Supernatural University: Freedom's Just Another Word For Nothing Left To Lose
(Originally posted on The Winchester Family Business -- Contains Discussion of Spoilers!)
As always in the anticipation of a new season, many fans are bouncing off the walls reacting to spoilery tidbits about the upcoming storyline. I'm going to say up front I've never understood the fannish tendency to jump off cliffs making judgments about things we haven't even seen yet, especially leaping to angry, bitter conclusions about the writers throwing one character under a bus while obviously favoring the other purely on the basis of short, deliberately vague interviews and attention-getting, tiny clips. Prejudging on the basis of incomplete information strikes me as short-sighted on so many levels, and can ruin the viewing experience not only for the judger, but for others who simply want to see where the story will go. My advice to fans (including me!) is always the same: don't assume things in advance, be aware of your own biases before accusing others, and give the writers time in which to build and develop their story – don't expect all the answers in the first five minutes, or even the first five episodes. If there were no mystery, where would the story have room to grow?
Anyway, the issue I wanted to address here is why I personally am not disturbed about the spoilers indicating Sam abandoned the hunter life entirely and did not look for Dean or try to get him back. I know many fans think that would be uncharacteristic behavior or would cast Sam as someone uncaring and disloyal, especially in comparison with Dean, but I respectfully but firmly disagree. Let me explain.
If Sam indeed did not look for Dean, I see a combination of extremely practical reasons that could come together to explain that, including:
having absolutely no trail to follow;
lacking any useful information that could have led to a recovery, even if Sam had been able to figure out a direction;
being totally isolated from the rest of the hunting community and having no reasonable expectation of any knowledgeable help;
knowing from all their prior experience that bringing people back never came without a price that probably shouldn't be paid, always leading to more loss and pain; and
hitting his personal psychological and emotional limit, losing Dean, Bobby, and Castiel virtually together, on top of all he suffered in Hell and afterward.
I think Sam hit bottom after the end of season seven, because he had nothing left to lose. But I think that also made him free to choose his life for the first time in many, many years, and I think that was perfectly reasonable for him to do.
Where's Dean? Where Are They, Crowley?
Dean's disappearance really left Sam nothing to go on in terms of knowing what happened to him. In every other instance – save one – when we saw people translocated, they were in direct physical contact with whatever transported them, making it very clear both how they were traveling and likely where they were going. Demons, angels, and the god Chronos (from Time After Time) have all been depicted as needing to be touching whomever they took with them, so a witness to their disappearance at least knew who was responsible and could deduce a location from that agent. However, we never saw the Leviathan display any ability to transport others, or even to transport themselves by any extraordinary means once they adopted bodies, so there was no precedent for Sam to expect Dick to take anyone with him.
The singular exception to this translocation agency occurred in Sympathy For The Devil, when the Winchesters were adroitly whisked from the convent where Lucifer's gate was opening and neatly deposited – a couple of minutes earlier, no less! – on board an airplane approaching the convent. We were given to understand by both Castiel in Sympathy and by Joshua in Dark Side Of The Moon that Supernatural's ineffable, invisible God had been the agent of the brothers' rescue. To my knowledge, that makes God the only character who had shown the ability to transport people without revealing himself visibly in the process. And before you say, “But Joshua didn't touch them in Dark Side Of The Moon!”, I will point out that the brothers weren't physically in Heaven; they were present there only in soul, so physical touch wouldn't have been necessary.
The energy pulses expanding outward from Dick as the Leviathan died definitely suggested something far removed from the ordinary going on, but then again, the brothers were involved in doing something that by all accounts had never been done before, so there was no frame of reference for what happened. The burst of power that accompanied Dick seemingly exploding prompted Sam to duck and cover his eyes, and when he reopened them, Dick, Dean, and Castiel were all totally gone, save for the black goo left behind by a wounded Leviathan. Under those circumstances, Sam had no way to know whether Dean had been transported somewhere alive or physically destroyed.
I would argue that, from Sam's perspective, Dean and Castiel both disappearing along with Dick – and not reappearing somewhere else soon thereafter, which probably would have happened had God stepped in – suggested most strongly that they had both been physically destroyed along with the Leviathan by the power of the weapon they'd used on Dick – something Crowley hinted at with his comment about god-weapons possessing a kick that should be warned about on a label. And if Dean was dead, his body simply unmade by the power of the weapon, Sam had ample reason to believe his soul was most likely in Heaven, given that he knew God had already arranged for him to be there before in Dark Side Of The Moon. We've been given no clue about the fate of slain angels, so whether Castiel was in Heaven or simply gone would have seemed to Sam more a topic for philosophical and theological theorizing than anything else.
If Dean was dead and in Heaven, bringing him back to pain on Earth would have been anathema to Sam, especially after what they'd both just experienced with Bobby. “And when it's your time – go.” That had to be ringing in Sam's mind after watching Bobby burn with the haunted flask in Survival Of The Fittest.
Purgatory really wasn't a likely destination for Dean according to everything Sam knew. From all we were told through the entire history of the show, humans had only three possible destinations: Heaven, Hell, or the stunted, doomed, and time-limited existence of a ghost remaining on Earth. From our introduction to Purgatory in Family Matters through Death's explanation of it in Meet The New Boss, our understanding has been that God created Purgatory to be the exclusive repository of monsters, beginning with Leviathan and continuing through all of Eve's children. Admittedly, Eve started by warping humans to resemble Leviathan in their taste for eating humans, but only her monster creations wound up in Purgatory. Humans who were simply evil rather than ravenous monsters went to Hell.
Dean had qualified as a monster for the very brief time when he became one of the Alpha vampire's “children” in Live Free Or Twi-Hard, so perhaps an entry into Purgatory wasn't entirely beyond the pale for him, but he'd never fed and therefore never fully became a vampire, enabling him to take the cure and purge the vampire infection to fully restore his humanity. On that basis, Purgatory should not have been in the cards as a potential destination for him. And unless Castiel's temporary position as the container for all the monster and Leviathan souls from Purgatory had contaminated him, Sam had no reason to think an angel would have gone to Purgatory, either.
Even if Sam had theorized that perhaps Dean and Castiel had been sucked into Purgatory with the slain Leviathan because of their proximity to Dick when he died or as a consequence of having been the ones physically in contact with him when the weapon was used, Sam would have had no trail to follow and no spell to use to get them back. And that's what I explore in the next section.
Purgatory: The Undiscovered Country
From the time the brothers first learned of Purgatory as the abode of monsters in Family Matters, they and Bobby searched for information on it with passionate intensity fueled by desperation as they tried to deal first with Eve and then with Castiel and the Leviathan. They found precious little lore on Purgatory for very good reason: by all accounts, Purgatory was much more sealed-off from Earth than Hell had ever been. In all their searching, they found only four leads. The first was the book taken from the dragons in Like A Virgin containing the basic instructions to open Purgatory specifically to release Eve, although it was missing the final page with the essential incantation. The second was the information related by Samuel in And Then There Were None, when he reported that every monster on Earth could be traced back to Eve, and Eve herself had last walked the Earth ten thousand years before. Tapping the same Campbell family archive that had informed Samuel, the Winchesters and Bobby learned in Frontierland that “the ashes of a phoenix can burn the Mother,” their third clue, which they used in Mommy Dearest to kill Eve. Finally, they learned in Let It Bleed that H.P. Lovecraft had opened a portal to Purgatory and realized they knew the creature that had come through – none other than Ellie Visyak. They acquired the same spell Castiel obtained and used to open the gate and absorb all the souls in Purgatory in The Man Who Knew Too Much. They used it themselves to reopen that door in Meet The New Boss so Castiel could return the souls, only to have the Leviathan remain.
The terms of the spell itself implied the existence of an occasionally porous barrier between Purgatory and Earth, since the spell to open the gate required the blood of a Purgatory native – evidently not just any monster destined for Purgatory after death, but one who actually came from there – in order to work, but the paucity of lore on the link between monsters and Purgatory suggests strongly that far fewer monsters came across from Purgatory than demons escaped from Hell. The only two denizens of Purgatory we definitely heard about having been on Earth were Eve and Ellie Visyak. Ellie told Bobby she had spent the 75 years since her arrival trying to keep closed the gateway Lovecraft had used so monsters couldn't invade and despoil Earth, and judging by the near-total absence of hunter lore on Purgatory outside Moishe Campbell's diary, she had succeeded reasonably well. Since Eve – ten thousand years before – had used humans as the genetic stock for monsters and deliberately designed them to be able to create more of their kind either by breeding with humans like shifters and Amazons or by infecting them like werewolves, skinwalkers, and vampires, there was no need for monsters to be replenished through accessing their numbers in Purgatory. Monsters being born and turned on Earth was very different from the situation with demons, who were created from human souls condemned to Hell and could only return to Earth by clawing their way out through one of the gates between realms.
My first point here is simply that Sam had no expectation of being able to learn more about Purgatory than the Winchesters had already discovered, precisely because there were far fewer documented contacts between Earth and Purgatory than between Earth and Hell, for example, and Bobby and the brothers had accessed every piece of information they were ever likely to find. The last crucial piece of information on Purgatory – the recipe for killing the Leviathan – wasn't in human lore at all, since humans had no experience with Leviathan because they had been confined to Purgatory before humans even existed. Instead, the essential clue dwelled only in the Word of God, inscribed in stone when creation was being formed – which, incidentally, argues that Supernatural's cosmology incorporates an omniscient God, since the recipe for killing Leviathan required ingredients that didn't exist when it was written, what with the Word evidently predating the creation of humans, the fall of Lucifer, and his warping humans into demons.
My second point is that, even if Sam had reason to think Dean was in Purgatory and decided to try to use Lovecraft's spell to open another gate to free him, he had no way to know where in Purgatory that gate would open relative to Dean's location. This wasn't like the situation in Time After Time where Sam had been able to track Chronos and where Dean, knowing he would be looking, was able to provide the clues Sam needed to refine his search and open the door at the right place and time. Even if Sam had been able to find some way to determine Dean's whereabouts in Purgatory, he would have needed the right astronomical conditions as well as the constituents of the spell to open the gate: virgin blood and the blood of a Purgatory native. Not being a dragon or vampire, Sam had no virginity detector and likely wouldn't have found willing volunteers, and the second would have involved finding one of the evidently rare monsters who had somehow escaped from Purgatory to walk the Earth.
My basic position here is that it wouldn't have been reasonable to think that Sam could have tracked Dean to Purgatory or found a way to retrieve him from there, if he even had any reason to believe Dean had wound up there rather than his seemingly more likely destination of Heaven. Without additional help, Sam would have had no access to additional information beyond what he, Dean, and Bobby had already acquired, and my next point is that he had no hope of more help from hunters.
You Are Well And Truly Alone
With the loss of Ellen, Jo, the entire Campbell clan, Rufus, Frank, Bobby, and Dean, Sam now is likely the most isolated hunter in the history of hunting. We learned in Free To Be You And Me and Dark Side Of The Moon that demons had deliberately and with great relish spread the word throughout the hunter community about the role Sam had played in triggering the apocalypse, and the survivors of Free To Be You And Me attested to the truth of the demons' story. Not surprisingly, neither demons nor hunters broadcast the role he played in ending it. The hunters weren't there, didn't know, and generally wouldn't have believed anyway, and the whole truth wouldn't have been in the demons' best interest.
I think it highly likely that most hunters would try to kill Sam if they found him. There may still be exceptions among the shrinking number of folk who actually know him personally – for example, Garth, or Lee Chambers of Adventures In Babysitting, or Tamara of The Magnificent Seven, if she still survives – but most hunters would probably kill him without a second thought. Some hunters positively influenced by Bobby might cut him some slack, but for the most part, no one who didn't know him well would trust him now.
That means Sam wouldn't have had any access to research help, hidden records, or other assistance from professional hunters. He might have been able to reach out to talented amateurs including Sheriff Jody Mills and hacker Charlie, but they wouldn't have been in a position to supply him with the kind of useful lore information, esoteric weaponry and spell components, or physical combat backup he would have needed to mount any kind of search and rescue mission for Dean – even assuming he had a place to start in the search. Hunting Purgatory alone simply wasn't a viable option.
You Of All People Should Know, What's Dead Should Stay Dead
I've presented my basic rationale to support understanding why I think Sam most reasonably could have believed Dean to be dead, and probably not trapped in some place of torment or danger. And if that was true, then the lesson at the heart of the entire history of the series would have supported Sam finally choosing to accept the natural order – to accept that Dean was dead, and also to accept that attempting to bring him back would have been the wrong thing to do.
Admittedly, the most pointed lessons concerning accepting the natural order and leaving the dead well enough alone had been administered not to Sam, but to Dean – witness Dean's despair and self-loathing during season two upon realizing what John had done to save his life, as evidenced in Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things and Crossroad Blues; his tongue-lashing from Bobby in All Hell Breaks Loose, Part 2 when he made the same choice as John to bring Sam back without thinking what it would mean to Sam; and his education at Death's hands about the consequences of tampering in Appointment In Samarra. Still, Dean shared with Sam most of what he learned along the way, even though it often took time for him to open up, and he even warned Sam explicitly in No Rest For The Wicked about the Winchesters' willingness to sacrifice everything to bring each other back being a weakness and ultimately wrong.
Both of the brothers had direct personal experience of the results of being brought back from the dead, and discovered that returning wasn't all lollipops and candy canes. Ultimately, they both remembered everything that happened to them in Hell, and found that living with those memories exacted a brutal price. Dean's horror and guilt at realizing he broke under torture and became a monster – and even enjoyed it – in the process of starting the apocalypse led to alcoholism and depression, and sometimes to despair, crippling fear, uncontrolled violence, and overwhelming wrath. Sam's memories of having been simultaneously soulless on Earth and unrelentingly ripped to shreds in Hell destroyed his sanity and would have killed him but for Castiel's intervention in The Born-Again Identity.
Death is sometimes a blessing, especially when it affords the only promise of rest and peace. The brothers have both known periods of weariness and fatalism when the realization that fighting evil was likely to be all they'd ever know argued that death wouldn't be so bad when it came, simply because it would mean the constant war was finally over and they'd have nothing else left to lose and no more pain to feel. While the apocalypse was happening, when the brothers knew even death was no escape because the angels on both sides would simply keep bringing them back to life to play their prophesied roles, being able to stop, to escape, to cease seemed to be the most desirable and unattainable goal of all.
So I think it very reasonable and understandable that if Sam believed Dean was dead and had a chance finally to be at peace, to be at rest, Sam would accept that. He might even fiercely hope for it and seek to persuade himself that the possibility was real and the probability was high, because rest, peace, and contentment were the best things he could hope for Dean finally to know and experience. The things we want most desperately to believe are the things we oftem persuade ourselves are true, precisely because we need them to be. And we often need those things to be true not just for us, but also because they embody all the good we want for those we love.
Nothing pointed to Dean being in pain or danger: he was simply gone, and Sam had no way to find him. We know from In My Time Of Dying, Houses Of The Holy and Sam's attempts to contact Bobby in Dean's absence during season 7 – noted in Party On, Garth and Of Grave Importance – that a séance or Quija board could only summon a spirit still on Earth and in range of the summons. I've already noted why I think Sam had no cause to believe Dean would have been in either Hell or Purgatory, and he knew well enough that Dean would have contacted him had he been still alive and simply somewhere else on Earth, so the most logical remaining possibility would have been that Dean was dead and in Heaven. And if that was the case, then every single thing they had been through – including the understanding of the implications of every deal Mary, John, and Dean had previously made to bring someone back from death, and the bitter knowledge of what had happened to Bobby when he attempted to remain as a ghost with the goal of helping the brothers – argued that leaving Dean in peace was the only good, right, and proper thing to do; the only way to avoid and avert yet more heartache and loss for Dean as well as Sam.
Making that choice – deciding not to look for or seek to get Dean back – would not have been any indication that Sam loved Dean any less than Dean loved Sam. Far from it. To my mind, it would have meant Sam honoring everything they both had suffered grievously to learn over the past several years. And it would have been supremely human.
I Can't Do This Alone
When Sam chose to sacrifice himself to end the apocalypse by trapping Lucifer in Hell, I think he understood that Dean wouldn't long survive him unless he had a compelling reason to live. I believe – and I think Sam did, too – that without someone else to live for, someone else to look after and protect, Dean would most likely have thrown himself into hunting out of anger and grief, and having little regard for his own safety, wouldn't have cared how soon he died. Sam made Dean promise to break the cycle of loss and constant pain by getting out of hunting and living a normal life, taking Lisa and Ben as his family. By making a similar choice for himself after Dean disappeared, Sam would simply have followed in Dean's footsteps from Exile On Main Street, when Dean kept his word and tried to live an ordinary life.
And yes, before you point it out: Dean did admit in that episode to having broken his word in one respect: he confessed defiantly that he had searched obsessively at first for ways to break Sam out of Hell, despite having promised he wouldn't. But I will continue to argue there's a major difference in circumstances here that warrants a difference in approach between the brothers. Dean knew exactly what Sam had done and where he had gone in sacrificing himself to save the world. Based on his own experience, Dean also understood that Sam, trapped in a box in Hell with Lucifer and Michael, would be subject to unspeakable, intolerable torture, and that every month of Dean's life on Earth would equate to a year of Sam's torment in Hell. Loving Sam as he did, there was no way Dean could have tolerated leaving his brother to suffer in unspeakable ways if there was any way he could have freed him. And I would submit that Dean would have accepted anything that would have gotten Sam out of Hell, even if it meant Sam wouldn't have been alive – just no longer tortured.
I've already argued my belief that Sam's situation here is far different, precisely because he had no reason to believe Dean was in an intolerable situation that begged for rescue. When he knew Dean was suffering in Hell, we saw in I Know What You Did Last Summer that Sam had tried everything he could think of to rescue him, and threw himself into hunting for revenge after the demons refused to make any deals and Ruby held out the enticing thought that Sam might be able to kill Lilith. This time, however, Dean was just gone – there wasn't a mission for Sam to undertake.
At the end of Survival Of The Fittest, Sam had lost everyone he'd counted as family. He'd fought evil for nearly as long as he'd been alive, always losing more than he gained by his victories. He'd already sacrificed himself for the world, and then kept fighting when he found his way back. But with Dean's disappearance, especially coming hard on the heels of Bobby's death and ghost burning, I can't see Sam having had any emotional resources left to pick up the pieces and try to fight the good fight any more, especially knowing he would have virtually no allies among established hunters and would probably be considered a monster himself. Apart from spreading the word about borax followed by dismemberment and permanent sequestration of the pieces being an effective way to deal with the remaining individual Leviathan, I think Sam would have felt he had given enough and lost enough to finally say, “Enough!” and walk away from hunting, from always being the one who had to act and sacrifice.
Dean had done it. It's very clear from all we saw of Dean's settled life with Lisa and Ben that his active search for a way to save Sam had run aground on the sandbar of futility well before season six began. And although he'd evidently experienced other moments of hunter paranoia that made him check out perceived threats during that year – Lisa's knowledgable reaction to his nearly shooting the Yorkie demonstrated pretty clearly to me that she recognized the symptoms of his hunter OCD and knew from past situations that letting him reassure himself by investigating was the best way to let it dissipate – he clearly wasn't hunting.
And Dean had also found love and family, without in any way diminishing his love for Sam. I've always believed Dean hadn't been in love with Lisa (or she with him) either back in the day or when he sought her out in 99 Problems. To my mind, she and Ben represented an ideal of what he was fighting for, and also stood in for the Sam and Bobby family to whom he couldn't say farewell at the time. But I also believe from everything we saw in season six that genuine and deep love had grown in that little adoptive family among and between all its members, and was no less real for having come after Lisa had taken him in out of gratitude, compassion, and affection.
I wouldn't grudge Sam following in Dean's footsteps to leave hunting and – if chance favored him – to find someone he could love, someone who could help fill the void of his isolation and loneliness. I would consider it highly unlikely that Sam could survive, much less thrive, as a lone wolf hunter with no more emotional support than the friendship of a sheriff mourning the same losses, and with no more help than occasional contacts from the few hunters in Bobby's old circle who might still be willing to trust the man identified as the demon-blood drinker who kicked off the apocalypse.
So all of this very long-winded analysis lays out in pretty excruciating detail why I am not upset by the spoiler tidbits coming out about what Sam did during the year Dean spent in Hell. I don't believe it would have been out of character or unreasonable for Sam not to have spent the year searching for Dean, given the circumstances around his disappearance. And Sam's actions in reportedly not searching for Dean, giving up hunting, and finding someone new to love and care for do not in any way, shape, or form even remotely suggest that he didn't care about Dean. On the contrary: to me, they suggest Sam was trying to do what he thought would have given Dean the best chance for peace, while also trying to build for himself the kind of life he knew Dean once would have wished for him – safe and happy.
Mind you, I'm sure that when Dean first comes back he will not be seeing things from my perspective. For one thing, after an entire year spent fighting for his life, I doubt Dean would remember he hadn't known at first where he was until Castiel told him, and that it wasn't obvious to anyone that killing Dick would transport him to Purgatory. Knowing his own situation intimately, I would bet Dean never even considered that Sam wouldn't have known, and wouldn't have been searching for a way to get him back. And having spent that year in constant battle, imagining Sam doing the same, I'd also expect Dean to be envious, disparaging, and somewhat bitter about Sam actually having spent the year in peace and relative happiness. Even though he'd never have wished Sam pain and had often wished him joy, having Sam at his side would have made Purgatory more survivable and easier to bear, and knowing Sam had suffered with worry for him would have felt like a balance for the worry he doubtless felt for Sam. It's a human thing to love and resent at the same time, and Dean is as human as we come.
I'm absolutely certain that, for all the distance of time, emotion, and experience they'll have between them when this season starts, Sam and Dean are going to wind up closer than ever before, equal partners with a mature and unbreakable brother bond informed by understanding.
And we'll all know more about whether I'm right or wrong as the season progresses! Give it time. I will.