Like his brother, Dean has evolved in a multitude of ways since we first met him over ten years ago. On first glance, Dean was confident, cocky and maybe even arrogant to the surface glance. He was flash and sparkle to cover the untouched child issues and the deep emotional needs he couldn’t address in the hunter world. Though 'connected to his family', Dean had well beyond healthy levels of reliance on this definition when we first met him. Family is at the core of who Dean is - just like his brother. Truly, for these two, it is a significant part of who they are and what they do. When it comes to Dean - it shapes him in a particular way: Dean is a protector - ultimately this is his identity. That's not exactly shattering news of course. It becomes of question of how deeply this defines who he is that is important in his sense of self.
 

Sense of Self: Through the Years


d1 When we first meet Dean Winchester, he's cocky, confident, flashy, ego-driven (or so it seems) and looking to have a good time when the opportunity arises. Dean loves life, and he enjoys slaying baddies while riding around in a badass classic car with something equally classic blasting across the radio. He would give his life for his family and he needs pie at every opportunity. As time goes by, is easy to see that underneath the shiny misdirect of a beautiful smile and a clever word, Dean is someone who keeps his emotions tamped down and his relationships few. In Nightshifter, it’s revealed “a job like this…can’t get close to people, period.” The relationships he does have though, he values dearly and will do everything in his power to keep them.

Dean is driven to fiercely protect what he has. Sam was put in his arms when he was a young boy and from there he watched his family and his normal life burn in flames. Everything he knew was gone - there was no more white picket fence, no more mom baking pie, no more normal home life. Instead his dad and Sammy in the Impala became home. He was raised to protect Sam and to hunt the demons and monsters that strip from others the normal life that he too once, briefly, had.

Dean always operates as a soldier, a defender – the perpetual big brother - in this he has never really faltered. Early Dean was intent on maintaining his outward image, particularly to his d2brother. It was difficult for him to show any weakness, to reveal why something was difficult for him to consider. In Home for example, Dean calls John for help but doesn’t reveal this to Sam and in fact goes out of his way to hide the actions from his brother.

The military comparisons are nothing new, true enough – nevertheless, it’s a piece of who Dean is and has been throughout a lifetime that cannot be overlooked. Dean spends his life as a protector, a mediator and soldier. In the beginning, Dean’s sense of his own value is limited to a dysfunctional view. Dean is driven less by the desire for revenge, like Sam and John, but more the need to protect the family he still has and, as he reveals to Lucas early in season one, thinking about how his mom would want him to be.

Dean also recognizes the things he lost young and can never really have again in the people he protects - it's why he works so hard as a hunter and believes so fiercely in what he does. We see when he relates to Lucas early in season one that he explains something bad happened to his mom and he won't let that happen to Lucas' mom. He forms a connection to the boy, not just because he's good with kids but also because he understands the loss Lucas has endured; Dean cannot let him lose anything else. Lucas recognizes the sincerity in Dean on all these levels and they develop a relationship.


Early Dean has simple goals: protect his family. He is mission oriented and sees the world as black and white. That said, his view of right versus wrong is unique from the traditional society-endorsed moral scale, or the one his brother subscribes to in the early years. Evil is wrong of course and good means stopping evil. For Dean, where Sam had certain issues about legalities along the way, these were all means to the ultimate ends i.e. necessities in the battle against evil.

Dean lives by a sense of duty and this is imbued into who he is from the moment he carries Sam out of the house and his mother dies. Undoubtedly, Dean presents as someone who loves his work from the first introduction. He has fun, he kills the bad guys and he plays the hero - or so it seems most of the time. Even Sam is under this impression initially; Dean simply follows the orders, no questions asked, and loves the kill. And sometimes this is the case.

As time passes, however, it becomes evident that Dean finds the hunter life a burden, primarily in what it costs. Knowing the price doesn’t stop Dean from acting, but it weighs on him nevertheless. This is an attitude that prevails throughout the series, but seasons through experience.
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Initially in season two "What Is and What Should Never Be", Dean stands over John’s grave and asks,
“Why is it my job?...why do we have to sacrifice so much?”

He is forlorn and depressed, genuinely asking the question.

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Years later, Sam and Dean will tell their young mother without any trace of the same sadness that she must leave John before Dean or Sam are ever conceived – because it’s for the greater good and they are both totally okay with it.

The evolution of understanding that takes place gives Dean a sense of purpose beyond his role as a son or a brother – his duty as a protector gets much broader as time goes on. These are important roles, absolutely, if they have a limited scope. In addition to those identities, Dean finds a balance in the later years that he lacked early on.  

 

Turning Points


The turning points in Dean’s journey are significant – there are many. Though he is one who works to maintain a front, the post-traumatic effects of many events influence Dean at a core level, in particular as he attempts to move past each event without addressing or acknowledgement it.
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Grieving over Sam in 2.22, Dean tells his brother, “Dad didn’t even have to tell me, it was always just my responsibility, you know? It’s like I had one job, and I screwed it up…and for that I’m sorry…I guess that’s what I do; I let down the people I love…I let dad down and now I guess I’m just supposed to let you down too?” This is the moment when Dean’s depression, grief, self-deprecation and belief that his own life is unnatural combine to allow him to make a deal for Sam’s life – and we all know how this goes. Even the Crossroads Demon sees Dean’s low esteem, referencing his “gutter soul” as “too tarnished” and takes advantage to get a good deal.

This is one of the lowest moments for Dean and at the same time is one of the last moments Dean will see the dichotomy between he and Sam and Big vs Little Brother. After this point, he is the one who needs saving and it is Sam who will be helping him. Sam tells Dean that Sam has a job too – Dean reacts as though this is news to him – because truth be told, it probably is. At every level, Dean's nature as a protector defines him and it is when he fails in this that he suffers the most. When Sam dies in 2.22, Dean is devastated - as he would be because it's his brother, of course. He talks to Sam stating that he had just one job – watch out for his little brother - but he has failed in that. It is this failure that motivates him to make a deal for his soul. Later, the boys have a more balanced relationship in this respect and Dean understands better that they protect each other - rather than Dean holding a strict monopoly on the job.

By season three, the boys operate more than ever before as partners. Dean knows he’s going to die, and he works with Sam on many levels not just to find a solution to the Deal but to prepare his brother for the possible future where the Deal isn’t broken.
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As time goes by, many experiences come to impact Dean's identity as a protector - not the least of which is his time spent in Hell. When he returns from Hell, he is shattered emotionally and mentally by what he did to souls in Hell - he was supposed to save people, not torture them. He tells Castiel in "On The Head of a Pin" that they made a mistake because he can't save anyone - he is crushed under the weight of his own actions. The actions are so contradictory to who he is, that it shatters him for a time. Dean struggles throughout season four to rebuild his self-confidence and sense of self as a result.

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One of the other key moments is when Dean lets go of his relationship with Lisa. First, the relationship in and of itself was a major point on Dean’s road. Not only does he step away from the world of hunting entirely but he also listens to Sam’s wishes and doesn’t look for a way to get him out of Hell – he stands down from his duty. The sacrifice this required was substantial; going against everything that Dean is and has been to this point. However, it was a question of balance of the greater good against the sacrifice of the one and of course, his own brother’s wishes – and he did these all.

Later, when Dean has Castiel erase Lisa’s memory of Dean entirely – this is another key moment: it was the family he always wanted, in one way or another but he makes the choice that to protect her and Ben he must let them go, completely: “I’m the guy who hit you…I lost control for a minute and I just wanted to say that I’m sorry…I’m glad your life can get back to normal now.” – 6.21. In this moment, Dean understands he can never have this family, and that to do his job protecting others and to keep innocents like Lisa and Ben safe, it means he can’t ever mix the two. It’s a hard learned lesson and an important one.


Character Regrowth & Rebuilding


One of the most significant periods in Dean’s life was his year in purgatory. From here, Dean emerges a whole person for the first time in a long while. Yes, there is an element in relationship to Castiel after Dean leaves Purgatory; but setting that aside – Dean finds himself anew in Purgatory and re-emerges pure and clear-headed. Right and wrong isn’t black and white (despite the atmosphere) anymore, and his identity is not tied to another person in any visceral sense.
d9 purgatoryIn Purgatory, Dean fights for his survival. Period. And he does it strongly, passionately, fiercely. Dean emerges a fighter, a friend, a loyalist. All things we’ve known him to be all along – but that with a new light about him now that he’s had the room to discover himself solo in the so-called pure world of Purgatory. Simply put, Dean re-emerges newly confident and revitalized for the battles ahead.

By season four Dean understands that they take turns as the “big” brother and they both get to save each other from time to time. He continues to struggle with his guilt and own self-esteem throughout the years, but by season eight he returns anew – with fresh perspective, renewed and despite some grief over Castiel, rejuvenated. Gaining a family history with a place to call home was one of the greatest things to happen to Dean – we see him establish a foundation: a bedroom, photos, everything he once lost he can rebuild.
d10 steins The latter seasons, Dean is difficult to pinpoint in terms of self-identity given the influence of the Mark. However, despite the Mark’s influence even when Dean is a demon he never kills Sam – though he does appear to try wholeheartedly with an axe at one point. Ultimately, he makes the choice to save Sam by killing Death. With the Mark of Cain, Dean is certainly more aggressive in his actions but he remains a stalwart protector. When the Steins execute Charlie, he is merciless in his execution, even on the weakest member of their family. It may be uncharacteristic in manner but it remains wholly Dean in motivation.

 

Sense of Self: The Present

d11 today
On first meeting, Dean was a cowboy: he came in, was loud and charming, and rolled out of town just as quickly with an easy smile and a shrug. He appeared to let nothing really bother him and worked to have no relationships outside his brother and his father. It was quickly apparent this was not the true Dean Winchester. He held low views of himself and worked toward one goal with complete disregard of his own personal safety until his brother brought things into much sharper focus for him: they look out for each other – Dean was not exclusive to the role.

Today, Dean is still a protector – it’s who he is and it’s driven by his love for his family – be they blood or otherwise. He protects what he does have - the Impala, the family he has left, the friends he acquires - fiercely because this is what he has left and he understands the value deeply. He's known loss and he appreciates what is left, what keeps him stable - especially his brother and his friends. The car too, not only because it is a great car, but because, as is illustrated in 5.22, it's a home – the boys were raised in that car practically as though it were a house.

When we met Dean, it was his job and his alone to protect the family – and he himself was not on the list of protectees. Through the years this has inspired recklessness, careless actions and many near-death experiences (not to mention the resurrections). Today, Dean balances his desire to protect his family with the understanding that he and Sam are equals in the job they do – not just as hunters – but in taking care of one another and their friends. In the end, who Dean is has always been defined by those he loves and his stalwart sense of duty to safeguard them.

What are your thoughts on who Dean is? His sense of self? Major turning points (beyond the obvious finale/premiere moments)?

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Don't stop here! Continue with Part 2 of the Old vs. New Series: Sam and Dean's Motivations and Desires