In light of Born-Again Identity there has been much discussion surrounding Sam’s hallucinations and Castiel’s solution. Some are totally fine with the way things played out while others feel very dissatisfied. While I can understand where the latter camp is coming from, my own views lead toward the former and I wanted to explain why.
Many of the rumblings this season have talked about how the broken wall in Sam`s head hasn`t affected him to any great degree, at least not that`s been demonstrated. This has only added to what many view as a major problem with how BAI ended. I myself noted in a number of reviews and other articles prior to BAI that this particular storyline hadn`t paid itself off. Having seen BAI I`ve reconsidered my stance on this particular view.
First of all, Sam has been grappling with the hallucinations most of the season, we just haven`t been privy to the extent of them. For the most part it`s been teased or hinted at that Sam is seeing something the rest of us aren`t privy to, with a few exceptions. Hello Cruel World obviously demonstrated Sam beginning to fall into the abyss of the hallucinations and how reality and hallucinations began to blur as one inseparable mass. Dean gave Sam a tool to recognize the difference and draw the line around reality. From that moment he was able to hold on to the real world and continue functioning. In Repo Man we saw firsthand what Sam was struggling to block out and the very many things that HalLucifer was throwing at him. Until this episode, Sam had been largely successful in ignoring the hallucinations and as a result, the strength the hallucinations had over him was relatively minimal. Once Sam acknowledged these hallucinations, they suddenly had a much more powerful hold over him.
In Out With The Old we the audience are relegated back to the perspective of the outsider – Dean`s perspective – and witnessing Sam come apart at the seams. The difference is we KNOW the extent of the hallucinatory visions that are being thrust on Sam and we know that despite the good front he`s putting up he`s struggling through a great deluge of problems including lack of sleep and a weakening separation of fantasy and reality.
Finally Born-Again Identity brings us the culmination of the crumbled wall problem. Sam can no longer get past the visions because without sleep his mental strength is waning to the point of non-existent. This episode does a brilliant job of conveying the height of the hallucinations and their effect. The audience was once again privy to Sam`s twisted, vision filled reality while the rest of the world was not. Dean knows the extent of Sam`s problem but he can`t really truly comprehend it, never having been in that position. Others are entirely oblivious.
Born-Again Identity showed us Sam at his limit. This fall began in Repo Man and ended here, which rings true enough because, as I said, Sam’s problem is human and there is only so much the human mind and body can endure before it hits the wall. Sam was weak, exhausted, and unable to eat now – death was knocking and it was, again, a very human threat bearing down on him.
The call back to Faith in this episode is more than the role reversal of the brothers; it goes the core of that issue which is that you can’t find a supernatural solution to a natural problem. We’ve seen that tired and there are consequences, bad once, every time. The wall itself was a supernatural solution to a natural problem (PTSD) and because it collapsed, Sam was inundated with every memory of hell – he was simply overloaded with the traumatic memories. Perhaps, had then the memories might have been dealt with in a slow trickle, one by one, he could have handled them, but not when they came as a flood.
The case of the ghost in Born-Again Identity served to underscore exactly how strong, mentally Sam has been. This strength is why he hasn’t collapsed but has continued to move forward all these weeks and months with HalLucifer banging inside his head. And it is a testimony to just how weary Sam has become that he is at breaking point, no longer able to carry on fighting against the visions. Sam found his ten.
So all told, we didn’t witness the â€œbehind the scenesâ€ as it were of Sam’s mental collapse a whole lot. Personally, I’m okay with this for two very key reasons. Number one, by not showing us day in and day out the depth and type of mental torture Sam was enduring, it leaves it to the imagination what he was living with which is in fact a lot more intense and frightening and overwhelming than anything the writers could have conjured on the screen. This was the approach that was taken to the boys respective experiences in Hell. We actually have few details about what either of them actually suffered through during their time in the pit. All we have is snippets of conversation and some vague but terrifying notions. And, at least in this viewer’s opinion, makes for pretty powerful storytelling – there are no limits to what we imagine have happened to them. We know it was bad, the level of which we can only envision to be the stuff of nightmares.
Number two, an entire season of Sam suffering day and day out with these visions that nobody could see but him (and the audience) would have been tiresome on many levels. To begin with if HalLucifer had the foothold into Sam’s mind that he had in Hello Cruel World and we watched him regain in Repo Man, Sam’s mental collapse would have come a heck of a lot sooner. This would have meant it had to be (a) dealt with superficially because we can’t have Sam down and out for most of the season and (b) the writers would have run the gambit of the things we could see Lucifer throwing at Sam, which would have become circular. Imagine, Sam and Dean on a case, Lucifer throws a wrench in by blurring the lines of reality for Sam, Sam pulls through and/or Dean pulls it off and breaks through to Sam again. They drive off to the next town and begin again. This also would have been a hindrance to other storylines as the episodes and plots would have become quite crowded.
One thing I’d like to note is this: Sam`s problem is not supernatural. He has not been cursed with hallucinations, there is no spell upon him – he is suffering, more or less, post traumatic stress. Has this been induced by a supernatural event? Yes, a trip to Hell certainly qualifies as a supernatural event. But nevertheless, it’s a human problem and this is why there is not truly a supernatural solution.
Based on this fact, I’m going to say that Castiel did not actually “fix” Sam: he didn’t take away his memories of hell, his soul, or any of these things. If anything Castiel transferred the PTSD to himself. Does this mean Sam loses his memories of Hell? No, if anything I will say it makes him more equipped to deal with his experiences. Imagine Sam had a bullet wound on his shoulder and as a result of that wound developed blood poisoning, making healing the initial wound impossible. Now, setting aside that Cas can of course heal flesh wounds, one would argue that what Cas did for Sam in the psych ward was transfer the blood poisoning, a symptom of the root problem, so that the would itself can be dressed and treated.
Sam’s hallucinations were never the foundational problem – they were a symptom of his trauma’s in hell. Sam manifests Lucifer who was is chief torturer in hell as his vision the same war a war vet manifests the faces of his enemy walking down the street. What Cas has done is give Sam a chance to become strong enough, to heal. A fully healed gunshot is at no risk of developing blood poisoning.
Do I think Sam’s problem is completely gone and done? No, I don’t. I could be wrong. Next week could come a long and blow everything I’ve said out of the water but for the time being I’m satisfied with the way things we left in Born-Again Identity.
In retrospect and in turning over the comments about the fix being too easy I’ve looked back at the season and realized in fact it’s been a long run of handling the mental issues Sam is suffering with. The road to Sam’s inevitable collapse has been, in my opinion, a long one. It’s been an ever-present undertone all season long, the sword of Damocles hanging over his handsome head. The little engine that could can only chug so far before it runs out of steam.