This week’s Supernatural made me emotional before we even knew what was happening, simply because I knew that this was it – the Dean loses his memory episode. The tiny preview clip shook me weeks ago, and then I asked Jensen about it at a recent con. Would it break my heart? He said that it at first would make me laugh, but then…
His silence spoke volumes. He knows how much I adore the fictional character he plays, and I’m quite certain he knew the scene with Dean in the mirror was indeed going to destroy me. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s just say I was looking for signs of the impending amnesia even before they came, which made the opening ten minutes full of trepidation.
That doesn’t mean I didn’t also laugh. A LOT. One of the reasons I’m certain that Supernatural is the best show ever is its brilliance in combining humor and angst in a single episode – sometimes in a single minute! This episode accomplished that repeatedly.
Dean chases the witch, gets hexed by the witch, kills the witch, wakes up with a bunny. (Why did he wake up with a bunny? Who knows. Does writer Meredith Glynn love bunnies? Was somebody’s pet bunny on the soundstage that day and wanted to get in on the action? Does Jensen Ackles have a secret fondness for rabbits? No clue. I assume it refers to Dean’s rabbit comment in the previews. At any rate, it was adorable.)
Ackles got ample room to exercise his comedy elbows…. I mean skills….in this episode. The face he made when the woman walking with her baby in the stroller looks aghast at him and gives him a dollar made me giggle even as I was dreading what was going to happen. Was that Kevin Park’s beautiful dog Kuma making a cameo appearance with the dog walking guy?
Padalecki also got to show off his considerable comedy skills as Sam initially believes that Dean was on a bender and thus can be both bemused and annoyed at his lapses. Dean eats waffles, gets slapped by a woman he doesn’t remember, almost pukes over a murder victim with bags of bloody money pulled from his stomach…just another day for the Winchesters.
And then things get not at all funny. Dean can’t remember which key to use to start the Impala.
Oh god. This is the writing of someone who understands exactly what makes Dean DEAN and also knows how to rip my heart out. I half expected Robbie Thompson to peek out from behind an office door. (And yes, this is my highest compliment).
To destroy me further, he then puts the car into reverse and crashes her into a newspaper stand.
The icing on the cake?
Dean: Who’s Dean?
OMG. Let me pay Meredith Glynn another compliment. Many of the best stories I’ve ever heard about the Winchesters haven’t been on the show – they’ve been in fanfiction. I told Jensen the day I asked him about this episode that the amnesia Dean or amnesia Sam trope is one of my favorite flavors, but that it also kills me every time. That’s what I was hoping for from this episode – that it would live up to the amazing stories I’ve read that tackled this trope. And guess what? That’s what I got.
Dean is in denial at first, insisting he’s fine – because who wouldn’t do that? Who wants to believe something as truly horrifying as the thought of losing your mind? Losing yourself. I’ve worked with people struggling with memory loss, and it’s profoundly terrifying. Lose your memory completely, and you’ve literally lost yourself, your identity, your ability to love or be loved. I can think of few things more terrifying.
This episode, and Ackles and Padalecki’s brilliant acting played on that terror perfectly. Dean forgets the word for lamp, which in itself could be funny….almost. Sam puts a post-it note on it to remind him. Soon the room is covered in them.
Sam alternates between being frustrated with his brother and starting to feel desperate and helpless, which Padalecki evoked perfectly. Finally, Sam calls Rowena.
Rowena: Is he all smooth from the neck down, like a candle…
Sam: I don’t know! And I’m not checking.
It’s getting less and less funny, as Sam turns around to find that Dean has disappeared. He just went out for ice, but even that simple thing is no longer simple – Sam is frantic, searching and calling out ‘Dean!’ until he finally finds him, trying to get into the wrong room. I think that was the point that the parallels to real life memory loss started to hit me. If you’ve ever witnessed someone going through something like that, it’s heartbreaking – and terrifying. And this episode got it so very right.
They retrace Dean’s steps from the night before hoping to kill the witch and break the spell. With dizzying speed, the show veers back and forth from humorous (Dean, looking heartbreakingly innocent and about five years old, exclaiming “That’s awesome” when Sam tells him that witches and vampires and monsters are real and that they kill them), to heartbreaking, as Dean loses memories again and again.
They eventually find the woman who slapped Dean in the bar and get a description of what he was up to and can’t remember the night before, which involves four shots of tequila and Dean riding Larry the mechanical bull.
Dean: (hopefully) Was I good?
Waitress: You were amazing.
The waitress apologizes for possibly taking advantage of a roofied Dean, which was a nice inclusion. Then the brothers review the video camera tapes from the night before and see Dean chase the bad guy out the back door.
Dean: (attempting to read his own lips): No salsa real mittens…
Sam: (exasperated) You can’t read lips.
It’s funny, but it’s so not!
Sam and Dean continue to retrace Dean’s steps into the woods, while Sam tells Dean who they are and what they do. That in itself was heartbreaking, Sam sounding like the big brother for a change. Dean, in his place of innocence, listens and then exclaims “Best job ever!”
Sam doesn’t agree, citing all the grim realities.
Dean: I don’t know, we kinda sound like heroes.
Me: Damn right.
Meanwhile, the dead witch’s siblings find his body and Rowena appears at the motel to help. Or to get her hands on the powerful spell book that the witch family have in their possession. Or maybe a little of both, if you love Rowena like I do.
Dean: Your hair’s so bouncy!
Rowena to Sam: Do we have to fix him?
Sam entices Dean to sit down on the bed (actually he just grabs him by the shoulders and puts him there) with a promise of Cinemax. Dean’s selective memory interprets that as Skinemax, which he’s apparently quite comfortable with while Sam and Rowena are there too. It turns out to be a cartoon, but Dean has already forgotten what he was promised, so he smiles with pure joy and OMG I don’t know whether to laugh or start crying. Supernatural is often an emotional roller coaster, which I both love and hate, but this episode really delivered on that wild ride.
Rowena makes it clear – to Sam and to us – that Dean won’t just lose his memory of his past. He’ll lose everything. He’ll forget who he is, how to do everything – even how to swallow. Dean Winchester will die.
From the bed, Dean: Sucks for that guy.
Oh god. My heart.
Sam’s heart is clearly breaking too.
Sam: I’ve watched my brother die. But watching him become…not him. This might actually be worse.
Seeing the person you love most in the world slipping away, unable to do anything to stop it? I’ll say. This episode hit hard for anyone who has had to lose a loved one little by little, as many of us have. Almost too hard at some points.
Sam takes Dean into the bathroom for some privacy and tells him their life story. Their shared history. Who Dean is, what he’s done. Dean: I can feel it, slipping out of my head.
Sam: We’ll figure it out, okay? We will.
How many times has Dean said that to Sam? *clutches chest*
Then Sam leaves to go out and try to save his brother’s life. And that? Is what I live for.
Dean faces himself in the mirror after Sam leaves, in the scene teased in that preview that made me so full of fear.
“My name is Dean Winchester. My brother is Sam. My mother is Mary Winchester. My best friend is Cas.”
He repeats it, each time more haltingly, each time struggling more to hang onto the awareness. And as we watch, we can see in heartbreaking detail that Dean is losing the battle. I’ve been blown away by Jensen’s acting many times during the course of twelve years of Supernatural, but this was one of those scenes that blew me away all over again. No wonder he wouldn’t reassure me that it wouldn’t kill me. It did.
According to Ruth Connell, in one take we even got the One.Perfect.Tear ™
Rowena is left to babysit Dean, which she doesn’t seem to mind at all. Rowena never has a confidante who she can tell the truth to; she’s always too careful, too busy manipulating other people and trying to protect herself to just be real with anyone. That takes a toll after hundreds of years, I’m sure, so having someone who won’t remember it to confide in is a rare opportunity for Rowena. She tells him a story of the witch family who rejected her, back when she was lonely and desperate and – as she would put it – pathetic. Another glimpse of who Rowena is and how she got to be that way, which only makes me appreciate the character more. There’s a vulnerability to her that Connell has shown us glimpses of from the start, and that makes her so much more interesting. Oh and apparently Rowena has her own history with the British Men of Letters. Hmm.
Sam, meanwhile, is being a big damn hero. When Rowena warns him that the witches would sooner use his skin as an outfit, he cocks his gun and replies, “They can try.”
Damn. Is it hot in here?
He breaks into the witches’ house but unfortunately gets taken down. And tied up. It’s like old school Supernatural! When the witches incapacitate him and Sam starts screaming, Dean and Rowena are on the other end of the phone. And Dean, who at that point does not even remember his own name, hears his brother scream in pain and yells into the phone: SAMMMM!
That was it. If I’d been standing, I would have collapsed. Dean has forgotten everything, even who he is, even his own name. Everything but that one word, that one person. Sam. He yells it as Dean Winchester has done a billion times since Supernatural premiered, and it carries so much meaning that it nearly destroyed me.
All the kudos, Meredith. All the kudos.
Dean wakes up in the Impala, a post it note telling him his brother has been captured by a witch, and to STAY, while Rowena goes inside to try to save Sam.
Dean still, on some level, being Dean, does not stay. He opens the trunk and is treated to Sam’s post it notes all over it, and at this point, I could not NOT laugh.
On the trunk? OPEN ME.
On the gun? THIS GUN. Next to it? WITCH KILLING BULLETS.
On the grenade launcher? A big NO!
Oh god, Show. I love you so.
Dean bursts into the house just in time to save Rowena from the wicked witch, and then Sam and the other witch come downstairs. Dean, unfortunately, has no clue who to shoot. But Sam knows what to do.
Sam: (pointing to himself) No no no, brother! (pointing to other guy) Witch!
Boom! Dean shoots him (instinctively knowing to trust Sam’s voice, I wager)
Rowena works her magic from the spell book, and Dean and Rowena descend the stairs a little while later.
Sam: (still looking heartbreakingly anxious and so very hopeful): Is it done?
Dean: (deadpan) Who’s this hippie?
You can literally see Sam beginning to despair, in an amazing piece of acting by Jared. I started to tear up as I watched, just from the emotion on Sam’s face.
And then Dean bursts into laughter, along with Rowena, proving to Sam that he does remember by recounting a silly childhood memory to break the tension. If I were Sam, I would have clocked him one (and then hugged the shit out of him), but I’m not Sam and Show has been really good to me tonight but not quite THAT good. So no brother hug, but we do get a classic Sam and Dean talk over the hood of the Impala moment, so I’m still pretty damn happy.
Sam: Not funny.
As they chat over the Impala, Sam says it was nice to see Dean looking happy, with all the burdens lifted from his shoulders that knowing what they’ve been through puts there.
Dean: 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, what we do, all of it. So if that’s what being happy looks like, I think I’ll pass.
That conversation reminded me of the end of one of my all time favorite episodes, The French Mistake. Sure, they could have stayed there, where there were no monsters. But they wouldn’t have been Sam and Dean.
Sam: We’re not even brothers here, man.
And that pretty much says it all.
So the Winchesters drive away. All this time, I’m wondering where the scene is of Dean riding Larry. Cue the music of ‘Broomstick Cowboy’ and there it is, a video montage of Dean looking happy and innocent and riding a mechanical bull. I didn’t know the song, so at first it struck me as purely happy, but then again, it’s a country song, and that means heartache can’t be far behind…. Sure enough, the ending is a twist.
“Soon you’ll be a dreadful thing – my son, you’ll be a man.”
Woah. Chew on that one for a while, fandom.
A paean to Dean’s childhood, lost too soon to hunting and his father’s quest for revenge? Or just a reminder that Dean does still hang onto the ability to find some joy in life, and he refuses to regret the life he’s chosen?
I was left an emotional mess after that roller coaster of an episode, but you know what? I didn’t mind one bit. That’s the sort of episode that made me fall in love with this Show and these characters. I felt profoundly grateful to be gifted with an episode and actors’ performances that can still make me feel so much.
Thank you, Show.