An obvious major theme of season three concerns Dean’s impending death and the effect that contemplating it has on both brothers. Welcome to another psychology class at
As we all know, Dean made a deal with the Crossroads Demon in All Hell Breaks Loose, Part 2, selling his soul into Hell in one year’s time in exchange for Sam being returned to life. The demon specified one further condition to the deal, stating that if Dean tried to welsh on or weasel out of the deal in any way, Sam would die again. Barring Sam finding a loophole in the contract, figuring out a way to break the deal, or negotiating some other alternative that would allow them both to live, the terms of the deal mean that Dean will die and his soul will be consigned to Hell in less than a year. This leaves both brothers facing the stark knowledge that the countdown clock is ticking and that, barring some miracle, Dean will die not all that long from now.
Many people have noted that because of this death sentence, Dean and Sam are essentially in the roles of a terminal patient and his close family member, and that they both – as evidenced by behaviors we’ve already seen from them in The Magnificent Seven and The Kids Are Alright – are likely to go through the various phases of coping with grief and loss as Dean’s death approaches. I agree, but my thesis for this class is that the standard grief coping analysis doesn’t go far enough, because more than just death and loss are involved here. I submit that at least two additional elements need to be factored in to the analysis of the reactions we may see from the boys.
Dean didn’t just contract to die; he contracted to go to Hell. And unlike most people, even those of faith who believe in the concept of an afterlife, the Winchesters have very concrete knowledge and proof both that demons and therefore Hell do exist, and that the death of the body doesn’t necessarily free the spirit from pain. They may not know the particulars, but they know enough to be able confidently to expect that the worst can and will happen, which makes the spectre of Dean’s upcoming death a thing not just of mortal, human loss, but of genuine horror.
To make things even harder, Dean’s death and damnation, rather than being simply the consequence of time, illness, accident, accumulated choices, or the actions of others, reflect his own deliberate decision, a choice consciously made and accepted in full knowledge of the price. Both brothers have to deal not only with knowing that Dean is going to die, but also with knowing that he will continue to suffer after his death, and with knowing that he agreed to this precisely in order for Sam to be alive.
I’m going to break this discussion into three separate elements – Death, Hell, and Choice – in an attempt to address all of these pieces, and then I’ll bring them together for my conclusions.
I’ve lost count of the blogs and commentaries that have already discussed the phases of coping with death, grief, and loss and attempted to analyze in which phase or phases each of the boys may be at any given moment. The phases themselves are generally well known and well described: denial/numbness/shock; bargaining; depression; anger; acceptance. How individuals progress through the phases is known to differ. Some may experience all the phases in sequence, while others go directly to one specific phase, and others may repeat one or more phases more than once.
Sam seems to be bouncing among multiple phases, particularly including denial, bargaining, depression, and anger. He’s currently refusing to concede Dean’s death as inevitable, searching for ways to avoid it, and knowingly taking chances with his own life in the process (at least according to what Dean told him about the “no escape” clause in the contract, which included both of them, not just Dean, trying to weasel Dean out of the deal). In The Magnificent Seven, we saw him depressed and guilty about the price of Dean’s choice and the approach of his fate, conceding constantly to Dean until his anger outstripped his guilt and he refused to pander any longer. I expect we’ll see Sam continue to pinball among the phases without ever reaching acceptance.
Dean’s situation is different. I’ve seen some diagnoses of denial, but I don’t think there’s any real denial in him, not about his death, at any rate. From what I can see, Dean fully accepts that he’s going to die. His passion for living fully while he can seems both a reflection of that acceptance and a bit of bargaining, an attempt to fill in the holes in his heart and his life left by his rootless existence, to experience the things he wants to remember rather than regret having missed when death takes him.
This isn’t the first time that Dean has faced his own death and accepted it. We saw him do it in Faith, after his electrocution. Where Sam went into denial and bargaining mode, looking for an alternative no matter how unlikely and refusing to accept the possibility of failure – some of the same behaviors he’s displaying now – Dean turned fatalist and simply accepted what he was told would happen. Checking himself out of the hospital wasn’t an act of denial, but simply a choice of where and how to die, and one made with the unspoken knowledge that, from a logistical viewpoint, dying off of any official radar would simplify the burden on Sam by eliminating the need for him to deal with any authorities concerning the disposal of the body. Dean can be brutally practical at times, and I think that’s what was operating in Faith; he adopted flat acceptance and practicality as his shield against pain, loss, and grief. He went along with Sam’s plan not because he believed it would work, but because it meant so much to Sam that he try, that he let Sam act to save him. When he was saved after having prepared himself to die, the experience left him flat, and I think that only part of that was his sense that something about his healing was wrong; the other part was that, having steeled himself so firmly to die, he was suddenly at loose ends staying alive.
The situation in Faith was very different from the one he faces now. His predicted death in Faith was the result of accident, the random roll of the dice of fate, and he accepted it as something he couldn’t influence. It also came with a short timeframe attached, one that didn’t afford him much time for introspection, and it was accompanied by a substantial amount of physical pain and weakness that further drained him and encouraged the thought that death, when it came, would be a release. When he was healed and then faced the Reaper again, this time knowing that it was coming to take his life in trade for Layla’s, he made no effort to escape. Confronted with an immediate choice, he again simply accepted what the outcome would be, approving the value of the trade. Now, however, he has a year to think, a year to walk in perfect health and full physical strength, a year to hold fear at bay, a year to know that what he faces is something he has done to himself, a year to wonder whether his courage will hold when the final moment comes.
From all that we’ve seen, death itself isn’t something that Dean fears. Even in In My Time of Dying, Dean wasn’t afraid for himself, but only of what his absence would mean to the safety of his father and brother. Dean doesn’t remember his encounter with Tessa the Reaper, but we do. His refusal to let go of life then was predicated on his need to continue to protect Sam and support John. When Tessa warned him that his alternatives were death or becoming exactly the thing he hunted, we saw him reconsidering. We never got to see his final answer, since Tessa was possessed by the Yellow-Eyed Demon before he actually spoke his decision, but I believe that the choice he had made was to die, to accept death and move on rather than becoming something that John and Sam would have had to destroy. Acceptance of his own mortality seems entrenched in his nature.
One point, here. Dean accepts his own death, but he utterly refuses to accept Sam’s. His reaction to John’s death also had nothing of acceptance in it, running straight to anger and then oscillating between anger, depression, and numb shock, until John escaped Hell. Having seen John proud and content, dissolving into light rather than imprisoned in Hell, seems to have finally healed Dean enough to accept his father’s death. For anyone Dean cares about, and I strongly suspect that this would extend to Bobby, and perhaps now to Ellen, I expect that denial and bargaining would be his initial response to their loss, making him react in connection with them much the way Sam does with him.
One of the two elements that I’ve seen missing from the grief/loss/death coping analysis is the focus on what will follow Dean’s death, because his death, unlike any other natural one, comes with a guarantee of Hell attached. That changes the equation.
In real life, no one knows what happens to our consciousness, to ourselves, after death. All religions address the question and provide a variety of different answers, but what each of us believes ultimately comes down to a matter of faith. Do we experience an afterlife in some form or version of our earthly body or consciousness, and if so, is it pleasant, painful, or something indescribable? Do we simply cease? Can we think? Do we remember? Can we dream? Do we inhabit some other form? Are we aware of ourselves? Are others aware of us, and we of them? Do we perceive time? Is there light, or darkness, or nothing at all? We question, and some of us may believe, but none of us truly knows what awaits us or anyone else.
Supernatural has been nearly as vague on this subject as reality itself. The premise of the show does include ghosts or spirits, explained as a remnant of people whose spirits don’t move on after death but instead cling to the world they knew, whether out of anger, confusion, duty, love, fear, or some other reason. Despite that, however, the show’s premise and its characters make no pretense of knowing what happens to people who simply depart without leaving a ghost behind, or what happens to spirits when the thing holding them to earth is completed or destroyed. The boys have seen destroyed spirits dissolve in spectral fire or disappear, and not return. Three times – in Houses of the Holy, Roadkill, and All Hell Breaks Loose, Part 2 – one or both of the boys saw a spirit dissolve peacefully from a human form into light when the consciousness behind it apparently chose to move on, but whether that light was a doorway to more or an end in itself remains a mystery. Sam hopes for a heaven, but can’t know whether it exists. What happened to Mary’s spirit in Home represents yet another different path that we also don’t understand, although
But there is one more thing that is emphatically not a mystery in Supernatural, and that is Hell. It’s still not clear whether it’s physical or metaphysical, but it has been identified even by demons as the home of demons, and as a place of torment that even demons want to escape. The Crossroads Demon in Cross Road Blues and the Demon Formerly Known as Meg in Born Under a Bad Sign both taunted Dean with the image of John suffering in Hell after his death in IMToD, and the boys saw John’s very tangible spirit appear after the gate to Hell opened in AHBL, P2. Whatever the nature of existence after death, the boys now have definite knowledge that Hell can play a role, and that someone who has died can indeed go there. They have only the descriptions given by scriptures and demons to go on, that Hell is a place of torture and pain, but even though demons lie, they know that they also tell the truth when it suits them.
And Dean agreed to die and go to Hell.
That changes the death/loss/grief equation in a very profound way. One of the major approaches through which we, as humans, come to accept death and loss and heal from grief is to accept death as a release from pain, as an end to suffering. We console ourselves with the thought that the loved one we lost is in a better place, somewhere beyond the sorrows we still know.
That possibility doesn’t exist for Dean and Sam. They know, even before his death, that what will follow for Dean is worse than anything that came before. Dean’s death is a doom, not something that can be turned into a blessing. And given what he has already suffered both in terms of externally and self-inflicted agony, that Hell, in order to be worse, is literally unimaginable.
And this is where Dean’s denial is in full flower.
He accepts his death without question, but he clearly hasn’t even begun thinking – yet – about what will follow death for him. I wonder when he’ll begin to acknowledge that question, and what the fear of the answer will do to him. The sense of Hell tortured him when he knew his father had accepted it for his sake; he obviously hasn’t been able yet to picture himself in his father’s place, and Sam in his own. When that happens, a new phase of his coping will begin. I would guess that Dean will try to accept his fate because he chose it willingly, but I think that not even Dean Winchester could accept damnation with calm equanimity. My guess would be that bargaining will be his first approach to coping, trying to persuade himself that having his brother alive will be worth whatever horror he faces, and that his love and his honor require that he pay the price to which he agreed.
Unlike his brother, Sam is already factoring Hell into his equation of Dean’s death. His guilt over knowing that Dean isn’t just dying for him, but going to Hell to suffer in perpetuity, is part of his reaction to Dean’s terminal condition. His guilt and fear for Dean’s sojourn in Hell are complicating his ability to cope with the knowledge that, barring a miracle, Dean is going to die. Part of what prohibits him from accepting Dean’s choice and fate is that this death is pure horror, loss with no potential beneficial offset apart from one he can’t accept: that he will live because Dean will die, that he will thrive because Dean will suffer. There’s no way that Sam can accept that, so there’s no way he can bring himself to accept Dean’s death. He has to find an alternative. There is no other acceptable choice.
Loss, grief, and death all become unacceptable, something with which neither of the boys can cope, when Hell factors into the equation as an unavoidable part of the answer.
The second confounding factor is that Dean chose his fate: that he agreed to the price of his death and damnation as a suitable exchange for Sam’s return to life. Sam can’t agree, and thus can’t accept … the same way that Dean couldn’t agree to and accept his father’s identical choice for his life.
Dean has acknowledged, understood, and accepted that his choice, like his father’s, was ultimately selfish, made out of his need for his brother to live. That doesn’t help Sam come to terms with or acceptance of it. Still, loving his brother, Sam finds it hard to attack his choice, and impossible to dismiss Dean’s obvious love and need. Reconciling that with losing Dean precisely because of a decision based in that love and that need is impossible.
I would submit that what all this means is that the usual phases of coping with death, loss, and grief won’t completely cover or adequately describe the Winchesters’ current situation. Under other circumstances, the brothers could likely cope with and come to accept Dean’s death, but neither of them can currently cope with his damnation, and Sam, at least, can’t cope at all with Dean’s choice to effectively commit an eternal, continuing suicide just to have Sam alive.
I’m not even attempting to include in this analysis the question of whether Sam came back from the dead as 100% pure Sam, or the extent to which the secrets that Sam is still keeping – about his exposure to demon blood, Mary’s recognition of the YED, and the elimination of all of Mary’s family and friends – is complicating the relationship equation between the brothers and the internal balance of Sam’s own mind.
I do believe that the brothers will both pinball among the phases of coping with loss and grief as the season develops, and particularly as the end of Dean’s life comes ever closer with no solution in sight. What’s more, I submit that we, the fans, will experience the same roller coaster of emotion as the brothers, albeit without Sam’s guilt and Dean’s deliberate self-sacrifice to complicate our responses. We will resort to denial, bargaining, anger, and depression, likely both in turn and all at once, but we will never accept.
While all of us live and hope and beg and offer and demand and cry and pray, Dean cannot die and cannot be damned, and Sam can’t be lost by anchoring him.
Put me squarely on my raft on that river in
P.S.: Even though it posted afterward, this class was prepared before Bad Day At Black Rock aired. Don’t worry; the customary episode summary and commentary will follow.