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8.01 Heartache: This Last Year Has Given Me A Whole New Perspective

8.01 Heartache: This Last Year Has Given Me A Whole New Perspective

Eternal youth deal
Goes awry for love, because
The heart is the key.

Commentary and Meta Analysis

Sorry I'm so very late! I liked this episode a lot. Supernatural has often drawn parallels between monsters, their victims, and the Winchester brothers, and I've always enjoyed episodes where the case of the week played directly into the psychology of the brothers. I thought this episode accomplished that goal with subtlety, avoiding anvil-dropping. And while the clues to Sam's solo year are coming with agonizing slowness, I'm appreciating getting the little pieces of the puzzle. In this analysis, I'm going to look at the parallels drawn by the case and then expound a bit on my view of Sam's and Dean's current mindsets. Be aware that I’m going to get a bit personal in that latter discussion, because I have some specific reasons for feeling the way I do.

You Can't Imagine The Burden Of It All

From Eleanor – or Betsy, take your pick – we learned that dedicated athlete Brick, a thousand years after making a deal to sacrifice hearts to Cacao to stay forever young and strong, couldn't bear the thought of outliving the woman he loved and killed himself instead. She had stayed with him and overlooked his evil because she loved him, and while she grieved his death, she understood and accepted his suicide. The brothers became involved because the deal he had made accompanied the organs that survived his demise to be transplanted into others, who found themselves, willing or not, blessed by the benefits but also forced to continue the sacrifices.

This whole tale spoke to me of both Sam and Dean in so very many ways. Both of the brothers have seen themselves as monsters over the years, Sam because of his infant demon-blood poisoning, psychic powers, and the consequences of his later bad choices, and Dean through the ugliness of his self-discovery in Hell. Like the formerly innocent people who received the transplanted organs, they both had been set on destructive courses by choices and deals made even before they were born by demons, angels, John, and Mary. At different times along the way, like the different organ recipients, they varied in their responses. Sometimes they reveled in their strength and prowess or felt validated by their mission, while at other times they were tormented by what they did to be who and what they were.

Like Brick, both sometimes made wrong deals and accepted evil conditions to win and survive. Like Eleanor, they both did and accepted things for love of each other with no regard for consequences or for how their decisions might be viewed by others. They both made self-sacrificial choices for the other’s benefit. Like Brick, they'd each rather die first rather than be left alone by the other's death. Like Eleanor, however, they each made the choice at least once to accept the loss and move on. (Admittedly, neither made that choice the first or even second time around, but they arguably learned from experiencing the consequences of choosing instead to reverse death or seek blind vengeance.)

And like both Brick and Eleanor, they've both – although at different times – found themselves saying, I am so tired. You can't imagine the burden of it all. They've each wished more than once for a way to lay down their burdens whether by dying, simply surrendering to presumed fate, or dreaming wistfully of walking away from hunting, of being happy in a life not filled with crushing responsibility, blood, and death. They've usually wound up dismissing that dream as unattainable and unrealistic, but they've both had it.

What always eventually kept the brothers hunting and together up to this point was the grace that they never both succumbed to hunter ennui at the same time, combined with circumstances that always reinforced a shared sense of mission. Whenever one felt overwhelmed by duty or fatigue or loss or futility and wanted to give up, the other provided a reason to carry on, even if that reason was simply not to let his brother down.

This time, as in the very first moments of the series, Dean – once again fully committed to hunting after his concentrated tempering in Purgatory – brought Sam back into the hunting fray from his seemingly normal life, playing on Sam's sense of responsibility and related guilt and, in place of the first simple quest for Dad, pursuing the nearly irresistible goal of closing the gates of Hell and banishing all demons forever.

But both Sam and Dean are very different people now than they were eight of our years – and a lot more of their years – ago. They've both literally been to Hell and back, and have been separated sometimes for decades in terms of their personal perceptions. They've both matured. And they're both carrying emotional and psychological burdens almost too massive to fathom. For me, the real question is what it's going to take for the two of them to be able to perceive each other's motivations and decisions and decide to accept them, as Eleanor accepted and lived with both Brick's monstrosity and his choice to die before her.

What can they each perceive and truly understand about each other?

I'm Just Saying, Make Room For The Possibility That We Want Different Things

I know a lot of fans are extremely upset about Sam's decision, after seeing Dean disappear with Castiel and Dick at the end of last season, to abandon hunting and not obsessively to search for and retrieve Dean from wherever he wound up, or at least determine definitively whether he was alive or dead. Many seem equally upset to think Sam could have found happiness and peace with a woman who wasn't Jessica, or at least someone as acceptable to fandom as spunky Sarah from Provenance. I know a lot of fans are also as upset as Dean is by the very idea that Sam could want to leave Dean and hunting at the end of their current quest and pursue a normal life.

I'm going to say three things here. First, I do not think Sam is acting out of character. Second, I do not think Sam is being selfish. Third, I think we should all note that almost everything we have seen so far concerning Sam's choices after Dean's disappearance has been filtered through Dean's perceptions, not Sam's; we have a lot yet to learn about exactly what happened to Sam and inside his head, and we should neither prejudge Sam nor simply accept Dean's conclusions.

On my first point, that I don't believe Sam is acting out of character, I would cite pretty much the entire history of the show right from the pilot to support the concept that Sam has always wanted to escape the hunting life and live a safe, relatively normal one. From my observations, the only time Sam truly relished and enjoyed hunting was when he was soulless, simply taking physical delight and satisfaction in his prowess. Over the years, he alternately hunted out of vengeance, first for Jess and later for Dean; out of guilt for having (to his mind) failed his father; out of desperation to save Dean from his demon deal; and out of duty and resignation, believing himself cursed and doomed with hunting offering his only opportunity for penance and deliverance. Notably unlike Dean – who's also gone through many other motives along the way – affirmative desire fueled by the simple satisfaction of fulfillment never factored into his decision to hunt.

I’ve written before about why I’m inclined to accept Sam’s human motivation for not obsessively seeking or avenging Dean as he had done before, and why I don’t see that decision as being out of character. It is different from decisions he made before in Mystery Spot, I Know What You Did Last Summer, and more, but I would argue that he learned cautionary lessons from what evolved from those earlier experiences and choices. And while the writers could have made any information they needed appear as they desired to serve whatever plot they chose, I would also point out that even if Sam had concluded Dean was in Purgatory, based on the extensive research they had already done and the proven limits of even angelic and demonic knowledge of that realm, he had no real expectation of discovering new resources to learn about or reach Dean there, and Sam already knew from bitter experience where obsession led. Singlehandedly trying to rescue Kevin from Crowley would also have been suicidal at best.

With that in mind, Sam fixing the car – doing something he could do, that also honored his brother’s memory – and then being directionless until the accident with the dog forced him back into consciousness of the moment seems appropriate to me. Deciding out of guilt to stay in one place for at least a little while to care for the dog in order to make up for the damage and pain he caused – again, as with fixing the car, doing something concrete that he actually could do – strikes me as a logical progression, and could have led naturally into the inertia of remaining stationary, of gradually fitting into a new normality. That is all very human. We still don’t know if that’s actually the way things played out, but if it was, it rings true to me.

And it’s not selfish. To say that Sam deciding not to hunt was selfish would be to say I’m being selfish in choosing to retire from public service to pursue a career in frivolous voiceover. Working for EPA, I’m not hunting monsters, but I arguably have been saving lives by protecting human health and the environment, and I’m damned good at what I do, with skills and experience that aren’t common. But now I’m walking away. I may wind up providing entertainment and education to others in my new career, but I’m not going to be getting up every morning to serve the public interest as I’ve done for the past 22.5 years, and I doubt I’ll save any lives at my microphone. Is that decision selfish?

When Dean returned, Sam had been out of hunting for a year, settled at least to some extent into an entirely different life that included obligations to and feelings for people and things alien to the hunting world. Sam had experienced a totally unexpected, precious taste of the normalcy he’d always wanted but hadn’t known since his brief stint in college with Jess – and while his feelings for Jess were and still are real and true, he also knows now that everything else about that previous time of freedom was an illusion manipulated by demons. This time, however, his situation was different. He was no longer a tool being primed for a starring role in the apocalypse. He was no longer of specific interest or urgency to demons or angels. For arguably the first time in his entire life, he really was free to walk away, not doomed to be forced back, because he’d already served and then destroyed the purpose for which he’d been crafted. He’d done terrible things, but he’d also paid for them by a selfless act of sacrifice followed by unimaginable torment for perceived decades in Hell. He’d lost nearly everyone he’d ever cared about. He wouldn’t have been human if he hadn’t felt at least a little entitled to a bit of peace and freedom, and maybe even another chance for love.

When Dean unexpectedly returned, hardened, changed, and rededicated to the enjoyment of hunting after a year on the front lines in Purgatory, was it selfish of Sam to decide he wanted to keep the normal peace he’d found and cherished rather than go back to living the rest of his life in a war he’d never truly wanted to fight?

Technically, we're being selfish every time we make a choice that places our own desires over what someone else would want of us, but by that definition, the only unselfish way to live would be to give up all our possessions and do whatever anyone asked of us, and most of us aren't monks, nuns, or saints. Certainly neither of the Winchesters is, and I'm certainly not. I seek to be unselfish in being sensitive to the needs of others and helping where I can, but I stop short of revising my life to fit someone else's expectations of it, and I consider that reasonable. Others might not agree, but consider where you are on that spectrum before you apply expectations to someone else.

When my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2004 and my middle sister the nurse decided to keep her at home and care for her, was it unreasonably selfish of me to decide to stay in Virginia rather than moving back to Wisconsin to help? As Mom got worse and my sister went from working full-time to working part-time and then retiring so she could care for Mom full-time, was it too selfish of me to stay here working, only going to Wisconsin a few times a year to give my sister the chance to escape for a couple of weeks, and chipping in on expenses? Am I being insensitively selfish now, building a new business of my own instead of putting things on hold until after Mom passes?

If Sam is being selfish in planning to stop hunting after achieving Dean’s current quest to close the gates of Hell, then maybe I’m being selfish too in living my own life. But I’m not my sister. We have different skills, different desires, different needs, different personalities, and different dreams. We love and support each other, but we could never live in each others’ pockets or by each others’ rules. Being who and what I am, I could never have made the decision she did to rearrange her entire life around caring for Mom. Being who and what she is, she could never have chosen to put Mom into managed care rather than watching over her herself, no matter what she had to do to accommodate that decision.

And Sam is not Dean. Dean has the same family caregiver responsibility sense/need that my sister has, and developed his skills and his mindset specifically to serve that need; Sam, rather like me, has all the love, but not the need, and developed his different skills in different ways to serve other ends. Years ago, in writing about the Yellow-Eyed Demon’s torture of the brothers back in Devil’s Trap, I said that Azazel lied with the truth. He was dead-on when he told Dean that John and Sam didn’t need him the way he needed them. That was and is the literal truth, which is why it could hurt Dean so badly, but at the same time, it was a lie, because Azazel presented need as if it was the same thing as love. And it isn’t. John and Sam loved Dean fully as much as he loved them and demonstrated that in many ways, including dying for him, but they needed him in very different ways than he needed them. Given his nature and the circumstances that forced responsibility on him when he was only four, he defined his worth and his role by his ability to take care of his brother and his father, to be there for them no matter what. They relied on his presence and unstinting support, but having it was different than affirmatively needing it in order to define themselves. And therein lies a major difference between the two brothers, and between Dean and his father.

I think Dean knows and understands that, although not on a conscious level, but he can’t help resenting it at least a bit. I know that my sister, however much she loves me and appreciates the help I do give, resents my freedom in not being saddled with the unrelenting, all-encompassing, physically and emotionally exhausting role of caregiver that she lives with every day, even though she never voices that resentment except in rare moments of great stress.

I think Dean doesn’t want to believe what he’s always known: that Sam doesn’t share the same need on which Dean built his life. But Dean’s need isn’t limited to Sam and John; he expanded it unconsciously himself to encompass all the people he can help, and particularly the people he comes to love and trust. I think Dean needs to be needed in order to have purpose, to have place, and that led directly into his messianic complex, his belief that he was responsible for having to save everyone; just listen to him in Sam, Interrupted. When Sam and John weren’t available, he found others to fill that void and give him purpose: Lisa and Ben after Sam died, for example, and Castiel gone missing in dangerous Purgatory, for another. I think Sam recognizes that in Dean – I’ve always thought that giving Dean something to live for was precisely why Sam ordered him to go to Lisa in Swan Song in the first place – and hopes eventually to persuade Dean that they both can live separate and fulfilling lives pursuing the different things that satisfy and reward them without losing any of the love that binds them as brothers.

The element that makes this particularly problematic for Sam – and for fans – is simply and precisely that what satisfies Dean is risking his life hunting to save others. It’s noble and inspirational and scary as hell, especially when you realize that doing it alone is precisely why most hunters have short lifespans. Not leaving Dean to face danger alone is the main reason why Sam returned to hunting at the very beginning of the series, and why Sam risked insanity to face his memories of Hell; he didn’t want Dean to die because he wasn’t there to guard his back. Once Dean was gone, that spur of anticipatory guilt was gone too, and with it, the compulsion to hunt.

But having his back is no guarantee, either, as all of their history of deaths has shown, and I think Sam has finally recognized that. With all the mess of the apocalypse behind them, Dean’s choice to keep hunting is just that: a choice, the ultimate expression of Dean’s own character, the fulfillment of his nature and the satisfaction of displaying his competence in the skills he’s honed over a lifetime of killing monsters. It’s no longer an inescapable duty or obligation, not a decision in which he has no other real option. Yes, he’s driven by his goal of saving lives, by the quirk of his personality that derives meaning and worth from saving others – but doing that by hunting rather than becoming a fireman or a cop is a choice. It's a perfectly logical and rational one for Dean, given his knowledge and background, but it's still a choice.

The truth is, Sam is right: the brothers couldn't save everyone no matter how hard they tried, and they've both already given more of themselves than anyone was entitled to ask for or expect. Saying that flat out and deciding to stop hunting, to focus instead on building a normal relationship with another person, is no more selfish of Sam than me choosing not to sell my house, give all my money to charity, and emulate Mother Teresa.

The adult thing for both of the brothers to do would be independently to acknowledge the choices and decisions they each make, and accept them all as valid. Neither should be forced to accept out of guilt a course of action dictated by the other’s choice. Dean could hunt alone or with others – he's done it before – and while he prefers to do it with Sam, insisting that Sam do it either for him or out of perceived guilt for others wouldn't be right, the very same way it wasn't right for Sam to insist in Swan Song that Dean stop hunting entirely and live the normal life Sam had always wanted, out of both his earnest desire to keep Dean safe and his mistaken belief that Dean must have secretly always wanted that safe, normal life too.

Repeating the same mistakes they've both made in the past by misinterpreting each other and mistakenly ascribing their own feelings and perceptions to the other wouldn't demonstrate the growth they've both experienced by having made and learned from those mistakes. I think it's time they both acknowledged what they really want and why, and how they could each support the other pursuing the things that make them happy without diminishing the strength of their brother bond. Sam agreeing and committing to this final hunt with Dean while simultaneously laying the groundwork for Dean to acknowledge that Sam is entitled to stop strikes me as a good thing.

I think it's called maturity.

Production Notes

Okay, I'm so very late on getting this done that I'm not going to be able to go in-depth on the production notes; I haven't been able to give the episode the rewatch it so richly deserves, which feeds my ability to comment intelligently on its technical details. But I do have a few things to say.

In applauding the story, I've already said a piece about what I thought of the script by Brad Buckner and Eugenie Ross-Leming. I had some issues, but they were minor, including some of the typical problems I have with the way this show treats non-Christian gods. I did enjoy the way the story played up how easy it was for Sam and Dean to fall back into their hunting teamwork while at the same time showing Sam's dissatisfaction and discomfort with the situation.

I loved Jensen Ackles' direction! His eye matures every time he takes it behind the camera, and I really want to watch the episode again when I have time to pick up the details. I loved what he did with the close-ups on the scene where Sam and Dean were reading the letters to Betsy; it reinforced the intimacy of the letters, and really drew attention to the change in tone when Brick realized he didn't want to outlive his love and go on alone – especially as that echoed the way the brothers themselves have felt. The only small bit that didn't quite work was more an artifact of the editing than the shooting, I think; the attack by Randa's henchmen was so quickly glossed that it didn't show clearly enough – at least on a single viewing – what happened to Sam to take him out of the fight so quickly and let both of the henchmen team up against Dean.

I enjoyed the performances by Patty McCormack as Eleanor and Kyra Zagorsky as Randa, particularly the moment when Randa revealed her contempt for the shy, timid girl she used to be; that was chilling. I still haven't seen enough of Liane Balaban as Amelia to make a judgment. I loved Jensen's Dean finding his comfort and ease in being back hunting in the car with Sam; I think it was the first time we've seen him truly relaxed since he came back from Purgatory, and I thought it very telling that his relaxation came from being on the hunt, not being at rest. I loved what Jared brought throughout the episode in displaying Sam's conflict, being glad to have Dean back but wanting not to be hunting any more. And I particularly loved his reaction to losing sight first of Amelia and then of Riot: his hunter reflexes and past losses were so close to the surface that their momentary absence clearly inspired immediate fears of something catastrophic and evil having happened. It's no wonder that his stunned disbelief on discovering his birthday picnic – so immediately evocative of Dean's wistful dream of Lisa in Dream A Little Dream Of Me – prompted Amelia to ask him teasingly if he'd never had a birthday cake before. We know he must have had cake, with Jessica if not before (I can't really see John having baked him one!), but that idyllic image was so far from what his imagination must have been painting that it would have been literally incomprehensible for a moment, and I thought Jared sold that well.

I was also very intrigued by the super-saturated color and brightness of Sam's flashback to Amelia, Riot, and the cake. The cinematography there played up how idealized and nearly unrealistic a vision of happiness that was, particularly as contrasted both with Sam's panic early in the scene and the gritty darkness of the framing scene in the car with Dean. I immediately flashed on the brightness and primary color palette used in Pushing Daisies, and wondered how much fantasy and wish fulfillment was actually at play in Sam's mind; where reality ended and wish began in that memory. Was any of that hallucination or dream-weaving, not reality? Was he coloring his memories in their best light, making them brighter and sweeter than they actually were? We still haven't seen everything that happened to Sam, and we don't know what elements are real; I'm waiting to see the rest before I leap to too many conclusions.

The bottom line of my view of Supernatural so far this season is that it really does all depend on your perception – on the vantage from which you (and Sam, and Dean) are viewing it, and the emotional lenses through which you're seeing it. Me, I'm very much appreciating it. I can't wait to accompany the brothers on their journey as the season continues.

Oh – and if anyone is worried that the scenario I've envisioned here dooms the series because it presages the brothers separating to live their different lives, fear not: I don't see that happening. The show has always excelled at giving the brothers continued reasons to hunt, and I'm betting not only that the quest to close the gates of Hell will be much longer and harder than either brother has contemplated yet, but also that other factors will enter into Sam's election to continue hunting and Dean's growth to accept more of Sam's independence and desires. There's a lot more story coming, I'm confident of it!

And now I'm out of time. I'm consistently going to be late with my reviews at least until January, but I hope after then to be the master of my schedule and be able to allot more time in a more timely fashion.

Tags: dean winchester, episode commentaries, jared padalecki, jensen ackles, meta, philosophy, psychology, real life, sam winchester, supernatural, supernatural university, television production

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