In the previous episode, Dean went through a lot. Prime suspect as a serial killer, an evil shape shifter riding around in his precious car, and finally he finds he's officially dead as the shape shifter's body is mistaken for him. After all that, it's hard to blame the guy for having a few issues to deal with. Very little of this is addressed directly in Hookman, but this is the first chance we get to see how well he's dealing...or not.
The episode opens with a reminder of the brothers' motivation throughout the first half of this season: the search for their father. Sam appears increasingly desperate, he's checking every official avenue for clues to John's whereabouts. He's afraid for their dad, checking for a report of his death or a criminal report. Sam's fears seem justified: we know John lives a dangerous life, there's every reason, at this point in the series, to believe he's out there facing some big nasty, without help or backup. Not to mention the seriously illegal activities that both John and Dean seem to indulge in as a mater of routine: it's logical to assume John may be either hurt or in serious trouble.
Dean, on the other hand, behaves as if he has no doubt John is still alive and healthy. To Dean, their inability to track John down means only one thing: John doesn't want to be found. Dean appears to take this as a sign to carry on with what they're doing. He isn't giving up the search, but he appears content to take over the family business, confident that John will call when he's ready, or they'll run into each other on the road. It's like an article of faith for him: Dad is fine, we'll find Dad when he wants to be found.
But is that all Dean is feeling? If John has his sons' habit of checking newspapers everywhere for signs of paranormal activity, then he must be aware by now of Dean's supposed death in St Louis. Presumably, one or both of the brothers has called John, left a voicemail to let him know that Dean is alive and well. Even so, you'd think a good father would return a call like that. (In later episodes, we learn what John is really doing during this time, and we can assume, perhaps, that he's not following old habits and may not know his son is "dead", But at this stage in canon we don't know that, and neither do the brothers: all they've got is John's voicemail.) Dean and John are close, and if Shape-Shifter!Dean's comment
"...sooner or later everybody's gonna leave me. Hell, I did everything Dad asked me to and he ditched me, too. No explanation, no nothing, just pfft!"
is in any way a reflection of Dean's true feelings, the lack of any contact from John must really hurt. Dean's nonchalant reply to Sam:
"Sam, I’m tellin’ ya, I don’t think Dad wants to be found."
with no further comment, seems to me to be a mask, a way to hide what he's really feeling. It's also the beginning of the conflict between Dean and Sam that will come to a head in Scarecrow, and I think that the seeds of Dean's position are being sown here: yes, a big part of it is following John's orders, or what Dean perceives as John's order: to carry on the family business. But is it possible that Dean's unwillingness to search for John more directly is coming from this place of abandonment? This must be the longest Dean and John have been apart since Mary's death. Now Dean has even "died" and still John hasn't been in touch. Dean should be seriously worried. I think he is, though he won't admit that to Sam, because up until the final showdown with the Hookman, Dean seems to be trying just a little too hard to be his usual self. I'll explain.
The episode takes the brothers into a world where they can both blend in easily: no need for fake IDs or impersonating federal officers. It's a frat house. It's more Sam's world than Dean's perhaps, but Dean is very comfortable with this role. Look at the ease with which he talks them out of trouble when they're arrested on Nine Mile Road:
DEAN: Saved your ass! Talked the sheriff down to a fine. Dude, I am Matlock.
SAM: But how?
DEAN: I told him you were a dumbass pledge and that we were hazing you.
SAM: What about the shotgun?
DEAN: I said that you were hunting ghosts and the spirits were repelled by rock salt. You know, typical Hell Week prank.
SAM: And he believed you?
DEAN: Well, you look like a dumbass pledge.
And yet there's also this:
"Dude, sorority girls! Think we’ll see a naked pillow fight?"
and the longing, almost pained look he throws in the girl's direction before he agrees to go search for Jacob Carns' bones (yeah, that look: the one that makes my inner feminist want to kick his ass!)...both come across to me as overkill, as trying too hard. Dean loves the girls, yes, he loves to flirt, enjoys a politically incorrect leer or two and he is not likely to turn down a one night stand. But he makes it clear early on that this is extracurricular activity:
"You know, Sam, we are allowed to have fun once in a while. That’s fun." (Dean, Dead In The Water.)
In Hookman both incidents happen in "on duty" time: the first while Dean and Sam are trying to gain access to the second murder scene; the second while they initiate their plan to "kill" Carns' ghost. It's really not like Dean to be so unfocussed on the job at hand when there are lives at stake. He's behaving like a lout so desperate to get laid he can't think of anything else, and that's seriously not like him.
Or maybe he's just hoping Sam will take the hint and bend him over the nearest gravestone.
His noisy entrance into the church can be read as an unfamiliarity with religion, yet after the service Dean sucks up to the reverend expertly; again, I see his awkward behaviour as a kind of acting-out. It's not a big deal, but it's one of many subtle signs in this episode that Dean's struggling, just a bit, with all the issues beneath his surface.
Dean also displays a certain jealousy of Sam's relationship with Lori, for example:
DEAN: So you believe her?
SAM: I do.
DEAN: Yeah, I think she’s hot, too.
It's not the relationship itself he's jealous of: we see in other episodes that Dean is happy to see Sam hook up with the women they encounter. No, I think it's the ease with which Sam connects with her that arouses Dean's envy. Right from the beginning Sam is comfortable with her and she seems to trust him. Dean can connect with people like that, but his connections tend to be with children: with Lucas in Dead In The Water and, later, with Michael in Something Wicked. Sam's connection with Lori is so effortless, and so essential to their investigation, I can't blame Dean for being a little jealous.
Dean has teased Sam about being the "college boy" before, and there's often a hint of envy in his ragging. The shape shifter implied that Dean resented Sam having an opportunity to live a "normal" life, and explicitly said that Dean "has issues" with Sam going to college:
"You don't think I had dreams of my own... But Dad needed me. Where the hell were you?"
"You got friends, you could have a life. Me? I know I'm a freak."
The shape shifter told us Dean has issues; in Hookman Dean shows it...but where in Skin we got the shape shifter's twisted version of Dean's feelings, what Dean shows us in Hookman is more honest. Here's the most significant exchange, when Dean hands Sam a shotgun as they prepare to go after the Hookman:
SAM: If it is a spirit, buckshot won't do much good.
DEAN: Yeah. Rock salt.
SAM: Salt being a spirit deterrent.
DEAN: Yeah. It won't kill him, but it'll slow him down.
SAM: That's pretty good. You and Dad think of this?
DEAN: I told you, you don't have to be a college graduate to be a genius.
Remember way back in Woman In White, Dean saved Sam from Constance by shooting her through the car window:
SAM: What were you thinking shooting Casper in the face, you freak?
DEAN: Hey, saved your ass.
Dean didn't explain, just pointed out that it was effective. I think it's reasonable to assume he was using rock salt against Constance, so why didn't he explain then? It would only have taken a second. No, Dean waited until this moment, seven episodes later, to explain. I get the feeling he's been anticipating this, waiting for the right moment. It's like the EMF incident in Phantom Traveler: the EMF meter was something Dean made himself, something he's rightly proud of. In Phantom Traveler, Sam is dismissive:
SAM: Yeah, I know what an EMF meter is but why does that one look like a busted up walkman?
DEAN: Because that's what I made it out of. It's homemade.
SAM: Yeah, I can see that.
...but Dean takes Sam's dismissal in stride, like just another piece of their usual banter, But here, Dean gets the reaction he wanted from Sam: the compliment. Though Dean doesn't claim sole credit for the idea, I think his smug grin makes it clear that this is his innovation, not John's. He's damn proud of it.
It's a telling point about the brothers' relationship that Dean wants that praise, this acknowledgement from Sam. Let's go back to the shape-shifter's version:
"You got to go to college. He had to stay home. I mean, I had to stay home. With Dad. You don't think I had dreams of my own?"
Did Dean dream of going to college, academic achievement? It seems unlikely given his character. Football star, maybe but not nerd. No, what Dean wants is to be good at something, to be acknowledged as good. Since Dean's chosen "profession" is his father's, that would mean being as good as John...or better. It's a tall order but we see in several of the early episodes how much it means to him to be acknowledged as John's equal: Jerry did it in Phantom Traveler; and with a simple "That's pretty good" Sam does it here.
When Dean does go into the graveyard, we can see why John trusts his son to hunt alone: Dean is cool and professional. Oh, sure, he does it with a quip - he's Dean, after all - but tracking down one unmarked grave in a large graveyard is no easy task. Dean finds it, digs up the guy's bones and calmly does what needs doing. Though the episode doesn't dwell on the corpse-burning, we know that Dean was careful and thorough because later, when Sam suggests he might have missed something, Dean answers him with absolute confidence, telling Sam he burned everything in the coffin.
There's a panicked quality to the last scenes of the episode, as the brothers desperately try to figure out why the ghost is still stalking Lori, despite Dean's work in the graveyard. I have to mention this part because my shallow heart rejoices at the Dean-does-Die-Hard quality of the action. I can't offer any great insight but...OMG!Hot! :-)
Okay, I lied - I do have one insight worth mentioning. It's when Sam realises that the "final piece" they have to get rid of is Lori's silver cross, because I love how completely in tune the brothers are in that moment. It's not merely great teamwork; it's two men who know they're both thinking exactly the same thing in the same moment. Sam grabs the cross from Lori. He turns to Dean, and in exactly the same moment Dean throws Sam the shotgun and Sam throws Dean the cross. Neither of them says anything, they just switch and get on with it.
So, despite whatever issues he's dealing with, emotionally, ultimately Dean is the hunter in this episode. He's very much his father's son.