feel so cruel posting this

Some of you already know that I’m a Supernatural newbie and still on my first all-the-way-through watch. Yesterday I watched Hello, Cruel World (7x02) for the first time. The basic plot wasn’t a surprise to me – I knew about Hallucifer, I’d seen gifs of Dean grabbing Sam’s hand and knew that a big brothers’ moment went down there, I even knew that Sam used the pain from his hand to recall reality.

But guys I was pretty blown away by Jared in this one. (Actually, Jensen was excellent to, but I’ll get to him in a minute.) I don’t know how much of it was projecting things onto his performance. That’s definitely possible, maybe even likely. But guys it hit me right in the knees.

Literally as long as I can remember my brain has been my worst enemy and the hardest part of life. For a long time I thought I had to try and fix it (or get it fixed by some external Big Good). Now I think the demons we have are probably there for good and all we can do is manage them and not let them take us down. But either way, my mind has never been on my side. Anxiety, long-term depression, intrusive thoughts: these are the things I remember when I think about my childhood and adolescence and they are the things that have defined my inner life ever since.

No pity party or anything and I feel quite awkward posting something so personal and I hope you don’t all hate me, haha, and I should say that most of these things have become at least more manageable over time. But I mention them because I want to talk about Jared’s face here and my thoughts about it stem from my own experiences. This is the scene where Bobby and Dean are talking to him and he is telling them about Lucifer’s claim that he never left the Cage, that his life ever since has been an illusion.

DEAN
Wait. Are you seeing him right now?

DEAN

You know that he’s not real. Right?

SAM
He says the same thing about you.

Guys, Jared’s face in this scene made me cry, because that is the face you make when you realise that you can’t trust your own mind. It is the worst feeling I’ve ever felt and I suppose I’ve never seen my own face while feeling it but that is exactly how it *feels*. If someone had said ‘draw your face when you feel this way’ (and haha if I was able to draw), this would have been it: the unfocused stare, the eyes glassy but not crying because you’re too terrified to cry, you’ve gone beyond the point where crying feels like something that will help or even adequately convey what you feel. Bleak despair, not dramatic despair – the drawn face, the set jaw. Goddamn I don’t know if Jared has ever felt like that but if he hasn’t (and, well, if he has) I give him all the kudos in the world.

It’s the same later at the end of the episode when Dean finds Sam in the warehouse. Jared again just NAILS this. Watch and you’ll see that through most of the scene he’s not actually looking anywhere, not focusing. His gaze is somewhere on the middle distance, not able to commit to a perceived, sensate reality OR to retreat to the shelter of his own mind. This is what it looks like when your mind isn’t a safe place anymore.

Sam here isn’t able to engage with the world at all, period, zilch, not even to try to believe something is real because he doesn’t trust his own perception of it. He doesn’t trust his senses. And what Dean does for him here (and what Jensen and Jared so magnificently portray I think) isn’t so much to convince him of anything or even to emotionally connect with him. At least those aren’t the fundamental thing. What Dean most fundamentally does for Sam here is to step in and act as his senses. And because Sam has always trusted Dean, he is able to trust his grasp on reality – not enough to get better, not enough to be OK in any actual sense of the world – but enough to make it through five minutes, enough to take a breath.

And I love two things about how Dean does this.

First, he goes in willing to hear Sam. This isn’t always Dean’s strong point, but here he is perfection, and Jensen blows it out of the water. In his face you can see fear, apprehension, a skilled hunter with reflexes ready to go in a moment, yes – but somehow beneath all of those things that tighten and close off a face, he is still open. His instinctive reaction to Sam acting terrifyingly unlike himself is to try to listen, to try to read Sam, to use three decades of knowing him to try to know how to help him now. And he doesn’t go in with a preconceived version of what’s going on or of what Sam is experiencing.

DEAN

Okay. Well, here I am.

SAM

No. No, I don’t, I…I can’t know that for sure. You understand me?

DEAN

Okay, now we’re gonna have to start small.

He says whoa, whoa, OK. He doesn’t argue with Sam’s insistence that they had just been driving together, he doesn’t try to disentangle facts (because that would just force Sam to the point, again, of trying to distinguish or debate reality, which is precisely what Sam can’t do right now).

Second, Dean narrows the overwhelming suffocation of detachment from reality down to a single point. Because that’s what Sam needs and that’s all his mind can even try to accept at the moment. I don’t think Dean knows that he’s doing this; I don’t think he’s doing it deliberately; but I do think that maybe Jensen knew that this is what Dean was doing. You feel, watching, like every molecule in Dean’s body is straining to make this one thing manifestly real for Sam, to rouse in him at least enough trust to let Dean be his arbiter of reality here. Jensen has a few phenomenal speeches over the years (and I’m sure he has more I haven’t watched yet) but this one would have been very easy to overact, I think, or play too melodramatic. And he doesn’t. Neither of them do. They just vibrate with the feeling of seven years with these characters and each other.

DEAN
This is real. Not a year ago, not in Hell, now. I was with you when you cut it, I sewed it up! Look!….
This is different. Right? Then the crap that’s tearing at your walnut? I’m different. Right?

Believe me, okay? You gotta believe me. You gotta make it stone number one and build on it. You understand?

SAM
Yeah. Yeah, okay.

And (I’m almost done I promise) I love this look Jared gives in response to Dean. It’s not relief and it’s not hope and it’s not peace and it’s not agreement. But it’s also not unfocused or empty or lost off in the mid-distance. What Dean gave Sam here wasn’t a solution or a fix but it was a tiny, tiny way to engage with something he could trust – not even, I think, at this point, something he necessarily did trust – but something that his emotional and mental muscle memory (as it were) responded to just enough to say ‘yes that, that voice, that’s enough to stay alive till tonight’. It’s a flicker of what might be hope. It’s finding the edge of a step when you’ve been free-falling. Your foot’s not planted yet but you can feel something under it other than air.