“Bad Boys” broke my heart. I think if I had been watching it by myself, I would have cried. We finally get to see some of Dean’s backstory without Sam and it’s every bit as tragic and painful as you’d imagine. I think it’s incredible that, nine seasons later, we’re still learning things about these characters, things from their past that have shaped them into the men we know today. Not many shows are able to pull out material like this so late in the game without it ringing false.
On the surface, the monster of the week seems pretty cut and dry; a murderous ghost is on the loose at a boys’ home, so the Winchesters grab their gear and head back to a place Dean remembers all too well, as a favor for his friend Sonny. He finally tells Sam about the summer he stayed at the boys’ home because he lost some money and their dad dropped him off and left him, taking Sammy to Bobby’s.
We’ve always admired the Winchesters’ dad because Dean admired him so much, but “Bad Boys” opened up a can of worms for Dean and for us. Who would drop their kid off at a boys’ home to “teach him a lesson” about losing money? Dean was a teenager living as a nomad without a home or a mother or any sense of normalcy. This crosses the line into emotional and psychological abuse, abandonment, and manipulation. This is downright bad parenting. Dean made the best of a bad situation mostly thanks to Sonny, the guy in charge of the boys’ home, and it was then I realized where Dean got his parenting skills.
We’ve seen Dean become “Daddy Dean” on occasion – with Castiel, Kevin, and several children throughout the series. He’s patient, kind, and gentle with them as he coaches them through some of life’s most difficult moments. But he obviously didn’t learn those skills from his father who, while obsessed with hunting down the demon that killed his wife, would leave the boys alone for days or weeks on end, and only occasionally leaving them with a responsible adult. Dean learned to be a father from the other men in his life. Sonny and Bobby, especially, were his role models without him even realizing it. His dad wasn’t around enough to be a father figure.
This colors their relationship in quite a different light especially when we see Dean’s flashbacks and realize that he, just like Sam, never expressed interest in being a hunter. He wanted to be a rockstar (where his love of classic rock comes in) or a mechanic (his love of Baby, the Impala). He was in love, that summer at the boys’ home, with a girl who didn’t want to follow in her father’s footsteps either. I wonder if perhaps Dean’s insistence about Sam coming with him to find their dad and to keep being hunters was more of a loneliness thing than a responsibility thing. Maybe Dean knew he wouldn’t hunt without Sam even though the guilt would be overwhelming.
When Dean sees the girl he fell in love with that summer, all grown up and following in her father’s footsteps, she tells him that she’s happy with what she’s doing with her life. Dean can’t tell her he feels the same about what he’s doing. Are Dean and Sam hunting because it’s the only way they can stay close to the memory of their father? Are they so damaged that they need to hunt because it’s all they know how to do? How severely did their father mess them up?
The worst is when they figure out that one of the boys at the home lost his mother and she’s the ghost who has been terrorizing the house because the little boy is being picked on. “You stand up to them one time,” says Dean, “and they won’t bother you again. I promise.” He gets the bullies to leave the kid alone, but in doing so, I don’t think he realizes that he never stood up to his biggest bully: his father. Sam stood up to him and left and only came back when Dean begged him to help find their father.
“Sometimes you gotta do what’s best for you even if it hurts the ones you love,” says Dean to the boy, coaching him through saying goodbye to his mother and asking her to stop hurting people. Although Dean would never have told Sam that when he left, Dean seems to have learned (perhaps not consciously) from that experience and imparts the advice to this young boy. Dean is by far a better parent than his father ever was.
And of course, we see the root of Dean’s problems with women. He was taking his girlfriend to the dance, but that night his father came back and insisted that Dean come with him. Sonny commiserated with the boy but in the end Dean couldn’t stand up to his father and left his first love behind. He’s had to leave love ever since. He is so damaged by his relationship with his father, but I don’t know that he would ever be able to see that, with his admiration of how strong and dedicated his father was. Dean was never good enough, but he’s still striving to live up to his father’s name.
“Bad Boys” was a deep, troubling, painful episode, a superbly written expose on Dean’s past. With all the concern over Sam in this season and even from the beginning of the show, we’ve rarely had time with Dean to reflect on the past and what made him the Dean Winchester we know and love. It’s about time he got some sympathy.