Sam and Dean start “Heart” in typical hunter mode, with Sam teasing Dean about being a geek about werewolves and Dean delightedly telling his brother this time they even know how to kill this bad boy. Neither guy regards this hunt as anything out of the ordinary. They set off to meet Madison, the witness, completely unaware she will expose the tensions lurking just under the surface between them.
One the themes running through “Heart” is who is stalking whom. Hunter and hunted are not easy to identify, because Madison is both. Dean and especially Sam try to protect this lovely woman from the ominous men in her life, while the beast within her murders the men one by one, driven by a primal instinct. Gamble beautifully juxtaposes scenes of Madison and Sam in cozy domesticity, flirting around panties and soap operas, with Madison wolfing out and Sam and Dean on the hunt. Sam learning Madison was mugged and found herself feeling empowered rather than shattered deepens the exploration. Something terrible happened to her, but she found a strength which has allowed her to take charge of her fate, a silver lining—or is it.
Madison's issues recall Sam’s, who has also been victimized in a way that makes him stronger and who is afraid of what that strength means. Sam’s fears for Madison are also for himself, as he’s terrified he may be the kind of monster he and Dean normally hunt—and that Dean’s love for him is blinding him to that fact. Sam doesn’t want to die, but he also doesn’t want to be a monster. He wants to believe he can be saved, and Dean needs to believe that, too. The way Madison’s story illuminates Sam and Dean’s story is the kind of writing that made this series sing. “Heart” is the kind of perfect MOTW episode that really highlights the way writers like Gamble, Edlund and Carver can explore both Winchesters in a single narrative, something many of the the current writers struggle to do.
Dean begins the episode viewing this hunt in black and white terms. He’s hunting a monster who is killing people, so he needs to kill the monster. When he realizes Madison does not know she’s a werewolf, Dean is willing to work with Sam to look for a cure. But to begin with, he still sees killing Madison as the only solution available, awful as that is. It’s not until Sam explodes at him for looking at the evil Madison unknowingly has within her as reason enough to kill her that Dean realizes the many ways this case is personal for his brother. Sam is not just attracted to Madison. He understands the situation she is in. And that changes everything for Dean.
Sam wants to save Madison, while Dean’s focus is to save his brother from losing faith in his own salvation. And as a big brother, he wants to save Sam from a hunter’s worst nightmare: killing someone dear who cannot be saved. Just as Sam accused him earlier, Dean can imagine having to kill this unfortunate girl, but not saving Sam is not in his wheelhouse.
“Heart,” despite some funny brother scenes and a scorching Sam sex scene, is tragic, developing themes that will play out inexorably to the Apocalypse. The only way Sam can save Madison is to kill her, just as in the end the only way Dean can save Sam is to allow him to sacrifice himself. And Dean cannot save Sam from the harshness of their life in this episode, just as he cannot save Sam from the consequences of the demon blood later. The themes in “Heart” lead straight to “Swan Song.”
“Heart” is just as heartbreaking in its examination of Winchester romantic relationships. Even when Sam thinks he’s saved Madison, he tells her, “It’s over. You’ll never have to see me again.” Leaving is the best thing he can offer her, a theme that will be picked up in Dean and Lisa’s relationship in season six. Sam pays a huge price in “Heart” when he takes a chance and follows his heart straight into Madison’s bed. Not only does he have to accept he cannot save her, he then has to kill a woman with whom he’s just spent the night.
Dean wants to save Sam from at least this last experience. Accepting he has to kill Madison and actually pulling the trigger will take from Sam any last vestiges of youth he has. The college boy will die as Sam pulls the trigger and Dean knows it. He offers to do the deed himself, but realizes he has to accept Sam’s decision.
The button scene where Dean cries waiting to hear that shot which will take a piece of Sam with it remains as heartrending on rewatch as it was the first time around. Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles are simply fantastic in the final scenes, as both dig deep into their characters’ pain.
I also thought this episode really shed light on an issue which bothers some viewers in later seasons. Current day Sam and Dean no longer fight so hard to save the people who have been possessed by some supernatural entity. But I think it would be unbelievable for the boys not to have been scarred by “Heart.” They fought so hard to save Madison and ended up having to kill her. They had to priorize saving the many over saving an individual. I don’t think they can risk opening themselves up to this kind of heartbreak on a regular basis. They had to get tough to keep on going.
That toughness doesn’t mean the boys haven’t allowed themselves to care about anyone. Bobby, Castiel, Jody, Charlie, Kevin . . . it’s actually amazing how much the Winchesters are still willing take chances on relationships, given how many friends they’ve buried or burned. But seven seasons after “Heart,” Sam and Dean remain the constants in each other’s lives. They are each other’s Achilles’ Heel, but at the same time they are each other’s tie to humanity. They can’t afford to care about all the victims of evil. They equally can’t afford not to care about each other.
It will be interesting to see where Jeremy Carver takes this exploration. Sam and Dean have traveled so much further than the young Winchesters in “Heart,” but I think the same themes are still in play. This time, perhaps one brother will save the other.