In the day to day bustle of this site and other fandom activities, it’s rare anymore for me to take time to stop and appreciate the things that make “Supernatural” so great, like the acting. It’s become so familiar, so reliable that it's comfort food, something I know will always be there to when we need to get through the day. After that gut-wrenching, kick you in the gut performance by Jensen Ackles though in the closing frames of “Holy Terror,” I was recently both inspired and challenged to express my “voice” so to speak about what Jensen means to me as an actor. The quick answer is pretty easy. A lot.
Naturally I’ve always adored Jensen’s amazing gifts for his craft, but I ran out of adjectives long ago to describe the extraordinary nuances and heart that he brings to our TV screen through each episode. I’ve met him in person and interviewed him several times, but those experiences have just fueled my appreciation and love of Jensen the man. No doubt about it, he’s one of the nicest, professional, and down to earth people you’ll ever meet. But what I haven’t addressed enough is what he brings as an actor. What he does and has done is quite extraordinary.
Earning legitimacy in the acting world is very hard when you’re a genre actor, especially when you’re a talented, very good looking one that attracts legions of loyal yet often overenthusiastic fans. Jensen has been playing Dean Winchester for nine seasons now and often times we don’t realize or remember what he (and Jared Padalecki) put into this show every week. When performances are that seamless, how can I possibly give such a brilliant actor his due in just a few pages? I’m not sure if I can, but I’ll at least try by starting from the beginning.
Okay, not the beginning, beginning. I’m talking about “Supernatural” season one. Jensen was fortunate to experience something that’s rarer than you think. A great actor was matched with the perfect role. To be honest, I didn’t think much of Jensen at all in “Smallville.” He never seemed comfortable as Jason, either that or the character was written too one-dimensionally (probably both). But as Dean Winchester, he struck gold from day one. He made in impression and won people over the second he was on the screen. We wanted to know and be Dean and our new weekly obsession was born.
Since his character was well established from the word “go,” that instantly gave Jensen a lot of room to progress Dean as a character. The writing wasn’t always the strongest in season one but that wasn’t a limitation for Jensen. It never has been. The best actors can introduce and convey deep complexity in their characters with mere expressions. One look in the eyes and the weary face tells the entire story, and with Dean Winchester, it’s been a long road. It’s compelling to watch, and Jensen pulls it off flawlessly, even to this day.
Each week he brought more to Dean, and we could see beneath that cocky, tough façade was someone who’s experienced deep trauma. We saw it when he connected with Lucas in “Dead in The Water,” and again when he left the shaken phone message for John in “Home.” His guilt and trust issues were best brought to light in “Faith,” and because Jensen did that so well writers often went to that theme again and again, knowing Jensen would kill it. He has every time.
The second half of season one highlighted Dean’s core being though, the guy that will do anything he must for family. He tried not to freak out when Sam’s powers manifested in “Home” and “Nightmare,” but we could see underneath that tough act someone very scared by what was happening. I’m not sure why, but my favorite Dean scene in season one was in of all episodes “Salvation.” I still believe it to be one of Jensen’s finest moments. It was so understated, but spoke volumes about Dean’s journey not only from that season but everything that has driven his actions so far. It was only one line, but it packed a punch that still affects me to this day. “Sam look. The three of us...that's all we have...and it's all I have. Sometimes I feel like I'm barely holding it together man...and without you or Dad....” Yep, family means everything.
By this time, what Jensen had carved out for Dean empowered the writers to take the character in bold directions because they knew they had the actor that could pull it off. Jensen’s versatility is a writer’s dream! He can handle intense drama, action, comedy, suspense, anything that’s required of him. He even does well with kids and dogs!
I thought about going season by season and writing volumes on Jensen’s best and brightest episodes, but when you have 182 episodes to choose from, it’s an impossible task. They’re all good, and I’ve never, even in season nine, felt like he’s been phoning it in. I attribute that to his dedication as an actor, as well as having a strong co-star that’s a good friend. Many of you don’t realize how rare that is on a TV show. A lot of time leads and cast members barely tolerate one another and certainly don’t have that kind of respect to boost one another. Jensen and Jared keep each other honest, and the results are something we’ve never seen before.
There are however a few episodes/scenes of Jensen’s that have left a huge impact on me. They go beyond what I’ve ever seen (or might ever see) on a TV show. To this day I’m haunted by the scene in the motel in “Point of No Return.” My heart falls to my stomach, feeling every ounce of the pain and sorrow. Jensen didn’t have any dialogue for a huge chunk of it if you remember. It all had to be expressed by a guy going through his mementos, the few things he had left in this world, boxing them up and silently saying goodbye. The somber state, the heavy drinking, the gut-wrenching resolve that he was meeting his end, it all tore me up before he even said a word after Sam’s arrival. How a lifetime tragic story could be told all through facial expressions and gestures in a few simple frames reminded me that when Dean Winchester hurts, we are the ones that bleed.
Another very perfect episode, my personal favorite for Dean, is season four’s “On the Head of a Pin.” This is one of the best scripts ever written in “Supernatural,” but it’s also one of the toughest I’ve ever seen for an actor. That’s because it’s so painful, and so hard to watch. A true testament to an actor isn’t just the way he approaches the comfortable scenes, but the way he handles the very unsettling stuff. We don’t want to see Dean in that intense, awful situation. He tries to be tough when torturing Alistair, but you can see the slow unraveling inside. The tough facade is gradually whittled away and by the end it’s Dean who’s the broken one. He tries so hard to fight it, but he can’t. That’s his humanity getting in the way. When Dean finds out he broke the first seal, his crushed reaction is one of the most stunning, heart-breaking, and perfectly acted scenes in the history of this show. In the end, devastation doesn’t begin to describe it. I burst into tears just thinking about it.
Just a year later and Jensen connected big time on another Edlund script. I have to admit, I can’t watch “Abandon All Hope” that often. Dean’s heartbreak over Jo’s impending death, including his very tender goodbye to her, well no wonder Eric Kripke admitted that was the first time an episode ever made him cry. I’m sure Jensen was a huge wreck over that but the scene will always be legendary. It’s gonna show up in the highlight reels someday when someone sits down and comes up with a salute Jensen’s long career. That reel will also contain his entire tearful speech over Sam's dead body in "All Hell Breaks Loose Part II." Considering how long that scene has been around and how many big Dean moments we've had since then, it's still a staggering piece of work. Director Kim Manners just took down the lights and let Jensen do his magic. He knew exactly how to get the most out of that scene.
When I try to think of an example of his awesome versatility, one of my favorites is strangely “Clap Your Hands If You Believe.” Yes, another Edlund script. See what happens when great actor meets great writer? Every second with Dean was pure comedy gold, and what he did in that episode was unlike anything he’s done in the show before. Jensen always knew that once he got an Edlund script, he wasn’t going to get something typical. I love how he took that complete strangeness of that story and ran with it, making it 800 times funnier with nothing but exasperated expressions and incredulous reactions. He took strange Edlund lines and added his own outrageous touches, like a diabolical “ah ha!” after microwaving a fairy. A fairy that had just knocked him around the room, showing off how well he can do physical comedy. You want to know how many times I use “I can feel the crazy on me” in normal conversations? Oh, and he improvised a tagline. “Fight the fairies!” That took something funny and made it iconic. So few actors take advantage of those opportunities, but that goes to show how creative Jensen can be when approaching scenes.
Oh, there are so many nuggets to choose from, there is no way I can cover all of Jensen’s amazing work. Going off the top of my head though, the ending of “All Hell Breaks Loose Part I” still makes me cry. I also still wonder how Jensen pulled off the numerous and long dual role scenes with his current and future self in “The End.” The image of Dean on his knees bloodied, battered and broken, the devastated last man standing in “Swan Song” to this day haunts me so much. And yes, I was quite enamored with dirty and raw edged Dean in Purgatory. I don’t know dirtying up a hot guy only made him 800 times hotter. It’s, sigh…I’m sorry, where was I?
Of course a lot of Jensen’s success can be attributed to the amazing chemistry he has with Jared (and vice versa), but that’s what happens with good actors in general. They know how to feed off one another and produce something extraordinary just by building on one another’s strengths. Jensen and Jared have built a whole franchise on that chemistry. I smile though when I realize they’ve made each other better actors in the process too. It’s always been my opinion that Jared came into this show the weaker actor. He was younger and less experienced. But he grew to an equal standing in a short amount of time and I credit almost all of that to having someone like Jensen opposite him. I remember Jensen telling the story of filming the ending scene of “No Rest For The Wicked.” Not only was that a brutal scene for Jensen physically (the rigs and all that fake blood during the mauling was very uncomfortable), but he had to lie there very still while Jared did the emotional stuff. Of all things, he praised Jared for his work in that scene and talked about how he offered his co-star a lot of encouragement and advice in getting through it. He wants others to do better as well as himself. That really doesn’t happen a lot on these sets. Most actors don’t care that much.
I find one of Jensen’s greatest strengths though is his ability to take that gift for on screen (and off) rapport and extend it to other actors as well. The scenes between him and Jim Beaver (Bobby) are second to none. I still get all blubbery over the scene in the junkyard in “All Hell Breaks Loose Part II” when Bobby learns of Dean’s deal. When two actors are able to gel like that on screen and get into the moment, it helps both of them hit new heights. I attribute Jim Beaver’s powerful tearful reaction to Dean just by Jensen’s wounded, self-loathing expression. What they had never wavered in the entire series. Dean having his heart to heart with Bobby at the end of “The Curious Case of Dean Winchester” and his worried phone message after he and Sam discovered Bobby’s house torched in "Hello, Cruel World" are other examples. “You cannot be in that crater back there. I can't… If you're gone, I swear I am gonna strap my Beautiful Mind brother into the car and I'm gonna drive us off the pier.” (I know, another Edlund line. On an outside note, the scene in that episode with Dean talking Sam through his psychotic break in the warehouse should have been on an Emmy reel).
And who could forget what transpired between Jensen and Ty Olsson in season eight’s “Taxi Driver”? I’m still stunned how those two managed to pull that out of a script that didn’t remotely call for that kind of emotional exchange. The tears, the tender expressions of regret and guilt, and then the act itself. Something extraordinary like that is rare, and fans like us learn to cherish something so beautiful like a precious gift. It will stick with us forever, and we couldn’t be more grateful.
I’d be completely remiss though if we didn’t talk about Jensen and his scenes with Misha Collins. Oh how these two move mountains on the screen together. Their meeting in “Lazarus Rising” is still not only one of the most iconic moments in “Supernatural,” but in television. But the key to any on screen friendship is evolution. They both have managed to grow their characters to whole new levels, feeding off of each other’s inadequacies, mistakes, and struggles. Dean and Castiel moments belong in another article, but we can easily say that “Supernatural” wouldn’t be what it is today if these two hadn’t hit it off so extraordinarily.
Yes, I could again go on and on with the list of actors that Jensen has crossed paths with through the years, thus making very memorable scenes, but let’s just say many have come and gone and almost all hold Jensen in the highest regard. I’m especially enjoying lately the new big brother vibe he has going with Felicia Day’s Charlie. It’s yet another side of Dean that he’s gotten to explore and it feels new and exciting.
Speaking of the highest regard, there are many stories out there of suggestions and ideas that Jensen has brought with him to the set, several which ended up being used. It’s that creative vision that has also pushed Jensen into another arena of expertise, directing. He’s directed three times for “Supernatural” and each of those experiences have been met with very high praise. Many believe he has a big future as a director if he ever wanted to pursue it. I hope he does, because when I study the technical aspects of his directed episodes, they’re quite brilliant.
As I’ve said before, I’ve seen so many actors that by the time season eight or nine hits on their shows, they start phoning it in. I’ve never seen evidence of that with Jensen, even when story lines had lagged or become questionable, especially in the post-Kripke era. Just look at the end of the midseason finale, “Holy Terror.” Something connected with me at the end that I haven’t been able to shake ever since it aired. Sure, we’ve seen the single perfect man tear before. We’ve seen the close-up fade in on Dean’s agonized face before. But this time, something else happened. That close-up only played out for a few seconds, but this exceptional actor told nine seasons of story in a small amount of time. He’s done it many times before, but each lingering shot tells a very different story. This time, I worry for Dean very much. I fear we just saw a breaking point. There are only so many losses that this guy can take, and being the sole survivor is not something he can manage without unraveling. That’s how you leave an impression that gets viewers coming back for more. That’s why this show has lasted this long.
I know fans would like to see someone as talented as Jensen win scads of acting awards, but honestly, the best an actor can hope for is to be able to touch people’s lives through the roles they play. Jensen can easily make that claim and so much more. He’s part of our family, the SPN family. He’s evolved into our patriarch in a way, the one that inspires us to do better. He is the heart and soul. Sure, there are those that will look at us and say, “It’s only a TV show.” Those people have obviously never watched “Supernatural.”
Thank you Mr. Ackles for all you’ve given us. Thank you.