Old vs. New Sam Winchester – Part 1: Self
There can be no question that Sam Winchester has changed dramatically from the young man who left school on a short trip with his older brother Dean to the Sam we know now, ten years later. Many experiences, revelations, friends and enemies, losses and gains have coloured the man Sam has grown into over those years. If Season One Sam were to look today at Season Ten Sam, he’d see a wholly different man reflected back. The Sam who Dean left with from Stanford all those years ago had deep rooted anger towards the hunter lifestyle and his family, a powerful drive towards “normalcy”, and wholly different designs and understandings of moral absolutes. He was much more emotionally reactive and most significantly, had a completely different sense of self than the one he has today.
In this series, I want to look at all of these significant transitions Sam has made throughout the ten years on the road, beginning today with the latter: sense of self.
Sense of Self – Throughout the Years
By the end of season ten, of course the Winchester’s lives have been wrecked and rebuilt and wrecked again, to say the least. Sam knelt before his brother, offered his neck and waited for the final blow and, though it never came, it was intense and heart-stopping. Despite this and the many other emotionally thrashing moments throughout the year, Sam remains a strong willed hunter with more legitimate, well-earned self-confidence in his instincts, as well as stronger independence and broader capabilities than he began with. He had these talents from the start of course, but at a more juvenile and unsharpened level as compared to this Sam. Early Sam is out of touch with his instincts and lacks trust in himself, so he hesitates; today’s Sam simply acts.
This flows nicely to sense of self, which has changed so dramatically for Sam over the years. When we first met Sam, he was young, angry, grieving at points; lacked a confidence in his own skills as a hunter, questioned many things and was more impulsive/emotion based in many ways. This Sam had been away from the lifestyle for a number of years and was pulled back in unwillingly to the supernatural world. The brothers lacked the synchronicity in some of their approaches they would later develop as well as some of the unspoken instinct for each other’s off the cuff game plan or instincts.
For example, in 1.03 Sam questions Dean a few times about what draws him back to the town after they’ve “satisfied” an angry spirit – later in the series they’re more inclined to trust one another’s instincts. Additionally they’ll later understand the difference between satisfying a spirit and finishing a job. Sam is not only more confident in Dean’s abilities, but his own as well. In season one “Bloody Mary” we have Sam very nearly asking Dean for permission – “…you’ve got to let me do this.” – today, in the same circumstances, Sam would make a statement of action, plain and simple.
At the end of season two, Sam tells Dean (a somewhat surprised Dean) that he doesn’t have a monopoly on brotherly caretaking. And we see throughout season three that Sam begins to step strongly into this role. Where season two was demonstrably about a more confident hunter, season three is largely about a balance in Sam and his relationship with Dean - it’s also the first time we begin to see how focused and driven Sam will become, the true extent to which he will go. True, Sam never lacked the passion when he was searching for John or revenge after Jessica’s death – after all, he is his father’s son. Here however we find that though Sam is without doubt emotional about the situation with Dean, he is more systematic and less allows his frustration (be it towards the ticking clock or Dean’s own seemingly blasé attitude) to throw him off balance.
Season three Sam has a maturity and focus, perhaps inspired by a specific deadline, that comes through in a whole new way as compared with previous seasons. This isn’t to suggest Sam was immature before, but Sam simply takes the reins and issues dictates at this stage, where he did not before.
As time moves forward, Sam becomes more difficult to classify, because we have other influences impacting the character so dramatically. That said, these influences, including Ruby and the demon blood, work to emphasize character traits that pre-existed and develop. This Sam is the strongest yet, indisputably. Much like Sam in “Mystery Spot” his drive for revenge on Lilith is powerful and unending; to the point where rational thought fades away and the dominant, all consuming focus is that one end-game. Sam in “Mystery Spot” was not so different in his goal to find the Trickster, so we know this is a character trait rather than simply the influence of Ruby and/or the demon blood - though these surely helped cloud judgment to an extent.
Comparably, where Sam in early seasons was also driven by a desire for revenge on Azazel, it was far less vicious a drive. Whether it’s the motivation of the revenge (Lilith killed Dean, as did the Trickster) or that Sam is a more matured, powerful, strategizing hunter by this stage it’s hard to say. Ultimately, the bottom line is that by season four Sam has become a dominating force to be reckoned with, one way or another.
Sam is far less “little brother” in season four than in any previous seasons whatsoever. Again this is hard to comment on due to the blood drinking and demon-on-the-shoulder influences. However, this is a season where there are, as compared with the past three seasons, the least number of consultations. Rather, we see a Sam who takes the protector role, demanding reparations from the angels when Dean is hospitalized and stating that Dean is too weak to handle Alastair or face Lilith on many occasions.
Though these latter two statements about Dean’s “weakness” later became twisted with blood-high, the baseline was a protective concern. Of course Sam is always concerned for Dean’s safety, be it season one or ten, but his expressions of that concern move from tentative to outright as Sam develops; it being an outright, flat-out assertion by season four. As we know, Sam even kills Alastair eventually, in an intense scene after he is again unleashed on Dean. This is arguably as much action driven by a high as it is big-brother example behaviour.
Character Regrowth & Rebuilding
Naturally, experiences throughout the show have cost Sam his confidence in himself as much as they’ve built it. After all, learning that Azazel infiltrated his intimate social circle and that Lucifer always intended for Jessica to die so he could be the vessel of Satan for example, well it’s kind of a blow. During this run of time, we see Sam take a step back from the life as he questions many things about himself and what he knows, but he also rebuilds and manages to come back. Though Sam has to take some time away, he never loses his core self – it is a matter of his esteem being shaken. Ultimately, of course Sam proves just how strong he is when he overcomes Lucifer and takes back control of his body in one of the most well-known scenes in Supernatural history in “Swan Song”. Even in season eight after being away, Sam is still Sam – compelled to help even when not hunting.
Yet when Sam is at his weakest it is when his character blooms the greatest in confidence and surety of self. Sam absorbs both Soulless Sam and Cage Sam as he is putting his mind back together – proof positive that the strongest of the three entities, the most powerful sense of who Sam himself is as a man, a hunter, a brother and a friend is one who accepts what he is, who he is, and everything that is comprised of – and overcomes the pain, learns from the experiences and moves forward. Sam rises from the coma and though he is struggling with hallucinations, he still ultimately joins the battle. He was strong enough to absorb both pieces of himself and recognize he needs both of those elements because they are part of who he is. This is one of the strongest showings of Sam’s sense of self throughout the series as it displayed the individual parts of him: the pain and intelligent, astute hunter and the heart that balances the two.
Sense of Self: The Present
Where in season one, Sam was more of an emotional disarray at times (and rightly so), Sam’s emotional identity is resecured and stronger for the scars: his mind has been shattered, his brother betrayed him (justified or not), his adopted father was killed, surrogate family members killed – and he overcame it all. From this point, we see Sam build on these experiences. Finally, throughout season ten and in the finale we can see the culmination of these experiences in all of Sam’s choices and how his sense of self has matured without deviating from the true core of who Sam is and ever has been. Sam is surer, more independent and calmer in his actions about both finding and curing his brother. He makes informed decisions with absolutes and though they are inspired by an array of emotion he also recognizes he must take the lead and make judgment calls – be they good or bad calls not in question here – and makes them. In the end, his sense of himself, as it’s always been, comes down to his family. Sam has faith in his brother, he also identifies that something must be done in those last moments with Death and offers himself to save his brother, and the world too.
When we met Sam, he loved his family and hated the business of hunting. It conflicted his sense of right, so defined then by the more traditional notions of justice. Today, through experience and over time Sam has balanced the two ideas – right and family - rather than hold them in conflict. Sam Winchester’s sense of self has always comes down to what is right and truly it is this belief that has experienced metamorphosis; it has seasoned and blossomed over ten years and today, rather than Sam distinguishing himself on this alone and separate from, is instead demarcated by his family.
What are your thoughts on Sam’s sense of self? How has it changed over the years? Was there a major turning point or key moment (besides most mid-season finales/finales)?
Offer your insights in the comments below and look for the next part coming soon!