“Brother’s Keeper” posed so many philosophical questions, parallels, reversals and ethical dilemmas that I am completely overwhelmed both as a fan and as a writer. Every angle I begin to explore expands into new levels of meaning and interpretation, making a focused, single themed analysis both impossible and woefully inadequate. Jeremy Carver, you are a masterful writer.
The show was going for the emotional punch from the outset, starting with the unplugged version of “Carryon Wayward Son” that was performed in “Fan Fiction”. We had been warned through endless interviews and teaser comments from the cast and producers that the finale was going to be “epic” and “intense” and that a beloved family member was going to be killed. I think we all prepared ourselves to see Sam, Dean, Castiel and/or Crowley die. Even knowing that their deaths couldn’t be permanent for the show to continue into season 11 didn’t soften the emotional tension we all felt going into the show. What I wasn’t prepared for, though, were the gut-wrenching choices that our beloved characters had to face.
For instance, it was a powerfully redeeming moment when Dean chose to spare Sam’s life. Dean chose love of his family over the greater good, but what was his plan? What was he thinking? Death was his last hope of being stopped. Had Dean decided that the needs of the one (Sam) outweighs the needs of the many? Do they? Can they? Are there some things that are always wrong, like killing someone you love, no matter the good that may come from it? Are there some things that are always right, like trusting that love will be redeeming no matter the path or the length of the journey?
I have played the same scene over and over again until it has screw burn (those younger than me, look it up). I’m sure I don’t have to tell you which scene it is, but for the sake of understanding, Sam is kneeling on the floor, bloody. Dean is coldly standing over him, unaffected and determined. I only hear certain words, breaking through my emotional defenses, punctuated with cello and violin music:
Sam: You will never ever hear me say that you, the real you, is anything but good.
Dean: Close your eyes. Sammy, close your eyes.
Sam: Take these. One day when you find your way back, let these be your guide. They can help you remember what it was to be good. What is was to love.
Dean: Forgive me.
I am in awe of the love these boys feel for each other. I understand the psychological cause - the catastrophic things they’ve been through together and their interdependent bond that began with (loosely paraphrased) “Take your brother and don't look back Dean!” Do people really have the courage it takes to kneel, awaiting death, not in submission, but in understanding and unity with the person who would kill them? Is it possible to love someone so much that you can forgive them for “they know not what they do?” We have all heard stories of people who willingly sacrifice themselves for others, in war, in fires, on 9/11. They are called heroes. Dean summoned Death because he didn’t want to hurt any more people. Sam offered his life to meet Death’s terms and save the world from The Mark. So Sam and Dean are both heroes.
Except neither of them felt like heroes.
They argued with each other over whether they were in fact the faces of evil. Dean believed that he was evil because he let Rudy die and that Sam was evil because he was willing to let the Darkness into the world rather than lose his brother. Sam, though, was the voice of redemption. He told Dean that he was “a good man crying to be heard, searching for some other way”. Which brother was right? Balancing all the good they have done versus all the evil they have unleashed during their lives, are they heroes? Are they justified in risking the world for the sake of love? If we all did that, would the world be a better place or would it disintegrate in chaos? Should our lives be ruled by love versus reason? Is the ideal being presented that love will lead to goodness and light in the end?
What of Sam? Dean mercilessly berated Sam, chastising him to “stop thinking about himself for one damn minute!” I know that was The Mark talking, but it was still very hard to listen to Dean's voice hurt Sam in that way. Whenever Dean is supernaturally pushed toward blame and hate, he reminds Sam of his mistakes, rebuking Sam for catastrophic events that he set in motion. Sam understood that it wasn’t really his brother talking. Would that mitigate the guilt that Sam feels, though? Sam had countless opportunities to turn away from the curse’s cure yet each time he chose to save Dean. Was that selfish, or heroic? Dean had to be stopped so didn’t “saving Dean” equate to “stopping the Mark”? It was repeatedly presented as a moral dilemma because of the prophecy of horrific consequences but what was the alternative? Before Death’s proposed banishment to eternity, was there any other way to stop another Father of Murder from being born?
The Mark’s danger was very real. It posed an imminent and substantial threat to the world. Sam argued that he could only battle the enemy in front of him, ala one thing at a time. He was obviously tormented by the ominous threats of “something bad” because he frantically reminded both Dean and Castiel that no one could tell him what those consequences would be: “Not you, not anyone can tell me what those consequences are, so I’m not going to let my brother destroy himself on a guess.” Was he being brave in taking action versus remaining paralyzed in fear, cowering in the face of possible, unnamed and unknown consequences? Doesn’t society scorn people who sit idly by and let an evil take root and grow? Sam’s motivations were complex. When he pleaded with Castiel to continue pursuing the cure, Sam said “I owe [Dean] everything!” Was Sam pursuing a cure because of overwhelming love for Dean, or because of shame, guilt, fear of being alone, or an intense responsibility to protect the world? Was it all of the above? Does it matter? Do a person’s motivations have to be purely altruistic to be heroic?
History has proven that sometimes things must get horribly worse before they can get better. The Nazi’s were an imminent and real threat to liberty and life. They had to be stopped, yet the path to freedom was 60 million lives lost in a global war. That was judged as the terrible price that had to be paid to save the world. For the sake of billions of people, millions of people died. The United States used a nuclear weapon killing hundreds of thousands of people arguing that millions were saved by ending the war in the Pacific. In both cases the cost of the cure could be measured in gruesome, very real numbers while the potential threat could only be imagined, estimated, or predicted. Weren’t these cures a horrible “darkness” that was unleashed on the world for a time, before good people fought back the darkness and restored light?
I can’t wrap my head around the idea of this new “Darkness” that has been unleashed by “the cure”. How are the brothers supposed to battle something that encapsulated, or defined, the universe before time began? God and the archangels beat it back and began the history of humanity on Earth. This is the “monster” that the Winchesters now have to face? Once before they unknowingly unlocked an ancient evil yet they were repeatedly told that they were predestined to do so, that the apocalypse was inevitable. This newest evil was being held back by the life of just one person who bore a key on his arm. Shouldn't it have been locked behind 66 seals or an army of angels? Are the boys really responsible for this cataclysm simply because they wanted to save each other’s lives? Sam chose to cure his brother to stop the Mark. Dean chose to not kill his brother and live with the Mark. Neither chose to unleash “a horribly destructive amoral force that was beaten back by God and his archangels in a terrible war”. The people who actually cast the spell hadn’t heard Death’s story so they didn’t yet know the consequences. Can they be blamed for freeing the key from its holder?
How far back should we go to trace blame? Is Dean to blame because he took on the Mark of Cain? After all he made the rash decision to accept a supernatural power from a demon. Cain had been quietly holding the key for centuries. That may have continued for the foreseeable future, yet he himself said his “relapse” was inevitable. Did Dean just bring the simmering pot to a boil sooner rather than later?
Is Crowley to blame, as Sam suggested? Crowley introduced Dean to Cain in the first place. Crowley also procured all the ingredients needed for the impossibly difficult spell. With Castiel’s wings broken, he wouldn’t have been able to get those ingredients. Crowley also knew of Rowena’s only love, so he enabled the entire spell to be cast. His role in unleashing the Darkness was crucial.
Was Charlie to blame? She loved Dean and wanted to cure him too. She was thousands of miles away when she broke into museums and monastery crypts to recover the Book of the Damned that had been hidden from those who would use it. She also broke the code that would allow an evil witch to use the spells. Without Charlie, the book’s secrets would have remained sealed. Charlie herself called the book “old and scary” yet she unlocked its contents.
Is Castiel to blame? He continued pursuing the spell despite repeatedly voicing concerns. Castiel desperately wanted to save Dean too, both as his friend and as a guardian of humanity. Castiel, of all people, should have known the catastrophic scale of some paths since he had personally witnessed the entirety of human existence. If a friend begs us to do something we suspect is wrong, is our greater responsibility to support our friend in their hour of need or to be the voice of reason when they are about to do something dangerous?
Is Rowena to blame? She was the one and only person who spoke the spell that released the Mark. She didn’t know about the Darkness either, but given that she coldly killed Oscar to secure her own power, would it have mattered had she known?
Is Sam to blame? He put together the brain trust that was able to crack the code. He motivated them, begged them or bribed them to find the cure.
Were they all to blame?
…or were none of them to blame because no single person released the Mark knowing the magnitude of the price? Can a person only be held responsible for what they knowingly do, or are they responsible for the consequences of events they indirectly set in motion?
Sam and Dean chose family over all else. Sam wouldn’t stop looking for a cure because there was absolutely no other way to save, or stop, Dean. Yet Sam agreed to die when MarkedDean demanded it of him to save the world. In the end, though, Dean broke through the Mark’s influence and couldn’t kill his little brother.
Would it have made a difference if he had? Would his banishment have been far enough away that the cure’s lightning bolt wouldn’t have found him? It’s hard to say. Neither Sam nor Dean decided to release the Darkness. They simply chose life… and family. As Chuck once said,
So, what's it all add up to? It's hard to say. But me, I'd say this was a test... for Sam and Dean. And I think they did all right. Up against good, evil, angels, devils, destiny, and God himself, they made their own choice. They chose family. And, well... isn't that kinda the whole point?
Were any of you also troubled by the philosophical and ethical dilemmas that were faced by Team Free Will and their allies? In trying to sort through my emotional response to such a powerful drama, I find that I’m also struggling to understand my intellectual response. Where did they go wrong…or did they?
That is why I love Supernatural.
I'm hoping to gather a number of different opinions on these issues, but remember our discussion rules please - no personal attacks, no "rewording" what other people have said. I can open up separate topics on our discussion page if necessary so people can thoughfully explore their ideas with people of like mind but let's try this way first.