Page 1 of 2
Sam Winchester and the Evolution of a “Freak”
In the world of Supernatural, the word freak connotes different, dangerous, evil, and nonhuman. Hunters throw around various permutations of the word to describe the creatures they hunt (freaks), the situations they find themselves in (freaky), or negative emotional states (freaked out). Of the Winchester brothers, Dean is particularly guilty of this; he’s referred to, among others, shapeshifters, werewolves, witches, angels, vampires, dragons, and even a phoenix and kitsune as freaks.
Sam, on the other hand, rarely uses the word to describe something supernatural. In fact, he most often uses the word in any form to negatively refer to himself. Following John and Dean’s lead, Sam internalized early on that freak simply meant wrong. Freaks were something to be feared and hated and hunted; they were different and did not belong. And Sam, well, he never really felt like he belonged anywhere.
From a young age, Sam was sensitive about being different than his peers. As the youngest member of a family of hunters, Sam had no say in when the job would uproot them or where the next hunt would plant them for an indeterminate amount of time. Sam was the perennial new kid, barely getting the chance to get comfortable in a situation before being transplanted once more. He was acutely aware of how different his life was from his more stable classmates. Other kids didn’t spend Christmas in a motel room with a beer can Christmas wreath and gifts stolen from the house on the corner. Other fathers didn’t give their nine-year-old children .45s when they were afraid of the monsters in their closet—those children didn’t know how to use the gun either.
When fourteen-year-old Sam is beaten up by a bully in “After School Special,” Dean demands to know why Sam didn’t fight back. By this time, Sam’s known about the family business for nearly six years. He’s been training so could have, in Dean’s words, torn the bully apart.
“Because I don't want to be the freak for once, Dean. I want to be normal,” Sam snaps in reply, effectively shutting Dean down.
He would rather take the hits than prove himself any more different than he already has. Being different is terrifying for even normal teenagers, so for Sam, who is different by the nature of his supernatural-tinged life, one that he has no control over, it’s nothing short of hell. While Dean is content to embrace his differences from his peers since he’s thrilled to be following John into the family business, Sam is the opposite. Unlike Dean, who was forced to grow up far too early, Sam got a taste of a normal childhood without things that go bump in the night. That taste of normal was forcefully taken away from him that infamous Christmas in 1991. Old enough to recognize what he’d lost, Sam longed for that normalcy again and railed against anything that stood in the way—his father and the hunter’s life being the main targets of his ire. These are the things that mark him as different, as a freak.
Later on in “After School Special,” Sam confronts Dirk the bully once more, but it’s not until Dirk uses the taboo F-word that Sam fights back. “Come on, lose-chester. Let’s see what you got. Come on, freak! Freak!” Dirk crows.
Anger twists Sam’s face at the taunt, and he shoves himself off the pavement and effortlessly takes the bully down. No matter how willing Sam is to take the hits to put up a façade of normal for his peers, all it takes is hearing the word that he fears most to set him off. Sam has learned that freaks are monsters and must be killed. And Sam, who longs for normal with every fiber of his being, reacts violently to be labeled as his worst nightmare. Ironically, he’s labeled a hero by the rest of the school for doing what no one else could in taking down Dirk. That feeling of belonging is one of Sam’s few happy teenage memories.
Unfortunately, Sam’s few memories of fitting in are mostly tainted in one way or another. When he and Dean return to investigate a case at Truman High years later, Sam learns about Dirk’s troubled childhood and eventual suicide, and their relation to that fight, killing any pride the memory once contained. And even when a young Sam finds a peer to commiserate with, the joy is short-lived.
“OK, but be honest,” fifteen-year-old Sam says to Amy in “The Girl Next Door.” “I mean, moving all the time sucks. You're always the new kid, and everyone always thinks you're a freak.”
Sam’s distaste for the hunter’s life has deepened since his time at Truman; he does his best to speed through the research John and Dean need so that he can have some semblance of normal before they get back and uproot him yet again. He’s more interested in talking to the cute girl in the library than studying kitsunes.
“Sam, you are a freak,” Amy tells him. Sam’s momentarily stricken, his worst nightmares playing across his face, but she quickly clarifies: “But so was, I don't know, Jimi Hendrix and Picasso. So am I. All the coolest people are freaks.”
For the first time, Sam gets a positive association with the idea of being different, of being a freak. This girl that he’s got a crush on sees that he’s different and she doesn’t care. In fact, she embraces his differences. And that’s enough to make him kiss her.
But Amy’s words, especially once she’s revealed as a monster herself, aren’t balm enough for the wounds already festering in Sam’s childhood. Amy being a kitsune only served to strengthen the tie between freak and monster for Sam.
But Sam didn’t only felt like an outsider among his peers. He also never felt like he fit in with his family. John was the consummate hunter, dedicated to the hunt to avenge Mary and Dean idolized the man, following obediently in his footsteps. Sam’s distaste for their life, for how it set him apart from everyone around him in one way or another, led to feelings of alienation and anger. Sam fought with his father because John represented everything that made him different.
“So what are you saying? That Dad was disappointed in you?” Dean demands in “Bugs.” The brothers have only been reunited for a short time and old wounds are slowly resurfacing. Sam is grieving for Jess and has been thrown back head-first into the life he tried so hard to get out of; it’s no surprise, then, that his bitterness starts seeping through.
“Was? Is. Always has been,” Sam replies matter-of-factly.
“Why would you think that?” Dean is nonplussed. He’s never been able to get into Sam’s rebellious mindset since being different has always been a good thing to him.
“Because I didn't want to bow-hunt or hustle pool. Because I wanted to go to school and live my life, which, to our whacked-out family, made me the freak,” Sam answers angrily. He wanted to play soccer and do his homework like a normal kid, but never could. Normal was never in the cards for a Winchester, and Sam held onto his fear of being different and the bitterness toward his father into adulthood.
Of course, Sam’s constant anger and fights with John only distanced him from his father, which fed into a greater circle of alienation. He just became angrier, which led to bigger fights—the culmination being the blowup when Sam left for Stanford.
Sam left his family, the father he constantly fought with and the brother who raised him, to find some semblance of normal. His entire life up until then had been out of his control, but at eighteen he was a legal adult and he took first chance he had to make a change. He fled a life on the road hunting things out of horror movies in favor of the traditional rite of passage for someone his age: college.
Jess accuses Sam in the pilot of rarely talking about his family, but Sam had gone to Stanford to make a break from the life that isolated him from family and friends as a child. He wouldn’t and couldn’t talk about his former life. He had to cut ties with anything that threatened to destroy the new, safe life he was building where he fit in, and an unfortunate casualty of that was Dean.
But, in true Winchester fashion, Sam never could quite break away from what made him different, no matter how hard he tried. Before heading out with Dean in the pilot, Sam packs a wicked-looking blade that Jess undoubtedly had no idea was in their apartment. Despite not having even spoken to Dean in over two years, Sam naturally picks the life back up—like riding a bike, Dean teases. No matter how much distance Sam tried to put between him and the things that made him different, he never quite got away.
“You know, the truth is, even at Stanford, deep down, I never really fit in,” he admits in “Skin.”
“Well, that’s ‘cause you’re a freak,” Dean deadpans.
“Yeah, thanks.” Sam, for his part, takes comment as the brotherly barb it’s meant to be despite his negative association with the word in the past. At this point, Dean isn’t aware of Sam’s nightmares that preceded Jess’ death, which Sam later reveals in “Home,” so there’s no reason for Sam to fear Dean’s judgment. He keeps that secret partly out of guilt for ignoring the dreams and partly because he fears how Dean, a hunter, will take it. But right now, Dean is blissfully ignorant and just happy to have his little brother back on the road with him.
“Well, I’m a freak, too. I’m right there with ya, all the way,” he says.
Once Jess dies in the exact manner as Mary, though, all Sam’s illusions of normalcy are erased. He can’t help blaming himself for her death since he left her unprotected and unaware of his secret when he’d been dreaming of her death for days before it happened. The first hint of Sam having a secret he’s unwilling—or afraid—to tell Dean comes in “Bloody Mary” when Sam is able to summon Bloody Mary because of his guilt for Jess’ death. Though Dean prods, Sam hides his premonitions until “Home,” when he has to come clean in order to convince Dean to return to Lawrence. And though Sam fears Dean’s reaction to his developing abilities, especially knowing Dean’s black and white view of world, Dean’s simply afraid for Sam, not of him. He teases Sam about these psychic abilities—brotherly banter at its finest—but doesn’t judge him.
Sam takes the teasing well enough in patented little brother fashion, but once he and Dean start finding other psychics like Sam, his sensitivity toward being unusual in an already unnatural situation flares up once more. Max Miller was the first psychic they came across in “Nightmare,” but it’s not until “Simon Said” that Sam really takes exception to the “freak” label once again.
“I don't know if going in and announcing that you're some supernatural freak with a demonic connection is the best thing, OK?” Dean says while they’re on their way to the Roadhouse for information. But those are the exact words Sam has been dreading coming out of his brother’s mouth since revealing his fledgling powers in “Home.” Dean worries about other hunters seeing Sam as something to hunt, and Sam assumes it’s not a stretch for Dean to reach the conclusion. Dean may be sticking with Sam out of filial loyalty, but little could be worse for Sam than his brother thinking of him as a monster.
“So I'm a freak now?” he demands, hurt.
Dean immediately realizes he’s said the wrong thing and fails miserably at covering himself by slapping Sam on the leg and saying, “You've always been a freak.” He clearly didn’t mean to hurt his brother by the statement, but the way it came out still illuminated his innate prejudice against anything supernatural, including the unnatural, possibly demonic, abilities his brother is exhibiting.
Later, once the brothers have started investigating the potential psychic Andy Gallagher, Sam finally voices the fear and insecurity that have been gnawing at him since the tragedy with Max Miller: “The demon said he had plans for me and children like me. Maybe this is his plan. Maybe we're all a bunch of psychic freaks. Maybe we're all supposed to be —”
He refers to himself and his situation—which is completely out of his control once again, harkening back to the alienated childhood he fought so hard against—with venomous disgust. He’s calling himself the monster after having visions of someone with abilities similar to his own killing other, apparently innocent, people. And he beats Dean to the punch in the process; it’s easier to call himself the monster than hear the judgment from his brother’s lips.
But Dean isn’t judging Sam here. “What, killers?” he demands.
“Yeah.” That’s exactly what Sam sees the situation as. But Dean doesn’t agree.
Dean might be inherently biased against the supernatural, but he’ll always be biased in favor of his little brother. He’s not going to condemn Sam, even though that’s what his brother is waiting on: “So the demon wants you out there killing with your minds, is that it? Come on, give me a break. You're not a murderer, Sam! You don't have it in your bones.”
And though Dean might be willing to stray into the grey areas for his brother’s sake, other hunters aren’t so accommodating. They hold the familiar black and white viewpoint of John and (previously) Dean—the same view that fed into Sam’s insecurities and kept him from revealing his visions for as long as he did.
In “Hunted,” Gordon Walker pops up again—only this time he’s targeting psychics rather than vampires a la their first meeting in “Bloodlust.” After failing to assassinate Sam and kidnapping Dean, Gordon defends himself to the elder Winchester:
“I'm not some reckless yahoo, OK? I did my homework. Made damn sure it was true. Look, you've got your Roadhouse connections, I got mine. It's how I found Sammy in the first place. About a month ago I found another one of these freaks here in town. He could deep-fry a person just by touching them.”
Gordon doesn’t think the psychics like Sam are pure human; he’s heard about the demon army the psychics are meant to lead and considers them traitors to humankind. They’re monsters—evil things that need to be hunted—just as Sam learned to associate with freak as a kid.
And Gordon isn’t the only hunter targeting Sam for his supernatural abilities either. “Gordon told me about you, Sam. About your powers. You're some kind of weirdo psychic freak,” Kubrik tells a bound and beaten Sam in “Bad Day at Black Rock.” The religious hunter tortures Sam and would have shot him as the Antichrist if not for Dean’s well-timed (read: lucky) intervention. Despite the humorous takedown that ensues, this instance only reinforces Sam’s insecurities for the future as Dean, it seems, is the only hunter willing to bend the definition of freak—and that’s only because Sam is his brother.
But despite Dean’s insistence to the contrary, Sam never feels like he can really depend on his brother to not view him differently because of his abilities. His bias against the supernatural runs down to his very core, after all. That’s why he refuses to trust Ruby, a demon, though she claims she can save Dean from his deal. Dean might be willing to step into the grey areas for Sam, but that open-mindedness stops with blood.
And that disparity between the brothers after Dean makes his deal is the chink in their otherwise solid relationship that Ruby uses to divide and conquer. She needs Sam to harness his powers and takes advantage of both his desperation to save his brother from Hell and his insecurities about how Dean views him. Because, in the end, Sam’s worst nightmare is Dean seeing him as the monster he always associated with the unnatural.
“You don't like being different,” Ruby tells Sam in “No Rest for the Wicked.” “You hate the way Dean looks at you sometimes. Like you're some kind of sideshow freak. But suck it up because we've got a lot of ground to cover, and we've gotta do it fast.”