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Sam Winchester and the Real Life

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I haven’t been very happy with Sam’s story line this season on Supernatural. From Sam not looking for Dean to triangle love stories, I feel like Sam’s motivations and desires have been oddly developed. There are a number of aspects that don’t work for me, but Adam Glass’s “Freaks and Geeks” brought up yet again Sam’s problematic image of “real life,” so I decided to have a look at what he means by that.

Unlike Dean, Sam never experienced “normal” as a kid—losing his home at six months of age, he would have no memories of his life in Lawrence at all. Sam’s childhood was about life on the road with his dad and his brother. It was about seedy motel rooms in which Dean tried his best to create a sense of family, while John used the home front as a boot camp. It’s not a pretty picture.

Jared PadaleckiIt’s not surprising that such a childhood would make Sam acutely aware of the differences between his life and his classmates’ lives, in whatever school he found himself at the time. John kept his boys as separate as he could from even hunters, much less civilians, but the boys had to go to school. Sam saw other families celebrating holidays with family dinners and lovely gifts, so different from his own canned dinners offered up by Dean, with his dad passed out on the couch.

Sam loved the idea of those picture perfect meals, so much that in “The Dark Side of the Moon,” one of his favourite memories was sharing the Thanksgiving meal of a childhood classmate. The table is perfectly set, the conversation polite and the food delicious. Dean points out Sam didn’t particularly like the girl who had invited him, but to Sam, that’s not the point. It was belonging to that Hallmark picture he loved.

SAM: Dean, I was eleven years old. This was my first real Thanksgiving.
DEAN: What are you talking about? We had Thanksgiving every year.
SAM: We had a bucket of extra-crispy and Dad passed out on the couch.

Dean’s memories in the episode are based on the family he has, warts and all. He loves his memory of making his little brother happy exploding firecrackers, even if they burned down the field. He loves the memory of his mother making him a sandwich and giving him pie, even if he knows she was sad because she was fighting with his dad.

Cindy Sampson as Lisa BraedonYet even Dean had his moments of idealizing what he doesn’t have. In “What Is and What Should Never Be,” he is delighted at the idea of living in the suburbs, chatting to neighbours and cutting the grass. His dream of Lisa in “Dream A Little Dream of Me” includes a beautifully lit romantic picnic that doesn’t have a hope of translating to the real life Dean eventually tries with Lisa. When we join Dean and Lisa in the season six premiere, we get a shot of Dean standing in line, punching a time card at work, which lays the ground for Dean realizing as much as he loves his family, he does not fit in suburbia. As dangerous as hunting is, he would find a nine to five job soul destroying.

Sam, however, has held on to his idealized vision of what normal folks do. To him, normal life was a foreign land for which he never had the passport, but to which he always wanted to go. At 18, he seized his chance and turned away from the dangerous life on the road he’d always known to the ivory tower.

Sam’s always loved to learn, so he settled into university life, getting great grades and finding friends and eventually a lovely girlfriend. On the surface, his life looked like that Hallmark card, this time aimed at the happy graduate. But underneath the happy surface lay hints of Sam’s former life. As much as he loved the idea of celebrations, he wouldn’t participate in Halloween—he knew too much of the reality of monsters. He couldn’t share his view of reality with Jess, though, so he had to brush off her questions.

He had to hide a lot from his girlfriend, including his family, his past, and his beliefs. What Jess saw in Sam was not a lie—but what Sam withheld was. That fact came home to Sam in “Skin,” when he answered his friend’s question on how much Jess knew about what Sam did.

REBECCA: I can’t believe it. I mean, I saw it with my own eyes. And, I mean, does everybody at school—nobody knows that you do this?
SAM: No.
REBECCA: Did Jessica know? (SAM looks thoughtful.)
SAM: No, she didn’t.

Later Dean and Sam talk about Sam’s time at Stanford.

DEAN: Sorry, man.
SAM: About what?
DEAN: I really wish things could be different, you know? I wish you could just be….Joe College.
SAM: No, that’s okay. You know, the truth is, even at Stanford, deep down, I never really fit in.

Sam has been running from his life with his family most of his life, but once he joined Dean in the search for his father, he slowly realized he was also in search of himself. That search for his own identity has been painful, but necessary. Sam’s fate was laid out for him before he was born, shaped by demons and destiny. The only way to wrestle control back was to face all the darkest parts of himself, the parts that did not fit into his visions of a normal life.

In “Defending Your Life,” Sam told Osirus his life at Stanford was never going to work.

OSIRIS: But don’t you think that your brother dragged you back into that catastrophic mess because he’d rather damn you with him than be alone?

There is a long pause.

SAM: No. One way or another, I’d have gotten pulled back in.

This episode is also the one where Sam tells Dean his time in hell burned away his guilt at starting the Apocalypse, that his past is his past and he can move on with his life.

That begs the question: what does Sam see as his life?

Liane Balaban as AmeliaThis season, Sam deals with losing Dean by grabbing onto Amelia, who represents normality to him. Like Dean, he too has a sunshiny romantic picnic moment with his girlfriend, but unlike Dean, this Hallmark moment is part of his real life, not a dream.

The similarity in dreamy picnics made me think the show was examining Sam’s idealization of life outside hunting, as if the hunting life held all the bad moments and normal life held only good ones. I expected Amelia’s dependency on alcohol to matter, as well as the manipulative and aggressive way she interacted with Sam. I expected him to wonder how much his and her grief was playing into what they felt for each other.

I thought Sam might realize he’d set up a false dichotomy, to realize any life has good and bad times. Real life is not a series of Hallmark moments. Family occasions may be as full of tension and hurt as turkey and silly hats. And a beautiful gift may not mean as much as a homemade or cobbled together present.

The gift image is particularly poignant to me, because in the picnic scene, Sam acts like he’s never had a birthday cake before or a meal prepared especially for him. But he has. Jess baked for him the night she died, so I can’t imagine she didn’t mark his birthday. And in “A Supernatural Christmas,” Dean showed he did his best as a kid to make holidays special for his brother, even if he had limited resources. If the point of a gift is the thought behind it, Sam has not lacked in special moments. Were the gifts Sam and Dean exchanged at the end of the Christmas episode not meaningful just because they were porn and engine oil?

I was expecting these issues to emerge in the Sam and Amelia arc, because the surface contention that the pilot version of Sam is the real Sam makes so little sense. That Sam was just starting his journey of self-realization. He was running away from being a Winchester—but he is a Winchester. No matter where you run, there you are.

In early season eight, Sam was portrayed as running after Dean disappeared. Rather than trying to find out what happened to his brother, which is what one would expect when a loved one disappears with no body and no explanation, Sam grabs onto a woman in her own version of free fall. The two of them make a life together, with all kinds of hints they are both hiding away from processing their grief.

Besides the deliberately romanticised picnic, “Hunteri Heroici” had four flashbacks, each led into by some version of a line about the dangers of living a life of illusion. The main story line portrays a hunter who has retreated into fantasy and is unaware of way he’s being used in reality because of that. Sam pulls Fred out of his illusory world.

FRED: Cartoons – yeah, yeah, I always loved them when I was a kid.They made me feel… happy – safe. They were…
SAM: Something to hold on to.

The similarity to Amelia’s father’s contention Sam and Amelia are doing something similar with their relationship is hard to miss.

So it’s been surprising to see Sam hold on to his relationship with Amelia as the ideal for what he wants in his life. He doesn’t appear to have pondered how dysfunctional their communication was while together or how quickly Amelia got over losing Don. It doesn’t seem to have disturbed him Amelia was willing to lie to Don in order to keep him onside if she couldn’t pick up her relationship with Sam.

He doesn’t seem to have worried how he would actually pick up his university life, given Sam Winchester is a dead serial killer in the eyes of the authorities. He easily gave his name to everyone in that “real life,” despite the danger of doing so. He doesn’t seem to have worried that to pull off returning to school, he’d have to build a life like a spy world mole and risk being unmasked at any time by anyone who remembers the news. Or, of course, something more monstrous from his old life hunting him.

Sam did make the choice to return to Dean and hunting, but not in his heart. Last episode showed he’s still looking for something else. At least he appears to be considering something that does incorporate his identity as a Winchester—but how realistic is he being, even now? Sam looks at the teens living together in a house, going to school, being nagged about homework, and he’s envious. These kids are getting a chance at community, something he and Dean only have in relationship to other hunters.

Sam appears to be still focused on the idealized picture of normal Victor used to hide his monstrous plans. He doesn’t seem to wonder if a man gathering together a group of young teens in crisis might have dark intentions. At some point, will we see Sam re-evaluate his own childhood and his far from Hallmark perfect memories of being loved? Or the merit of having a job he can do well and which matters to the world? Is the hunter community of so little value?

Real life has its own pitfalls and dangers. It’s just as possible to lose one’s way there as in the hunting world. I’m really hoping we see more of Sam examining what he has as a hunter and now Man Of Letters, especially as no one in the normal world he craves will ever understand what he has been through—and those experiences have made him who he is. I hope Sam eventually arrives at a vision of a life where his identity as a Winchester has a place and in which he is loved for who he is, warts and all.

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About Gerry Weaver

  • carol

    Insightful review I hope the writers of this series get to read this

  • June Bug

    Honestly, I feel like Jeremy Carver and Bob Singer got together with the writers, and completely negated Sam’s life journey and traumas for the past 7 seasons. For many fans, this season sucked the moment they told us Sam wouldn’t look for Dean, at all, for no reason. And we still haven’t been given a reason or a scene that shows up Sam’s state of mind, his grief, his brokenness, his old traumas from being in the Cage and suffering nearly 200 years of torture. I can’t even believe they ignored that in Season 7 so badly.

    Given that SPN is a show about Sam and Dean, two brothers hunting evil in Roadside America, any steps into “wanting normal” need to make sense and not detract from what the show is about. So why does Sam want “normal” now, when he seemed to have given up on that completely in Seasons 4 and 5? Did what Sam had with Amelia even count as normal by most standards? I’d say no. It was simply Sam not hunting and being with a woman who seemed as damaged and screwed up as he was. Sounds great, but did we get any further insight into who Sam was and is? Not really, and that’s why those segments seemed so baffling and pointless to the audience. Were they real, was Amelia real, was that guy in the Premiere Don, why put in Don in the first place on a show like SPN? They didn’t even bother writing to chemistry until Amelia’s one and only present day interaction with Sam, which just happened to be her last episode on the show so far. Why? What was the purpose of all this? I’m that rare person who likes Amelia, but for the life of me, I don’t understand what they were doing with her, or Sam, for the entire first half of the season. Sam hits a dog and finds a unicorn. Okay. But how and why, how did we go from sex and a grief confession to them getting a house and moving in together????? Where was the bridge to carry us across to the other side of this couple getting together, to Sam and his grief, to Sam giving up hunting for a year, when so many bad things were going down? This whole business of saying there was some “family rule not to look” on a show with 7 seasons, and no such rule appearing on screen, is truly baffling, and incredibly disappointing and lazy.

  • Tina

    Amelia never worked because of what the story was built on Sam not looking for Dean and some obsecure promise that Jeremy Carver claimed the brothers made.
    The sad truth is Sam has been damaged yet again as a character because of poor creative decisions and very poor insight and constructed storytelling to allow the audience to relate to Sam’s decisions.
    Amelia was never going to work from the moment she was presented to us in the vet’s surgery and on what the story was built on and with so little exploration of Sam within that relationship it just comes across badly for many fans.
    Right now I am not futher forward in what Jeremy Carver’s vision of Sam is than who Eric Kripke thought he was , he just seems to be written in a way that fits what ever story they are telling .

  • shadowhund

    I think Jeremy Carver made a poor attempt to include Sam Winchester into the S8 story! EVIL was after Sam to use him to be the ultimate vessel of Lucifer and all heaven and hell knights tried to get him to do that! In the end he still succeed even when Sam freed Lucifer accidently by killing Lilith which was supposed to prevent the apocalypse. Sam was set up to fall ..with good intentions.
    But what has this to do with Sam desire for normal ….or should I say better safe? Sam found out in Swan Song possessed by Lucifer that demons were around him all his life, friends from schools (and they changed the schools often) teachers, people he saw as friends were possessed! Brady as one of his good friends killed Jessica, his beloved girl friend.
    Sam payed a huge price for releasing Lucifer and also starting the apocalypse. Sam did sacrifice himself and jumped into that big hole in the ground, putting Lucifer back into his box, but Sam had to give up himself too! He stayed in this cage for almost 200 years and came back only to find out his soulless body roamed the earth while he was in the cage with the archangels and it wasn’t a pleasure, it was torture!
    The Sam from now could be already clean from demon blood, purified because his body was dead and resurrected! Brought back! A wall came up to protect Sam from his shattered self because of his time in the cage, the wall was taken down only to distract Dean. Sam was in a coma, his inner was shattered and he brought the pieces back together to one because Sam wanted THIS: “You know me, you know why, I’m not leaving my brother out there alone”. Sam came back to the living and managed to get to the place where Dean and Bobby faced Godstiel! He tried to protect his family and tried to kill Godstiel! he failed.
    Then the halucinations started where he didn’t know is he back on earth or is Lucifer playing with him again? He was tormented by the hellucinations and put himself back together and was there for Dean, Dean was a picture of misery back then. They worked together to prevent the Leviathans to get control over humanity. I won’t forget that Sam almost didn’t make it when his halucinations didn’t let him sleep. He was on the edge to give up and he would have had all the right and reasons to do so to get his final peace. Well, Casstiel came back and took some of Sam’s misery away. Then came the moment in the lab . In the end Dean made it …stabbed Dick Roman with that special weapon but vanished.

    For me it could have been the real moment of Sam collapsing over the things that happened to him, and thinking Dean is dead now and gone to heaven. Sam grieving (of course) and maybe only a shadow of himself . Giving up and BUT assured and thinking Dean, his big brother found peace in heaven! When Sam thought Dean was dead, then tptb should have given us this emotioanl insight in him. I would have understood that Sam is at the end of his rope, who wouldn’t? After all what happend with him?

    So back again to my POV. Jeremy Carver could have shown us easily that Sam broke finally, and that Sam is damaged beyond repair and no healing is possible. One of Sam’s really strong character traits was his empathy, a strong caring empathy for others. He felt the suffering of others and could easily connect to them. He always had comforting words and meant it. A huge empathy, heart, connecting to others. I still see it as a big character trait of Sam. But Lucifers torture for 2 centuries could have easily take that away from him. He is damaged by the torture beyond repair and that is the reason why he can’t and won’t connect to others, strangers, new characters anymore (instead of just taking Sam out of the picture in meaninful scenes) I take this, I WOULD take this, and it could be a reason why Sam is clinging to a normal, simple life with a house and a dog and a “unicorn”! It would be the explanation I miss. Right now it seems that Sam is fine, and only longing normal! And the rest of Sam’s whole journey just ignored!
    I would have no problems to let Dean take on decisions about others, is the person/monster good or evil, because Sam isn’t able to do it anymore. That would explain for me that Dean has the big meaningful connections to others, not Sam. Sam only with Dean! Sam longing for peace, no war to fight, not loosing loved ones anymore! Dean can so be Sam’s protector and his connection to humanity, because Sam has this deep bond with his brother (my view)!
    I get that normal/safe is something important for Sam..still, but somehow I think he can’t really evaluate others evilness or goodness anymore because of his wounded soul. That’s why he wants out, I would get that point, but Jermey Carver probably doesn’t see Sam that way because he doesn’t show us …in a sympathetic, compassionate way Sam’s damage. Big sigh….and poor Sam! I see his problem but the show doesn’t give the insight and input! And so it becomes my problem, not only Sam’s!

  • DeansFamiliar

    I think the writers were trying too hard to explain everything that led S&D to where they each were and why they were there within the first few episodes of season 8. It felt like, okay, let’s get this out of the way so we can get the boys back on the road and start the whole demon tablet/angel tablet story arc. With the help of flashbacks, Dean’s relationship with Benny was fleshed out a litte more/better than Sam’s relationship with Amelia. But just as the Dean/Benny storyline was opening up, it suddenly closed with Dean basically telling Benny goodbye. I understand that the writers only have 22 or so episodes to answer a lot of questions, create new storylines while ending others and create new questions, but it all feels very disjointed. The thing that Kripke did so very well was advance the storyline in a way that made sense, was consistent and built upon the story from episode to episode, and moved smoothly from season to season. Kripke’s continuity is what kept us coming back for more b/c each episode built on the last in a much better way. Carver starts telling a story for a few episodes, and then switches to a stand-alone episode that makes no sense nor relates back to the original story. His remedy for this is to have the characters briefly mention something about it like, ‘We should go check on Kevin’ or “I wonder what Cas’ is up to?” to help us reconnect to the main storyline. But all this start-stop-start-stop-start-stop is annoying. The path the writers have put Sam on is one that makes him unrelateable and unsympathetic. They’ve given more thought to the whole Cas/Naomi storyline than Sam, and only a little more to Dean. Bless the writers’ hearts, they know the fans want the brothers back together again, even closer and more psychotically, irrationally and erotically co-dependent than ever before but they are missing the mark in some ways and totally misfiring on the sub-plots. My hope is that the writers can create really strong concurrent storylines for both S&D, as opposed to having one of them take the lead while the other plays a supporting role. It would make for intense drama that they can handle without it becoming a competition about whose storyline is stronger or more important.

  • Gerry

    Hi everyone, thanks for commenting! For anyone who tried to comment and was rejected, please know it’s not personal–the comment filter has been acting up and rejecting according to a mysterious formula of its own–we’re trying to get the gremlins out. Trying again will often help.

    June Bug, I think this comment of yours hits the nail on the head:

    “Given that SPN is a show about Sam and Dean, two brothers hunting evil in Roadside America, any steps into “wanting normal” need to make sense and not detract from what the show is about.”

    I agree-we need to follow Sam’s emotional journey rather than having to fanwank it.

  • Laurie

    I want the writers to make it clear Sam chooses to hunt with Dean. If he stays in this limbo of not wanting the hunt or Dean, and wanting “normal” then he’s lost the heart of the show. I no longer know who Sam Winchester is. In fact, he only has clarity when I see him as the brother of Dean. Which is a pretty profound factoid.

    Dean tends to be defined by his love of Sam. Maybe that is what is missing in the character of Sam – the brother of Dean.

  • Gerry

    I agree that what seems to missing from Sam’s story is Sam’N’Dean–the brother relationship and what importance it has for him.

    It’s not completely missing, of course. Sam is doing the trials because he’s worried about Dean’s fatalistic attitude to his own death. The issue for me is that Sam sees the way to change that as showing Dean how to see a way out of hunting.

    That takes both brothers out of the conceit of the show and really portrays what they’ve been doing for most of their lives as not having value. Sam apparently wants to be safe from the supernatural–does Dean? Really?

    Dean learned with Lisa he didn’t fit into a suburban lifestyle and that he could love Lisa and Ben and still miss being on the road, driving Baby. I don’t think Dean misses working as a carpenter one bit, or the neighbours he had beers with.

    I think he does wish he could be a father and he would love a relationship–he’s relationship driven, so it’s no surprise he had no problem with romantic commitment during his “normal” phase. He more had an issue with commitment to normal.

    So I’m not sure what Sam thinks he’s going to teach Dean about normal life. I think Dean actually has a more realistic vision of what that means.

    I’d love both of the boys to find a way to have a fuller life–but in a way that doesn’t negate the people they are. It feels very odd that Sam doesn’t see any of the past 8 years as having anything to do with who he really is–including Dean being an important and ongoing part of his life.

  • artsydenise

    I’m still trying to come to terms with the poor way Carver has integrated Sam’s missing year into this season. Saying he hit a dog, and moved in with Amelia IS lazy storytelling. I was convinced for the longest time that this was just the introduction into a longer story arc that explored what was going through Sam’s head during the Purgatory year. Unfortunately, it seems like this isn’t a possibility, with each and every episode that passes.

    I can’t believe Sam wouldn’t be completely broken by his year without Dean. He’s been through so much, the 200 years in Hell, the death of *everyone* they care about, etc,- I just personally believe Sam is horribly, irretrievably broken.

    He only exists in relation to Dean, and Dean with him. Saying they’re dangerously codependent is somewhat of a cliché, but it’s very true, and if you are familiar with the psychological ramifications of codependency and how damaging it is, it becomes clear that Sam and Dean will NEVER have the normal life they wish for. Fact is, Sam has *no idea* of what a normal life is and no frame of reference to know what it is he’s pining for. His time with Amelia (so poorly portrayed and explained) was odd and damaged and could in no way be seen as normal. So Sam will *always* be hunting this elusive normal life and if he did have a chance at it, his psychologically messed up head would end up rejecting it (or crushing it), because that’s just who he is and he is the tragic figure of this story.

    In real life, a person with these kind of problems goes into counseling and maybe takes an antidepressant, but of course, if you’re a nomad, this isn’t a possibility. Dean knows they’re screwed up and tells Kevin their coping strategy: box it away and never think of it again – How twisted! No wonder they’ll never be normal.

    Dean, who time and again has said he has *one job* (thanks, Dad; to protect Sammy, treats Sam like a kid despite the fact he’s 30 years old; and Sam -which the writers have done a decent job showing Sam’s insistence on completing the Trials, despite Dean’s resistance- does try to take back some of himself out from under Dean’s wing and become his own man-but unless they address the reality of how totally fucked in the head Sam and Dean are (the last time it was really talked about was Dean’s last monologue that memories of Hell were always with him), it will always seem like a lost opportunity to write the ending to a great epic tale.