What defines a "better actor"? An actor is only as good as the writers' development of the character. A good actor needs to take mediocre lines and turn them into something incredible as well as sell any dilemma through a series of looks and mannerisms, giving us far more to the story than what's on the page. Match a strong actor with a charismatic character and sparks fly. Those are the combos that end up on Emmy reels. Those are the combos that inspire fans and critics to gush for hours. It's all good, and Jensen Ackles easily fits the bill there.
So, what happens when you match an actor with a dark, brooding character? One that isn't open and often has to sell the internal conflict with tortured looks and nonverbal cues? One that often gives a haunting performance that is mostly noticed by those of us watching carefully and not by those waiting for the "in your face" Emmy submission performance? I'm the first to admit Jared Padalecki was very green when he started. It's been exciting to see him grow as an actor, and the turning point easily was "Born Under A Bad Sign". Since then, he blows me away just as much as Jensen with just his silent gloomy glares and weepy puppy dog eyes. No one sells a troubled Sam better.
The writers are very smart people for they craft their scripts every week to the strengths that their actors provide. Write a long piece of dialogue that showcases an intense emotional breakdown, character vulnerability and a gut wrenching weak moment that makes a viewer curse over why they didn't have a box of Kleenexes nearby and Jensen's your man. Despite all the fantastic emotional scenes from season four, my favorite Dean scene to date still is from "All Hell Breaks Loose Part II", when he delivers his punch-you-in-the-gut meltdown over his dead brother's body.
Jensen excels like none other too as the tough talking, won't take crap from anyone older brother whose confidence in the leadership department has gradually evolved over four seasons, now soaring to dramatic new heights. As Dean's trials grow more layered and complex, we never cease to be amazed over what Jensen brings each week. It's all fantastic, and as fans, we're giddy.
So, that makes Jensen the better actor, right? Did anyone watch the end of "Mystery Spot"? That scene crushes me every bit as the above mentioned scene from "All Hell Breaks Loose Part II", and there's only a fraction of the dialogue. Sam has been through a long ordeal, one that's lasted anywhere from nine months to a year. He finally has Dean back, but his efforts have left him very broken. Sam is so despondent, so crushed by everything and we witness it in the most powerful way just through his withdrawn behavior, his pained and faraway eyes, his faint smile at Dean's joke, and his somber gaze at the motel room before leaving. I have never been more haunted by a scene than that one, for any TV show. It made me worry very very much about Sammy.
Of course, Jared's triumph was "I Know What You Did Last Summer", but many people didn't notice because of Sam and Ruby. Sam the entire episode was raw emotionally, coasting on fumes, and on the brink of total self destruction. I bought every bit of it, and can someone tell me which scene had the big speech where Sam wallowed over his pain? There wasn't one. Again, Jared's strengths were played. Need more proof? The scenes in the motel and the Impala in "Metamorphosis", the end of "No Rest For The Wicked" (he's a far more emotional crier), the scene at the hospital near the end of "Bedtime Stories" and every single minute of "Mystery Spot".
Anyone who partakes in this debate forgets one very crucial thing, the key to this show's success is the on screen chemistry of the two actors together. The show wouldn't be anywhere near as good if it was only Jensen. If anyone doubts that, go ahead and sit through "In The Beginning" again. That was a decent episode that told us some outstanding back story and offered the best guest acting of the series, but come on, it wasn't the same without Sam. There was something missing. I still think both Dean and Sam should have been there together. It would have brought an emotional impact much like their first visit back to Lawrence in "Home".
The brotherly relationship is the core of the show. Not the demons, not the urban legends, not the action, not the secondary characters, not the freaks of the week that either make us cringe, laugh, or scream. The writing is strong, the directing is strong, the special effects and set decoration is top notch, but all that pales in comparison to what BOTH Jared and Jensen bring to Sam and Dean each week. They are the stars. If you doubt that, watch the mausoleum scene in "It's The Great Pumpkin Sam Winchester." Those two pulled off the most dramatic and jaw dropping brotherly moment of the series without saying a word.
Or, take the last scene in "Heaven and Hell", the one that started this entire debate. Raise your hand if you think that scene would have been just as good if we didn't see Sam's heartbreaking reactions in the background. It was Jensen's show for sure and he knocked it out of the park, but often we take those little background moments for granted, the ones that transform something good into something spectacular. That was an important BROTHERLY moment, and we can't forget that.
I'm sure eventually when this show is over both Jensen and Jared will go their separate ways and take new opportunities that will cater to their strengths as actors as well as challenge them in new ways. One will probably end up doing better commercially than the other. In the meantime though, let's enjoy what we've got with them together, for that is where we are truly blessed.