Amnesia is one of the biggest tropes in fandom, so when news broke that season 12 would include an episode where Dean loses his memory, fandom went nuts. It’s been one of the most anticipated episodes of the season, and tonight was the big night.
However, the memory loss Dean experiences in “Regarding Dean” isn’t as much amnesia as it is Alzheimer’s, which adds an even more terrifying tone to it all.
The episode begins with Dean chasing a witch through the woods. He finally has him cornered, and is about to shoot when the witch casts a spell, hurling Dean backwards and knocking him out, where he doesn’t come to until the next morning. His wakeup call is an adorable little bunny who absolutely should’ve been adopted by the Winchesters, and, after a few awkward interactions with park-goers who think he’s homeless, calls Sam and requests that they meet up for waffles, the only landmark Dean can see to place himself.
According to Sam, Dean had run out the night before to grab burgers and never came back, so he’s just as confused as Dean as to what happened to him. Dean thinks it’s just a particularly shitty hangover, so the fact that he doesn’t remember the specifics about the case they’re in town for, anything about Kelly or her nephilim baby, or even that he needs to pay for his food, isn’t particularly alarming. His self-professed “epic night” also included a hookup: when a woman comes up to him in the diner to say hi, he asks who she is, and she slaps him. Still par for the course.
This makes sense, until Dean gets visibly nauseated by the evidence in the morgue, forgets which key to use to start the Impala, mixes up forward and reverse when backing out of their parking spot, and eventually, his own name.
Dean asking, “Who’s Dean?” causes Sam to bring up the idea of Dean being hexed, but Dean dismisses that quickly, saying that if he’d been hexed, he’d be dead, not Dory–and he’s “…not gonna apologize for loving that fish. Not to you, not to anyone.” After Dean fails Sam’s test of naming all the members of Bon Jovi, he starts trying to prove he knows what’s going on, that nothing’s wrong, by naming different things in the motel room. He does okay until he gets to a lamp, which he calls a light stick. This leads to almost everything in the room being labeled with sticky notes, from “lamp” and “door” to “bed” and “fridge.”
All this is enough for Sam to ask for help from Rowena, who’s busy kicking ass at poker, but eventually concedes, saying she’ll be there soon. While he’s talking with her, though, Dean leaves the room, and Sam panics. He rushes around the motel until he finds Dean, trying to use his keycard to get into someone else’s room after getting ice. It’s clear now that Sam can’t let his brother out of his sight, and he decides to retrace their steps to figure out what happened to Dean last night.
After doubling back to the bar Dean went to the night before, they learn from the woman who slapped him at the diner that he ordered burgers to go, downed four tequila shots, rode the mechanical bull, and had sex with her. They also go through security footage–Dean followed a man outside who used his powers to throw Dean across the alley in the back of the bar. Eventually, they end up in the woods from the night before, and they stumble upon the dead body of the witch who hexed Dean. This would be good news, but Rowena had explained to Sam that once the witch responsible for the hex is killed, Dean would be back to normal.
Dude’s dead, so why isn’t Dean, well, Dean?
Turns out, the dead witch, whose name is Gideon, is part of an ancient witch family who own an infamous spell book called the Black Grimoire. Sam and Rowena need the Grimoire to save Dean, and, to make things even worse, Gideon’s family wants him back, and they’ll do anything to make it happen.
While they’re preparing to find the spell book, Rowena goes into more detail with Sam on what exactly will happen to Dean because of the spell, and the details are downright terrifying. “Soon, you forget how to speak, how to swallow. Then Dean Winchester’s going to die.”
What’s even worse, though, is Dean’s reaction: “Sucks for that guy.”
After Sam tries to console his brother and reassure him that they’ll figure this out, he reveals to Rowena that he’s, “…seen my brother die, but watching him become not him, this might actually be worse.” Despite being a relatively simple line, it packs a massive emotional punch, which is only accentuated by the following scene, where Dean repeats a mantra to himself in the mirror of who he is, who his family is, until he can’t anymore. Now, Supernatural is full of scenes and entire episodes that pull at heartstrings, but this one is probably the most goddamn heartbreaking one yet.
Sam decides to break into the witches’ home to steal the Grimoire, which obviously doesn’t go as planned: he’s attacked, leaving Dean helpless as he hears his brother get beat up and scream in pain over the phone. We cut to commercial after that, and when he next see Dean, he’s asleep or unconscious in the Impala, which is decked out with notes to help him find his way once he does wake up.
“Your brother’s been kidnapped by a witch. Found your stupid car and left you here.”
Dean is about to leave the Impala when he sees another note, this one just saying, “Stay.”
Luckily, he doesn’t listen, and heads for the trunk to find even more sticky note labels. “Open me,” “NO!” on the grenade launcher (Let Dean Launch a Grenade 2k17), “Witch Killing Bullets,” and “This gun.”
The episode wraps up fairly quickly after that, almost feeling a little rushed. Gideon’s siblings want to swap Sam’s soul for Gideon’s to bring him back to life, Rowena comes to try and help out but gets caught by one of the witches, and Dean saves the day thanks to his arsenal of sticky notes. Rowena uses the Grimoire to stop the hex and save Dean, who, in classic Dean fashion, then decides to pretend he hasn’t been cured, just to get a reaction out of Sam.
During their usual post-case, post-near-death-experience heart-to-heart, Sam admits that at first, he had been jealous of Dean, of the fact that he looked happy. Dean disagrees, saying that while it was nice to drop their baggage for a bit, it wasn’t just the bad stuff that got lost, but everything, and that if that’s what being happy feels like, he’ll pass. The episode ends with a montage of Dean being, well, happy. He laughs and smiles more easily and rides a mechanical bull and snuggles a bunny. It reminded me of an “in memoriam” montage they use during awards shows to honor those who’ve died during the past year, making it feel like the show was giving a farewell to happy Dean. So yeah, super depressing.
Now that the plot is covered, though, I’ve gotta be honest–I’d been dreading “Regarding Dean” ever since I heard its premise. My family is dealing with early onset Alzheimer’s, so memory issues hit way too close to home for me, and the idea that something I experience in my daily life would bleed into something I use as an escape was less than comforting.
The episode definitely had its fair share of comedic moments, which is completely welcome and acceptable–it’s impossible to get through something as terrifying and heartbreaking as memory loss without humor, but what I really appreciated was the fact that despite things he said or his reactions to learning about his life being funny (his delight at their best friend being an angel was, well, delightful), Dean’s declining memory itself was never used as a punchline, something that could’ve been snuck in so easily. It’s expected that Sam wouldn’t make fun of his brother, but the fact that Rowena didn’t throw in any shots, either, just added to the gravity of the situation.
Jared Padalecki’s depiction of a multifaceted caregiver was on point, too–his panic at Dean going missing, his patience with explaining things to him, his barely-masked frustration at Dean’s suddenly childlike sense of the world, ultimately having to distract him with cartoons–those are all things and emotions we’ve experienced firsthand, and it’s a testament to his acting how well he portrayed them.
Overall, I was doing okay–really, I was–until the scene where Dean talked to himself in the bathroom mirror, trying to remember things about himself. He goes through his family, his name, smoothly at first, but as time passes, his voice cracks, his words trail off, and he can barely form a complete sentence. He’s very clearly panicking, his eyes wide and tearful, and by the time he ends the mini monologue with, “‘m…I dunno,” I’m sobbing into a pillow on the couch.
People talk pretty regularly about what an outstanding actor Jensen Ackles is, and this scene is the epitome of his talent. I’ve seen Alzheimer’s patients switch from terrified and inconsolable one minute to happy and childlike the next, and Jensen’s portrayal mirrors it impeccably; honestly, he deserves all the awards for that scene alone.
I almost wasn’t going to watch this week’s episode at all. I was afraid it would treat memory loss as something laughable, as nothing more than a punchline. I was afraid the pain my family and millions of others feel on a daily basis would be dismissed in one 42-minute episode of TV. Ultimately, though, curiosity got the better of me. Despite my hesitations and fears, I really wanted to see how Meredith Glynn (a new writer whose only other credit on the show is “The One You’ve Been Waiting For,” the ridiculously poorly timed Hitler reincarnated episode, which…we won’t talk anymore about), Jared, Ruth, and especially Jensen handled the concept of memory loss.
And I’m so goddamn happy to say that they did it masterfully.