The Enigma and Cruelty of Sam Winchester’s Powers
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest feat is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us”
Kind readers, before I begin, allow me to warn you – this is going to be long. I’m covering almost five seasons here, so get yourself comfortable, grab a demon blood cocktail and lean back.
Ever since Sam became aware of certain special abilities those grew to be a constant source of confusion, fear and pain to him. And to those closest to him. How did Sam’s powers develop, how did they progress, what do they mean?
Out of the blue, without any warning, his abilities started. He had just turned twenty-two, some time before Dean showed up to drag him on a road trip in search for their father. Prior to his brother’s arrival, Sam had noticed changes about him, mostly weird dreams, particularly of his beloved Jessica dying. I don’t believe it was a coincidence of John going on his hunting trip to find YellowEyes and the surfacing of psychic abilities. John, after all, had put together demonic omens of various kinds, showing up about the same time, and decided to follow them. It might well be that the emerging of Sam’s special skills (and those of the other psychic kids) was such an omen – something was starting.
There had to be some kind of catalyst (we haven’t learned about that as of yet) to set the wheels of the devil’s train in motion, since, as we know now, all is connected Lucifer sending Azazel on a mission to find him a special child, which made him, devout demon that he was, visit several nurseries and do his demon blood feeding, in order to sow the seeds for a infernal division of special forces. The plan might have been to form the devil’s Totenkopf-brigade whose members were to cancel each other out to leave the one perfect survivor, the one to eventually bring about the rising of Lucifer.
Sam. Lucifer’s intended vessel.
From his childhood days Sam had always felt to be different from other kids, different from his brother, and not only in terms of demeanour, preferences or goals, but in a way he was not able to explain or even define. Common sense would make him attribute that strange sensation to his life as the son of a hunter, incessantly remaining stationed on a battlefield of the paranormal. He did not like that existence. He flew from it as soon as he found a way. But what was a part of his, he took with him.
“Even in Stanford you knew. You knew there was something dark inside of you. Deep down maybe, but you knew. Baby, that’s what got me killed.” Illusion-Jessica told him in “Free To Be You And Me.” Had she shoved a knife into his chest, it would hardly have made any difference. Sam knew she was right. He had first noticed strange changes within him, increasing nightmares about Jessica’s gruesome deathâ€¦ but he had not told her. “â€¦ I wanted to be normal.‘ Sam replied in the same episode. He had not believed those dreams meant anything and as she was pinned, burning, to that ceiling, he learned the truth the hardest possible way.
He did what most people would do try to deny those facts, as they were too horrible. He stuffed them into some part of his brain, did not talk about it, not even to his brother, well, not right away. He did not tell him about the vision of Jessica he saw once as they were driving by, and he did not elaborate at first on the nightmares that would not leave him.
In “Bloody Mary” Sam’s abilities were hinted at for the first time (though we had already been made aware of his nightmares in “Wendigo,” as he dreamed of visiting Jessica’s grave, with a horrific Carrie-like shock). We, the audience, would empathize with and feel for Sam because of his obviously terrible nightmares, interpreting those as signs of the trauma of losing the woman he intended to marry. Anyone who ever lost someone so dear might have experienced similar disturbances of sleep. For Sam those came with a whole package of guilt and remorse and agony.
Even more so, as he believed to be responsible for Jessica’s death and he offered himself to act as bait for Bloody Mary because of that dark secret he told Dean later about. As hurt as Sam was at that point (and if we follow his journey closely he has remained a deeply wounded man, for more than one reason), some part of his soul probably would not have minded to die at Mary’s hand.
“That boy, he has such powerful abilities.’ (Missouri Mosley, Home)
The ninth episode of the first season remains one of the most disturbing and revealing in regard to aspects of the early stages of Sam’s powers. Missouri addressed John with those words, and ever since I had wondered whether her careful assessment of Sam’s capacity might have made Papa Winchester investigate more about his youngest (to leave Dean with the information that he had to watch out for his brother in more than one way).
In “Home,” Sam told Dean about some of his nightmares coming true. He had not known how to tell Dean earlier, and perhaps he even hoped they would disappear. But with his latest dream’s connection to their Kansas home, he could not avoid it anymore. He had to tell is brother of his “shining”, practically forcing Dean to go back to Lawrence. We already knew that Sam was a stubborn guy, and in this episode it became evident how adamant the youngest Winchester actually can be. He managed to get a freaked out Dean to go with him to their childhood home and learned along the way of Dean’s first saving of Sam by carrying him out of the burning house (a moment that defined Dean’s whole life and sense of responsibility afterwards).
At this point it was clear that there was more to the man’s abilities than nightmares as Sam was held captive by the poltergeist in the house and pinned to a wall, he sensed who the fiery ghost was before he even saw his mother. Neither Sam nor we, the viewers, had any idea where this was going, but there was no doubt about this being a crucial moment.
The world Sam had tried to establish for himself had been shattered first by Dean’s insistence of getting Sam to search for dad, then by Jessica’s death and now by the fact that something was utterly different about him a confirmation of his early suspicions: that he was a freak who only hoped to be normal. He did not know yet the extent of it all, but he, being the smart guy that he is, realized that this was probably bigger than he believed. He seemed to have even stronger abilities than the psychic Missouri:
M: “Sam, I’m sorry.”
S: “For what?”
M: “You sensed it was here, didn’t you? Even when I couldn’t.”
S: “What’s happening to me?”
M: “I know I should have all the answers, but I don’t know.”
Which was not exactly reassuring. The experience in Lawrence had freaked both brothers out. Sam, because he felt something was going on and Dean because he could not deal with what might be happening to his little brother. Dean tried to come to terms with the new situation in his usual manner: joking about it.
“Let me know if you see any dead people, Haley Joel,” he pestered Sam while searching the Roosevelt Asylum for ghosts. Sam, however, lost his sense of humour regarding this subject. Bottom line: he was terrified. He didn’t know what was going on, and he could hardly handle the fact.
There is a phenomenon to be found in dogs some tend to bite when they get scared. They lunge at the object of their fear. Some people react in the exact same manner. If frightened they become aggressive and angry, and Sam showed that kind of behaviour as well. After all, fear is the fuel aggression needs to build momentum. Nations have been at each others’ throats because of fear, relationships have been tested, and in this case brothers have been torn apart.
I believe the increase of anger (adding to the anger already being there, addressed to his father) within Sam’s soul began as an echo of the terrible fear he experienced. He was completely in the dark, didn’t know what was going on, and their situation had not yet improved: he had strange abilities surfacing; they were still searching for dad without any clue. Sam had even called Pastor Jim, Jefferson and Caleb, all close friends to the Winchesters who had not heard of John which did not feed his hopes. Sam began to doubt they would ever find dad. He even thought John might be dead.
All that culminated in a tremendous amount of aggression he had not felt in a long time, and he vented it on Dean, enhanced by ghost-Elicott’s mojo. Even after both brothers got out of the asylum, it must have freaked Sam out that he had been able to “kill’ his brother he had actually pulled the trigger of Dean’s pistol, intending to shoot him, albeit under Elicott’s spell. The brothers did not talk about it afterwards, as it is the Winchester way, but I believe that experience did little to lighten the burden on Sam’s shoulders. On the contrary. His guilt and his fear were ever growing (even more as he almost lost Dean soon after, in “Faith”).
“Don’t look at me like that.’
After a heavy fight with Dean that resulted in Sam leaving his brother and a tackle with a racist truck, things got bad for Sam visions galore, in the daytime, with no possibility to stop them or the terrible headaches that would accompany them. He got confronted with the telekinetic Max and the fate that perhaps could have been his, a lot to digest, if you ask me.
Sam finally realized that his dreams in fact were premonitions and that he was somehow connected to the Miller family, as he saw them die.
S: “Dean, I’m scared, man. These nightmares were bad enough, now I’m seeing things while I’m awake? And these visions, or whatever, they’re getting more intense. And painful. What is it about the Millers? Why am I connected to them? Why am I watching them die? Why the hell is his happening to me?”
D: “I don’t know, Sam, but we’ll figure it out. We face the unexplainable every single day. This is just another thing.’
S: “No. It’s never been us. It’s never been in the family like this. Tell the truth. You tell me this doesn’t freak you out.’
D: “This doesn’t freak me out.”
Of course it did. Those were the days Dean began to look at his brother differently. Scared. Confused, not unlike Sam. This was something neither was able to look up in dad’s journal (their most helpful tool) or relate to.
Sam felt that Dean was beginning to be afraid for him, perhaps of him, and he dreaded the way Dean started to look at him as if he, indeed, was a freak. Later this would get more to the surface, yet Sam already sensed that something was beginning to change in their relationship.
“Well, I know one thing I have in common with those people both our families are cursed.’ (Sam, “Nightmare”) A notion Sam had had for a long time, since he felt responsible for Jessica’s death, perhaps even for the events that lead to dad’s disappearance it had solidified his conviction that he was cursed, as he later explained to Sarah Blake in Provenance: “…when people are around me, they get hurt, I mean, like, physically hurt. It’s like I’m cursed or something. Like death just follows me around.”
If a person actually believes this he will distance himself from others, maybe not physically, but, as Sam did, slip into a state of not discussing important matters, such as intimate fears, with friends or family. He will do it to protect the others, thereby condemning himself to the kind of loneliness no one can penetrate unless he pulls down the walls surrounding him.