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Supernatural University: Changing Missions, Changing Motivations

Speculation concerning season three of Supernatural is running rampant even through the University halls. While this blog entry contains speculations concerning season three, it does not contain spoilers unless you have been avoiding all recent interviews given by Eric Kripke, Jensen Ackles, Jared Padalecki, Sera Gamble, and Ben Edlund. If you’ve avoided those interviews, please avoid this blog for its slightly spoilerish potential; otherwise, welcome to another psychology class at Supernatural University!


The brilliant true-to-life complexity of the characters in Supernatural is reflected in their growth and change as they are shaped by the events in their lives. In each season, the challenges that Dean and Sam have confronted and the realizations that developed from them have caused both brothers to re-evaluate their lives, themselves, and each other. What they do and why they do it – their missions and their motivations – have altered each season. The thesis for this class is that the events of season two predicate a character shift for both brothers in the beginning of season three as or more profound than any we’ve seen before, because both their missions and their motivations have changed dramatically. 

First Principles


Let’s go back for the moment to the very beginning. When the series began, we were introduced to the adult Winchester brothers as young men of very different personalities and characters who had grown up in a non-traditional, highly emotionally charged family situation. Following the death of their mother when Dean was four and Sam only six months old, they had been raised by a father who had only two missions in life:  to avenge the death of his wife against supernatural forces and to protect his sons. In pursuit of both of those goals, he trained them both to be hunters, but they hadn’t responded the same way.


Dean, the older brother, embraced the hunter life. But although he shared some of his father’s desire for revenge, his true motivation for hunting was different than John’s. He stated it in Wendigo:  “Saving people, hunting things – the family business.” I would submit that it’s no accident that Dean stated those goals in that order, and I would bet that John would have reversed it.


Let’s examine John as an illustration of this class. From everything we saw of John, the hunting and killing came first, with saving others as a fringe benefit. Think of him in Home, keeping his distance from his boys despite Dean’s plea for help, or his silence and continued absence in Faith after Sam called with the news of Dean’s impending death. Yes, he wanted to protect them from the danger he sensed surrounding him on his hunt for the demon – but his focus remained on the hunt, on the quest to find and destroy the demon. Remember him in Dead Man’s Blood, concentrating on getting the Colt so he could win his own fight, leaving concern for the vampires’ victims and the plan for their rescue to his sons. Even in Salvation, John’s focus stayed on destroying the demon, although his tactics changed; with friends being killed to try to divert him from his quest, he chose to do the unexpected and hand the mission of killing the demon over to his sons while he played decoy to buy them time. Still, in Devil’s Trap, when he momentarily regained control of his own body from the demon, he tried to push Sam into killing him in order to kill the demon, and berated him afterwards for having failed to put killing the demon ahead of everything else.


Only when he was confronted with helplessly watching his oldest son dying in In My Time of Dying did John revise his priorities and choose the saving over the killing. John’s mission and his motivation changed, because the situation had changed. Although he’d said in Salvation that he was ending it and that he didn’t care what it would take, he found himself revising his decision when Dean’s life became part of the price. John finally found a price he wouldn’t pay for his revenge, and chose instead to give up the Colt and his own soul to buy back his son’s life. Protecting his boys had always been an essential part of John’s mission, but it took nearly losing one of them for him to unequivocally put it ahead of killing the demon.


Let’s get back to the Winchester brothers and the thesis of this class. In season one, the Dean we met in the pilot had one stated mission: to find Dad. His second and even more critical personal mission and motivation to reunite with his brother and keep him close wasn’t immediately obvious as being a unique and separate goal, although it became apparent as the season progressed, especially when he finally admitted it openly to Sam in Shadow. As we quickly learned in Wendigo and Dead in the Water, however, Dean’s mission focus also embraced the idea of saving anyone he found along the way as part and parcel of what his father would expect of him.


Sam began the first season resisting being drawn back into his family and the hunting life, but quickly acquired his own motivation of revenge for Jessica’s death. His mission became finding his father in order to find and destroy the thing that killed her, and he initially resented side missions that helped others but didn’t seem to advance his principal goals. Sam also had a secret motive and mission, however, as personal, hidden, and critical to him as Dean’s desperate desire and need for family were to his older brother. Sam’s hidden driver was the need to understand and deal with his precognitive dreams, to learn what his odd abilities meant for him personally and what role they had played in his Mom’s and Jessica’s deaths.


Along the way, each of the brothers learned what was driving the other, and that understanding produced changes as they adapted to help each other. Dean brought Sam to reassess his perception of their father and reopen closed doors between them, and to subsume his own quest for revenge in the satisfaction of helping others. Daring to admit how he himself was different and that he was afraid of that difference, Sam broadened Dean’s acceptance of things beyond the human norm, while Dean provided a buffer through his steadfast refusal to express any fear of Sam, no matter how much he feared for him. By the end of season one, the renewed brother dynamic changed Sam dramatically to put Dean’s need for family ahead of his and John’s need for revenge against the demon, and even ahead of his own fears about the demon’s plans for him.


Season Two


And then we came to the second season. With In My Time of Dying, everything changed. Dean should have died, and didn’t. John sold his soul and forfeited the Colt to save Dean, and immediately before he died, laid on Dean the secret burden of saving Sam or having to kill him. John died. Grief, guilt, and shame, which were already always present, became in different ways the principal drivers for both brothers, leading to fascinating character reversals between them.


Dean realized more quickly than Sam what John had done to save him. He held himself to blame, as if he somehow should have been able to prevent the circumstances that had laid him at death’s door and served to fuel John’s choice. Guilt for having somehow failed his father and shame for being alive in his place while John suffered in hell combined with rage and fear at being left to cope with the secret of save Sam or have to kill him, leaving no room for the joie de vivre, compassion, and generosity of spirit that had been so much a part of Dean in season one. Trying to hide all of this from Sam simply made the burden heavier, and added its own burden of guilt and shame for knowingly lying to the brother he loves literally more than life.


In the first half of the season, we and Sam watched Dean lose his center and almost lose himself in violence and rage, until he first confessed to Sam what he’d deduced about John’s fate and its cause in Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things, then admitted in Croatoan and Hunted first the cost and then the burden John had laid on him, and finally – in Born Under a Bad Sign – came to his own terms with that burden, by concluding that if his choice was only to save Sam or kill him, that he would save him no matter what. With that decision, Dean recovered his personal balance, but still couldn’t absolve himself of guilt for John’s fate, shame for his own perceived failures, and doubt in the value of his life and the worth of the sacrifices he and his family had made to live it.


Much of Sam’s shame and guilt were also centered on John, but concerned his to inability to relate to his father. Under pressure from Dean, he admitted in Everybody Loves a Clown that he was trying, too late, to make up for all the times he’d fought and disagreed with John, all the times he’d dealt in anger without understanding his father or telling him that he was loved.


Sam’s grief was complicated by his growing fear of himself, of the powers and visions he couldn’t control and couldn’t understand, that seemed somehow connected with the demon and implied that Sam had an evil destiny he perhaps couldn’t evade. Meeting others like himself just exacerbated that fear and the belief that he would turn into something evil, something other than himself. His discovery in Cold Oak of the demon’s endgame, learning that he could master demonic abilities the same way that Ava had, discovering that he had been fed demon blood as an infant and that his mother had recognized the demon, served to scare him even more about what he could become. Sam was afraid not only of himself, but of what the abilities within him and what they had meant in terms of the loss of his mother and Jess would do to his brother’s perception of and regard for him.


The events of the end of season two changed things even more dramatically than the beginning of the season had done. Sam died. Bereft by Sam’s death of all his own reasons for living, Dean sold his own soul in a deal as bitter as John’s to buy his brother back, and tried in desperate shame to hide what he had done to avoid seeing in Sam’s eyes the same anger and bitterness he had felt against John for having done the same thing for him. The gates of hell opened to spew forth an army of demons, but also released John’s soul from prison and torment. John’s interference with the yellow-eyed demon bought Dean the chance to fulfill the destiny that the Winchesters had pursued for nearly all the boys’ lives, and Dean destroyed the demon. The boys had the chance to see their father’s spirit free and more than content. The love and pride that radiated from John were tangible. More than that, they were absolution particularly for Dean, who saw that ultimate success and his father’s reaction to it wipe out a myriad of smaller perceived failures and disappointments over the years. While the boys don’t know for certain where John went when his spirit dissolved into light, it’s clear that hell plays no part in it.


Season Three


So the question becomes what this means for season three, what the missions and motivations of the Winchester brothers will be as the season begins. In many ways, I submit, they are more different than they have ever been.


Despite the clock ticking away on his life, Dean has reason to be more positive and cheerful than we’ve ever seen him. He’s always placed little value on his own existence, so it’s not surprising that having signed it away hasn’t burdened him more, at least not yet. The positive scale, on the other hand, is brimming over. He no longer carries his first season fears for his father’s life and safety, nor his second season guilt for his father’s death and eternal torment; instead, he knows that his Dad is free and fulfilled and proud of him. Further, with the demon dead at his own hand, he has reason to believe that he has saved Sam, because he and his brother no longer need to fear the demon’s plans for him. Sam is alive because of him, and if he’s saved Sam by killing the demon, he doesn’t need to fear possibly having to kill his brother any more. All the guilt, shame, loss, and fear that tormented Dean to the cutting edge of madness and death last season are suddenly gone. The true wonder would be if Dean didn’t become emotionally drunk on this abrupt lightness of being. Life is sweet, sweeter than it’s been for Dean in a long, long time. He’s got his brother at his side and plenty of work that he’s good at and twisted enough to enjoy: saving people, hunting things – the family business.


That said, the brightness and sweetness are not unalloyed. There is the niggling doubt the demon planted, about whether the Sam who came back from death is still 100% pure Sam. That’s something I suspect Dean will bury deep inside and try to forget, facing it again only if and when Sam does things out of the gentle character that we have come to expect. And while I doubt that Dean ever gave much thought to an afterlife and never particularly feared his own death, given his practical, sensory nature and tendency to live in the moment, I suspect that the shadow on his future will make him start to wonder and question just what it is that he will face when he dies. I think he’s going to begin for the first time to worry about what may come. At the same time, though, I would guess that, considering it to be inevitable, he would determine to face it with the same brash courage he always wears and not admit to fear, especially not in front of Sam.


Dean also won’t be entirely free from shame and guilt, but they have different flavors than the ones he’s carried up until now. His shame and guilt now are for having made the deal, not because making the deal was morally wrong, but because it has changed the way that Bobby and Sam – and probably Ellen, given that she was there to hear and see Jake’s reaction to a living Sam – look at him and feel about him. Bobby nailed it when he challenged Dean in the junkyard: “How’s your brother going to feel, when he knows you’re going to hell? How did you feel, when you knew your Dad went for you?” We heard it echo at the very end of All Hell Breaks Loose, Part 2, when Sam told Dean that he shouldn’t have done it, and Dean’s immediate pleading response was, “Don’t get mad at me. Don’t you do that.” Dean can’t and won’t regret having made the deal, not when it means having Sam alive, but he will ache for putting Sam through the same gamut of emotions that John’s identical decision imposed on him.


Sam, on the other hand, faces more negatives than positives on all sides. With the demon dead, the demon’s plans for him are presumably broken, but what the demon showed him of the past still remains: he knows he was fed demon blood, and that his mother recognized the demon. He has to question whether he’s fully human, or whether his fears of being tainted and becoming something evil are still real. Along those lines, he will also doubtless wonder – without mentioning it to Dean for some time, I think – whether his having come back from the dead might have warped him. Even though Sam didn’t hear what the yellow-eyed demon said to Dean in the graveyard concerning whether what Dean brought back was 100% pure Sam, I suspect that Sam will worry about it on his own, especially after the brothers’ experience with the zombie Angela and the things Dean had said at the time about the unnaturalness of things brought back from the dead.


And then there’s Dean and his deal. I suspect that Sam will feel a lot of the same things that Dean had felt after realizing what John had done for him. With no way to confront his father and ashamed to reveal himself to his brother, Dean had bottled up his feelings inside until they nearly destroyed him. The situation between the brothers is different. Dean is still alive and walking, despite the ticking of the clock, right at Sam’s side. What Sam feels is likely to boil over right on top of Dean, precisely because Dean’s there to face and challenge and because Sam has always been more confrontational than his brother. Anger for Dean’s choice, guilt for having been the cause of it, rage and horror for Dean’s anticipated fate, anger and jealousy for Dean’s new lightheartedness in despite of his death sentence, guilt for feeling so angry at someone he loves who had sacrificed so much and been broken so badly – the confusion of emotion is going to be even worse than what Sam experienced in season two. Season two was Dean’s nadir, his dark night of the soul: I suspect that season three will be Sam’s turn to truly taste despair.


The brothers will share the mission of hunting down and dealing with the demons and spirits that escaped from hell, and they’ll both probably feel partially responsible for the harm those malevolent beings cause, since they failed to prevent the hell gate from being opened in the first place. Sam will have the added mission of saving his brother from his deal, and will have to contend with Dean’s refusal to cooperate with him for fear of seeing Sam drop dead again. I suspect that Sam will learn – and become furious all over again! – about the “no escape” clause in Dean’s contract in very short order, and sooner than Dean learns about baby Sam having been fed demon blood and Mary Winchester having recognized the demon. 


I would suspect that, given where their minds and emotions were at come the end of season two, the brothers’ attitudes in season three will be very different from each other, both for their shared mission and for Sam’s personal one. I think we’ll see a Dean who reflects more of what we remember from season one in terms of his joy in the job and in life, precisely because he’s been freed from the pressures that ground him down in season two. I suspect he’ll sober up with the passage of time as he comes to think more about what he faces and what he’ll be sacrificing, and as he feels guilty for being the cause of Sam’s steadily increasing misery. I think we’ll see Sam becoming increasingly resentful both of Dean’s having made the deal and of Dean’s expressed, seemingly carefree view of his remaining life, while simultaneously becoming more guilty for feeling so angry toward the brother who gave up so much. I think that Sam’s anger and guilt are going to fuel each other to a boiling point, and that we’ll see misdirected outbursts of violence from Sam much as we saw them from Dean in season two. Sam’s determination to save his brother will, I think, overshadow his commitment to the broader job of saving the world from demonkind, and where those two missions come into conflict, there will be arguments between the brothers about which one takes precedence, the same way that they fought in season one about finding Dad or saving other people, and in season two over whether killing the supernatural or fighting evil was their proper mission.


Along the way, I would expect that we might be challenged concerning the nature of demons much as we were challenged concerning the nature of the supernatural and the relationship of the supernatural to evil. Given the conundrum presented by Lenore and her vampire family, I fully expect a question to be presented about whether all demons are evil, and if demons could change once outside of hell. But that’s a topic for a different blog entry.


This class is dismissed.



Thanks to the magnificent


for the new custom-made Supernatural University art!  If you want to see more of her lovely work, check out her thread over on 

Tags: meta, psychology, supernatural, supernatural university

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