Supernatural returned from hiatus last night, with a taut and emotional episode moving both the myth arc and the personal stories forward. The story, written by Jenny Klein and directed by Robert Singer, has many gritty scenes that grab the audience by the throat. In so many ways, “Torn and Frayed” is not an easy ride, which is not in itself a bad thing. Supernatural has never been afraid to break its audience’s heart, usually to great dramatic effect. But this time, I find my relationship to the show is getting torn and frayed, something I’ve been afraid of since the premiere set up Sam’s story this season.
I’ll set Sam’s story aside for a moment and look at Castiel’s first, as his development this season has been both interesting and moving. Castiel is a wonderful character who nevertheless poses huge issues for the writers. He’s too powerful to simply act as a third Winchester, but his relationship with Dean, who taught him the power of self-definition and love, is too interesting to lose. The writers have not known what to do with the angel since the Apocalypse story ended and too often, Castiel has functioned as comic relief. In season 8, he’s regained his status as a character with goals and needs and hurts, all of which I care about.
Castiel is mired in the kind of guilt Dean felt for so long, needing to atone for the hubris which led him to be an agent of destruction in heaven and earth. Castiel’s full recognition and ownership of his mistakes has helped to make Dean’s forgiveness of his friend believable and welcome, despite the magnitude of Castiel’s betrayal of Dean and injury to Sam. I believe in his need to save Samandriel, heaven’s most adorable angel, because of the guilt of so many angel deaths on his conscience.
And that makes the way Cas is being used by Naomi all the more wrenching to watch. I don’t yet know what’s up with Naomi’s secret little room in heaven, but I don’t trust her motives one bit, particularly since she used the same torturous mind control techniques on Castiel as Crowley uses on Samandriel. The result of Castiel’s interactions with her is Castiel killing the angel he’s trying to save (to my horror), so I doubt Cas is going to feel any atonement once he’s free of Naomi’s control. It’s very sad watching Cas try so hard to find a way forward and having Naomi undercut all his relationships by forcing him into lies and betrayal.
Lies and betrayal are a theme in this episode. Sam and Dean are forced to face each other, each feeling the other has betrayed their relationship. Sam asks Dean if their relationship has come down to Dean being willing to subject him to the kind of fear of loss they both have had to endure all their lives, just so he can save a vampire. Dean’s reply is to acknowledge his tactics were harsh and he does feel now he was wrong to use them, but he was not wrong to protect Benny from Sam, as Benny was innocent of the murders. Sam sees the issue differently. He tells Dean, “You wanted me to trust Benny and I can’t do that.” He goes further, giving Dean the price of him resuming their relationship: “That depends on you, on whether you’re done with [Benny].”
Klein takes this ultimatum and creates a similar situation for Sam, attempting to parallel the choices the brothers must make to save their relationship. Amelia tracks Sam down to his motel room and gets Sam to admit he still loves her, as she does him. They fall into bed, but the reunion has the shadow of Don hanging over the lovers.
Amelia is back with Don, and she’s taken care to hide what she’s up to with Sam from her husband, leaving Sam at the bar so she could return to Don and send him off on his trip none the wiser on her plans to get back with her former boyfriend. She tells Sam, “I was OK, settled in, content,” but she obviously was not content, as she also tells the younger Winchester she thought of him first thing in the morning and last thing at night.
Clearly, Don would be hurt to know the woman he made sure to give space rather than emotional blackmail when she had to make a choice only chose him because she thought she couldn’t have Sam. I found the portrayal of Amelia’s relationship with Don to be manipulative and disrespectful, as if his needs are of no concern to her. Don asked Amelia to take her time with her decision, so the decision would lead to a healthy relationship. Instead, he gets to be Amelia’s fall back option when what she wants doesn’t work out. I’d have more sympathy for Amelia if she’d decided she needed to be alone after Sam left, because she couldn’t offer Don what he wanted from her.
I have been dissatisfied with the development of Sam and Amelia’s relationship from the start, and this episode drives home everything that feels off to me. Far from being a beautiful and emotionally sustaining connection, the two characters feel like they have used each other to put off facing painful truths in their lives.” Hunteri Heroici” strongly suggested Sam’s time with Amelia was essentially living a lie, as he avoided facing what losing Dean meant to him. Amelia in turn was using Sam to avoid processing Don’s death and her own lack of a web of relationships to draw on.
In fact, the flashbacks this season showed us an Amelia who has huge communication issues, in part passed down from her dad, few meaningful relationships and a drinking problem. Her way of dealing with painful situations is to attack and manipulate, another tactic we saw she shared with her father. I was unsurprised that in “Hunteri Heroici,” every mention of living a lie threw Sam into a flashback about his life with Amelia.
I am surprised, however, to find that thread being dropped now in favour of Amelia being the love of Sam’s life and his route to happiness. What was the point of having four flashbacks in “Hunteri Heroici” stop the momentum of an otherwise good episode if Sam never has any epiphanies due to them? How did they move the story forward other than introducing an unfortunate soap opera flavour?
That soapy flavour gets full expression in “Torn and Frayed” as both Sam and Amelia eschew any honest communication on the issues between them in favour of setting up a dramatic choice in two days where they individually decide if they can commit. For me to have any investment in Sam and Amelia, I’d have to see them tackle the real issues: alcoholism as a coping mechanism, honesty on their relationship issues and baggage, Sam’s dangerous background that Amelia deserves to know . . .
We get a hint of some of these problems when Amelia tells Sam how much she hates motel rooms and she also tells him he can’t have one foot in their relationship and one foot in his other life. She has no idea what she’s really saying, but we do and Sam should. He gets to hear it again from Dean, who tells Sam he should make his own decision on Amelia—Dean will be alright going it alone, if necessary. He’s moved a long way from the guy who wouldn’t engage with Sam’s desire to leave. But he does tell Sam, “Whatever you decide, decide. It’s what’s in between that gets you dead.”
At this point, it would be great to see Sam really think over what Amelia offers and what Dean offers. There’s a lot to his relationship with Amelia that didn’t work and there’s a lot to his relationship with Dean that does. At this point in the show, Sam and Dean’s blood relationship is not enough to tie them together. They are different people, with different needs and personalities.
But there’s nothing to say that a brother cannot also be a best friend, a foundational piece of the web of relationships we all need to get through our tough times. And best friends can be individuals. The tie is in what each offers to the other, not in mirroring each other. Does Dean offer anything to Sam? Does that relationship help Sam navigate life’s treacherous waters? Does Dean help Sam stay balanced? Does he do so in a way that Amelia doesn’t? Or does Amelia offer Sam something Dean never can in terms of who he truly is? To my eyes, I’ve seen plenty of evidence of the former and very little of the latter.
I think part of what annoys me about the Sam and Amelia story is the embedded assumption that the Sam we met in the pilot is the essential Sam—an ordinary guy drawn unwillingly into heroic events. Yet even in season one, we soon learned Sam had many more layers and that he was anything but ordinary. He didn’t fit into Stanford any more than he fit into his family and as layer by layer was revealed, we learned Sam’s biggest fear was himself, not monsters. His own identity is the core of his journey, because it is so complicated. He has travelled a long way from that initial presentation of Sam, as Dean has travelled a long way from the daddy pleasing love ‘em and leave ‘em flirt we first met. The journey has been worth every step and I’m not willing to put it aside. The Sam currently on screen seems more like a throwback than a maturing character and nowhere is that more evident than in his stance on Benny.
Dean ends “Torn and Frayed” torn and frayed because he paid Sam’s price to rejoin him. While Dean told Sam to make the choice best for him, Sam never budges in his belief that Dean cannot have Benny as a friend because Benny is a vampire. This version of Sam feels monsters are evil by definition and have no personhood. Whether Benny killed the victims in “Citizen Fang” is irrelevant to him—Benny cannot be trusted because he is a vampire and Dean should have killed him the moment he was out of Purgatory.
Yet in season two, Sam argued the opposite. In “Bloodlust,” Sam and Dean have the following scene:
What part of ‘vampires’ don’t you understand, Sam? If it’s supernatural, we kill it, end of story. That’s our job.
No, Dean, that is not our job. Our job is hunting evil. And if these things aren’t killing people, they’re not evil!
I understand Dean’s evolution on this question—even in “Bloodlust,” he decided Sam’s view had merit. But I have no idea why Sam has so changed his tune. He trusted Lenore; he trusted Amy even when he found her in the middle of a killing spree; he trusted Kate even though he didn’t know her at all. But he can’t trust Benny even though Benny made his decision not to kill pre-Purgatory and he has been a good friend to Dean, saving his life many times over. In fact, Benny’s friendship with Dean is a source of Sam’s resentment, not a point in his favour, which makes Sam’s ultimatum to Dean about Benny much less sympathetic than Dean telling Sam he can’t have a foot in both the hunter and civilian worlds.
Dean’s words to Sam are true—even Amelia has a sense she can’t be a part of Sam’s other world and he has to choose. But I see no reason why Dean cannot have Benny as a friend because he is a vampire, if Benny is choosing to reclaim his humanity. Benny is a part of the hunter world and he can take care of himself. He functions in the Winchester world in a way Amelia (and Lisa and Jess) cannot. He is part of Dean’s web of relationships, so sorely needed to handle the pain of his life. And there’s no reason Dean cannot have friendships. Sam may be looking at Benny as the source of his issues with Dean, but Sam and Dean are responsible for their own baggage.
I can’t imagine any good will come of Dean betraying his friendship with Benny to satisfy Sam. Loyalty is a core value for Dean and he knows Benny is in tough shape because he’s just lost the last tie to his family and his past. If Dean had been there for the vampire and that wasn’t enough to ground Benny, then that would be on Benny. It would be painful for Dean, but in every scene with his friend, he’s made it clear he would go after Benny if he gave in to blood lust. But if Benny falls now, Dean will always wonder what would have happened if he’d had that coffee when Benny reached out for his help. Being there in the tough times is part of what friendship is about.
The last scene between the brothers where both have elected to give up their other relationship to commit to hunt together is really sad rather than uplifting. I don’t know why Sam made Dean pay the price he did, given his past characterization; jealousy seems a very unsatisfactory answer. I don’t know why Sam regards Amelia as his first stone, his chance at happiness, when previous episodes suggested the relationship was more illusion and escape than anything else.
I don’t know why I should be hoping Sam recommits to hunting with Dean, as I don’t feel the connection I used to between them. If Sam really wants that life with Amelia and feels only a sense of duty in rejoining Dean, then I don’t need him with Dean. I’d sooner Sam leave to go find out what life with Amelia would really be like, warts and all, while Dean defines his own brothers. That seems a much better outcome than Sam seeing little value in his life with Dean other than duty and Dean realizing Sam will never define family the way he does, and yet the two of them ending up in that car, driving down the highway. That would truly be sad and not especially compelling to watch.
I’m watching the season to the end no matter what—I’ll give the writers the space to completely write out the story they envisioned this year. But I can see for the first time that I may not watch this series to the end. Sam and Dean are the core of the show for me, and if they don’t work, nothing else matters.