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An Argument in Tropes - A Destiel Meta

In which I talk a bit about Dean and Cas and the specific tropes their dynamic has been touching on this season.

Right, so my housemates are pretty much the definition of casual viewers. I was, too, until about a year ago. I have been watching SPN for the last few years, and while I was pretty into each season as it aired, I never really spent time thinking about it outside of watching it. Oh, how that’s changed.

My housemates know I ship Destiel. Hell, they follow my blog, which is rife with it. They’re supportive of it, although they don’t see it the same way. Well, yesterday one of them asked why I thought things were changing this season, why this season seemed so much more important to Destiel fans than any other. And god dammit, I blanked and couldn’t give them a good, thoughtful answer, except some drivel about feelings and Naomi and something about romantic tropes. I’m rubbish under pressure, which is why I like to write things out. So I started thinking about what to write…  

Like many other Destiel fans, I didn’t start out shipping Dean and Cas. I knew the ship existed, and that the fans were very passionate, but I would never classify myself as a shipper. I generally take things as how I interpret a showrunner, artist or author intends (although I do read fanfiction when the fancy takes me). So with Dean and Cas, I took my cues about their relationship pretty much at face value. In fact, I didn’t really start to notice the potential of their dynamic until the end of Season 6. There are many examples of people starting off not seeing it at all, and then having that solidifying moment of “OH.” See Felicia’s story, for example. For me, the deciding moment was the end of Season 6, in “The Man Who Would Be King,” where Dean and Cas’ feelings and perceptions were laid bare for everyone to see—and damn, did that season finale hurt so good.

I probably should have noticed sooner, having been through a very similar slow buildup with X-Files, which had an almost exact “will they, won’t they acknowledge their feelings” dynamic which lasted a full 7+ seasons on the show. Both Mulder and Scully had secondary love interests multiple times on the show, none of which lasted for very long, and it would always revert back to them solving mysteries together with barely-suppressed romantic and sexual tension. It was stressed many times that they were partners, friends, and would do anything for each other. It got so freaking annoying that it took them so long to realize these feelings, but had they realized them any sooner, it would have been wrong and untrue to the previously established friendship they had. There were stepping stones for them to cross, and the X-Files writers crossed them carefully and organically. Then there are other shows like Castle, which took notes from the Mulder/Scully formula and ran with it.

This at-first-platonic-but-obviously-something-more relationship is nothing new. It’s a series of tropes that have been used in all kinds of storytelling, in all kinds of media. This kind of Mulder/Scully relationship touches on most, if not all of these tropes: “Just Friends,” “Can’t Live With Them, Can’t Live Without Them,” “Will They Won’t They?,” “Held Gaze,” “Like an Old Married Couple,”(notice Mulder and Scully’s pic in this one) “Everyone Can See It” and inevitably some “UST,” and usually culminates in the “Aww, Look! They Love Each Other!” and “They Do.” The last three tropes are up for debate at this point, but all the others have been tried and true for Dean and Cas from various moments in SPN. Looking at tropes alone, you can see where this is headed, which is why I’m personally so confident that it’s endgame (maybe not this season, but definitely in the end)—otherwise, why even follow the path of any of these tropes?

But what makes Dean and Cas different than, say, any other “bromance” on TV right now? Bromances are one of the hot new things (maybe not so new now) on TV—almost every show has one. And I love bromances, don’t get me wrong. They’ve helped bring male relationships from the unsustainable macho alpha male no-feelings stereotype to a more realistic portrayal of male friendships. And god, did we as a society need that breath of fresh air.

But Dean and Cas’ relationship doesn’t fit into the bromance mold, because bromances are typically used for humor (and have, in some instances, become the new no-homo framework), or to lighten the mood and provide a feel-good moment. I think all Destiel fans can agree that Dean and Cas’ relationship is not, at its core, humorous (fun episodes and moments aside). If it was just for the bromance I don’t think we would have such a heavy emphasis on them rescuing each other, protecting each other, and so many talks about their feelings—or outside characters observing this so very often, even if half those remarks are used just to ruffle Dean, a.k.a. the “Everyone Can See It trope.

The most bromantic relationship that Dean has outside of Sam is Benny, and I consider Dean and Benny’s friendship a very solid bromance—and very different than Dean and Cas, if you were to compare the two.

Yes, okay. Many of these tropes, whether intentional or not, were there from Seasons 4-7, so I’m backtracking a bit. But what makes Season 8 different? Why is it suddenly feeling like Destiel shippers are no longer just really really into shipping these two, and feeling more like an actual thing? Why are so many casual viewers noticing? See IMDb Guy’s two posts, and Silvenhorror’s compilation of casual viewer accounts: (Part 1!) (Part 2!) (Part 3!) And for those who aren’t yet noticing, how can I explain this in a rational fashion? I’ve watched a lot of shows. I’ve seen all the above-mentioned tropes play themselves out countless times. It’s a pattern. There’s a tried and true order to these tropes, and I wondered whether the writers were going to go that route—and so far, they have.

Season 8 started with Dean searching desperately for Cas in Purgatory—it was his only goal, his driving force. He hacked and slashed his way through hordes of monsters to find him, while also constantly defending his actions to Benny, who played the constant naysayer (but also a solid friend in the end) as they made their way through Purgatory. When they finally did find Cas, we got a hug(!) and Dean’s very honest “I need you” declaration. This could still be construed as a friends-only statement (and has a different tone than the second “I need you” statement this season) but let’s be real, just for a second—that line isn’t exactly platonic. I don’t think even Mulder and Scully ever went that far, and they eventually went canon (X-Philes, let me know if I’m wrong here!). Then after their dramatic reunion, it was revealed that Cas had pulled the “Declaration of Protection” act, specifically the running away from the one you love variation:

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(Familiar??? Note that this variation is usually applied to romantic couples.)

This also smacks of “It’s Not You, It’s My Enemies,” in that Cas tries to redeem himself not only by protecting Dean, but by placing himself in the role of the hero, if nothing else. Cas knows, just as any superhero knows, that the villains will come after him, and by proxy, Dean is in danger. It’s the Superman complex all over again, with Dean playing Lois Lane in this instance. Of course, this trope is usually applied to love interests… *cough* Dean is no Lois Lane, which makes the use of this trope a special case—and as the trope article suggests, there can be special cases regarding 2 characters who are both badasses. Dean and Cas, I think, are a perfect example of this.

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Dean has done this more than once. “I’d rather have you, cursed or not.” (7x23) and “If the Leviathan want to take a shot at us, let ‘em! We ganked those bitches once before, we can do it again.” (8x2) Because they are both badasses, this trope is both validated and, in the context of the story, overturned.

There’s so much to unpack for this season, so I’m just going to highlight my personal favorite moments. In 8x7, Dean spends the beginning of the episode hallucinating about Castiel, whether from guilt or some unresolved feelings (there’s plenty of better meta about this out there so I’m not going to dwell on it). Then, when Cas appears again, fresh from Purgatory, we’re treated to the “She Cleans Up Nicely” trope, complete with a Disney-style reveal of Cas appearing all cleaned up, and Dean slack-jawed and barely hiding a reactionary boner, (and that was a textbook hiding-the-boner reaction and nothing will convince me otherwise) and Sam’s noteworthy glance at Dean’s reaction.

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(shh, just look at it and imagine romantic Disney music…)

Rootsunknown’s meta about Dean’s changes this season—in his self-perception, possible sexuality, and our perception of him explores more of this, and is also a good read.  Also, see Shannon’s lovely comment.

At the end of the episode, when Cas reveals what really happened in Purgatory, we’re also given the other half of the “Declaration of Protection,” and “It’s Not You, It’s My Enemies,” which is a variation of the “Break His Heart To Save Him” trope:

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Cas might not have emotionally pushed Dean away on their journey to the portal, but he never intended to go through it in the first place, and let go of Dean’s hand at the last second. We saw what a toll that took on Dean when he was topside.

Because of Purgatory, Dean figured out what was most important to him and worked through a lot of his own issues. For a substantial chunk of the first half of Season 8, Dean’s personal arc revolved around Castiel—him finding Cas and reuniting with him, being separated from him and not being able to get over it, of worrying about Cas when he’s not there—and, finally, him worrying about Cas to his face (a new development in Dean Winchester’s character, and a good one), and wanting to discuss feelings with him. Whoa. Dean’s come so far, hasn’t he? :’)

In 8x8, Hunteri Heroici, we are also treated to (arguably) small, amusing instances of “Like An Old Married Couple" and in 8x10 (I think?), to a bit of the "Beautiful Dreamer" trope. Beautiful Dreamer, in particular, is never used outside of a romance, and this isn’t the first time it’s been used for these two. Just sayin’:

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Also, only moments after the “Beautiful Dreamer” moment, we get a taste of “Can’t Act Perverted Towards a Love Interest," when Dean quickly hides his porn—porn which he’s completely fine with his brother seeing, by the way, but for some reason feels the need to shield Cas from (despite the fact that in earlier seasons, he didn’t care what Cas saw, really, but all of a sudden it’s something for him to get flustered about). Hmm. Compare with a similar incident with Mulder and Scully in X-Files. (listed under X-Files on the trope page)

For the second half of the season, Dean’s personal arc seems to be revolving around Cas and Sam, but his feelings for both are resolving themselves into very different paths: For Sam, it’s letting go. For Cas, it’s holding on. Dean is finally untangling himself from his and Sam’s unhealthy codependency bit by bit, but as we’ve seen before, Dean still needs someone, and that someone is Cas. It’s not a rebound-brother situation, but something different. Something…riddled with tropes.   

After 8x7, it becomes clear to Dean and Sam that something’s up with Cas, and by 8x10, we know for certain that Cas is being mind-controlled. And BAM, they add the classic “Mind Control” trope to this season. Oh boy, I said, they’re going there, and even though Cas is my favorite character and he quite frankly needs a break from all this angst, I was still quite excited about this prospect because I knew how it would end, because it usually ends in a situation like the crypt scene in 8x17. In 8x17, they even used the “I Know You’re In There Somewhere Fight” trope:

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(Dean and Cas are a special case because Cas so easily overpowers Dean, but you get the point)

And they did it better than I could have hoped, because whether or not that cut “I love you” line was supposed to be in the crypt scene or not, whether or not it was even said, it was definitely implied here—and in a way, it was better left unsaid, better that Dean asked, “What broke the connection?” and Cas didn’t reply, because it gave the casual audience a blank space to fill themselves with an exasperated “YOU!!!” (nice post about this) I’m not the only one who stresses this point—check out Sara’s post with Rootsunknown’s answer. It’s pretty much exactly my viewpoint on this. And wow, if that wasn’t the “Power of Love” trope poking its head in and saying “What’s up? I’ll come back at a better time, k??” then I don’t know what I’m watching anymore.  

I mean:

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The focus of this scene for many destiel shippers is, of course, the second “I need you” that Dean says to Cas—which is the “Power of Love” moment actually realized for a second. There is countless meta out there about it. My thoughts on it are that this is the Dean Winchester way of saying “I love you” at this stage in his life, since family and trust are the two highest emotional standards for him. Yes, the full quote is, “We need you…I need you,” which falls under an unofficial trope loosely titled the “I need you amendment" (pointed out by crankystalfos) It’s an important trope that I’ve seen in other stories before (I’ve used it once myself), but I can’t cite which ones at the moment. Here it is explained:

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Then we have Naomi. Such a good character in her own right, and one we all want to know more about. And she also fills the necessary other half to the mind control tropes. Aside from being the one controlling Cas, making him kill Dean over and over again (because Dean is most important to Cas, naturally), in 8x19 she played the classic “Villains Never Lie” and “Break Them By Talking” tropes to get Dean to doubt Cas, leaving the door open for her to manipulate him. It was almost comical how much Naomi used a reverse version of the “Did You Actually Believe?” trope—but instead of asking whether Dean believed her, she asked him whether he believed Cas in a very condescending way, making herself appear in a much better light. Tricky bitch. A smidgen of “Relationship Sabotage” can also be applied to this scene.

Now, these tropes are only used for the arcs of very important relationships—we’ve seen some of these tropes with Dean and Sam through the seasons, too—and while they’re not limited to romantic arcs, I’d say about 70% of these instances are used for pairings that eventually get together romantically. (Like, most Disney movies. Tangled comes to mind.) We’re kind of bashed over the head with this bundle of tropes, honestly. Do we need a neon sign to make it any clearer??? As Ally said in her meta about this scene, “This scene would have meant nothing without the assumption that Dean is in love with Cas.” Just take a minute to think about that, and about Naomi’s wording: “You’re hoping Castiel will return to you. I admire your loyalty. I only wish he felt the same way.”(check out this post, and Dean’s visible reaction to her words)

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Um, am I wrong or is this straight out of any story where the protagonist is approached by a villain who tells them they can’t trust their love interest in order for the villain to split them up? Because it so is.

Try to think of her using those same words about Sam—it doesn’t work the same way, does it? Or with Benny. It only works with Cas, and why is that? Why is he the exception? Looking back at all the tropes used before this, it follows a specific pattern, one that doesn’t fit a brotherly relationship, and is simply too big for a friendship.  

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Side note: Not that I’m a good example or anything, but if I were to use this series of tropes in my own writing, I would only use them for a romantic pairing. I literally see no other way of using them, since they all enhance the drama and ensuing closeness between two characters. But I’ve also been spoiled by too many shows, movies and books to see it any other way. Maybe—just maybe—the writers are only intending for Dean and Cas’ relationship to culminate in a really loyal and close friendship, but after all this? If, after all is said and done, they denied any romantic intentions for the characters (and this is a big what-if because I believe they are in fact aiming for this outcome), the evidence would be stacked against them. Like, there would be heaps of incriminating proof.

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But in summary, Dean and Cas are not only getting more of an emphasis this season, and not only is Dean changing and coming into his own, but Dean and Cas are smacking into every on-the-road-to-romantic trope in the book, and I have to believe it’s 100% on purpose. No writer or group of writers could miss all these road signs—and I think the SPN writers are putting up the signs themselves, even if those signs are spaced apart over several miles.

To say nothing of the multiple (I count 5-6?) parallels of a human loving a supernatural creature this season (and Dean’s sympathetic reactions to each), because wow. I don’t think any season has had this many episodes with similar themes. There’s just so much of an emphasis on the “Interspecies Romance” this season. What might the writers be gearing up towards, hmm? Are they trying to get the general audience comfortable with the concept? *eyebrow waggle*  

We’re still in the phase where Dean and Cas are getting their footing again—Cas has a little more ways to go than Dean at the moment, since much of his character development has been circumvented by Naomi’s meddling. Meanwhile, Dean is getting the character development he needs, independently of Cas, for him to really move past the stagnation and downward spiral of Season 7.

Like Mulder and Scully in X-Files, both Dean and Cas are treading on the necessary stepping stones, and some of those stones are super obvious and have been walked over by a dozen other pairs before them. They’ve got some ways to go, but if this season is any indication—and man, it’s starting to get painfully obvious to a good portion of viewers—then I think we’re well on our way to an eventual “Love Epiphany” (which I personally feel Dean is right in the middle of):

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of which the natural extension is “They Do" and “Relationship Upgrade.” We’re not there yet, though! This season is all about establishing and rebuilding from scratch and giving our boys a new purpose. The same goes for Dean and Cas’ relationship. They’re still cooking—they’re not ready for each other yet. Andy Blake’s Hot Blooded meta makes a lot of good points to this effect. Season 8 also seems to be a do-over of Season 7 on some levels—check out Anna’s denouement meta—so maybe we can expect some more Destiel developments for the season finale. I’ve got my fingers crossed for a much-needed heart-to-heart.

And the season after that? Well, I’m just beside myself at the possibilities. There will no doubt be plenty of obstacles, angst and cliffhangers for Dean and Cas on the horizon, but I’m excited to see how they do it!

 There’s also a (Part 2)!



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