Supernatural University: Being Your Brother's Keeper
We know season eight is exploring issues of perception. Even if we didn't have the interview words of showrunner Jeremy Carver pointing that out, we'd have known it from what we've seen thus far of the conflict between the brothers, particularly given its basis in their differing experiences and views of those experiences from their year apart, and from Castiel's pointed demonstration in A Little Slice Of Kevin of the crucial difference between Dean's memories of events in Purgatory – his perception of reality – and the truth of what really happened when Castiel chose to remain behind.
As usual, however, there's more than a single theme to the season, and I think one many people have overlooked involves a question the show has been asking, albeit mostly rhetorically, from the beginning: how responsible are we for the well-being of others? Or in other words, to what extent are we – and Sam and Dean – personally, socially, ethically, and morally responsible for being our brothers' keepers? How much of our time, our substance, and ourselves must we give to others? When have we given enough? When can we say “no more” without feeling guilty or being called selfish? And do hunters owe a greater duty to others than those who don't know about the supernatural? Welcome to a philosophy and psychology discussion at Supernatural University!
I would submit that this question has been an area of disagreement between the brothers since long before the series began, and it relates directly to long-standing differences in the brothers' perceptions of their roles and obligations. It's coloring their relationship now because much of their current conflict – as well as much fan dissatisfaction with the writers' approach to the current storyline – is rooted in Dean's harsh judgment of Sam for not having looked for him and for having abandoned hunting, and Sam's expressed human need and desire to have more from life than a never-ending series of hunts, losses, and pain.
I'm going to explore this in several parts. I'll start by looking at why I believe the brothers are so different in both their approach and reaction to hunting, and then get into the broader questions concerning where we draw the line on our responsibility to others, and why.
Saving People, Hunting Things: The Family Business
Something I think we all need to bear in mind is that Sam and Dean are very different people. They have significantly different personalities, mindsets, talents, and emotional structures, and because of that, they see things from very different perspectives and often are unable to put themselves in each other's shoes. They come at hunting from fundamentally different positions for significantly different reasons, and those starting points color everything they see.
Our first encounter with the adult brothers in the pilot established that Sam had left hunting to go to college a few years before and had sworn not to hunt again, particularly since their father had told him angrily not to come back if he left. Dean, on the other hand, was committed to hunting, seeing it as his familial duty, enjoying his own competence and the adrenaline-fueled energy of it, and taking satisfaction in saving people by doing it. Sam initially rejoined Dean just as a favor to his worried brother and to silence worry of his own. He continued hunting to avenge Jess, but made his position clear in Shadow when he told Dean that he intended to stop hunting and go back to school after they killed the yellow-eyed demon. Dean maintained their job would never be over, that there was always going to be something to hunt, but Sam insisted he wasn't going to live the hunting life forever.
Their personal circumstances and reasons for hunting went through changes over the following years, but this basic difference in viewpoint and intent between the brothers has always existed and has only been exacerbated by what they've experienced.
As he admitted in such episodes as What Is And What Should Never Be, Monster Movie, and Sam, Interrupted, Dean has always seen hunting as a mandate, an overwhelming personal responsibility to save people that he can't refuse or abandon. Dean can't conceive of winning the war or ever being able to say he's done enough simply because the diversity of evil means there's no way to stop it all, and as long as any people remain at risk, he feels almost pathologically obligated to save them.
Sam, on the other hand, has viewed hunting from his childhood as a distasteful, sometimes necessary task to be accomplished successfully so he could turn to other things. Apart from the time he spent soulless, when he enjoyed hunting for its own sake simply because it was a satisfying expression of his strength and ability, adult Sam hunted only to achieve a succession of specific, finite goals: to find dad, to avenge Jess by killing the demon, to avoid his own demon-engineered destiny, to save Dean from Hell, to stop the apocalypse, to redeem himself, to close the gates of Hell. Ever since the pilot, Sam has always aimed toward the goal of being able to stop hunting by accomplishing enough, preferably by strategically and decisively destroying his chief opponent. The concept of winning the game against Hell by taking out Lilith and then being able to stop fighting fueled his decision in Criss Angel Is A Douchebag to resume drinking demon blood, and he's been explicit in We Need To Talk About Kevin and Heartache about getting the tablet and closing the gates of Hell being the end of his hunting career.
Why are the brothers so different?
Let's look at Dean first, simply because he's the oldest. He lost his mother in horrific circumstances when he was four, old enough to remember both the confused terror of the night Mary died and the mostly happy, normal life the Winchesters had shared up until that point. From that night on, he was tasked with responsibility for keeping Sam safe. He saw his father racked by fear, grief, horror, guilt, and anger, and tried to provide emotional support even as John gradually transformed from loving dad into a demanding, rigid drill sergeant. Fully aware of all he'd lost, I think Dean was always focused primarily on preserving and clinging to what he still had: his brother and his dad. Being taught the best defense was a good offense, he accepted and invested in his father's belief that hunting was the way to keep the family safe. When they encountered the shtriga the first time, as we saw in Something Wicked, he believed his failure to protect Sam changed the way his father looked at him, and he did everything he could never to disappoint or disobey John again. As revealed in A Very Supernatural Christmas, he obeyed John's orders to hide the truth from Sam for years, until his younger brother managed to figure out the basics on his own. He served as the family buffer and peacemaker between John and Sam, something we saw in Shadow, Dead Man's Blood, Salvation, and In My Time Of Dying. He absorbed John's commitment to hunting with the food he ate and the air he breathed, taking as a given from John's attitude and example that knowing about the supernatural carried with it the responsibility to protect other people – starting with his kid brother – from those arcane dangers they had no way to anticipate and counter. Having little, he took pride in all of it.
Dean embraced hunting because saving people and killing monsters not only gave him a mission that suited his skills, but also kept his family together and safe from the monsters he killed, and won his father's hard-to-earn but desperately needed approval. However, he became so focused on his perceived duty that he assumed responsibility for things far beyond his control. As early as Dead In The Water, we saw that he blamed himself for failing when he couldn't save everyone. That pressure became even stronger after John died, because Dean felt shamed and guilty when he realized his father had sold his soul for him. Doubting his own self-worth, he became increasingly obsessed with saving others as compensation. As he finally admitted to himself in Dream A Little Dream Of Me and Sam, Interrupted, he feels he has to save everyone even though he logically and intellectually knows he can't. And as Castiel pointed out in A Little Slice Of Kevin, his extreme need to be in control and to save people has affected how he has seen and remembered things, even to the point that he punished himself for failing Castiel – as he insisted he has always failed everyone he loved and lost – when the truth was the angel had been stronger and pushed him away. Given Dean's history, it's no surprise his messianic complex defines him and makes him perceive hunting as something he absolutely has to do. The only time he ever walked away was the end of Swan Song, when he'd given his word to Sam and been utterly broken by Sam's sacrifice, and that left him hollow and incomplete, as we saw in Exile On Main Street. Hunting defines Dean, and without it, he wasn't fully alive.
Sam's situation was very different. He grew up acutely aware that his circumstances weren't normal and his family lacked almost everything his school classmates took for granted, but he didn't know why. He eventually learned hunting was what made the Winchesters different, and that they started hunting because a monster had killed his mother. Being older at that realization than Dean had been when Mary died, Sam was most immediately conscious of the danger that he might also lose his brother and father, or even be killed himself. Where Dean had long accepted that hunting was their dad being heroic and protecting them, Sam's very first overwhelming understanding was that hunting courted the horrifying risk of further loss and deprived the Winchesters of everything safety and stability brought to normal families. He supported the family business as his father required and did it quite capably, as we saw in The Girl Next Door, but he also increasingly resented its physical, emotional, and spiritual cost and dreamed of escaping it, as we saw in Girl, Dark Side Of The Moon, and After School Special. Where Dean from early on found hunting a satisfying way he could take action to counter his losses and guard against more, Sam found it from the beginning simply the threat of more loss, and a burden that isolated him from friends and prevented him from doing other things.
I'm not saying Sam didn't appreciate the importance and value of saving people. Far from it; we've seen his passion for helping people and his willingness to forego his own safety in the process in nearly every episode of the series. But while Sam accepted responsibility and felt guilt for failing individuals he met during a case, like Max from Nightmare and Ava from Hunted, as well as for essential touchstones like Dean and Jess, he never shared Dean's belief that he was personally responsible for saving everyone. The only times he came close to that were when his psychic abilities and the yellow-eyed demon's cryptic comments made him fear he was destined to become something evil, and later when he realized Ruby had tricked him into freeing Lucifer. On those occasions, he was first desperate, particularly in Playthings and Houses Of The Holy, to save as many people as he could to change his demon-engineered destiny, and then in Swan Song, he deliberately sacrificed himself to stop the apocalypse by imprisoning Lucifer because he felt responsible for having freed the devil in the first place.
Apart from those particular situations, however, Sam always understood that saving everyone isn't possible, and while he strove to make a difference for some, he simply couldn't be responsible for all. He's been able to accept that in a logically practical way Dean hasn't been able even to consider at least since John died. I'm sure many fans were shocked in We Need To Talk About Kevin when Sam explained his abandonment of hunting by saying bluntly, "People will always die, Dean. Or maybe another hunter took care of it. I don't know, but the point is, for the first time, I realized that it wasn't only up to me to stop it." That may sound ruthless and cold-blooded, but it's true; no one person can do everything, or be responsible for everyone. That's not a reason not to try at all, but it is a reason to accept that there are limits, even to duty and guilt.
Despite what Sam said, this wasn't really the first time he experienced that realization, either. He had done exactly the same, although perhaps not as consciously, when he left hunting the first time to go to Stanford. I think that for Sam, knowing other knowledgeable hunters existed -- starting with his dad, Dean, Pastor Jim, Bobby, Caleb, and the few others he knew back at the time he left for college -- and were able to help people always took away from Sam some of the personal pressure Dean felt of being absolutely responsible for everyone all the time. Once Sam learned in season two of Ellen, Ash, and the existence of many other hunters beyond the deliberately limited, safe circle John had been willing to reveal to his sons, he was always ready to reach out to them for information and help. He acknowledged it again, however briefly, when he left hunting in Free To Be You And Me, calling information in to Bobby rather than following up on it himself.
That sense of balance, of being able to do and even enjoy things other than hunting and to share responsibility with others rather than assume the whole burden of it alone, was also something we saw implied by other hunters throughout the series. Not all hunters were like the rootless Winchesters, traveling constantly and hunting obsessively to the exclusion of any of the trappings of normal life, and although some were depicted as suspicious loners more than a little unbalanced by whatever incidents had driven them to hunting, like Gordon of Bloodlust and Kubrick of Bad Day At Black Rock, they weren't all that way. While he kept weapons in the basement, as we saw in Salvation, Jim Murphy ministered to the congregation of his parish. Bobby Singer ran a salvage yard and served as a clearinghouse for information shared among hunters. Bill Harvelle had a wife, a daughter, and a roadhouse before he died, as we learned in Everybody Loves A Clown and No Exit. Steve Wandell, the hunter Sam killed while possessed by Meg in Born Under A Bad Sign, lived in a mostly normal if isolated house and had a daughter safely away at school. In The Beginning, Samuel and Deanna Campbell raised their daughter Mary in a perfectly ordinary house on a quiet street in a typical neighborhood in Lawrence, Kansas; they blended in while keeping their hunting secret. The hunters killed by ghosts in Are You There, God? It's Me, Dean Winchester died in their homes, places they'd obviously lived in for a while. Eliot Ness combined judicious hunting with a law enforcement career in Time After Time. Christian Campbell had a wife and hoped for children, as we learned in Two And A Half Men. Hunting didn't have to be the all-or-nothing thing John Winchester made it for his sons.
Am I My Brother's Keeper?
I began this essay by asking how responsible we – and Sam and Dean – are for the safety and well-being of others, and how much we have to do to help others before we could say we had done enough. I also asked if hunters owed a greater duty to others because of the specialized knowledge they possessed about the hidden supernatural threats most people woudn't even believe exist.
I'm going to start by saying there is no single universal right answer to these questions. Especially when it comes to what duty we – or hunters – owe to help or save others, and just how much of ourselves we must be willing to sacrifice, we each must make our own judgments based on our own beliefs and circumstances. Our laws don't require that we endanger our own lives for others, or that we impoverish ourselves to benefit others. Saving people and being charitable are seen as virtues, but no rules establish clear lines to say when we've done too little, or whether we've ever done enough. We have to live with the decisions we make, the reasons we make them, and how other people react to us because of what they think of them. And since we don't know all the intimate details of another's life, we can't know everything that factors into their choices any more than they can trace what considerations and feelings went into ours.
Despite that, we judge other peoples' choices all the time. We applaud some people for being heroes and criticize others for failing to act or not doing what we would consider enough. We judge people purely on the basis of our own perceptions of their situations and we apply our own ethical, moral, and social codes and beliefs to what we see, comparing their choices to how we believe we would have chosen had we been in their place. But we aren't them. Even when we all see the same events, we often perceive them very differently based on our own histories, cultures, positions, assumptions, and beliefs, and because of that, we often draw different conclusions and make vastly different judgments.
I know many fans have been upset with the season eight set-up that had Sam abandoning hunting for a year and not searching for Dean after his brother disappeared in Survival Of The Fittest. Unhappy fans have argued that not looking for Dean was totally out of character for Sam, and that abandoning hunting – particularly not doing anything to help Kevin – was also out of character and made Sam appear unsympathetic and selfish, and less of a hero than Dean. Many fans have also complained about the conflict that now exists between the brothers over precisely those actions, arguing that the writers have destroyed the brothers' bond.
That's not what I perceive. I hope people of other opinions reading this won't simply rehash their discontent with the storyline or maintain that either the writers or I are assassinating either Sam's or Dean's characters. I know that's not remotely my intent, and I sincerely doubt it's the writers', either. As important as perception is within the storyline this year, particularly in terms of how the brothers look at each others' situations and decisions, I believe it's at least as important in the context of the way viewers are approaching and reacting to the show. How fans perceive the events and characters affects what they think of them. As beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, so also do heroism and selfishness. What we see depends on where we stand, and how we see and interpret it often depends as much on what we bring to our viewing of the story as on what the writers and actors put into it.
I'm not going to debate whether Sam's actions as written were in character or not. People have made up their minds on that score and won't be swayed one way or the other, and the story itself has already progressed a year beyond Sam's decision anyway, so argument either way is fruitless. I'm simply starting from where we are given the way the story has progressed, accepting that the things that have happened, have happened. How we – and Dean and Sam – perceive, explain, and judge them is what interests me. And this is what I see.
Basically, Dean always felt compelled to hunt, to save people. Having lost much, he valued what remained and took his joy in keeping it. He measured his worth only in terms of meeting his father's expectations and saving others, especially Sam. His absolute need to do so – particularly to offset his sense of being unworthy brought on first by his father's sacrifice and later by how he broke under torture in Hell – has grown so compelling as to be pathological. While Dean sometimes questioned having to hunt and lamented the cost, particularly after John's death, he always continued because by the time he thought to ask the question, he had already programmed himself to believe he had no other real options he could choose; any other choice would have invalidated all the sacrifices and compromises he'd already made to accept defining himself as a hunter. Purgatory simply reinforced that commitment because hunting really was the only way to get through and out. In the process, Purgatory also stripped away some of Dean's empathy and civilization, rewarding brutality with survival in an ugly echo of Hell. Unlike Hell, however, this time Dean wasn't alone; his determination to find and save Castiel anchored his humanity, and Benny's help gave him reason to trust the vampire. On his return, I think Dean judged Sam particularly harshly in part because he was raw and already punishing himself for having failed Castiel. Given his own value-laden, rigid mindset, Dean also flatly couldn't imagine having made the decisions Sam did. After all he's gone through, I think Dean is far too much inside himself to be able to step into Sam's shoes and experience Sam's perspective; he literally can't understand why Sam would see things any differently from him.
Sam, on the other hand, always wanted to stop hunting. He never shared Dean's joy in it or Dean's need to define himself as a hunter. Sam just saw hunting as risking more loss, always giving things up instead of gaining them. Despite that, he repeatedly risked himself for others, trying to achieve the goals he felt would gain enough good to let him stop. Along the way, he came to understand a lot of what drove his brother, but he never could feel about hunting the same way Dean did because his entire emotional structure was different. Eventually, Sam sacrificed his own life to save his brother and the world in Swan Song, consciously accepting an eternity of being trapped in a cage in Hell with Lucifer to redeem his mistake in having been duped into freeing the devil in the first place. He hadn't asked or expected to be rescued, but after he was, he fought desperately against insanity to be able to help Dean again. Along the way, he experienced more and more loss, including seeing Bobby die first as a man and then again as a spirit. When Dean, Castiel, and Dick exploded together into nothing and Crowley demonstrated Sam's powerlessness and taunted him with his absolute isolation, Sam broke. He didn't have anything left to give. Overloaded, he shut down. He stopped. And then he hit a dog and met an emotionally broken woman, and found a reason to start living consciously again because their pain and need broke his numbness and reawakened his empathy. He started to reassemble the pieces of his life into a new picture, one without hunting that included helping Amelia and Riot – and then it shattered again when Amelia's reported-dead husband came back alive, followed by the equally unanticipated return of Dean. I think Sam feels shamed and guilty for having broken. His year free from hunting was far from perfect or easy, but after all he'd given and all he'd lost, that taste of building something normal and safe had promise. And despite Dean's withering judgment of his decision to abandon hunting, Dean and Kevin had survived without him; that supports Sam's belief that everyone's survival doesn't rest on his shoulders. Sam still has the dream of doing enough, and the idea that they could close the gates of Hell and banish all demons forever, particularly on top of everything else they've already done, feels to him like more than enough.
The brothers have never seen eye-to-eye on hunting, and a year apart in such different circumstances, almost perfectly calibrated to reinforce their particular biases – Dean, transported to a simple black-and-white conflict, was rewarded for and found companionship in concentrated, exceptionally brutal hunting while Sam, left bitterly alone, found love and new purpose in a normal, safe environment – simply brought out their differences even more. Every season of the show has seen the brothers finding a new balance in their relationship; to me, their current conflict is simply the next step. Through it all, however, they are still, as they have ever been, the most important people in each others' lives, whether living, dead, or absent; their brother-love is always there, and I am confident it will always bring them home to each other. With bitchfaces and snide comments, doubtless, but home.
One last point. I asked earlier if hunters owe a greater duty to others because of the specialized knowledge they possess. Let me answer that by analogy. Laws in the United States assign a greater duty of care to people with particular knowledge or skills, but they don't assign a greater responsibility to act. For example, I'm certified in performing CPR and emergency first aid, and using automatic external defibrillator (AED) devices. Because I carry that certification, which requires training and renewal every two years, I'm supposed to know what I'm doing, and if I responded in an emergency situation, I could be sued by a victim if I made things worse instead of better. I wouldn't be protected by the “good Samaritan” laws that otherwise prevent innocent bystanders who try to help from being sued for inadvertently hurting someone in the process. But I'm not legally obligated to respond to an emergency. If I froze in the clutch and didn't jump to perform CPR, I couldn't be held at all responsible for the death of someone who suffered a heart attack in the mall ten feet away from me. I wouldn't have a legal duty to act just because I had training. My ethical duty, however, is a very different thing. I would feel obligated to act, knowing I might be able to save a life, and if I failed to act, I would feel guilty about failing. I took the training precisely because I want to be able to help. But I wouldn't feel guilty about a situation unless I were involved in it. I don't feel obligated to search for opportunities to put my certificate to use, or to take more training and become an EMT. Were I part of Sam and Dean's world, even possessing their knowledge, I wouldn't be a hunter. I might salt my windows and doors, hide devil's traps under my rugs, and beware of strangeness in my neighborhood, but I wouldn't go looking. And I wouldn't feel guilty about it.
Answer honestly: would you?
Sorry this has posted so late; I wrote it before Torn And Frayed aired, but it got held up in the queue for publication over at The Winchester Family Business, and my agreement with WFB is they get to post first. I think it's clear from the last two episodes that Dean has been able to adjust his perception at least a little to be able to see things from Sam's perspective!