Oh “Trial and Error,” how do I love thee? Let me count the ways. After a rough start to the season, Supernatural has found its legs and more importantly, its heart.
In this week’s episode, written by Andrew Dabb and directed by Kevin Parks, Sam and Dean open up to each other and the words coming out of their mouths finally feel right. The show does what it’s always done so well: tear our hearts out with moving believable moments between the brothers.
Dean feeling the best thing he can offer Sam is self-sacrifice so Sam can have a future is laid side by side with Sam feeling the best thing he can offer Dean is his belief both Winchesters deserve a future. And like a patchwork quilt, the beauty of the relationship lies in the way the pieces fit together. I wish I felt the brothers’ touching moment of connection was the organic result of Sam’s story this season, but I’ll take it, because it does feel like the organic result of the previous seven seasons.
The episode opens with Dean nesting in the Batbunker, decorating his room with guns and a photo of his mother, the different sides of his personality each contributing something to the picture instead of trying to cancel each other out. Dean is delighted at the idea of his own space, reminding us he has had the responsibility for others on his shoulders since he was four. He’s delighted to cook, reminding us his junk food addiction is the result of a life spent on the road. Last week’s episode let us see the appeal of the Men of Letters heritage for Sam. This week, we see how the idea of a home affects Dean. And so does Sam.
Sam’s story this season has been centered on Sam establishing his boundaries and fighting for his right to self-definition. I’ve felt, however, that important pieces were missing, such as a flashback giving us Sam’s state of mind when he decided not to look for his brother and to regard Kevin as not his responsibility. I thought introducing the love triangle muddied the exploration of perception in Sam’s view of “real life.” And I’m still waiting for Sam to have to deal with his refusal to allow Dean to define his own family, particularly given the space Dean eventually gave to Sam about Amelia. Sam trying to see Dean’s point of view has been missing.
That changes this week. Kevin Tran, at the expense of his health, starts to crack the code on the demon tablet. In a nice nod to the Hercules legend, one of the boys must take on three trials to seal the gates of Hell.
Dean decides he will be the one to take on the trials. Sam’s first response is to feel Dean is being the bossy older brother, protesting, ““So what? You just up and decide it’s going to be you?” Sam has spent much of the show’s run trying to show Dean he is grown up and capable of making his own decisions, chafing under the weight of Dean’s need to protect his little brother and suspicious Dean’s abandonment issues are the reason he hangs on so tight. Sam wants his own space, too.
We recognize the set up as the boys argue over the trials. What’s new and fresh is that the argument doesn’t slip into the same old rut. Dean decides to explain to Sam why he needs to do the trials, instead of just butting heads with him. Just as Sam saw a life for Dean past the Apocalypse and was prepared to sacrifice himself for the greater good, Dean tells Sam he loves that Sam sees a life for himself other than doomed hunter.
He tells his brother, ““I’m a grunt, Sam. You’re not. You’ve always been the brains of this operation. And you told me yourself that you see a way out. You see a light at the end of this ugly-ass tunnel. I don’t. But I tell you what I do know. It’s that I’m gonna die with a gun in my hand…’cause that’s what I have waiting for me. And that’s all I have waiting for me. I want you to get out. I want you to have a life…become a Man of Letters, whatever. You, with a wife and kids and…and grandkids…living until you’re fat and bald and chugging Viagra. That is my perfect ending.”
It’s an emotionally raw speech, giving Sam a good look into his brother, seeing Dean’s lack of belief in himself side by side with his love for his brother. Far from wanting to butt heads to keep his brother at his side, Dean wants to give his brother the freedom to shape his own life. Sam has the opportunity to really see Dean’s perception of his place in the world—and it breaks Sam’s heart.
Sam refuses to allow Dean’s perfect ending to have no place for Dean. As the younger brother, Sam doesn’t have a lot of practice in taking care of Dean. He did want his brother to have a normal life with Lisa, but he didn’t really base that on a good read of what Dean needed and wanted. Dean’s never going to live a life in the suburbs. Most of Sam’s energy has been focused on rebelling against expectations, whether John’s or Lucifer’s, and Dean has often been caught in the crossfire. This is not an indictment of Sam—his need to do so was real and so was the pain it cost him.
But this episode really shows Sam that he needs to understand his brother’s perception instead of just pushing against it, because both boys are capable of pushing each other’s hot buttons without meaning to. Sam shows Dean he really listened to him when he responds, ““I want to slam hell shut, too. OK? But I want to survive it. I want to live and so should you. You have friends up here. Family. I mean, hell, you even have your own room, now. You were right, OK? I see light at the end of this tunnel. And I’m sorry you don’t. I am. But it’s there. And if you come with me, I can take you to it.”
Sam pushes back at Dean, but he sees past the bossiness to the underlying issue: Dean’s lack of self-worth. He gives Dean another perception to take on board, the one visible in Sam’s eyes when he looks at his brother.
“I am smart. And so are you. You’re not a grunt, Dean. You’re a genius. When it comes to lore — you’re the best damn hunter I have ever seen. Better than me. Better than dad. I believe in you, Dean. So please, please, believe in me, too.”
I loved that Sam included the reference to Dean’s love of his own room, that Dean’s response to the Batbunker is to nest. He is a warrior, but that’s not all he is. Dean’s journey is to reconcile the sides of his self that don’t play well together, to acknowledge he is as good at loving as he is at fighting. So far, Dean’s had to choose one side and suppress the other, and either choice is always emotionally unhealthy.
Sam realizing he needs to take care of Dean as Dean has often taken care of him is a huge step for the boys, just as it was a huge step for Dean earlier in the season to acknowledge Sam has the right to define his own life without guilt. The boys’ emotional speeches felt so right, with each showing the other the kind of love Lucifer could not break.
The only fly in the ointment for me was the reference Sam made to Dean having family and friends to live for, because in fact those relationships are scarce on the ground for both of them, and Dean now has one less friend. At some point, we need to see Sam continue looking at things from Dean’s point of view, because he used emotional blackmail to force his brother to abandon a friend, something that goes against Dean’s core.
Sam’s anger at Benny led him to make some poor decisions, something we haven’t yet seen him take on board. Dean acknowledged how hurtful his text was, but Sam hasn’t admitted sending Martin to find some dirt on the vampire wasn’t fair to Benny, Dean or Martin. He outright told Dean it was irrelevant to him whether Benny had killed anyone or not, but that didn’t ring in his ears as worth examining.
And it needs examining. I don’t believe Sam has suddenly shifted 180 degrees in his stance that deeds make someone monstrous, not what they are born. We’ve had no build up to that position. Sam let Kate go in “Bitten.” I can believe that even as Sam pushes against Dean to establish his own boundaries, he expects to be central in Dean’s eyes the way he always has been. I can believe he was comfortable with his vision of Dean hunting on his own, but shocked and hurt to discover Dean had another relationship to ride shotgun in the Impala. Sam may think he’s mad Benny is a vampire, but it makes more sense he is angry at the idea of losing Dean in a way he hadn’t anticipated.
We need to see Sam think this through, just as we needed to see Dean think the Amelia situation through. Whether Amelia was the best choice for Sam or not (and I think not), the choice was Sam’s to make. Benny is Dean’s choice to make, free of Sam’s anger. Sam has just shown he knows how important friends and family are to Dean, that having a web of relationships is what grounds him and gives him reason to live. Now we need to see some follow-through.
I am more hopeful now both brothers will see the other more clearly as they see themselves more clearly. I still don’t love the Amelia triangle, but I love what I see Carver setting up for the second half of the season. I think after some wrong turns, he’s found a great direction for the show.