Cocky, brash, and devil-may-care demon-hunter Dean Winchester has lost all three of those adjectives in this season of Supernatural. Now he has the weight of the world on his shoulders, and it’s crushing him under grief, anger, doubt, exhaustion, and fear. What’s going on behind those hazel eyes? Welcome to the
If you know the poetry of Rudyard Kipling, not just famous stories like the Jungle Book, you may recognize the title of this blog entry as a Kipling verse. “Breaking strain” is an engineering term for the amount of force required to fracture a structure. The theme of the Kipling poem is that people don’t come with handy specs on the limits of stress they can take before shattering, and that, unlike broken bridges and rails, human beings are doubly damned, because when we do fail, we also know that we failed, and feel shame for having broken no matter how much force it took to do the deed. Kipling’s offered comfort, however, is that even in the midst of disaster, people have the ability to endure; that despite being broken, and even because of being broken, we can stand up and build anew.
My thesis for this class is that the end of season one and beginning of season two have been the hymn to Dean Winchester’s breaking strain. I’m hoping that the end result of season two will be a man stronger for having been broken, much the way that Sam is now stronger than he was in season one.
In interviews, Eric Kripke and both actors have mentioned that this season involves a role reversal between Sam and Dean, and that’s been proven true. In season one, Sam’s normal world was destroyed by Jessica’s death and the onset of his visions, and he went over the edge into revenge-driven violence and tormented self-questioning with only Dean to break his fall and support him. This season, as Sam has acquired maturity and a sense of direction in the aftermath of his struggle, Dean appears to be dealing with at least four major things that have knocked the ground from beneath his feet, calling into question the validity of every instinct by which he’s lived and drowning him in helpless rage that erupts in every direction. The four breaking forces that I see, in no particular order, are John’s death, particularly the circumstances of it, involving the trade of his soul for Dean’s life; the burden of whatever secret John laid on him about Sam, incorporating Dean’s aversion to lying to Sam; the responsibility for having killed innocents; and the discovery that things he was raised to believe may not be true, meaning that he may be guilty of even more innocent deaths.
These four things have driven Dean inside his own mind. This unaccustomed self-obsession has diminished his ability to identify with others, and that has blocked one of his finest qualities: he’s lost his compassion. Right from the outset in Wendigo and Dead in the Water, we learned that brash, flirtatious, seemingly insensitive Dean actually possessed a surprising depth of compassion, and that his real focus as a hunter was on saving people; that the pleasure of hunting and killing evil things was a side benefit of that main goal. That was still his focus even as a spirit in In My Time of Dying, but in every episode since John spoke to him and died, Dean has been sarcastic about other people’s feelings and motives, and driven to hunt out of his own amorphous rage. In Everybody Loves a Clown, he was verbally brutal with Sam about Sam’s reaction to John’s death, and then assaulted the Impala; he admitted in Bloodlust that he was itching for a hunt, turned vicious in his execution of a vampire, physically assaulted Sam, and pulled no punches with Gordon; in Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things and Cross Road Blues he painted everyone else’s motives in the colors of his own guilt and shame at being alive. Killing the infected but not immediately threatening Mrs. Tanner in Croatoan represented the nadir of his compassion; given the magnitude of the threat, he had steeled himself to kill without hesitation, and that cold execution of a human innocent of everything but an infection was the ugliest and scariest thing I’ve ever seen him do.
His essential core of compassion is still there, however, and he can find it when he’s pushed: witness his grudging willingness to share memories with Jo in No Exit, and his immediate decision to take the chance of sending Diana to Sam in The Usual Suspects when he realized she was in danger. Sam has been able to retrieve it for him more than once, pushing him to see Lenore’s family of vampires in a different light in Bloodlust, and raising his doubt and uncertainty to the point where he couldn’t bring himself to kill Duane in Croatoan.
The dual issue of Dean having knowingly killed at least three humans innocent of anything other than possession or infection, and possibly being guilty of more innocent deaths during unjustified hunts in the past, is tormenting him on several levels. Innocence is the key here, and the loss of it is what he considers intolerable. Dean had advocated killing a human at least twice in season one – Max in Nightmare and the Reverend LeGrange in Faith – when he believed that they were actively evil and causing the deaths of others. Killing evil in any form, even human, would cause him no qualms. After Bloodlust, however, assuming that he knows which things are evil and warrant killing has become problematic. He admitted to Sam in Devil’s Trap that his willingness to do and kill things for his Dad and Sam scared him. He feels acute guilt for the innocent deaths for which he holds himself responsible: the man who unknowingly died to save him in Faith; Layla, whose healing he prevented; Meg and her possessed “brother” in Devil’s Trap; John, who chose to die to save him; probably even Mrs. Tanner. At the same time, feeling that he is already guilty has hardened him to garnering more guilt: “Too late for that” was his response to Sam in Croatoan talking about having a clear conscience, and although enough of Sam stayed with him to stay his hand concerning Duane, the sense that he has already damned himself may make future killings more likely.
Without knowing the secret about Sam that John confided to Dean, I can’t speculate on what effects it has had on him beyond the obvious burden of forcing him to lie to Sam about it. As early in the show as Skin, we learned that Dean made no real friends because he wouldn’t and couldn’t build a relationship based on lies. We learned in Route 666 that he couldn’t lie to the one woman he loved. Given how much he loves Sam, lying to Sam must have been positively corrosive to his spirit.
The one area in which Dean has always been secretive has involved his own fears and weaknesses. We learned very early on that Dean did not share what he felt: “no chick-flick moments” was his mantra right from the pilot. Dead in the Water was notable because we learned that Dean remained profoundly affected by what he had witnessed of his mother’s death, but that he had hidden that pain from Sam all his life. The shapeshifter in Skin betrayed things that Dean himself would never have admitted, including that Dean resented Sam’s ability to make friends and walk away from the job, and that Dean had given up his own dreams to stay with John and be a hunter. Most telling of all, we came to understand his deepest fear: that everyone he loved would leave him, and that he would be alone. The Demon taunting Dean about his obsessive need for family in Devil’s Trap was probably the biggest eye-opener of Sam’s life, right up there with the Demon having plans for Sam.
The surest evidence that Dean has been approaching his breaking strain has been the growth of cracks in his armor of strength, in the face he’s shown to Sam. Through most of season one, he kept his older brother game face on for Sam’s benefit – think of Nightmare as a sterling example. But as time went on, with the brothers living in each other’s pockets, Sam started to see more of Dean’s uncertainties, things Dean didn’t want to share with him for fear of undermining Sam’s confidence and courage, not to mention weakening his own resolve by putting flesh on the bones of his fear. He’s confessed to Sam only in circumstances where he realized that Sam had picked up on enough to be more afraid of not knowing the truth – the admission of his failure in Something Wicked and the closing scenes of Bloodlust and Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things come to mind – and in Croatoan, when he believed they both were about to die, and he knew that he couldn’t protect Sam any more.
Emotionally, Dean is at a crucial breaking point. When he admitted in Croatoan that he was tired of the job, his life, and the weight on his shoulders, tired enough that he couldn’t even contemplate living if Sam died, he reached a point that Sam won’t let him back away from. Letting down that last wall will break his promise to his father, and break what little remains of his desperately hard-held belief that he could always carry his little brother and keep him safe. We’re going to learn that truth in January, presumably in Hunted. We’re going to learn Dean’s breaking strain.
And the grief and joy of Dean being human means that we’ll see from there how he builds himself anew, before life breaks him again.
“Oh veiled and secret power, whose paths we seek in vain,
Be with us in our hour of overthrow and pain.
That we, by which sure token we know thy ways are true,
In spite of being broken, because of being broken,
May rise and build anew.
Stand up and build anew.”