The monster story offered some horrific fat sucking visuals (only on Supernatural!), balanced out with some delicious gun shows of the right kind, as Sam slips into something more comfortable. Dean shows even a hairnet cannot fight the allure of his beard, and director Phil Sgriccia takes full advantage of scary dark basements. All in all, a well done stand alone, showing Sam and Dean working well together as hunters and throwing the odd comment to show they are not working so well as brothers.
But then writers Snyder and Charmelo had to throw in an ending brother chat which took away the hope I had last week we’d start clearing up some tensions and instead stripped the brotherhood bare in the worst possible way. The boys’ clothes stay on, but Sam decides to flay Dean’s illusions about their bond right out of his soul, one well placed stroke at a time.
Last week, Sam gave Dean his terms of working with him: they’ll split the nastiness of the life, but as co-workers, not brothers. The conversation was ambiguous enough there was a small sliver of hope Sam meant he felt they had work to do as brothers. As “The Purge” opens, Dean shows Sam exactly how he interpreted Sam’s words when he responds to Sam’s query about his state of mind by saying, “You mean, that we’re not brothers anymore?”
Instead of clarifying his previous words, Sam simply responds, “Good. Because I was just being honest.”
He takes that honesty up a notch in the final scene. Dean, whose drinking is increasing as his sleeping heads in the opposite direction, decides he and Sam really have to talk. It should be a good step, as fans have been wanting to whack the boys upside the head for some time now, with a stern, “Just talk!”
Well, be careful what you wish for, as they say.
Dean tells Sam he saved his life tonight, he saved it in the church, and he saved it in the hospital. He’s aware of the consent issues with the angel possession, as we’ve already seen. But the situation is not black and white to him. He tells Sam, “I may not think things all the way through but what I do, I do because it’s the right thing. I’d do it again.”
Dean’s formative years with Sam had overtones of father and mother as well as brother, and that parental outlook may need a lighter touch with his adult brother, but once we have a parental outlook on someone, it never really goes away. And nothing will bring it out faster than the child being in danger, no matter how old the “child” is.
Sam has never had this kind of relationship with anyone. As the younger brother he is used to fighting for autonomy, but not being responsible for another person. Dean’s words leave lots of room to engage his argument. There are different ways of defining the right thing, as Dean well knows. The right thing to do in “Swan Song” was to help Sam destroy himself, something Dean had fought so hard against but in the end realized he had to do, because that was the only way Sam could remain himself.
But Sam doesn’t have access to Dean’s perspective and he doesn’t hear the spaces between Dean’s words where he could engage Dean in a way that makes sense to his brother. Instead of asking Dean to really look at how he’s defining the right thing, he focuses on judging his brother, which not only doesn’t help communication, it complicates the situation even more.
Sam strikes at the heart of Dean’s rationale for being able to keep going despite the horrible losses and dreadful events they’ve undergone.
“You think you’re my saviour, my brother the hero, you swoop in and even when you mess up you think what you’re doing is worth it because you’ve convinced yourself you’re doing more good than bad. But you’re not. Kevin’s dead, Crowley’s in the wind, we’re no closer to winning this angel thing.”
Sam is close to being dismissive of Dean, telling his brother he’s done more bad than good as a hero, and he’s not just talking about what happened in the hospital or to Kevin. He broadened the scope last episode when he told Dean his attitude to family is the source of everything wrong that’s happened between them, including the scene in the church, and to my read, every difficult event they’ve undergone since the pilot. Sam doesn’t see anything situational about the issues between them. He sees the way Dean negotiates his life as the problem.
“But you, you didn’t want to be alone. And that’s what all this boils down to. You can’t stand the thought of being alone. I’ll give you this much. You are certainly willing to be the one doing the sacrificing, as long as you are not the one being hurt.”
It was this part of Sam’s speech that signalled to me I was going to have serious problems with this episode, this season and very possibly with Jeremy Carver’s tenure as showrunner. If these words truly sum up Sam’s view of Dean, then he does not know his brother, and if he doesn’t by now, I don’t see why he ever will.
I was simply stunned to hear Sam say that Dean Winchester is only willing to sacrifice himself as long it doesn’t cause him any pain. Dean Winchester. Not willing to accept being hurt for others. Really. Oh, Sam.
Yes, Dean doesn’t want to be alone and that does factor into his decisions to save Sam. But so does the way he views Sam as someone he has been given responsibility for, that he needs to care for. Dean was a child given the responsibility to care for a child, and under ridiculous conditions he did so, giving up much of his own autonomy in the process. In “Bad Boys,” we saw that Dean could see the value in another kind of life, one where he could be a kid and have his own dreams. We saw he had everything needed to do well on his own, handling academic pressures and making strong connections with other people. And we saw that he returned to his difficult life on the road because of Sam.
And not simply because he knew he could never abandon his younger brother to his father’s harsh parenting, especially given his brother and father had huge communication issues. When Young Dean turns away from the window after spotting Sam, he has a huge smile on his face and walks away from the group home without looking back. He loves Sam, and if their life together brings him outrageous responsibilities, he can focus on the good and accept the bad. It’s a characteristic of Dean’s his father didn’t appreciate until it was too late. Saying goodbye to his son in “In My Time of Dying,” John doesn’t mention one word about Dean’s hunting prowess. Instead, he focuses on what Dean gives to people.
You know, when you were a kid, I'd come home from a hunt, and after what I'd seen, I'd be, I'd be wrecked. And you, you'd come up to me and you, you'd put your hand on my shoulder and you'd look me in the eye and you'd... You'd say "It's okay, Dad"
Dean, I'm sorry.
You shouldn't have had to say that to me, I should have been saying that to you. You know, I put, I put too much on your shoulders, I made you grow up too fast. You took care of Sammy, you took care of me. You did that, and you didn't complain, not once. I just want you to know that I am so proud of you.
This really you talking?
I was left after hearing Sam’s words this episode thinking Dean should have complained, because Sam has a narrow definition of sacrifice, and despite the last scene in “Bad Boys,” he appears oblivious to what Dean has given up without pointing out the cost to him.
We saw this last season with Benny. In this episode, Sam goes for the jugular in telling Dean his relationship with Sam is based on fear of being alone, and it’s that fear that drives his sacrifices. There is some truth to that, as Dean himself said in season three. But it isn’t the whole truth, nor is Sam looking at how he handles the prospect of Dean having other people in his life he cares about.
When Dean disappeared in season eight, Sam showed in action the concept he voiced to Dean in “The Purge.” He would not move heaven and earth to find out what happened to his brother. He could move on and appreciate that Dean’s absence opened the door to his assuming another life, another identity. That isn’t to say he didn’t hurt when he lost Dean. He did. But his way of coping was to walk away from his life as Sam Winchester to one he was and perhaps still is sure is the “real” him, despite the lies he has to tell to make it work. When Dean returned, Sam told his brother to think about hunting alone after the quest was done, because Sam liked the life he built without Dean.
However, he delivered very mixed messages to Dean, because at the same time as he pushed Dean away, he was also furious and hurt at the idea Dean might put anyone in front of him. He imagined his brother hunting alone, despite Dean’s clear preference for having connections. Sam wanted autonomy but needed to remain the centre of his brother’s attention. It was a very hard position for Dean to negotiate.
It was hard for me as a viewer, too. I had huge issues with the way Sam wanted Dean to kill Benny on general principles, as he has never had that definition of a monster. I had huge issues with Sam telling Dean he needed to let Sam go when the job was done, but in the meantime his terms for working together were cutting ties with Benny. And I never saw Sam ever process how much it hurt Dean to abandon a friend in need and how unfair it was to ask that of him as a way to prove his love.
I was so happy when “Sacrifice” finally gave me context for Sam’s actions and I’m now so unhappy the power of the church scene has been taken away. After this episode, I’m even unhappier that Sam is castigating Dean for focusing on Sam for his happiness, while not acknowledging at all his own complicity or that Dean’s sacrifices for him do not all involve making deals.
I’m unhappy with other ways Sam framed his argument in this episode. After listing all the problems they still have to solve, Sam asks Dean, “Please tell me. What is the upside of me being alive?”
First, with the scale of the issues Sam and Dean have always faced, why is Sam putting a strict timeline on when they should have stopped the angel war or solved the succession problems in hell? If they manage to pull off a win at all at any time, they are doing well. It’s always taken the two of them working together to win against cosmic forces and, despite the issues around why, the two of them are still together ready to continue the good fight, as Dean says. That’s one upside of being alive. Neither one has ever gone good places by fighting alone.
Secondly, the very fact that Sam is weighing the value of his life against goals he has to accomplish raises the issues Cas mentioned to Sam. Why does he not value his life because of who he is, not what he does? Cas refused to sacrifice Sam to find Gadreel and he didn’t apologize. Instead, he pointed out Sam didn’t need to atone, though Cas understands the emotions Sam feels about his mistakes.
I think there is some ambiguity about the source of Sam’s acceptance of death. Sam’s response is “So?” to learning the trials will kill him, and he follows that up with saying he just screws up anyway. How is this mature rather than an indication he needs help? Nothing about the “Sacrifice” scene made me think, “Dean, Sam’s a big boy, let him die if he wants to.”
And I think the way Sam took ownership of the trials in “Trial and Error” reinforces how much he has changed by “Sacrifice.” Sam was frightened by Dean’s loss of hope and willingness to die to complete the trials, telling his brother his attitude would make it a suicide mission, while Sam’s attitude was that they were allowed hope and he would show Dean how to find it. No wonder Dean was astounded at hearing Sam’s words in the church. Why would he assume Sam’s change in attitude was healthy and should be supported? Sam himself didn’t think that kind of attitude was healthy earlier in the season.
Finally, I think the way Dean in the church reframed the goal of the Winchesters’ mission to Sam offered a viable middle road to Sam, who spent season 8 oscillating between feeling he didn’t have a responsibility to hunt bad things to feeling he had to sacrifice himself to atone for every mistake he’s made—and letting Dean know it’s Dean’s voice he’s hearing in his head when he’s judging himself. There’s a reason for that—Dean did let out some repressed resentment, some of which was unfair and all of which was past time to be let go. On a number of fronts, Dean realized he needed to let his brother know Dean does not view his brother as running on a treadmill of blame, never to get off.
He also saw the mission to close the gates as different from the mission to stop the Apocalypse. Unlike the Apocalypse, Sam and Dean voluntarily took on the quest to close the gates of hell, and they primarily justified it on the grounds of payback. They never really grappled with the question of whether they should close the gates even if they could. Is there a reason for the balance between heaven and hell? Would it really improve things for humans if the angels had completely free reign? And is there perhaps a bigger plan in motion on extending the idea of free will to other realms, including hell?
Is the decision to close the gates of hell above the Winchesters’ pay grade?
Dean telling Sam his sacrifice is not necessary because the Winchesters have enough knowledge to continue to make a difference in the fight against evil wherever it lurks worked for me. I didn’t then and don’t now view Dean as selfish when he talked Sam down off the ledge.
So to me, Sam’s words to Dean feel very unsatisfying if they are intended to lay bare the issues of the relationship and therefore provide the foundation on which to rebuild it. I didn’t end the episode all agog and desperately hoping the hiatus flies by so I can see how things progress. Instead, I heard a distinct “ping” as the bond between the brothers snapped for me.
If Sam truly feels the way he is shown in “The Purge,” then I don’t really see why I should be invested in the boys getting back together. I’ve always thought this possibility was a danger inherent in Carver’s vision, but hoped I was wrong. However, Sam’s words made me examine why I want the boys to face life together.
Sam and Dean have always been distinct individuals, with their own hopes and experiences. But under Carver’s stewardship, the narrative has emphasized that they view love differently, family differently, roles differently – all of the important issues that infuse relationships. They don’t understand each other, can’t communicate with each other even when they talk and have no common goals. Sam and Dean have morphed into the Sam and Dean of “What Is and What Should Never Be.” Why is this a relationship to work on rather than leave?
In terms of maturity, it seems more to the point to admit there’s not enough in common to build a life on and go their separate ways. That way Dean will be open to relationships more in line with the way he views them and Sam will be free to either walk away from hunting or sacrifice himself to atone for his past, whichever feeling is top most in him. And if Sam’s choice is to resume a normal life now that he has a life to resume, Amelia is still out there.
Sam with Amelia is now something the narrative supports, I think. Kripke’s vision of the brothers was based on Luke and Han, with Sam as the special child and Dean as the bonded partner, fighting side by side to change destiny. I noticed in Carver’s last interview, he described Cas as Luke, taking up the sword to fight on that larger canvas instead of choosing a domestic life. The show is evolving under a different showrunner.
The question for me is whether I am intrigued by the changes. Sadly, I’m not. I know what drew me to this show, and it turns out to be Kripke’s vision of the power of family. I loved the way he drew up dedication to family and dedication to mission as opposing choices, one espoused by Dean, one by John, with Sam caught in the middle, and then collapsed the dichotomy in “Swan Song.”
The world was not saved by the colt or by alliances or strategic planning. Dean’s refusal to leave Sam and his belief in his brother’s ability to remain himself helped Sam to defeat Lucifer. Believing most of all in the family unit was not a detriment to the mission; it was the key. I’m not interested in reconstructing that dichotomy as Sam seems to be doing, nor in devaluing what Dean did in “Swan Song.” Dean knows very well what it means to sacrifice his happiness to honour Sam’s wishes. He’s already been there and done that.
To my mind, what he has a problem with is Sam letting go when there is a choice. I don’t blame him for struggling with that, as I don’t blame Sam for finding possession especially abhorrent. I do blame the writers for framing this conflict in a way that to me changes the story and characters. I hope the rest of the season finds a way to make me believe the boys should be together rather than finding other relationships. It will be an uphill battle after the words spoken in this episode.
Thanks to homeofthenutty.com for the photos.