One of my fondest memories has to be the Halloween Blizzard of 1991. Any Minnesotan old enough to remember knows what I'm talking about. I was nine---and determined that I would trick or treat despite the knee-high snow and winds. My friends and I crawled over and through drifts---and one of my friends decided they would be a cheerleader that year, no matter what the weather. It was wild, fun, and something that makes me smile to this day. Other fond memories can be triggered just by a scent. Anything that smells like the Minnesota Renaissance Festival takes me to that beloved place in a heartbeat. It makes me think of the shows I've seen, the shops I've visited, and the atmosphere of the Festival all at once. Other memories aren't so good---times I've seen my parents in the hospital or had to say goodbye to a beloved pet. And yet, each experience makes me me. Each experience puts another page into my own history---shaping who I am now and who I will be in the future.
Who are we? How did we come about? What really shapes us as people? How do our memories factor into our identity? How do they shape it or create us? What if we lost those crucial moments in our lives---the memories that only we possess? What if we had to watch ourselves or a loved one slip away as memories slowly disappeared? This is a crucial discussion today with the concerns of Alzheimer's---and millions experience this loss first hand. Supernatural tackles the topic of memory and identity---and this tragic disease---with subtle grace. We are forced, each of us, to think about not just how identity and memory have shaped the Winchester brothers, but how they shape us. Through its comedy and tragedy, “Regarding Dean” allows us to glimpse this struggle first hand---and the result is a powerful statement on how our good and bad memories truly shape our ultimate identity.
First, let's look at the case itself.
The Winchesters are trying to figure out just what killed an accountant. They've yet to piece that information together when Dean is caught in a showdown with one of the culprits. Thinking he's about to make the kill shot, he's blindsided by a spell that leaves him knocked out cold. He wakes the next morning in the same park, unaware of how he got there or what happened the night before. As they go through the motions of visiting the morgue and the office of their victim, it is becoming clear that a witch did something to him---and that the two events are most certainly connected. It is apparent that whatever this witch did, it won't be a simple or easy fix. They must undo the magic or face dire consequences.
This hexing forces Sam to call Rowena.
Her own story reflects this question of identity and memory. She knows the witches behind this. She knows just what they're like and what they're about. She isn't there entirely out of the goodness of her own heart, but she has shown up because she remembers a key component of their magic. They have a Black Grimoire---a Celtic book of magic that she had thought lost. Her identity is wrapped into her tendency to show up for cases like these---where she can get something in return. Just like she acquired the Book of the Damned, she'd love to get her hands on this book, too. After all, that's the image she most projects: that of the opportunist.
Not only does she remember the other witches, they remember her. Catriona refers to her as “Raggedy Ann,” knowing that she was there over a hundred years ago. Rowena had offered herself to them, she had pledged to study at their feet. She had needed sanctuary and had turned to them. Catriona also remembers that she wasn't worth their time. She spits at Rowena, “I remember you. A rag doll all huddled up on our doorstep. I swore I could see the fleas nibbling away at whatever the hell was left of that dirty little body of yours. And still, still you thought you were worthy of our magic. And when we disagreed. Oh, how you begged, how you threw yourself down and... offered yourself to each of us. Boyd almost took you up on it too, but then I told him it would be cleaner with the pigs.”
In a way, our identities and our memories aren't the only things that shape who we are. It is the memories of others---how they perceive us and remember us that create our identities. In this case, Catriona remembers Rowena as the opportunist, the image she's fashioned for herself. She remembers Rowena as being broken and weak---someone who turned to them when she was at her most vulnerable in a long time. Rowena has no problem reminding her that there's a truth to old memories. She states, “Nothing heals old wounds like opening fresh ones.”
Rowena has spent her life fleeing from danger to danger. She has used her wits and her magics to protect herself and to grow her power. Her identity is so wrapped up in attaching herself to whomever she sees as most powerful and the one most likely to protect her. She did it with Crowley and Lucifer, she did it with this family of witches---and in a way she's doing the same with the Winchesters. Her identity is wrapped up in the memories of her pursuit of power. It is how she's gotten to be centuries old, able to live and fight and scheme her way as the years go by.
It's no coincidence that she's in the midst of a card game---using her magic to cheat no less---when Sam's call comes. Rowena's done these things for years. And yet, there's a clear difference---a shift taking place within the witch. This is old hat to her. The allure of acquiring power and prestige seems to be losing its luster.
In a way, Rowena is remaking herself---just by helping the Winchesters. Part of her wants the ability to hold something over the brothers---a get out of jail free card or a piece to blackmail them with later---but another part is the fact she's envious of their altruism. This is evident when Sam accuses her of not caring. She bluffs past his tense response to her, blowing off that she's offended when in reality she's hurt to some degree. After all, she must have some altruistic motives if she's come all this way to help them out. This becomes crystal clear when she's left alone with Dean, babysitting him as she sets up for the spell work that Sam will feed to her over the phone. She may appear frustrated on the surface as Dean touches everything she's laying out on the table, moving objects she's placed carefully and fidgeting in the circle she's placed him into---and yet as she hands him the doll, she eyes him carefully. This man, his memory largely gone, is someone she can talk to without repercussion. She can unload some of her thoughts and fears and the way she's changing ever so slightly without worry that he'll use it against her in the future.
She's not sure of her own identity anymore. She has always wanted the most power she could grasp---and yet she recalls, “I've done horrible things. And I told myself it was fine. It was the price of power and power's what matters, right? Then I met God and his sister, the two most powerful beings in the universe, wasting on squabbling with each other. I thought, if---if they can't be happy or at least satisfied, how can there be any hope for me?” Maybe her identity is wrong. Maybe there's more to life than this---and her memories of times in the past aren't what they once were. Perhaps she must find a new way to a new identity---forge new memories to make herself over once more.
Nevertheless, she uses memory and identity to make this confession. A befuddled Dean asks why she's telling him all of this---only to remark, “Because I know you won't remember.” It means her image, the carefully crafted version of herself that everyone remembers remains intact.
She tells Dean, after he wants to know what he's done, “You're a killer, Dean Winchester.” She clarifies her statement by stating, “But, though you may be a stubborn pain in the arse with the dining habits of a toddler, everything you've done you've done for the greater good.” The disdain that she shows at having to make this statement masks the truth. Rowena envies their ability to go out into the world and hunt in order to save others. She's not sure how to answer if that's the right thing to do---if it's worth it. She's not thought about doing things “for the greater good” before. Almost everything she's ever done in her life has come from the selfish place of self-preservation. To be confronted by a befuddled and clueless Dean about who he is and what he's done and if it's been good or bad---it makes Rowena truly question her own placement in the scheme of the world. It makes her wonder about her own motives and her own identity.
And so, she decides to help the Winchesters---going so far as to get her hands dirty and go into the house after Sam has been caught by the witches. She will confront Catriona head on, pinned to the wall and facing a possible death all in order to save Dean from his memory loss. It's an act that contradicts some of her earlier actions. Sure, she helped them with God and Amara. Yes, she helped them with the Mark of Cain---but both of these events had the scheme of saving her own skin or finding a way to acquire new power. Here, Rowena is left empty handed. Sam confiscates the spell book, making her pout. She retorts, “You're no fun.” Instead she's left with just the favor they'll owe someday---and there's a good chance she'll collect at some point.
Even so, she did something here not for sheer survival or a power grab. She did something for the greater good and that has shifted some of her identity by building a new memory.
Identity and memory truly shine, however, when we examine the brother's stories.
Dean wakes up in the forest after the spell has taken hold. He's next to a bunny nibbling away. He's unable to make a phone call as his phone is smashed. He's disorientated and befuddled as to how he got there, not remembering anything at all. As he finally calls Sam, he tells him to meet up at the waffle house nearby. The first real clues as to how his memory will start to fade emerge once Sam arrives. He makes a nonchalant gesture, pointing to his head as a signal that he wants aspirin---and yet since he doesn't voice the term for the medicine, it's the first clue that something is a miss. He also doesn't remember anything about the woman pregnant with Lucifer's baby---only to quip after Sam's reminded him of it, “Right. Right. Yes, the Devil baby mama drama. Say that five times fast. Devil baby mama drama.”
Dean seems out of it, unable to recall the case they're working. He brushes it off as an “epic night” of drinking and partying. He must have overdone it just a bit in order for him to not remember anything from the night before. It's easy to brush off this strange memory lapse---given Dean's checkered past, after all. Sam admonishes him, reminding him that he's no longer in his twenties---and that partying comes with a price. Dean retorts, defending the night he can't recall, “Okay One: The Rat Pack partied till the day they died and B: I can still kick your ass.” He's just recovering from the latest bender. He's just recovering from a powerful hangover. He doesn't even remember the woman he must have hooked up with---she slaps him forcefully in anger as he asks, “Who are you?”
In the car, Dean really proves how out of it he is. More things are disappearing from his memory bank. He can't recall which key starts the car. He can't recall how to drive Baby, driving her into the boxes before their parking space. Sam is alarmed, calling out, “R for reverse, Dean!” To both their astonishment, Dean asks, “Who's Dean?”
This is no mere bender or a bout of heavy partying. Something is seriously wrong.
Knowing that they're dealing with a witch after their graphic visit to the morgue, Sam is convinced that Dean has been hexed. Dean, slightly embarrassed and frustrated, demands that they don't call their mother or Castiel. Realizing that this is clearly a magical curse, Sam reaches out to Rowena, knowing if anyone can truly undo this, it'll be her. If he can't call their mother or their best friend, he'll call in an expert.
In the meantime, Dean tries in vain to prove that he's just fine. He tells Sam, “Dude, if a witch got a clear shot at me, I would be dead. I wouldn't be freakin' Dory.” and “This is a gun. This is a coat. This is---is a--a light stick.” Dean has progressed in the spell to the point that he's already forgotten the names of everyday items. He needs reminders posted everywhere so he can recall what's what. The pictures on the wall are labeled “ART.” The beds have post it notes stating “BED.” The television is labeled, “TV.” All of these post its are meant to remind Dean's short term memory as his long term memory has forgotten.
This is just the tip of the iceberg, as Rowena explains. At it gets worse, Dean won't just forget basics like this. He'll forget anyone and everyone. He'll forget who he is. He'll forget, at some point, how to swallow and breathe. This spell is meant to rob someone of their identity and then their lives. It takes, piece by piece, everything that makes them who they are and erases it. The clock is ticking. This time, Dean Winchester won't simply die. He'll cease to exist---all the while being a physical clean slate by the end.
As they work the case before Rowena's arrival, it's becoming crystal clear just how far this process will go. Dean's unaware of who they are and what they do. He's stunned by the glyphs the witch used. He's amazed by the fact that he can shoot a gun. He admits that watching himself on the camera footage is strange. He tells Sam, “It's like watching myself on Netflix.” He makes remarks about seeing the dead witch, stating that he's never seen a dead guy before---a statement that is fundamentally false.
However, there's a kernel of his identity that remains---once Sam's explained that witches are real and that they hunt them. To Dean, this all sounds cool. Without the baggage of what he's done or lost in the process of doing the “best job ever,” he is able to redefine it in a new way---recalling the good they can bring. He tells Sam, “I don't know, we kinda sound like heroes to me.” He's gleeful, the more he can remember unprompted---startling Sam with his pronouncement, “And our best friend is an angel!”
It isn't until he's so far gone that even this fades and he's forced to learn his identity all over again. Sam relays his entire life story to him. He's aware that he's overcome and defeated so much in the past. Even without most of his memory intact, this shatters Dean. He knows that there's something wrong and he's missing key information. He is aware enough that this is perhaps what will get him in the end. After everything they've faced, this is the very thing that will kill him. He confesses to Sam, “I can feel it---slipping out of my head. Ganking monster is one thing---but this?”
Left alone in the safety of the hotel bathroom, Dean Winchester slowly disappears into the mirror. He stands there, resolutely stating in a shaky voice, “Okay. My name is Dean Winchester. Sam is my brother. Mary Winchester is my Mom. And Casti- Cas is my best friend.” He states all this aloud to reaffirm his identity---that his memory of these key people are what really shapes him into who he really is.
And yet, in a matter of minutes, that very vital part of his identity seems to disappear into thin air. He stands, staring at a reflection he doesn't even recognize anymore, unable to recite even his own name. Little by little, his identity has been erased just with his memory---and he states brokenly into the glass, “I don't know.”
In an instant, Dean has died a bit. He's disappeared. He's been wiped away. His identity has been obliterated. At that very moment, he isn't who he is anymore. He's truly become a tableau rasa: a blank slate that anyone could potentially reshape into their own image. It is Dean perhaps at one of his most vulnerable moments.
Even so, there's some fundamentals about Dean that do not change no matter what happens or who has hexed him. Standing with Rowena, watching her prepare the spell all the while not knowing who he is or what he's done, he's confronted with her very statement on who he is. He has no recollection of what he's done. She tells him that he's a killer---that he's gone after people and killed them in his line of work. He is forced to face a truth about himself that shatters him a bit---even if those killings have been justified in the name of the greater good.
But this self-esteem debate---a fundamental bedrock of who Dean Winchester is---ends up overridden by his protective streak for Sam. Hearing his brother on the phone talking to Rowena, he's obliviously happy and not really that interested. It isn't until Sam has been caught by Catriona and screams in pain that he perks up and pays close attention. Hearing Sam's anguish triggers something once thought lost in Dean. He calls out, “Sam?” Clearly, even this magic is no match for the real identity of Dean Winchester---by remembering Sam at this key moment he's regained some of himself. It is enough to perhaps claw his way back before time runs out.
Next, he wakes in the car to find a note. It informs him that his brother has been held hostage by witches and that Rowena has gone into the house to retrieve him. He's told by another note to stay put, which he ultimately ignores. Opening the trunk, he finds the right weapon---next to the grenade launcher marked “NO!” and heads into the house, most likely unsure of just why he's doing this or who he is. He's managed to recapture just enough of himself, however, to do this. He can remember just enough to save his brother.
Entering the house just in the nick of time, he manages to pull the witch killing gun on Catriona. She scoffs at the thought of him using a gun until he holds up the post it note telling him what it is and what it does. Triggering enough memories, he recalls how to shoot and kills her.
In the next moment, two men rush down the stairs, startling Dean. Which one should he shoot next? Which one is the witch? He doesn't remember enough to trust himself. If he shoots the wrong one, he'll die. If he shoots the wrong one, his brother is dead. Sam identifies himself quickly by pointing to himself and saying firmly, “brother” and then he points to the other man, stating “witch.” This is all Dean needs to know who to shoot. He pulls the trigger on the witch.
After the spell is reversed, Dean comes down the stairs to play a joke on Sam. He quips, “Who's this hippie?” On many levels, this is Dean reclaiming his own identity, too. He remembers exactly who he is and he knows exactly what button to push on his brother to get a rise out of Sam. This is something he'd do---and he laughs when he reveals that he does indeed remember Sam. To soften his teasing, Dean proves that he is really himself once more---that all the memories that make him Dean are back---by saying, “Look at his face. Kinda like that time I ate all your Halloween candy. Classic.”
As the brothers pack up to leave and Sam confesses that he was envious at first, Dean scoffs. The loss of himself to this spell---the slow washing away of his memories and his identity along with them---has not been a pleasant experience. After all, all the good memories must come with the bad. One is shaped by both. One's identity comes with the “baggage” and to remove any of it would cause him to lose a piece of himself. Despite Sam stating that he thought Dean looked happy when he had forgotten so much of what they'd endured, Dean says, “Well look, was it nice to drop our baggage? Yeah, maybe. Hell, probably. But it wasn't just the crap that got lost, I mean it was everything. It was us. It was what we do, all of it. So if that's what happy looks like, I think I'll pass.”
The montage at the end, infused with Dean riding Larry, the Mechanical Bull, exemplifies all of these ideas on identity and memory. He's regained the memory of his “epic night” and this ride---and in little glimpses, it would seem, Dean may indeed remember some of the things that happened while hexed. The joy he expresses while riding this bull intermixed with these images shows how powerful memory truly is for us. He is reclaiming himself---he's taking in all of these moments and capturing them, even a little. The spell may have robbed him of his memories for a time, but now he's gotten them back. It means that he's really happy---knowing just who he is.
And yet, this doesn't just affect Dean. Sam struggles with what is happening to his brother just as much. He may not have his own identity and memories erased, but by watching Dean forget he's losing portions of himself, too. After all, it is Dean that holds the memories of their childhood nearer and dearer. He's the keeper of their history on so many levels. It is Dean that recalls moments from before Sam can remember. Without Dean, those memories disappear, too. Without Dean, Sam loses himself and his own identity---even if he's still Sam Winchester.
Sam is alarmed when he finds Dean at the waffle house, obviously handling a mighty hangover. Even as he quips about Dean not being twenty anymore, there's concern in his gaze. He can tell that there's much more going on with his brother. Dean's forgetting key things about their case and the big picture with Lucifer's love child out there. He's seen his brother on enough benders through the years to know there's something off about this one---he just can't name it just yet.
It only gets worse when Dean forgets how to drive the car. It only gets worse when Dean forgets his own name, clearly so out of it that he's lost his own identity for the briefest of moments. It triggers panic in Sam---that he's about to lose his brother in a whole new way this time. He has to think and act fast. His brother is uncertain in the morgue---nearly overcome by nausea at seeing the remains. He's unsure of simple facts that Dean has known all of Sam's life---like all the members of Bon Jovi circa 1983. He can't remember what a lamp is called.
As Sam works the case and reaches out to Rowena, this only grows worse. As Dean loses his identity and memories---so does Sam. When they go to the accountant's office, Sam is forced to relive the previous day as Dean gleefully pockets a cigar, stating, “Douche tax.” His brother cannot recall the name of their victim. He doesn't recognize any of the faces in the pictures on the wall. To Dean, it is as if they were never there. To Sam it is a weird deja vu that ends completely differently this time. They go to the bar Dean met with the waitress---and where he confronted their witch. He is stunned to learn that Dean was there riding the mechanical bull. He's stunned to see Dean confront the witch---and that his brother cannot connect the man in the footage with the picture of the man he saw on the wall in the office.
As they follow the trail to the forest, Sam is forced to do the unthinkable. Dean has always kept their history. He has always been the one that taught Sam about the life. He's the one that has helped shaped their identity through his memories. He states, “This is crazy. Me, giving you the talk. You know how many times we've had to tell some civilian that monsters are real?” For Sam, this is an identity reversal. It leaves him uncomfortable and uncertain. In this way, he has to become the big brother while his identity as little brother is replaced. He has to be their history keeper, the one that will remember their real identity. It means, too, carrying all the baggage they have---the Apocalypses, the sacrifices, the sorrows and losses. He knows just how awful their lives can get. It is now all on his shoulders.
He's confronted over and over again by a Dean that is not Dean at all. They come across the witch that enchanted Dean, only to find that he's already dead. This was meant to undo the magic, and yet they're now at a loss on how to reverse it. He needs Rowena's help even more. As she explains to Sam the awful truth, all the signs that he witnessed as Dean stated things like “Who's Rowena, that's a weird name,” or “Witches are real?” or his glee at stating, “Best job ever!” Sam is more than aware of how bad this is---even if Dean isn't.
After all, when Rowena states, “Well, of course I could. But witchcraft this complex would take time, more than Dean's got. He's already begun to forget himself, everyone he's ever known, ever loved. Even you. Soon, he'll forget how to speak, how to swallow. Then, Dean Winchester is going to die. ” and Dean says, “Sucks for that guy” Sam really knows that his identity and memory are nearly gone. With Dean's gone, a big portion of Sam's goes with him.
Sam confronts Dean in the hotel bathroom for privacy, telling Dean his life story. He breaks down everything they've been through and everything they are. Sam tries, in vain, to restore the history to his brother so that his brother can return to being their historian. And yet, he is broken when Dean admits baldly that he can feel it all slipping away. This is the beginning of the end for his brother---and for Sam as he's always known himself. Their memories---their shared memories---have always forged their shared identity.
Sam, shattered by this confesses to Rowena, “You know, I've seen my brother die. But watching him become... not him. This might actually be worse.”
This statement may be explicitly familiar to those who have watched someone succumb to Alzheimer's Disease. To watch a loved one descend into the darkness of forgetfulness has to be a crushing and heavy weight. It is one thing to know that a loved one will die or has died. It is another to have them still with us and yet so far way, unaware of their own identity or memories. This is Sam's burden. This is his struggle in this episode as he is heartbroken by Dean's confession. This is an unimaginable terror.
In so many ways, it leaves Sam feeling more helpless than he's ever felt before. No matter how many post it notes he writes, no matter how many times he tells their life story, no matter how much he does to keep Dean the way he knows him, he's waging a clearly losing battle. It is overwhelming in its magnitude. It is the loss of his connection to Dean that really hurts more than anything else.
So much of who the Winchesters are has been wrapped up in their memories. He has to save his brother before it's too late. Not only will Dean die, he'll forget who he is entirely before then. It is a tragedy happening in slow motion. It is a reality that Sam cannot handle. He goes into the witch's lair and confronts them, determined to make them reverse the spell at gun point. After all, in his view, Sam has nothing left to lose. His brother is already in danger. His brother needs him---and if he does nothing, Dean is gone.
As they squabble in front of him about restoring the witch Dean had killed, he is desperate to break free. He can hear Rowena confronting Catriona down stairs before too long. He knows there's some hope, even if they're trying to swap his soul for their brother's. Once he has an opening and has broken free of the ropes, Sam rushes after one of the witches, only to be stunned by Dean's appearance. His brother has trained a gun on them both, the uncertainty on his face evident. For Sam, it is like looking into a stranger's face. Dean has no real recognition of who he is---and he clearly doesn't know who to shoot.
Quickly, thinking of the post its he's used on everything else, Sam points with both hands at himself and says, “No, no, no. Brother.” This word is key. This word is not his name---which is telling. For Sam, his identity is wrapped up in his memories of being Dean's brother. It is being a brother that he identifies with most. It is a term that Sam is certain Dean can recall. He may not know his own name. He may not know Sam's name. And yet, Sam has a firm belief that Dean will remember this most critical and crucial of words for them both: brother. He then forcefully points at the witch, stating firmly, “Witch.”
It's all Dean needs and he fires, killing the right person.
In the aftermath, Sam waits anxiously for Dean to come down the stairs. As Dean pulls his prank on him, his face is pained at the thought that they failed anyways. To go through all of this, only to lose Dean anyways crushes him. When it's revealed that Dean is joking, there's a flicker of relief. Sure, he doesn't like the gag, but he knows---truly knows---that Dean is back. After all, only his brother would turn such a tragic event into a joke. Only Dean would use it to push his buttons for his sheer amusement. No confession or emotional moment could truly comfort Sam more than Dean pulling his leg. Dean's identity has been restored and he's no longer the stranger that Sam worked with on this case.
Even so, Sam wonders if perhaps Dean was truly happy not knowing. On one level, he's sincere in his belief that having the burden of their baggage lifted would be a blessing. On the other, he's clearly satisfied with Dean's response. Sure, they've endured a lot and suffered a lot---but as Sam pointed out early in the case, “Listen, man, I know we haven't had it easy lately, this thing with the Devil's kid and getting tossed into West Guantanamo makes me want to hit the bottle too sometimes. But dude, you're wrecked. And we got a case to work, so get it together, alright?” it's clear that erasing the bad would change who they are.
It's clear that Dean, even while having his memory impaired, had it right all along. They are heroes---and that means carrying the weight of their baggage. For the Winchesters to be the Winchesters, they must embrace their own histories and keep them alive in order to carry forward.
After all, all we are and all we will ever be is the memories we carry. Our identities---just as Sam and Dean's---can be found in what we remember---good and bad.
In the end, it up to each of us to keep our own stories---our own histories---alive through our memories.