Viral demon empties town.
Dean’s whole life is Sam.
Man, Croatoan didn’t disappoint. John Shiban's script, Robert Singer's moody direction, and Jay Gruska's beautifully painful underscore, all added on to a brilliant recap "Then," set things up perfectly. For the first time in the run of Supernatural, the boys didn’t manage to solve the equation to understand and stop what happened. I’m with Dean, here: “I swear, I’m gonna lose sleep over this one.” Sam’s visions drew him into a test that confirmed that he is immune to some demonic-related influences, not just the mind control of others gifted as he is, which we saw in Simon Said, but of the viral possession agent associated with the name “Croatoan.” And confronted with Dean’s reaction to Sam’s presumed inevitable descent into demonic evil, Sam finally realized an agonizing but essential truth: that Dean will not, and wouldn’t want to, survive without him. Anyone who thinks that Dean wouldn’t have killed Sam and then immediately eaten his own gun if Sam had turned, raise your hand: no, I wouldn’t have raised mine, either. The cliffhanger of what Dean will say about what John told him about Sam will torment us all until at least January 11, 2007, which is exactly what creator Eric Kripke intended.
Okay: on the plot. A whole contemporary town, disappearing except for the doctor? That’s one public health professional whose shoes I would not want to be wearing, when the authorities start asking questions about the missing townspeople, the blocked roadways, the gunshot-dead husband, wife, and assistant in her clinic, and the throat-slit man in a truck on the highway south of town. I think that war has been formally declared between demons and humankind, even if most of the humans don’t know it yet. Storm’s more than coming; it’s already raining, and I see earthquakes and lightning, and hurricanes a-blowin’. I hope that the end won’t be coming for several more seasons, yet, though.
We’re all going to be obsessing about Sam’s abilities and the secret concerning him, so I might as well go there. Okay, folks: I’m going to put my money down, and say flat-out what I think. Here goes:
Sam is human. Sam is Dean’s full brother. Sam inherited abilities from their mother, Mary (I’m remembering Mary apologizing to Sam, and Dean’s reluctance to visit her grave, which I think may have been due both to his guilt at being alive, and to his not knowing what to feel and think when he learned that Mary had a role beyond simply being their Mom and ending up skewered and flambéed on the ceiling – a role that John himself didn’t know until some time between Home and Dead Man’s Blood, but which I think he confided to Dean.). I think that Sam is a target for demonkind because of the abilities he possesses. Demons will try to find ways to turn Sam and the children like him darkside. If Sam does not fall to temptation and evil, he would be a potent force for good in the war between humans and demons, likely a keystone in the edifice of humanity. Knowing how much hinges on him would be a crushing burden, so it’s a weight that John kept from him and entrusted only to Dean, not appreciating how much carrying the load and lying to his brother would cost his oldest son.
Where did all of this come from, you ask? Glad you brought that up. Making Sam part demon or part angel would strike me as a cheat; making him human, with human failings and human choices, makes him much more interesting. Making his abilities genetic and thus within the realm of humanity is part and parcel of the same issue.
Sam’s abilities are nonetheless tuned to the fiery-yellow-eyed demon (FYED): all of his visions have concerned demon-inspired activity, involving either demons reporting to the FYED (Meg and Duane); other children like him who are also foci for demonic activity (Max, Andy, and Ansem Weems/Webber); or places and spirits associated with the FYED (the boys’ home in Kansas, and the spirit of their mother). I submit that this tuning might have been unintentional on the FYED’s part, a sensitization due to the FYED’s appearance on Sam’s six-month birthday, but has worked generally in the brothers’ favor thus far, allowing them to interfere in the FYED’s plans through the foresight of Sam’s grotesque death visions. They saved the family in Home, the stepmother in Nightmare, little Rosie and her mother in Salvation, and Tracey in Simon Said, to name the obvious. They also, although not intentionally, saved the possessed Duane in Croatoan. That said, I don’t believe that the FYED controls the visions as such. Admittedly, if the FYED could control the visions, it could deliberately have sent the image of Dean killing Duane that brought the boys to the town; but the FYED could just as easily understand that the greater the magnitude of its actions, the more likely Sam would be to perceive a vision of death related to them, and thus the plan to eliminate an entire town could itself have been a sure-fire attractant.
I’ve been wondering about Sam’s abilities, given that his death precognition seems so limited when compared to direct, active abilities such as Max’s telekinesis in Nightmare and Andy’s and Ansem’s mind control in Simon Said. But if his visions truly are tied to the FYED’s activities, then Sam could be humanity’s intelligence weapon, predicting where demonic activity will strike and marshalling forces to oppose it. That potential would make his visions far more powerful and valuable, even if he never manages to tap again into other potentials, such as the telekinesis that answered his blind, unfocused desperation to save Dean in Nightmare.
Dean’s role in all this has been fascinating to watch. He’s become much more hardened this season than last, flipping the switch into combat mode almost effortlessly, especially when Sam is threatened in any way. I was struck in Croatoan with his killing of Mrs. Tanner: his unhesitating efficiency in taking down someone who didn’t clearly pose an immediate threat was chilling. He asked Sam, very simply, if he was sure she was one of them, and then he fired, on nothing more than Sam’s assurance, and filling in the hesitation on the part of the Master Sergeant to kill a seemingly non-threatening female neighbor. His subsequent hesitation on shooting Duane held only one difference: Sam had pleaded with him not to do it, and had argued against certainty of his infection. Absent Sam’s support or an immediate threat, Dean couldn’t kill. His innate compassion is still inside that exhausted, brittle shell; he still retains that much of himself, beyond the call of duty.
I don’t believe that John told Dean that Sam is demonic, or fated to turn evil, or any of the other doomed, dark speculations that I’ve seen in the past months. I keep going back to John, in IMToD, telling Dean, “Don’t be scared, Dean,” and then giving him that tired, tiny little smile just before he silently took his leave, with Dean overwhelmed and silent behind him. That wasn’t the message or the look of a man telling his oldest son that his beloved brother was a time bomb; it felt like the look of a man telling the son he trusts to be strong why it was so vital that he keep carrying the load he’d borne since he was a boy, although he’d never realized before that moment just how heavy or important a weight it truly was. I think that John tasked Dean with continuing to be Sam’s protector, and emphasized that part of his defender role was to keep Sam from being overwhelmed by fear or by the trap of seeming predestination as demonic forces centered more and more on him.
When I watched IMToD again recently, the scene in Dean’s room where John sat silently by his bedside contemplating his dying son and what he intended to do just really struck me hard. John’s emotional exhaustion there was palpable, as Dean’s is now; I can’t help but feel that John was entertaining a myriad of thoughts, including the refusal to watch his son die, the cumulative grief and fatigue of constantly losing those he loved, the need to protect his younger son, and the sense that – especially given his constant disagreements with Sam – Dean would be a more effective support and protector for Sam than John himself could ever be, notwithstanding John’s greater knowledge and experience. The strength of the brother bond is what keeps saving these two, time and time again: I think John realized that the brother bond would tip the scales when it came down to completing the essential mission of keeping Sam safely on the human side of the war.
Now Dean carries all the same exhaustion and grief, and he’s carrying it not only for John and himself, but also to keep it from crippling Sam. But I think that Dean is also finally seeing that, as Sam has become aware of the strain on Dean himself, the sense of what he doesn’t know is becoming as threatening to Sam’s security as knowing what John feared awaits him would be. When Dean chose deliberately to die rather than to leave Sam, and openly confessed to Sam that he was tired, heart and soul tired of his job and his life and the weight on his shoulders, he changed the dynamic between them. I loved how Sam refused to let him retreat back into silence, instead calmly and teasingly threatening to just keep asking until Dean had to speak.
Bottom line: I don’t know what the secret is. I don’t know how Sam will react to hearing it, whatever it is – although if it speaks of danger, I wouldn’t be surprised if he tried to force Dean away, in order to avoid having to watch his brother walking with determination into his own death again. Dean has always known what Sammy means to him; now Sam knows it as well, in a way he’d never had to face before, and since Sam loves Dean fully as much, the knowledge that he’s given up everything, even his enjoyment and his life, may be too much to accept.