All of us Supernatural fans are obviously touched in many ways by this show and its characters, but have you ever noticed how the characters themselves use touch, and how different in this regard the characters are from the actors who play them? Welcome to the final pre-Christmas class at
My thesis for this class provides a fine excuse – excuse me, behooves you – to watch again all the first and second season episodes that have aired thus far, in order to isolate examples to either illustrate or refute the class premise. Please do not neglect your assignment, or leap to unfounded conclusions – adequate research is essential.
My thesis is that Dean, notwithstanding being “Mr. No-Chick-Flick Moments,” is actually the most tactile of the
As an aside, judging from their behavior at events such as the Paley Festival and in the record captured in various behind-the-scenes interviews and clips, Jensen and Jared themselves are both comfortably tactile. As equal partners, they both readily use touch to tease, to provide support, to convey affection, and to reinforce and replace verbal messages. Of the two, Jared seems the more overt and outgoing, particularly with others, which makes his choice to be less tactile as Sam very interesting to watch.
Back to the Winchesters. I submit that Dean is much more tactile than Sam. With his focus on things that are real, he frequently uses his sense of touch in experiencing the world around him. Just watch him: when Dean sees something that arouses his curiosity, he reaches for it with his hand, every single time. That also applies to how he interacts with people, especially his brother. Dean is given to reaching out and touching his brother to offer comfort, support, reassurance, and even outright rescue whenever Sam is stressed or in pain. Examples include Dean assisting Sam out of the crashed Impala and bodily picking Sam up and forcing him from the burning room in the pilot; framing Sam’s bloody face with his hands in Bloody Mary, and then supporting him on the walk away; hugging Sam after saving him from the strangling lamp cord in Home; holding and supporting him during two visions in Nightmare; hustling him out of the house after the attack by Mordecai in Hell House; catching him and continuing to hold him in Dead Man’s Blood when Luther released him after being shot; blocking Sam from going back into the burning house in Salvation; getting Sam back to his feet after saving him from the demon in Devil’s Trap; and resting a gentle hand on his back after the doctor’s death and catching and supporting him during visions in Simon Said. Dean is also quick with casual touch, smacking Sam on the back of the head and later swatting his injured chest in the pilot; waking him from a nightmare in Bloody Mary; patting him on the butt as a joke in Bugs and on the leg in apology in Asylum; casually stopping him from walking in front of a moving car in Nightmare; teasing him with the infamous spoon in Hell House. Dean has also used touch in anger, shoving Sam up against the bridge support in the pilot; belting him outright in Bloodlust for him asserting that Dean had disrespected John’s memory; and shoving him aside in Croatoan in order to lock him in the room.
Sam is very verbal and conceptual, but the evidence suggests that he is less inclined to use touch, particularly in communicating with his brother. He has used touch to offer support, but only in situations where Dean was having visible trouble staying on his feet or where Sam himself was driven to unaccustomed urgency. For example, he took Dean’s weight and helped him to the ground in Wendigo after finding him strung up in the mine; he was quick and constant in supporting and assisting Dean – much to Dean’s irritation – when Dean was injured in Faith; he grabbed Dean’s hand to wake him in Nightmare when he was reacting to his first dream; he took Dean’s arm to help him to his feet after untying him in Shadow; and he propped Dean up and helped him walk to John’s room at the end of In My Time of Dying. Tellingly, however, he didn’t touch Dean at all just after Dean had been tortured in Devil’s Trap or as he lay in a coma in IMToD, almost as if he were afraid a touch might cause more harm or confirm fears he didn’t want to acknowledge. Even casual touch begun by Sam is relatively rare, although he seems more comfortable with indulging in brotherly teasing. Stepping on Dean’s foot to stop him from talking back to the cops in the pilot, jabbing him irritatedly in the gut in Bugs, and giving him a teasing shove at the end of The Usual Suspects were pretty much Sam’s limit. Anger brought out touch without thought, including the grabfest with John during the argument in Dead Man’s Blood and the moment in Salvation when Sam lost his temper, grabbed Dean, and slammed him into the wall.
When we met John with his adult boys, he seemed much more like Sam in terms of accepting but rarely initiating touch. He gave each of the boys a shake of the leg to wake them in Dead Man’s Blood, and grabbed Sam by the shirt during their argument, but, like Sam, he never touched the comatose Dean in IMToD. He initiated supporting touch only twice, gripping Sam’s shoulder in farewell when he left to deceive Meg in Salvation, and Dean’s shoulder just before disclosing the secret in IMToD. That bracing shoulder touch was apparently a habit with John; we also saw him use it on young Dean during the flashback sequence in Something Wicked.
In asserting that Sam and John have not been actively tactile, I don’t mean to suggest that touch is not important to them. On the contrary: it seems that touch has an embarrassing power that could threaten their control over their emotions and actions, and thus is not to be initiated lightly. Despite that, both Sam and John unhesitatingly welcome touch whenever Dean initiates it. Everything we needed to know about the relationship between Dean and John was apparent in their reunion moment in Shadow, when Dean simply walked straight into his father’s arms in the absolute assurance that they would open to welcome him. That moment was a pure and perfect echo of four-year-old Dean running happily into his father’s embrace in the opening scene of the pilot. All of that same unquestioning love, trust, and confidence were still intact, and John gave them back to him in full measure. In that same scene, we also saw the wariness between Sam and John, and the moment following their tacit mutual apology for past conflict when John wordlessly offered and Sam equally silently nodded acceptance and stepped into a hug. John and Sam had to give each other permission to touch. I would guess from John’s behavior in the pilot that he had been more touch-focused when the boys were very young, and that his reticence in touch developed only as they grew and as his obsession with the hunt and with transforming them into capable hunters steadily shifted him from father to drill sergeant.
I think that the touch balance between the brothers has been driven by their relationship growing up. We saw in the pilot that Dean, early on, received loving touch from both his mother and father, and in turn passed it on to Sam. From the night of the fire, taking care of Sam became the central fact of Dean’s life, making Dean almost as much a parent as a brother. His automatic reaction to Sam, driven by both supportive roles, is to reach out and touch, and Sam accepts the habit as unthinkingly as Dean employs it. Even when Sam objected to Dean calling him “Sammy” – another carryover from childhood – he never once shrugged off or tried to avoid his brother’s touch.
I believe that Sam’s hesitation in physically touching Dean – especially in using touch to offer comfort or support – has largely grown from Dean’s own refusal to accept that kind of touch, particularly from his little brother. Dean accepts teasing touch without embarrassment and returns it in kind, but comfort and support are a different case. Dean considers that his big brother role requires him to be strong for Sam, to not display weakness; he admitted as much to Gordon in Bloodlust. Accepting help implies that he needs it, that he’s not strong enough, and that is not something he’s comfortable showing to Sam. His truculence every time Sam touched and helped him in Faith went beyond just a vital man’s fear and irritation at his own sudden physical incapacity; it was a rejection of having to show weakness and need in front of Sam. Judging from his behavior in Faith and in all of the episodes from season two thus far, Dean has always pushed off Sam’s support because he believes that needing it would be wrong. My guess is that Dean has felt that admitting weakness would change the way Sam looks at him, that it would diminish him in Sam’s eyes. Needing Sam’s help assaults both his pride and the role he has always played as the chief support for Sam.
I would argue that the events of the series, especially the developments in season two, have altered the relationship between the brothers to a point that will also see a change in the way they deal with touch. Having come through the fire of Jessica’s loss and his own developing fears about his unusual abilities, Sam has matured. The year spent together with his brother on the hunt after a few years apart has let him see Dean with fresh eyes and approach him from a new perspective, understanding things about his brother that he had never even been equipped to notice before, when they both lived in the inertia of the old patterns they grew up with as children. Sam no longer takes for granted his brother’s presence or what his brother has done for him. Sam is no longer the child that Dean carried, babysat, protected, raised, and pushed around; he’s become a man, and he’s approaching Dean as a man, as a peer, as an equal. Dean has slowly begun responding to that change in Sam, revealing his fears and his weaknesses in bits and pieces of honesty, and each time that Sam has stayed with him and accepted what he revealed, his decision to share has been validated, and he has been encouraged to share a little more. The new course of their brotherhood journey will be set, I think, when Sam touches Dean in comfort and support, and Dean doesn’t duck away; when Dean finally admits that he can need help and take it from his brother without diminishing himself, and Sam shows that being able to offer comfort himself doesn’t mean that he no longer needs what his brother has always given to him.
Sam and Dean will never be the huggy-kissy, touchy-feely Winchesters, for which we all devoutly thank Kripke, but I think we may see them becoming more like Jared and Jensen in how they employ touch – as partners, equals, brothers, and friends.
I hope that you will all enjoy your research assignment, and I’ll look forward to perusing your papers. I won’t be keeping office hours during the Christmas break; I’ll be traveling to visit family, with little or no internet access until the Friday before New Years, so I will take this opportunity to say Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Joyous Kwanzaa, Good Solstice, Happy Boxing Day, and Warm Midwinter, or whatever festival you may celebrate!