In the twentieth episode of the second season of Supernatural, this is an exercise in repeatedly breaking my heart. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Supernatural.
I think that the slower pace of “What Is and What Should Never Be” is what makes this work so well. After deliberately setting up this alternate reality in a way reminiscent of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, writer Raelle Tucker painstakingly peels away the layers of happiness that surround Dean, and everything hurts. For an episode that sits right before the finale, this is a surprisingly introspective take on Dean Winchester, one that forces him to think about the sacrifices that his family has made over the last twenty-odd years.
It’s part parallel universe fodder and part A Christmas Carol / A Miracle on 34th Street, but the way that this episode unfolds is brilliant and devastating. Dean’s fight with the djinn is left as a cliffhanger in the cold open, but it’s not initially all that shocking. The boys have had frightening and disturbing interactions with monsters and spirits before! However, after the title sequence fades away to Dean alongside a mysterious woman in bed, the show goes straight for the surreal. One of the most cruel things about what Dean experiences here is that he can never forget his memories and experiences of the real world. That’s established once he calls Sam and begins talking about the djinn, only for Sam to express confusion toward his brother. (It’s also the first moment that hints towards the fact that in this universe, Sam is probably an alcoholic.) Dean remembers the world he came from, and everyone has lived a completely different life. Unfortunately, Dean’s attempts to figure out what he did in the wish universe are often read as mental illness or him being drunk, which only makes matters worse for him.
Of course, the worst part of this is that Dean’s happiness throughout this vision appears to be 100% genuine. Y’all, Mary Winchester is alive. If Dean could have anything, it would be her. That’s the one unspoken wish that Dean’s been carrying inside of him, and that alone is one of the more devastating aspects in this episode. He wants a life with his mother in it. So that’s what the djinn grants him, and it’s fascinating to see what sort of world that the djinn crafted around this wish. Dean’s wish is made reality, but that doesn’t mean he gets everything he wants. His father is still dead, though he died of a stroke instead of at the hands of the yellow-eyed demon. Sam is happy and ENGAGED TO JESS OH MY GOD IT’S ADRIANNE PALICKI, HELP ME. And while Sam pursued a life outside of hunting (since he had no reason to ever get involved), that also means that he never had a chance to bond with his brother.
And really, the core of this show is based around the relationship between Sam and Dean. So it hurts deep down in my soul to see them separated like this. It’s not like Sam despises Dean in this universe; I almost feel like that would have been easier for Dean to deal with when it came to choosing a universe to remain in. No, there’s potential. Sam has been the one to always look out for Dean in this world, a complete reversal of what actually happened. Even if Dean’s disappointed Sam time and time again with his reliance on alcohol or his womanizing ways, Sam still loves his older brother. And that’s really what haunts Dean throughout this episode. He could still come to bond with Sam in this world.
But is that worth it? I kept saying in the video commission for this episode that we’d learn of the cost that was paid for Dean to live in his wish universe. Just because the yellow-eyed demon didn’t kill Mary Winchester all those years ago doesn’t mean that the supernatural has disappeared, too. The djinn simply saved a life, and the ramifications of that are utterly horrifying: Everyone Dean and Sam have ever saved is now dead. All of them. There are on-screen references to a number of cases, and the cost is laid out before Dean. So which price does Dean choose to pay? In a HEARTBREAKING, 10000% NOT OKAY scene before John Winchester’s grave, Dean begs his dead father to make sense of the world he’s had to live in. How is it fair that Sam has to choose between his own happiness and those of the people he’s come across in his time as a hunter? Why is it that he has to lose his parents in order to bring justice to others? Who’s supposed to bring Dean happiness?
No one because everything hurts FOREVER. In the end, Dean, who isn’t content knowing that the universe he lives in is at the expense of hundreds of lives lost, makes a choice. His happiness isn’t worth the effort he’d have to put in to repair his relationship with Sam in the wish universe. His happiness is not worth the deaths of people who needed his help. That doesn’t mean it was an easy choice, and it’s clear that the djinn designed this world to best trap Dean while it DRAINED HIM OF HIS BLOOD OH MY GOD. It wasn’t enough to give Dean back his mother. The djinn gave Dean a motivation to stay beyond a change in his past, and that’s what is so heartbreaking about Dean’s choice. He knows for a fact that he would experience happiness in an artificial world, despite knowing that it wasn’t real. It’s a way for the writers to acknowledge that Dean’s pain over the choice is real, you know? His life has been a goddamn emotional mess, and there’s nothing wrong with wishing things had turned out differently. Unfortunately, Dean has to accept at the end of “What Is and What Should Never Be” that merely wishing for another reality doesn’t solve his problems. It’s only a distraction, and they have actual work to do, work that saves people’s lives. But who’s going to save Dean Winchester when he needs it? Who looks after him? What makes him happy?
It’s a complicated answer, one that this episode doesn’t exactly answer on purpose. Sam does his best at the end here to convince Dean that the sacrifices the Winchesters have made in the name of ridding the world of evil are worth it. I don’t think Dean disagrees with Sam, but now that he’s seen what could have become if they’d chosen not to fight evil, he’s going to be a little fucked up for a while. It’s a raw pain, y’all, and this goddamn episode is so cruel to show it to us. I’d also like to point out that this especially hurt because of what I said in the video for “Hollywood Babylon” in terms of re-imagining Dean’s life, so you can just bury me in this episode right here. THANKS.
The commission for “What Is and What Should Never Be” can be downloaded here for $0.99.
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