It allows him to resist the Mark’s blood lust.
When Crowley comes to question him, he admits to him that he hadn’t done it. He admits that he wanted to—and then he tells Crowley, “I’m fine.” It’s a bald faced lie, and Dean knows it, but while he knows how close he’s teetering on the edge he also knows that there’s something still worth fighting for—and that his humanity is key for him to be worthy of his family being there for him through the bad, the good—and most importantly when it hurts. He doesn’t have to ask them to do this for him—and he knows they won’t ask him to do anything in return—but nonetheless he knows his own actions must reflect theirs—even a little. He can’t let them do it all for him—and he does just that when he refuses to kill those innocent men.
If Rowena represents false family and Dean shows us why family is worth fighting for—how do Sam, Castiel, and Bobby’s actions further prove Dean’s thesis statement—and illustrate Supernatural’s definition of family?
At the very start of the episode, Sam is wrenched from sleep by the sounds of his brother in clear distress. It’s here that we see Sam take his first action. He scrambles out of bed, his gun out and ready. Sam rushes down the hall, checking at every doorway to make sure there’s no threat. And as we see him finally enter Dean’s room, he watches in abject horror as he sees his brother thrash on the bed. It’s clear that the Mark is torturing Dean. In that moment, Sam wants to wake him, and yet he hesitates, knowing that it may be dangerous. With his brother in this state, he doesn’t know what Dean will do. He could attack or worse—and so Sam doesn’t wake him.
While he doesn’t wake Dean, Sam has clearly reached the end of his rope. He’s not going to let the Mark continue to do this to his brother. We see him on the phone, reaching out to someone to enact some plan. And yet, he doesn’t want Dean to know, so he quickly hangs up and tells his brother that there’s no hunts to be had. Dean declares it a “snow day” and Sam suggests that perhaps they should go to a movie. When he starts to describe it—a French film about a mime—it’s obviously a lie. He’s doing something else—something he doesn’t want Dean to know about. And yet, he makes the offer, saying, “You know, I mean . . . I don’t have to go alone . . . ” He’s chancing Dean saying yes—knowing that he’d have to tell him what they’re really up to—something dangerous and something to do with the Mark. Dean declines, and Sam leaves to follow through on the plan he’s been cooking up for quite some time.
As Sam drives up, we see that the person he was talking to earlier is none other than Castiel. When asked where Dean is, he tells the angel that this is about Dean. He tells him, “He’s getting worse. Cas, we’ve gone through every other option possible.” and he tells him, “Do you think I want this? I’m not a fan of it, either. But if we want to get rid of the Mark . . . I’m just saying Charlie’s gone radio silent; everything else we’ve tried has been a dead end. So . . .” Sam cured him from being demonic, and he’st tried to keep Dean from hunting, and he’s gone along with his brother’s drive to reclaim his life—and they tried to learn answers from Cain. All were fruitless. So, now, it means doing something else. Something drastic.
It leads them to Heaven’s door, guarded by angels that refuse to let Castiel in. They know why they’re there. It has to do with the Scribe of God, Metatron, and they have no desire to let him take him away again only to be beaten or worse by another Winchester. It’s also perhaps the reason Sam hasn’t included his brother on this mission. After all, last time they tried to get information from the Scribe, it took Sam literally prying his brother off Metatron before he could deliver the killing blow. Sam’s hoping, this time, that if they ask him without his brother’s threatening presence there, Metatron will give him the information they so desperately need. But as they’re refused at the door, it only raises the stakes further—making Sam hatch his “plan B.” It has to work because they’ve hung all their hopes upon it.
Sam informs Castiel that they’ll have to break Metatron out, and it means going to a psychic he researched in the Men of Letter’s files—Oliver Pryce. He’s an actual psychic, able to communicate with the dead and able to read minds instantly. He’s grown into a hermit and wants nothing to do with them—especially the angel as he’s an atheist—but he helps them anyways. After all, he can read Sam’s mind and knows he won’t take no for an answer. Through him, they reach out to their “inside man.” It’s none other than Bobby. Sam chose Bobby specifically. When the old hunter protests, telling him that he’s rusty and there has to be someone else much better for this task, Sam tells him, his voice trembling with emotion, “There isn’t, Bobby. And w-with Dean the way he is . . . This is all we got. ”
Sam chooses Bobby because he is family. He knows that Bobby won’t extort him, he won’t demand anything in return, and he won’t hold information he finds hostage. He knows he can trust Bobby to fight as hard up in Heaven to help Dean as much they will on earth. Sam also knows that Dean wouldn’t want anyone else helping them in this quest, either. And so, Sam and Castiel talk Bobby through breaking out of his own Heaven and making his way to the door. Bobby succeeds with minor hiccups, finding a way to help Castiel make his way inside.
While Sam and Castiel wait to see Bobby open the door, the angel questions if Bobby can make this happen. Sam, quick to support his adopted father, states, “He’s Bobby. He can handle anything. ” It’s this firm belief that further proves Dean’s thesis—and Bobby puts it all into his actions.
The door opens, and Castiel makes a sprint to jump through the door while Sam crashes into one of the angels blocking the door. Once inside, we see Castiel and Bobby make their way to the prison holding Metatron. Along the way, Bobby asks Castiel about Dean’s whereabouts, only to be told that Dean’s resting. Not taking that bald faced lie as truth, Bobby presses him to say they didn’t tell Dean. Knowing how their fight for family works, he calls Castiel out, saying, “Well that’s a page right of the Winchester playbook.” And as Castiel tells him that Dean’s given up, he also knows they haven’t. When asked if he would give up, he retorts, “Hell no.” It proves everything Dean tells Crowley about what family is and will do for you. These two are risking a lot to do this—and they both know it—and yet they’d gladly do it all again if they had to.
Surprisingly, this scheme works, and as Castiel emerges with Metatron, the Scribe must confront both an angry angel and an angry Winchester. He crows, upon seeing Sam, “Samtastic!” as if he’s going to be able to do as he pleases, run amok, and yank these two around until he gets what he wants. Instead, he finds that they get to exact their revenge upon him for the awful things he’s done. For Castiel, it means ripping out Metatron’s grace—returning the favor for what led to the expulsion of angels from Heaven. For Sam, it’s much more personal.
Metatron killed Dean. He’s the one that stabbed his brother with an angel blade. In many ways, everything that happened afterwards, in Sam’s view at least—from Dean becoming a demon to his struggles with the Mark ever since—are on the Scribe’s head. All the pain and misery and fear they’ve experienced, the time that Sam spent searching for his brother, the time he spent curing Dean, and the time he’s spent keeping his brother from teetering over the edge rests with what Metatron did. The Mark may have eventually consumed Dean anyways, but Sam needs an outlet, someone he can inflict his wrath upon to alleviate some of his frustration.
For that offense, Sam has no qualms about shooting the now mortal Metatron in the kneecap. It’s a small amount of retribution for what this angel did. As they recite to him that they are now in charge, and that they have the leverage, Sam relishes telling the Scribe of God to “Learn it, live it, love it.” They are going to make him pay back for every wrongdoing he’s ever done to them—and it’ll start with him telling them how to remove the Mark.
And yet, Metatron tells them that his statement about the “river ending at the source” was him making up crap. He was trying to buy time so he could screw them over later. Castiel tells Sam that Metatron’s telling the truth—and yet we have to wonder if that truth was about the later part—the screwing them over—and not about the supposed making crap up. Clearly, Metatron knows something. He knows the magic involved in the Mark is nearly as old as God—or at least Lucifer level—and so there’s perhaps some form of hope that they can get him to tell them what he knows. Sam’s gamble hasn’t totally payed off just yet. He put all of his brother’s words into action—having his brother’s back in good and bad times and when it hurts—and yet he doesn’t have the answer he wanted just yet.
Sam may be a bit disappointed about that, but that doesn’t mean he’ll give up or call this a dead end yet. After all, Metatron does still owe them something. He knows where Castiel’s grace is—and he’ll take the angel to it. If they can perhaps restore Castiel, perhaps there’s hope they can restore Dean, too. If they can force Metatron to do this, they can still force him to give them the information they know he has to have about the Mark. Sam will just have to be patient a bit longer—his long hours of research, his diligence to find answers, and his drive—have gotten him this far. He has to keep going, to see it through. To not do so would fail Dean’s thesis. Dean may have shown us what the stakes were—that we were to fight for our humanity and to be worthy of the family standing with us—but Sam knows that he has to do the same with his actions here.
And it’s also why we know Metatron’s not the only thread he’s pulling on to find answers—to find a way to stand with his brother even when it hurts. He’s still waiting on Charlie. After all, he sent her on a mission to retrieve a book he hopes may hold answers to removing the Mark. He may not have found it in their own library, but he found out about it there.
But Bobby takes Dean’s thesis and gives Sam another life line that he desperately needs as he must rally patience. He sends a letter through Castiel, giving Sam a chance to hear from someone that cares as much as he does—understands how hard this is—and can give him the hope he desperately needs right now. Sam, telling his brother that the movie was “French” makes his way into his tampered with room. Rather than inspecting to see just what his brother may have done to it, he instead pulls that letter out and quietly sits down to read it. Mirroring the very same pose he made in Dean’s room months earlier while looking at photos, Sam reads through Bobby’s encouraging words.
This letter provides the punctuation that Sam needs—it gives us a richer understanding of the thesis Dean provides. He simply tells Sam, “Sam, so, this is weird huh? Look I just wanted to say that Cas told me what you’re doing for Dean and I’m not asking you to stop but maybe going behind his back ain’t the best idea. Your brother, he can be stubborn but I think he’d understand and I know it’s the life: doing a little bad so you can do a lot of good but sometimes the bad is real bad and the good , it can come at one hell of a price. I ain’t there on the ground and whatever you do, I know you’ll make the right choice. You’re a good man, Sam Winchester, one of the best and I’m damn proud of you son. I was content up here but getting a call from you, it’s the happiest I’ve been in forever, no matter what it costs. So stay safe, keep fighting and kick it in the ass. Bobby.”
Bobby reminds Sam that he doesn’t have to be in this alone—and while he wants to do this for his brother, he should tell Dean about this. Bobby is gentle here. He’s prodding Sam to remember that they’re stronger together—that family does indeed stand by in the good and the bad—that they’re there when it hurts—and that family cares about you no matter what. He reminds Sam that they must keep fighting, and that they must kick it in the ass. It’s perhaps the best life line from a fellow family member Sam could have asked for—and while he doesn’t have the good news about removing the Mark he wanted, he does have this from Bobby. If anything, this letter might boost Dean more than any cure could have—because in the end, it’s always been about family for the Winchesters.
And isn’t that the whole point?
How else do you think Dean’s thesis was proven?