You know how they say you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone? Or that you don’t know how much you love something/someone until you don’t have them anymore?
Yeah. It’s true. I’ve known for fifteen years that I was madly in love with Dean Winchester, but even knowing that, I truly didn’t know how much I was going to miss him when he was gone. I took for granted that I’d always be able to “see” him, that I could keep discovering his character and his story, little by little as time went on. I underestimated how wonderful it was to be endlessly fascinated by a fictional character and have the privilege of learning who he was, in bits and pieces and often-covered-up glimpses of the ‘real’ Dean Winchester, over the course of years and years and years. There was a reality to that discovery, in that it played out gradually, just like it does with people in our actual lives. And thanks to Jensen Ackles’ brilliant portrayal, there was a reality to everything about Dean Winchester that made him real to many of us.
That made him very hard to lose.
I thought that 2020 would be the last time I wished Dean happy birthday; I knew that he wouldn’t exist in the present by 2021. But right now I find myself needing to write about him again. It’s part of grieving the loss of something/someone important, that we want to hang onto our memories of them and remember why they were so important to us. I don’t want to forget him, not ever. And since fictional characters never needed our real-life validation, it doesn’t make any difference whether Dean ‘exists’ in the present or not – remembering him is for me. I miss him, and reminding myself of all the reasons why I love him helps me feel just a little bit better.
This could be a really long article if I tried to make an exhaustive list of what I love about Dean Winchester, so I’ll keep it short. Top five reasons why I will always love Dean Winchester.
One, I love his complexity. That’s due to Eric Kripke, who created him and wrote him for the first five seasons, and to Jensen Ackles’, who brought him to life in a way that was even more vivid than what was written on the page. It took me a whole season to fall for Dean Winchester; at first, I dismissed him a little as a stereotypical ‘bad boy’ type, a little too brash. Pretty on the surface but too stereotypical underneath. (Forgive me, I was only watching because a friend insisted, so clearly I wasn’t paying enough attention!) When Season 2 began, I suddenly realized that I had misjudged the show, and the brothers. I remember watching Dean, leaning against the Impala, break down and confide to Sam that he was not at all okay, tears glistening in his eyes, voice breaking. I let the papers I was grading slide to the floor and said out loud, “how did I not realize this show was amazing?” But it was also Dean, and Jensen’s willingness to show his character’s vulnerability, that made me fall head over heels for Supernatural.
Over the years, that vulnerability has sometimes been covered over by well-practiced defense mechanisms and then spilled out when those inevitably crack under pressure. Dean Winchester has endured trauma and loss the likes of which few of us will ever encounter in real life (thankfully), and as a result his emotions have run the gamut. He has struggled with attachment issues and a deep core fear of abandonment his whole life, devastated by the death of his mother and the loss of his father in part to a quest for revenge.
He has, at times, covered over that deep-rooted fear with denial and bravado and an “I don’t need anyone” insistence that only people who really know him can see through. He’s tried to swallow down the anger that comes from the violence and trauma he’s endured, sometimes succeeding and sometimes having it burst out of him in destructive ways that hurt those he loves. He’s grieved, deeply and painfully, sometimes in a healthy way and sometimes with denial and avoidance, for all the many people he’s lost. When a tear does leak, we all feel it deep in our own hearts, knowing it’s the tip of the iceberg for the pain he’s feeling.
Two, I love Dean Winchester’s sense of humor. It’s incredible (and possibly unrealistic) that despite the unrelenting trauma he’s been through, Dean can still laugh. At himself, at his brother, at Castiel or Rowena or Jack. It’s a coping strategy that has probably helped him a great deal over the years, and while it’s been sad to see fewer and fewer instances of Dean just being goofy over the years, that’s probably a nod to realism. Nevertheless, right up til the very end, Dean can laugh and experience joy – often in the simple things.
And we have Jensen Ackles to thank for putting his comedic talents to good use in bringing out that side of Dean Winchester.
Even in the very last episode, minutes before the end, he’s joking about bringing the ninja stars to the fight. Earlier in the day, he’s teasing Sam about vamp-mimes.
Months/years/whatever before that day, he is practically glowing with happiness at the prospect of spending a day at a pie festival with his brother.
That’s really the definition of resilience.
Not only does Dean Winchester manage to keep on going, he refuses to give up on finding joy in his life. Even when life is incredibly hard, he takes pleasure in the simple things. He loves sex, he loves pie, he loves sharing a glass of whisky with Cas.
He loves a Bob Seger song on the radio and cruising down the road with his brother beside him, singing along to Night Moves and sharing road food.
He hasn’t forgotten the simple joy of going fishing or learning to drive, and wants to share those with Jack.
The instances of finding that joy and expressing his sense of humor are fewer and fewer as the years under Chuck’s influence go by, but once the Winchesters are free of him, that years-long montage of life in the bunker with Sam and Miracle are once again full of happiness. It’s a good lesson; one that I need to remind myself of in the midst of what we’ve endured in the real world for the past year.
Three, and I apologize for the shallowness of this one but I couldn’t bring myself to leave it out – I love Dean Winchester’s beauty. Yes, he’s fascinating and beautiful inside, but he’s a fictional character, so I’m also gonna wax poetic about his outside. Nobody tell that guy who plays him. This one doesn’t really even require any words, let’s just look. (And thank you, Supernatural, for inviting us to gaze so freely without shame.)
Dean Winchester, in all his incarnations, is undeniably beautiful.
I could go on and on – fifteen years of throwing photos on a hard drive leaves you with lots and lots of pretty on your hard drive. But I’ll stop there for now.
Four, I love how much joy Dean Winchester and Supernatural have given me over the past fifteen years. I am so grateful to Kripke and to all the other writers who have had a hand in creating my favorite fictional character of all time. (Special shout out to Robbie Thompson, who happened to write Dean so in line with my own head canons that it was like the best id satisfaction ever).
He knows this, but I’m also indescribably grateful to Jensen Ackles for caring so much about Dean, for taking care of him so well, for never phoning it in and in fact doing just the opposite. Starting in the middle seasons of the show, I started playing a little game with myself to see if I could figure out when something Dean did was not in the script, but an ad lib added by Jensen. After a while, I started sharing them with Jensen to see if I was right, and then we were both a little dumbfounded by how often I was! Because they’re such perfect touches!
Those little moments, whether non verbal or dialogue, did so much to make Dean feel real and to make him a fully fleshed out character. As a psychologist, I know how much we as humans assess other humans through how they move, their gestures, their tone of voice, their facial expressions. That’s how we get to know each other. Jensen added so much of that to Dean, and it brought him to life and let us know him so much more vividly than we would have otherwise. I’m so grateful.
I cherish the moments we saw Dean’s own joy onscreen.
And finally, I love the fierceness with which Dean Winchester loves. It’s not always healthy; in fact, a lot of the time you could argue that it’s not. But why would it be, with the life that he’s lived and the incredible attachment traumas he’s endured? How could it be? Dean could have responded to all that loss and trauma by just refusing to attach to anyone, protecting himself from more pain by not caring about others and reveling in the self sufficiency that, let’s face it, he was uniquely qualified to pull off. But he didn’t. From the time the hits started coming, Dean Winchester refused to stop caring. He held Sam in his arms and carried him out of the fire and instinctively started comforting him, and somehow – against all odds – he never lost that capacity for empathy. It’s Dean who takes on the mantra of ‘saving people’ like it’s his job, wanting to save others from the pain he experienced and couldn’t avoid himself.
In the process, Dean manages to love – not many, but a select few. Jensen has always said that one of the things he loves most about Dean is his loyalty, and he gives that along with his love. He doesn’t love easily, and his relationships are fraught with power struggles and loyalty conflicts, fueled by Dean’s hypervigilance about being abandoned yet again. But as damaged as he is, Dean Winchester still manages to love. You can see it in his obedience to his father, even when most sons would have questioned or protested or bailed, and in the way he’s overcome with joy to have his father and mother back and the family together for one day thanks to the magic pearl.
You can see it in the way he considers Charlie a little sister and strokes her hair when they hug, letting his affection show openly.
You can see it in the way he loves his mother whenever he gets to have her, even in a dream world. The way it kills him when Mary returns and then leaves, and then dies. Again.
You can see it in his devastation when Cas gets left behind in Purgatory; in the look on Dean’s face when he looks down at Castiel’s dead body and knows he couldn’t save him. In the way he grieves every time he thinks Cas is gone and his joy when he hugs Cas every time they’re reunited.
And you can see it in the way Dean Winchester loves his little brother, the theme woven throughout fifteen years, in a relationship unlike any I’ve ever seen portrayed onscreen before or since. The depth of Dean Winchester’s love for Sam will inspire me until the day I die. The lengths he would go to, the things he would sacrifice, the way he cares so so much. That’s the beauty of fiction; things that aren’t possible or maybe even desirable in real life can be something to inspire, to savor, to cherish forever. Like the love Dean Winchester has for his baby brother.
Now there’s something in my eye.
In his chapter in the recent book, There’ll Be Peace When You Are Done, Jensen talks about what he loves about Dean:
It has been a privilege to play a character like Dean who has inspired so many people, because any excuse to give up is not an excuse that is good enough for the Winchesters. This is who they are. They fought because they believed in what they were fighting for, and that’s a part of the show that people connect with—to keep fighting the good fight, not giving up because the odds are stacked against you. Supernatural embodies that kind of resilience. I think Dean’s legacy is that he never gives up. He keeps fighting no matter what. The show carries the message to always keep fighting for each other, and that has inspired the fandom to keep fighting too, whatever fight they are facing.
He’s right. And I am so grateful.
Happy birthday, Dean Winchester. Here’s to seeing you again one day. Until then, you’re always in my heart.
You can read more from Jensen in his chapters in
There’ll Be Peace When You Are Done and
Family Don’t End With Blood, info at the
links on the home page or at