In my post about Supernatural 9.12, I already discussed Sam’s issues and Dean’s issues and how they both do things that feed into the mess the brother relationship has become. So I won’t retread that. After 9.13, “The Purge,” all that is still in play and non-resolved, but Supernatural has taken another step towards repairing the brother bond, and moving it towards something less damaging.
In “The Purge,” Sam and Dean go under cover at a health spa. While I didn’t find this to be a stand-out among MOTW episodes, as with 9.12, the case file underscored some major themes. There was even, surprisingly considering the episode premise (and Supernatural’s track record on sensitive subjects), some tacit acknowledgment about positive self-image. As with 9.12, there were monsters who make choices, who are defined not by their nature, but by their decisions. As with 9.12, the final scene between Sam and Dean dropped a sonic boom. This didn’t advance things quite so dramatically as last week, but it was an even more startling moment of honesty.
Dean: You know Sam, I saved your hide back there. I saved your hide at that church — in the hospital. I may not think things all the way through but when I do, it’s because it’s the right thing. I’d do it again.
Sam: And that is the problem. You think you’re my savior, my brother, the hero. You swoop in and even when you mess up you think what you’re doing is worth it because you’ve convinced yourself you’re doing more good than bad… but you’re not. Kevin’s dead, Crowley’s in the wind, we’re no closer to beating this angel thing, please tell me, what is the upside to me being alive?
Dean: Are you kidding me? You and me, fighting the good fight together.
Sam: Just once be honest with me, you didn’t save me for me. You did it for you.
Dean: What are you talking about?
Sam: I was ready to die, I was ready. I should have died. But you, you didn’t want to be alone. That’s what this boils down to, you can’t stand the thought of being alone. I’ll give you this much, you are certainly willing do the sacrifice, as long as you’re not the one being hurt.
Dean: Alright, you want to be honest, if the situation was reversed, and I was dying, you’d do the same thing.
Sam: No Dean, I wouldn’t. Same circumstances, I wouldn’t.
While Supernatural still hasn’t delved into things Sam does to add to this tangled equation, it hit home on a major aspect of Dean’s issues and how this affects Sam. We know from Season 3 Sam has been aware of Dean’s lack of self-worth and lack of identity outside of being Sam’s protector and the “blunt instrument” their father trained Dean to be. Sam is taking it a step further, not only is the lack of sense of self the issue, but that Dean is terrified of being alone and that’s why he goes so far to save Sam. I don’t think Sam meant he believes Dean doesn’t love him, or that’s the only reason Dean watches out for him. I also don’t think Sam is suicidal, although for a while I did wonder if he’d given up too quickly in 9.01. But it does seem like Castiel got through to Sam in 9.11, and it’s not so much that Sam wants to die, as that Sam felt he was ready when his time was up. While I want Sam to see his own value, I’m glad Sam doesn’t see his own life as worth more than those hurt by the collateral damage. Supernatural presents itself as a narrative about heroes–damaged and outsiders, but still heroic. Sam understands the extent that Dean has no idea who Dean is if he’s not being Sam’s big brother/savior, and this isn’t good for either of them. As compelling as the brother relationship is, there are many aspects of it that get them into the weeds, they wind up hurting each other and those around them. Sam’s issues aren’t resolved and he’s not “okay” yet, but he’s not burying things.
Sam isn’t saying he wouldn’t try and save Dean if Dean was in danger. In the course of 9.13, Dean gets poisoned, and we see a frantic Sam rushing to find him, then menaces a complicit spa staff member to find out what was slipped into the pudding Dean consumed. As weary and hurt and burned out as Sam is, he hasn’t given up on Dean, and he certainly hasn’t stopped caring.
There is a difference between going all out to save someone, maybe even doing something kind of crazy, and going too far in a way that hurts people or robs them of agency or gets innocents hurt. There are many ways people can demonstrate their love and loyalty to each other, and Supernatural over the years has demonstrated a good number of them, and not just between Sam and Dean, and the more harmful decisions people make in the name of love too. Neither side of the coin is unique to Sam and Dean.
Sam and Dean’s friends don’t have to die, the world doesn’t have to burn, just so they can prove how much they love each other. Sam’s delivery and wording is harsh, and it’s not exactly what Dean needs to sort this out, but this is still in the early stages. Sam’s breaking through on some long-encrusted familial roles. Sam is doing what he needs to do for himself, but in the process he’s clearly worried about Dean, saddened by the rift between them, and if he had given up, if he didn’t care about Dean’s well-being, he wouldn’t bother trying to explain. He could leave without elaboration, he could refuse to talk. I have no doubt that Sam wants this to get better for both of them. Ultimately those realizations for Dean will have to come from within, but no one is an island.
Dean has had self-realizations before, in season 3 he accepted that he didn’t want or deserve to go to Hell. But after that, he did, and was tortured for 30 years, and became a torturer for 10. There has also been a long string of trauma and loss since then. Somewhere inside, Dean already knows what he needs to know but it’s been buried again.
Those wounds haven’t healed. This sequence from season 3’s “Dream a Little Dream of Me” where Dean confronts his dream demon self sums it up well:
You are nothing. You’re as mindless and obedient as an attack dog…What are the things that you want? What are the things that you dream? I mean, your car? That’s Dad’s. Your favorite leather jacket? Dad’s. Your music? Dad’s. Do you even have an original thought? No. No, all there is is, “Watch out for Sammy. Look out for your little brother, boy!” You can still hear your Dad’s voice in your head, can’t you?…Dad knew who you really were. A good soldier and nothing else. Daddy’s blunt little instrument.
On Sam’s end, this episode made me think of something that happened at the end of season one (and one of my all-time favorite Sam moments in the series).
John: I’m surprised at you, Sammy. Why didn’t you kill it? I thought we saw eye-to-eye on this? Killing this demon comes first – before me, before everything.
[Sam looks in the rear view mirror at Dean.]
Sam: No, sir. Not before everything.
There are two ways to look at what happened there, and both seem to fit. One is, this is Sam’s statement of Dean being more important than the mission. Sam, having lost his girlfriend Jessica to the same demon that killed Mary Winchester, has his own vengeance obsession during season one, and is patterning himself after John. It’s Dean’s urging that helps keep Sam from killing John in order to destroy the Yellow-Eyed Demon once and for. This could seem to support a save each other, first and foremost mindset. However there’s another meaning and one I think is more on-point. John was on a path of obsessive vengeance because his beloved wife Mary was murdered by a demon, and he was blind to how he was putting this before the very people he most wanted to protect. Losing Mary shattered him, and he pulled his children into the vortex with him. Whatever the cost, John wanted revenge. Ultimately, John wound up putting Dean first, but in so doing, made a Hell deal, and it left Dean reeling. In part, because the single-minded mission John drilled into Dean’s head from the time he was a small child left Dean with little sense of self. Dean couldn’t see why he was worth John’s sacrifice. But sacrifices like that have an impact on the survivors. The cycle continued when Dean made his own deal, selling his soul to save Sam, and then when Sam lost Dean, he went down his own dark path in the name of Dean. That they did it for love doesn’t make it right or make it less hurtful to the one they are trying to save or avenge. We saw it with Castiel in season six as well, part of his motivations arose from wanting to protect his human family, particularly because of his attachment to Dean. Having people Dean loves go too far and cross scary lines for his sake only lands with Dean losing them (temporarily or for good) and further pain.
Sam’s quiet words in the Impala to his father, way back in season one, “not before everything,” was a rejection of the “let everything else burn” approach. It was Sam putting Dean’s life ahead of John’s grief-driven vengeance quest. Sam telling his father no, there is another way.
There is such a thing as too high a cost, and going too far, no matter the end goal. Sadly, by season four, Sam slid into putting his desire to kill Lilith–the demon who held Dean’s contract–before everything. This included making decisions that damaged his relationship with his brother, and involved addictive behaviors and self-erasure. While I don’t think regaining those early seasons dynamics is feasible or even desirable–characters need to grow after all–what these characters have gone through matters and their histories are relevant to who they are now. Supernatural could be drawing from one of its earliest messages. As I said in my earlier post, it’s asking how much is too much, how far is too far, what is it that really matters? We don’t know exactly where this will land. I hope Supernatural doesn’t give in to its tendency to set the board interestingly, and then drop it, or that the resolution is something that throws the boys right back into the same mired cycle. At nine seasons, the story can’t sustain the same repetitive notes, and Supernatural giving them some growth and realization is hardly unprecedented (in fact it happened more in early seasons, and more fluidly, than in the post-Kripke era). Seeing the brothers reach more equal footing, and growing beyond the things that keep dividing them, the chronic lying, the damaging aspects of their familial roles, would be a compelling story.
There is more than one way to demonstrate love and loyalty, and it doesn’t have to be destructive.
*transcripts courtesy of The Supernatural Wiki