Supernatural's final season has been a whirlwind of activity so far. Last week, "The Rupture" took all of our feelings and stomped them into a sloppy, sticky, smelly mess. In one corner, Sam Winchester (Jared Padalecki) was moping about his role in Rowena's (Ruth Connell) death. In the other, Dean Winchester (Jensen Ackles) was having himself a big ol' SAD about his and Castiel's (Misha Collins) latest breakup. Prior to that, hell was cracked open (again) and God (Rob Benedict) went on the run (again). With everything going on, we needed this hiatus week to take a breather and score some candy from the neighbors. However, we're also taking this as an opportunity to discuss one of Supernatural's longest-running themes: Dean and Sam's codependency.
We've explored this many times before; Supernatural has built its mythology on this behavioral condition, masking what is ultimately an unhealthy, enabling relationship as "brotherly love." It's Psych 101 stuff here, and it's been frustrating at times because Supernatural clings to that bromance mask with cold, dead, zombie hands. It is one of those tropes that the series has built its identity around that maybe, if the show had ended after Season 5's "Swan Song," we could have overlooked. But it gets harder and harder to ignore with each season.
Now, Supernatural is not prestige television; it is a sexy show about sexy men fighting sexy ghosts on the sexy CW. But that doesn't mean that it can't also be deep and meaningful, as legions of Supernatural fans have discovered and argued for 15 seasons. And maybe it is precisely because it's not the sort of intentionally dense series Mad Men or Game of Thrones were that Supernatural has opened itself up more readily to meaning whatever its fans need it to mean. For me, Season 5 aired during one of the lowest and darkest points in my life, and I saw a ridiculous amount of parallels between myself and Sam. I've interacted with self-described Dean Girls who make the same argument about seeing their own issues and struggles reflected in Dean's throughout the seasons. So maybe it's just partly my (our) own hang-ups throwing water on the Epic Love Story of Sam and Dean, but the codependency -- it's just so hard to watch.
And it's not like the show hasn't acknowledged the same thing itself; in Season 5, Zachariah (Kurt Fuller) observed, "You know you can't trust them right? You know Sam and Dean Winchester are psychotically, irrationally, erotically codependent on each other, right?" Supernatural revisited that very same sentiment in comments from both Rowena and Castiel in "The Rupture." While Sam was never actually going to let Rowena live at the cost of the whole wide world, we can't ignore that what pushed him over the edge and got him to stop sniffling and act was Rowena asking Sam if he would let Dean die so that she could live. Dean was the button to push, and Rowena knew it.
The Winchesters have repeatedly made poor decisions and taken actions that have hurt themselves and the world all in the name of saving each other since, well, pretty much the beginning of the series. John (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) gave his life so Dean would live at the end of Season 1. Dean sold his soul for Sam at the end of Season 2. Sam took up his demon blood habit after failing to save Dean at the end of Season 3 and then justified it all through Season 4 by bringing up Lilith dragging Dean to hell, and then he accidentally busted Lucifer (Mark Pellegrino) out of timeout. Don't even get me started on Season 5.
This pattern just goes on and on and on. The road to Winchester codependent hell is paved with the bodies of former allies and BFFs: Charlie (Felicia Day), Ellen (Samantha Ferris) and Jo Harvelle (Alona Tal), Gabriel (Richard Speight Jr.), Adam (Jake Abel), Kevin (Osric Chau), Bobby (Jim Beaver). And, no, just because people are resurrected on this show with alarming regularity, it doesn't mean these losses are any less terrible.
Oh, and speaking of terrible, let's talk about this exchange from "The Rupture," shall we:
Castiel: "Sam and Dean are just using you. Don't mistake that for caring about you, because I assure you, they don't."
Belphegor: "Wow. You learn that the hard way?"
Castiel: *sad face*
Just because Belphegor (Alexander Calvert) was a demon attempting to exploit the world's recent literal godlessness in order to become the new all-powerful, pre-hiatus mulligan doesn't mean he was wrong. And Castiel knows that, which means the whole situation takes on a new level of suck. Castiel has repeatedly given all that he has to give. He's died a few times. He's given up his grace, his sanity, his family. He even gave up his own sort of "happily ever after" when he was moonlighting as a healer with amnesia. He's been possessed. He's lost close friends. He's made hard choices that didn't always turn out so great. Castiel is a Winchester in all but name.
So one would think that this means that the same codependency that Sam and Dean are wrapped up in would then extend to Castiel, and while the show has gotten dang close to going down that road at times, the truth is, as Castiel himself put it, "[Dean] and Sam have each other." Their messy, wrapped-up-in-each-other's-business thing is their thing, and their thing alone. Neither of them are going to die for Castiel. Time and time again, their devotion to Castiel only goes so far. Rowena didn't invoke Castiel when she was trying to convince Sam to kill her, after all.
Make no mistake, this is not me advocating that Castiel also be included in the unhealthy enabler convention that is the Winchesters' existence. Something has to give, and with the bright light at the end of the tunnel looming before us, it's now or never for Supernatural to set the record straight and maybe show a little (just a little) growth from all parties. As heartbreaking as Castiel's departure was last week, it's an important step for someone who sees himself in an increasingly volatile and, frankly, abusive relationship. This could be Castiel's Stanford moment. You can't tell me that there wasn't some level of sadness for Sam when he ran off all those years ago, but it was important for Sam to extract himself from something he knew wasn't a healthy situation. That his family held it against him just kind of solidifies that point.
And this brings us to Dean. If anyone could benefit from a Stanford moment, it's our ultimate "good son" and "perfect soldier" Dean. The last time we saw Dean strike out on his own -- really think about his own wants and feelings apart from the needs of his family -- was in Season 9's "Bad Boys." Initially, that separation wasn't Dean's decision at all. He never really got to the conclusion of that journey, heading back to John and Sam in mid-thought. This wasn't the first time we saw Dean put Sam first on Supernatural, but chronologically, it's one of the earliest experiences in the Winchesters' shared lives and one of the most explicit examples of Dean's great and terrible martyr complex.
So Dean is going to be the challenge in this storyline, because he has convinced himself that he is fine with always suffering for his family, and that insistence has evolved into the bitterness and anger we see Dean display when other members of his family aren't up to snuff. Dean lashes out because he feels he is entitled to the same level of devotion that he shows... except he's not, and his idea of "devotion" is a little warped and controlling (Gadreel, anyone?). Dean's deprogramming is going to be the most difficult by virtue of his personality and the strength of his convictions.
Now, Dean is not the villain here. None of them are. I'm not mad at Dean for what he said; Dean has struggled to be honest about his feelings for forever. I'm also not mad at Castiel for leaving; no one is obligated to allow themselves to be repeatedly hurt while someone they care for very much is working through some issues. But I like to think that Castiel's departure could be the catalyst for their little free will family to finally get their stuff together. He's not as mired in their muck and has long been a sort of funhouse mirror for Dean and Sam's humanness. It may not feel like it to him right now, but his outsider status is a strength -- it gives him the sort of perspective that the Winchesters are lacking.
Still, I can't help but think it would have been polite to at least give Dean a heads-up about that unsettling Sam vision before he peaced out.
Supernatural airs Thursdays at 8/7c on The CW.
(Disclosure: TV Guide is owned by CBS Interactive, a division of CBS Corporation.)