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If Season three was about the self-actualization of Dean Winchester, then what was Season four about? A self-actualized man must face his character tests. Dean's ultimate season four test ends up being the test of faith. Not faith in God or angels, but faith in everything he believes to be right and what matters to him the most, family. No matter what situation he faces, he has to keep honoring that humanity rulebook, not gray the line between right and wrong, and be willing to die over what he believes no matter what or who tells him otherwise, including the angels. Including Sam.
Test of faith are one of the most infamous trials faced by common man. What makes Dean's case so extraordinary is that he never had faith in God before. He only believed what he could see. So when he's pulled from Hell, resurrected by an angel, called for duty by Heaven to prevent the apocalypse, forced to deal with his PTSD from life in Hell, and watched his brother transform into a monster, it's incredible any faith at all grew from that. Somehow, it got stronger. 
No one had a greater impact on Dean's character in season four than Castiel. What's even more fascinating is how Dean managed to have a huge impact on Castiel as well. From Castiel, Dean strengthened his resolve in the free will of man and exposed how flawed and immoral the other angels are. From Dean, Castiel learned that faith doesn't mean being blind and following orders. 
Despite all his trauma, Dean held up extremely well to his tests of character except one. He kept his blinders on when it came to Sam and the results were disastrous. Dean dealt with Sam the way he always did and didn't see how bad Sam was drowning from his burdens and loss of control. Of course, Dean had a lot of crap to deal with from the get go himself so his issues with Sam were understandable and perfectly normal. Plus Sam shouldered equal blame. Often times duty got in the way of family, even if that wasn't the intention.
Going through the episodes gives a great sense of all the tests Dean had to endure.
Lazarus Rising
Dean has a lot of crap to deal with in this one. I guess when you wake up six feet under in your own grave, that shakes you up a bit. After clawing his way out, Dean's left with the task to get answers for wtf happened. The answer he gets is even more jarring. Dean finally after a lifetime of denial has to face facts, God and angels are real. Enter Castiel, a force like none other he's ever had to deal with. They have work for him.
What's interesting is Dean's relationship with Sam resumes instantly with suspicion and mistrust. His very first thoughts are that Sam made a deal. Actually, that's his only theory, and his harsh accusations don't exactly keep their reunion heartwarming. While getting the story from Sam about what happened in Indiana and beyond, his mistrust still lingers when he asks Sam if he's using his powers. Not that Sam is right by lying, but he doesn't tell Dean the truth knowing that he would get mad at him and order him to stop (which is exactly what he did when he eventually found out). He'd rather let Dean go on thinking everything is still the same. Dean buys this for now, for he has other distractions. 
Are You There God? It's Me Dean Winchester
Dean is forced to ask those philosophical questions that anyone pushed into a test of faith asks. Why did God pick me? If there is a God, why is there so much misery in the world?   Naturally Dean doesn't get his answers, which frustrates him enough to lash out at Castiel and his vague "the Lord works in mysterious ways" answer. His new angel friend sets him straight though about the bigger picture. Seals are being broken one by one by Lilith and after 66, Lucifer walks free. So Dean not only has to accept God is real, but the Devil is as well. That's too much for a man to take on in a few days. 
In The Beginning
Being sent back into the past is sure fire proof that this angel thing is real. Again, Dean is tested. It's much the same test he faced in "What Is And What Should Never Be." Does he put the welfare of his family over the welfare of humanity? In WIAWSNB, the answer was easier because it was his own welfare he was sacrificing. Here, it ends up being his parents, and he's going to stop what happened consequences be damned. 
Castiel doesn't help Dean either by giving him false hope, thus suggesting this could be a test from higher up. He lets Dean believe he could save his parents by throwing him into the beginnings of the tragic Winchester family history. He sees how Mary and his grandparents were hunters.  How Mary hoped for a better life. How Mary's deal for John's life doomed Sam.  Castiel tells Dean he has to stop it, just about crushing Dean's heart when he finds out that wasn't about his parents. Of course once he finds out the real reason, that Sam is headed down a dangerous road since he's infected with demon blood and part of some endgame, Castiel literately puts the fear of God in Dean. "Stop him, or we will." You got to admit, it's a pretty powerful message for anyone, let alone someone who's had a very extraordinary few weeks. He rushes off to save Sam with some very big worry.
I'm not sure what Dean expected when he went to that warehouse, but one of his common reactions to fear is anger. Throw in a few feelings of betrayal and fists start flying. The two times Dean punches Sam and when he throws the lamp across the room is a pretty big clue to support that. Sam tearfully tries to explain, but Dean doesn't understand. "If I didn't know you, I would want to hunt you." Ouch! It's his turn to do the fear of God thing, telling Sam he was sent by angels and God to stop him. Sure, Dean is scared too and has every right to be, but that scolding doesn't help him with Sam. If anything, he ultimately ends up pushing Sam away. 
In Dean's defense, Sam did deserve the brunt of the anger, especially when he lets it slip that he knew about being infected with demon blood as a baby for a year. Dean has a right to be offended, but his sardonic attitude instantly shuts Sam up rather than gets them discussing it. Dean eventually forces an outburst from Sam with his stinging comment, "Nice dude but he's got something evil inside of him, something in his blood. Maybe you can relate."  Sam's outburst though is short lived.  Based on Sam's refusal to talk about his issues in the end, Dean didn't set things right.
Yellow Fever
Sure, this is for the most part a comical episode, but we do get a glaring look at Dean's two biggest fears: Going back to Hell and Sam going evil. It becomes obvious when he sees yellow in Sam's eyes even though the hallucinations have stopped that evil Sam is the stronger of the two. It gives us a good understanding of why Dean has been so hard on Sam. By using his powers, that fear is coming true.
It's The Great Pumpkin Sam Winchester/Wishful Thinking
These are the PTSD, Dean-starts-to-remember-Hell episodes. Now he's pushing Sam away because he believes Sam wouldn't understand. Oh boy, these guys are really brothers, aren't they? "You wouldn't understand" is a great defense mechanism for "I don't want to deal with it." Dean's drinking amps up since the flashbacks he's getting are shaking him to the core.
Alas though, Dean see's Sam's powers in action against a powerful demon like Samhain and with stunned expression must accept there's no going back for Sam. It bothers the crap out of him, but he has a better understanding of why Sam went there. He just saved the world. From this point, he backs off on Sam using his abilities.

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There's also a big shift in Dean's relationship with Castiel. They gain a bit more mutual respect, especially with Castiel being honest over things to come at the end. Dean has never liked being fed bullshit, and Castiel did a ton to earn his trust.
I Know What You Did Last Summer
I bring this up for the one exchange with Sam. Dean still doesn't understand why Sam trusts Ruby so much. "I come back and you're BFFs with demon." Sam tries to explain she helped him go after Lilith, but that's not enough. "Well thanks for the thumbnail, real vivid. You want to fill in a little detail?" "Sure Dean, let's trade stories. You first, how was Hell, don't spare the details."
Dean does finally calm down and gets the honest truth out of Sam. He finally figures out an approach with his brother that works. Too bad it doesn't last.
Heaven And Hell
Setting aside grace in a bottle and Dean nailing an angel he has absolutely no chemistry with (I'm still pushing for Anna and Castiel in season five though), Dean has a ton of crap to deal with here. The angels threaten to send him back to Hell if he doesn't give up Anna. This is where Dean glowingly passes one of his big tests. He doesn't give in and calls Uriel on his bluff. He is willing to go back to Hell if that's what it takes. Of course everyone knows Dean's weakness, and the threat goes over to harming Sam. Family wins in the priority game and he gives up Anna. He is forgiven though by Anna for his choice.   
While I'm still uncertain of Dean's part in the plan of the angels and demons to get together, the fact that Dean jumps in against Alastair to save Castiel is pretty awesome. The angel has grown on him. It's that mutual trust and respect thing getting stronger.
Of course since Sam shared his story, Dean finally shares his trauma from Hell with Sam. He resisted for 30 Hell years, being carved and torn apart day after day, but he ended up becoming a torturer. It's a long overdue caring and sharing moment, complete with tears, heartbreaking honesty, respectful listening and its even better on top of the Impala. It's the purest family moment this show has had. Dean has truly grown from his "no chick flick moments" rule.   Dean shares again in the next episode about how much he liked the torture, but that didn't have anywhere near the impact as this scene.
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Sex And Violence
Any goodwill Dean had with Sam implodes. Of course Sam starts it because he's sneaking around with Ruby behind Dean's back again. That's a slap in the face to Dean and instead of trying to find out why he reacts with anger much like he did in "Metamorphosis."   Again he alienates his brother with a biting comment rather than confronting him with the truth. "First Madison, then Ruby and now Cara. What is it with you and banging monsters?" Sam reacts by throwing the phone across the room. Not a bonding moment.

SV 75
Thanks to the deliciously evil and very bored siren, they are forced through the spell to come clean in the most confrontational way. Sam's words did more damage than anything. Seeing that side of Sam, the defiance, shook Dean pretty good. At the end while Sam is remorseful but unapologetic, Dean is still mad, even though he's the one that almost killed Sam. It isn't Sam's words as much as his actions that cause that anger to linger. He brushes them off as "good" though, for at this point, he doesn't know what to do with Sam.
Death Takes A Holiday
Dean's still internalizing his issues with Sam, but it's never his nature to hold back too long. As Sam's getting ready to leave the diner, Dean acts reluctant and hurt. "You sure you want me going with you? I don't want to be holding you back." Sam still won't apologize, blaming it on the siren, so Dean drops it. 
Castiel is back to manipulating Dean, as it turns out their little ghost riding thing was a setup for Castiel to capture Alastair since the building was angel proofed. He even faked the call from Bobby to Sam. When asking Castiel why he didn't ask him, Dean gets all his defiance thrown right back at him. "Because whatever I ask, you seem to do the exact opposite."  He had Dean there. 
On The Head Of A Pin
Oh, poor Dean! *sobs profusely* They broke him. Bad angels, bad!  
From the first shot in the Impala, Dean is in a very bad place, so much so Sam is shown driving while Dean is withdrawn in the passenger seat. He's crushed over Pamela's death, and that on top of his drama with Sam and the angels have worn him down. He's deeply depressed and doesn't join in on Sam's eagerness to track down a Lilith lead.
It's Dean's outburst after his depressed arrival at just another motel room that sums it up so well. He's upset about Pamela and wants to be left alone. I think the phrase "So maybe you can stop pushing us around like chess pieces for five freaking minutes!" gets the point across.  The burdens of saving the world are wearing him thin and there's never a break. The nasty angels take him anyway. Dicks with wings indeed. 
They have Alastair, and Dean is the only one that can get answers over who's killing the angels. He must use torture, the stuff he learned while he was in Hell. Dean desperately doesn't want to become that person again. He doesn't want to unleash that animal inside of him that he so loathes. Castiel is sympathetic, but as a good trained soldier, orders are orders. Dean's crushing acceptance that he must put more important needs over his own pretty much kills us dead. He puts duty above all else, a bravery test passed.
His lengthy and agonizing scenes with an unyielding Alastair twist our insides (and his too) about 800 ways. Dean holds firm even when the most crushing news possible happens. He broke the first seal with his first tortured soul in Hell. He swallows the devastating emotional blow but accepts his work isn't done. He goes back to Alastair, who's escaped thanks to Uriel and his "convert angels into Lucifer followers plan." Alastair beats Dean to near death before Castiel saves him. 

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After coming out of the coma, Castiel confirms that Dean started the apocalypse, and he's the only one that can stop it (I guess knowing the outcome now, that is a true statement). Dean has nothing left. He does the most human thing he's ever done, he cries and admits defeat. Castiel has no idea what to do.
The Monster At The End Of This Book
Thanks to the "intervention" in "It's A Terrible Life" Dean is back, but he's not ready to take on Lilith. Is his confidence shaken or is he being smart? 
He calls Sam in a roundabout way reckless, and tries to do the opposite of what Chuck wrote. It doesn't work, especially when Sam is itching for a showdown and refuses to listen to him. What else can Dean do? He does the inconceivable, he prays! Castiel is very pleased by this show of faith and helps Dean in a very sneaky way. Dean has left a big enough impression on Castiel where the angel is now pushing his boundaries.
Dean still hasn't let go of the idea that he must protect Sam. He is willing to do anything, even taking his chances with the wrath of an archangel. He is able to save Sam for now, but soon finds out Sam is more determined than ever to hunt Lilith down.  The fight is not over and neither is the danger.
Jump The Shark
With his new found perspective from the last few seasons, Dean without those rose colored glasses gets to see the very worst of his father, and it all comes from his brother. It bothers him a lot to where he's butting heads with Sam much like Sam did with their dad. No doubt when Dean salts and burns Adam's remains he thinks in the back of his mind that he isn't going to make the same mistake like he did with Sam. Trying to bring Adam back would be unnatural. He has indeed learned. Remember this for later.

The Rapture
Dean held incredible composure after seeing first hand what a blood sucking freak Sam has become. He didn't lose his temper or scream and yell, even though that was the final straw for him. That worries Sam a little, especially when he begs Dean to get it out in the open, but Dean doesn't give up the plan. With Bobby's help, it's time to rescue Sam from himself. 
Things go really bad with Castiel too. Castiel comes to him for help, but he's dragged off to Heaven before he can talk with Dean. When Castiel returns from being Heaven, he is no longer Dean's ally and friend. Dean is back to square one.
When The Levee Breaks
Maybe Dean's tired of reasoning with Sam, maybe he thinks there's no getting through to him, but locking Sam in the panic room in his mind is the only solution. Dry out like a junkie would and then maybe he'll come to his senses. After all, Sam's erratic behavior, his deception, that's all due to the demon blood right?
I don't think Dean goes into the detox plan knowing all the risks or understanding why Sam is doing this to himself. He seems a little shocked when Bobby says "if he survives." He might not have seen this as more than Sam's misguided need for revenge. His only reason is it's the best way to protect Sam, which is why he makes the deal with Castiel under the air of suspicion.
No, Dean doesn't realize how bad Sam's addiction has grown until Sam has the seizure. Sam has become unrecognizable. Dean could have taken Bobby's advice and given Sam more demon blood, but that wouldn't have gotten his brother back, which is all he wants. Sam is better off dead than becoming what Castiel warned him Sam could become.

That thinking isn't wrong, but Dean lets his anger get the better of him when Sam escapes and gets together with Ruby. When Sam saves Ruby from Dean's attack, Dean is too mad and incredulous at the time to listen to Sam's plea. He thinks Sam doesn't know what he's doing and he even says so. Dean ignores Bobby's advice and hits the hot button, using the "m" word, not realizing that's the one word Sam couldn't hear from him (as we saw in the earlier hallucination). I'm sure he didn't think that Sam would start throwing punches and try to kill him. He probably figured Sam would passively listen to him like he always did, swallowing all that resentment. 

All that's left as Sam goes to leave is an ultimatum. If Sam is willing to walk out on family, then Dean can't help him anymore. Sam leaves anyway. Dean takes that to be the ultimate betrayal without understanding why Sam did it. He really doesn't know his brother.
Yes, out of a season of tests, this one Dean failed.  (Sam, is no innocent either, so blame is not being assigned in that statement).
Lucifer Rising
Thank heavens Bobby is great at virtual ass kicking. He hands Dean his on platter, telling him that family is supposed to make him miserable and he's a better man than his father, who turned Sam away rather than talk to him. That little pep talk comes just in time too before the angels take Dean away, right when he starts thinking about trying to get hold of Sam. 
The end is coming, the final showdown, time to make amends. Except it's too late. Sam won't answer his cell, the angels won't let him leave and they won't give him five minutes with Sam. Zachariah gleefully announces the apocalypse is happening and Sam plays a part. Now Dean is really worried about Sam and what they're going to do to him. The fact that Sam becomes his biggest worry means his priorities are back in line. He hasn't given up on family. 


Dean's greatest triumph though is he finally gets through to Castiel. The orders are wrong and not coming from God. Castiel sends Zachariah away and tells Dean the horrible truth. If Sam kills Lilith, the end begins. 
I've watched the end of "Lucifer Rising" several times and while Dean is concerned of Sam's well being, he still looks mad just before Sam tells him he's sorry. Not seething, but irritated. I'm dying to see what sort of brotherly exchange comes from that. Me thinks Dean isn't going to forgive Sam so easily. There's too much mistrust and hard feelings. He's going to need to be there for Sam though, since his brother is facing his darkest hour and can't do it alone.
As for Dean's mental state, I think he's more than ready to take on the apocalypse now. He's passed all his character tests. It's time to step up. He's just got to pick up a fallen angel and an addict brother first. Men of destiny gotta do that sort of thing. Bring on season five! 


# Bevie 2009-08-18 15:39
Hi Clarice

Just to let you know Alice did Sam's deeper look for Season Four on August 12, 2009.

Just go up top and look in the latest articles list.

And Alice, another great article!

Lol! Although I DO see chemistry between Dean and Anna. Different strokes I guess.
# Tigershire 2009-08-19 00:49
OK, first, loved the article Alice, nicely done. Now, back to When the Levee Breaks - at first I believed that the demon blood was doing all those nasty things to Sam as he started to detox, but.....

Yes, but. We know that Cas is the one who let Sam out. He broke circle and opened the door, etc. How much more could he have possibly done? All of it really. Cas could have flung Sam around the room. He could have inspired all those hallucinations (although I don't think he did). At this point Cas was in obedient soldier mode and NOT helping Dean. He was, in fact, helping Uriel even thought he didn't know it.

Then there was Ruby's comment at the end of Lucifer Rising....You didn't need the feather Dumbo, you had it in you the whole time.

Perhaps the detox was augmented by Cas????

# elle 2009-08-19 11:42
Excellent article! I enjoyed the look at Dean's journey and the idea that he was subject to character tests. I am really curious to see the result of these tests in Season Five.

Tigershire, you make an interesting observation that Cas could have been puppeting Sam during his seizure. My understanding of the demon blood addiction that afflicts Sam is that while he didn't need the blood to activate his powers, the addiction was still true. I think that Ruby got Sam hooked so he was dependent on her and more pliable and swayed to her suggestions. I do believe he was addicted in the truest sence of the word, like any drug addict or acoholic. Intriguing to think about though.
# Tigershire 2009-08-20 01:10
Elle, Yes, now that I think about, I agree. The sweats, etc would have definitely be a withdrawal thing. Still, I wonder about how much Cas was involved. The Angels wanted Sam out of that panic room and Cas was still believing in Uriel at this point.

I guess part of the reason I wonder is, with the Devil's Traps on the floor and ceiling, and all the "anti-demon" stuff around, wouldn't it have had some effect on Sam? I mean, sure he never had as much demon mojo as a full on demon, but for the blood to have the effect of tossing him around the room seems pretty heavy weight to me.

Ah, just the rabid thoughts of fan nearing the end of hellatius......
# Suze 2009-08-22 17:17
Tigershire, that is SO sneaky ...

Cunning as a bag full of weasles. You totally had me going for a few minutes but I don't think all the cold turkey was Cas-induced as we saw Sam hurting on other occasions and if the whole thing was psychosematic and/or Angels messing with his head then the addict recovery storyline they've been touting for S5 ( soon ... soon ... be calm ... ) is going to be a touch on the short side ... ;-)
# Tigershire 2009-08-22 18:52
Hey Suze - what kind of SuperN fan would I be if I didn't over analyze the show hey! GRIN

Actually, I never did think Cas caused the hallucinations but when he peeked out from the side of the panic room after Sam bugged out....I said, out loud to the TV no less, "How long have you been there?" My eyes even went all squinty as I peered at him on my TV screen.

Not to mention that I think Cas had a bit of a hand in getting both Dean and Bobby to take a nap right when Sam needed to leave. But it's speculation on my part there too.

The whole deal is highly suspicious, is all.

And with 5 days til I head to Vancouver, I'm feeling a bit twitchy - GRIN.
# Lolita 2009-10-11 14:20
I want to know something! Like, why did Sam leave Dean in the hotel room, when the Levee Breaks? He was after killing Lilith, because she was holding the deal Dean made when he sacrificed himself for Sam? So pretty much Sam is revenge-driven against Lilith, whereas Dean is not? I am really confused, it's an awesome series, and being confused is good (means it's complicated), but can someone explain please?
# Lolita 2009-10-12 01:34
Oh, you actually answered me, I feel so special, haha! Love you, Alice.

I still need to get why Sam wants to Lilith at the first place. Is it because she killed Dean? That she held his deal? So the whole revenge thing he has going actually is based on the fact it's all to receive 'justice' (wow, he really is lawyer material!) for what she did to Dean? I just thought of that, it makes sense. Because I always went along that he wants to kill Lilith, and just never really *thought* why.