This review contains spoilers
9.7 Bad Boys
In its ninth season, Supernatural really seems to be going back to its roots; in particular, its very early season roots. In fact, Bad Boys hits so many of the notes that made the earlier seasons memorable that it’s hard to know what exactly to conclude: there’s the really good old-fashioned scary, the emphasis on Dean as Sam’s caretaker as a child, his issues with John, the fact that he’s great with kids, the narratively-interesting ways in which the monsters parallel the brothers’ issues, and the flashbacks themselves, which were such a stylistically important part of the first few seasons. This, coupled with the recent and extremely formulaic (by Supernatural’s formula) Dog Dean Afternoon honestly makes one wonder if there’s a reason why the ninth season of the show is attempting to so exactly copy so much of its first.
It’s the reason, too, why Bad Boys often feels like the Sparknotes version of the first two seasons. In a way that’s extremely stylistically similar to the first season’s Something Wicked, this episode uses the brothers’ weekly case as a narrative frame for its flashbacks, which are the heart and the foundation of this episode. That’s a problem, though: the nature of such sustained, detailed flashbacks is precisely to develop character, to reveal things we didn’t know about our protagonists. Yet, precisely because Bad Boys is nothing but a condensation of what we’ve seen, it does nothing but reiterate much of what the first few seasons insisted on endlessly: that it was Dean’s responsibility to care for Sam, a responsibility he placed before anything else, even at a young age (I mean, Dean’s still babysitting Sam all the way in his thirties, so it’s not like we need reminding).
It’s actually a bit disappointing, seeing how this episode was billed all the way back at Comic Con as a huge revelation about Dean’s past. Sure, the fact that he stole and got busted perhaps was, but to the careful and watchful fan, it almost seems like a reminder that two plus two is four. After all, given Dean’s obsessive caretaking of Sam, coupled with the fact that John often left them to go on hunts with little money or supervision, and the fact that Dean hasn’t exactly been given good examples for following the law by his father, it really is not too much of an extrapolation to suppose he stole food for Sam’s sake (and got arrested). In fact, in my experience it’s a commonly recurring theory in the fandom, which seems to have made its way to a canonical incarnation.
Yet another repetition of earlier facts is John Winchester’s treatment of his children. The same man who left Dean to die in the first season’s Faith is similarly characterized here as leaving his son to “rot in jail.” It’s yet another confirmation, if we needed one, that John Winchester was emotionally abusive to his sons (and there’s really no other way to put it). Thankfully, this episode doesn’t attempt to whitewash said abuse in the same way that Adam Glass’ previous Winchester-history-oriented episode (As Time Goes By) did. There’s no “he did the best he could,” no nostalgic defence by Dean of John’s behaviour to a background of sad music.
Leaving aside the things we already knew, however, Bad Boys is a well-executed episode from a narrative and stylistic point of view. The flashbacks are integrated seamlessly into the hunt itself, while the monster-of-the-week is, thankfully, not a monster to kill but also an emotional problem to tackle. Most important, however, is the characterization of Dean himself. Though the episode revealed little about his relationship with Sam or with John, this is an important episode for Dean himself, as a person and a character. The story’s not about Dean’s relationship to Sam or his father, and it’s not about defining Dean through the people he cares about. It’s about Dean himself, as a person, with problems and issues that stem not only from his relationships, but from his desire to be his own person.
And that person, that young Dean Winchester, is a multi-faceted character in his own right, with hopes and dreams and desires, ones endlessly conflicting with his love for Sam and his responsibility. This is a Dean who’s smart and accomplished (he’s doing well in school), who’s forming relationships outside of his family, who seems well adjusted enough that he’s more than just snark and witty comebacks at anyone who approaches. Perhaps, amidst all the flashbacks, the true revelation of this episode is its presentation of Dean as his own person, his desperate longing for independence. I had feared that this would be another episode about Dean sacrificing everything for Sam, as we’ve seen a million times before; instead, this was an episode about Dean trying to find himself and be himself – and ultimately being forced to let go of that chance in a scene that is both heartbreaking and brilliantly acted. In a season where Dean’s main choices seem to stem from protecting Sam, it’s incredibly important and heartening to have an episode that portrays Dean as his own person, and validates his desire to be one.
I must also add that Dylan Everett, who played a younger Dean Winchester, should be next in line for all those awards after Jensen Ackles himself. Reportedly, he watched five seasons of Supernatural in a week and studied Jensen’s acting, and that kid is Dean. He’s a more believable young Dean than any I’ve seen so far, capturing perfectly both Dean’s quirks and mannerisms, but also his personality, his doubts and hopes, and his way of talking about them.
But, though much of the episode centres on Dean, Sam also gets his fair share of screen-time – though, for once, it is he rather than Dean who gets to react rather than act. Though these revelations about Dean may not be new to viewers, they seem to have a much larger impact on Sam, and that’s important for both his character and the storyline this season. Most importantly, Sam realizes all the sacrifices Dean has made for him, a realization I’ve often felt lacking from Sam’s characterization. It puts Sam on the same page with Dean about the decisions the older Winchester has had to make to protect his brother, and hopefully that realization will also inform Sam’s reaction when he finds out yet another choice Dean made to save him – the Ezekiel choice.
Last but not least, the monster of the week this episode was a good old-fashioned combination of horror and heartbreak. Sure, the episode itself doesn’t truly feel like horror – it’s a little too bright and distracted for that – but at least this week’s ghost looks like a proper ghost, an actually horrifying monster. More interesting, however, is the way in which the ghost of a dead mother protecting her young child evokes parallels that are clear as day to anyone who’s seen even an episode of this show. In fact, the blond-haired spirit of a maternal figure is more than reminiscent of the first season’s “Home,” wherein the spirit of Mary Winchester protects her boys. In a scene that is almost as heartbreaking as the final flashback, it’s almost like watching Dean Winchester having to lose his mother all over again, as he must force a bullied young boy to let go of the parent he loves. Alas, it wouldn’t be Supernatural without a heaping of heartbreak.
To conclude: it seems that the originality present at the beginning of this season is trickling slowly away as Supernatural returns to old tricks I’d thought it long forgot. We’ll have to see how successful they manage to be.
Read Anastasia’s review of the previous episode, Heaven Can’t Wait, here.
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