Thanks to a couple of really good meta posts this month, I started to contemplate exactly what it is the writers are doing with the characters of my favorite show. I was one of those who defaulted to the position that maybe the writers didn’t know and love Sam and Dean the way I did, and, you know, HOW can they make them do things that are so BAD??? But some very thoughtful writers made me think about it a different way.
What if the show’s writers know Sam and Dean very, very well? I mean, they should. So what if all these things – all the mistakes, the character flaws, the hurtful behavior, the sacrifice, the flat-out craziness – are intentional?
Becca Pugliosi’s piece here on writing talks about the role of flaws in the character arc. She explains, very succinctly, why a hero needs flaws if he is to pull the reader in and make us care what happens to him.
Pocochina’s writing about Dean’s violation of Sam’s autonomy and his continuing lies about it is a must read. Reams have been written about Sam’s flaws, but I have not read so much about Dean’s. Part of that is because some voices in fandom refuse to hear that Dean has any flaws, or because his flaws are masked as good qualities. Often even the text of the show makes excuses for Dean, gives him an out from a bad situation, and makes it seem that his flaws aren’t really flaws at all. What he does, he does out of love. And how can love be a bad thing? Well, witness the current situation. Dean has done a very bad thing to Sam, and he continues to lie about it, not just to Sam, but to others, and it has led to the tragic death of Kevin Tran, and to Sam being violated against his will and hijacked by an angel of very questionable motives.
When is loving too much a bad thing? When it becomes obsessive, controlling and the way by which one defines oneself. And when it leads to massive mistakes of judgment, and situations that would be terrible in real life, but are very important to creating dramatic conflict in storytelling.
Pugliosi says that a character’s flaws should interfere with the character getting what he most wants, thereby creating conflict and interest. What Dean most wants, I think, is a safe world. And at least in his not-so-depressed moments, Dean still believes that evil can be defeated, that there is a way for him and Sam and the rest of the world to rest easy, free from supernatural evil. His flaw is a narcissistic belief that he alone is responsible for winning that epic battle. Each victory is his alone, as is each loss. It isn’t that he gives Sam no credit in the battle, it is that he sees Sam as an extension of himself. “There ain’t no me if there ain’t no you.” Whether we believe Dean said that, or it was Sam’s unconscious projection of what he thought Dean would say, it is what Sam believes Dean feels. And he believes this because Dean has acted this way their whole lives and Sam has internalized it. This flaw in Dean leads to mistakes in perception and judgement that cause him to fail repeatedly and to hurt those he loves most. His inability to see Sam as an equal partner in the fight but rather another object of Dean’s responsibility, has, over time (and exacerbated by Sam’s own flaws and failures), become an extreme and crippling flaw.
It is, however, what makes Dean relatable. Who doesn’t sometimes feel the weight of the world on his shoulders? Who doesn’t desire to escape from seemingly insurmountable cares? Who doesn’t sometimes resent those he loves most because the work of keeping them safe (fed, clothed, happy) is relentless? One of the most common mistakes we make as humans, one we have to correct over and over, is believing it’s all about us.
We watched the weight of the world fall on Dean from season 1 on. His father left him, first to hunt alone, and then permanently through death, and not before specifically burdening him with doubt and fear that the one person in the world who might help him fight evil could turn evil himself. That conversation is a wound from which Dean never recovered.
But if he is to be a hero in the end, he must recover. He has to recognize that he is not solely responsible for ending all the evil in the world. In most hero stories, the hero would at this point realize that he can’t do it alone and he has to raise an army against evil. I can’t figure out exactly how that would look on Supernatural, but it would start with trusting his brother as an equal soldier. And Dean can’t even do that yet.
Character flaws, according to Pugliosi, create opportunities for the reader or viewer to feel satisfied when they see the hero overcome them. It gives us all hope that we may overcome our own flaws and prevail against our hardships. If this story is to end well, Dean has to recognize his flaw. As I see it right now, he is far from that realization. He has replaced Sam’s agency with his own and repeatedly lied about it. Pocochina brilliantly explains the depth of Dean’s transgressions and mistakes when it comes to Sam.
Sam’s character flaws have been discussed in depth. It seems to me that Sam, despite his depression, apathy and apparent weakness, is further along toward coming to terms with his flaws than Dean. Sam has seen the mistake and tragedies that come from arrogance and narcissism. He knows how easily one can be tricked into seeing what he wants to see. He knows that sometimes the fight takes everything and that a true hero will know when it is time to let it all go, holding tight only to the reason for the fight, which is love.
I would like to see Dean come to the realization that he has to let go of everything, including Sam. It would not change his love for Sam, nor his desire to save the world from danger. But he has to understand that he may not be the leader who will fight and win the war. His all may be given in a single battle. Tessa the reaper explained this to Dean in season two, but he has not accepted it yet.
When Sam finds out (if he does) what Dean has done, allowing him to be possessed against his will by an angel of questionable motive – and if he is physically and mentally intact after it all shakes out – he may leave Dean. Honestly, that would not bother me, because I believe at this point it is what both Sam and Dean need. Sam needs to be on his own to regain his autonomy, his confidence and his basic ability to connect to others besides Dean and Dean’s approved associates. He needs to learn to be smart again, to interact with people again. He needs to have a dog and care for it. He needs to drive, get his own food, have sex; hunt if he wants, or not. And most of all, he needs to do this without guilt. Sam has withdrawn so far from normal interaction with anyone but Dean, that he needs to separate in order to figure out why he loves his brother, and whether he can trust that brother and hunt with him again.
Dean needs to know that control is not love, and that he must trust Sam to make his own decisions and heal his own hurts, and that while Sam is doing that, Dean will be a fine, whole person. There is a Dean without Sam, and he needs to see that.
Not a popular opinion, I know. Half of fandom threatens to stop watching the show if the brothers are separated. But I have become uncomfortable with the undeniable abusiveness of the relationship. Safiya’s brilliant post on Tumblr about “Who Sam Is” illuminates this beautifully and unflinchingly. Sam has all but disappeared, and Dean has become an abusive ass who got his friend killed. If this was a male/female relationship, or a father/child relationship, we would be rooting heartily for the abused person to flee, fast and far.
I’m a little bit spoiled for upcoming episodes, but I honestly do not know what the producers and writers have in store in the big picture. I find Carver’s interviews incomprehensible. I so hope that they have a plan that allows both brothers to recognize their flaws and face them down. I get the flaws. They have been well and artfully drawn. For me, the brothers’ character flaws, their dysfunctional relationship and their terrible, terrible mistakes are about a million times more interesting than the angel war. But that’s just me because I am a character junkie. Relatable? Done. My heart breaks for these brothers. Now I want to see them win, even if it is painful. I want to see them become whole and strong. Both of them.