For those who don’t know, Dean Winchester is one of the lead characters on Supernatural, a TV show that is in its … 12th season? I don’t know – I can’t keep track anymore. It’s been on forever. The show was originally written to end after the 5th season, and even I admit it probably should have. Since then the story lines have gotten goofier and goofier, and yet like many diehard fans I continue to watch it, season after season. Why? Well, mostly because of Dean Winchester.
Let’s go ahead and acknowledge upfront that Dean is played by the obscenely good-looking Jensen Ackles. You might be tempted to think it’s the actor’s pretty face that makes Dean such a hit with fans, but you’d be mostly wrong. Being hot never hurt anyone’s popularity, but a show about two brothers who fight monsters could not possibly survive so many seasons, or inspire such rabid fan loyalty, based on looks alone.
It’s great characters that have carried this show so far, and the complex relationships between those characters. The fact that the three main characters, Sam, Dean and Castiel, have managed to avoid becoming caricatures of themselves after so many seasons is evidence the writing for this show is top notch. Not every episode hits it out of the park, but with so many seasons that’s to be expected. The miracle is that after so many years, characters continue to grow and change, even secondary and tertiary characters, and their relationships continue to evolve.
But it’s primarily Dean’s story, I would argue, that we care about most. For anyone who watches the show, you might think it doesn’t make sense to talk about Dean as an alpha hero since the show is so definitely not about romantic relationships. But as Ilona Andrews points out in her fantastic analysis of the alphahole in romance, the alpha hero is an archetype that shows up in many stories, not just the romantic ones (hello, Batman). And we can learn from him, wherever he lives.
So Dean has all the trademarks of a classic alpha hero: he survived a traumatic and neglectful childhood, he is intensely effective and efficient at what he does (saving people, hunting things, the family business), he’s bossy, decisive, protective, and he doesn’t like to be disobeyed. And yes, he’s entirely capable of being a murderous a-hole. Yet none of those things really account for his appeal. Yes, we admire him for being a good hunter and a good brother, but they don’t explain why we fall in love with him.
What makes Dean so remarkable in part, is that he has all the key elements of a stock character, but he isn’t one. Dean is complicated, flawed, multi-dimensional. He always tries to do the right thing, because he is fundamentally heroic, but sometimes he fails, and that makes him human. That makes him lovable.
I think it’s in season four where Dean goes to hell in exchange for his little brother’s life. While he’s there, he is torn to pieces each day, only to be made whole so he can be torn apart again the next day. Most genre writers would leave it at that, and let Dean be an unsullied martyr. But in fact, Dean eventually agrees to torture others in hell, rather than endure more torture himself. Why? Because he’s only human. And the scene where Dean admits this to his brother, breaking down in tears as he does, has to be four of the most heart-rending minutes of television ever aired. Even more impressive, the show’s writers don’t let TV amnesia erase that experience from Dean’s psychological make-up. The character is never again quite as light-hearted as he was in the earliest seasons, before he went to hell.
The secret to Dean’s long-lasting appeal as an alpha hero can be summed up in one word: vulnerability. Sure, he’s a complete badass. He hunts down bad guys, rescues good guys, makes monumental sacrifices for the people he loves, and all of those things make him worthy of admiration. But it’s when he fails, when he hurts, when his vulnerability is shown to us, that we begin to really care. It inspires our compassion and our tenderness; it makes us feel connection to this character.
This isn’t just great script writing, this is life. There’s a terrific TED talk by a researcher named Brene Brown called “The Power of Vulnerability,” in which she explores the idea that vulnerability is what allows us to make connections with other people. Her research led her to conclude that it’s our most excruciating shame and our ability to share it that allows us to ultimately connect, love, and find happiness.
And this, I believe, is the power of Dean Winchester. The actors on the show have been known to joke about how much fans love it when Dean cries, but there’s something true and real going on there. We do love to see Dean cry. We love it because it allows us to feel connection with him much the way we connect with people in real life. It also makes his heroics seem all the more heroic, because it puts his bravery and sacrifice in the context of his humanity. He isn’t just some impervious superhero winning at everything; he’s a man, with all the complexities and doubts of a real man, and he’s doing some very difficult shit to make the world a better place for other people. Now that is a hero.
Dean Winchester also explains why perfect heroes and heroines are so dull on the page. They’re beautiful, clever, talented, kind, blah, blah, blah. It isn’t just that they aren’t realistic (who knows if a Dean Winchester could ever exist in real life) it’s that we never have the chance to connect with them, because they’re never really vulnerable. Even when bad things happen to them and they suffer, the vulnerability is thrust upon them from the outside. We never see them mess things up, make mistakes, or feel ashamed. We never see their humanity.
If you’ve never seen Supernatural you’ve clearly been living under a rock. But seriously, if you’re a fan of supernatural romance and you’ve some how missed it, it’s definitely worth a watch. I dare you not to fall in love with Dean Winchester. Trust me, once he cries, it’s all over.