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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.
d4 wiawsnb
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.

d5 mary young
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.
d6 AHBL d6 AHBL2
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.
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.


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)?

Share thoughts below!

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


# cheryl42 2016-03-01 16:48
Wonderful article on Dean. He has been the most complex character on the show. We get to see every aspect of who he is and how he has evolved over the years. Dean certainly has always tried to be the glue that holds his family together. And each loss or perceived failure has been a massive personal blow to his self esteem. I loved how you mapped out how every event and challenge has shaped the character into the Dean Winchester we have in S11. He truly is an iconic character. Without Jensen's fantastic portrayal of Dean I don't think we get 11 seasons of SPN.

And as an aside Dean did try to get Sam out of hell but he was unsuccessful.
# sugarhi15 2016-03-02 11:51
While I agree that Dean has a renewed sense of self, I disagree that this renewed sense of self began in purgatory. As a matter of fact, it seemed to me that Purgatory was the beginning of Dean's downfall. As was necessary though, Dean needed to fall in order to rise. Dean became the very thing he despised most about himself in Purgatory. As a matter of fact, his search for Cas was the one thing that kept Dean human in Purgatory. Dean has always fought against a Darkness within. He's a great hunter no doubt and he seeks to save people yes of course, but Dean also thrives and finds contentment in the kill. It's a fine line, one not easy to balance...that anger he has within that stems from the loss of his family, vs the goodness that is Dean Winchester. Dean has always felt a sense of self loathing, and he's always regarded Sam as the one who kept him human. Dean always saw himself as someone you didn't want at your dinner table. There are numerous eps where Dean admits to hating who he is. Too many eps like that. Dean is a protector no doubt, I totally agree. It's who he is, but it's who he is for so many reasons, one of them I believe to keep the humane part of himself. His need to be the hero. To Sam, to innocents. It's Dean's way of balancing out the darkness he also carries within.

Dean broke in Purgatory, moreso than he did in hell. When he was in hell, his contentment at torture was in part due to the release of pain he had himself endured. In Purgatory Dean became the worst of himself, everything he hated about himself. He did so and he was aware of it as well. He admitted it to Sam in SC, when he said "people change". Dean not only enjoyed the pureness of purgatory and what it allowed him to do, but it enabled him to release the darkness within, with no guilt or conscience. Benny was Dean's enabler. If Sam were in Purgatory with Dean, no doubt there would be killing, but with Sam by his side, Dean wouldn't have had the luxury to let himself enjoy the freedom of the kill. His conscience wouldn't have allowed for it. Not with Sam. Dean didn't have Sam though. His darkness was free and he could kill without guilt or remorse. In Purgatory that may be acceptable behavior, but Dean remained that way when he left Purgatory.

Dean brought that darkness with him, in every sense of the word. Not only did Dean unleash a vampire upon innocents, but he too had no qualms of hurting innocents to satisfy his own thirst for violence. It was evident in the way he treated possible perps who had info Dean wanted and it was apparent in his willingness to kill Mrs Tran, and his disregard for most everyone he came in contact with, including Sam, Kevin and Garth. Dean was cruel and harsh towards most everyone he'd come in contact with during the first half of s8. Dean had also been deluding himself into believing that Benny was the exception to the monster rule, even when Benny gave Dean every indication that this wasn't the case. Dean deluded himself into believing Benny was the only one who didn't let him down to rationalize Dean releasing a monster on the world. Of course Dean had to delude himself regarding Benny, after all what did it say about Dean Winchester knowing he'd simply become friends with a monster...Benny admitted to being a liar. He told Dean he was on bagged blood and Dean believed it. Yet when we see Benny uptop, he's having a hard time adjusting, he's calling Dean because he's going off the wagon and he's stalking graveyards and picnics. If Benny had been telling the truth about being on bagged blood, then it shouldn't have been difficult for him to adjust. But Benny did have a hard time on top...he had a very hard time....because Benny is a vampire....He is what he is and there's no getting around it. Dean knew it, but couldn't admit to it. Why do you think Dean kept Benny from Sam? Sam would've been able to see the truth and Dean didn't want to hear the truth. Dean needed to hold onto the delusion that Benny was different. otherwise DEan would have to admit what he'd become in Purgatory.

Dean hung on to this delusion so hard it nearly destroyed his relationship with his brother. When Sam couldn't take it anymore, Dean was forced to choose who he wanted to be. Was he going to do his job, save innocents and close the gates of hell for good? Was he going to be the Dean he was before he broke or was DEan going to keep deluding himself? Was he going to continue to be benny's watchdog? WAs he going to ignore innocents and his job and his brother so he can hold onto that last part of purgatory...tha t person he didn't want to be? Dean's decisive moment to become the person he wanted to be came in Torn and Frayed. It was then he chose to be the Dean Winchester who was the hero, who did his job. Letting go of Benny was metaphorical for Dean letting go of Purgatory and who he became down there.

It's evident in his behavior in the second half of s8. Dean did everything he could to atone to Sam for how he had behaved. Why do you think Dean kept saying over and over those trials were on me? He needed to be the one to do them. It wasn't just about making it right to Sam, it was about making it right to himself. He needed to be the hero again, he needed to close the gates of hell, to give his brother a normal life, to prove to himself that he is not the grunt...

The problem though was that Sam also sought atonement. He had to make up to Dean his failing him. He took over the role of the trials instead. This eventually leads to Sam telling Dean he'd rather die than disappoint Dean. The look on Dean's face knowing that he made his brother feel this way, even if he never realized he'd done so. The guilt in that moment, the look on Dean's face knowing that he inadvertently caused Sam to feel this way..I have no doubt that Dean possessing Sam with an angel, was due in part to Dean not letting Sam go thinking that he came second in his eyes. Of course he'd told him and got Sam to stop the trials, but did Sam truly believe it? Then when Dean hears Sam talking to Death about not bringing him back....Do you not think it's possible that Dean in that moment didn't think Sam believed him? he asked sam...what are you doing? as though didn't sam understand that he came first? it's why the words Gad picked were so important..ther e aint no me if there aint no you.

I'm not saying love didn't have plenty to do with Dean's need to save Sam by any means, but I can't deny that guilt didn't play a role in that either. S9 and s10 is basically the fall of Dean Winchester. To be honest, Dean's sense of self pretty much happening now during S11, but I'd say the pivotal point happened in Brother's Keeper. Sam's utter faith in DEan's goodness was even too strong for the MOC. Dean, mark and all, opted for killing Death over his own brother. and it's that's not a sense of self worth in that moment, then I dont' know what is.

In that moment, Dean believed in his own goodness. That his brother was on his knees, willing to sacrifice himself for dean, with his last words being of love and faith in dean's inherent goodness....tha t I felt was the true turning point for Dean Winchester in regards to his own self worth and how he sees himself.

I believe that DEan had to become his worst so he can see his best. Dean in s11 is now at the point where he's starting to let that light in his heart....starti ng to believe in himself and not see his mistakes as something he needs to punish himself for, but see them as a learning experience. He's more honest and learning to see himself not as weak but as human. He's sees Sam as his equal and thus has been treating him as such....I mean really treating him as such. He no longer has any qualms letting Sam do the driving.

I think this change in Dean was a journey, but I think his true understanding of the ggod person he truly is came during the last moments of Brother's keeper. ;)
# Mallena 2016-03-02 19:05
I enjoyed this article and liked the first part. It was a great reminder of how wonderful a character Dean is season after season. I didn't agree with the purgatory part, though. Dean came out of purgatory mean, angry and confused about who he should call "brother". I think he spends the last half of season eight showing us he was wrong about how he treated Sam. I don't like Benny and cringed every time Dean acted like he was his best friend. It felt more like a plot devise than something real.