Sam and Dean â€“ Guilty As Hell?
The Double-Edged Sword of Guilt of the Winchester Psyche
â€˜Guilt is the very nerve of sorrowâ€™, Horace Bushnell once said. Everyone who ever felt guilty will easily second that quote, and it doesnâ€™t matter really why the emotional condition we call guilt entered our system. We might feel responsible for negative events that have befallen others. Or ourselves. We might be certain to have violated moral standards. We might have not responded to an important situation in our typical manner â€“ or we have, thus creating a harmful effect. We might feel shame for not having said or done something to significantly change our lives (or the lives of others). We might feel loss and pain for not having cleared a misunderstanding with a person no longer available to us.
Sound familiar? All those statements are definitions of guilt, and it is a deeply subjective emotion. It often bears signs of feeling inadequate, incapable, irresponsible â€“ in short: guilt often comes with an array of irrational beliefs or negative self-scripts. Suddenly, having fallen victim to guilt, sentences like the following will pop up in our thoughts: â€˜I had one job, and I screwed it up.â€™, â€˜Iâ€™m a piss poor excuse for a son.â€™, â€˜I guess thatâ€™s what I do: I let down the people I love.â€™, â€˜If youâ€™d been there to protect her, sheâ€™d still be alive.â€™, â€˜I guess Iâ€™m not the man either of our dads wanted me to be.â€™â€¦ â€¦
Guilt is undoubtedly one of the driving forces behind the Winchester Corporation. As long as it has been a part of their souls, it has inflicted damage on their psyche. It is fairly difficult for guilt and self-confidence to share the same room at the same time. The chinks in the armour that became visible throughout the series show us that the brothers carry still unfathomed guilt issues on their shoulders.
And sometimes their preoccupation with feeling guilty, as we have in particular witnessed in the first episodes of the airing season (discussing things they did or failed to do in the past) presented an unhealthy facet of guilt. Their mind became their worst enemy, tearing their bond apart, and by trying to defend what they did or did not do, they increased the intensity of guilt.
Sometimes it seemed almost as if the brothers had to find something to feel guilty about, which is not surprising, as that specific emotion had been a part of their lives, from childhood on. It was always there. People often fall back on emotions they know profoundly well, even if those are detrimental.
Dean and the continuing Dad-issue
One episode that shows movingly a glimpse of their childhood days is Season Oneâ€™s Something Wicked. John left his kids alone every once in a while, and Dean was in charge of their safety. A heavy burden for any kid. We learn about one incident Dean stored as a huge early failure â€“ the moment the Shtriga almost took Sam. â€˜You know, Dad never spoke about it again. I didnâ€™t ask. But he looked at me different, you know, which was worse. Not that I blame him. He gave me an order, and I didnâ€™t listen. I almost got you killed.â€™
Very early in his life Dean was confronted with a monstrous feeling of guilt, the kind a grown-up would have trouble dealing with, and Dean, unfortunately, never learned to handle it very well. He put it away, hiding behind his well-trained, cool exterior and wry humour. But he was never able to shed it. It might have stepped back, but it provided the fertile ground for guilt to bear fruit, and various other emotions travelling in guiltâ€™s wake, such as anger, despair, hopelessness, fear, found room to spread.
Even more so, as he realized how John saved his life â€“ by selling his soul to a demon and condemning himself to spend eternity in hell. Although Dean was not responsible for his fatherâ€™s decision, he felt guilty about being the reason John chose perpetual pain for his sake â€“ a psychological phenomenon called survivors guilt, which is often experienced when a person has made it through some kind of traumatic ordeal while others have not.
People with such a history often question why they survived, even blaming themselves for surviving, as if they did something wrong. Common sense would claim that no one is to blame for that, but common sense does not apply here, as fear, agony and feeling of guilt defy reason and are able to put people through the worst possible hell in their own mind. They sometimes will try to do anything to make it right. Dean, for instance, tried to earn what his father paid â€“ thereby focussing even more on looking out for his brother (the impossible burden John left him with always in mind).
But, eventually, he didnâ€™t save Sam, Dean arrived a minute too late. It had always been his job to take care of his younger brother. As long as he did that (perhaps even more meticulously after the Shtriga-incident that fuelled his feelings of utter responsibility for his younger siblingâ€™s life) and followed Dadâ€™s orders, he was fine and his inner voices somewhat at peace.
John enhanced his sonâ€™s behaviour with the occasional praise and withdrawal of affection (â€˜He looked at me differentâ€™). Dean was a good soldier, even more so because he loved his family unconditionally. That his father trusted him with Sammyâ€™s welfare was important to him. He became important.
Whenever Samâ€™s life was on the line, Dean was there, not minding his own safety, desperately warding off anything that might cost his brotherâ€™s life or soul. But, although doing anything humanly possible to find Sam, he couldnâ€™t prohibit Jake from stabbing his little brother. Sam died in his arms.
Samâ€™s death served as a catalyst to get Deanâ€™s doubts and self-image to the surface: â€˜You know, when we were little, you couldnâ€™t have been more than five, you started asking me questions. Like, how come we didnâ€™t have a mom? Why we always have to move around? Whereâ€™d dad go? Why heâ€™d take off for days at a time. I remember I begged you to quit asking, Sammy, you donâ€™t want to know. I just wanted you to be a kid, just a little while longer. I was trying to protect you, keep you safe. Dad didnâ€™t even have to tell me, it was just always my responsibility. It was like I had one job. I had one job and I screwed it up. I blew it. And for that I am sorryâ€¦ I guess, thatâ€™s what I do, I let down the people I love.â€™
So much culminated in this moment â€“ the unbearable notion of John selling his soul for Dean (another guilt-inducing factor: feeling responsible, however irrationally, for Johnâ€™s deal and hell-time), all the little moments Dean probably wasnâ€™t one hundred percent there (he might have gone out more often than we know of and leaving little Sammy alone for an hour or so â€“ he was a kid once, after all), and this one devastating inability to protect Sam.
The only logical step for Dean at this point became seeking a deal of his own to bring Sam back, again following an order given by dad, one he had internalized â€“ protect Sam, at all costs, eventually saving Sam from going â€˜dark sideâ€™, kill him, if necessary, not get him killed. According to his mind-set and his personality, Dean saw a huge failure, one he had to pay for.
Probably he had never felt alone and terrified like this, and he couldnâ€™t bear the pain of losing his brother. He had no tools for this. His purpose in life â€“ protecting Sam â€“ suddenly was gone. Of course he didnâ€™t know what to do. All he ever did cling to â€“ hunting and looking after his brother â€“ was taken.
At that moment, fuelled by anguish and hope lost, he for certain did not take into account one important fact: that he would pass on the dark ghost of guilt onto Sam. Guilt being born out of the knowledge that Dean had sold his soul for him (the kind Dean felt after finding out that John did it for him), intensifying Samâ€™s own guilt issues. Iâ€™ll get to that in a moment.
Not being able to save his brother from his deal, Sam made a pact with Ruby. Dean had not achieved his goal of keeping Sam safe â€“ his younger brother did head down the dark path their father had warned him about. During Deanâ€™s time in hell, Sam saw no other choice but to take the direction Ruby pointed him at. Dean wasnâ€™t there, couldnâ€™t stop him, and even after he was brought back, Dean failed to find the right words to get through to his brother (again: taken from Deanâ€™s perspective. From a human and vulnerable standpoint utterly understandable).
Then he missed the chance to stop it all by taking a celestial delorian back in time. He was, again, too late and Mary made her deal with Azazel, thus beginning the Winchester tradition of selling their souls for some greater good and for their loved onesâ€™ sakes.
The more devastating blow came with finding out that Sam had been keeping secrets with Ruby, obviously having grown to a team, working smoothly together, just like Dean and Sam used to do. For a young man who had done everything to stand by his family, in particular his brother, this was more hurtful than he probably expected. This was high treason, and it came like an echo of the painful words John/Azazel had given him: â€˜Truth is, they donâ€™t need you, not like you need themâ€™, a confirmation of Deanâ€™s deepest fears and wounded self-esteem which resulted in his first impulse: to leave: â€˜You donâ€™t need me. You and Ruby go fight demonsâ€™.
His disappointment prevented him from finding the words to reach out to Sam and convince him of Rubyâ€™s poisonous nature. In fact, Dean acted just like John would have â€“ too harsh, forceful, calling Sam a monster. That he used the ultimate weapon against his brother clearly indicated his high level of despair.
The confidence Dean had gained in Season Three, was fatally wounded in Hell. He came back as another person, essentially still Dean, but altered after decades of torture and terrified of the deeds he had to commit in hell. â€˜You ask me to open that door and walk right through it, you will not like what walks back out.â€™ We often find a modification in a personâ€™s personality after experiencing a long period of traumatic events, such as years of war, genocide, perpetual torture or abuse. When that happens to a child, it can lead to a personality disorder, with an adult it sometimes results in profound changes of important aspects of their character â€“ altering their self-image, their self-esteem, frequently enhancing their feelings of guilt, anger, shame and self-loathing. The consequences often being depression, anxiety and thoughts of suicide. We find signs of this with Dean â€“ he probably was depressed (he was often tired, unable to get out his anger to fight, feeling more resignation than ever) and he wasnâ€™t able to forgive himself, and he probably, deep down, never will, which would be necessary for his hidden wounds to heal eventually.
Alistairâ€™s disclosure about Deanâ€™s purpose in hell â€˜And it is written that the first seal shall be broken when a righteous man sheds blood in hell. As he breaks, so shall it break. When we win, when we bring on the Apocalypse and burn this Earth down, weâ€™ll owe it all to you, Dean Winchester.â€™ poured more oil into the fire. Realizing what he had done, however unknowingly, was a blow that almost destroyed his spirit entirely.
Dean was shattered. Finding out that he had broken the first seal after finally succumbing to the pain of thirty years of torture, thus being supposedly weaker than his father, did irreparable damage to his soul. â€˜I guess Iâ€™m not the man either of our dads wanted me to be.â€™ The conviction not to be good enough in his fatherâ€™s eyes he had carried from childhood on came back, painfully so, while having been made aware by Alistair that he didnâ€™t stand comparison with John, that he wasnâ€™t like his father, something he had striven to be his whole life.
In fact, he was more than that â€“ a man his father never was. A man who was able to muster up the courage to finally embrace Sam as his brother, again, allowing him to grow up, after fighting issues of trust and disappointment, which was essential to somehow save his sanity, as people he loved were getting hurt or killed â€“ Pamela lost her eyes and eventually her life while helping them, Bobby lost his ability to walk in an attempt to save Deanâ€™s life (and Dean did not say Yes to Michael, when being tempted â€˜say yes, or your friend Bobby will never walk againâ€™), Jo was wounded saving him and finally came up with the heroic plan to sacrifice herself to save the Winchester brothers and Ellen remained with her. More deaths, and Dean incapable of saving his friends. His family. More guilt. We yet have to learn how big a damage this will cause, but it is safe so assume that Deanâ€™s sleep will be troubled by even more feelings of blame and doubt. If he was a lesser man, he probably would have given in long ago.
Sam and the demon-blood power-cocktail
From childhood on Sam felt to be different. He was never able to put a finger on it, but he knew there was something about him that distinguished him from other kids. At the time he attributed that notion to his resistance against the family business. He hated being raised into a life as a hunter, which eventually led to his belief that John was disappointed in him, â€˜because I didnâ€™t wanna bow hunt or hustle pool. Because I wanted to go to school and live my life, which, in our whacked-out family made me the freak.â€™
He felt like a freak in his own family and he felt like one in school. â€˜I didnâ€™t want to be the freak for once, Dean!â€™ It was a heavy burden Sam carried. The idea of not being good enough in his fatherâ€™s eyes applied to Sam as well, just as it did to Dean â€“ in a different manner though. I believe, he was not convinced that his father truly loved him, because from the moment he became old enough to realize what their life was really about, he questioned his dadâ€™s authority and rebelled against it, and his idea of how his own life should look like was never accepted by John. Eventually, John pushed his son away (or, let him believe that he did, while secretly driving out to Stanford whenever he could).
Leaving his family in order to pursue another life did not sit entirely well with him â€“ he slipped into a state of denial, not talking about it, not even to the woman he intended to marry. Jessica knew about his problematic relationship with his brother and father, but she was completely unaware of the life Sam had led before becoming a pre-law student.
He also withheld the most important information: his visions, then only nightmares, the fruit of Azazelâ€™s blood. He had seen Jessicaâ€™s death several times in his dreams, and dismissed it. But his reaction at illusion-Jessicaâ€™s remark â€˜you knew there was something dark inside you, even at Stanford you knewâ€™ allows us to assume that she did strike home here.
Sam in all likelihood tried to protect Jessica from what he knew about what was lurking in the dark, but he was proved wrong in the most horrific way possible: after coming home to a hopefully safe life and a future in law, he found Jess pinned to the ceiling, engulfed in flames.
â€˜If you hadnâ€™t run off with Dean, if youâ€™d been there to protect her, sheâ€™d still be alive!â€™ Sam realized that instantly, and he hadnâ€™t yet been able to handle that profound feeling of guilt that haunted him and made him vulnerable. Like John, Sam tried to find consolation in revenge, but it didnâ€™t work. He was still drowning in self-reproach, and after years of living on the road with his brother, the same guilt came haunting him while being imprisoned in Bobbyâ€™s panic room.
Earlier, in season two, losing his father had broken Sam more than he himself believed possible: â€˜Iâ€™m sorry that the last time I was with him, I tried to pick a fight. Iâ€™m sorry that I spent most of my life angry at him. I mean, for all I know, he died thinking that I hate himâ€¦ What Iâ€™m doing now is too little. Itâ€™s too late. I miss him, man, and I feel guilty as hell. And Iâ€™m not alright. Not at all.â€™
What could he do? After his fatherâ€™s death he tried to be a good son, because he didnâ€™t believe he had been one before. Posthumous trying to do something right, but not succeeding in relieving himself of the burden he felt, even more so as Dean disclosed Johnâ€™s last words â€“ thereby lodging another fear in Samâ€™s mind: that their own father had believed there was a chance Sam would go dark side. Why else would he have ordered Dean to kill his own brother if it was to happen?
With the demon blood in his body, having sensed it for a long time, Sam was terrified. His own father obviously had not trusted him.
Due to his gentle nature â€“ which was to change under the burden of the extreme stress he was going to live with during seasons three and four â€“ he got himself killed. Only after he was brought back and â€˜van dammedâ€™ up, he was able to kill Jake. Death had changed Sam â€“ and here one important question arises: where was Sam during those days of being dead? What did he experience that might have influenced his further courses of action? Did he go to heaven or did his demon blood condemn him to hell? (a question I hope to ask at the Con in L.A, should I have the chance)
Samâ€™s death resulted in a string of events leading straight to doom â€“ beginning with Deanâ€™s deal for Sam, thereby multiplying Samâ€™s feelings of hopelessness and guilt: â€˜How did you feel when dad sold his soul for you? â€˜Cause I was there. I remember. You were twisted and broken and now you go and do the same thing. To me.â€™ Even though it was Deanâ€™s decision, Sam felt responsible, just like Dean had when John did it for him.
So Sam felt compelled to set out and do anything necessary to prevent Dean from going to hell, even being ready to profoundly change into a more reckless person, much like Dean â€“ â€˜If Iâ€™m going to fight without you, then I gotta change â€¦ into youâ€™ â€“ and beginning to consider to follow Rubyâ€™s advice. Despair is undoubtedly one of the most haunting forces there are.
The Mystery Spot experience was Samâ€™s breaking point. Watching Dean die over and over and being incapable of preventing it became a knife in his gut he was not able to get rid off. He tried everything, but Dean died â€“ he had begged the guy-formerly-known-as-Trickster to turn Wednesday on, and still Dean died in the parking lot.
Seeking revenge became his salvation, but only on the surface. Underneath he was ridden by guilt and loneliness, two emotions that should not share the same mind as they often lead to irreparable damage. Sam changed. Profoundly. He hunted the Trickster down, ready to bleed an innocent person dry if necessary. He began to consider alchemy, forming a pact with Ruby, anything that would save his brother. He failed. Nothing he did or tried to do saved Dean from Hell.
So he did what he had done from the moment Jess died â€“ try to make it right. After having gone through the terrible agony of losing Dean countless times, and then again, one last, horrific time, Sam saw no other choice â€“ twisted, broken, at his witsâ€™ end. He tried â€˜everything. Thatâ€™s the truth. I tried opening the Devilâ€™s Gate, hell, I tried to bargain, Dean, but no demon would deal, all right? You were rotting in hell, for months. For months. And I couldnâ€™t stop it. Iâ€™m sorry, it wasnâ€™t me, all right? Dean, Iâ€™m sorry.â€™
He again felt intensely guilty for not being able to stop Deanâ€™s ordeal, which provided the ideal fertile ground for Rubyâ€™s offer. Revenge, again, was one part of it, the other – experiencing that he was able to kill demons without having to use the knife. A reflection of the tender Sam we encountered in the beginning. This, at least, put his inner demons of guilt at peace once in a while. He managed to do something good in the midst of all the â€˜poison and more evilâ€™ he was sucking down.
But guilt is indeed a double-edged sword, and so are the means we try to overcome it. Sam knew what he was doing. He knew that sucking blood was wrong, but he also needed the power it gave him. He was not able to shed that inner conflict, even more as he found the change in Dean. Though Sam might have considered to say good-bye to Ruby at some point, he proceeded on this dark path, because he wanted to kill Lilith, of course, but also because he was trying to protect Dean from having to do something Sam believed he wouldnâ€™t be capable of â€“ and, according to Rubyâ€™s lies, stop Lilith from breaking the last seal.
The profound truth of Samâ€™s loneliness became entirely evident in season four â€“ no one he knew was able to relate to what he was going through, as he was â€˜a whole new level of freakâ€™. His brother often looked at him in a strange manner that indicated Sam was different (and he dreaded that). Confiding in him became more and more difficult, as Sam didnâ€™t find the right way to explain himself to Dean in a manner that would make his older brother understand. Sam believed to be cursed, plagued by a â€˜disease pumping through my veins, and I canâ€™t ever rip it out or scrub it clean. And Iâ€™m trying to take this curse and make something good out of it.â€™
He had to try, since he felt responsible for Jessicaâ€™s death, for his fatherâ€™s disappointment, for not being able to save Dean from hell, and â€“ perhaps â€“ for not being strong enough to withstand the lure of the demon blood and its power, going for it based on good intentions while still knowing that what he did was not entirely okay.
Sam had been ready to die in the attempt to stop the apocalypse. He did not plan to start it. The realization of his crucial part in raising the devil crushed him. The strength he had mustered up, although feeling despicable for what he was doing, was diminished.
The Sam we met in the first episodes of season five was a young man devastated, afraid and shattered by what he had done, those emotions fed by Deanâ€™s rejection â€“ â€˜I just canâ€™t pretend that everything is alright, because itâ€™s not and itâ€™s never going to be. You chose a demon over your own brother, and look what happened. â€¦ You were the one that I depended on the most and you let me down in ways I canâ€™t evenâ€¦ I donâ€™t think that we can ever be what we were, you know, I just donâ€™t think I can trust youâ€™ â€“ and Horseman Warâ€™s observation â€“ â€˜Youâ€™re my poster boy. You canâ€™t stop thinking about it, ever since you saw it dripping off that blade of that knife. â€¦ I can see inside your head, and itâ€™s one-track-city in there: blood, blood, blood. Lust for power. Same as always. You want to be strong again. Not just strong, stronger than everybody.â€™
Realizing that both hit the truth, Sam chose to leave Dean. What he felt inside â€˜scared the hell out of meâ€™, and he had to understand what was going on. It might well be that he felt some kind of resonance of risen Lucifer, as Sam is the intended vessel for him. His powers gone or merely dormant, Sam still felt something inside of him which Ruby had thrown in his face: â€˜You didnâ€™t need the feather to fly, you had it in you the whole time, Dumbo.â€™
Her words, Luciferâ€™s announcement that â€˜it always had to be youâ€™ and his own insecurities about how he might cope with whatever was still existing inside of him, keep fuelling Samâ€™s profound feelings of blame, inadequacy and fear.
We yet have to be informed what this might do to him in the course of this season. Taken from his previous experiences with the matter, he most likely will go through an ordeal, provided by the harmful force of this own guilt.
Both brothers have found a way to again be brothers, on a more mature level and wiser than before. But their wounds have not yet healed, as they are being ripped open repeatedly by the loss of friends dear and encounters with demons that remind them of what they did â€“ break the first and the final seals. Another evidence of how both brothers are two sides of the same coin. Alpha and omega. Something angels and demons rely on when toying with the burdens the Winchesters carry, as it is a weapon that never misses.
Their issues of guilt are heavy, and hopefully they will find a way to fight and overcome them eventually, in the course of the battle that might follow â€“ and they carry important resources in their souls.
The brothers have all the tools to rise like the proverbial Phoenix from the ashes of their real or imagined guilt, and save the world in the end, and Winston Churchillâ€™s famous word could ring true for Sam and Dean Winchester: â€˜Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.â€™