I think this is one of the most discussed, quoted and mentioned episodes of the series - especially concerning Dean's self-esteem or lack there of. Unfortunately, these discussions often seem to be based on the assumption that Dean IS portrayed as a drunk and a loser... which when we sift through Kripke's long commentary we find is not (supposed to be) true. And the most important aspect of this episode are the choices Dean makes - first between staying to make good on his second chance, or save people - and later, between staying in the imaginary life or going back to his real life. And none of this is about lack of self-esteem. So, let's get started!
"What a Wonderful World" by Joey Ramone(plays as Dean mows the lawn)
"Saturday Night Special" by Lynyrd Skynyrd (plays as Dean drives back to Illinois)
"Spiegel im Spiegel" by Christopher Lennertz (originally written by Arvo Pärt)
(plays when Dean is being tempted to stay in the wish-verse)
This is an unusual beginning - Dean&Sam on the phone- Dean in the impala coming back from an errand and Sam peeking out his window all worried about the cops outside. Yes, they are running because of their stunt at Folsom Prison Blues and Sam is as jumpy as ever, but it seems the police are there for another reason and surprise, surprise, running from the police is not going to stop the brothers from being on another hunt. They are in Illinois looking for a monster. Sam tells Dean on the phone that it looks like it's a Djin. We have Dean asking Sam if he thinks they really grant wishes, and Sam telling him that they have been feeding off people - but that's about all the info we get. I guess it is their first run in with one and Dean is pretty confident that he's just going to find the warehouse he saw along the way empty of it or confident he can deal with it alone. As he searches around the warehouse with his flashlight for company, he senses something stalking him and has his knife ready(already with lamb's blood? how on such short notice?). Unfortunately the Djin is pretty strong and is quickly able to disarm Dean and put him under his spell.
The next scene we see is a horror movie called From Hell It Came - some monster picking up a girl and carrying her away (Supposedly one of the worst movies ever). Suddenly, Dean wakes up in bed with a beautiful girl beside him.
He goes to the living room and tries calling Sam. It is interesting the first Sam on the phone and the second Sam here look the same so, at first watch, we probably think they are until Sam mistakes Dean's talk about the Djin with drinking gin.
Sam: Look, it's late. All right, just get some sleep and, um, I'll ... see you tomorrow. OK?
We on a rewatch know that this Sam doesn't know what a Djin is. He gets a phone call in the middle of the night from Dean (whom he is not on good terms with) about being attacked by a gin?? He asks Dean, "Are you drunk dialing me?" in surprise. Dean drunk dialing or even dialing at all, is not a regular occurrence.
Dean checks out the mail and sees mail both for him and for Carmen (that girl!) and they are addressed to Laurence Kansas(!) Carmen wakes up then and urges him back to bed but Dean tells her he'll be there in a bit. He goes to the bookshelf and sees a photo of Carmen on the beach (which we will see again later aye) as well as another photo (I'm assuming it's of Mary and possibly them as a family like he sees later. He drops it, it crashes to the floor and he leaves to check out the old house.
When he gets there and finds his mother, he has to make sure she is really his mother and not some demon pretending to be her. He asks her a question -
Dean:... Let me ask you a question. When I was a kid, what did you always tell me when you put me to bed?
Mary: Dean, I don't understand -
Dean: Just answer the question.
Mary: I told you angels were watching over you.
(And we remember Houses of the Holy, aye?)
Relieved and oh so happy to see her alive he goes and hugs her. A series of emotions can be seen in that hug... love, longing, disbelief... A real dream come true. And he doesn't want to let go aye? Tears welling up, he holds on tight.
Dean: You don't think that wishes can, can really...
Dean: Forget it. Forget it. I'm just uh... I'm happy to see you, that's all.
He goes around looking at the pictures and when he comments on dad and the baseball team(Route 666 patches), he finds out that dad died, of a stroke, in bed. He's so relieved.
Dean: It beats the alternative.
Mary is first surprised by Dean's visit in the middle of the night, alarmed by the strange question and the rather emotional hugs and all that talk about Dad (um how did he die? and so glad he died peacefully in his sleep). So she asks him, "Have you been drinking?" (In this case, it is pretty obvious she knows he has NOT been drinking - she would have known as soon as he hugged her if he had been). But she is alarmed (and it beats the alternative...).
At this point in the episode, Dean is thinking that possibly the Djin granted him a wish and that he is being given a second chance. He has forgotten that detail that Sam mentioned about Djins "feeding off of" people. Or at least he doesn't want to think about it. Not after seeing his mom, real, alive. As Mary touches his cheek, he looks up at her with the adoring face of a young boy.
He falls asleep on the sofa and wakes up the next morning to a sunny day. It is the most peaceful scene.
But he just can't shake that something must be wrong (he is too happy for this to be real I bet...) So he goes to a university professor to find out more about Djins. He doesn't find out much, except that they very well could grant wishes - in the stories at least - and that his strange questions make the professor think he had been drinking.
Professor: You been drinking?
Dean: Everybody keeps asking me that. But uh... No.
Dean opens Baby's trunk and finds magazines and trash instead of his stash of weapons and tells Baby how they are "civilians"! As he closes the trunk and turns around to look back at the campus,Dean has his first vision of the spirit girl in white, who disappears just as quickly as she appears.
Back at mom's house, mom makes him a sandwich and he devours it happily...
While he's eating, mom asks him about work, and he finds out that he has a job at the local garage.
He then peeks out the window at the lawn -
Dean: That lawn looks like it could use some mowing.
Mary: You want to mow the lawn?
Dean: You kidding me? I'd love to mow the law.
Mary: Knock yourself out. You'd think you'd never mowed a lawn in your life.
And then we have Dean mowing the lawn -probably truly for the first time in his life-to "It's a Wonderful World" which is also just exactly how Dean is feeling. A guy is throwing out garbage across the street and he waves cheerfully at him (getting a hesitant wave in return).
When Sam and Jessica arrive, Dean rushes over and is overjoyed to see Jessica alive and with Sam.
The couple are, on the other hand, spooked out by Dean's warm welcome. We have Sam mentioning Dean starting off mom's birthday with a bang - and otherwise being condescending. It's somewhat obvious here that they do not get along.
At mom's birthday party, Dean and we find that Carmen is quite the girl. She's not only pretty but understanding of Dean's love for the simple life/foods and Dean feels unbelievably lucky.
Carmen: I was really worried about you last night.
Dean: Oh I'm ... I'm good. I'm really good.
Carmen: Okay. What do you say, later we get you a cheeseburger?
Dean: Oh God, yes. (she smiles) How did I end up with such a cool chick?
Carmen Just got low standards.
Then Sam and Jessica announce their engagement and Dean's smile just doesn't stop. He warmly congratulates Sam.
And Sam is bewildered. But then Dean sees that girl in white again and we see his whole family watching him as he all of a sudden moves away.
When they get home and Dean suggests that they go out for drinks, Sam can't help but take Dean aside and ask him what's up. Dean realizes here for the first time that he is not close with this Sam as he is in the "other reality." Not only that but academic "lawyer" Sam and mechanic Dean have nothing in common to bond them together.
Sam: Okay. What's gotten into you?
Dean: What do you mean?
Sam: I mean this whole warm, fuzzy ecstasy-trip thing.
Dean: I'm just happy for you, Sammy.
Sam: Yeah, right. That's another thing. Since when do you call me Sammy? Dean, come on. We don't talk outside of holidays.
Dean We don't? Well, we should. I mean, you're my brother.
Sam "You're my brother"?
Sam You know, that's what you said when you snaked my ATM card, or when you bailed on my graduation, or when you hooked up with Rachel Nave.
Sam: Uh, my prom date. On prom night.
Dean: Yeah, that does kinda sound like me. Well, hey man, I'm sorry about all that.
Sam: No that, look, that's all right man, I-I just... You know I'm not asking you to change. I-I just, uh, ... I don't know, I... guess we just don't really have anything in common. You know?
Of course we know that this is all in Dean's head and it may not really have turned out this way, but from their respective orientations it seems very likely. Dean could have just been the typical older brother that might take his bother's girlfriend to the prom - and that would be something that drove a wedge between them. The hard life gave them something, above and beyond normal life worries and issues, that they could work on together and which made them respect each other. It gave them a profound bond they might not have been able to create if they had just had a normal "apple pie" life.
(Dean's mention of "you're my brother" and Sam's reaction kind of remind me of Season 9 and Sam's reaction to those words there, aye? Sam feels in both instances that Dean is using those words, or their situation, for his own selfish reasons.)
Dean though thinks that maybe with his different background and the knowledge of the kind of relationship they could have, that he could fix things in this new life to reflect that.
Dean: I can fix things with Sam. I can make it up to him. To everyone.
Carmen: Okay. What's gotten into you lately?
Dean: This isn't gonna make a lick of sense to you. But I kind of feel like I've been given a second chance. And I don't wanna waste it.
After confiding in Carmen, he gets all ready to immerse himself in this new life - both with his family and with Carmen. He finds out that she is a nurse and likes how respectable that sounds. As he is alone watching TV after Carmen leaves for work, he sees a news flash on the anniversary of the crash of the Britannia flight that he and Sam had saved in Phantom Traveler. He then looks up all the other cases they had been involved in and all the ones dad had been involved in. He finds that they have all died. Then, catching a glimpse of a passing figure, he goes to his bedroom to investigate. Opening his closet, he finds corpses hanging there and turns around to see another woman with a wound on her head. When he looks back at the closet, the corpses are gone.
He figures out what his normal life has cost others and he is being haunted too. Something is wrong. Having no one to talk to, he goes to his father's grave.
Dean: All of them. Everyone that you saved, everyone Sammy and I saved. They're all dead. And there's this woman, that's haunting me. I don't know why. I don't know what the connection is, not yet anyway. It's like my old life is, is coming after me or something. Like it like it doesn't want me to be happy. Course I know what you'd say. Well, not the you that played softball but... "So go hunt the Djinn. He put you here, it can put you back. Your happiness for all those people's lives, no contest. Right?"
(This is interesting when we think of Sam in Season 8 and 9.)
[Not so vague spoiler for Seasons 8 and 9] Basically - Sam doesn't think it has to be him. He doesn't have to be the hero. Or he doesn't deserve to be. And I for one hope he some how figures out it does - have to be him... He will re-make the decision to live.
What did dad say to Dean here? Well, that is something that Dean reiterates later... so I'm going to leave you to ponder.
He goes over to his mom's to borrow some silver and we have that scene so similar to the pilot (this scene is also mentioned by Kripke in his commentary - how they worked to make it the same) - Sam waking up in the dark next to Jessica hearing a noise downstairs -
he picks up a bat and goes down the dark stairs to investigate. Seeing a dark form by the silverware cupboard he attacks and is totally subdued by his older brother ... now in the pilot, Sam goes "You scared the crap out of me!" Dean replies, "That's 'cause you're out of practice." (Sam gets the upper hand...)"or not."
But this Sam is a Wuss and doesn't have any fighting training whatsoever.
Dean: That was so easy, I'm embarrassed for you.
Of course, when Sam asks Dean what he's doing, Dean naturally has to answer he was just "looking for a beer." But this is the dining room and Dean is by the china cabinet...
Sam, seeing the silverware open asks if Dean is stealing from his own mother? and at a loss for an explanation that this Sam would understand, Dean tells him that he just needs to pay back a bookie for a game he lost big on. I really don't know if Sam believes him, but Dean gives up on the whole charade, telling Sam the truth.
Dean: Sam, I'm sorry.
Dean: I'm sorry that we don't get along. And I wish to hell I could stay and fix it. But I gotta do this. People’s lives depend on it.
Sam: What are you talking about, Dean?
Dean: Nothing. Forget it. Just uh... hey, tell Mom I love her.
Well, Sam doesn't know what is going on but something is definitely up and it is not about stealing silver from his mom for cash. Sam can't let Dean go alone - and here we also see that even as the two of them didn't get along, there was always the potential for it.
Sam: Look, whatever stupid thing you're about to do, you're not doing it alone. And that's that.
Dean: I don't understand. Why you doing this?
Sam: Because you're still my brother.
Sam: W–hat are you calling me a bitch for?
Sam then opens the paper bag with lamb's blood and freaks out.
Dean: Because there's this creature. A Djinn. And I have to hunt it.
Sam Okay, um... stop the car.
Dean I know how it sounds.
Sam Great. Just... stop the car.
Dean It's the truth, Sam. All right, there are things out there in the dark. There – there – there are bad things. There are nightmare things. And people have to be saved and if we don't save them, then nobody will.
Sam: Look, I wanna help you, all right. I-I really, really do, but you're having some kind of psychotic breakdown, so, I ... just –
Dean: I wish.
I think the underlined parts of these two conversations are the key to what "dad" said to Dean in that grave yard. Dean had seen first hand what happened to all those people that dad had saved... that he had saved ... and that Sam had saved because of what had happened to mom. So the answer to "Why did they have to sacrifice everything?" is because THERE IS NO ONE ELSE. And that I think is what Dean knew and what convinced him to give up his own happiness - his second chance which he still thinks is real.
When they get to the warehouse in Illinois, Dean wakes Sam up and we have that cute little line from Wizard of Oz when Sam asks where they are.
Dean: Well, we're not in Kansas anymore.
Dean leads the way into the warehouse and Sam follows reluctantly. As they search, Sam tells Dean that there is nothing, that this monster is not real, that they should go back. But then Sam sees first hand what the Djin looks like and what he does to the girl who is tied up, crying for her father. The djin puts her back to sleep with his blue dream energy. Then he takes a sip of the blood he is pumping. Sam gasps and they hide just in time to avoid being found by the Djin. When the Djin leaves, Sam again urges Dean to leave - ok, you're right, but it's dangerous. We have to go. But Dean is there to find answers. He sees the corpses that he saw in his dream and he also sees an empty poll and a single bulb. As he gazes at it, he almost sees himself tied up there.
Dean: What if I'm like her? What if I'm tied up in here some place? What if all this is in my head?
And that is when he realizes what the Djin is really doing. That nothing here is real. It isn't really a second chance, his mom is not really alive it is all in his head. He is 99 percent sure of this. As Sam tries to stop him, he takes out his knife to plunge it into himself...on the reasoning that when you almost die in a dream, you have to wake up.
Wait... but what is his reason to escape from this world now? It's not to save those people that dad and he and Sam saved in the real life because - Dean staying in his dreamworld is not going to change that. What is his reason now? Carmen, mom, Jessica and they all try to hold him back. It doesn't matter that it is a dream world. It will seem like a lifetime. He can have a (fake) family of his own. He can be with his mom and Carmen. He can live a normal life.
Dean: You're not real. None of it is.
Mary: It doesn't matter. It's still better than anything you had.
This is the only point that Dean stops and questions. I don't know but is he thinking maybe that's not true? That despite the hardship, he had something that he is going to miss... with Sam in the real world? That he has some memories that are better than this dream world?
Mary: In here, with us, it'll feel like years. Like a lifetime. I promise. No more pain. Or fear. Just love and comfort. And safety. Dean, stay with us. Get some rest.
While he thought this world was real, a second chance, he was willing to make things up to this dreamworld Sam and find a bond/connection between them. But now that he knows it is not, maybe he all of a sudden misses the real Sam? He also knows that if he escapes into this dream world and leaves the real Sam, Sam will be on his own to deal with whatever crap there is coming aye? His decision is not based on the people he has to save as much as Sam this time around I'm thinking...
Just a note on dreamworld Sam/mom etc... If they are all in Dean's head, they are either all creations of his imagination(possibly subtly manipulated by the Djin). So if these are creations of his imagination, the Sam, Mom, Jessica and Carmen are part of Dean aye? Sam asking Dean why he couldn't leave well enough alone... mom begging him to stay and rest... those are all parts of Dean talking to him. Everything they've said in the episode... all Dean... Interesting thought. (Does this remind people of Sam's dreamworld in Season 9?)
Dean looks like he really does want to stay but he has made up his mind and plunges the knife. Which is greatly timed because real Sam is right there trying to waken Dean.
Sam: Thank God. I thought I lost you for a second. (he pulls out the tube in DEAN's throat)
Dean: You almost did.
Sam: Oh god. Let's get you down.
Dean wakes up just in time to warn his brother of the Djin, cut the rest of his ropes and with his (next to) last strength, plunge and twist the knife in the Djin.
Do we sense more than the usual emotions here?
They then go over to the other victims and Dean finds the girl that had been appearing to him. She is still alive, and Dean's face as he cuts her free and holds her here is also not the usual emotion.
I feel there is a bit of relief in there. That he was able to save her. So doing his part, making a difference was also important - especially now that he knows what probably would have happened if he had lived a normal life. It is also about saving people.
Back at the motel, Sam is phoning the hospital to check up on the girl. He then comes over to Dean and asks if he is alright. Dean is reading a magazine and seeing the beer commercial with Carmen.
Dean tells him how the dream was not perfect - that it was just based on one wish. But that Sam was so happy with Jess and mom was going to have grandkids...
Sam: Yeah, but... Dean... it wasn't real.
Dean: I know. But I wanted to stay. I wanted to stay so bad. I mean, ever since Dad... all I c– all I can think about is how much this job's cost us. We've lost so much. We've... sacrificed so much.
Sam: But people are alive because of you. It's worth it, Dean. It is. It's not fair, and... you know, it hurts like hell, but... it's worth it.
Dean... looks like he's not sure about that - which is why I'm thinking the main reason he came back was for Sam and makes his decisions in the next two episodes all the more meaningful aye?