So what does a Supernatural fan with no new episode to watch and a shattered heart from the last episode do on a Tuesday night?
Watch a past season finale, of course, because one can never have enough pain at the hands of fictional characters.
Specifically, Season Two’s finale (All Hell Breaks Loose, Parts 1 and 2 – my fellow Supernaturalists should know exactly what I’m talking about).
It’s always refreshing to go back and watch the earlier seasons. You don’t quite realise how much has changed until you compare different episodes side-by-side, because as you watch the show everything happens as you’re watching it. It’s like how you don’t realise how much your siblings grow and change until you happen across a photograph of them from years before.
The one thing that really struck me while watching All Hell Breaks Loose (especially given the events of The Purge last week), was how much the relationship between Sam and Dean changed. (spoilers up to Season Nine below the cut)
One line by Sam describes their early relationship perfectly.
“You’ve saved my life over and over. I mean, you sacrifice everything for me. Don’t you think I’d do the same for you? You’re my big brother. There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for you.” (All Hell Breaks Loose, Part Two)
This is just after he learns that Dean sold his soul, earning himself a one-way ticket to Hell, to bring him back. Dean literally sacrificed everything for his little brother. Would Sam do the same? In a heartbeat.
In fact, he does.
Remember Swan Song? Season Five’s finale. Sam threw himself into the Cage, dragging both Lucifer and Michael (and Adam, unfortunately – someone will come for you eventually!) down with him. Granted, the decision become Lucifer’s vessel and jump was due to a lot of guilt over starting the Apocalypse and Sam’s innate need to save people, but do you think he would be nearly as willing to go so far down that dark path in the first place if it weren’t for Dean?
Time and time again we see the brothers give everything for each other. Why is this? Family loyalty is nothing new. Think about the people you consider family (They don’t have to be blood-relations. Like Bobby said, “Family don’t end with blood”). There probably isn’t much you wouldn’t do for them. But even the best of us would probably hesitate at the thought of willingly jumping into Hell or making a deal with the devil (literally).
Point gun at one brother’s head and the other won’t hesitate to remove yours.
So let’s explore some character motivations. What makes those Winchester boys so entirely devoted to each other, to the point that other characters have recognised the fact that if you aren’t a Winchester, you’ll probably end up as collateral damage (something that does cause some guilt with the boys, but that’s a discussion for another time)?
Dean Winchester. The one who sold his soul to bring his brother back from the dead. Who would let the world burn if it meant saving his brother. Look up Momma Bear in a dictionary and you’ll find a picture of him. There’s a really good (read: sad) quote by him that describes this, but I for the life of me can’t find it, but it basically says that Dean’s only reason for living is to keep his baby brother safe (suddenly his decision to sell his soul for only one more year to live makes sense). Everything Dean does is for the sake of Sam. Part of this, I believe, is due to John Winchester’s influence.
John made it very clear to Dean from the beginning that it was Dean’s duty to protect Sam. Constantly being told that your only purpose is the safety of another person will do a lot to lower your sense of self-worth. Remove that other person and what do you have left? Add in the fact that Dean has no other family or friends (Bobby being the only exception, and his rocky relationship with John kinda threw a wrench into things) or anything outside of hunting and you can boil down Dean’s entire existence to two things:
- Killing monsters
We’ve already seen what happens if Sam dies. We’ve seen what happens when hunting becomes the only thing you live for (see John Winchester). All throughout the series we see Dean constantly making sacrifices for Sam, with or without Sam’s approval. Why? Because that’s all he thinks he has. Even after the times Sam betrays him, Dean is always there for Sam.
Now let’s look at Sam Winchester. From the start of the series we see that Sam has a little more to live for. He dreams of a life outside of hunting, a life without monsters. He even runs away on several occasions to try and escape. It never works, but for most of the show Sam has his eyes set on what Dean describes as “the apple pie life”.
This makes his reasons for sacrificing so much for Dean a little more complex. I don’t doubt that Sam would give everything for his older brother. At first, this is because Sam lost so much that all he had left was Dean.
Then, as the show progresses, it’s Sam’s trust in Dean that fuels his devotion. He knows that Dean has his back. Why shouldn’t he do the same? In a world where every shadow is out to kill you, it pays to have someone you can trust completely at your side.
Later, as Sam goes down a rather dark path and he begins to lose his vision of a peaceful life, Dean becomes the one constant figure who wouldn’t hesitate to carry him when he can no longer walk on his own. Family is all he has left.
But that is where we get to the major change in their relationship. Most of what I discussed above occurs in the first five seasons. Fast forward to Season Nine, where we are currently.
Let’s have a bit of a recap of that soul-tearing last scene of The Purge:
Dean: About what you said the other day.
Sam: I thought it didn’t bother you.
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. I’m heading to bed.
Hear that? That’s the sound of me drowning in my tears.
Sam’s realising that while it’s great that they’re willing to do so much for each other, at some point there has to be a limit. It’s great to have a person who will knife the demon trying to break your neck while your back is turned, but when that person starts making decisions on your behalf, because they’re acting on a biased belief that what they’re doing is for your benefit, then things might have gone too far.
It’s something Sam can see because he knows there’s more to life than hunting or even family. He has that ‘apple-pie life’ vision. And think back to how this season started. Sam was ready to die. He had finally, finally made peace with everything. Up until now both boys were so ridden with guilt and consumed by the whole how-many-ways-can-the-world-end mess that they couldn’t let themselves, or their family, die. There was too much to do and neither of them wanted to be alone to deal with the aftermath (Sam hit the nail on the head with that one). And the times that they did want to die was usually because they felt it was the only way they could make things right or fix some wrong they had made.
This time was different. Sam knew he was going to leave Dean alone. He knew there was still stuff to be done. Hell still had to be closed, and even though he probably wasn’t totally coherent at the end of Season Eight he knew something was up. Sam knew all that.
But he realised that there’s never going to be a “good time” to die. He realised (with Bobby’s help) that it’s okay to let it all go. That dying doesn’t mean the end of everything. The world will keep spinning without him, Dean will eventually move on. What Bobby says in Sam’s coma-induced dream world sums it up nicely:
“Just die? All the good you’ve done, all the people you’ve saved, all the sacrifices you’ve made. You saved the world, son. How many people can say that? How many people can say that they have left this godforsaken hunk of dirt that much a better place? What you call dying, I call leaving a legacy.”
For so long the brothers had seen death as something that put a stop to their plans, that it would prevent them from completing their mission. Here is where Sam realises that that’s not necessarily the case.
Unfortunately, it’s also something Dean wasn’t about to accept.
Honestly, Sam was right when he said that Dean only saved him to protect himself. Dean doesn’t want to be alone. He only has two things to live for. Take Sam away and all Dean will have left is hunting, and that won’t be enough for very long. Would it have been better to let Sam die? As much as it pains me to say it, yes. Sam had made his peace, and he was ready to go.
But Dean. Dean. Despite all the growth he’s gone through, he’s still right where he was in the first couple of seasons. He can’t let Sam go. He’s lost his mother, both of the men he called ‘father’, Kevin, and then Sam was on his way out.
The fact that he was desperate enough to let an unknown angel possess his brother should be enough to show how much the thought of being so totally on his own terrified him.
At the beginning of the series we have two brothers who, in a world full of enemies and a short life expectancy for the few friends they make, devote themselves to the one thing that can ground them: each other. Who, when left with nothing else, will know that they have family to hold themselves together.
Nine seasons later and we have one who knows when it’s time to move on, and another who doesn’t know how. This is the final nail in my coffin:
“Alright, you want to be honest, if the situation was reversed, and I was dying, you’d do the same thing.”
“No Dean, I wouldn’t. Same circumstances, I wouldn’t.”
A stark contrast from:
“You’ve saved my life over and over. I mean, you sacrifice everything for me. Don’t you think I’d do the same for you? You’re my big brother. There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for you.”
Now if you’ll excuse me I’m going to sweep up the broken pieces of Dean and hope I have enough tape to paste him back together.