“What do you want?”
This seems to be the crux of the Supernatural episode “Stranger in a Strange Land.” Almost every character gets asked this important question in some manner. Almost every character has an answer. Jamil, the Syrian refugee, answers Michael, “Peace. And love.” Nick, Lucifer's former vessel, wants peace and quiet from the nightmares. Castiel and Jack want to help Sam find Dean. Bobby, Mary and the remaining refugees from the alternate universe want to pitch in as well. They want to prevent Michael from turning this world into another wasteland. Sister Jo refuses to answer Michael's question and so Michael tells her that she wants to belong. Kipling decides that he would like to take Crowley's place on the throne. He wants to be King of Hell, committing “demon on demon violence” while the Winchesters look the other way. Even Michael, the one asking the question, has an answer. He wants “a better world.”
The only one not asked this question is Sam Winchester.
The beginning of season 14 sees Sam in a strange but familiar place. Sam has been here before and yet he's never been here before. He's been through losing his brother many times. It has shattered him in different ways each time. He has experienced the horrors of the Mystery Spot, watching Dean die for over a hundred Tuesdays. He has watched his brother be gunned down on Wednesday. He has seen Dean dragged to Hell. He has watched his brother die at the hands of Metatron, returning as a demon. He has suffered his brother's disappearance into Purgatory. He has watched the Mark of Cain slowly corrupt his brother--it forced Sam to take extreme measures to stop it. Losing Dean is a familiar ache and experience. It has left many scars on Sam's psyche---some deeper than any scar Lucifer's torments have left behind.
And yet, this is also new for Sam. In the past, Sam has been the one that has been possessed. Meg possessed him. Lucifer took the reins. He has experienced life without a soul. He has been possessed by Gadreel---and briefly by Crowley. No one on the planet knows more about what Michael is doing to Dean than Sam Winchester. This is a new terror for Sam. Dean has ever been the steadfast and unchanging rock in Sam's life. No matter what terrible things they faced, Sam knew that Dean would be there. Now, Sam has no idea what has happened to his brother while knowing exactly what is happening to his brother. The nightmares Sam envisions may be worse than what is actually happening. Those nightmares are almost worse than the truth yet known.
Mary tries to comfort Sam. Her complex relationship with her sons makes relating to them difficult. Even so, she reaches out to her youngest son to reassure him that Dean will come back and that they will find him. It is as close as anyone gets to asking Sam what he wants. She states, “I know. I know he's out there, scared and alone. I know. I know he might not ever come back. Never think I don't know that. But I can't... I have to think about the good, Sam, because if I don't I will drown in the bad. For Dean's sake, I can't do that. We can't do that.” Sam rejects this. He has trod this road too many times before but never with the stakes being quite this high. He could find ways to deal with Hell to return Dean if he must as he has done in the past. He had the tools of curing demons on his side to restore his brother from his demonic form. He could force Gabriel to set things back to before the Mystery Spot. Now, Sam has to reason with an archangel bent on destruction. There is no chance of convincing Michael to leave Dean's vessel---aside from finding a way to reach Dean from within.
Unlike the original script, Michael isn't here to usher in paradise. Instead, in many ways, it seems that Michael's plans so far entail picking up where Lucifer left off. Michael wants a “better world” and that means eliminating people. The alternative universe's condition seemed to indicate that being the archangel's endgame. Michael sees humanity as a scourge on the planet and God's creation. He sees the flaws, sins, vulnerabilities, and weaknesses as an affront on what God created. He sees them as irredeemable---evidenced by his statement to Sister Jo, “Love. To belong, to have a place -- a home, a family. It's very... very human of you. And so... so disappointing. I can sense how many angels are in this world. There aren't many left. I thought... maybe I could help. But if they're all these sad, lost, fallen things -- things like you -- maybe they're not worth saving, either.”
His angelic army in the alternative universe hunted human resistors, torturing them. Sam fears that Michael will use Dean's body now to exact that type of damage on people on a massive scale. Michael offers a deal to a vampire, making a move towards lessening the human population. Working with monsters also explains the vast nests encountered in the alternative universe. Michael is picking up where he left off---starting over if you will on his master plan to rid the world of humankind. Why not use monsters, too?
Sam also knows that this would most likely shatter Dean. Sam knows how scarring possession is. He also knows that Dean's past will haunt his brother once more. Dean tortured in Hell as a torture master. He only indulges in extreme cases---and it is something that shames him when he thinks too hard about it. To know someone else would use his knowledge to torture people would devastate Dean. After all, Micheal knows Dean's deepest and darkest secrets---and where he is most vulnerable. He will torment Dean from within while using Dean's body to commit atrocities. Sam knows they rush against the clock---will they save Dean in time for him to be still Dean? Or will he become a shadow broken by what he's endured? Will he spend years haunted as Sam was by the possession of Lucifer? Will Dean be tormented the way Nick is by nightmares?
Unlike in the past, however, Sam is doing things differently this time. When Dean was taken from him on that fateful Wednesday, it set the trend for Sam's behavior in Dean's absence. He shuts down emotionally and becomes obsessive in his hunting. Sam isolates himself from everyone and everything. In the most extreme of cases of abandonment, Sam retreats from the hunting world entirely unable to cope. This time, Sam surrounds himself with many people. He has his mother, a capable and experienced hunter---and blood relative. He has Bobby from the alternative universe---a figure so familiar and comforting because he seems so much like the Bobby they lost. He has Castiel, also committed to whatever it takes to return Dean. He has Jack, someone he sees so much of his younger self in---someone he wants to protect and nurture. He has the other hunters from the alternative world and those in the hunting network here already. He even has Ketch, someone he does not trust much.
This hive of people around Sam gives him purpose. He has more than his own grief and desperation to wallow in. Sam can't shut down or isolate himself in this case. In taking in all these others to his cause, Sam has allowed himself to then take on a new yet familiar role: leader. Sam has often followed Dean's lead---not without friction of course! It is now up to him to call the shots alone, to set the course, to be there for those in his group that need a boost. In some ways, Sam is teetering on the edge of the other extreme. He is giving too much of himself. It is why the absence of anyone asking him what he wants seems so glaring. Everyone may already know the answer but that no one asks shows how much sacrifice he's making. He is far too busy taking care of everyone else.
Sam makes time for a struggling Jack. He's there for the young man in the wake of losing his powers. He tells Jack, “Jack... I know this must be so hard. Without your grace, without your powers, it's a lot, I'm sure. But you can get past this. I know you will. I have faith in you, Jack. And I believe in you.” He takes time for Nick, the man who looks so much like his tormentor, Lucifer. Sam shows his compassion as he gently speaks to this broken man. None of us can see him without wondering if this isn't some trick. Sam carefully dabs Nick's wound and takes care not to do more damage to the injury. This is an action he could have left to someone else in their new group. Instead, Sam takes the lead and does it despite the great anxiety and pain it must bring him. His anxiety ghosts across his face, a reminder that this is no easy task for Sam. He is there for Castiel after they return from the fight. He reassures Castiel, “Cas, I -- No, I-I-I don't blame you. I... Honestly, I-I wish I'd have thought of it first. If it meant finding Dean, I-I'd... work with... I'd do anything.” And yet, even Castiel knows this isn't quite the truth. Sam refused to work with the demons even though they might know something about Michael. Sam thanks those helping him with this effort, praising the efforts of each no matter how small.
Sam, however, steps up to being a leader the most when he launches the operation to rescue Castiel. He knows they're walking into a deadly situation that may result in some casualties. Despite Bobby's reservations about Jack, Sam allows the young man to come along to help fight. He states, “He needs this, Bobby.” In this way, Sam reflects his own needs of the present and the past. In the past, keeping busy has prevented Sam from wallowing. It has prevented Sam from floundering. Taking action gives purpose, even if it seems hopeless. The alternative is to sit still and watch everything destruct. Everyone wants to be useful, to have purpose, to take meaningful action. To leave Jack behind would only allow his dark thoughts to fester. It would trap him in his anger and frustration, potentially making him impulsive. Sam knows this because he's been where Jack is. Sam wants Jack to move forward and not despair---otherwise he might find himself sucked into it, too.
At the rendezvous, Sam makes himself the target. He hands over his weapons before he's searched and presented to Kip. He goes out of his way to try and take the brunt of the beatings and attacks once things go south. After all, this trap wasn't set for anyone else. It is his responsibility to face this.
Most of all, Sam sticks to his integrity and refuses to retread old roads. Kip wants to force Sam into a demon deal giving Kip the throne of Hell. Even more, he wants it without Winchester interference. He knows that Dean is missing and that Michael is to blame. He knows that Sam is desperate for anything and anyone that might help them restore his brother. Kip has no problem exploiting the situation for his own benefit. He believes if he negotiates for a return to the status quo under a Crowley-like regime that he'll get what he wants. After all, he's met with Michael and may be able to find a way to reach the archangel in return for Sam's capitulation. He knows Sam's history. After all, he greets Sam by stating, “Ladies and gentlemen, the great Sam Winchester. I have heard so much about you. You are a damn legend, Sam -- a-an icon. Th-the shoulders, the -- the hair. Mm-mm! You are my Beyoncé.”
Kip must also know Sam's reputation for making demon deals---like the one he did with Ruby long ago. What would one more deal like this be in the Winchester's feather-cap? If he could force Sam into subjugation, he'd be the King of Hell by default. Kip thinks that Sam has no choice but to agree. When it seems Sam's hesitating, he points to the stool next to him, brokering no arguments. To his astonishment, Sam refuses despite the other demons taking Sam's allies hostage. Sam will not work with him. Sam will not sit by and allow this demon to ascend the throne of Hell. Kip has no choice, then, but to engage Sam in a battle to the death. He can't let Sam walk out alive without getting what he wants.
Sam has chosen to learn from his mistakes and his victories. In the past, he would have made this deal with Kip. His desperation and his grief would have made it seem the only logical action to return Dean quickly. Yet, Sam has grown much wiser in his encounters with demons over time. After all, he has to know that Kip will not uphold his end of the bargain. Even if he were to say yes and go along with it, there's no telling that Kip would honor it or let them leave alive. Why should he if he can force Sam to acquiesce? And if he should let them leave alive, how long before he forces Sam into doing things he doesn't want? No, Sam has gone through that too many times---with Ruby and Crowley as prime examples. Sam, instead, wants redemption for his past and rejecting Kip is a good way of doing so.
Secondly, Sam has already proven himself able to resist coercion by far deadlier foes. He has gone toe-to-toe with Lucifer more than once and won. Why should he kowtow to a far lesser opponent? Kip is insignificant in comparison to those he dealt with in the past and those Sam has bested. In this manner, Sam emerges not from a position of weakness but of immense strength. He can and does refuse Kip because, in the end, Kip is not worthy of dealing with at all. It is this element that incenses this wannabe King. After all, he brags, “You see, in life, I rode with Genghis Khan, and I burned half the world...” To have someone he sees as weaker outright reject him makes his position with the other demons weak. Kip can't let that stand. So he must eliminate Sam for his offense.
It is his fatal mistake.
The battle is messy. Castiel seems impotent throughout, casting questions onto his own health and status. Have his powers diminished with the fewer number of angels? Have the issues in Heaven somehow blocked him and his abilities on some level? Have they rejected him enough to cause something to go wrong? Castiel cannot help in this fight. Mary and Bobby hold their own , their skills allowing them to fight hard enough to buy Sam some time. His grace drained by Lucifer, Jack shows how green he is at close combat, struggling. He complains later that he “mostly got punched in the face.” Even so, Sam's experience, and dancing on the knife's edge of death has allowed him to get the upper-hand on Kip. Wrestling over the demon-killing blade, Sam manages to turn it back on the demon. He stabs him through with it, killing this would be King.
In the aftermath, everyone stops and stares at Sam in awe and respect. In frustration, Sam issues an ultimatum. “Enough! There will be no new King of Hell. Not today. Not ever. And if anybody wants the job, you can come through me. Understood? So, what's it gonna to be?”
At this moment, Sam has truly become the leader of this group---and in a weird way a default King of Hell himself . Sam's reputation alone causes the demons to back down. None will challenge him or his authority. On some levels, this is strange. After all, there are more of them than those backing Sam. Sam is but one human being and they are demons with strength in numbers and powers on their side. And yet, they back down because perhaps there's much more to meet the eye here. Jack and Castiel's impotent powers in this episode may foreshadow something long speculated by the fandom. Could Sam truly still possess his powers even in a latent state? Could that be the reason these demons fled the scene in terror? If so, what would it mean and how could it help them save Dean?
On the other hand, Sam has grown so much beyond needing such things as his powers to be powerful, useful and respected. He has bested Lucifer twice. He has saved the world from multiple crises. Even with as many times he has endured death itself, Sam still stands. He is no mere human being to trifle with as so many of the other hunters that meet their demise in this line of work are. Sam has proven himself to be a strong, reliable, and capable hunter. He can and will fight to stop demons from wreaking havoc on the world. He makes this demand of them so that they will remain out of his way as he works to save Dean from Michael's clutches. A new King of Hell to contend with---no matter how helpful or not---would get in the way. Sam knows this. He also knows that the demon blood and his powers in the past stood in as crutches---ones he no longer needs. They also come with a heavy price---one Sam will not pay ever again.
Sam has his intelligence and experience to help him solve what he wants. He need not rely on some of the tactics of the past. Instead, Sam has gone out of his way to make a better world while feeling that his own has crumbled around him. The episode answered everyone else's wants and needs on so many levels. At their root, however, each one reflects Sam's very own desire. It is as old as Supernatural itself. No matter what has happened, is happening, or will happen on this show, at its heart, it centers as ever on that of family. Jamil wanted love. Dean said “Yes” to Michael out of love. Castiel and Jack want to belong to family---and Castiel even reminds Jack, “Oh, Jack, that's just not true. You've got me. You have all of us. You have your family. And -- And we are going to find Dean, and we are going to beat Michael and we are going to do it together. We -- Because that's what we do.” The alternative world refugees want nothing more than to stay together and defeat their enemy---all so those they lost in the cause do not die in vain. As ever, the heart of Supernatural beats true and strong.
In this episode, Sam was that beating heart, bright, brave, and true. Faced with the direst situation yet, he stood up and met it---even if he is sporting the “grief beard.” All the while, he ignored the very question that lies at the center of this episode---what Sam wants most. All the while, he put everyone else ahead of himself. In many ways, it is Sam doing homage to his brother. Often, after all, it is Dean that takes care of those around him. Often, it is Dean that leads everyone. Sam will not stop until Dean is returned to him---and the best way for him to do it is to step up and lead. He has done that here with grace and strength. Dean would be proud.
It is also a clue to what he wants most.
Even though Michael will already know the answer, he will eventually ask Sam the question, “What do you want?”
There can only be one answer.