I don’t know if you’ve noticed Dean’s alter ego as The Decider, but it’s something I think about a lot, and have been thinking about for years. Because more important than killing monsters or thwarting the apocalyptic plans, or falling accidentally, obliviously in love with angels, Dean decides. And his decisions control both the narrative and the show’s truths. Decider!Dean’s control of the show’s story arcs is a thing that’s made me repeatedly, and increasingly, angry in the past few seasons, but there are hints in early season 9, particularly 9.02 “Devil May Care,” that the show just might finally be challenging Decider!Dean to dramatic effect.
What follows is an analysis of Dean’s role as decider throughout the show, the effects of his position (good and bad), and speculation on how I hope his character is being challenged. Please note that for as much as Dean’s actions have a tendency to enrage me, I super love and appreciate Dean in lots of other ways not under examination here, and that critical analysis ≠ Dean hate. Cool. Thanks.
Almost without exception, whatever Dean decides becomes the show’s operative strategy. It doesn’t matter how much work or backstory the writers put into leading Dean to his decisions, as soon as Dean makes his declaration, whatever he has decided becomes the show’s accepted truth and determines the events to follow. This was the conceit of season 6 when Dean decided that “we don’t work with demons” (all past evidence pointing to the contrary), putting him at odds with Cas. It was similarly problematic in season 7 when Dean decided monsters can never change their nature, leading him to betray Sam by killing Sam’s kitsuane friend Amy. Dean’s decisions have also led to things like the complete erasure of Lisa’s memory (still bitter!) and Benny’s self-sacrifice (ditto!). But Dean’s history of decisions reaches back further than three seasons, and his choices are not always negative, nor do only his negative choices drive the plot. It was Dean who decided to sell his soul to save Sam, for example, Dean who had to decide humanity was worth saving from the apocalypse, and Dean who had to decide whether his demon-blooded little brother was a monster. As proof of how crucial Dean’s decisions are, remember that in 4.21 and 4.22 Sam openly awaited Dean’s judgment to determine his own course of action; a fact Ruby exploited and, voila!, apocalypse. (My point being that Dean’s judgment was the thing other events were contingent upon, not that Dean caused the apocalypse.)
Dean’s decisions do more than drive the show’s plot, however; they also inscribe the show’s values. From simple rules of the road like “driver picks music, shotgun shuts his cakehole” to more emotional dictates like “no chick-flick moments,” and certainly by virtue of his role as Sam’s keeper and his status as the “righteous man” in the apocalypse mythology, Dean is the moral authority of Supernatural. “Family don’t end with blood,” for example, is a value lesson Dean picked up from Bobby, but these days it’s Dean who determines who’s family—Garth (arguably, as “the new Bobby”), Charlie (as “the little sister I never wanted”), Cas (as, well, Cas), and most recently, in 9.02, Kevin (I’m coming back to this, don’t worry). One of the other most recurring moral mandates of Supernatural has been that all monsters must die, no exceptions, and Dean has been a vocal advocate of this position and its main enforcer. Interestingly, last season was a little bit about challenging this value in Dean, though the theme never quite came to fruition—despite several encounters demonstrating that not all supernatural creatures are inherently evil, Dean himself never explicitly reversed his decision, though his friendship with Benny certainly implied he considered it. All these things are examples of what I mean by Dean’s decisions determining the show’s truth—whatever Dean decides about family, about monsters, about pie, about Busty Asian Beauties and one-night stands, about free will and fate, and Heaven and Hell, whether we as viewers agree with him or not, becomes the operating principle of the show.
It’s time to mention the obvious point that most of Dean’s decisions revolve around Sam, specifically what Dean thinks is best for Sam, not what Sam himself wants. The season 8 finale is of course our most recent and most powerful example. Sam was fully prepared to die to complete the trials and stated that, more than anything, he wanted to successfully complete them so as not to let Dean down. So while it’s touching that Dean would intervene to save Sam and heartbreaking that Dean had to convince Sam he won’t be disappointed in him for not dying—and acknowledging there wouldn’t be a show without Sam so of course Dean had to stop him—it’s still worth noting that Dean again stood in the way of what Sam wanted because his own desire (i.e., keeping Sam alive) trumped Sam’s. This has happened over and over throughout the series, in big and small ways—Dean decides what’s best for Sam; harps, teases, berates, yells, reasons, manipulates, or physically coerces Sam into compliance; and therefore determines the brothers’ next course of action. We witnessed this pattern play out in Sam’s own subconscious in the season 9 premiere. And just as we thought Sam really was to be the master of his own fate and accept Death, Dean, through Ezekiel, again intervened. But in the case of allowing Ezekiel to possess Sam, Dean seems know he overstepped. Not only was his first reaction that Sam would never agree to possession, therefore putting his decision in direct conflict with Sam’s personal desire, he also had very little reason for agreeing to the possession beyond his own selfish desire to keep Sam alive—regardless of whether it was Ezekiel’s own line or a thought channeled from Dean, “there ain’t no me if there ain’t no you,” is the devastating truth of the Winchester brothers’ existence.
What’s curious to me about this Ezekiel plot line is that our attention is specifically drawn to Dean’s decision. The writers have made it a focal point for consideration in multiple ways. Each time he agrees to let Ezekiel wipe Sam’s memory, Dean confronts the moral dilemma and is, symbolically, asked to reaffirm his decision. The fact that we have dialogue directly addressing Dean’s discomfort hints that this is not a decision of Dean’s we are to accept without question or, certainly, a position the show endorses. I even suspect/hope that Dean’s decision is the main throughline of this story arc, more important than the effect of the possession itself. That is, if Ezekiel is truly trustworthy, the conflict about his possession of Sam is not over the havoc he wreaks using Sam as a vessel but over Dean’s allowance of the possession the first place. And if Ezekiel is untrustworthy, blame for any havoc he wreaks using Sam will also be on Dean. But I want to point out that just the fact that we question Ezekiel’s motivations at all is a sign of our trust in Dean as the decider—his doubt of whether he did right is our doubt in Ezekiel.
All of my suspicions are heightened by this quote from Carver:
And as well-intentioned as Dean is having Ezekiel go into Sam, I think it created an extra burden for him. He convinced Sam not to do the trials to close the gates of hell and now he’s gotten an angel inside of his brother. These are two major decisions he’s made, which — one could argue — went directly against what Sam really wanted for himself. As the season progresses, these issues are not going to go away. These are very important things that need to be discussed by the brothers and how they see their role in this world and how they see their role with each other. This act of Dean’s is going to open up a whole box of issues, which some are expected and some unexpected. [x]
It sounds a lot like there is a moment of reckoning on the horizon for Dean, and I can’t even tell you how much I want that! I really, really want Dean to learn a few lessons. I want him to be taken to task for his selfishness and shitty manipulations. I want him to feel guilt-ridden and beg for forgiveness and learn and grow. Dean is in sore need of character development—the few tiny breadcrumbs of emotional openness we saw last season need to be beginning of something, not the sum total of a transformation—and we specifically need to see Dean learn to examine his own actions their effects on people he cares about, because for too long has a show that’s about free will been able to get away with having a main character who consistently denies everyone else around him their free will. When you think about it, “driver picks music, shotgun shuts his cakehole” has been Dean’s modus operandi for everything since season 1—he’s the show’s driver, and everyone else’s opinions and decisions are silenced. I’m tired of that Dean. I want a better Dean. And I think Dean has it in him to be better. I think the show is capable of writing him better. I want to see Dean suffer because I want to see him triumph through it, but I don’t know what that looks like, exactly. Maybe it will be several hundred angsty arguments with Sam, maybe it’ll be a beat down from Sam, maybe it’ll be finding out Sam has developed an addictive dependency on Ezekiel’s grace which means he screwed his brother up for life. I’d really love if whatever it is leads Dean to the realization that he can’t be the decider for everyone and that if he truly is to be the advocate of free will he must ensure that gates of Heaven are reopened and the gates to Hell are not shut. And what I do know is that if Ezekiel does turn out to be a bad guy and the show excuses Dean’s decision under the reasoning that he was duped I will be very, very angry. So don’t do that, Show. I’m looking for some character growth here.
As a final extended example of Dean’s decision making, I want to take a closer look at his “family” conversation with Kevin in 9.02. I established above that Dean decides who’s in and who’s out of the family, but there are some objective differences between how characters became family members. Dean had at least three episodes of clear emotional development and bonding with Charlie, including an explicit declaration of love, for example, while the scene of Kevin’s induction to the SPN family (so to speak) in 9.02 is comparatively abrupt. After Kevin challenges the literal meaning of Dean’s “we need you” (with “Because I’m useful”), we are, in theory, to interpret the expressed “need” as an emotional one. But there is no prior evidence of Dean “needing” Kevin in an emotional way—not, as one could argue, similar to how he seems to emotionally need Cas (though one could also argue that the issue of “need” between Dean and Cas is still hugely fraught—but that’s an unpopular opinion for another day). Point is, Kevin wasn’t jumping to an illogical conclusion. Dean might have developed a kind of shoulder-slug affection for him, but his primary focus in their previous interactions was ensuring Kevin decoded the tablets, in contrast to Sam who showed concern for Kevin’s physical and mental wellbeing (and yet it’s not Sam who gets to make the overture of family to Kevin). It’s also unsettling that none of the reasons Dean provides to back up his assertion that Kevin is family are indicative of love feeling. The willingness to sacrifice his life for Kevin’s (“Man, if you don’t think we would die for you”) is, I think, meant to read as devotion, but it’s devotion similar to that between brothers in arms rather than brothers by birth. It could also be read as an equivalent to Dean’s “Don’t you dare think there’s anything . . . that I would put in front of you” plea to Sam in the season 8 finale, but that’s just it—the real test of Dean’s love is not whether he would die for you, it’s how hard he will work to keep you alive. Dying is easy, especially on Supernatural—staying alive’s the hard thing. And that brings us to the fact that Dean’s purpose in dropping the “we’re family” bomb on Kevin was to keep Kevin alive, to keep him from leaving. And, just as he does with Sam, Dean manipulates Kevin into capitulation. In this case, he goes with the passive-aggressive comment, “But, hey, if none of that matters to you, then I won’t stop you.”
In this one short exchange we see all the facets of Decider!Dean at work: Dean decides, without substantial prior evidence, that Kevin is family and we as viewers are now to accept this as truth; Dean decides that Kevin’s desire to look for his mom is subordinate to Dean’s “need” to keep Kevin alive; and his decision, though happy-making in its result (because YAY KEVIN!) and probably the correct one (because Kevin is likely hunted and Crowley is twisted mofo), was gained through emotional abuse. And the ultimate irony is that this classic example of Dean’s flawed decision making exists in the same episode that calls on us to question Dean’s flawed decision making. Sigh. Oh, Show. Old habits die hard, eh?