[discussion of suicide attempt below]
So I wasn’t going to write a full review of this episode – and this isn’t a review, per se. More, rambling meta. But I’ve seen quite a bit in the way of mixed emotions about this episode. For a variety of reasons, but the one concern that I keep coming back to is the idea that the episode was a step back for Sam and Dean — that it reduced their world to the Sam-n-Dean Show again by portraying a world in which the Winchesters don’t know how to exist without each other. Now, I can’t fully speak to that, because in terms of characterization I remain of the mind that there is a large extent to which Sam and Dean will always be in each others pockets. But I absolutely did not see this episode as a reaffirmation of Sam and Dean as existing in an insular bubble of two, nor did I see it as a step back in terms of Dean (or Sam) valuing the other relationships in their lives (is anyone alive to have a relationship with?). Quite the opposite, in fact. Whereas past episodes that have touched on the theme of “with you or not at all” have treated a World Without Sam as end-game in its own right, Red Meat represented the culmination of weeks’ worth of Dean’s mental and emotional deterioration, largely the result of his own feelings of helplessness in the face of the Darkness and (more significantly, or at least, more immediately pressed on) the loss of Castiel. In many ways, the fact that Dean’s reckless call for Billie/loosely veiled suicide attempt was staged as it was, as the final result of an ongoing build-up rather than the result of a single, fatal action, demonstrates exactly how much Dean has changed — and Sam, whose focus through the entire episode remained Dean and his (physical and emotional) safety.
We’ve approached Sam and Dean’s Bonny-and-Clyde syndrome before, back in season two with Croatoan, and I know there are people who felt that this episode represented a regression — that after nine years and countless go-arounds, we find Dean at 37 in the same place as Dean at 28, his identity so wrapped up in his brother that he’s unable to consider living without him. But there are significant differences in the circumstances here, and I’ll be honest, until I got online and saw people responding to the perceived lapse in character development, I didn’t read Red Meat as being “about Sam” at all in the same way episodes like Croatoan, Sacrifice or I Think I’m Going to Like It Here are “about Sam.” Yes, Sam was absolutely the catalyst — but his “death” was the straw that broke the camel’s back, not all Dean needed to shatter.
This season has been an exercise in taking everything away from Dean — maybe more than any other season (we’ll have to wait for the finale to see where it stacks up against seven). It isn’t just Amara, or just Lucifer: it’s helplessness, it’s uselessness to a man who has been taught from childhood that the worst, the most morally bankrupt thing he can be is “useless.” Dean spent the majority of season ten helpless against fate, the Mark’s curse only averted through the (incredibly spurious – an angel let Rowena kill an “innocent” man) actions of his friends, against his demands. His freedom comes at the price of releasing something he not only doesn’t understand, but can’t fight — when the Darkness was still under lock and key he could at least (on some level) “control” it; now, he can’t even control himself when he’s around it/her. Unleashing the Darkness sets off something Sam will only describe as “visions” — a term he hasn’t used in almost a decade, that hasn’t come up since Lucifer was trying to get to ground. And his attempt to rescue Sam? Results in not only freeing Lucifer, but his taking over the body of the only other person left on earth that Dean loves — who gave himself over, willingly, out of the belief it was the only way he could be “helpful” to Dean.
Every episode since Dean found out what Castiel’s done has followed a pattern: Dean Doesn’t Want To. He doesn’t want to hunt; he doesn’t want to keep moving. Despite his insistence that they “keep grinding,” he doesn’t seem to have a lot of faith that there’s a point. He may have argued against Sam’s warning that Cas doesn’t want to be saved, but it becomes increasingly clear Dean doesn’t believe his own bravado. Both this week, and last week with Safe House, we have at least one scene that follows at least some version of this format: Dean is found by the camera despondent, failing to work on a case or research; he and Sam exchange half of a conversation that appears to be already in progress, generally relating to the search for Lucifer and Amara; and Dean goes silent until Sam, full Brave Little Toaster, assures him, Dean, we’ll find him. We’ll save him.
This has been a staple of the episodes since The Vessel. For a show that rarely worries about the nuances of their characters’ mental states on an episode-to-episode level, this stretch of SPN has been surprisingly consistent about two things: Dean has fallen rapidly into despondence over his current situation, and Sam has noticed. He’s noticed, and he’s worried.
It isn’t just a bad mood, though. Dean doesn’t want to hunt. He’s had to be pulled out on every case but that of the wrestlers in Beyond the Mat. He had no interest in the case from Safe House. Maybe the most concerning to date, in Red Meat he not only didn’t care about the case, he expressed a lack of concern for the existence of victims — and this was before Sam’s attack, when it was still a matter of whether or not the case was worth taking. There was no other pressing work to do; no lead on Amara, or Lucifer, or Cas. Dean just doesn’t care about anything.
It isn’t just despondence; it’s depression. And Sam’s behavior in the last few episodes, culminating in his practically dragging Dean out on a ‘nice little trip to the forest’ (to borrow from a similarly ill-fated X Files episode) in more or less a bid just to get him away from his head, was especially telling. Going into this episode I found myself with an anxiety that’s been building (I see now, deliberately) over the last few weeks. Dean Winchester has had mounds of shit shoveled on him before, but he’s never been put in a situation to feel completely and utterly helpless for it. He’s been made a victim and had his support circle slowly whittled down to what it was in the early seasons. And that’s interesting to me, too. Because beginning with Charlie’s death (though let’s be very up front here, this was not an intentional cohesion – she was Fridged For Manpain and don’t you ever let Carver or that little gnome Singer forget it), extending into the introduction of Billie and the loss of their safety net/chance to see those they’ve lost again and come out the other side (because let’s be real, that’s the more pressing repercussion of Billie’s promise), and culminating with the loss of Cas, Dean has watched his circle constrict back into the World of Two that was always him and Sam. The difference is, whereas for so many years this was standard fare for Dean – he operated in this world, he functioned perfectly fine, he was even – dare I say – happy, sometimes – this Dean, the Dean of the present, 37 years old and an occupant of the “Too Tired Motel” (srsly guys. Srsly), this isn’t sufficient.
One could argue that early-season Dean is perpetually hanging on by a thread: after all, no well-adjusted person jumps easily to murder-suicide when confronted with their brother’s illness; no healthy individual sells their soul to hell rather than live without their sibling. In terms of being irritated by the fact Dean will always need Sam to live, I don’t know what to tell you: you’re watching Supernatural. Dean can grow and develop and need and love other people — he absolutely has. And he can let Sam grow and develop and do the same (we’re working on that). But these are two men who grew up in an abusive home with no one but each other: Sam is Dean’s brother, his confidant, his child, his best friend. Dean is Sam’s brother, his father, his hero. Their relationship is where I break with most Dean/Castiel shippers in that I don’t believe there’s a world where they pat each other on their back and go their separate ways except on holidays — and one of the reasons I ship Dean/Castiel is because Castiel accepts Sam so readily as an irrefutable fact of Dean’s person. But I digress; that’s another post for another day. My larger point is that Dean will never be able to live without Sam: but he has reached the point where, under normal circumstances, he is no longer at sea without Sam. We’ve seen, not that long ago, Dean react to losing Sam in situations where he’s not alone: Kevin’s death, and Gadreel’s takeover of Sam’s body, for instance, spurred a similarly irrational initial reaction in Dean (destroy the bunker) that, once, likely would’ve resulted in some kind of dangerous and irrational behavior: chasing down a still-archangel-powered Metatron, for instance, or going after Gadreel alone. Instead, Dean’s first instinct was to call Castiel.
My point is that what we see in Red Meat is not, as is the case in say, Croatoan, Dean at baseline. This is Dean reaching a breaking point that’s been building for several episodes — that has been marked by a disinterest in hunting, a loss of empathy for the people he’s made it his purpose to save. This is Dean acting so out of character the very universe comments on it: even Billie, upon arriving, watches the medics trying to save Dean on the floor and tells him, she never would have guessed he’d take himself out; it’s so at odds with his martyr complex, his belief that he has to save everyone. But that’s just it: in that desperate moment to talk to Billie, he isn’t acting in-character. He’s acting selfishly. This isn’t just about “I can’t lose Sam” — this goes back farther; “I can’t be alone.” And he reveals himself, both when he tells Michelle that if they can save him great, if they can’t, “….well,” and when he makes his final, bargaining plea to Billie: send Sam back; take him. This isn’t about being with Sam — this is about not being alone; this is about not having to be there, as things that he can’t change get worse. This is Dean, tired of losing the people he loves, tired of losing.
That’s the other thing, too. Red Meat is a very straightforward MOTW: simplistic, even. Largely, of course, because the monster isn’t the point — this is a character study, possibly one of the most nuanced and interesting we’ve gotten in a while. But I want to pause on the MOTW anyway. #HipsterWerewolf, as we’ll call him (thanks Jensen!), was a villain you could call a mile away, because he looks like he only washes with dry shampoo and mansplains Bernie Sanders outside the library of the University of Washington. But he was also a tragic figure (or at least, his wife, Michelle made of him a tragic figure): a – presumably! – once mild-mannered, good man, who in the process of trying to protect his wife is attacked and transformed as something monstrous takes him over. That final scene might be one of my new favorite things of the season.
After everything that we survived together…
Is it sympathy? Is it empathy? Is Dean recalling the events of the last day and thinking about how his own actions in the face of Sam’s “death” changed him? Or is this the real difference between Red Meat and Croatoan, between Sam and Dean as Bonnie and Clyde, and Sam and Dean as they are now, broken but holding each other up, realizing just how easy it is to fall into that chasm? Because that was the difference in Dean’s character to me, in this episode versus those earlier ones with similar themes. In the past, when Dean has acted irrationally or put his life in danger because he risked losing Sam, it was because he’d made Sam his entire world — they were “psychotically, irrationally, erotically codependent,” to borrow Zachariah’s not-incorrect assessment. With Red Meat, Dean’s behavior was that of someone who has been getting closer and closer to breaking since it became clear he wouldn’t be able to help defeat the Darkness; who has been spiraling into depression since losing Castiel. Sam has been repeatedly portrayed as treating Dean with a gentleness bordering on fear for him, over the last few episodes, and with Red Meat we saw exactly how well Sam knows his brother. Dean didn’t try to kill himself because “Sam is dead;” Dean tried to kill himself because Sam was all that was left of his family, and Dean Winchester has always feared, above all else, being alone.
To me, this is character development. The ending of the episode, where Dean experiences visible distress at the prospect of watching “the man [he loves]” die as Michelle was forced to, has a lot of potential — none of which, of course, we can assume Supernatural will take advantage of. We can guess Dean’s thinking about Sam, about what he would have done if Sam really had been dead — but this is moot, because as uncomfortable as the answer is, we already know it (he would have found more pills and tried again). Do we assume he’s thinking of Castiel? Certainly, Castiel fits better. Not just narratively, but from the perspective of a casual viewer. The way the shot is set up, there’s no question we’re meant to understand Dean is relating Michelle’s plight of “watching the man I love die” to some aspect of his own life, but is the casual viewer going to connect “the man [Dean loves]” to his biological brother? To be fair, this is Supernatural, but still. Either way, it’s perhaps a surprisingly significant narrative decision, to immediately connect the primary source of distress in the main character – particularly after an event as viscerally emotionally taxing as the one we just experienced – to being helpless in the face of the death of the “man [he loves].” Particularly as a bookend to an episode that began with Sam’s concern over Dean’s emotional state as it directly related to Castiel, and which ends, again, with Sam carefully trying to find out how Dean responded in the face of their collective worst case scenario.
I appreciate the perspective that wants Dean to have grown past this — it’s hard to watch a character to whom you have an emotional connection experience something like this. But I didn’t read it anything like regression. Dean’s actions weren’t about Sam in the sense that Sam wasn’t the only reason for what he did: this was no 0 to 60, like we’ve seen in the past. This was the culmination of a year of loss for Dean: loss of bodily autonomy, loss of purpose, loss of someone he loves and the guilt that he could have stopped that. Sam has been the only thing keeping him together for months: reassuring him they can beat the Darkness; that he’ll regain his autonomy, be able to fight again; that they’ll get Castiel back, that Dean will have another chance. Sam’s “death” didn’t just take Sam from him — it took everything else, too.
It has nothing to do with loving Sam less: Dean will never be able to live without Sam, let’s be very clear on that. But Sam is no longer everything he needs, just as Dean is no longer everything Sam needs. In terms of character development, provided everyone comes out the other side of this it could prove incredibly important — for Dean to lose Cas could be the catalyst for him to realize just how in the wrong he was for castigating Sam over Amelia in season eight, for taking Sam’s desire for “more” as a sign of abandonment. Because a part of this could be Dean realizing he, too, wants “more.” Everything since season nine has, however awkwardly executed, been a failed balancing act for Dean, trying to prove that nothing’s changed — that he’ll always choose Sam, first, last, and only — even when his heart’s pulling him toward Castiel, too. Increasingly, we’ve seen Sam losing patience with the balancing act, reprimanding Dean for yelling at Cas and taking care of Cas when Dean isn’t there, but the last few episodes have been the first time Sam has voiced an awareness of the extent of Dean’s feelings — we’ll find him, we’ll save him, usually even before Dean brings up Castiel’s name. Always acknowledging the thing on Dean’s mind, and Dean never denying it. Sam is Dean’s hope right now, on top of everything else: literally, as the only one of them able to get close to Amara and not lose control, certainly; but symbolically as well, the one person Dean trusts completely to lean on, to be weak in front of. Without Sam, Dean has nothing, and no way of improving that situation.