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Supernatural University: Growing Up = Changing Perceptions

Welcome to another class at Supernatural University: an amusing way to pass the time without tearing our hair out as we wait for Hunted finally to air!


This class involves an exploration of the perceptions that Sam and Dean Winchester appear to have of each other, of themselves, and of their father, John. The premise of this class is that our human perception of ourselves and others changes as we grow up, and that the episodes of Supernatural have charted changes particularly in Sam’s and Dean’s perspectives on each other and John as their experiences have led them to mature. I submit that this process will continue throughout the series.


This class was inspired by many recent blogs, especially the wonderful recaps of first season episodes by CindyRose and Escapism101, and the many comments submitted in response to those entries. It also continues earlier discussions in this Supernatural Descant blog. All of these are recommended as background reading.


I’m going to feature Sam in this discussion, even though I’ll also be talking about Dean and John, because the series really is being told predominantly from Sam’s point of view, and much of what we have learned came from what he has seen and from how understanding it has affected him.


In the beginning …


When we first met Sam, he was on his own, having left his family a few years earlier after a major row with John about his desire to go to college. To his friends, he dismissed his family as not being close and not knowing or caring about his scholastic achievements, but he still kept a photo of his parents on his bureau, and he had at least talked to Jessica about his brother Dean; she recognized the name, if not the face. We learned quickly that Sam was uncomfortable about his non-traditional upbringing, reluctant in the extreme to get back into the life, harbored long-festering anger at John and his autocratic attitudes, and often resented Dean, especially for always standing with John and for constantly putting him into the “little brother” box (“‘Sammy’ is a chubby 12-year-old. It’s ‘Sam.’”).


Sam saw himself as rational, independent, and grown up. With justification, he saw his choices as having been reasonable and logical ones, and the goal of his life – becoming a lawyer, marrying Jessica, staying normal and safe – as the right one. Perhaps unconsciously, to help bolster him in believing that his chosen exile and ignoring the supernatural things he knew was the proper course, his judgments on his family were harsh. Particularly in the pilot, Bugs, Nightmare, Dead Man’s Blood, Devil’s Trap, and even as late as IMToD, we saw Sam’s perception of his father as an obsessed, rigid, bad-tempered, intolerant, secretive, patronizing, and unloving alcoholic, a man who put the hunt and his revenge against the demon ahead of every other consideration. In such episodes as Dead in the Water, Phantom Traveler, Asylum, Scarecrow, Route 666, and Shadow, we saw Sam’s somewhat dismissive take on Dean as someone less intelligent and educated than Sam, an often irritating, shallow, skirt-chasing hunter totally dominated by John, submissive and obedient to a fault, and bidding fair to become an overbearing, junior copy of John without the obsession driver.


Hey! No throwing things at the teacher! I mean no disrespect to Sam, John, or Dean in what I’ve said, and the two previous paragraphs aren’t intended to reflect the totality of Sam’s initial attitude. I would posit that Sam clung to the worst of his internal judgments as a buttress against his pain, anger, and frustration at being separated from his family, not because they reflected everything he truly felt and thought. Even in the most loving of relationships, resentment and irritation can crop up and fester, and the Winchester family was hardly ideal – but there’s no denying that John loved his boys to distraction, and that Sam and Dean always loved each other and their father. But the negative things were there as well, and at the series’ beginning, I think that Sam, defending his loneliness, had told them over like the beads on a rosary so often that they were more in the forefront of his mind than the love and respect were.


Let me address one more aspect of Sam’s initial perception of Dean and John. Looking at his father and brother, Sam felt like the odd one, the freak, because Dean and John meshed together so well. To Sam’s mind, John loved and responded to Dean more, because Dean was what he wanted a son to be: agreeable, obedient, submissive, eager to hunt, good with his hands. For Sam, looking at Dean was like seeing an extension of John, and I think he considered them to be much alike. I suspect that his apparently constant disagreements with and resentment of John began to spill over and color his view of his brother.


Growing up changes perceptions


From that starting point, things changed dramatically over the past season and a bit. At the outset, Sam’s world was turned upside-down by the onset of his visions, Dean’s return, John’s disappearance, and Jessica’s death. Sam’s initial reluctance to get involved in the search for John transmuted after Jessica’s death into a vengeance hunt to rival John’s own. During that early period, typified by his impatience with everything not focused on the hunt for John and the FYED on display in Wendigo and Dead in the Water, he was wrapped up in his grief and his rage, compounded by the private and secret guilt of wrestling with having foreseen Jessica’s death and done nothing.


But even in his introspection, he started being jarred by things that didn’t comport with his ingrained perceptions of Dean and John. Dean was still the bossy and teasing big brother, irritating Sam by taking charge, assuming authority, and calling him by his baby name, but he was also the caring and protective, almost maternal presence of pre-college-fight and childhood memories. And more: himself off balance and worried, Dean – unintentionally at first, and then cautiously and reluctantly – increasingly let slip glimpses into his own view of the world, complete with fears, pain, and uncertainties that belied his façade of brash confidence. For the first time, with eyes refreshed by long absence, Sam saw things in Dean that he’d never known were there: Dean’s feelings and memories about the loss of his mother; Dean’s fear of being abandoned and alone; his regret for missed opportunities; his envy of Sam for having independence, goals, and friends; his guilt and positive need to obey John after nearly getting Sam killed; and most of all, his desperate need for family. Sam also saw something so familiar that he wasn’t even aware it existed: Dean’s caring for others, especially children and families in whom Dean saw echoes of Sam and himself.


Sam’s resentful mental image of John also ran up against unforeseen realities. In Phantom Traveler and Bugs, he learned from a third party and from Dean that his father, contrary to Sam’s own expectations and belief, spoke of him with love and pride to others, and had fought with him about going off to college not out of anger or resentment, but out of fear about what might happen to him on his own. Sam’s resentment and distrust were reinforced by John’s failure to respond to questions in Scarecrow and to outright pleas in Home and especially in Faith, and by his initial old habit of refusing to share information in Dead Man’s Blood, but were largely offset by the joy of their brief reunion in Shadow, by the truths revealed during their father/son heart-to-heart talk in Dead Man’s Blood, and by the loss of Pastor Jim and Caleb and the accompanying revelations from John in Salvation about how despairing and burned out he was by the hunt.


The surest sign that Sam was growing up throughout the first season was that he began gradually to change his perceptions of his brother and his father as new revelations came forth. Episode by episode, we saw him watching Dean in particular, and re-evaluating his opinions and beliefs. Early on, for example, he was adamant about not being called “Sammy.” As the season progressed and his understanding of and appreciation for his brother deepened, he stopped protesting Dean’s use of the affectionate diminutive. By the time Bloodlust rolled around, he was ready to tell an outsider that only Dean could call him that – he had come to understand that, for Dean, it was habit and love, not a deliberate attempt to diminish his maturity. In Nightmare, after seeing the example of what happened to a less fortunate one of the children like him, he finally was able to admit that his childhood had not been that bad, and that John had done the best he could, and better than most. He reiterated that with yet more feeling and intent in Bloodlust and in Cross Road Blues, extending support to Dean for the things Dean had believed of their father all his life, and had only now come to doubt and question.


Devil’s Trap and IMToD were seminal to Sam’s growing up. Yes, demons lie – but sometimes, they lie with the truth. In quick succession, Sam learned that the FYED had plans for him and the children like him, and that his mother and Jessica had been killed to prevent interference with those plans – and that his view of the relationship between John and his sons was entirely opposite of Dean’s beliefs. It was from the FYED that Sam learned something essential: that as strongly as he had believed that John had favored Dean, Dean had believed that John had loved Sam more. Sam had seen his constant fights with John as evidence that John believed him to be lacking; from the FYED’s taunting of Dean, he finally saw the flip side, and understood with shock that from Dean’s perspective, it appeared that John simply took Dean for granted, and had always cared more about Sam, had cared enough to fight, and had always put Sam’s safety first. The ability to see things through someone else’s eyes comes only with emotional maturity, and can be as disorienting and dramatic as a reversal of the magnetic poles – and that is the realization I saw dawn in Sam’s eyes when he heard the FYED’s taunts and saw them hit home in Dean. Dean had confessed in both Shadow and Salvation that he needed Sam, needed family, and each time, Sam appeared to feel the truth of it a little more, but it wasn’t until Dean was taunted, tortured, and then still begged for John’s life in Devil’s Trap that the truth of it was laid bare to the bone. It shocked Sam out of his own obsession and flipped him into Dean’s position of putting family first.


From that moment, Sam’s attitude toward his brother changed, because he finally understood things he’d never before realized about Dean, and with understanding came a new perception and a new regard. Sam assumed responsibility for Dean as he’d done only once before, in Faith, but this time, he hasn’t backed off again; he’s insisted on his right to protect and support Dean as Dean has protected and supported him. He’s insisted on his right to be accepted as an adult, accepting consequences for his actions and being responsible for his own safety, and sharing responsibility for his brother. John’s death, especially coming on the heels of Sam’s bitter fights with him over Dean in IMToD, rocked that balance with a new burden of guilt and grief for anger unleashed and love never expressed, but it also prodded Sam’s new understanding of his brother and how much more immediate and devastating John’s loss would be to Dean. I don’t mean to denigrate Sam’s love for John or his feelings of loss following John’s death, but I do believe that Sam recognizes, as he wouldn’t have before, that Dean – who had never been independent of John, who has always internalized emotions rather than sharing them as Sam does, and who is further cursed by knowing that his father chose to die specifically in order for him to live – was even more affected and less able to cope.


As Sam learned and changed, so did Dean. Many of Dean’s changes were more subtle, since he had always been less openly demonstrative than Sam except in terms of showing concern. The major change was that he began, ever so slowly, to let Sam see more of what he usually hid behind his confident older brother mask. Sam’s growing maturity and strength, and his constantly expressed need to understand, prompted Dean to share more of what he felt. Sam’s ability to accept what he learned without withdrawing from Dean encouraged more confidences, which finally included Dean letting Sam see him cry in Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things, and confess to outright despair in Croatoan.


And as they grow up more …


And that brings us to where we stand, waiting for the revelation in Hunted and the discovery of how it will affect the boys. Where will they go from here?


We’ll see the first steps on Thursday night, but if I have to offer my predictions, I will say this. I don’t know what the secret is. But whatever it is, I suspect that John never told his boys not just because of his military habit of operational secrecy, but because his goal from the beginning was always to protect them, even from knowledge that he thought would hurt. I think that Dean, in telling Sam and thus breaking the promise his father exacted, is going to make the adult judgment that Sam can’t be protected from knowing truth, and will be better able to defend himself against threats if he understands their origins, however disturbing they may be. I would guess that Sam, driven as he always is to understand the reasons why, and understanding better than ever now the things that drive his brother and motivated his father, is going to try to find a way to face his fears on his own, and to prevent Dean from walking willfully into his own death as he nearly did in Croatoan in an effort to spare Sam, or from despair at the thought of losing the last that remains of his family and being alone. However things fall out, I expect that the outcome will see the brothers united, but not occupying the same roles they always have: I think that Sam will refuse to let Dean continue to assume responsibility for him, and will insist on Dean accepting as much help and support as he gives. I think that Dean will have to yield, acknowledging that his brother has grown up, and that he himself can’t control what will happen to them or take responsibility for the decisions of others – including John.


That said, I don’t expect it all to happen quickly, or without slips back into old patterns. Sam’s learning curve has not been linear or smooth, and it won’t become so, no matter what the secret turns out to be. Dean won’t be able to turn off his automatic defense of Sam and his lifelong habit of taking responsibility for everything on his own shoulders. But I expect they’ll move forward more as equal partners from this point on, and be the stronger for it.


Your homework assignment is to watch Hunted, and be prepared to discuss whether it validates or negates the premise of this session. Class dismissed. 

Tags: meta, philosophy, psychology, supernatural, supernatural university

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