Supernatural 9.12, “Sharp Teeth,” was a solid, if somewhat unremarkable, MOTW episode involving a twist on the werewolf myth and the return of Dean and Sam’s hunter friend Garth. The bulk of the episode had Sam and Dean working together, reuniting because a friend was in trouble. It somewhat repetitively had Sam in peril, and Dean to the rescue, although Sam also took an active role in defeating the villains. The episode touched on some of the show’s important themes–that who you choose to be defines you, not what you are, family can be found in unexpected ways and different forms, and the possibility of second chances.
The last scene was a firecracker that advanced the brothers’ emotional arc and has caused a lot of debate among Supernatural fans. So, what happened there?
DEAN: Hey. Uh, listen, that night that, uh… You know, we went our — our separate ways —
SAM: you mean the night you split?
DEAN: Fair enough. I was messed up, man. Kevin was dead, and I…I don’t know what I was.
DEAN: Hell, maybe I still don’t. But, uh… I know I took a piece of you in the process, and for that…Somebody changed the playbook, man, you know? It’s like what — what — what’s right is wrong and what’s wrong is more wrong, and… I just know that when… When we rode together…
SAM: We split the crappiness.
DEAN: Yeah. So…
SAM: But something’s broken here, Dean.
DEAN: I’m not saying that it’s not. I… I just think maybe we need to put a couple W’s on the board and we get past all this.
SAM: I don’t think so. No, I-I wish, but… We don’t…see things the same way anymore — our roles in this whole thing. Back in that church, talking me out of boarding up hell? Or — or tricking me into letting Gadreel possess me? I can’t trust you — not the way I thought I could, not the way I should be able to.
DEAN: Okay, look. Whatever happened… We are family, okay?
SAM: You say that like it’s some sort of cure-all, like it can change the fact that everything that has ever gone wrong between us has been because we’re family.
DEAN: So, what — we’re not family now?
SAM: I’m saying, you want to work? Let’s work. If you want to be brothers…Those are my terms.
This was a conversation long-time brewing. In the season 9 premiere, “I think I’m Gonna Like It Here,” Dean tricked Sam into saying yes to angel possession in order to save Sam’s life, and that decision had a ripple effect. Sam’s agency was taken away, and the possessing angel became more and more intrusive, without Sam’s knowledge or consent. Gadreel blackmailed Dean into kicking Castiel, who had lost his powers and was being hunted by angels who want him dead, out of the bunker, thus endangering a family member, someone Dean and Sam care about. Gadreel then murdered Kevin Tran, the prophet who was under Sam and Dean’s protection, and someone the Winchesters consider family.
But there are things not just since episode 9.01. There are unresolved threads from the season 8 finale, “Sacrifice,” because despite how it reunited the brothers emotionally, it pointed to some troubling aspects to their relationship that went unaddressed.
Note that in season 8, Dean’s vampire friend Benny agreed to let Dean behead him, sending him back to Purgatory to save Sam at Dean’s request. In “Sacrifice,” Sam confesses to Dean that he feels his greatest sin is how much he’d let Dean down, and that he doesn’t think his own life is worth saving–he is willing to sacrifice his life to shut the gates of Hell for good. Dean convinces Sam to stand down. He took Sam’s words in “Trial and Error” earlier in the season that there is a light at the end of the tunnel to heart, telling Sam in the season finale they have more resources now because of the Men of Letters bunker, that there is another way. He also tells Sam:
But, Sammy…come on. I killed Benny to save you. I’m willing to let this bastard and all the sons of bitches that killed mom walk because of you. Don’t you dare think that there is anything, past or present, that I would put in front of you! It has never been like that, ever! I need you to see that. I’m begging you.
There is an ambiguity here. It’s double-edged. Because what kind of relationship requires people to cite the destruction of a friend to prove loyalty and devotion? While it’s true Sam is worth saving, and of course Dean wouldn’t want to sacrifice Sam, and Sam and Dean do love each other, the Winchesters have been caught in a harmful cycle for a long time. Way back in season 2, Dean sold his soul to Hell to save Sam, and was ready to let the whole world burn, and didn’t realize the full impact losing him would have on Sam. After Dean was rescued from Hell, Sam still tapped into demon powers to avenge Dean, who was alive and topside, which involved lying to Dean and walking away from Dean, and hurting Dean. While Sam was also hoodwinked into believing he was doing the right thing to save the world, there was a tunnel vision involved (something we saw with Castiel in season 6). At the end of season 5, the Winchesters put the world first, and reached a new level of mutual respect, but since then, we’ve seen again and again Sam and Dean losing relationships, loved ones, friends, and friends put into danger while the brother bond grows increasingly strained through crisis after crisis.
No one should have to choose between a loved one and saving the world, and I don’t think Sam and Dean should have to stop trying to saving each other. This dilemma between the greater good and saving loved ones is a touchpoint on Supernatural. I also don’t think Sam and Dean need to stop being hunting partners. But there are consequences to the decisions they’ve made, and to the nature of their relationship, both to each other, and to those around them, and season 9 is delving right to the core of that.
In their “Sharp Teeth” conversation, we see a culmination of things, some addressed overtly, and some present but not yet articulated. Sam doesn’t set the blame onto Dean. He includes them both in what’s “broken,” it’s the relationship itself that Sam views as troubled, not framing one or the other as the main culprit, although he is honest about how Dean’s decision hurt him. Sam just knows something has gone wrong and he wants it to be better. He doesn’t complete his sentences, Sam is taking a run at voicing it, but he hasn’t put all the pieces together. Sam seems to have gained a certain amount of awareness, but we don’t know the extent of it yet. Meanwhile Dean outright stumbles over his words, and can’t articulate his feelings of confusion and hurt, and can’t quite frame it yet; but he too, feels it. Something is off. He also understands how his decision regarding Gadreel hurt Sam, Kevin’s death devastates Dean, and we see his regret for kicking Castiel out of the bunker. But untangling a lifetime of familial roles and gaining some much-needed self-realizations is not an easy process.
Also noting, when Dean sent Benny to Purgatory, he expected Benny’s monster soul to ride the Sam train back topside. Dean didn’t burn Benny’s bones, hoping he might return. It was Benny’s choice to stay in Purgatory (giving up on the struggle to live earthside as a reformed vampire). Would Dean have outright killed a friend, knowing it was for good, for Sam? Dean put Castiel’s life in danger because of Gadreel’s ultimatum. But in 9.01 we had angels pressuring Dean for Castiel’s location, threatening Sam, and Dean refused to give either Castiel or Sam up. So is it even really what Dean tells Sam it is in “Sacrifice”?
How far would the Winchesters go, and is it really okay others get hurt in the process? I don’t think Supernatural believes it’s okay, and Sam and Dean certainly don’t. Sam even tells Castiel in 9.11, “First Born,” that his life is not worth more than other people’s. The part of the equation Sam leaves out is that Sam’s life is also not worth less, that self-destruction is not an answer, and Castiel course corrects Sam about it.
On Supernatural, family matters, whether you were born with Winchester blood in your veins or not. Those consequences and costs are not incidental to the brothers or to the audience, and the brothers are not the only characters who count.
I think Sam’s reference to the church scene here along with the non-consensual angel possession was about the contradictions and Sam trying to understand what’s gone wrong in this relationship with his brother. If nothing matters more than Sam, why would Dean then make a decision that harms Sam and robs him of choice? Or perhaps Sam in retrospect is questioning the meaning of what happened in the church–he isn’t feverish right now, his internal organs aren’t failing, and what happened with Gadreel may have been a splash of cold water in the face, his wake-up call. Even if he isn’t actively suicidal, maybe Sam is questioning the decision to put so many lives at risk. We don’t know the whole picture, but I am curious to see how this will play out further.
Particularly on point in the 9.12 conversation was Sam’s rejection of the “we’re family” statement as a “cure-all.” We have seen the Winchesters say “we’re family” as a reason they stick together, “because we’re brothers.” We have seen them do the “are we good?” “we’re good” when things are clearly not, but they have to soldier on anyway. They’ve earned that loyalty, but at the same time, those words have become inadequate band-aids over what’s gone wrong. The story often acknowledges the wounds exist, but doesn’t really let them actually deal with them, as the brother relationship grows more contentious and muddied.
It takes two to create a mess like this, and both brothers have deep-seeded issues that affect their relationship. From Dean’s side, we have the fact that from the age of four, his father drilled into him that his one job, his one value, was to be Sam’s protector. We’ve seen all the facets of Dean that define him beyond that, but no matter how smart, complicated, resourceful, loving, loyal, and inspiring of love and loyalty Dean is, in the end he sees himself as “90% crap,” and not worthy of his own happy ending. His sense of self-worth is tied up in keeping Sam alive. He seems to have little identity outside of “killer” and “Sam’s protector.” On Sam’s side, he’s always longed for stability, for a life beyond the bloody, dangerous, exhausting toll of hunting. He managed to get out for a time,went to college, suffered a horrific loss, and got pulled back in. He values his family and thinks the world of his brother (more on that in a moment), but doesn’t define himself entirely by being a hunter or a little brother. Still, Sam is as caught in the cycle as Dean, and has his own issues with self-worth.
We have seen how Sam literally lives and dies by Dean’s good opinion of him, and we have Sam’s season 8 confession about how he feels he’s tainted, not pure enough to be in the hero role. In season 4 the most devastating thing of all to Sam was the possibility of Dean believing he was a monster not worth saving. At the end of season 8, Sam was feverish and exhausted from the process of the trials. No matter how much Sam yearns for independence, he also fears losing his big brother’s approval and his protective shadow. At mid-season 8, he was encouraging Dean to let him give Dean a shot at living, because Dean has “friends and family,” people who care about him, and Sam believes Dean deserves his “light at the end of the tunnel,” and so Sam took on the trials. Yet in “Sacrifice” Sam confesses his hurt that Dean felt he had to turn to others rather than relying on him. At times Sam has also pushed the reasons for why he’s made certain choices onto Dean, yet he wants to be taken seriously as an adult. We can understand Sam’s struggle and why he rejects Dean’s unilateral decision-making, and understand the pressures on Sam, but Sam contributes to the situation as much as Dean does.
Dean wants Sam to have his happy ending, but has trouble accepting the life Sam had built for himself while Dean was trapped in Purgatory and he’s unhappy with Sam’s rejection of hunting–he has been every time the conversation arises, starting in Season 1. Supernatural didn’t spend enough time on Sam’s pov regarding why he didn’t look for Dean while he was stuck in Purgatory, but we do know from what Sam tells Amelia and her father, and from character history, how devastating Dean’s loss was. Sam kept putting one foot in front of the other, and tried to build a life, which is an incredibly brave thing to do, all the more so given how close the brothers are.
There has been a steady tug-of-war on this, between individualism and the necessity of being an effective team to keep at a bloody, thankless job no one else will do, between how much they love each other, and how much they make decisions that wind up hurting the other, even if the intentions are good.
With 9.12 Supernatural has opened the door wider on letting the brothers rebuild and rediscover what it is to be brothers on a more thorough level. Rather than the destruction of the brother bond, this is how it’s going to get better, by honestly looking at the problems at the root. It’s not enough to say “we’re family” and it’s not enough to say “because we’re brothers” and soldier on because they have each other and that should be enough. What does it mean to be brothers? What does family mean? How is it defined? Supernatural has established that family forms by choice, not just blood, with characters such as Bobby and Castiel, but even within blood ties, there are choices as well. Sam and Dean stick together not solely because they are related by blood. They have a sense of love, loyalty, and respect. However, there are things woven through the relationship that are hurtful, and both Sam and Dean struggle with their identity and self-worth. Sam & Dean as a unit may be central to Supernatural, but without Sam, and without Dean, there is no Sam & Dean. Their individual needs, issues, and emotional arcs need attention as much as the relationship itself.
Sam’s ultimatum isn’t “coworkers or brothers.” He’s saying it’s one thing to be coworkers, but if you want to be brothers…well, that’s a whole other complicated subject.
Rather than a rejection, Sam is holding his hand out to Dean and saying let’s fix this.
*transcripts courtesy of The Supernatural Wiki.