This will be for Season 4, but as you'll see, there's a lot to cover. Maybe I can do follow-up posts from Seasons 5 & 6 sometime over the summer.
So without further ado, it's time to take a look at some of Jensen's best performances during Season 4.
Season 4 began with Dean literally crawling out of his grave after having been lifted from hell by the angel, Castiel. Much of the season was spent with Dean struggling with what he'd done during his 40 years in the pit and learning that in a lot of ways Sam had moved on and had picked up some new skills thanks to the influence of the demon, Ruby.
Through all of this, Jensen continued to shine as an actor. Allowing the vulnerability of Dean's tortures in hell show through in bitterness and tears. All the while, he was still very much the Dean we'd always known, still looking after Sam, still being the great hero, still enjoying fast food, beer, women, and his beloved Impala.
Below are some of my favorite moments from Season 4, and also the ones I feel where Jensen especially excelled.
The Top Moments:
Meeting Castiel - Disbeliever in angels, Dean, finally meets his savior face to face. Naturally, Dean is skeptical, which confuses the angel. It's heartbreaking when he tells the Castiel that in his experience, good things don't happen to people. After all, when was the last good thing to happen to Dean? Jensen lets Dean's disbelief show in his eyes, knowing that there's got to be some reason why an angel would pluck him from hell. He finds out there is, but not the details...yet.
"Are You There God? It's Me, Dean Winchester"
Gripped by an angel - Sometimes it's the subtle things that Jensen brings to a scene that are the most powerful. Take this scene where Bobby's pouring over books about angels and confirming that Castiel's claims are true. When he points out an illustration of an angel touching a human to pull them from hell, Jensen's hand goes to his shoulder...the shoulder with the handprint scar from Castiel. It's such a minor action and with all the dialog, you can almost miss it, but it's a beautiful gesture, showing the connection between Dean and Castiel and the powerful reminder of what it took to pull him from the pit.
"In The Beginning"
Dean tries to change his past - It might've been doomed from the start, but you can't blame Dean for trying to change the event that effected his life (and Sam's) forever. Jensen tears down a few blocks in Dean's protective wall and we get a touching request by a son to his mom to stay in bed on that fateful night in November of 1983. It's a fine line between trying to get his message across while not freaking her out by talking about the future. Jensen does a beautiful job, his tearful eyes begging to be believed.
Dean makes good on his threat - It's an intense scene with Dean vs. the YED, made all the more powerful because the demon is possessing his grandfather. I love the little moment as the demon sniffs Dean...and Dean's clear revulsion at the personal invasion. Jensen's capable of showing so many complex emotions in his acting, but one that often catches a person off-guard is when he displays anger. Face to face with his family's long-time nemesis, and knowing that he's already killed this foe, Dean spits out a venomous promise:
Maybe not today, but you look into my eyes you son of a bitch, cause I'm the one that kills you.
It's enough to send shivers through a person's body. Dean Winchester makes good on his promises. You never doubt them. Even if we hadn't seen Dean kill the YED at the end of Season 2, I'd believe his threat in this episode. Eyes flaring, spitting out every word like daggers, Jensen makes you believe Dean is capable of killing just about anything...possibly with his bare hands if need be.
Dean learns of Sam's powers - This is one of my favorite scenes of the season. Dean's seen Sam use his powers and he knows Ruby's to blame. He's had it, ready to take off on his own and let Sam go hunt down demons with Ruby. He's also just learned from Castiel that if he doesn't stop Sam, the angels will step in, so there's a lot of fear and panic in this scene. Sam confesses to what he's been up to, using his powers to pull demons and send them back to hell, but he doesn't seem to see what Dean does...that this is wrong, that it's turning him into something they would hunt. He tries to convince Sam that he has to stop, showing at first his concern, then his anger (love it when he knocks that lamp to the floor), but in the end, his eyes brimming with tears, you can see the concern again. As Sam answers his phone, you can see how close Dean is to loosing it. He loves his brother, he wants to do nothing but save him. But what can he do when Sam won't let him in? Is lying to him? This is the beginning of Dean's 2nd struggle during the season - of fighting to save his brother.
Dean remembers hell - This is another favorite scene. Dean finally confesses to Sam that he remembers his time in hell, but he's not going to talk about it. There are no tears, but Dean is starting to open up. The walls are cracking more and more and Jensen shows this with his facial expressions. Dean's letting Sam in, if only a little, but he can't share it all whether for his own protection or for Sam's.
The things that I saw. There aren't words. There is no forgetting. There's no making it better. Because it is right here… forever. You wouldn't understand. And I could never make you understand. So I am sorry.
There almost aren't enough words to describe how beautiful this scene is. But in episodes to come there would be even greater emotions shown by Dean, thanks to the brilliant talents of Jensen.
"Heaven And Hell"
Anna knows - Another scene with a lot of different layers of emotion. We start off fairly mild, with Anna & Dean talking about the dire circumstances of what they need to do. Then Anna tells Dean that she knows about what he did in hell and that he really needs to talk to someone about it. As she places a gentle hand on his cheek, she says he should forgive himself. With quivering lips Dean whispers that he can't and it's enough to break anyone's heart. Dean is never one to forgive himself and even Castiel noted that Dean didn't feel he deserved to be saved. We don't even know yet what he did, but it must be terrible if he's so visibly stunned that someone knows. Dean goes from cocky and sure to broken and vulnerable in seconds.
Dean tells Sam about hell - This scene... A tour-de-force by Jensen as Dean's weakened walls finally collapse and he follows through on the advice Anna gave him. Knowing Sam heard what Alastair said about him "showing promise", he opens up, laying the truth out for whatever judgement may come. As he begins, trying to stay strong, he tells Sam about the 40 years and how he was tortured. Then he breaks down, confessing to succumbing to 30 years of pain to begin the torture on others. His shame is so strong. He never planned on breaking, but he couldn't hold on, and he's embarrassed by it. He can't even face Sam, hiding his face from his brother as the tears fall at last. Jensen simply rocks this emotional scene and you can see why he says scenes such as this one are so draining. The tears, the quivering lips, the pain-filled eyes...all exceptionally acted out by Jensen.
Dean's second confession - We follow one emotional road-side confession with another. Having dealt with a pair of siblings who through a more human form of torture were reduced to the base instincts of wild animals, Dean finds himself sympathizing with them. He tells Sam that he enjoyed torturing souls in hell, finally getting some payback for 30 years of his own torment. By now, confessing about hell has gotten easier and there's no tears, but you can still see the shame on Dean's face for what he's done. He feels he can never erase those awful wrongs, can never find redemption for his crimes in hell.
"On The Head Of A Pin"
Dean the apprentice - With the angels capturing Alastair, they've kidnapped Dean, the one person who's "the most qualified interrogator". He practically begs Cas to not make him do this, but it falls on deaf ears. Seeing no way out, he eventually gives in, but not before one last warning to Cas...
You ask me to open that door and walk through it, you will not like what walks back out.
Jensen's eyes are dark here, and it's not only due to the limited lighting. Dean does not want to face his tormentor and he's afraid he'll go back to what he was in hell...a torturer. When he closes his eyes, you know Dean will do what Castiel wants, despite his self-preservation.
Dean as torturer - I don't know what dark place Jensen went to for the torture scenes with Alastair, but it was a masterful performance. Dean's whole demeanor changes the moment he enters that room. His cold, dark eyes, and a tight hold over his emotions he ignores his mentor's taunts. It's a study of measured control. It's a great look at what Dean was like in hell as he pours salt down Alastair's throat with such menace.
Dean learns the truth - After such self-control, Dean finally falters once Alastair tells him he broke the first seal in hell by shedding blood. You can see the horror registering on Jensen's face, even in profile. Could there be anything worse for Dean? To know that he set the apocalypse in motion? Regaining his composure in order to strike a final blow, he's met with a freed Alastair who proceeds to beat him to a pulp. Dean doesn't even try to fight back, accepting whatever Alastair dishes out, even if that means returning to hell. By the time he's dumped on the floor, his face a bloody mess, you can see the defeated look in his eyes.
Broken Dean - With half his face hidden in shadow, you never miss the emotion of this scene. Dean learns from Cas that everything Alastair said was true. He did break the first seal. But when Cas says he must be the one to finish it, Dean admits he's not the one, he's not strong enough. Jensen has Dean sounding as broken as he looks, his voice rough and deep. By the end of the scene he sheds a few tears, hitting rock bottom.
"When The Levee Breaks"
Dean's resolve / Sam's hallucination of Dean - In a clever bit of editing, we have Dean telling Bobby that no matter what he won't let Sam become a monster. Meanwhile, Sam's seeing a very different side of his brother down in the panic room. The Dean there is verbally abusing him, telling him that he's a monster and not even his brother. It's a great look at two very different depictions of Dean. There's the great protector that we know so well, willing to do anything to save Sam. Then there's the other side, the twisted vision of Dean that Sam is seeing, tearing him down. This Dean is disgusted, looking down on Sam as nothing but a freak to be destroyed. It's a scary sight and it's sad that Sam held this warped perspective of his brother, when only the opposite was true at that moment.
Dean loses Sam - Dean tracks down Sam and after Ruby runs off, the two have a tense discussion. Dean tries one last effort to save his brother, but ends up admitting that Sam's become a monster. It pains him to even speak the words, you can see it in Jensen's expressive eyes. Sadly, Sam doesn't see it, nor the single tear that spills down Dean's cheek. After they brutally fight, Dean is left a breathless heap on the floor, issuing his ultimatum to Sam...if you leave, don't come back. Sam walks out the door and Dean has never been more alone.
Dean learns Zachariah's plan - I've always loved scenes between these two. I think there's a great give and take between Kurt and Jensen and their dialog just crackles with electricity. As Zachariah reveals the big plan to Dean, that the apocalypse is going to happen anyway, you can see Dean's hope come crumbling down. Learning that this was the plan all along, he even has to hold onto the table as the full weight of the situation for the world hits him. It's another nice, subtle touch by Jensen. His eyes brimming with tears, he tries to put up a brave front, but it's faltering. The world is doomed, he started it, and there doesn't seem to be anyway to stop it. I love how his voice breaks as he asks about Sam's role in all this. Despite giving up on his brother at the beginning of the episode, now all Dean can think about is getting back to him.
I'm sure there's many other scenes throughout Season 4 that I could have added in, but these were the ones that stood out most in my mind because of Jensen's talents. He only continues to grow as an actor with his portrayal of Dean and all his many trials. I wish Jensen would be recognized for the great actor he is. In my mind, it's long overdue and I know many other fans feel the same way. I'm not even sure Jensen is interested in any accolades, but he seems so dedicated to his craft, wanting to get better all the time, and learning from his fellow actors. I know he'll continue his great acting long after SPN is done and I can only see bigger and better things for his career.