galathea: (s/d teenagers)
[personal profile] galathea
I daresay it does not get more old-school than Bad Boys, except for, you know, actual episodes from the early seasons of the show. Adam Glass ticks all the right boxes for a classic Supernatural episode – a good old-fashioned ghost hunt, Wee!chester flashbacks, gory deaths, a salt and burn, Sam being choked and Dean being thrown into a wall, Dean connecting with kids, parallels between the ghost story and the Winchesters’ story – and the end result is a largely enjoyable trip down memory lane, both for the characters and the viewer. It is no secret how much I miss the old days of the show, so unsurprisingly Bad Boys firmly positions itself as my favourite episode of the season so far.

You know, there used to be a time, when the prospect of a flashback episode that explores Sam and Dean’s childhood/adolescence excited me for weeks in advance. The Winchesters’ dysfunctional family dynamics have always been the main hook of the show for me, and flashback episodes usually focus heavily on that particular theme, so on that account alone they tend to be favourites of mine. Obviously, Sam and Dean’s past is the key to who they are in the present, so episodes that look at the brothers’ childhood provide us with a wealth of psychological insight into the characters, and it does not get more interesting than that for me. This year, however, excitement was replaced by apprehension. Honestly, I dreaded Bad Boys ever since I first read about the plans for a Dean-centric flashback episode during the summer hiatus, mainly because Jeremy Carver and his team have shown little regard for past canon. So far, the show painted a fairly consistent picture of Sam and Dean’s childhood. In fact, it is one of the few parts of the show that remained largely untouched by retcons and plotholes, and the thought of Carver & Co ruining that positive record really pained me. Moreover, Dean’s characterisation under Carver’s reign has become somewhat problematic for me, so I feared the episode would retroactively impact my love for pre-series Dean as well. Luckily, though, Bad Boys is not the train wreck I expected it to be. The episode may not be perfect, but in most aspects that matter, it does hit the right notes for me, and I am very relieved about that.

Now, the episode does not really tell us much about Dean we did not already know from other flashbacks, but I think it is the first episode that looks at young Dean outside the context of his familial relationships. Dean’s stories in Something Wicked, A Very Supernatural Christmas and After School Special revolved almost entirely around his role as Sam’s caretaker and John’s soldier and highlighted his propensity for sacrificing his own needs and desires for his family. Bad Boys, however, explores the person Dean would have become, had he been allowed to make his own way in the world. The show established early on that Dean used to have dreams of his own (Skin), dreams he later dismissed in favour of supporting John, and Bad Boys finally offers some insight into those dreams and outlines Dean’s self-identity before he accepted hunting as his path in life. In that context, I think it is important to note that, according to Adam Glass, the episode was written and filmed with a fourteen year old Dean in mind – his age was changed to sixteen in post-production, because of Dylan Everett’s mature appearance – which actually fits a lot better with the episode plot as well as past canon. I mean, we know that Dean only started to fully embrace hunting at age sixteen after his experiences on a werewolf hunt (Bloodlust), so it makes more sense, in terms of characterisation, if the events in Bad Boys took place long before that particular hunt. Not to mention that it is a lot more believable for Dean’s development to still be in a state of flux at age fourteen than at sixteen, especially given how quickly Dean had to grow up.

Sam: "Yeah, you disappeared. Dad came back, you were gone. He shipped me off to Bobby’s for a couple of months and found you. You were lost on a hunt or something."
Dean: "That’s what he told you! Right."
Sam: "Sorry, that’s what he told me?"
Dean: "Truth is, I lost the food money that dad left for us in a card game. I knew you’d get hungry, so I tried taking the five fingers discount at the local market and got busted. I wasn’t on a hunt. They sent me to a boys’ home."

If there is one thing in the episode that I find somewhat problematic, it is the general framework of the plot. I mean, if I look at Sam and John’s side of the story, some things just do not add up for me. Now, I have little problems buying that, once John learned about Dean’s carelessness, he felt the need to teach his son a lesson about responsibility and decided to let him suffer the consequences of his actions. We know from other flashback episodes that John was not exactly forgiving when his sons failed to meet his expectations, so exiling Dean as a means of punishment does not seem out of character to me. John knew Dean was reasonably safe and cared for at Sonny’s, so I doubt he lost a lot of sleep over his decision to leave his son at the home for a while. However, I have a much harder time buying that Sam would simply accept Dean’s disappearance and believe John’s lies about his brother being lost on a hunt for two months. Of course, we are not privy to Sam’s side of the story, so it is difficult to determine how Dean’s disappearance affected him, but adult Sam talks about the incident like it barely even registered with his twelve year old self and young Sam does not seem particularly worried or anxious either, when he and John pick Dean up from Sonny’s. Quite frankly, Sam’s seemingly calm reaction makes no sense to me. Dean’s disappearance should have been a traumatic experience for Sam, especially since he hero-worshipped his big brother and feared that something terrible could happen to Dean (or himself) ever since he learned about the things that go bump in the night. If John had told Sam the truth or at least a more plausible, harmless lie, Sam’s calm reaction would be more believable, but as it is, I feel it is out of character for him.

Dean’s side of the story, on the other hand, is less difficult to accept for me. For example, I have little problems to believe that Dean would have enjoyed his temporary escape from John’s drill-sergeant regime. Now, Dean loved his father deeply, I have no doubt about that, but he also harboured a lot of bitter feelings towards the man, he admitted as much in Dream A Little Dream Of Me. Back then, Dean conceded that part of him blamed John for Mary's death and resented him for neglecting Sam and unloading his burdens on Dean. Obviously, Dean's love for John and his desire to please him outweighed his anger and resentment more often than not, but that does not mean he did not sometimes wish that things were different or that he was unable to appreciate a different approach to parenting, like Bobby’s or Sonny’s. I will say, though, that I do somewhat struggle with the thought of Dean happily leaving Sam behind for two months, but I think it is perfectly possible to rationalize that as well. I mean, Dean valued his role as Sam’s caretaker and it was never a duty to him, he stated as much in All Hell Breaks Loose, but in the end Dean was only a child himself, and we know that, at times, he conducted himself like any other teenage boy with younger siblings, i.e. he fought with Sam, played pranks on him and occasionally ditched him to do his own thing. Dean had no problems dropping young Sam off at a fast food chain in order to go chasing after girls (Plucky Pennywhistle’s Magical Menagerie), for example, or to take off on a 'five states, five days' tour across the country, leaving Sam alone with John (The Kids Are Alright). So, overall I find it not that surprising that Dean enjoyed being free of his family ties for a while.

Ultimately, though, I think that Dean would not have stayed at Sonny’s much longer without Sam. I assume he would have left after his graduation dance with Robin or at least tried to establish contact with Sam at Bobby’s. I mean, the fact that just seeing his little brother after two months of separation motivated Dean to drop everything in an instant and return to a life that he did not want at the time pretty much speaks for itself. The happy, affectionate smile on Dean’s face when he sees Sam leaves little doubt that going back to his life with Sam and John was not a choice out of duty or obligation either. Then as now, Dean put Sam first, because he is the most important person in his life. ♥ On a related note, Dean explicitly choosing Sam over the chance of building a life of his own adds an interesting new layer to the frequent criticism he levelled at Sam for his decisions to leave his family (Flagstaff, Stanford, Kermit). The fact that Sam had been able to do what he could not - namely to leave his brother - not only resulted in feelings of betrayal, resentment and jealousy, but also further cemented his self-worth issues, all of which prevented him from sympathizing with Sam's choices. The brothers' dreams may have been similar at some point, but their choices with regard to those dreams were very different, resulting in a rift between them instead of bringing them closer together. Overall, it has always been obvious that Dean was at the same time proud (Scarecrow) and resentful of Sam whenever his little brother followed his own dreams, but Bad Boys deepens our understanding of the underlying reasons for his ambivalent attitude, and I appreciate that.

Timmy: "She’s my mom."
Dean: "She’s a ghost, Timmy. And because she can’t move on, she’s going crazy, okay. You have to let her go. You’ll be okay. Listen to me. Sometimes you have to do what’s best for you, even if it’s going to hurt the ones you love."

It is practically impossible to overlook the visual and narrative parallels between Mary Winchester and her sons in Home and Timmy and his mother in Bad Boys. I mean, both mothers died in a fire and protected their children from beyond the grave, and they both relinquished their ties to the world once they fulfilled that task. Dean talking Timmy into letting go of his mother so she can move on is both heart-breaking and disconcerting at the same time, though; heart-breaking because Dean no doubt sees his own younger self in Timmy and strongly relates to the child’s pain at losing the comforting presence of his beloved mother, and disconcerting because Dean once again preaches something he has no intention of practicing himself. Of course, Sam was not a murdering ghost, but he was ready to go and Dean did not let him, consequences be damned, so his little speech to Timmy comes off as somewhat hypocritical. In that context, Dean’s statement that sometimes a person has to do what is best for them, even if it hurts those they love, is very interesting, though, and I think said statement works on two levels.

Firstly, I think there is little doubt that Dean refers to his motivation for allowing Ezekiel to possess Sam here. It is an open admittance of the fact that he did it for selfish reasons, and while I am still extremely uncomfortable with Dean's actions, I do appreciate that he has enough self-awareness to concede that, for once, he deliberately took something for himself at the expense of Sam's well-being. Obviously, that does not at all justify what he did, but it at least makes his motivations more transparent. Secondly, over the years, Dean has often shown an inability to move past his own hurt and consider the validity of Sam's perspective, whenever Sam expressed/acted on desires that put his own well-being/happiness over Dean's, and I find it heartening that Dean may finally develop an understanding for Sam's motivations without resenting him for it. That all being said, I admit Dean’s statement (and the episode as a whole) also leaves me a tad suspicious of writers’ motives. I mean, these last couple of weeks, the writers put a lot of effort into making Dean sympathetic to the audience, both as a character in general and with regard to his choice to allow Sam’s possession in particular, and I cannot help but wonder if they are trying to emotionally manipulate the audience into condoning Dean’s choice. Needless to say, I will be truly frustrated if Dean’s betrayal of Sam's trust will be white-washed in the end.

Random Notes:
  • Sam mainly plays the role of the supportive, affectionate younger brother in Bad Boys, and he is very enjoyable to watch throughout the episode. I love that, since Dean is not exactly forthcoming with information, Sam just quietly observes and investigates – looking for Dean’s old bed, noticing his brother’s wrestling award, talking to Sonny – thus putting the puzzle pieces of Dean’s time at the boys’ home together on his own and coming to all the right conclusions. It is obvious that he does not at all buy into Dean’s attempt to downplay how much his time at Sonny’s meant to him, and his gratitude for Dean’s support and steadfastness is clearly sincere. It is obvious that Sam harbours no envy or resentment against Dean, not only because he knows from his own experience how Dean must have felt at the time, but also because he genuinely wants his brother to be happy, even if it is without him. Moreover, Sam could have easily pointed out that, given Dean’s own desire to escape the family business, he could have been more sympathetic to Sam’s, but he doesn’t, and I love that about him. ♥

  • To my mind, Dylan Everett is for Dean what Colin Ford is for Sam. The young actor portrays teenage Dean with an impressive proficiency, and there is not a single moment in the episode, where I was pulled out of the narrative or had problems seeing Dean. Dylan brings an emotional depth to the character similar to Jensen’s; he portrays Dean’s outward cockiness as well as his underlying vulnerability very convincingly, and he has the character’s mannerisms down pat. Apparently, Dylan watched the first five seasons of Supernatural before filming the episode and diligently studied Jensen to be able to emulate his mannerisms as Dean, and I think his preparatory work really paid off. It is quite a lot of commitment for such a young actor. I really wished the powers-that-be would force some of their writers to be that diligent!

I am sorry this review is so late, but unfortunately I have computer troubles at the moment and the damn thing just won’t let me write (or do anything, really) for more than an hour or so, before it powers down again. So, until I find a way to fix my computer, I might be tad behind with my reviews. Handwritten notes only get me so far, I am afraid.
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