The Enigma and Cruelty of Sam Winchester’s Powers

Part One

‘Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest feat is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us’
Nelson Mandela
Kind readers, before I begin, allow me to warn you – this is going to be long. I’m covering almost five seasons here, so get yourself comfortable, grab a demon blood cocktail and lean back…
Ever since Sam became aware of certain special abilities those grew to be a constant source of confusion, fear and pain to him. And to those closest to him.  How did Sam’s powers develop, how did they progress, what do they mean?
Out of the blue, without any warning, his abilities started. He had just turned twenty-two, some time before Dean showed up to drag him on a road trip in search for their father. Prior to his brother’s arrival, Sam had noticed changes about him, mostly weird dreams, particularly of his beloved Jessica dying. I don’t believe it was a coincidence of John going on his hunting trip to find YellowEyes and the surfacing of psychic abilities. John, after all, had put together demonic omens of various kinds, showing up about the same time, and decided to follow them. It might well be that the emerging of Sam’s special skills (and those of the other psychic kids) was such an omen - something was starting.
There had to be some kind of catalyst (we haven’t learned about that as of yet) to set the wheels of the devil’s train in motion, since, as we know now, all is connected – Lucifer sending Azazel on a mission to find him a special child, which made him, devout demon that he was, visit several nurseries and do his demon blood feeding, in order to sow the seeds for a infernal division of special forces. The plan might have been to form the devil’s Totenkopf-brigade whose members were to cancel each other out to leave the one perfect survivor, the one to eventually bring about the rising of Lucifer.
Sam. Lucifer’s intended vessel.
From his childhood days Sam had always felt to be different from other kids, different from his brother, and not only in terms of demeanour, preferences or goals, but in a way he was not able to explain or even define. Common sense would make him attribute that strange sensation to his life as the son of a hunter, incessantly remaining stationed on a battlefield of the paranormal. He did not like that existence. He flew from it as soon as he found a way. But – what was a part of his, he took with him.
‘Even in Stanford you knew. You knew there was something dark inside of you. Deep down maybe, but you knew. Baby, that’s what got me killed.’ Illusion-Jessica told him in “Free To Be You And Me.” Had she shoved a knife into his chest, it would hardly have made any difference. Sam knew she was right. He had first noticed strange changes within him, increasing nightmares about Jessica’s gruesome death… but he had not told her. ‘… I wanted to be normal.’ Sam replied in the same episode. He had not believed those dreams meant anything and as she was pinned, burning, to that ceiling, he learned the truth the hardest possible way.
He did what most people would do – try to deny those facts, as they were too horrible. He stuffed them into some part of his brain, did not talk about it, not even to his brother, well, not right away. He did not tell him about the vision of Jessica he saw once as they were driving by, and he did not elaborate at first on the nightmares that would not leave him.
In BloodyMary Sam’s abilities were hinted at for the first time (though we had already been made aware of his nightmares in Wendigo, as he dreamed of visiting Jessica’s grave, with a horrific Carrie-like shock). We, the audience, would empathize with and feel for Sam because of his – obviously – terrible nightmares, interpreting those as signs of the trauma of losing the woman he intended to marry. Anyone who ever lost someone so dear might have experienced similar disturbances of sleep. For Sam those came with a whole package of guilt and remorse and agony.
Even more so, as he believed to be responsible for Jessica’s death – and he offered himself to act as bait for Bloody Mary because of that dark secret he told Dean later about. As hurt as Sam was at that point (and – if we follow his journey closely – he has remained a deeply wounded man, for more than one reason), some part of his soul probably would not have minded to die at Mary’s hand.
‘That boy, he has such powerful abilities.’ (Missouri Mosley, Home)

The ninth episode of the first season remains one of the most disturbing – and revealing in regard to aspects of the early stages of Sam’s powers.   Missouri addressed John with those words, and ever since I had wondered whether her careful assessment of Sam’s capacity might have made Papa Winchester investigate more about his youngest (to leave Dean with the information that he had to watch out for his brother in more than one way).
In Home, Sam told Dean about some of his nightmares coming true. He had not known how to tell Dean earlier, and perhaps he even hoped they would disappear. But with his latest dream’s connection to their Kansas home, he could not avoid it anymore. He had to tell is brother of his ‘shining’, practically forcing Dean to go back to Lawrence. We already knew that Sam was a stubborn guy, and in this episode it became evident how adamant the youngest Winchester actually can be. He managed to get a freaked out Dean to go with him to their childhood home – and learned along the way of Dean’s first saving of Sam by carrying him out of the burning house (a moment that defined Dean’s whole life and sense of responsibility afterwards).
At this point it was clear that there was more to the man’s abilities than nightmares – as Sam was held captive by the poltergeist in the house and pinned to a wall, he sensed who the fiery ghost was before he even saw his mother. Neither Sam nor we, the viewers, had any idea where this was going, but there was no doubt about this being a crucial moment.
The world Sam had tried to establish for himself had been shattered – first by Dean’s insistence of getting Sam to search for dad, then by Jessica’s death and now by the fact that something was utterly different about him – a confirmation of his early suspicions: that he was a freak who only hoped to be normal. He did not know yet the extent of it all, but he, being the smart guy that he is, realized that this was probably bigger than he believed… He seemed to have even stronger abilities than the psychic Missouri:
M: â€˜Sam, I’m sorry.’
S: ‘For what?’
M: ‘You sensed it was here, didn’t you? Even when I couldn’t.’
S: ‘What’s happening to me?’
M: ‘I know I should have all the answers, but I don’t know.’
Which was not exactly reassuring. The experience in Lawrence had freaked both brothers out. Sam, because he felt something was going on and Dean because he could not deal with what might be happening to his little brother. Dean tried to come to terms with the new situation in his usual manner: joking about it.
‘Let me know if you see any dead people, Haley Joel’, he pestered Sam while searching the Roosevelt Asylum for ghosts. Sam, however, lost his sense of humour regarding this subject. Bottom line: he was terrified. He didn’t know what was going on, and he could hardly handle the fact.
There is a phenomenon to be found in dogs – some tend to bite when they get scared. They lunge at the object of their fear. Some people react in the exact same manner. If frightened they become aggressive and angry, and Sam showed that kind of behaviour as well. After all, fear is the fuel aggression needs to build momentum. Nations have been at each others’ throats because of fear, relationships have been tested, and in this case – brothers have been torn apart.
I believe the increase of anger (adding to the anger already being there, addressed to his father) within Sam’s soul began as an echo of the terrible fear he experienced. He was completely in the dark, didn’t know what was going on, and their situation had not yet improved: he had strange abilities surfacing; they were still searching for dad without any clue. Sam had even called Pastor Jim, Jefferson and Caleb, all close friends to the Winchesters who had not heard of John which did not feed his hopes. Sam began to doubt they would ever find dad. He even thought John might be dead.
All that culminated in a tremendous amount of aggression he had not felt in a long time, and he vented it on Dean, enhanced by ghost-Elicott’s mojo. Even after both brothers got out of the asylum, it must have freaked Sam out that he had been able to ‘kill’ his brother – he had actually pulled the trigger of Dean’s pistol, intending to shoot him, albeit under Elicott’s spell. The brothers did not talk about it afterwards, as it is the Winchester way, but I believe that experience did little to lighten the burden on Sam’s shoulders. On the contrary. His guilt and his fear were ever growing (even more as he almost lost Dean soon after, in Faith).
‘Don’t look at me like that.’ (Sam, Nightmare)

After a heavy fight with Dean that resulted in Sam leaving his brother and a tackle with a racist truck, things got bad for Sam – visions galore, in the daytime, with no possibility to stop them – or the terrible headaches that would accompany them. He got confronted with the telekinetic Max and the fate that perhaps could have been his … a lot to digest, if you ask me.
Sam finally realized that his dreams in fact were premonitions and that he was somehow connected to the Miller family, as he saw them die.
S: ‘Dean, I’m scared, man. These nightmares were bad enough, now I’m seeing things while I’m awake? And these visions, or whatever, they’re getting more intense. And painful. … What is it about the Millers? Why am I connected to them? Why am I watching them die? Why the hell is his happening to me?’
D: ‘I don’t know, Sam, but we’ll figure it out. We face the unexplainable every single day. This is just another thing.’
S: ‘No. It’s never been us. It’s never been in the family like this. Tell the truth. You tell me this doesn’t freak you out.’
D: ‘This doesn’t freak me out.’
Of course it did. Those were the days Dean began to look at his brother differently. Scared. Confused, not unlike Sam. This was something neither was able to look up in dad’s journal (their most helpful tool) or relate to.
Sam felt that Dean was beginning to be afraid for him, perhaps of him, and he dreaded the way Dean started to look at him – as if he, indeed, was a freak. Later this would get more to the surface, yet Sam already sensed that something was beginning to change in their relationship.
‘Well, I know one thing I have in common with those people – both our families are cursed.’ (Sam, Nightmare) A notion Sam had had for a long time, since he felt responsible for Jessica’s death, perhaps even for the events that lead to dad’s disappearance – it had solidified his conviction that he was cursed, as he later explained to Sarah Blake in Provenance: ‘…when people are around me, they get hurt, I mean, like, physically hurt. … It’s like I’m cursed or something. Like death just follows me around.’
If a person actually believes this he will distance himself from others, maybe not physically, but, as Sam did, slip into a state of not discussing important matters, such as intimate fears, with friends or family. He will do it to protect the others, thereby condemning himself to the kind of loneliness no one can penetrate – unless he pulls down the walls surrounding him.
We’ve seen Sam do that. He knew that his emerging abilities scared the hell out of his brother – and perhaps Sam felt something else: would he lose his brother if Dean was unable to handle the new development? Just as they had begun to be brothers again, that would have been the worst possible scenario – however, Dean made his point clear:
S: ‘I was connecting to Max. I don’t know why, man. I guess because we’re so alike? We both have psychic abilities, we’re both-‘
D: ‘Both what, Sam? Max is a monster (a name Dean would give Sam about three years hence). He’s killed to people and he’s gunning for a third.’
S: ‘…with what he went through… to want revenge on these people, I hate to say it, but it’s not that insane.’
D: ‘It doesn’t justify killing his entire family. He’s no different than anything else we’re hunted. We gotta end him’ (which was almost an early voice of what Dean would say to Sam in season four’s Metamorphosis: ‘If I didn’t know you, I would wanna hunt you. And so would other hunters.’)
Although Sam had no reason yet to believe that his brother could ever turn away, Dean’s radical point of view probably made him wary of how open he might be in regard to what was going on within him.
He needed his brother’s advice, his devotion and support, but he also knew that Dean would have trouble comprehending whatever was going on. This was more than was meant to exist in the Winchesters’ black-and-white world of hunting. Suddenly the lines were not as clearly drawn, and Sam began to feel isolated – there was no one belonging to him who could relate in any way to what he was going through.
It got worse for him, when he learned that Max’s mother had died in the exact same way as Mary. ‘You and I must be connected in some way, Max… For some reason you and I were chosen.’ Chosen for what? Later, Sam moved the cabinet that entrapped him in that closet with his mind – the fear of losing Dean serving as a catalyst here, which was another shock of the unexpected, and his intelligence again made him connect the dots correctly: ‘Why would this demon… kill Mom and Jessica and Max’s mother? What does it want? You think, maybe it was after us? After Max and me? …either telekinesis or premonitions, we both had abilities. Maybe it’s after us, for some reason.’
He guessed the truth long before YellowEyes shoved it in his face in Devil’sTrap : ‘Why’d I killed mommy and pretty little Jess? … Because they got in the way…(of) my plans for you, Sammy, you and all the children like you’ . He knew it was about him. And Max. He did not know at that point how many others there were, but he felt there was more to it.
So did we. By the time the first season ended we knew that some terrible things were afoot. That there was more to Sam’s abilities than first met the eye.   But we had no time to get deeper into it, as the loss of John occupied the brothers’ minds for the first episodes of season two. They were at odds with each other, and they needed to come to terms with being orphaned.
What we did not know, yet – Dean was left heavily burdened after John’s death: he knew that something horrible was coming in regard to Sam. He had to save his brother from that or kill him. Dean knew that his father had feared Sam might ‘go dark side’, though he had not any idea what exactly John could have meant by that.
‘Sam here, he’s my brother. …He’s psychic, kinda like you (Andy). Well, not exactly like you, but see he thinks you’re a murderer and he’s afraid that he’s gonna become one himself because you’re all part of something that’s terrible, and I hope to hell that he’s wrong, but I’m starting to get a little scared that he might be right.’ (Dean, SimonSaid)
After a few weeks of quiet in the psychic department, Sam suddenly got ambushed by another devastating vision which led the brothers to Andy Gallagher, sweet, harmless next-door Obi-Wan. For Sam it must have been a weird kind of déja-vu after their encounter with Max Miller.
They even informed Ellen in the end of Sam’s abilities, though Dean had been reluctant at first:
D: ‘I don’t know if announcing that you’re some supernatural freak with a demon connection is the best thing.’
S: ‘So, I’m a freak now?’
D: ‘You’ve always been a freak.’
Of course, Dean was – indeed – freaked out, and even though he tried to deny and avoid the subject, Sam noticed Dean’s growing trepidation. To see his brother on whose strength and street-wisdom he had relied upon his whole life looking at him differently only enhanced Sam’s own fears about what was happening to him. In fact, in his mind catastrophes were beginning to form, the worst scenarios, as Sam had always been prone to react on a dramatic side.
S:  â€˜Andy Gallagher. He’s the second guy like this we’ve found. Demon came when they were kids, now they’re killing people.’ (the subtext being: when will I begin to kill people?)‘My visions haven’t been wrong, yet.’
D: ‘What’s your point?’
S:  â€˜My point is, I’m one of them. … The demon said he had plans for me and children like me. Maybe this is his plan. Maybe we’re all a bunch of psychic freaks. Maybe we’re all supposed to be-‘
D: ‘What, killers? … So the demon wants you all killing with your mind, is that it? Give me a break. You’re not a murderer Sam. You don’t have it in your bones!’
S: ‘No? Last I checked I kill all kinds of things.’
D: ‘These things were asking for it. There’s a difference.’ (Dean, however, was not convinced of his own words. This was a journey he could hardly protect Sam from. He could not take away those horrible headaches and most certainly he wasn’t capable of really soothing Sam’s growing terror. He felt helpless here. And out of his league. He had not dealt with anything, like Sam said earlier, that affected their family in this manner.)
At least some hope was to be found for Sam, as he discovered that Andy was a nice guy, not a killer by nature, but he, also, had been capable of killing his own brother to save another’s life. “Bottom line: last night he wasted somebody. … (he) was pushed, in his own way. Max Miller was pushed, hell, I was pushed by Jessica’s death – right circumstances, everyone is capable of murder. Everyone. Maybe that’s what the demon’s doing. Pushing us, finding ways to break us.”
The events ensuing did not exactly help improve Sam’s vision of his own possible future, of what he might become. Nothing in his universe was familiar anymore. The lines were blurred and he wasn’t able to define what or who he was. He detected the fear in Dean’s eyes repeatedly, Dean’s changed way of looking at him, Dean’s attempts to avoid even talking about that.
When he finally heard the truth about John’s final message (only a heartbeat after he discovered to be immune to a demonic virus – we know now why: Sam, as Lucifer’s preferred ride, had to be safe from the viral symptoms in order to survive the epidemic the demons planned to unleash in the future, as he was supposed to allow Lucifer to slip into his meat – which only works if the host is alive), his heart sank, as did his optimistic confidence he had managed to keep despite all the guilt and shame that held him captive and which was so much a part of his being we couldn’t conceive of Sam without it.
His own father had believed Sam to be a time bomb. If Dean did not find a way to defuse it (well, save Sam was just a euphemism) he had to kill his own brother. A burden neither Dean nor Sam were comfortable with. Understatement. Neither understood what it meant, but John’s words did a lot of damage to their souls and their relationship. They caused Dean to be careful, more afraid than ever, and Sam began to dread his destiny – of going dark side. Sam realized very soon that fate was at work here. A curse, as he liked to call it. He fought with destiny for the power of free will – early on he did not name it, but in fact this was what he was doing: fighting for hope to be able to change the destiny intended for him.
It burned in him with a devastating heat and they found even more psychic kids (Ava and heard of the other one stabbed in the parking lot in Hunted) who were considered threats and hunted, this time by Gordon Walker, a self-anointed knight of righteousness, who set a trap for Sam which he, clever man that he is, survived.

Sam grew more desperate. It seemed at times that he could hardly concentrate on the job at hand, as his confusion increased. His visions would not leave him alone. In Playthings he again witnessed in a vision the gruesome death of some innocent man (we were not explicitly shown how it happened, but the following scene allows us to assume so).
D: ‘There’s been another one. Some guy hung himself in his room.’
S: ‘Yeah, I saw.’ (Sam appeared exhausted from his vision, probably got drunk to rid himself of the headaches and the disappointment of not having been able to save the man)…
S: ‘The guy who hung himself… I couldn’t save him.’
D: ‘What are you talking about! You couldn’t have done anything.’
S: ‘That’s an excuse, Dean. I should have found a way to save him. I should have saved Ava, too.’
D: ‘Well, you can’t save everyone, even you said that.’
S: ‘No, Dean! (and his despair turned into desperate anger and fear, again) You don’t understand, all right? The more people I save, the more I can change.’
D: ‘Change what?’
S: ‘My destiny, Dean. (…) I need you to watch out for me.’
D: ‘ I always do.’
S: ‘No, no, no. 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. (…) Dean, Dad told you to do it, you have to.’
D: ‘Yeah? Well, Dad’s an ass! He never should’ve said anything. You don’t do that. You don’t lay crap like that on your kids.’ (Amen, brother!)
S: ‘No, he was right to say it.’ (probably the first time Sam supported John’s view, as it mirrored his own) ‘Who knows what I might become? Even now, everyone around me dies. (…) Please, Dean, you’re the only one who can do it. Promise.’
D: ‘Don’t ask that of me.’
S: ‘Dean, please, you have to promise me.’
D: ‘I promise.’
S: ‘Thanks. Thank you.’
He tried to cling to his belief and prayer; he hoped there might be some greater power at work to protect him, as he had been praying every day for a long time. His brush with an ‘angel’ in HousesOfTheHoly reminded him of his need of celestial support:
S: ‘I don’t know, Dean, I just, uh, I wanted to believe to badly. It’s so damned hard to do this, what we do. All alone, you know. And … there’s so much evil out in the world, Dean, I feel like I could drown in it. And when I think about my destiny, when I think about how I could end up…’
D: ‘Yeah, well, don’t worry about that, alright? I’m watching out for you.’
S: ‘I know you are. But you’re just one person, Dean. And I needed to think that there was something else watching, too, you know? Some higher power, some greater good. And that maybe I –‘
D: ‘Maybe what?’
S: ‘Maybe I could be saved.’
Sammy was at his wits’ end. The more he looked into it, the more he began to understand that there was hardly anything to do – they already did all they could to find Yelloweyes and stop whatever plans he had. No one could have fought harder, but he was slipping towards his ‘destiny’ throughout the second season, even more as he became possessed by Meg and almost killed Jo and Dean.
He tried to make amends in his own way – trying to save as many people as possible, and he became especially moved by Madison’s curse in “Heart.”  The attraction he felt to her was not only based on physical appeal, but on the notion that they had something in common: a monster lurking beneath the surface. Sam felt for her, understood her horror upon learning the truth, and connected to her. Trying to save Madison was not merely a selfless act – it was selfish as well: if Sam was able to help her, somewhat cure her of her curse, then maybe he could be saved, too.   We all know, however, how it worked out. He had to shoot the woman he began to fall in love with. Which was another nail to the coffin of his hope – could he actually change his destiny?
It did not look like it… Eventually Sam was abducted along with several other psychic kids to an old and haunted town, to be a part of an early version of Supernatural’s gladiator match. Panem et circenses. Bread and games. And Azazel indeed played mind games with the ‘kids’, even more: he disclosed the truth to Sam – that he had bled into his mouth upon his sixth month’s birthday, that Sam had something inside of him, ‘this disease pumping through my veins and I can’t ever rip it out or scrub it clean.’ (Sam, Metamorphosis). It had to dawn on Sam that this was bigger than he expected, even more so, as he also learned that Mary had known Azazel.
Still, due to the gentle nature of his he held desperately on to – the part of his that kept him human – he got himself killed (which set a whole new line of the tragedy that is the Winchester story in motion: Dean sold his soul to get his brother back). I am still wondering where Sam’s soul spent the time between his death and his revival. We know he was dead for a few days. Did he encounter some infernal departments? Did he see heaven? What happened to him during that time? 

Continue on with part two here: