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.