Supernatural Season Eight and Playing with Perception: The Insight of Sam and Dean
â€œPeople only see what they are prepared to see.â€ â€“ Ralph Waldo EmersonAfter the first few episodes of Season 8 of Supernatural, I found myself wondering if things were really what they seemed. Did Castiel really get left behind? Was Benny on the level? Were Samâ€™s memories of Amelia real? Now, after nine episodes, Iâ€™m not questioning if actual events are as they seem, but Iâ€™m pondering how the brothers will come to terms with one another as a result of their interpretations of all these events. What decisions will they have to make? How will they arrive at those decisions, which have been influenced by their individual perceptions?
Before trying to answer those questions, letâ€™s take a moment to look back to the summer and recall what Jeremy Carver had to say about Season eight during Comic-Con:
â€œA lot of the season is all about perception. You might think that something seems to be one way at the beginning but ... itâ€™s never quite how you think it is in a very raw, emotional way.â€After Comic-Con and at the beginning of the season, theories flew from every corner of the fandom regarding what may have went down in Purgatory, what Bennyâ€™s agenda might be, and what really happened to Sam during that year. As each episode unfolded, the audience sought to decipher what the brothersâ€™ flashbacks meant, and if reality was in fact, what we were seeing, or if it was something else entirely. As the season goes on, however, it becomes clearer that â€œperceptionâ€ this season doesnâ€™t necessarily have to do with just the events themselves, but how those events have led Sam and Dean to perceive themselves, their roles and responsibilities, and their expectations of each other. Is it really that things are not what they seem, or that Sam and Dean are not quite who they used to be?
But before we look at Sam and Deanâ€™s perceptions of things, letâ€™s stop again to take a look at perception itself.
The organization, identification and interpretation of sensory information in order to represent and understand the environment- Merriam-Webster.com (Merriam-Webster 2012).
In other words, we are constantly being inundated with information from our five senses. Perception is our brainâ€™s processes of figuring out what all this stimuli means, and as this occurs, our reality is formed.
Perception can be altered by many factors. As an occupational therapist, I see how peopleâ€™s perception can be affected when the systems that provide sensory input are damaged in some way. For example, visual perception changes drastically for a person with macular degeneration, leading to trouble with everyday tasks like reading and driving. The ability to perceive where the feet are on the floor, or even if the feet are on the floor, is impacted due to conditions like peripheral neuropathy, resulting in difficulty with walking. A personâ€™s ability to speak and perceive speech is affected when a stroke causes aphasia, thus impacting normal communication.
Many other, though less extreme, causes can alter our perception as well, such as fatigue, fear, and excessive multi-tasking. Those less serious causes, however, can still result in drastic errors of perception. Thatâ€™s why texting or talking on the phone while driving is so dangerous, and why the Federal Aviation Administration sets out rules to prevent pilot fatigue. Even in the absence of any conditions that may radically change our perception, the process itself, even on our best days, is flawed.
In the book Psychology of Intelligence Analysis (Pherson Associates LLC, Reston, 2007) author Richards J. Heur, who spent 45 years with the CIA, writes about perception:
â€œPeople tend to think of perception as a passive process. We hear, smell, taste, or feel stimuli that impinge upon our senses. We think that if we are at all objective, we record what is actually there. Yet perception is demonstrably an active rather than a passive process; it constructs rather than â€˜recordsâ€™ reality.â€
In other words, perception is not so much a DVR, but more like a video camera with editing capabilities. We see certain things and miss others. A famous example of this came from researchers Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris, who conducted a study involving perception. Below is the test they administered. If you have not seen this before or are not familiar with the results of this test, have a go at it.
In the study, about half of the people who watched the video did not see the gorilla. The researchers had this to say about the results:
â€œHow could people not see a gorilla walk directly in front of them, turn to face them, beat its chest and walk away? What made the gorilla invisible? This error of perception results from a lack of attention to an unexpected object, so it goes by the scientific name â€˜inattentional blindnessâ€™.â€ -The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us (Broadway, a Division of Random House, Inc. New York, 2011)
It suffices to say perception is not infallible, neither physical perception regarding our own ability to function and navigate in our environment, nor social perception in regard to how our views about people are formed and the judgments we make about people based on those views. Perception, then, is often at the mercy of our own expectations, life circumstances, and biases.
This brings us to perspective (specifically cognitive), which is closely related to perception.
A mental view or outlook; the relationship of aspects of a subject to each other and to a whole; the ability to perceive things as they relate to one another or in their comparative importance. - The Free Dictionary.com (The Free Dictionary by Farlex, 2012)
In the case of Supernatural, perception and perspective seem inextricably linked, and both play a big part in the way Sam and Dean experience life and interact with one another. So for the purposes of the rest of this essay, I will use them interchangeably.
Volumes could most likely be written on Dean in regard to perception. His experiences alone (losing his loved ones, hunting, going to Hell, being tortured in Hell, going to Purgatory) would critically alter his perceptions, both physical and social. But for current purposes, letâ€™s concentrate on social perception. Itâ€™s safe to say Deanâ€™s own perception of himself has made him act in certain ways, and has altered how he viewed many events.
Deanâ€™s feelings of low self-worth came into play many times, causing excessive guilt over his dadâ€™s sacrifice for him, initial passivity regarding the prospect of going to Hell, and self-blame for the deaths of Jo, Ellen and even Ronald Resnick (from Nightshifter). Deanâ€™s perception of himself as caretaker and his strong need to protect those he cares about also influenced his actions many times, causing him to sacrifice his own soul for Sam, die in order to attempt to get Samâ€™s soul back, and feel guilt about leaving Cass in Purgatory (though we now know that wasnâ€™t true). Deanâ€™s tendency to feel abandoned has come to alter the way he sees things, taking Samâ€™s desire for a normal life (in Season one and revisited again in season 8) Samâ€™s independent version of Heaven, and Samâ€™s choice to not look for Dean as a rejection of him. And these are just some of the times Deanâ€™s perception of himself or Sam has in turn altered how he perceived various events.
Focusing on Season eight, how are Deanâ€™s perceptions being influenced now? He has a reinvigorated view of hunting, shaped by his experiences in Purgatory. Though highly dangerous and very nasty, there was purity about the fight in Purgatory that helped Dean solidify his purpose to be a hunter. Yet, he has also befriended a â€œmonsterâ€ as well. We still donâ€™t know if Deanâ€™s perception of Benny is accurate or not. Only time will tell. But as of now, Deanâ€™s right on target about his vampire friend. And having met someone who fought beside him for a year and has (so far) honored all his promises, Dean has come to perceive Benny as a brother of sorts.
Right now, Deanâ€™s perception of Samâ€™s actions is where the inaccuracies exist. His bitterness at Sam not having looked for him and his disappointment that Sam doesnâ€™t want to hunt (at least not as much as Sam wants to have a normal life), seems to be giving Dean a type of â€œinattentional blindnessâ€- one that results not in missing an unexpected object in his visual field, but that leads to loss of sight regarding Samâ€™s unexpected feelings and desires. Deanâ€™s focus on what they should be doing, and more recently on his own feelings of loyalty toward Benny, leaves no room to focus on Samâ€™s point of view, or even seriously consider it. Itâ€™s not allowing Dean to see that even though Sam may want something that is diametrically opposed to what Dean wants, Sam still loves (and feels loyal to) his brother.
Large books can also be written about Sam and his perceptions, as his physical, mental, and emotional experiences (being fed demon blood as an infant, growing up without a mother, hunting, having precognitive abilities, being possessed by Lucifer, going to Hell, having his soul tortured in Hell, hallucinating - just to name a few) would surely alter his perception of things. Again, concentrating on social perception and his relationship with Dean, letâ€™s take a look at some of the ways Samâ€™s perceptions may have affected his decisions.
Sam, in the past, just wanted a normal life. His perception of himself as a â€œfreakâ€ shaped his decision to go to college (and move beyond the shadow of his â€œnon-normalâ€ family and life of hunting) early on. That same perception caused him to initially be secretive about his visions, and created a desire to go back to school (and to a normal life) once Sam and Dean killed Azazel. Samâ€™s perception of himself was even reinforced by outside forces, with the revelations from Dean regarding what their dad had instructed Dean to do, and the realization that Sam may have been groomed for dark forces since he was a baby. This in turn shaped his desire to save as many people as possible, increased his anxiety about his destiny, and even led to his wanting to shoot himself when he thought he might be infected with the Croatoan virus so as not to become â€œone of those thingsâ€. Samâ€™s decision to continue associating with Ruby was partially wrought by his own perception of being a â€œwhole new level of freakâ€ and wanting to do some good (aka exorcise demons and later, kill Lilith) despite the curse he lived under. Even much later, Samâ€™s choice to let Amy go was influenced by his ability to relate to the â€œfreakâ€ inside of her.
Concentrating on this season, Samâ€™s experiences during his year away from hunting have changed his perception of things as well. Initially, Sam tells us he ran. One can discern this was because the intake of stimuli at the end of Season seven (losing everyone, Dean disappearing, Crowley taking Kevin) became too much to bear. Sam perceived himself as totally alone and without any leads (whether or not that is true remains up for debate). His perception is that meeting Amelia and falling in love with her somehow saved him. He spent the last year living in relative peace (his grief over Dean notwithstanding), free from supernatural threats, without having to experience the fight or flight response on a daily basis. Samâ€™s perspective comes from having seen the other side and discovering he wants it (again). However, his focus on what was lost with Amelia and his current aversion for the hunting life seems to be giving him his own â€œinattentional blindnessâ€ toward Deanâ€™s convictions about his life mission. In addition, Samâ€™s distress over Deanâ€™s comments about his â€œbrotherhoodâ€ with Benny (and perhaps due to Samâ€™s own past experiences with Ruby and Amy) are not allowing Sam to see Deanâ€™s unexpected friendship with Benny might be different and not necessarily a dangerous thing. In regard to their own relationship, Samâ€™s current focus blinds him not only to Deanâ€™s deep wish to be with his brother, but also to Deanâ€™s profound need for Sam to want to be with Dean as well.
The invisible gorilla for Sam and Dean, then, happens to be each other. Their own perceptions of what happened to them this year and the perspectives they have drawn from those experiences have allowed them, in a very determined way, to know what they really want. The conflict has come from their â€œinattentional blindnessâ€ that prevents them from truly seeing what the other wants, or how the other feels about the important people in his life. Also, neither one of them have been entirely forthcoming about what happened in their year apart. (Of course, if that conversation took place, this particular conflict would quickly disappear.) So, it makes sense to say that both Sam and Deanâ€™s perspectives are right, in the sense that their points of view are valid, but neither of their perceptions (of the other) is correct. But as the season progresses, we may be working toward a different perspective, one that allows Sam and Dean to see their differences and finally, truly accept the other despite them. Coming to that place of maturity may be what Jeremy Carver was hinting at back in the summer at Comic-Con when he spoke that â€œit needs to be reflected (in the show)â€¦ the growth in each guy.â€
Playing With Perception
The first part of the season did indeed tamper with perception. It explored, to a degree, what reality is. After all, we saw that Deanâ€™s â€œrealityâ€ of what happened with Castiel wasnâ€™t entirely accurate, that an old psychokinetic can create a sort of â€œcartoon realityâ€ and that even an angelâ€™s perceptions can be manipulated (by Naomi and those mysterious other angels she speaks about). In fact, when it comes to Cass, mysteries still abound. Since he is an angel, his processes of perception are different (and superior in some ways) than humans. However, from what we know from the past, Cassâ€™ perception of things (blindly following what his superiors instructed him to do in Season four, and his self-identification as God in Season Seven) could be skewed. So it looks likely that we will see more of that distortion of reality befall Cass and find out how that ties into the rest of the mythology arc. The first part of the season, however, really seemed to explore perception as it informs perspective.
The show has often asked questions about perception and perspective in previous seasons. However this year, it seems to be asking them in a more intense way, and is now exploring the ramifications of Sam and Deanâ€™s resolute answers: What makes a monsterâ€¦ a monster? Can a monster retain some humanity? Is being a hunter a life sentence? If you have already saved the world, do you have to continue to sacrifice everything for the job because of the knowledge of what is out there? And how do you come to terms with the person you love most in the world when you obviously want very different things?
Perception of the Audience
We canâ€™t have a discussion about perception without including a very important factor â€“ us! We all know that the same episode can be perceived differently by different people. Our perceptions of a scene, episode, or even a season are influenced not only by all the factors that alter perception, but by our different perspectives as well. This season, like every season before it, has included some contention within the fandom over certain points. Arguments have broken out on forums in regard to Bennyâ€™s motives, Samâ€™s decision to not look for Dean, Samâ€™s desire to leave the hunting life, and Deanâ€™s recent comments and behavior towards Sam. But for every argument which stated Benny wouldnâ€™t come between the brothers, or it wasnâ€™t out of character for Sam not to look for Dean -often citing past episodes as evidence- equally compelling arguments could be made for the exact opposite position.
Our enjoyment and interpretation of TV (or movies, books, or art) is subjective. You only have to go online to see how the same movie or book gets both five star and one star reviews (and everything in between). And though there may be objective criteria for what makes quality storytelling, whether or not those standards have been met is still very subjective. Regarding Supernatural, a storyline may resonate with some but not others; a brotherâ€™s actions may be relatable to some of the audience, where as those same actions might be deemed objectionable by other viewers. Some may find an episodeâ€™s humor spot on, while others may think it inappropriately placed. The point is we canâ€™t be so focused on our own â€œcorrectâ€ perception of things that we brush off another fanâ€™s take on things. For example, when people make absolute comments that state they know the writerâ€™s intent, or that a portion of the fans clearly donâ€™t get â€œitâ€ (a character, storyline, or even a particular scene) their perception of their own understanding is likely to be skewed. We can only make inferences on the writerâ€™s intent based on how a scene or episode spoke to us. Also, just because someone doesnâ€™t like a storyline or the actions of a character doesnâ€™t mean they donâ€™t â€œgetâ€ that character or storyline. All in all, appreciating different perspectives can open our eyes to a new way of seeing something, and in the case of Supernatural, can even broaden our enjoyment of the show.
Ultimately, despite Sam and Deanâ€™s, or anyone elseâ€™s perceptions, we know the boys will get back in that Impala and continue to hunt. As we move toward the rest of the season, we can look forward to discovering how their perspectives change, and watching the events unfold that will bring them back to one another, driving down Crazy Street-together.