We Keep Each Other Human – Supernatural’s ‘Sacrifice’
I will never be able to hear Carry On My Wayward Son as ‘The Road So Far’ comes up on my screen without bursting into tears. That started the Season 8 finale episode off with ALL THE FEELS, and they just kept coming. I felt almost as exhausted as poor Sam looked by the time it was over. And then I had to sleep on it, and most likely process it even in my dreams, and then wake up the next morning and start pondering it all over again. Here’s what I came up with, after all that pondering.
This episode was all about Being Human, which perhaps shouldn’t be a surprise considering it was written by Jeremy Carver.
Crowley tells Dean that it’s his humanity, his typically human prioritizing of emotion, that will keep Crowley winning. Yet it’s Crowley himself who regains his humanity in this episode, long-buried emotions overwhelming him as he struggles with guilt and regret, and tearfully confesses his all-too-human need to be loved. Mark Sheppard broke my heart in that moment, as Crowley’s defenses fall away with his bravado and his accent and he reaches out not to ‘Moose’, but Sam. Crowley asks Sam how he could possibly begin to atone for all he’s done. Sam’s simple answer: “How about we start with this?” When Crowley bares his neck willingly for the syringe, the power of that simple gesture gave me goosebumps.
Castiel’s story is about humanity too. He’s been willing to go along with Metatron’s inhuman tactics, killing the Nephilim, threatening to do the same to Cupid until Dean reminds him to “talk first, stab later,” and brushing off Kevin’s very human grief and exhaustion none too gently. And yet, by the end of the episode, Cas too is human, confused and wandering alone, needing to find his place in a world that’s never been his.
And for Sam and Dean, their very human vulnerabilities – their very human emotions – are what drive the story and culminate in an unexpected ending.
This season, it’s been said more than once, was all about perception. We saw the way perception can be twisted by strong emotion: guilt, shame, regret, anger. Dean’s conviction that he let Cas down by leaving him behind in Purgatory, a perception skewed by the guilt that Dean’s carried on his shoulders since childhood. Sam’s conviction that Benny was a monster who needed to be killed, a perception skewed by his sense of inadequacy and the pain of believing Dean trusted a vampire over his brother. Over the course of the season, we saw these perceptions challenged and eventually corrected.
There were times when I was frustrated by the theme, wanting the things I didn’t like very much about the season to be what was skewed by perception – the entire Amelia storyline, Sam not looking for Dean. I wanted those to be intentional misperceptions, not gaps in the plotline or mistakes in characterization or just plain bad writing. I clung to my conviction that surely those would turn out to be what everyone meant by inaccurate perceptions. But in the end, those factual things weren’t what was twisted – it was something much more important. What was twisted were Sam and Dean’s perceptions. Of each other.
I like it when Supernatural surprises me. I know how much Dean loves Sam, and how much Sam loves Dean. I know how important they are to each other. I just didn’t expect them to prove it. The pivotal scene in this episode was, for me, so powerful that I can’t even make light of it and call it the bromance scene to end all bromance scenes. It was, to me, so much more.
Dean bursts into the church, coaxing his brother to stop. “You finish this trial, you’re dead Sam.”
And Sam, exhausted and depleted and half dead, but absolutely determined to finish the job and prove that he can, looks at his big brother and just says, “So?”
You can see Dean’s heart breaking at that moment, and mine along with it. Sam’s insecurities have always been a part of him, leading him to take desperate steps to prove himself which often backfired spectacularly. But he’s also the man who has clung to optimism, who tried only a short time ago to convince Dean that they both could survive and carve out a life after this was all over. To hear Sam view his own survival as so irrelevant is shocking.
Sam gives the usual reason. Other people will die if he doesn’t. It’s something we’ve heard before on Supernatural – Sam sacrificed himself to put Lucifer in the pit and save the world, and Dean let him. But this time, Show surprises me. Dean looks at his little brother, scarred and damaged and so goddamn brave, and doesn’t want him to die. He’s been listening to Sam this whole time, perhaps absorbing some of that hope that they can both survive.
“We have enough knowledge on our side to turn the tide here. But I can’t do it without you.”
And finally, his defenses worn away to nothing, Sam breaks. For a Winchester, that means saying the things that Winchesters never say to each other – but desperately need to hear.
“You can barely do it with me. I mean, you think I screw up everything I try. You think I need a chaperone, remember? You want to know what I confessed in there? What my greatest sin was? It was how many times I let you down. I can’t do that again. What happens when you’ve decided I can’t be trusted again? I mean, who are you gonna turn to next time instead of me? Another angel, another — another vampire? Do you have any idea what it feels like to watch your brother…”
All his life, Sam has been looking up to Dean. Following him around, wanting to be like him. Imagine being the little brother, with a father like John and a brother like Dean. Being the one left behind to do your math homework while they’re out there saving people, hunting things. Knowing your big brother sacrificed his life and went to hell for you, and that you couldn’t – no matter how hard you tried – get him back? Watching him kill Dick Roman and then losing him all over again. How do you ever feel adequate after that? Sam’s convinced that Dean is keeping score, and that Sam’s failing him, again and again.
The way Sam’s voice cracks when he says, “You think I screw up everything I try” was heartbreaking. So much emotion, and Jared made me feel every ounce of it. Sam still wants to make Dean proud. His insecurity might be irrational, but if you feel inadequate, every time someone insists on “helping” you, all you can hear is that you need it. Sam, in this confession of his true feelings, is imperfect and illogical and emotional – and quintessentially human.
Dean has never realized how much impact his words have on Sam. More than once, I’ve cringed at some of the hurtful things the brothers have said to each other. Nobody forgets words like that, not from someone they love. The flip side of the ferocious, all-consuming way that Dean loves is that it puts him in a vulnerable place – he can be devastated by those few people who he loves and needs. Cas is on that list. Sam’s at the top of it. So when Sam lets him down, Dean doesn’t let that hurt and anger go easily. He holds onto it, and then it comes out in equally cruel words, cutting at Sam in retaliation.
It’s no coincidence that the list of sins that Dean suggests for Sam’s confession are mostly the ones that are personal – to Dean. Sam’s choice of Ruby over him, Sam’s deception about not having a soul, Sam insisting on killing Lilith instead of listening to his brother. And the most recent wound, still raw for Dean (as well as for a good portion of fandom) – Sam not looking for Dean in Purgatory. It’s petty and irrational and emotional for Dean to hang onto his anger – but it’s equally human.
It’s only at that moment, when Dean hears Sam’s truth, that he can let go of his own defenses and let Sam hear his truth as well.
“Hold on, hold on! You seriously think that? Because none of it – NONE OF IT — is true. Listen, man, I know we’ve had our disagreements, okay? Hell, I know I’ve said some junk that set you back on your heels. But, Sammy…come on. I killed Benny to save you. I’m willing to let this bastard and all the sons of bitches that killed Mom walk because of you. Don’t you dare think that there is anything, past or present, that I would put in front of you! It has never been like that, ever! I need you to see that. I’m begging you.”
And Sam does. Maybe for the first time, Sam really sees his importance to his brother. And Dean sees the same.
“Let it go, okay? Let it go, brother.”
We’ve seen the Winchesters sacrifice themselves for the ‘needs of the many’ repeatedly. Each time, that sacrifice has taken a horrible toll on the brother left behind. This time, Dean did the human thing – he begged Sam not to go. And Sam did the human thing too – he was fully prepared to die in order to close the gates of hell. But he wasn’t prepared to once again destroy his brother.
I said in a review a while ago, that I was invested so much more in Supernatural because the trials were not just about saving the world – they were personal. Both Sam and Dean needed to come to terms with who they’ve been, what they’ve done, and what they are to each other. The finale brought that full circle. The ending was intimate, powerful – and most of all, personal. The words they said to each other were the ones each needed to hear, the conversation that brought closure to so many years of mistrust and disappointment and misunderstanding and yes, misperception. Finally Dean knows how much Sam needs his approval and faith, as much as his love. Finally Sam knows that Dean believes in him, and how desperately Dean needs him. Perception versus reality: the disconnect between the two is finally erased in that moment. And so is the disconnect between the brothers, dissolved in a desperate hug, Sam’s hand fisted in the back of his brother’s jacket, reflected in the joyous little smile on Dean’s face as he bandages Sam’s hand.
That is a scene written by the Jeremy Carver who brought me to tears with A Very Supernatural Christmas. Lines of dialogue over eight seasons seem to converge at that moment.
“They will always choose each other.”
“We keep each other human.”
And that is exactly what they did.
That scene wouldn’t have worked without the amazing acting of both Padalecki and Ackles, or the chemistry they’ve had together since day one, which is – incredibly – still there, stronger than ever. Jared knocked it out of the park, Sam’s agony – both physical and emotional – so viscerally portrayed that it was literally painful to watch. Jensen matched him moment for moment, Dean’s reactions to Sam’s pain the very definition of empathy.
There were other high points too. Mark Sheppard made me cry over Crowley, something I never thought I’d do. Not to mention Kim Rhodes’ beloved Jody Mills, Amanda Tapping’s never black and white and maybe seeing the light too late Naomi, and totally badass Abbadon, at least two of which survived! Cupid matching up Dwight and the guy constantly warming his bar stool to some unexpectedly retro music (and Dean’s that-was-unexpected expression). Bobby’s junkyard overgrown with weeds. *sobs* Cinematography and special effects and sets that never cease to amaze me. And there were some WTF moments too, like Dean calmly drinking beer with Cas in a bar while Sam is left alone to do the Crowley cure. But honestly, there was so much emotion, I can sort of handwave those.
Dean’s reassuring words to Sam as he helped him out of the church were similar to those he said in the two part season two finale – “I’ve got you, little brother. You’re gonna be just fine.” This time, I’m hoping he’s right.
I’m left with lots of questions for Season 9 – what will Cas be like without his grace? Will he remember what Metatron has done? Is Crowley partly cured, or will his rediscovered humanity fall away again? What have the trials done to Sam, and how much better will he get now that he hasn’t completed them? As the episode ended, with the brilliantly FX-ed spectacle of falling angels flaming to the ground as the Winchesters took refuge against the Impala, I’m content to ponder those for a while. It will take me a month just to stop rewatching the finale. Or at least one scene.