For the second half of season eight, Sam’s life took a very different path from the first half. Once again, fate stepped in and had other ideas for Sam and his new outlook on life. It all started with the appearance of his grandfather, and suddenly Sam and Dean found they had a legacy to protect. They also found the one thing that eluded them their whole lives, a home. Then came the trials and their devastating effects, first on Sam’s physical health and then breaking him down to a very raw emotional state. Through it all though Sam plugged on, carrying out his duties faithfully with the trials and the cases in between while never losing his hope or resolve, until the end. Eventually it was too much for Sam to handle and by “Sacrifice” all that inner strength was hanging by a thread. He was ready to surrender his life and dreams if it meant coming through for Dean. Lucky for him, big brother had other ideas.
Sam backed Dean on this one, following his lead when Henry Winchester suddenly appeared. Sam didn’t have the same feelings of animosity as Dean, not believing that if Henry was in John’s life, John would have been a better father. He dealt with Henry using caution, even if he was a bit more believing of the story Henry was telling. He never opened up to Henry (a wasted opportunity in my mind), but the fact that he more identified with this grandparent, someone that fights demons and the supernatural through logic, knowledge and research, it gave Sam a better understanding of himself and his natural tendencies. At the end, during the conversation with Dean in front of Henry’s grave, Dean saw a dead relative, but Sam was willing to investigate this family legacy of the Men of Letters. He felt like they owed it to their family. He also liked that the Winchesters were the brains, and the Campbells were the brawn. No wonder John and Mary were brought together. No wonder he and Dean were the way they were. Dean leaned Campbell, Sam leaned Winchester, yet together they did remarkable things.
Everybody Hates Hitler
When I think of Sam and his very tragic history, this one so makes me smile. Grin like a fool actually. He finally catches a break, and it’s good.
They find the Men of Letter’s compound, and it’s better than Sam could have possibly imagined. It’s loaded with knowledge and secrets, stuff that goes well beyond anything they have done in their lives. Sure, the knowledge stops in 1958, but that doesn’t bother Sam. He believes there’s use in it. The fact that he finds a case related to the history of the Men of Letters, and gets to use the resources available to him, it makes him act like a kid at Christmas. No, this is better than any Christmases he ever had.
Sam uncovers another family legacy, and someone who is practically in the same boat as he and Dean. They meet Aaron, who has found out the Judah Initiative is real the hard way by inheriting a giant Golem after his grandfather’s death. In the end Aaron embraces the family legacy, because he’s the only one left. Sam does too, happily playing the role of family librarian to update the archive for the Men of Letters. There’s nothing like Dean being proud of his little brother embracing this legacy. It fits, like a glove. It’s time to drink fine scotch like gentlemen.
On a shallow note, why did it take eight seasons to see Sam in a tweed jacket and sweater vest?? He needs to be a research assistant more often.
Trial and Error
As has happened since he was an infant, Sam becomes the victim and/or recipient of a giant twist of fate. Once again the universe hangs in the balance and he’s in the middle of it. Kevin has figured out that closing the Gates of Hell requires three trials. The first one, kill a Hellhound. But only one person can take on these trials. As Sam and Dean set off, Dean has already decided. He’s doing them. Whenever these little tests happen to him or Sam, one of them ends up dead. Dean has chosen to go down this time, and harshly makes it known to Sam. He desperately wants Sam to have that life he craved earlier in the season.
Sam does what he does best when the Hellhound comes calling, he makes sure he has his brother’s back. He doesn’t argue with Dean when he threatens to shoot in him the leg if he tries to follow and help. He just chooses not to listen to his brother, because he’s never been one to follow orders when they don’t make sense. Sam just happens to be there when the Hellhound gets the better of Dean, and he seals his fate by killing the beast.
Sam is defiant with Dean this time. He was chosen, so he’s doing the trials, whether Dean likes it or not. This time though, neither of them is dying. This is a great tie in to the first half of the season. Sam isn’t ready to sacrifice himself for the greater cause, and his brother shouldn’t either. There is light at the end of the tunnel, and Sam is taking them both there. This won’t be like before, because self-sacrifice has gotten them nowhere. Sam really needs his brother to follow his lead this time, and Dean reluctantly agrees.
All these episodes proved after the big twist of fate that chose Sam to take on the trials, is that Sam’s coughing up blood, suddenly having doubts about that whole living through the ordeal thing, and he’s keeping it from Dean. Great, he’s back to denial mode, because that worked so well in the past. It’s forced tension until the real stuff happens. I know he’s doing it so Dean won’t worry, but he’s got to know his brother isn’t stupid right? Of course not, because Sam is supposed to always be lying to Dean. His growth from the first part of the season meant nothing.
Sam is definitely weakening physically, but his spirit and determination is still stronger than ever. Yes, he knows coughing up blood is a bad thing. He’s not letting it stop him though. The trouble is still he’s not coming clean with Dean about getting weaker, and that’s pretty hard to hide when an angel is around. Dean already suspects something is wrong with Sam, he isn’t his usual strong self, and Castiel easily confirms that suspicion. Nothing like Dean bringing up family business in front of an audience of Castiel and Meg. Sam’s anger at Dean is understandable, he hates being treated like a child. He and Dean do learn though that Sam is changing inside, and in ways that Castiel can’t even heal.
While left behind with Meg, Sam shares with her his story about his year off. Naturally Meg isn’t too impressed with the love story stuff, but she gets it. After all that time, all that heartache and loss, it’s natural to chase that unicorn. Whether the effects trials play a role in this or not, Sam is dealing with some guilt. What he did seems natural and logical, but he’s questioning whether what he did was right. While Meg’s approval was not exactly validation, it was someone to talk to about it, and it shows that the issue is weighing on Sam’s mind.
At the end Dean drags the truth out of him. Sam has been having trouble, and he didn’t want to admit it to himself. After all, he needs to be strong for these trials. Sure, Dean’s declaration about carrying Sam through the trials is quite hokey, but Sam gets it. Dean will help him every step of the way.
Freaks and Geeks
Nothing to see here folks. Moving on.
Sam makes the choice to do this trial alone. That’s actually in character. The out of character part was Dean letting him do that, but we’ll chalk that up to Dean trusting his baby brother. It’s about growth, right? Sure, it kind of throws that whole “Rudy hobbit” speech from the end of “Goodbye Stranger” out the window, but we’ll overlook that discrepancy (among many others) here.
Sam doesn’t even think twice about having to go to Hell to rescue an innocent soul, and he’s on his way. That innocent soul turns out to be Bobby, and it’s so nice to see this Sam/Bobby dynamic. While trudging through Purgatory, Sam explains the trials to Bobby, and what happened in the last year. He gets to embrace the topic of not looking for Dean again with someone who’s opinion means the world to him. Bobby reminds Sam he made that rule, and it’s a non-rule. That’s not even an option. You don’t leave those you love behind. Sam gets that now, and won’t make that same mistake starting with Bobby.
This adventure isn’t just about saving Bobby though. It’s a chance to address his Benny issue too. It doesn’t take Dean long to figure out that only Benny can go straight to Purgatory and help. Benny accepts the idea and allows Dean to kill him, even though it’s to save Sam, a guy that tried to kill him. It forces Sam to reconcile with the idea that Benny is a good guy after all. They even have something in common that they are both misfits in their worlds and don’t feel like they fit in. Benny deals with his problem by choosing to stay in Purgatory, while letting Sam and Bobby go on. Sam’s okay that Dean chose to bury Benny, but not burn his bones. He deserves another shot. Of course, Sam was in some huge agony at the time from the second trial, but he was still supportive. It still doesn’t explain Sam’s objection over Benny to begin with, but we’re getting to that.
Sam’s spirit is still willing, but it’s getting much harder physically. He’s showing some very bad signs of wear, and Dean isn’t letting it go. Dean benches him from hunting, but since when has Sam listened outright to big brother? He needs to work, needs to more forward. Luckily, Charlie backs his play. Sam may be physically weak, but he still has his smarts. He was able to use his brains to outsmart the second Djinn, and cover Dean while he went to rescue Charlie.
Sam gets to play big brother here a bit for Charlie. He’s protective, just like Dean, but he relishes in showing her a bit of the ropes too. They share a geekiness for gadgets, but Charlie gets to play the sister looking up to big brother too. She knows Sam is struggling and assures him he’s strong, and no one is more capable of completing the trials, especially after she read his history in the Carver Edlund books. He needed to hear that, since Dean’s reaction so far has been worry (with good reason).
That’s why the hug from Dean at the end threw him back. It’s not a usual Dean thing to do, but Dean’s the one person he really needed that show of support from. Knowing that big brother is giving him a show of trust, that gives him the boost he needs to keep searching for Kevin and find out the details of the third trial.
The Great Escapist
This is one of the best episodes ever in terms of Sam character development! A real gem.
Sam is really sick now. He’s feverish, achy, wobbly, but he knows this isn’t just an illness. Something else is happening to him. He’s changing and these trials are doing something to him internally that he can’t explain. Or at least he can’t explain it at first. It all becomes clear later.
Mentally, Sam is really sharp. He’s remembering things from a long time ago he hasn’t recalled in years, like an old Indian symbol from his studies at Stanford. He makes the leap in a rather short period of time that Metatron, the messenger of God, can be found in Colorado. He wrote the tablets, he should know what’s on them, and that solves their missing prophet problem. To Dean that conclusion is wacky and far out there, but to Sam, it couldn’t be more logical. They go, even though Sam can barely move without holding onto something. Sam figures he’s only going to get worse so they might as well go.
Sure enough, when they arrive at the Indian casino in Colorado, Sam starts hearing a loud ringing sound and getting blurred vision. Couple those loud noises with Sam’s worsening condition, and suddenly Sam is having profound moments of clarity. Granted the extraordinarily high fever and delirium could be contributing to those memories, but it’s the perfect storm either way. Okay, maybe not a farty donkey and a trip down the Grand Canyon when he and Dean were young, but I love watching Sam laugh during times when he’s not quite himself. Plus it was a funny story, even if it broke canon.
This is Sam fighting on, but he can’t clearly function on his own anymore. He tries to investigate Metatron on his own, figuring out they’re connected somehow, but he collapses from high fever. He only lives because of Dean and a well timed ice bath! (Yes, take a moment to enjoy wet Sam in an ice bath with those of us in the shallow end of the pool).
He knows where Metatron is and they have to investigate. Dean just wants to get Sam to a hospital, but Sam knows that they can’t help him. There’s something more at work.
Vivid memories of Sam’s childhood surface, and that makes Sam realize what these trials are really doing. Just this whole speech, it rips your heart in two:
Sam: Knights of the Round Table. Had all of King Arthur’s knights, and they were all on the quest for the Holy Grail. And I remember looking at this picture of Sir Galahad, and, and, and he was kneeling, andâ€” and light streaming over his face, andâ€” I remember… thinking, uh, I could never go on a quest like that. Because I’m not clean. I mean, I was just a little kid. You think… maybe I knew? I mean, deep down, thatâ€” I had… demon blood in me, and about the evil of it, and that I’mâ€” wasn’t pure?
Dean: Sam, it’s not your fault.
Sam: It doesn’t matter anymore. Because these trials… they’re purifying me.
Sam knows he’s never felt right, but to realize he’s know this his entire life, as far back as his earliest memories, it’s crushing. But now, he’s getting another chance. He’s being purified by these trials. Sure, that could mean the demon blood is being expelled from him, or he’s finally getting rid of that evil inside of him, or both, but that’s why he’s getting sick. Purification is not an easy process. It’s grueling. It’s something that only the strongest must manage. But to Sam, this is everything he’s ever hoped for. All the bad that’s plagued him has a chance to be erased. As a fan, seeing the agony that the character has been through all this time because of the demon blood, this is a major turn. I really hope it’s true for Sam’s sake, because I’d love to see the story of a purified Sam moving forward.
Sam: I feel better, just having a direction to move in.
Dean: Well, good, cause where we’re headed doesn’t sound like a picnic.
Sam: But we’re heading somewhere. The end.
Sam’s declaration is optimistic, and at this point Sam is still seeing the happy ending. The one where he is pure. Where Kevin is alive. Where the gates of Hell can be closed forever. Everybody wins.
Funny the difference a week makes. Sam maybe weak physically, but he’s never shown a crack in spirit…until now. The trials are wearing him down, and it doesn’t take much to fracture that strong resolve within. Sure they learn something shocking, the way to cure demons, plus the Men of Letters cave has a dungeon, but it’s coming at a cost. Now those that they saved are being killed. Suddenly his happy ending isn’t worth it anymore. Not if others get hurt. It’s up to Dean to help him stay the course, but Sam clearly isn’t sure.
The title says it all. We find out that God’s ultimate sacrifice is the person doing the trials must lose his life when they’re completed. Sam’s life.
Sam doesn’t know that though, and he’s trying to keep his optimism that they’re finally going to win this one after they capture Crowley. He soldiers on, doing what he must do. He’s too far in this now to back away. It’s the only way to protect innocents from getting hurt. He’s probably figured out that each hour of drawing his blood was killing him, especially when his arms kept glowing and he weakened drastically. But he carried on, because he must.
Sam’s motivation on the surface is clear. There’s a bigger picture here. They have to close the Gates of Hell. Innocents can’t die anymore. He probably knew by the way he felt that he wouldn’t survive the trials, yet he continued anyway. But there’s that hidden motivation too, one that is hinted when Sam overheard Dean’s comment to Castiel. “If anyone needs a chaperone while doing the heavy lifting it’s Sam.” He was very hurt by the comment, even though he tried to hide it from Dean. Failing this task was not an option. He had something to prove. At this point Dean, just like all of us, assumed it was Sam wanting to show that he’s capable just like everyone else. But it ends up being so much more.
With Sam we’ve always been left guessing what he’s feeling inside, just because he’s not an open person. We rarely get that deep look within, and he’s taken everything that’s been dished at him, so we really don’t know what’s truly gotten under his skin. Yet when Dean stops Sam in the knick of time, telling Sam he will die if he finishes the trial, the real story comes forth. Sam’s response sums up eight seasons of character development in one word.
In the beginning of the season, we were all a bit frustrated by Sam’s declaration that Dean’s disappearance broke him, and he ran to a fantasy life. It was frustrating because it was a lot of tell, but no show. We didn’t see inside the real Sam, and all the vulnerabilities within of losing the one person on this earth that meant the entire world to him, especially after his mental breakdown horrors of last season. The trials broke him down low enough where not only were those vulnerabilities surfacing again, but he couldn’t hide them by running or swallowing pain. They exposed what a lifetime of feeling different than everyone else and the guilt of running from his family for his own needs had done to Sam internally. It truly damaged him.
Sam: You want to know what I confessed in there? What my greatest sin was? It was how many times I let you down. I can’t do that again.
Dean: Sam —
Sam: What happens when you’ve decided I can’t be trusted again? I mean, who are you gonna turn to next time instead of me? Another angel, another — another vampire? Do you have any idea what it feels like to watch your brother just —
Ah, it all finally makes sense. Sam has always felt loyalty to Dean, but has rarely felt equal to his brother’s worth. That is where he’s truly been damaged. Part of that has always been because of the demon blood, and his belief that Dean’s always looked at him like he was different. But when Dean turned to other beings like Castiel and Benny instead of him, Sam saw that as his failure to live up to his brother’s expectations and it hurt. No wonder he was resentful of Benny. His own brother doesn’t trust or believe in him. That pain probably still lingers from Dean’s rejection in “When The Levee Breaks.” Or remember “Two Minutes To Midnight” when Sam was trying to convince Dean of the plan to say yes to Lucifer?
“Look, Dean, um…For the record…I agree with you. About me. You think I’m too weak to take on Lucifer. Well, so do I. Believe me, I know exactly how screwed up I am. You, Bobby, Cass…I’m the least of any of you.”
None of those feelings of inadequacy truly went away, and have continued to fester all this time as Sam has continued to do things that haven’t lived up to his brother’s expectations. When Dean returned from Purgatory upset that Sam went on with his life, it was no different than when he left the family for Stanford. Once again, he did the wrong thing, and betrayed the family. Then he found out thanks to a cursed penny his brother never forgave him for Ruby, setting Lucifer free, coming back from Hell soulless and letting Dean believe he was dead for a year while hunting with the Campbells, on top of not looking for him.
The trials was all about purity and redemption. Sam finally got the chance to do something that will make it all up to his brother. Dean will finally get his revenge against all those demons that ruined his life. Dean doesn’t need him around, and will value his sacrifice in a world without demons. His death is just the formality of it all, and no one will really miss him.
Speaks volumes, doesn’t it? Lucky for all of us, Dean saw Sam’s words as an act of a tired, physically and emotionally devastated man. He’s seen Sam at lows, but this is his lowest. The light has gone very dim, and now it’s Dean’s turn to guide his brother out of the tunnel. When Sam heard that nothing to Dean was more important than him, including closing the Gates of Hell, that was something he waited a lifetime to hear, or so it seemed. Did Sam see that as an act of forgiveness? Maybe, but I don’t think Sam will ever stop feeling guilty. It’s more of a sign of faith. Sam was exhausted, messed up, extremely sick, and just didn’t want to do the wrong thing anymore. He learned the hard way that good intentions haven’t gotten him anywhere, and he was too exhausted to make a sound call. He collapsed into his big brother’s arms and let him take control. He trusts Dean more than anything or anyone, and Dean truly does need him.
Of course Sam’s act caused him to collapse and struggle for breath anyway, so was giving up the chance to close the Gates of Hell for not? Will Sam be redeemed, or continue to be cursed no matter what he does? That’s for season nine to tell us!
What are our hopes for Sam in season 9? For one, to get better! Two, to foster that sense of self worth and grow as a Man of Letters with his new found purity. Most of all though be there as an equal with Dean, and together they both step up into new roles of prominence as they show Heaven and Hell they can’t mess with humanity. Or, I’ll also accept more awesome looking hair.
Thanks everyone and look for this “Deeper Look” series to continue again after season nine.
Here’s the other “A Deeper Look at Sam Winchester” articles from seasons past.
A Deeper Look at Season Three Sam Winchester
A Deeper Look at Season Four Sam Winchester
A Deeper Look at Season Five Sam Winchester
A Deeper Look at Season Six Sam Winchester
A Deeper Look at Season Seven Sam Winchester