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This time last year, rumblings in the fandom over Dean's supposed lack of character development got me in a tizzy, so I wrote an article, "A Deeper Look at Season Three Dean Winchester" for blogcritics in response to that misconception.  I eventually followed it up with one about Sam and they got some discussion going.  This year, all the rumblings seem to be over Sam's character, so I've decided to do a similiar analysis for season four and start with Sam.  There's a lot more to look at this year.  I guess a full 22 episode season will do that! 

So, get your meta hats on everyone and enjoy (or feel compelled to totally rip apart) "A Deeper Look At Season Four Sam Winchester." 

No doubt, in terms of the calendar frame for season four, Sam Winchester had one really bad year. His brother dies, he tries to unsuccessfully get him back while taking up a bad drinking habit, he starts down a dark road he fought all those years to avoid, his brother miraculously comes back but they fight, he carries on his pursuit of revenge behind his brother's back and gets hooked on demon blood in the process, he spirals out of control and turns into the monster he never wanted to be, he tries to kill said brother after a forced detox goes wrong, and...oh yeah, he inadvertently starts the apocalypse. Not good.
I really don't understand the complaints about Sam's lack of character development in season four. He had TONS of character development. Sure, he nosedived into something unrecognizable by the end, but I believe that is the point. While it's sad, ultimately all heroes have to face bitter lows before they reach new highs. Anyone who watches TV, films and/or reads comics knows those are the rules.
Let's go through a few of the key Sam episodes and take a good honest look at just how much his character did change. It's massive and quite compelling when looking at it through a microscope.
There's way more to this episode than meets the eye. As we learn from "Lazarus Rising," Sam has been honing in on his pulling-demons-from-humans-with-his-mind trick.   Obviously in the back of his mind, there's that little fear that he's going to lose control and go dark. And get caught by Dean. Which he totally does in this episode.  At this stage, he's lying to himself, mostly to quell that nagging voice within that's telling him what he's doing is wrong. Statements like "I won't let it get too far" and "You have a choice" support that.
So, what happens when that nagging voice becomes your absolutely livid brother yelling at you? And tossing lamps across the room? Treating you like that freak you don't want to be? Sam withdraws, but Dean's constant belittling pushes him into a long overdue outburst. He comes clean with Dean. "I've got demon blood in me Dean! This disease pumping through my veins and I can't ever rip it out and scrub it clean. I'm a whole new level of freak! And I'm just trying to take this curse and make something good out of it, because I have to."
Dean settles down and agrees to try Sam's way, probably because he knows when he gets an outburst like that from Sam, he means it. Sam so wants Jack to overcome his natural tendency to change into something non-human. Just with previous episodes like "Heart," saving the monster of the week means there's hope for him. Just like with "Heart" though, it ends badly and Sam's hope is crushed. He can't share his burden with Dean though, for Dean would never understand. Only someone with a monster inside would. Like the monster he just killed.
The ending scene shows a departure for Sam from the past. Sam has let Dean always call the shots and his big brother's approval meant more to him than anything. Here, he decides to stop using his abilities for his reasons. "Don't thank me. I'm not doing this for you. Or for the angels. This is my choice." That's something he's only mildly proclaimed before this, like in "Time Is On My Side." He's clearly learned to get on without Dean, while Dean wants to go back to the way things were. 
This is also the early sign of an issue that gradually builds over the season. Sam desperately wishes Dean would trust him and let him follow his own path. When Dean doesn't give him that show of faith, Sam withdraws and becomes closer to Ruby, who gives him that desperate desire for approval. No wonder she's able to manipulate Sam, she gives him the one thing he never got from anyone else in his life. Acceptance for what he is.
It's The Great Pumpkin Sam Winchester
This episode broke my heart for poor Sam. Despite all the horrors in his life, he still had a shred of faith. One has to wonder if that shred was what kept him going all this time. His first encounter with angels, especially the brutal Uriel, all but decimated that remaining shred. Also, the reality hit that he couldn't stop using his powers if he needed them to save himself, Dean, and the world. He goes against Dean's and the angels' wishes because there is a bigger picture involved. The sad truth now is there's no going back.

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This episode knocked him down enough where from this point forward, he became prone to doing exactly what he didn't want to do for the sake of the greater good. He couldn't rely anyone or anything anymore, even Dean. He could only follow his path based on his instincts and his good intentions.
Wishful Thinking
I bring up this one for only that one scene at the wishing well. When presented the opportunity to wish the life he always wanted, Sam admits "I'm not that guy anymore." His deepest desire is one of single focus, "Lilith's head on a plate, bloody." That obssessive mindset wreaks of John Winchester, and accents for us the very wrong path Sam is headed.


# Lisa 2009-08-13 12:32
I for one loved the progression of Sam's character during season 4 so thank you very much for this very insightful article.
# Cathy 2009-08-13 13:01
I agree, extremely insightful. My heart was broken at the end of When The Levee Breaks, so I was gladdened (look at me, channeling Bobby Singer!) to see Sam expressing remorse. I was dreading that it would be the opposite and that the brother relationship was done for. I'm really looking forward to Dean, in-depth...
# elle2 2009-08-13 15:16

A great read. I love these inn-depth looks at the boys. While it is possible to see elements of this coming as the season progresses it is best to wait until it is all aired and then dive much changes the focus and direction as the pieces slowly but surely fall or slide into place. Sam had a great arc this season and all along throughout the series. Season 5 is going to be fab...all the other have been so I have no doubts.

Great job.
# Ash 2009-08-13 17:54
Among all the lovely articles on your site (and there are many), your character metas are still the most awesome! You basically put everything I *think* into words... and so well too!
# trina 2009-08-14 14:19
While I find Dean to be a very heroic character, I think Sam is one of the more tragic characters that I can remember seeing on TV. Just watching an early season one episode and hearing him talk about his desire to have a normal life kills me. Not only is that not possible now, it never was for him. His fate was written 10 years before he was born.

Also, I loved when Chuck brought up that the demon blood makes him feel more in control. Sam has control issues. Other people's decisions keep making his life a living hell. Of course, now his own decisions have released hell on earth, so what now?
# elle2 2009-08-14 15:20
Trina, I only hope neither brother is a 'true tragic hero' as someone once reminded me that tragic heroes die in the end -- gasp, no!!!!!!

I remember Kripke once referring to Dean as a tragic hero, this on the commentary for WIAWSNB when Dean makes the decision to 'go back' and undo the spell the Djihn had on him. I cringed then at the fear of Dean dying...I think I can let that fear go though for both brothers, at least since Kripke says he's open to another season depending on how well this one fares.

Still, both boys are heroes but you are quite correct, Sam has been forced from the very beginning into this position and that makes him not only very heroic as he struggles to overcome but also deeply sympathetic, despite Season 4 decisions, he's still extremely sympathetic to me.

# Brian 2009-08-15 06:51
I still think we were gypped out of what could have been a really awesome storyline if only they had taken the time to tell it, instead of pushing 90% of it behind a curtain. We only "finally got to know what happens in Sam's mind" in the second to last episode of the season.
# Brian 2009-08-18 01:37
Another view:
Manzanita Crow
# Manzanita Crow 2013-07-11 08:40
I know I'm horribly late to the party since I only started watching SPN this spring. But maybe that means the whole story is fresh in my mind.

I think there is a very important line that hasn't been mentioned. In Criss Angel Jay says "Charlie was like my brother. And now he's dead... because I did 'the right thing.'" I believe that drove Sam towards doing 'the wrong thing' and drinking demon blood again.

Why? Because doing 'the right thing' in the last three seasons resulted in both John and Dean dead and in Hell:
- Sam didn't kill his possessed Dad at the end of Season 1 (I'd say that was the right thing) but it resulted in John dying anyway and going to hell.
- Sam didn't kill Jake at the end of Season 2 (again the right thing) and gets killed. With the result that Dean makes a deal to go to Hell.
- In Season 3 Sam's starting to waver morally, but eventually does 'the right thing' and doesn't listen to Ruby. The result? Dean goes to Hell and Sam goes completely nuts.

Early in Season 4 Sam stops drinking the demon blood because he knows it's wrong. He tries to stop using his psychic powers too, but has to use them on Samhain to save Dean and other people. The powers simply won't go back in the box now.

When his powers aren't powerful enough to stop Alastair at first, and then the demon-killing knife doesn't work, Dean could easily have died. So when Sam hears that line from Jay, it's no wonder he cracks and does 'the wrong thing' by drinking demon blood to increase his powers. He's willing to do anything to save Dean, even go darkside. OK, it's a crazy risk, but Sam's mental health is in tatters already.

I can totally understand why he did what he did. Obviously it was a terrible idea. But it was understandable given his mental state and the Winchester credo of sacrificing yourself for others.

I was pleased when I found this meta cos it goes along the same lines: