Every time I take Jared or Jensen’s superb performances for granted, they do something to remind me how much attention they pay to every line, every scene, every day.
It might be sacrilege to say this, but I believe that Jared’s very best performances often occur in scenes that don’t include Jensen. It’s as if Jared notches it up a bit (which is saying something by itself) because he knows he has to carry the scene. His sincere acceptance of Dylan sold Dean’s transformation, and Jared’s initial reactions to seeing and accepting TeenDean were hilarious!
Jared has excellent comedic timing! As far as I’m concerned, their partnership stole the show.
The episode started out very strong. The music that followed the flashback montage was engaging, fitting and prophetic:
Ashes, the Rain and I by The James Gang (Joe Walsh)
Sometimes I sit and I stare at the rain
Isn't rain filled with sorrow?
Wonder if I'll see my home again
Will it be dry tomorrow?
Time passes softly and I'm a day older
But still I'm living days gone by
Ashes to ashes, the rain's turning colder
Finding tomorrow, the ashes, the rain & I
- Joe Walsh - Ashes The Rain And I Lyrics | MetroLyrics
Dean is lost, worried and scared. He’s trying to find a way to push through the fear and despair to fight for tomorrow. Perhaps he is longing for “days gone by”? Curious, since he would soon be 14 years old again. This was perfect music to set the tone of the story and the subsequent poignant conversation between the brothers:
Sam: Look, I know you’re worried about the Mark.Sam has more faith in Dean than Dean has in himself.
Dean: Yes, Sam, I am. Between what I did with Charlie…
Sam: Charlie forgave you. How about you forgive yourself?
Dean: Because I’m not exactly batting 1000 here, you know?
Sam: Yeah, I do know that, but staying locked up in here, sitting on the ground, reading the same lore books over and over again – it’s not helping you. You need to get back in the game, for your own good. You can beat this, Dean.
Dean: You really believe that?
Sam: Yeah, you’re damn right I believe that.
That has always been the case, though. In “Point of No Return”, when Dean gave up hope and surrendered to the apocalypse, Sam’s unwavering belief in his older brother gave Dean a reason to continue fighting. Dean confessed he only found his will because he didn’t want to let Sam down. How many times in the past few weeks has Sam again been the reassuring voice? “You can do this. We can do this.” was the closing line in “There’s No Place Like Home”. In “About A Boy”, when Dean’s faith in himself was so low that he was afraid to even leave his room, Sam told him “You’re damn right I believe [you can beat this]”. The anecdote about Sam believing in the Easter bunny established a life-long pattern of Sam holding out hope against reason. He has always seen “the light at the end of the tunnel”. He has always kept them going with his faith. Dean again heard and felt Sam’s undying faith and, using the hope that Sam offered, Dean picked himself up off the metaphorical floor and found the strength to face down the MoC again. At the bar, Dean said “Screw it. I’m going to believe in myself”. That’s not quite forgiving himself, but maybe it’s a start.
At our lowest points in life, it often takes someone believing in us to keep us going. We know we’ve brought ruin upon ourselves and we’ve hurt people we love. We’re afraid to move in any direction because we’ve chosen the wrong direction so many times we believe that’s all we’re capable of doing anymore. Dean is in that place and Sam is giving him the steadfast love and support he needs.
A moment in “Theres No Place Like Home” really struck me last week. I didn’t comment on it at the time because it wasn’t immediately relevant to the story. Remember when Charlie and Dean were talking at the end of their ordeal? Dean was embarrassed and ashamed of himself, but Charlie wanted to forgive him. Dean, clearly horrified by what he had done, apologized to Charlie. That was a very important and powerful conversation, but what was interesting to me was that Sam kept his distance the whole time. I was struck how Sam recognized that, as an adult, Dean needed to take responsibility for what he had done. Sam didn’t try to make excuses for Dean’s actions, or jump in to make Dean feel better, saying “it wasn’t you, it was the Mark”. Sam respected Dean enough to let Dean own whatever he was feeling at that moment, even if those feelings were shame and sorrow. Sam was present for support, but he didn’t interfere with either Dean or Charlie expressing what they felt. He gave them the space and the time they needed to process their emotions. Sam’s wisdom and emotional maturity in that moment was striking. His presence gave both of them support and strength because they knew he understood and would help if asked, but he respected that they needed to work this out for themselves.
Even though it hasn’t yet been specifically referenced, Sam’s empathy to Dean may be grounded by his own memories of what it is like to be fighting for your life, battling guilt, low self-esteem and insurmountable odds against an evil that wants your soul. The turning point for Sam happened in “Swan Song”, when Dean was simply present for Sam, as Sam battled Satan. Dean kept repeating, I’m here. I’m not going to leave you.” Dean wouldn’t abandon Sam, assuring him they were together until the end. Dean didn’t say “I believe in you”. He didn’t say “You can do this. Keep fighting.” He simply said I’m here. I’m not going anywhere. You are not alone. Dean’s role in their brotherhood is being present. He may not always know what to do, but he knows how to show up, ready for action. Sam’s part of the partnership is believing they can prevail together. He has enough faith for both of them.
Monsters...and their Families
As Sam and TeenDean drove back to the witch’s cottage, TeenDean admitted that he was tempted to stay young in order to avoid the return of the Mark. His words betrayed the enormity of the battle he was fighting and revealed how he views himself:
Dean: “If it’s between being a psycho, rage monster/borderline demon or a teenager… "
Dean’s self-identification as a “monster” reiterates this season’s study of humans as monsters, and their families’ fight to save them from succumbing to the overwhelming temptations and power of the supernatural. The unwavering support from his family is helping Dean find the strength to survive the supernatural force overtaking him.
The MoC…and Redemption
I mentioned that I considered the first half of the episode to be flawless. I was completely mesmerized by the acting, the story and its messages up to the point when the mismatched brothers found the witch’s cottage. I’ll admit that I wasn’t crazy about the choice to use the Hansel and Gretel fable.
It felt a little outlandish and perilously close to being a “Once Upon A Time” or “Grimm” storyline. A generic witch with a modus operandi of killing children could have been dispatched to chase Rowena. That would have been more consistent with Supernatural’s dark, serious, testosterone-laced hunting tone. Still, Adam Glass gets points for tying the hunt into an ancient “urban legend” i.e. fable, and we previously had a story about fairy tales that come to life, so there was a precedent for this premise within the series. Considering it would be hard to be completely dark when asked to accept a body swap, fountain of youth assertion, the fable plot line got a pass based on artistic license and Supernatural’s creative history.
Where the story lost me was when Sam’s move to escape was completely ineffective, and 14 year old Dean had to save them all. I was infuriated. I mean really livid. I would have been fine if Sam would have used his back pocket knife to kill Hansel. Then being overpowered by the witch (which was reasonable considering her age and power) would have given Dean the time he needed to grab the kitchen knife, the hex bag (from Hansel’s corpse), and shove the witch in the proverbial oven. Each brother would have had an equal part in the rescue and the outcome would have been the same. Why would the writers portray Sam as utterly incompetent and less capable than a teenager?
My reaction surprised me, because I don’t keep track of how many times Sam gets knocked unconscious, or how many times Dean gets tied up. I don’t get defensive or possessive of one brother over the other, but this lit me up like a firecracker and completely pulled me out of the story. I was so appalled at Sam’s treatment that I broke the ending down into its individual components to consider why it would have been written this way. First, my proposed alternate ending would have been viable, so Sam’s uselessness has now, officially, become a chronic problem. Next, Dean couldn’t stay young for obvious reasons. Even within the story, TeenDean would not have been capable of physically overpowering the witch. He, Sam and Tina would all have become stew and Dean’s ideal solution to the Mark would have simply ended his life, so there was no choice but to return Dean to adulthood. Now the last part. Dean saved Sam. That was intentional. Why was it so important for Dean to sacrifice himself to save Sam…again? The importance of this outcome was noticeably reiterated in Sam’s epilogue:
Dean: “Look I know what you’re going say, OK? But you were in deep and..."
Sam: “I know, you saved me, and you saved Tina. You pulled a ‘Dean Winchester’. Thank you."
Sam went so far as to name the act of sacrificing yourself to save others against impossible odds a “Dean Winchester”. If we are dispassionately looking for clues to what’s important, then my attention is drawn to elevating this outcome to being so common, in character and expected that it’s given a label. Dean would do anything, anything for his brother. He gave up his chance to be rid of the MoC, and to get a clean slate, a virgin liver and a second chance on life for his brother. Last season he risked sacrificing his brother’s love in order to save his brother’s life. The conversation in the bar about how he spent his childhood caring for Sam just reminded us how much of Dean’s life has been defined by taking care of his brother. Why was it so important to make the climax of this story revolve around this point? I have to conclude that this is adding weight to a long history of choices that will be relevant to the climax of the season.
I have theorized that Dean forgiving himself is the only way he will control the mark. His self-hatred and rage fuel the mark, so only acceptance and self-compassion will neutralize it, or cut off its fuel source. Cain’s promise to Colette to stop killing motivated him to live a solitary, quiet, peaceful life. Similarly, following Dean’s attack on Charlie and her challenge to “prove” his repentance, Dean also withdrew from society. He locked himself up in his room, apart even from Sam. It is unclear if this would have worked in the long term for Dean, though. Sam certainly didn’t think so. Charlie was not the center of Dean’s life, as Colette was to Cain. Only something happening to Sam would parallel the trauma experienced by Cain. Is the key to Dean’s total redemption then, i.e. getting rid of the Mark, an apology to Sam and a request for forgiveness? I think that would certainly help and might neutralize the Mark’s power, and, like Cain, allow Dean to live a prolonged period of time, as long as Dean stayed away from the temptations of violence. In other words, Dean could probably peacefully co-exist with the Mark if he retired and took up beekeeping.
What must Dean do to remove the Mark entirely, though? Cain wasn’t able to get rid of the Mark, despite trying everything including killing himself. He never asked for Abel’s forgiveness, though, nor did he ever feel he made the wrong decision in killing Abel. Maybe Cain still bears the Mark because he still bears the “sin” of his brother’s death. The climax of Cain’s life was killing his brother. That was what made him a demon. Could the climax of the Mark, which is patterned and named after Cain, be again causing someone to kill their brother? Is the Mark’s “curse” more than just escalating violence? Could the Mark’s express purpose be to cause a brother to kill a brother? If so, then the climax of Dean’s struggle with the MoC will be the Mark trying to force Dean to kill Sam. Njspnfan theorized in a “Threads” commentary that perhaps the Mark’s curse would only be broken by its bearer having the strength, presence of mind and will to stop himself from killing his brother.
I think this episode’s emphasis on Sam’s undying faith and being the center of Dean’s life supports this theory. Bookdal and I had a long conversation in which she pointed out all the parallels between Sam’s "Swan Song" and Dean’s Mark of Cain. Pure evil, in the form of Lucifer, had successfully gained possession of Sam’s soul. It was driving him to mercilessly beat Dean to death. Lucifer’s hold over Sam was broken, though, by Dean sticking by his brother to the end. Sam is now doing the same for Dean. He has professed his faith in Dean repeatedly.
Sam: “look, man, do I wish the mark was gone? Yes, Of course. Absolutely I do but I wanted you back and now here you are and you didn’t hulk out so I’ll take the win. As for the rest of it, the Mark, everything else, we’ll figure it out. We always do.”
Dean: "Damn right."
Sam’s hope is getting through to Dean. Dean believes in himself again, because saving Sam reminded him of who he was and enabled him to do the two things he lives to do – save people and take care of Sam. The message of this episode was that Sam wanted Dean back, with all his flaws and the MoC and whatever other baggage Dean has (i.e. Sam has forgiven Dean?); and that Dean’s first priority, even above himself, is protecting Sam.
When Dean defended his choice to Sam, he didn’t say “I had to save the girl”, or “I had to kill the witch” or “I had to finish the job”. He specifically said, “you were in deep”. Dean’s first and strongest instinct will always be to save Sam. That, that, is why time after time the message is being driven home that Dean must always save Sam. In the end, that instinct will break the curse. In “Swan Song”, Sam regained control of himself, in essence was saved, by Dean’s presence at the pit. Equally, I now believe that Dean will regain his soul because of Sam’s faith in him. Until his last breath, Sam will keep saying “I believe in you. You can beat this Dean.” The story will come full circle, and Sam will save Dean.
In the end, I have decided that “About A Boy” was ok because I believe it further established how Dean is going to get rid of the Mark. I will hold onto the breathtaking performance of TeenDean, the hilarious and convincing reactions of Sam, the touching revelations of what Dean thinks of himself, and the melting expressions of honesty and mutual support between the brothers.
For so very long, I have waited for them to be honest with each other. Sam admitted he wanted Dean back. Dean asked for and then accepted his brother’s faith in him….and I’m fairly certain on rewatch, I saw Sam kill Hansel. ; ).
I’ll take the win.
Dean: “I’m back Baby”…but was he really? He liked Taylor Swift! He let teen pop music play in the Impala! More than a heresy – maybe that was a sign that Dean can change. I have a much larger theory that the song and the constant presence of teenagers this season is a targeted redirection of the show to a younger demographic, but I’ll leave that story for another day.
When Dean downed the shot of whiskey at the bar, we heard the telltale heartbeat that usually indicates the Mark is rearing up. Dean immediately clutched his arm, as if drinking weakened him and gave the Mark strength. Alcohol is a vice but I haven’t before observed that all vices bring Dean closer to being a demon. It was a nod to Dean’s attempted puritanism last week to control the Mark, and I appreciate the continuity, but I didn't previously interpret vices as tools of the Mark. I presumed self-restraint was the point, not the vices themselves. Should we revise our MoC traits, then? Theories?
So, what do you think of Sam’s eternal hope and Dean’s eternal protection combining to defeat the Mark? Do you think forgiveness is the key, or will it come down to the final battle between brothers? Was that the moral of this fable for you?