"Ever since I came back, I am a better hunter than I've ever been! Nothing scares me anymore because I can't feel it. I don't know what's wrong with me. I think I need help." Soulless Sam---You Can't Handle the Truth
Soulless Sam was perhaps the most daring aspect of Season 6. To turn a main character completely around is always risky. No other element seemed to be more polarizing. He was also perhaps one of the most unpredictable and puzzling characters the show has ever had. What made Soulless Sam a success can be attributed equally to both the writing and Jared Padalecki's outstanding portrayal.
From the very start, when Sam arrives to upset Dean's apple cart, we can tell that something is wrong with him. The blank expression on his face as Dean hugs him sets off alarms. He is colder, the compassion and empathy that marks his character gone. Like Dean, we feel uncomfortable with him. Every instinct tells us that we can not trust this version of Sam.
There are many things that can be discovered by exploring the character of Soulless Sam. He exists to teach us about ourselves---and the human condition. Soulless Sam reminds us of the darker side lurking in all of us. He is the mirror we shudder to gaze upon. By examining the differences between him and the real Sam, his relationship to Dean, and how he tested the brotherly bond, insight into the question surrounding souls can be achieved.
We learn that souls are considered a power source for Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory. Each soul starts out human essentially. Some are destined through deed or deal to go into the pit. Others are to ascend into their own personal Heaven. And some are twisted into the souls that end up in Purgatory upon their death as a monster. We also know that both Angels and demons seem to have the ability to tap into their power source. Castiel uses 50,000 souls on loan from Crowley to blast Raphael. He later taps into Bobby's soul to retrieve Sam and Dean from the Wild West. They're referred to as a nuclear power source.
Whatever their power, there is a value that is much more significant in human terms. What does it mean to have a soul? Is it possible for someone who does not possess one such as Soulless Sam to retain any of their humanity? Veritas, in the episode "You Can't Handle the Truth," calls Soulless Sam out on his bluff. He's lying blatantly to her---something he shouldn't be able to do. Upon further inspection, she declares, "You're not human! What are you!"
The world's two major religions, Christianity and Islam, both acknowledge the existence of the human soul. For Christians and Muslims alike, it is immortal and one's life should be concerned with its fate after the mortal life has ceased. Good deeds and people will be rewarded in the afterlife with Heaven, while those who commit evil acts shall find their punishments in Hell.
But what about while one is currently living?
There is no question that there are good and bad people. Some people set out to help and are generous, while others try to harm and are selfish. Some people prefer to be humble while others boast. Each individual person on Earth has their own personality and perspective. How much of this is due to the physical body, and how much of this is the soul? Is compassion and emotion centered in our physical nature, the chemical reactions that occur in our brains or does it transcend into the spiritual? Is our ability to connect with and interact with our fellow human beings something that comes from our soul or sheer necessity to sustain our physical bodies? How much of our morality is tied up with our spiritual health or lack there of?
If there is such a thing as a soul, is it possible for a person to live and function without one?
With Soulless Sam, we see this question raised and answered.
Most of the season's dealings with souls centers around their marketability and their value. Their power is sought by everyone involved for their own reasons. Balthazar, in "The Third Man," is buying human souls by selling the pieces of the Staff of Moses, one of the many weapons he stole from the weapons room in Heaven. We learn that souls are a hot commodity, possibly the only thing left with value.
But the biggest lesson we truly learn is that from watching Soulless Sam. We learn the truth about their real value. Without his soul, Sam has been reduced to a rational being with no sense of right or wrong. He knows the difference, but simply has become amoral. He is incapable of feeling. He has no real understanding of what it is to be human.
First, let's take a look at the steps that led to Soulless Sam.
Looking back as far as Season 1, the path to Soulless Sam was largely set into place. Sam, for better or worse, has always been the monster at the heart of the show. He has always been a pawn in a cruel supernatural game. Sam was the one infected with Azazel's demon blood at six months, chosen for a destiny as Lucifer's vessel. He experiences intense visions as his powers start to emerge. It isn't until the fourth season that we see them fully utilized, used to exorcise and kill demons with thought alone.
At least two episodes stand out as stark metaphors to what Sam is and what Sam might become: "Heart," and "Metamorphosis."
In "Heart," a desperate Sam tries to save Madison, a young woman bitten by a werewolf. It isn't hard to imagine that Sam sees himself in this situation. She is a kind, gentle woman, and yet under the sway of the full moon turns into a vicious killer. Sam goes against both instinct and hope in order to try saving her. They read a myth that states that if the one who turned her is killed that it could reverse the curse. For a time it seems that it has worked. A night with the moon full comes and goes and she is perfectly human. It isn't until she's fallen asleep and woken up turned that they realize they have failed.
It's harsh foreshadowing for Sam and his own potential fate.
"Metamorphosis" tackles Sam's growing drive for power. They are hunting a rugaru, a monster that starts out human until the gene that gives them their insatiable hunger switches on. We watch as Jack Montgomery goes from happily married man to ravenously hungry. He eats everything in sight, including to our disgust a package of raw ground meat. Nothing seems to stop his hunger or his drive to acquire more food. A fellow hunter, Travis, tells both brothers that it is only matter of time before he starts to eat human flesh.
Again, Sam wants to save him.
Again, Sam fails.
This isn't too far from Sam's addiction to the demon blood that fuels his powers. The more he drinks, the more he craves. It isn't until "Lucifer Rising," that Sam learns the truth: he never needed the blood. The powers were there all along. Ruby had cruelly turned him into her pawn for her own gains. By the time Sam realizes how she had manipulated him it was too late. Much like Jack, he had an insatiable hunger that could not be fulfilled no matter how hard he tried.
Towards the end of season 5, Sam realizes that since he released Lucifer that he must be the one to put him back into the Cage. He plans on saying yes and then throwing himself into it with Lucifer trapped inside.
Against all odds, it works. It is the biggest sacrifice Sam will make.
It's also what gives rise to Soulless Sam, although he is the result of another supernatural power play---this time at the hands of Castiel.
Psychologically speaking, Soulless Sam is a sociopath. He knows what feelings are and that he should exhibit them. He knows the difference between what is appropriate and inappropriate. Soulless Sam knows what society expects. Much like other sociopaths, however, Soulless Sam just can't manage to make it seem believable. There are too many flaws, too many instances that make those around him nervous.
The only advantage Soulless Sam seems to have is the memories of the real Sam. He has a wealth of information to tap into that gives him the ability to put his facade in place. The fact that he knows he must hide what is wrong is a testament to how rational his being is. He is all thought with no heart. Without seeing someone without their soul, we might not have had the chance to understand the truth about them.
The truth is, despite the power source they provide to Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory, their value to humanity is far greater. In "Appointment in Samara," when Death gives Sam his soul back after Dean's failure to be the great and terrible Horseman, he tells Dean, "It's all about the souls."
In terms of what transpired at the end, Death could have meant the moves that both Castiel and Crowley were making. It's highly likely, though, that Death was teaching Dean another lesson as well. He says, before retrieving Sam's soul from the Cage, "This is hard for you, Dean. You throw away your life because you've come to assume that it'll bounce right back into your lap. The human soul is not a rubber ball. It's vulnerable, impermanent, but stronger than you know... and more valuable than you can imagine."
Let's examine how Dean ended up at this point.
As early as season two, Dean has known one thing: he must either save or kill Sam. Their father, right before his death, whispered this order to Dean. As early as "Croatoan" and "Born Under a Bad Sign," Dean is faced with this test. Each time, he chooses to save Sam. He says to a possessed Sam, testing Dean's resolve, "I would rather die."
In the episode, "Playthings," Sam begs Dean to follow their father's last order. He says, "You have to watch out for me, all right? And if I ever turn into something that I'm not, you have to kill me."
Even in the episode, "The End," when Dean sees what the world will become if he doesn't stop his brother from saying yes to Lucifer, the lesson he learns is not to kill Sam, not to say yes to Michael, but to save Sam.
In "Swan Song," Dean faces his worst nightmare: Sam has said yes to Lucifer. Instead of trying to find a way to kill the Devil, he instead reaches out to Sam. Even through a vicious beating at his brother's hands with Lucifer at the controls, Dean holds firm, telling his little brother that he is there for him. He then has no choice but to watch as Sam throws himself into the Cage upon wrestling control back from Lucifer.
This, however, will not be the final test for Dean.
It's what emerges from the Cage that will test Dean---more than anything else has ever done: Soulless Sam.
Ever since Sam jumped into the Cage, the only thing Dean has wanted is his brother back. He says so, to Soulless Sam in "Exile on Mainstreet," when he exclaims in exasperation, "I wanted my brother----alive!"
This is a bad case of "be careful what you wish for, you might not like what you get."
It's fair to say that Soulless Sam is as about as far away from the real Sam as one can get. He's not evil per se, but he's most certainly not a kind individual. All of Sam's empathy is stripped away and the only thing left is a rational shell. Just about everything that makes Sam who he is is either missing or suppressed by this new, cold personality. If there was ever a time for Dean to follow through on this last order and request, this would probably be the time.
Dean certainly thinks about it. He expresses to Bobby in "You Can't Handle the Truth," "He threw me to that vamp. I'm telling you, it's not my brother."
At this stage, he doesn't know---and Soulless Sam doesn't, either---that Sam is missing his soul. He just knows that something is wrong. Sam isn't Sam. He behaves differently, he is colder and far more ruthless. He's not sure that there will be a chance to save Sam this time. This person walking around with Sam's face borders upon being a monster.
So, why doesn't Dean follow through?
No matter what Dean feels about Sam prior to the revelation that Sam's soul is still in the Cage, he must still see his little brother before him. It's one thing to talk about his concerns with Bobby about Sam, it's another to follow through on killing him. Both brothers have been told repeatedly that the other is their weakness. Dean has never been able to willingly hurt Sam---physical altercations aside. He just can't pull the proverbial trigger. His entire life has been devoted to protecting and nurturing Sam.
It's also safe to say that Dean has abandonment issues. Throughout the series, Sam has been running away from Dean and to an extent Dean has been chasing after Sam. This element has been present since the pilot. Sam left Dean behind to go to Stanford. He leaves Dean behind in "Scarecrow" to find their father in California. Sam leaves Dean in "Hunted" to solve the mystery of the other psychic children. He goes missing due to demonic possession for a week in "Born Under a Bad Sign." Sam disappears in front of Dean in "All Hell Breaks Loose I." Sam sides with Ruby in "Lucifer Rising," against Dean's wishes. Sam leaves Dean---possibly for good this time---in "Free to Be You and Me."
And yet, Sam always ends up coming back to Dean.
Once Sam returns to Dean in "Exile On Mainstreet," he is persistent in trying to convince his brother to join him. It's something a younger Dean without the responsibility and obligation of a new family would have dreamed about hearing. Upon leaving Lisa and Ben behind to rejoin Sam in "The Third Man," it's Sam that expresses, "Better for everyone."
It should be Dean's biggest wish being fulfilled: being back with his brother, in the family business of saving people and hunting things.
Instead, it's a nightmare. This is not Sam---and most certainly not Sammy.
Soulless Sam, despite being callous and unfeeling, never tries to run. He doesn't abandon Dean.
That's where the real enigma of Soulless Sam begins to emerge.
Let's return to the hug in "Exile On Mainstreet" a moment. This is not an emotionally charged reunion---at least not for both brothers. Soulless Sam has a rather blank and dispassionate expression on his face as he stiffly returns the hug. We're left with a distinct impression that Soulless Sam has no care or concern for Dean. Yet, that's not the whole truth.
Gwen Campbell, upon meeting Dean, says, "Good to finally meet you. Sam's gone on and on."
In the episode, "All Dogs Go to Heaven," Soulless Sam candidly says to Dean, "I don't really care about you."
So which is the truth?
In a word: both.
Since Soulless Sam retains all of the real Sam's memories, he knows and understands that Dean is an important figure in his life. He might not have the emotional attachment or the capacity to form those types of connections, but he rationally knows that Dean is a person he can trust---even if Dean might not be able to trust him.
And yet, we see him allow Dean to be turned into a vampire in "Live Free, Twi Hard."
Soulless Sam is nothing if not a walking and talking contradiction.
So why does Soulless Sam behave the way he does towards Dean? Is it simply because he needs him to get his soul back? He's a pathological liar, so anything and everything that comes out of his mouth is suspect. He says things people want to hear when it suits him and says things without a word filter when it amuses him.
Yet, it's not that simple. Not with Dean.
The other strange question concerning his behavior is just how many opportunities Soulless Sam had to kill Dean. Because he doesn't sleep, Soulless Sam could have easily disposed of Dean any given night. He could have, at any time, felt that Dean was a threat to his very survival. After all, Dean had made it his personal mission to return Sam's soul to him. Even before both Castiel and Crowley pronounced that as a bad idea, it had to occur to Soulless Sam that he would cease to exist once the soul was put back into place. If he had truly decided that he did not want it back, Dean would have become a detriment, not an asset. Rationally, Soulless Sam would have had no qualms about committing fratricide if it meant his survival.
Nothing demonstrates Soulless Sam's drive to survive more than his actions in "Appointment in Samara." He is desperate and looking to keep his soul from being returned to his body. To do so, he must commit patricide. With John Winchester dead, Bobby Singer, their surrogate father is made to be a substitute.
Soulless Sam's actions shock and horrify us. We shudder to think what might have happened if he had succeeded. The monstrosity of that single act would have been unforgivable. It is not the act, however, that scares us. It is the reason. Soulless Sam is not doing this out of malice. He is not trying to exact revenge. This is not a crime of passion or evidence of a broken relationship between these two. It is a matter of survival.
Soulless Sam says more than once, "I got to do this, Bobby."
If Soulless Sam doesn't do this and Dean should succeed in his deal with Death, he will cease to exist. He knows this. His instincts tell him he must find a way to stop this or die. Certainly, both Castiel and Crowley's pronouncements that he would be reduced to a vegetative state has something to do with his anxiety, but it is only the surface reason for his actions. He must have concluded that regardless of what happened to the body, he would no longer be.
This exemplifies all of our basal instincts. Faced with death, we struggle and fight to live. Soulless Sam is this primal urge personified. We fear this portion of ourselves because it is unpredictable and often vicious. In a civilized world, we have whitewashed a lot of our nature. Soulless Sam is a dark blend of both our instinctual selves and our rational being---and the combination is a scary one that makes us shy away from him.
Could it be, however, that Soulless Sam, deep down, feels some sort of pull from Dean and is unconsciously falling into old habits? Does it somehow trump his survival instincts?
After all, in the episode "Clap Your Hands If You Believe," Sam follows Dean's lead. He might not care that Dean was abducted and had set out to amuse himself with the waitress, but when Dean said to do something, he did it.
Sam's soul had been in his body his entire life up until jumping in the Cage. Is it possible that his soul would have left enough of an impression that it would hold some sway over Soulless Sam? Or could it be that while Sam's body and soul were separated there was still a connection between the two that pushed Soulless Sam to follow Dean?
On one hand we can clearly see Soulless Sam's apathy for Dean. In others, he seems to fall back into step with what the real Sam would have done. In the episode â"Family Matters," Soulless Sam and Dean set out to follow and track Samuel's activities. They set up an elaborate ruse, where Soulless Sam will ditch Dean to remain with the Campbells. Soulless Sam is going to become a mole more or less, reporting back to Dean on what is happening. Unfortunately, the plan falls through and Soulless Sam thinks fast on his feet. He attaches a GPS tracker to one of Samuel's vehicles instead.
What makes Soulless Sam choose Dean over the Campbells? He had been hunting with them for over a year now and had seemed rather comfortable within their family. Is it because he knows that Dean will make the better partner? Does Soulless Sam know that Dean will make him keep more in line?
It's part of what makes Soulless Sam so utterly unpredictable. Almost upon a whim he can change course instantaneously.
Yet, the one constant seems to be that he will listen to Dean. It doesn't mean he won't use Dean to serve his purposes, but if Dean gives him an order, he seems to take it.
The other contradiction that arises in Soulless Sam is how he ends up rescuing Dean at various intervals. He doesn't have to spend any time looking for Dean in "Clap Your Hands If You Believe," and yet he does. He doesn't have to slide the knife over to Dean in "You Can't Handle the Truth." In "Caged Heat," Soulless Sam fights his way to get to Dean by making a Devil's Trap out of his own blood. While a good portion of this has to do with his own survival, he could have made his way out of the prison alone and left Dean behind. He doesn't.
Soulless Sam runs purely on instinct. It's not hard to argue that it's instinct of the real Sam to try and come to Dean's aid. It's what Sam and Dean do for each other, after all. This might be evidence of another residual effect of Sam's soul upon the body that Soulless Sam now drives. Maybe that's what it all really is---as with any of Soulless Sam's actions. His instinct says to do something, he follows. His instinct would tell him that Dean is important. He might not have any emotional attachment, but there's certainly a strange and inexplicable pull that Soulless Sam can only obey.
Which in turn brings us back to why Dean doesn't follow through on killing Soulless Sam....
Keep Going with Part 2: Soulless Sam!