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.
It’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.
Yet 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?
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?
This 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.