We just got back from an academic conference on popular culture, where we heard and shared lots of thinky thoughts on fandom and Supernatural. When talk turned to the last episode, however, thinky thoughts sort of dissolved into squee – and why not? “Trial and Error” was the most emotional episode we’ve seen in a long time.
It’s been a while since SPN took me on a roller coaster ride with enough twists and turns and ups and downs to literally leave me breathless, overwhelmed with emotion. A while since I forgot that the television couldn’t talk back (like the internet) and started yelling “WHAT? OMG Dean, NOOOO!” and “YES! Go Sammy GOOOOO!” I used to keep a box of tissues within grabbing distance when I watched Show – I had to go grab one for this episode. That’s how I know that Andrew Dabb did a kickass job of writing, and that Ackles, Padalecki and company made me forget they were acting.
The episode drew some of its emotional impact from its monster of the week. Hellhounds aren’t just any MOTW. They’re the monsters that killed Dean and dragged him to hell. He’s afraid of them. So we are too. They’re the things that took Sam’s brother away from him, right in front of his helpless and agonized eyes. He hates them. We do too. That the genius FX folks brought the hellhound to life so that we could see it when Dean or Sam could see it made it all the more personal – and terrifying. Talk about having your heart in your throat! (I might have screamed a little. Okay, more than a little.)
The guest actors were top notch and Kevin Parks’ directing debut was flawless and Padalecki and Ackles look hot as hell in glasses. But what really got to me – and this will be a surprise to absolutely no one – were the scenes between the brothers. (The sounds I made during those were probably too high pitched for anything but dogs to hear. Luckily.) The dialogue gave us – and the brothers – insight into who they are now, something fans crave but don’t often get. The Winchesters’ unfortunate propensity to be men of few words when it comes to talking to each other can be frustrating for all of us listening in.
Having a home, and with it the luxury of a little down time, has given both brothers a chance for self-reflection, something neither indulges in too often. For Sam, sharing living space with his brother evokes familiar scenes from his childhood. The Winchesters may not have had a home of their own, but the glimpses we’ve seen of their childhood show us that wherever they were, Dean took care of Sam. Being in the bunker gives Dean an opportunity to return to a caretaking role, something that’s core to his identity. He cooks for Sam, and Sam appreciates the gesture – and the burgers. There’s a fondness there between the brothers that we haven’t seen overtly expressed recently, and a boyish side of Sam that we only glimpse occasionally as he runs back to grab his burger and stuff it in his mouth.
The solidarity and stability of a physical home has a psychological impact on both Dean and Sam. We all need that sense of security that a ‘safe space’ provides, but the Winchesters have rarely had it – their home had four wheels and never stayed in one place too long. The safety of the bunker, both physical and psychological, has let Dean and Sam be more open with each other, each allowing a measure of vulnerability. Sam feels less like he has to prove something, more secure with his own abilities and especially his intellectual prowess. Less like a freak, more like a strong, smart, capable man. He can comfortably indulge (and reap the benefits) when Dean wants to ‘big brother’ him.
Dean too is more vulnerable here than he’s let himself be before. We’ve seen him drop his overly macho posturing (in his LARPing glory and in his interactions with Aaron when he thought he was having ‘a gay thing’) in recent episodes, and in Trial and Error he’s able to indulge his caretaking side, even admit to Sam outright that he’s “nesting”. He decorates his room, makes his bed, displays his favorite possessions. He puts out a photo of himself as a young boy with his mother. (We won’t talk about how many tissues that necessitated.) The photo anchors the space as his own, something Dean hasn’t had since the time that photo was taken. Something he’s never been able to let himself want or feel he deserved. His joy over having a memory foam mattress isn’t a coincidence – “it remembers me” he confides to Sam with a grin. Unlike the string of motels he’s lived in most of his life, this place is theirs. It remembers them. It’s a place to come back to, waiting and remembering.
A more defended Dean would have denied wanting such a thing and scoffed at that sort of vulnerability, although Ackles has always let us know that underneath Dean’s tough guy exterior, the vulnerability was always there. Now that the bunker and its legacy have brought a bit of security to their lives, Dean is able to let some of that side of his character show.
And Sam is so comfortable he’s able to pull a stereotypical little brother trick and ‘accidentally’ mess up his big brother’s spotless new room.
The photo of Dean and Mary is significant to Sam as well. It’s a reminder of the brothers’ shared past, the ties that bind them together, by blood and by all the times they’ve saved each other and made sacrifices for each other. With their loyalty to each other tested by Benny’s alternative ‘blood brother’ tie and Amelia and Sam’s attempt to establish a home, the reminder seems powerful here. Sam’s gaze lingers on the photo, and he too seems anchored by their shared past, re-establishing the bond between them and bringing a fondness to their interactions that was missing for a while.
Fandom has expressed a strong need for Sam to save Dean this season, but Sam has needed it even more, ever since he had to stand by and watch hellhounds tear his brother apart and drag him to hell. This episode is pivotal for Sam, as he doesn’t allow Dean to make another sacrifice, instead using his newly shored up comfort in his own brains and brawn to bring down the hellhound himself and save his brother. His success – and his determination to do so – is healing for both of them. As much as Sam needed to save Dean, Dean needed to be saved – needed to allow himself to be saved. By Sam. Sam needed to see himself not only as the little brother who Dean takes care of – he can enjoy that role sometimes and be comfortable with it – but he can also be the ‘big brother’, the one who takes care of Dean. And he wants to.
Both brothers, by letting go of some of their defenses and allowing themselves to be vulnerable, show more flexibility in their roles with each other. Dean let Sam see just how much having a room of his own meant; Sam was able to remind him of that to pull Dean back in, to convince him to stay alive and stay with Sam. They’re both more fully realized people (and characters) as a result. This episode blurs the false dichotomy of brains versus brawn that was never Dean and Sam. Sam may be a brilliant research geek, but he’s also a badass who can take out a hellhound and save the day, wearing geeky hipster glasses no less. Dean may be a badass with a swagger, willing to walk into a suicide mission if needed, but as Sam rightly points out, he’s also a genius. They both are.
Dean has needed to hear Sam tell him that for a long time, ever since Sam’s demon blood addiction effectively switched their places as far as who was the stronger one, big brother or not. Now when they switch places, it’s because they’re equals, not because Sam needs to one-down Dean in order to be the hero. And not because Dean needs to prove himself the ‘best hunter’. They’re both smart and strong, brains and brawn. And they’re finally both realizing it.
And now I need that box of tissues again, damn it.