The Body Electric, The Body Acoustic: Dean Winchester and the Mark of Cain

Say hello to Dottweets, a prolific meta writer and one of my favorite Supernatural bloggers. She’s penned a pretty interesting piece on Dean Winchester and the Mark of Cain for us to read and contemplate before the season 9 finale, airing tomorrow on the CW at 9pm (just in case you live under a rock and had no clue). Enjoy, and leave some feedback in the comments.

xoxo The Collectiva Diva

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From the start, Supernatural has had themes about identity, sense of self, and physical transformations. It’s your choices, rather than what you are, that defines you, but Supernatural has also shown the dangers and horrors of losing your innate nature, becoming something you don’t want to be, or weren’t meant to be. It often utilizes body horror, violations to or within the body, to get its themes across or explore characters. In season 9, Dean Winchester, who had always avoided allowing himself to be altered, becomes the storm on these issues this time around.

We’ve seen Sam Winchester struggle with this aspect starting as early as season one, as he discovered he has strange powers we learn were put there by the Yellow Eyed Demon. In season 2, a drunk Sam pleaded with Dean to promise he would kill Sam if Sam ever became something he wasn’t. Season 4 made Sam’s addiction to demon blood and the temptation to use his powers a central force. His eyes went demon black in the season 4 finale before he returned to himself. In season 5, Sam couldn’t resist dipping into the demon blood powers again. In season 6, the angel Castiel, who has become a part of Sam and Dean’s family and who Dean has formed a close bond with, has also been through this crucible. The season ended with Castiel ingesting the monster souls from Purgatory to power up, transforming himself into God!stiel. 

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In season 9, Castiel steals the grace of an enemy combatant angel because the stakes are so high and he needs the mojo. Although we see in season 9 that Castiel has gained new level of wariness of power, and is looking for a non-violent solution to the angel problems, he still does what he thinks he has to do (another major theme of season 9). There’s a mirroring with Dean and Castiel both turning themselves into a weapon in season 9, and between Sam, Dean, and Castiel, who now have all transformed themselves into a weapon to accomplish a good end goal. But in taking on borrowed grace, Castiel has not lost himself, while the temptations of the power of the First Blade are taking Dean over more and more as his downward spiral increases.

Sam has been possessed, Dean has been duplicated as a shapeshifter (although Dean himself remained intact during this), and turned into a vampire. Both Sam and Dean have had evil body double Leviathans. Sam allowed himself to be possessed by Lucifer, and overcame the angel’s presence to save Dean and the world. Possession and versions of Sam and Dean who are not themselves are not unusual on Supernatural, although notably, Dean has never been possessed. 

 

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In early season 9, Dean agrees to let Sam be possessed by an angel in order to save Sam’s life, without Sam’s informed consent. The ensuing fallout implodes right into some long-standing issues both Sam and Dean have contributed to due to their own individual head spaces, wants, needs, and lacks of insight, about themselves and each other. Years of trauma, ingrained familial roles, and damages planted in childhood have culminated in season 9’s Sam and Dean storyline.

While the audience and the characters have seen Dean’s compassion, loyalty, ingenuity, innate kindness, and immense ability to give and inspire love, Dean thinks he’s only worthy of, and destined for, a bloody and sad ending, and said so in season 8. He’s given up on anything else for himself, even if he has hope for others. Dean has internalized John’s teachings that his only purpose in life is to be Sam’s protector and killing monsters. It’s not that Dean shouldn’t have tried to save Sam, but the way he chose to do it has kicked over the rock on some things that needed examining. Season 9 also picks up on a long-running theme about transformation, and a thread concerning the darkest possible version of Dean.

In season 3, after selling his soul to Hell to save Sam, Dean had a year to live. Dean shifted from a fatalistic hedonism to confessing he didn’t want to die. In a dream sequence, he was confronted with a black-eyed demonic version of himself, who voiced some of Dean’s worst fears: that he’s nothing but a carbon copy of his father, has no goals or identity of his own, and is only good to be his father’s “blunt little instrument” and Sam’s protector. Dean denied demon Dean before blasting him with his shotgun. But at the end of the episode demon Dean returned as a coda, warning that “this is what you’re going to become.” 

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Late in season 3, Sam proposed a wild plan to save Dean, inspired by a Doc Benton, a Dr. Frankenstein-like figure who transformed himself into a monstrous patchwork of stolen body parts to gain immortality. Dean was disgusted and alarmed at the idea. He not only seemed worried that it will cheat on the terms of the contract and Sam would die, he seemed repelled by the very concept, telling Sam, “What the Doc is, is a freakin’ monster. I can’t do it. I would rather go to hell.” Dean also shows horror at the idea of Sam allowing Ruby help him access his powers so Sam can save Dean–“you’re not gonna teach him anything, you understand me? Over my dead body.” It’s deeply ironic and tragic that after Dean refuses alteration to himself or Sam to save Dean, Supernatural graphically shows Dean’s death as his body is shredded by invisible hellhounds. The violation of the body, one way or the other, is inevitable.

While we don’t see Dean in Hell beyond a few flashes after Dean hanging on hooks in the final moments of season 3, we do find out what happened to him there. After thirty years hell-time of his soul being tortured, the pain got to be too much to bear and Dean said yes to Alastair’s offer to get off the rack and becomes a torturer. In Dean and Castiel’s first on-screen meeting in the season 4 premiere, Castiel immediately zeroed in on Dean’s issue, telling him “you think you don’t deserve to be saved.” Dean shamefully confessed to Sam he “liked” the torture–that it was a way to get payback. Dean, who has lost so much to beings more powerful than humans who want to destroy everything he cares for and values, broke in Hell. Dean didn’t have a choice, although it might appear to be one, but being tortured and coerced as a prisoner isn’t choice. Regardless, Dean’s transformation in Hell–presumably at least the early stages of his soul turning demonic–was a fulfillment of demon Dean’s prophecy. It didn’t come to pass, but season 9 has pointed to the possibility with the Mark of Cain storyline, where even if it’s not ultimately demonic Dean, it’s a Dean who’s changing in frightening ways. 

Like Sam and Castiel, Dean willingly consents to this alteration of his own nature. After picking up the First Blade, Dean finds the power boost addictive as a drug. Dean has always been wary of power and the dangers of tapping into supernatural forces. While he will sometimes cross a line to save his loved ones, he’s also well aware of the dangers and consequences. It fits with his distrust and defiance of authority, reflected in his snark and defiance towards law enforcement officers, angels, and even Death himself. But the blade and the mark break past his innate inclinations and give him a taste of something he finds hard to resist. And Dean tells Sam, “this is a dictatorship.” 

At the end of season 8, Dean talked Sam down from sacrificing himself to close the gates of Hell in part by citing the resources they have at their disposal at the Men of Letters. Knowledge can save them as much as brute force, and the Men of Letters had quite a research & development department to help even the odds. Dean also has always relied not only on guns and blades, but signs and salt lines and tricking his enemies. He built an EMF out of a walkman, yet in season 8 referred to himself as nothing but a “grunt”–an assessment Sam vehemently disagreed with. Dean is turning himself into the weapon that deep down he fears is all he is good for.

 

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The Mark of Cain grants Dean superhuman strength that can stand up against a demon. It also allows Dean to retreat from dilemmas and conflicts. Dean is aware of the shades of gray, that not all humans are good, that there are monsters who decide not to be murderers. He’s witnessed the consequences of power and understands what it feels like to be powerless. The blade simplifies things. In some ways the simplicity is a callback to Dean’s year in Purgatory, but in Purgatory, Dean’s outer armor was stripped away because it was a perpetual combat situation–he was otherwise calmly focused on being a warrior, in control. The extremity of the situation resulted in Dean being more expressive, not pushing others away as he is doing under the Mark. He befriended Benny the vampire, and was unusually demonstrative and direct about how he feels about Castiel. Both Purgatory and the Mark of Cain are freeing for him, but in different ways. With the Mark, he’s being consumed. Most importantly, it helps him avoid taking too close a look at his own hurts, vulnerabilities, and what he truly wants or needs. Dean has put himself aside for others most of his life, and now puts himself aside even further, buried under the influence of the Mark.

Hopefully this arc is taking Dean through the fire to bring him back to himself in a big way. Ultimately it’ll be something inside of Dean that lets him see that he’s not the blunt instrument, and that he deserves to be saved. But he’ll need help to get to that point. Sam and Castiel, who have been through similar experiences and also have issues of self-worth, love Dean, and may be key in helping him see that being Dean is where his true value lies.

About the author: Dot

Dot has been knocking around various fandoms for a while now. She’s multifannish and in denial, as Supernatural keeps eating her brain. You can find her on twitter @dottweets or at her blog, Dotramblings. She also blogs at various websites.

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