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SPN Meta. Cope or Die: Dean, Hell and Damnation in Season 4 Thus Far - Bloodslave for Cookies Page 2
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dodger_winslow
dodger_winslow
I'd Sell My Soul for a Blunt Instrument ...
Wed, Jan. 21st, 2009 02:19 am
SPN Meta. Cope or Die: Dean, Hell and Damnation in Season 4 Thus Far


The thing I love about an episode like Family Remains? Is that it always drives me to meta. The thing I love about meta-ing? Is that the conversations spawned by meta always drive me to meta more.

And I do love the smell of meta in the morning ...

So several folks have commented that they were bothered by Dean’s reveal that he "enjoyed" torturing souls in hell and/or that they were bothered by Dean’s lack of obvious indication that he had significant post-hell issues in the early S4 episodes only to have those issues show up as a major theme now.

I have a different take on both those choices, and this is it.
 

Cope or Die: Dean, Hell and Damnation in Season 4 Thus Far

I don't agree that Dean has been rolling along with no obvious issues about his time in hell before Wishful Thinking. Nor do I think he is displaying the symptoms of delay-onset PTSD (although he may well have it). Rather, the way I'm reading the choice to soft pedal (to the point of almost ignoring) Dean’s post-hell trauma in those first few post-hell episodes is far more interesting (IMO) than the more predictable choice of playing his post-hell arc as a series of tres dramatic teeth-gnashing, gut clawing scenes of unbearable emotional agony that bring him to his knees in private, but he is somehow managing to hide from Sammy and the rest of the world.

And the reason I feel this way is because Dean’s inability to feel and/or refusal to acknowledge/show what he feels as a post-hell mortal is very much in line with the way real emotional trauma works, rather than the way dramatized emotional trauma is so often portrayed to work.

The biological and psychological structure of the human mind/body can only process so much extended extreme traumatic emotion (particularly fear) before it dies or copes. In the overwhelming majority of cases, the instinct to survive dictates, either consciously or subconsciously, that it cope rather than die. The drive to survive is a bit like breathing in that regard. You can control your autonomic instinct to breathe for only so long before your body takes over, knocks your dumb ass out, and draws a breath in the name of surviving regardless of WHAT you want it to do, or have ordered it to do. This instinct is so strong, in fact, that you cannot choose to die of intentional suffocation rather than drowning. At some point, even submerged in water and knowing beyond any doubt that you won’t survive an effort to breathe, your body will still overrule your mind’s determination not to breathe, and you will try to breathe. Biology requires it. The survival instinct is the ultimate psychological trump card.

Which means, when a mind/body has endured as much of an extended extreme traumatic emotion (again, usually fear, because fear is MUCH stronger than pain, both psychologically and biologically) as it can endure without dying or coping, it almost always chooses to cope. To survive, no matter what it must do to facilitate that survival. In a dramatic over simplification of the choices available for coping with such an unrelenting and ongoing extreme emotional trauma, I’m going to pare it down to three basic coping strategies. At the point of break, when the mind/body chooses to cope rather than die, it 1) shuts down completely (catatonia), 2) fractures and/or compartmentalizes (the onset of multiple personalities is the obvious example here, but this strategy also includes becoming so single minded on one course of action and/or belief system as to completely invalidate any mitigating influence from other intellectual or emotional options that might otherwise be considered), or 3) establishes the heretofore extreme peak of emotion/sensation as a new baseline of "normal" so the mind/body can reacclimatize itself from a constant state of high alert back to a sustainable state of ongoing normalcy (I’m going to use sufferers of chronic pain as an example here, migraines in specific, because many of you will be able to relate to that analogy).

These coping techniques are how soldiers deal with the unrelenting terror of combat, how torture victims deal with the extreme physical demands of their ongoing circumstances, how hostages deal with the overwhelming mental pressure of long-term imminent-threat-of-death, how abused children deal with the never-ending, impossible-to-predict random threat matrix, how John deals with his unending and unrelenting fear for his sons, and how Dean deals with the fallout from hell.

In John's case, as a soldier with pre-existing default coping mechanisms originally initiated to deal with the pressures of combat, he does what soldiers most often do: he compartmentalizes. In instances of extreme ongoing emotional trauma, he shuts down every aspect of his persona (mercy, parental instincts, personal ethics, legal and societal ramifications, etc) except the one required to get him through the current instance of emergency. This is why soldiers don’t grieve fallen comrades until they are off the firing line themselves, why soldiers don’t freeze in terror when a grenade lands at their feet but rather pick it up and throw it back as if the idea the fucker might blow up in their hand didn’t really occur to them. They can do these things, and do them repeatedly if required, because they’ve already experienced a point of break from ongoing extreme emotional trauma that exceeded their capacity to continue to endure it, thus creating the capacity to compartmentalize as a coping mechanism. And after that first break, that compartmentalization strategy becomes something they can access well in advance of a second break, much like someone who has already experienced a personality fracture can/will access that secondary personality under much smaller stresses than the one that created the original schism by fracturing (personality compartmentalization) at a point of critical cope-or-die crossroads.

Post-hell Dean, on the other hand, displays a different coping mechanism altogether. He does not shut down from the pressures of what he experienced in hell. He does not fracture/compartmentalize his persona to a degree where he creates two separate and disparate states of existing (be those states either personality or response based). Rather, he copes with ongoing, unrelenting extreme emotional trauma beyond what he can continue to endure by defining a new baseline for what constitutes "normal" in his post-break persona.

Which is exactly why he isn’t falling to his knees in secret expressions of agony behind closed doors. This level of agony (the one he later tells Sam is so intense he'd rather feel nothing) is normal for him. And it has been for at least ten years, and possibly longer.

At some point in his hell experience, Dean’s psyche became incapable of surviving any longer simply by enduring what he had heretofore managed to endure. The unrelenting trauma became too much, so Dean broke, as every human will eventually break, given enough time and enough pressure and enough failure of any form of refuge or relief from that unendurable pressure. And when Dean breaks, he agrees to do what he has to do to end what he can no longer endure: put other souls on the rack in his stead.

But the choice to do this, the choice to act in a manner that corrupts the very core of everything he has always believed differentiates him from the monsters he hunts, involves a different kind of ongoing, unrelenting extreme emotional trauma. And it, in turn, eventually drives Dean beyond what he can continue to endure, thus creating a second critical breaking point where this trauma requires him to cope in order to survive, rather than simply enduring as he has thus far managed to do. Once this critical juncture is reached (once again, as it will always be reached, no matter WHO you are, given enough time, blah, blah, blah … all of which hell has in abundance), Dean has no choice but to cope. So once again, his psyche copes by establishing a new baseline of what constitutes "normal" for him post-break … that "normal" being what he feels while torturing other souls, an activity that, once stripped of the ability to morally pressure him as it had heretofore morally pressured him, becomes "enjoyable" in terms of the relief it provides from his own agonies while he is actively doing unto others that which was done unto him.

Let me break right here to point out an essential consideration when speaking to the coping mechanisms of the Winchesters, in specific. Like his father before him, on multiple pre-hell occasions, Dean has shown a capacity to, a willingness to, and a determination to overcome his own survival instinct when presented with a cope-or-die breakpoint scenario. While alive, he repeatedly showed he would choose to self destruct rather than betray his most fundamentally held beliefs by "coping." The consistency of this choice while alive indicates that, had he been afforded such an option at both prior breaking points in hell, Dean would have no doubt chosen to self destruct (ie: die) rather than cope (act in a way that corrupts his fundamental beliefs) in order to end the extreme emotional trauma he can no longer endure.

And here-in lies the damnation prospect of Hell. Because when a soul reaches that point of breaking (as any soul will given enough …), a soul does not have the option to die. A soul is not afforded the choice to end itself rather than acting in defiance of its own beliefs in order to survive.

The mind/body is mortal; thus, it has a survival instinct designed to discourage it from self-destructing. The soul, on the other hand, is immortal; thus it has no need of a survival instinct because IT HAS NO CHOICE BUT TO SURVIVE. There is no self destruct option for a soul. It cannot end itself because it cannot end.

And this is exactly why (and I’m speaking solely in terms of SPN canon rules here) every soul who goes to hell will eventually damn itself. Because it has no choice to do otherwise. The right to choose is a gift of humanity, and the essence of humanity is mortality. When Ruby says the humanity will be burned out of a soul until it becomes a demon, she is saying the right to choose will be burned out of a soul until it had no choice but to be what it becomes. The first step of that stripping of humanity is the stripping of mortality. The loss of mortal life takes away the choice to self destruct. In essence: dying takes death of the table as an alternative to coping in order to end what MUST be ended because it can no longer be endured.

With that right to choose (self destruction over coping) stripped away, the stripping of all choice (all humanity) is simply a matter of time. Because given enough time to exert enough ongoing and unrelenting extreme emotional trauma (like being cut and carved and torn in ways you cannot image only to know, at the end of every day, every single one, you will become whole again, just like magic, so it can start all over again …), every soul will break. And when they do reach this point, no matter how long it took them to reach it, the soul does not have the choice to die. It only has the choice of HOW to cope, not whether or not to cope.

And so the soul will cope. Because it has no choice. And no matter how it chooses to cope, in the simple act of coping, it will damn itself by acting in a way that corrupts the most fundamental aspects of what makes it who it perceives itself to be. In other words: it has been denied its humanity, its right to free will, its right to choose to self destruct rather than act in a way it can eventually be forced to act if it is denied the option to self destruct to avoid those actions.

So whether the final damnation to demonic self identity is instantaneous at the first break (fuck it, I've already lost so I might as well save myself some unendurable agony by embracing the demon I'm going to become anyway) or whether the burning away of the last vestiges of lingering humanity (the determination to continue to try to choose, even when it has become obvious that, in the end, there is no choice) is a long process involving an unlimited number of ongoing and unrelenting escalations of extreme emotional trauma to a new breaking point, the end result is inevitable.

Because every soul will eventually break, given enough time and …

And every soul that breaks will cope.

So this is how Dean’s soul damns itself. By breaking without the choice to self destruct rather than cope, he is forced to act in a way that corrupts his core belief that he cannot be forced to become that which he has always hunted. It is the first step to becoming a demon.

But because Dean is Dean, he doesn't give up and embrace the inevitability of becoming a demon simply because this first break forces him to corrupt his own self identity by putting other souls on the rack in his stead in order to end what he can no longer endure. Rather, he copes. He chooses to try to continue to choose rather than capitulating to the inevitable; and he does so by establishing this new level of breakpoint agony (the fear of what comes tomorrow in a world where every day he becomes whole again, as if by magic, to suffer any agony anew for all eternity) as his new baseline of "normal."

He can endure normal, and he does. For years. But with every new soul he tortures, Dean further compounds his own sense of damnation. And each of these new damning acts performed because he is forced to perform them in order to stop that which he could no longer endure (the fear) becomes an ongoing and unrelenting extreme emotional trauma of its own. Because he refuses to release the full measure of his lingering humanity and embrace the demonic self identity that is inevitable in the end, Dean's torture of others is as emotionally traumatic to him as his own torture at the hands of others was (whereas, if he embraced the demonic self identity, these acts would not torture him simply because his capacity to be tortured by such things is the penalty clause for holding onto those last lingering traces of his humanity). And he endures it as long as he can. But as all souls will, he eventually reaches a breaking point where he must once again cope. So he does. He copes by re-defining his baseline for what constitutes normal so it now accommodates the moral agony of how he feels about torturing others in his stead. So what he feels inside? The depth of despair that drives him to say he'd rather feel nothing at all than to feel this? Is now "normal" in the day-to-day world of Dean Winchester.

And this is where Dean is when Castiel grips him tight and raises him up from Perdition. Torturing other souls in his stead has become Dean’s new baseline of "normal" in order to cope with the ongoing and unrelenting extreme emotional trauma of being forced to continue to do it. And in the endless repetition of this damning act, with every new soul he cuts and rips and tears in ways you cannot imagine, Dean's humanity becomes more and more burned away until he is so empty of all human empathy that he begins to find relief from his own agonies in the act of doing to others that which has been done to him.

When Dean refers to "everything else falling away" while he’s torturing other souls in his stead, he’s speaking to the sensation of a momentary respite in an endless eternity defined by unendurable agony. In such an eternity, any relief from such unrelenting emotional trauma is perceived as joy. As pleasure. And as such, it becomes more precious than anything else. The simple lack of pain becomes the begin-all end-all of every drive.

And this is the motivator that would have proved out the catalyst to Dean’s final damnation. Had he stayed in hell much longer, his drive to find this place of feeling nothing, accomplishable only as long as he tortured others in his stead, would have burned away those last lingering traces of humanity to which Dean is so desperately clinging by refusing to embrace the demonic self identity. Because embracing that demonic self identity? Will allow him to feel nothing but joy (relief?) when torturing others. A breath of water to a drowning man. Even knowing he will not survive drawing it, the urge to breathe can only be denied for so long before Dean's soul will knock his dumb ass out and draw that breath for him.

So back to what I was saying about Dean post-hell: This is how a soul like Dean's becomes damned no matter WHAT he chooses, or how long he chooses it for. Once tossed into the pit and stripped of the mortality required to self destruct in lieu of coping, all roads lead to the same destiny. Damnation become inevitable. Unavoidable. Because sooner or later, every soul will break under extreme, long-term unrelenting destructive emotion. Just as every mortal mind/body will.

And Dean’s broken twice in hell: once when he accepted the deal to get off the rack to find relief from fear, and once by beginning to enjoy something he was being forced to do to find a relief from guilt.

And now, suddenly, inexplicably, unexpectedly, Dean is mortal again. Alive. Human.

But even in being mortal, his soul is still damned by acting in ways his moral structure will not allow him to act within the confines of how he has heretofore defined himself to be. And this is how we see Dean for those first several episodes. He’s existing as a mortal with a damned soul whose baseline for "normal" is the same in Lazarus Rising as it has been for the last ten years in hell.

So this agony of having experienced what he's experienced? His moral despair at having done the things he has done, and how he felt doing them? Those are all "normal" for Dean at this point, and have been for some time. They had to become "normal" in order for him to survive when he has no choice, as an immortal soul, but to survive.

This is why there’s no chest-beating over a pain that is very much alive inside Dean those first episodes, even if it is not overtly expressed or shown. It’s why there is no falling to his knees in agony behind closed door, no wailing out for help or sharing of his pain in an effort to heal it. Because this is daily existence for Dean. This is how he has become accustomed to feeling.

And this isn’t new for him. He’s felt this way for some (thus far) undisclosed portion of ten years.

So for Dean to have shown evidence of this kind of moral agony in the early episodes of S4? Would have indicated he’d never reached that second breaking point in hell where what he’d done to damn himself became "normal" for him simply because he could no longer endure it as an ongoing and unrelenting extreme emotional trauma. And he has reached that breaking point. He broke, and he coped, so now those things are no longer traumas for him that must be expressed as such, but rather they have become an accepted part of his daily existence.

Normal for Dean Winchester

Which isn’t to say those memories don't haunt him and aren't a constant agony to him, because they are. Rather, it is to say that this level of agony is such a familiar and constant companion to him that it is no longer capable of bringing him to his knees or requiring any overt or visible expression of any kind.

This is where I’ll bring in the analogy of chronic pain sufferers. At some point, in order to do what must be done to continue living a reasonable lifestyle, most chronic migraine sufferers learn to re-established their baseline for what constitutes "normal" pain to a threshold that accommodates an unrelenting, constant headache of a specific severity as an inextricable part of daily life. This is her reality. This is her normal. But it doesn’t mean she doesn’t feel that pain, because she most certainly does. Rather, it means she’s found a way to cope with a level of pain that was once an unrelenting trauma by re-defining it to an irrelevancy to the peaks and valleys off the midline norm that drive us to behave as we behave. And because of that re-calibrated baseline, it requires a significantly larger application of pain to register with this particular individual as something that needs to be expressed as "boy, do I have a headache today." That statement, coming from a chronic migraine sufferer? Means the pain she is experiencing would put you in the grave. But for her? It’s just a headache, because the level of pain she experiences as her daily baseline of normal is the kind of pain that would have you curling up in a dark corner crying your ass off.

And this is Dean in those first several post-hell episodes. The baseline of moral agony and emotional trauma to which he has become so accustomed that it represents "normal" to him is defined by what he experienced on a daily basis for ten years in hell as he tortured other souls in his stead. And compared to that? This is a breeze. This is the first respite he’s experienced in forty years from the constant and unrelenting pressure of his own inevitable damnation. At least now, he is not damning himself more every day by continuing to torture souls. So for him to fall to his knees at this juncture and wail over something that is so much less now than what he’s coped with for forty years in hell? Makes no sense.

Rather, he tries to live with what he feels the same way he was living with it in hell. Hanging fire, as soldiers call it. And the flashes of red lights and wild eyes we see? And the occasional flicker of memory behind Dean’s eyes the are dramatized so at to clarify that, whatever they are, they have something to do with Dean’s memories of his time in hell?

Those are not hidden/forgotten/denied memories resurfacing, as many might assume; but rather simply the show's acknowledgement that those memories are alive and well inside Dean rather than something he left behind at the station when he hitched a ride topside on the angel express. His time in hell is a fully realized reality that exists within Dean whether he expresses it or not. He’s forgotten nothing, and he feels everything. But it bears repeating that this isn’t a new pain for him. It isn’t a pain above or beyond what he considers normal. And because it isn't, he simply doesn’t express it, or speak about it.

Yet.

And here-in lies all the potential for Dean to redeem himself from the damnation he's suffered in hell. Because being mortal again, he now has two things he did not have in hell.

First:

Dean once again has the choice to self destruct rather than endure something beyond his breaking point. This has been restored with his mortality: his full Humanity as defined by his right to free will.

BUT.

The pickle here is that Dean’s penalty clause for choosing to self destruct now rather than cope isn’t death as it was pre-hell. Rather, his penalty clause is a return to hell. Dean believes (whether it is true or not being irrelevant) his actions in hell have damned him, assuring that he will return to hell upon death; and he can't face the prospect of that. It isn't dying again that scares him, it's returning to hell and a resumption of the unendurable agonies he left behind. And it more than scares him. He is terrified of it. Because now, Dean knows what hell means. He knows the inevitable damnation that awaits any soul in hell, including his. So now, without his pre-hell hubris that allowed him think he could go where angels fear to tread and endure it, if not prevail over it, his cope-or-die breaking point becomes cope-while-alive or die-and-return-to-hell.

And this is a totally different ball of wax for Dean. He’s lived and died by his willingness to self destruct in the name of what he believes. But now? Now Dean is faced with the same choices John faced all those years he was protecting the boys from the YED. He's faced with having his option to self destruct stripped away not by a lack of mortality (as it was stripped away from his soul in hell), but rather by knowing the consequences of choosing to self destruct, and those consequences being untenable enough to force him to cope instead.

So now Dean, like John, is trapped in a living hell, rather than the more traditional pit of darkness at the hard end of a long fall across the River Styxx; and that living hell requires him to cope even when coping means damning himself to some degree by corrupting those beliefs he holds most fundamental to everything he is.

Which is why the choice Dean makes with Uriel concerning Anna is so very, very important in defining where Dean is in terms of damnation, and what constitutes a breaking point for him post-hell. Because when faced with the choice of betraying Anna in Heaven and Hell or returning to hell? Dean stands up to his terror of returning to his own damnation by choosing to self destruction (go for it, Uriel) over coping (giving Anna up). This is HUGE. It indicates how much of the original pre-hell Dean still exists in this post-hell version of the man he once was. But when faced with the choice of betraying Anna or letting Sammy die (and potentially go to hell, having demon blood as he does, or so Dean arguably believes)? Dean chooses to cope rather than self destruct. He betrays Anna because self destruction here means destroying Sammy, too. Just as John spent twenty years betraying everything he ever believed in rather than self destructing when self destruction meant destroying his sons, too.

But I’ve gotten a bit off track here, so let's go back to the two things Dean has now that he didn't have in hell. The first being the choice to self destruct (whether he feels he can take that choice or not being irrelevant). And the second …

Second:

Dean now has the possibility of redemption. Because in hell, there is no respite from the ongoing and relentless extreme emotional trauma that will inevitably break any soul to its own damnation, there can be no hope for the possibility of redemption.  But on Earth, particularly in the company of those you love and who love you, there is respite. There is relief. And this is the key to avoiding a breaking point that can not otherwise be avoided.

It's probably important to note that it was not the daily cutting and tearing and ripping of Dean’s soul in ways you cannot imagine that eventually broke him. What breaks Dean is the knowing that there was no end to this relentless, unending extreme emotional trauma. The magic that makes you whole again so you can suffer the same thing the next day. And the next. And the next. There's the real culprit when it comes to breaking souls. Every single day, as Dean says. That’s where his emphasis is. Every single day, for thirty years, I told Alistair to stick it where the sun shines. But then I couldn’t do it any more, Sammy. That’s the breaking point of any mind/body or any soul.

The biological and psychological structure of the human mind/body can only process so much extended extreme traumatic emotion (particularly fear) before it dies or copes.

So this is what breaks Dean. What would break any soul. Not the pain. Not even the fear of the pain. But rather the despair of knowing there is never going to be any relief from the pain. From the fear. From the trauma. Never a moment’s respite. Never even a moment's hope of respite ("Hope is the whole point," Sammy says in Houses of the Holy). And this despair is also what's damning Dean more every day even as Castiel pulls him out of hell. That desperate human need for relief. The lack of it, coupled with a growing inability to believe there is any hope of it in the future, any hope for change from the endlessly ongoing, any hope for salvation from the inevitable, any hope of rescue, any hope of escape, any hope of death: that's what drives Dean to begin to enjoy the torturing souls. Because punishing others for his pain is the only way he can get relief from his own relentless, unending extreme emotional trauma.

But here, topside with Sam, Dean has other avenues to relief. He has an endless supply of respite on tap. And he has the ongoing hope for more relief whenever he needs it enough to ask for it. This is the same thing that keeps John going all those years. The love of his family. It is the ultimate refuge from whatever damnation haunts you.

And it is equally Dean’s only hope for redemption (just as it was John's only anchor to keep him from falling to Gordon Walker's inevitable damnation). But it isn’t an easy road, just because the road exists. To find relief in Sam, Dean must first re-connect with Sam. And to re-connect with Sam, he has to take this unendurable shame and guilt and confess it to the one person from whom he most wants to hide it.

Like all human dynamics of stress and the relief of stress, the only way to vent something is to break it out into the daylight and deal with it. And in those first few episodes, Dean refuses to do that. He can’t confess something to Sam that he can’t bear Sammy knowing about him.

So he goes on with business as usual, enduring every day with his baseline norm of moral agony eating away inside him in ways he doesn’t need to show, so he doesn’t. And for a while, that works. He's no longer in hell. He's no longer torturing souls in his stead and enjoying it. He's killing evil again, and perhaps earning back some of what he's lost in the process. And most importantly, he's with Sam. Just that. He is with Sam. And because no one (but the denizins of hell) knows this terrible secret that exists inside him like a cancer, no one can force his hand to the table. He can deny it, pretend it doesn't exist, and so he does.

He denies it because this form of self destruction is more acceptable to him than coping with what he has done in hell by confessing to Sammy things he cannot even bear to admit to himself.

But as time passes, and Sam and Dean begin to re-establish their brotherly bond by living as they have always lived, the relief Dean feels simply in being out of hell and with his brother again begins to corrode that re-calibrated baseline of "normal" that serves as his only coping mechanism against the kind of pain he’s in day in and day out. Like one freaking day without a headache reminds a chronic migraine sufferer what "normal’ really feels like, hunting things and saving people with Sammy reminds Dean what "normal" really feels like.

And only then does the pain inside him begin to hurt again. Only then does it begin to register on his active awareness in ways that are no longer irrelevant to what drives him to act, in ways he can no longer deny, in ways he can no longer pretend do not exist. In ways he must express. In ways that overcome him with what he has done, and how he feels about those things.

This is the essence of an ongoing, unrelenting extreme emotional trauma. By losing the integrity of the coping mechanism that makes those traumas bearable, Dean is slipping back into a state of ongoing, unrelenting unedurable agony will inevitably form a new breaking point if it continues. And he is fast approaching that breaking point; fast approaching the need to either cope or self destruct as a pain that was once "normal" becomes once again that which it was when it first broke him. But because Sammy is there with him this time, Dean has a third option he didn't have in hell. He can seek respite. He can reach out for and FIND a refuge from the constancy of pain that would otherwise break him. And in doing so, he can find relief from the escalating pressure of extended extreme traumatic emotion before it reaches a critical breaking point that will force him to cope or die.

And that relief is Sammy. But Dean has to find a way to accept what Sammy has to offer, which is easier said than done. And this is where both Sam’s pushing (as well as Uriel and Allistair’s "hints" telling Sammy where to push, even if those hints are given with the intention to damn rather than save … which I don’t think Uriel’s actually were—offered to the intent to damn rather than save, that is) as well as Sam’s willingness to stop pushing play into Dean’s redemption from his own agony.

It is also where Sam sharing some of his "dirty little secrets" about the demon blood curse plays. Because as much as Dean does not want to admit his damning acts to Sammy? That much does Sammy not want to admit his demon blood secrets to Dean. But by breaking that covenant of silence Sam has heretofore insisted on keeping about his fears and secrets concerning his own damnation? Sam opens the door to Dean to follow in kind.

If I tell you my secrets, then you can tell me yours. If I confess to you my sins, then you can confess to me yours.

Which is, of course, the whole point. That the love of family is your only source of redemption from the things that would otherwise damn you. That it is your only hope, Obi Wan. That it is the one place in which you can confess your sins, and know that they will be forgiven. Because this is your family, and family trumps all.

So in revealing what he has done in hell, even in partial detail, to Sam, Dean is actively beginning to seek the forgiveness he is not yet ready to accept. Confession is the first step to contrition, and in owning up to his daming actions in the safe confessional of his brother's unconditional love, Dean vents off enough pressure to find his first real relief from the ongoing extreme emotional trauma of what he has done in hell, and how he feels about those acts. And that relief, like a single day without a headache, shatters the integrity of Dean's coping re-calibration altogether, driving him to begin to express some of the agony that would otherwise be "normal" to him.

And feeling/expressing that agony is the only way to heal from it. Just as facing traumatic memories is the only way to get past them.

So in this way, the gradual reveal of Dean’s trauma from his time in hell, as it is being articulated so far in Season 4, is allowing us to bear witness to the gradual process of Sam beginning to redeem Dean back to humanity from the damned state in which he has existed for more than 10 years. Sammy is giving Dean the things Dean needs in order to find his way home again: those things being acceptance, empathy, love, unconditional forgiveness for any sin, etc. But in order to do this, Sammy both has to push Dean enough to keep Dean in motion on the path of redemption, and NOT push him so hard that Dean digs his heels in, refusing to go where he is pushed rather than being afforded the FREE  WILL to find his way there in his own time. Which again, Sammy is doing. And which is part and parcel to why I actually have difficulty believing that anything they're doing this season is anything other than Sam positive.

Because Sam is saving Dean this time. And in the process, he is also saving himself.

So this is why I don't have any problem at all with Dean's lack of overt display of his issues with having been in hell for those first few episodes. It is why, in fact, I am really digging the fact that they are taking the time required to make this dynamic a gradual evolution over an entire season rather than a 47 minute fix to 40 years in hell. Because a 47 minute fix? Implies that 40 years in hell shouldn't have been enough to break Dean in the first place. And it was. It would have broken anyone. So giving that level of trauma its proper due requires the show to take some time to fix Dean, too; rather than simply applying a single, one-episode bandaid to a mortal (and moral) evisceration, then prescribing two pats on the head per future episode, and call me when the season ender rolls in.

And equally, this is why I consider Dean’s reveal that he enjoyed torturing souls in hell not only necessarily stated (as compared to skillet-to-the-skull obvious), but also necessary in the existing. Because Dean's first breaking point in hell corrupted his most fundamentally held beliefs about his own nature in trade for relief from the unrelenting and extreme emotional trauma of fear. But it was the second breaking point in hell that re-calibrated his baseline of "normal" to a point where the things he did in hell were damnations he could endure without expressing them. And it is that vacation from angst of Dean’s silence on the subject of hell that affords the boys the re-bonding time they require to find their feet with one another again. Choosing to endure those memories on his own from the time he crawls out of the grave until the time he begins talking about his experiences in hell (or talking about refusing to talk about them) is absolutely essential both to the honor the depth of horror inherent to Dean's unimaginable (and inarticulatable) experience and to allow Sam and Dean the opportunity to re-connect as brothers before Dean latches onto that relationship as both his sole source relief from moral agony and his only lifeline back to who he wants to be.  The connection between he and Sam is the hand reaching down to raise him up from his own personal Perdition, and the key to finding redemption from the damnation of his soul in his own mind, if not the mind of others.

So the show coming right out and stating, for the record, that Dean existed in a state of damnation that clarifies he experienced two breaking points in hell, not just one? Is necessary. It not only justifies their choice to delay Dean’s expression of post-hell agony, it also identifies why Dean might truly feel that his sins are unforgivable. Because he not only tortured those souls, but because he enjoyed torturing them.

And for Dean Winchester, there could be no greater sin to the man he considers himself to be: someone who hunts things and saves people, not who tortures them and enjoys it.

 


 


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158CommentReply

meko00
meko00
M
Wed, Jan. 21st, 2009 05:21 pm (UTC)

Yes. You've articulated many of my thoughts; I love this season and this is partly why. It's really true to life, but of course it doesn't bear thinking what would have happened with lesser actors, JA in particular.

And while I freely admit to being here for JA and the old XF crew and Vancouver in the first place, and thus Dean, I've always loved Sam too. Giving Dean a fascinating storyline of his own instead of being a glorified sidekick in no way detracts from Sam's journey, in my view.

Thank you for this; I've been lurking on and off here for a while but this made me press that little + button.


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dodger_winslow
dodger_winslow
I'd Sell My Soul for a Blunt Instrument ...
Thu, Jan. 22nd, 2009 06:24 am (UTC)

I'm tlad you finally pressed that button. Welcome to the party. :D

Oddly enough, I came for the original writing stable (Shiban and Hatem, primarily) and directors (Manners and Singer), and because the material sounded interesting, and I wanted to see what Padalecki could play outside something like GG. But Jensen and Jeff? Are the reasons I stayed. Not the actors personas themselves (although nice that the whole quad -- including Jared and Jim in that package -- seem the definition of awesome in scruffy boots), but rather their capacity to play a character who sucked me so deep into the more profound themes of the show that I may never manage to swim my way entirely clear of the riptide.

As for whether this show's story could have been told with a lesser actor than Jensen in the Dean role? I think, with very, very, VERY few exceptions, any actor in the Dean role who wasn't Jensen would be, by definition, a lesser actor. The depth and breadth of that boy's mad chops continue to amaze me, and IMO, his capacity to tap into magic in the portrayal of Dean has elevated the performances of everyone affiliated with the show (actors and otherwise) in an effort just to keep pace.

Normally? I put full rest for any show's brilliance at the door of the writers. This show is an exception for me. I put this one directly at Jensen and Jeff's door, with no small measure of keeping pace by both Jared and Jim.


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pinkphoenix1985
pinkphoenix1985
Dani
Wed, Jan. 21st, 2009 05:24 pm (UTC)

Dodger- this is so brilliant beyond words!


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dodger_winslow
dodger_winslow
I'd Sell My Soul for a Blunt Instrument ...
Thu, Jan. 22nd, 2009 06:26 am (UTC)

Thanks! :D


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(no subject) - (Anonymous)
dodger_winslow
dodger_winslow
I'd Sell My Soul for a Blunt Instrument ...
Thu, Jan. 22nd, 2009 06:28 am (UTC)

Thank you. :D


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khakigrrl
khakigrrl
Khaki
Wed, Jan. 21st, 2009 07:09 pm (UTC)

Very interesting, although I would argue that Dean has a third choice that neither you nor show has covered. Dean could have a breakdown. He could break with reality in a way that wasn't allowed to him in hell but that is now available to him on Earth. Given your arguments that pre-hell Dean would choose self-destruction, post-hell he still has that third option of self-destruction that doesn't result in physical death but would still destroy him in mind. I don't think Dean is the type to choose it, especially with Sam and the apocalpyse and angels picking on him and all, but then the levels of stress we're talking about is nothing anyone living has actually experienced before, so who's to say?

Also, given what you've theorized about hell, how do you think Ruby (and for a shorter period, John) coped? Do you think compartmentalization would be a possible coping strategy to them? If so, why aren't there more demons out there like her? Could there be demons out there possessing people but just living normal lives instead of wreaking evil havoc so they don't show up on hunter!radar?

Finally, I do love this analysis you've done, so how about some on Sam? That last episode, he was pretty distant from everyone, more going through the motions and being pretty background than having much of any effect on the hunt or anyone. He didn't even take any action when he could hear Dean fighting down in the hole with what turned out to be the brother of their ghost!girl. At least not until the very end when he heard gunshots.

I'd suspect depression from anyone else displaying such withdrawal from their normal behavior, but he doesn't seem to be experiencing any moments of breakthrough emotions. Nothing seems to be triggering him. He's just so...not Sam right now. He's not even pushing Dean to work through what he's going through. It's more like Dean's working through things on his own while in Sam's presence. Like Sam's not really emotionall involved in the exchange. Does that make any sense?


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dodger_winslow
dodger_winslow
I'd Sell My Soul for a Blunt Instrument ...
Wed, Jan. 21st, 2009 09:19 pm (UTC)
Fuses 1

What you're suggesting is actually another form of compartmentalization/fracture. And it is available to Dean as a coping technique, but people who are under extreme emotional trauma tend to pick a coping technique and stick with it ... at least for as long as it works for them. So since Dean has used the re-calibration of his baseline as a coping strategy to get through the trauma of hell, he wouldn't likely switch to compartmentalization once he was topside again, particularly given that what he's dealing with is actually a REVERSAL of his coping process, rather than a construction of it. So as he begins to deal with these memories by confessing them to Sam, he's actually accomplishing much the same thing therapy would accomplish in unifying multiple personalities back into a cohesive identity. And that healing process is invalidating the need to find a coping mechanism, either fracture oriented OR re-allignment oriented.

So for Dean to suffer a psychotic break (which I'm assuming you're referring to with a break from reality, yes?) at this point, he'd have to be put under MORE emotional trauma than what he was going through in hell. And that isn't the case here. Yes, he's suffering deeply by bringing these realities out into the open and dealing with them, but he is also experiencing relief in the doing, and significant relief in the form of not having to continue to perform the damning acts that were driving him toward a final damnation in hell.

And there's the key to avoiding any kind of catastrophic coping technique in the first place: relief. This kind of trauma is defined by it's unrelenting nature (which is why I was so repetitive of the same phrase in the meta when referring to emotional trauma). Many people can endure individual instances of unimaginable agony without defaulting to a catastrophic coping mechanism as long as there is a break from that agony, or as long as they can find the HOPE that there will be a break from it. But to never get a moment's relief from that agony? And to further never be able to even HOPE that relief might come? That's the damning scenario there. The loss of hope is the essence of damnation, which is why Dean's confession put so much emphasis on the every day, every single day aspect of it. He could endure what was being done to him. But he came to a point where he couldn't endure knowing it would never stop until he broke. Which was what broke him.


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dodger_winslow
dodger_winslow
I'd Sell My Soul for a Blunt Instrument ...
Thu, Jan. 22nd, 2009 06:30 am (UTC)

Thank you muchly! :D


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tabaqui
tabaqui
tabaqui
Wed, Jan. 21st, 2009 08:34 pm (UTC)

THIS.

I was totally with everything going on in Dean's arc on Show, and was dismayed at the grumbling and dislike of, particularly, the last reveal.

*Of course* he enjoyed it. He had to, to survive what he was doing. And i think if he ever lets himself actually think about that time, he'll realize it wasn't 'enjoyment', it was simply relief.

I have wished for a few more moments a la 'Great Pumpkin' and the freak-out with the Halloween mask - the tiny little freak-out that said *so much*....

But Show is amazing me at every turn, and i'm loving it, and i'm so, so glad that he didn't come back from hell, save one person, get a pat from Castiel and voila! all fixed.

Excellent thoughts.
:)


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dodger_winslow
dodger_winslow
I'd Sell My Soul for a Blunt Instrument ...
Thu, Jan. 22nd, 2009 06:32 am (UTC)

Thanks! After the long dry spell of S3, I am revelling in the rich tropical rainstorm that is proving to be S4.


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caffienekitty
caffienekitty
CaffieneKitty
Wed, Jan. 21st, 2009 08:55 pm (UTC)

Yes.

Everyone in fandom needs to read this.

Right now.


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anniehow
anniehow
anniehow
Wed, Jan. 21st, 2009 11:08 pm (UTC)

Wow. This meta is incredible. It must have taken you quite some time (if only to type it all out...) thanks for going through the trouble of putting it out here.


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dodger_winslow
dodger_winslow
I'd Sell My Soul for a Blunt Instrument ...
Thu, Jan. 22nd, 2009 02:32 am (UTC)

Thank ya much. I found that when I went back and re-read it this morning (rather than at 4 am when I posted it), there were a LOT more typos and unclear precident references than I would normally allow, so I went in and cleaned it up a bit. :D


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cutedevil666
cutedevil666
cutedevil666
Wed, Jan. 21st, 2009 11:12 pm (UTC)

I totally agree on your perspective of this, and you totally made things so much clearer for me- thank you!


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dodger_winslow
dodger_winslow
I'd Sell My Soul for a Blunt Instrument ...
Thu, Jan. 22nd, 2009 02:32 am (UTC)

Thanks. :D


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hells_half_acre
hells_half_acre
Hell's Half Acre
Thu, Jan. 22nd, 2009 12:43 am (UTC)

Very well said! This is everything I've been thinking, only way better articulated than I could ever imagine doing myself.


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dodger_winslow
dodger_winslow
I'd Sell My Soul for a Blunt Instrument ...
Thu, Jan. 22nd, 2009 02:33 am (UTC)

Thank you much. And LOL @ your screenname. Hell's Half Acre. Awesome. :D


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abrakadabrah
abrakadabrah
abrakadabrah
Thu, Jan. 22nd, 2009 12:45 am (UTC)

Great unpacking of Dean's return journey from Hell.

Really solid explanation of why it needed a two parter.


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dodger_winslow
dodger_winslow
I'd Sell My Soul for a Blunt Instrument ...
Thu, Jan. 22nd, 2009 06:38 am (UTC)

Thanks much. I'm really enjoying the journey on this one.


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caarianna
caarianna
caarianna
Thu, Jan. 22nd, 2009 12:59 am (UTC)

I think you've nailed it. Brilliant analysis. And if you have, and all this was deliberate on the part of the writers, then they are even more phenomenal than ever and this really is the best written show on tv.


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dodger_winslow
dodger_winslow
I'd Sell My Soul for a Blunt Instrument ...
Thu, Jan. 22nd, 2009 06:39 am (UTC)

Thanks. I occasionally pound my head against the wall on the subject of the writing of this show ... which is probably why I feel such a deep need to be properly happy pants in a very verbal fashion when the writing works.


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hellboy
hellboy
here i am in my bucket today
Thu, Jan. 22nd, 2009 01:09 am (UTC)

I've been watching season four wondering about this slow reveal, going "Huh, he should have some PTSD or something, not this carefully orchestrated man pain that he is oh so cautious about releasing into the atmosphere." Your writeup of how he's coping makes so much sense, I'm sort of mad at myself for not realising it sooner.

Thank you, this meta was extremely interesting to read.


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dodger_winslow
dodger_winslow
I'd Sell My Soul for a Blunt Instrument ...
Thu, Jan. 22nd, 2009 06:42 am (UTC)

Carefully orchestrated man pain! I love it. :D


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redrikki
redrikki
redrikki
Thu, Jan. 22nd, 2009 02:03 am (UTC)

This was an interesting, insightful and well thought out analysis of Dean and his hell-related issues. Pretty much everything you've said makes sense to me, especially in light of the coping mechanisms he displayed pre-hell. I can recall a scene in season 1 where Sam confesses he has trouble sleeping with all the stress of the job and Dean denies the stress as being especially stressful and instead recommends Sam not take it home with him. This seems like an excellent example of redefining normal. There is also something I think that you could add to your argument regarding the possibility of redemption. Not only is being with Sam and saving people, etc. saving him, the distinct possibility of being spared a return to hell upon death by his angelic allies probably also helps, when they aren't threatening to dump him back in hell anyway.


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dodger_winslow
dodger_winslow
I'd Sell My Soul for a Blunt Instrument ...
Thu, Jan. 22nd, 2009 03:00 am (UTC)

I absolutely agree that Dean lived virtually all of his life with his baseline of "normal" completely re-calibrated from what it would be for anyone else. Which is why Dean likely defaulted to this coping mechanism when he reached a breaking point in hell. Just as John consistently defaulted to his compartmentalization coping mechanism learned as a soldier in Nam when he faced a breaking point in his years of hunting and trying to protect his sons.

I'm not sure I'd agree, however, with your assess on Dean feeling there is some hope for redemption by means of angelic intervention. To the contrary, I tend to think Dean has very little, if any, faith in either Angels or God to do anything but leave him swinging in the wind once they've got what they need from him. And Uriel, with his mud monkey bullshit and threats of turning people to dust without a second thought, consistently re-enforces Dean's lack of faith in divine intervention on his behalf unless they need something from him.

Castiel, on the other hand, seems to be getting somewhere with Dean in terms of teaching him that yes, they need something from him, but that no, that doesn't mean he's on their own as soon as they get it. And I find it interesting (and relevant) that Dean seems to consistently quote Castiel when he's looking for a "you should listen because HE said it" authority. Which, for Dean, is a pretty big thing, and something he's never really afforded anyone but John. And that includes Bobby and Sam.

So I tend to think the fact that Dean IS quoting Castiel this way, and that Castiel IS consistently showing a non-verbal assessment of Dean's choices (as was perhaps most evident in last half of Heaven and Hell, where Castiel's respons to Dean and Uriel's response to Dean were in direct contradiction of one another), is an indicator that Dean is learning to put trust not in a higher undefined power, but rather in the personification of that power as articulated by Castiel, a man he is learning to trust and believe, even if he won't always follow him.

And likewise, I think Castiel is learning to trust Dean inthat, while Dean is human and fallable and childish and arrogant and willful in so many ways, he is also a hero in every definition of the word, and someone who will sacrifice himself for others in a way that proves him out everything God intended when he created mankind and called them worthy.


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azinazelle
azinazelle
Azina Zelle
Thu, Jan. 22nd, 2009 02:42 am (UTC)

Thanks for the very extensive post concerning this. I had a serious problem with Dean admitting he enjoyed the torture, but it makes sense from this POV. Dean was left with no choice and as far Dean knew, this was to be his eternity with no escape.


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dodger_winslow
dodger_winslow
I'd Sell My Soul for a Blunt Instrument ...
Thu, Jan. 22nd, 2009 02:49 am (UTC)

Thanks. I do think the level of despair Dean felt has everything to do with his choices. Despite knowing hell was hell and there was no escaping, Dean has seen the impossible his entire life, including watching his father climb right out of hell. To some degree, I don't think he could really wrap around the idea that somehow, no matter how impossible it seemed, he would still be rescued. Maybe not right away. But at some point. And the extinguishing of that hope? Is what changed Dean, IMO. And what held the potential to damn him.


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