Okay, I'm finally finished. Whew. I think my frakking brain's broke. I have to thank tsuki_no_bara for comments made to my previous meta that brought up issues that dragged me heels first into this one. It was kind of a breach birth, and not without its complications, but I think I've wrapped more-or-less around what I wanted to say, so I'm posting the sucker for discussion. Look forward to everyone's comments.
Sammy’s Choice: Triumph or Failure?
I’m sure there are many valid interpretations for why Sam chooses not to kill Demon!John and how that choice is judged within the context of what happens in last 30 seconds of Devil’s Trap. For myself, however, I find three options hold more weight than the others, and how they are judged in the final wash depends a great deal on how you view Sam and Dean’s relationship overall.
First, let me say I have yet to watch a show I love this much without being able to allow for at least three valid ways to interpret the motivations for any given action by any given character. That’s part of what makes a show good: If it tells you what to think about what you’re seeing, you end up needing a double dose of Excedrin just to deal with the headache of being whacked over the head with Captain Obvious’s Intergalactic "You’re too Stupid to Get it on Your Own, So Let Me Tell You" Frying Pan. And for me, as for many, that pretty much defines "not a good show" at its most basic level.
Obviously, Supernatural is a good show. And coincidentally enough, I have three interpretations for why Sam made the choice he did when faced with the choice to kill, or not to kill, that being the question. Two of those interpretations judge Sam’s choice a failure; and they do so, in large part, because I feel to judge it otherwise creates a jarring dissonance between the overall message of the series itself and what Kripke says with the last 30 seconds of Devil’s Trap … something I take to be neither unintentional nor a cheap ratings trick.
The show as a whole seems to be very consistent in taking the stance that good will defeat evil, even if there is a cost – often a prohibitively high cost – to those who fight the fight. I don’t see the doom and gloom of a "no matter what you do, you’re screwed anyway ’cause it’s, like, evil" perspective, which is what I feel those last 30 seconds communicate if they happen in spite of Sam making the right choice rather than as an indicator that we are supposed to take his choice as a failure. So in considering the way the episode ends, unless I’m willing to concede it was just a cheap ratings trick (which I’m not) or that Kripke suddenly went from a show stance of "heroes who make the right choices will prevail" to one of "heroes who make the right choices will get screwed anyway" (which, again, I’m not), there seems little choice but to view Sam's choice a failure, in that there exists a direct cause-and-effect relationship between that choice and the Impala getting t-boned by a semi.
In following that line of reasoning, I feel it becomes clear that Sam's choice is a failure for one of two reasons.
My first, and favorite, interpretation of the choice itself, the motivations behind it, and the consequences of it is that Sam’s choice is a failure because he indulges in his personal fatal flaw, making it all about the Dean. This is the interpretation I chose to front for my circular character motivation meta, and it is expounded upon in great detail here. It is also the choice I find myself most prone to actually believe, in large part because I think it seems to be what the writers intend for us to take from those last 30 seconds, given that I’m of a mind to believe good writers rarely do anything without intending it to speak to the audience at a deeper level than just driving a plot forward, and they often choose to accomplish this by applying classical literary themes to the structure of their work.
I see it a little bit like an Impressionist painting. Most of the masters of Impressionism had the skills to render the world around them in exacting detail that would rival photography in terms of realism. Their choices, however, were to make bolder statements about the content of the world around them and their response to that content by rendering it in broader strokes of atypical color and less realism-bound techniques.
What they accomplish with these choices is to communicate a deeper understanding of the emotional content of their vision, rather than merely showing their audience a representation of what their eyes have seen. Their audience feels the truth of their work, and this is why it still stands today: Because it uses a less specific and strictly representative emotional language to communicate a vision of perceived reality that is as universally relevant now as it was in their own time. In capturing the richness and diversity of individual experience by freeze-framing it with a language more universal to the reality of Human understanding than anything we can comprehend within the limitations of only one sensory input (sight), these artists are able to communicate more emotional detail by using less visual detail, and by translating their own multi-sensory responses into something that sacrifices visual realism to achieve a more deeply realistic representation of the true content of that moment in time, not just what that moment looked like.
So what the hell does that have to do with Sam and Dean? A lot, actually, especially when speaking to why I find an interpretation predicated on universal literary themes (like fatal flaws) more intensely realistic to the content who these guys are at the core than I do one that adheres to a more strictly realistic analysis of what would drive a non-literary character to act in similar ways.
Cause I mean, come on, admit it: Have you ever met anyone even remotely as charming as Dean? Or as noble as Sam? Or as obsessed as John? Of course you haven’t, because they’re characters, not real people. And in writing characters, writers have the luxury of manipulating their actions and dialog to a communicative end rather than just rolling a camera and hoping what real people do actually lines up with what the writer wants to communicate. Compared to reality, even the most realistically rendered characters are more noble, more self serving, more intelligent, luckier, stupider, braver, more profound, more savage, wittier, more apt to find themselves in a position of having to kill their father to save the world, sexier … the list goes on, quite literally, forever. Because if it didn’t, why the hell would we bother to watch them?
Reality is the stuff of everyday life. Art is what we say about who we are as the soul by the choices we make when we get our whack at playing God by pulling the strings of fictional people who look and act more-or-less like ourselves. And as an audience, the more we recognize the puppets on the stage, the more likely we are to accept what the puppeteer has to say as a truth relevant to who we are. That’s why heroes are always more noble than flawed … because we all want to think that of ourselves, so we are more vulnerable to messages brought by people who would run at danger rather than away from it, thinking we recognize in them, ourselves; when what we really recognize is who we would like to be.
All that being said, back to the notion that Sammy’s choice is a failure because he indulges in his own personal fatal flaw by making it all about Dean. Although I’ve already expounded on this in detail in my previous meta, I'll kind of encapsulate the gist of the concept here by saying that, if Sam’s incapacity to put the needs of anything or anyone (including himself, his father, the world in general …) before the needs of his brother is indeed his fatal flaw, then indulging it must, by definition, lead to tragedy. And because Sam has always been (or at least, seemed to be) the one who doesn't indulge his fatal flaw in that he could put Dean first but isn’t so obsessively driven to do so that it dooms him to lead a tragic life the ilk of the life lived by both his father and brother (neither of whom can resist their respective fatal flaws), it seems logical to conclude that the tragic consequence of his choice at this critical junction is intended to define the choice as a failure of the fatal flaw variety.
An interesting ancillary note to this notion is the implication that, in making a choice based on Dean’s needs rather than the right or wrong of it, Sam has actually failed his brother in a far more dramatic way than it might seem at first glance. The balance between these brothers is clearly delineated: Sam is the intellect; Dean is the emotion. Sam is the merciful compassion; Dean is the avenging warrior. Sam is the protected; Dean is the protector. Sam is the insider; Dean is the outsider. Sam is the domestic one; Dean is the wild child. Sam is the truth; Dean is the lie. Sam is the one who shows; Dean is the one who hides. Sam is the one who obeys; Dean is the one who rebels … except when it comes to their father, in which case the roles reverse in equal ratio to an equal-but-opposite balance in that Sam is the one who rebels; Dean is the one who obeys.
In short: Sam is his father before the Demon, Dean is his father after the Demon. It is why together, they succeed. Because where one fails, the other doesn’t. And visa versa. They balance one another: the yin and the yang.
And herein lies Sam’s greatest failure: Because Dean is the one who can’t make the choice to sacrifice his father to stop the Demon; Sam is the one who can.
There is no part of me willing to believe that, for any reason up to and including the end of the world, Sam would even consider killing Dean to kill the Demon. Sam is, on the other hand, exactly the right one to be charged with killing John to that end. He is, in fact, the only one to be charged with the eventuality of that task.
Because Dean can’t do it. It is something that is beyond his capacity to accomplish. And while I tend to believe John could kill either of his boys and self-justify it as killing one to save the other (even though I still believe it would actually be putting the need to destroy the Demon above all else), he can't really be expected to overcome the Demon's influence on himself to self immolate without it coming off as the "yeah, right!" kind of schtick that would destroy the credibility of the Demon as the indomitable foe it has, to this point in time, been played to be.
This leaves only Sam to do what has to be done. It leaves him to sacrifice his father to accomplish what his father needs. And because he’s suffered the same loss his father has; he, unlike Dean, is uniquely qualified to wreak their collective vengeance. Sam is the dagger to John’s sacrificial lamb, spilling the blood required to wash the evil clean.
And I think that’s the point: Sam's must choose to make this sacrifice of his own volition. It is the only right choice available: anything else is failure. Making this choice correctly is, in a very real sense, Sam’s destiny. A destiny his father begs him to fulfill even as Dean begs him not to. But when Sam fails to make the sacrifice required of him to fulfill his destiny, to avenge his mother’s murder in the name of his father, to avenge his fiancé’s murder in the name of himself, to protect Dean and the rest of the world from the evil this Demon is, it can only be judged a catastrophic failure by every yardstick of measure.
And beyond that, it is the ultimate betrayal to Dean to betray the balance between them upon which everything, including Dean, depends. They are what the other needs. They do what the other cannot. But in this case, Sam fails in being what Dean really needs, as compared to what Dean thinks he needs, what Dean desperately wants to need. Sam’s role is to do what Dean cannot. To be what Dean cannot. To balance Dean, whether Dean wants that balance or not.
And in that, he fails.
And in failing, he fails not only the rest of the world, but Dean as well. By making it all about the Dean, he fails the Dean. Which is the ultimate irony; and, IMO, a classic literary statement about how it is in trying to be what we are not that we fail ourselves.
This dynamic also plays very strongly into what I consider the second viable interpretation of Sam’s choice. Keeping the above ancillary dynamic in mind, even if it isn’t actually all about the Dean, even if Sam is acting for his own benefit rather than for any other, his choice is still a failure. Why? Because it is still the wrong choice … something I continue to contend is the message conveyed by the consequences of that choice.
So in direct conflict with the idea that Sam fails by putting Dean’s needs first, I can also accommodate the interpretation that Sam’s failure is in putting his own needs first. His need not to fail Dean when Dean so desperately needs him. His need not to kill his father. His need not to be the hand of destruction to every bond of love that exists in his family.
Because I have no doubt that, if Sam had killed John, Dean would never have forgiven him. It would have broken the relationship between them, destroyed their bond in a way that could never be repaired. Even if Dean could eventually accept it, he would never be able to forgive it, never be able to forgive Sam.
In killing John, Sam would have sacrificed what must be sacrificed to destroy the Demon: Family. His family. The love of his father and his brother sacrificed: one by murder, one by betrayal. This is the price of victory: a price Sammy couldn’t, or wouldn’t, pay. And in my mind, that price was not his father’s life as much as it was his brother’s faith. His brother’s trust. His brother’s love.
Which, of course, brings even this interpretation back around to the full circle that, for Sammy, it’s all about the Dean, even when he’s putting his own needs first. So a failure either way, all about Dean either way, but one interpretation putting Dean’s needs first to reap the tragic consequences of failure sewn, and the other interpretation putting Sam’s needs first to reap the tragic consequences of failure sewn.
What can I say? The concept of fatal flaws is one I can’t avoid even when I’m trying.
There is, however, a third interpretation of Sam’s choice I see as viable, even though it isn’t one that appeals to me, nor one I consider particularly interesting in terms of what it says about the characters or their motivations. While it does allow Sam’s choice to be viewed as a success rather than a failure, that’s really the only thing it brings to the party, and even that’s a little warm and a lot flat. Predicating itself on the notion that Sam’s choice is a personal evolution from an overwhelming need for vengeance to putting family first – and thus, arguably, a success – my third interpretation is simply this: Shit happens.
Like many suggest, I can see where Sam succeeds in failing to become what his dad is by making this choice. Certainly, he has been running down Must-Be-Daddy road at full speed since Jess’s murder, a self-professed need for vengeance driving many of his choices (especially in earlier days) since joining Dean in the family biz.
But where John seems to have spiraled out of control into a dark world all his own very quickly, and where he seems to have only fallen deeper into that hole as the years wore by; Sam has already shown a number of signs (at least to my mind) that his thirst for vengeance is more a coping mechanism than the kind of dark obsession that drives his father. A great deal of that is because of Dean; but much of it is simply because John and Sam’s experiences, while seemingly similar on the surface, are actually very different.
Unlike John, Sam is not alone in his grief nor his experience. Unlike John, Sam hasn’t been stripped of his every belief and thrown from a world of light into a here-to-for unknown world of horror and darkness. Unlike John, Sam is not unprepared for what befalls him as much as unprepared for the time at which it befalls him. Unlike John, Sam doesn’t have to figure out what happened on his own, doesn’t have to find a new way to view the world that matches events he had never before considered possible. Unlike John, Sam doesn’t have the added pressure of a traumatized five-year-old and a babe in arms to protect and raise in this new world of horror populated by evil and demons and lacking every rule by which he has here-to-fore defined reality. And unlike John, Sam does has Dean.
There are so many differences between what John experienced and what Sam experiences, as well as between their relative psychological preparedness for those experiences, that I find it difficult to mount any reasonable expectation that Sam was ever in any real danger of walking his father’s path into the darkest heart of obsessive vengeance. That being said, however, I can see where Sam did run the risk of turning down a much darker road than the one he walked prior to Jess’s murder – particularly before Dean’s nudge-nudge manipulations to the end result of pushing him into the arms of emotional rehabilitation in Provenance – and where that risk is all but eliminated by his choice to put family before his need to seek vengeance.
So in that respect, I can see an element of success to his choice: an evolution of sorts, a growing from a state of damage to a state of impending, if not imminent, wellness. And if that judgement of success is made, I can see those last 30 seconds of Devil’s Trap being viewed less as a cause-and-effect retribution for the failure of a choice made than as a "shit happens" kind of statement the ilk of which goes something like even though you do the right thing, bad things still happen to good people. Not has to happen, mind you; but sometimes does.
And perhaps that’s where my dissatisfaction with this last interpretation truly lies. Not in that it judges Sam’s choice a success rather than a failure, but rather in that it seems to make a more comprehensive statement about the universe of Supernatural in general. A statement that, even in a world where every event is plotted beforehand and every response and motivation is written by those with the power to play God with puppets and stages and the opportunity to speak as art rather than reality, in universal truths capable of capturing the true content of an individual or a moment in time rather than just taking a photograph of what we can see with a little light and 20/20 vision, the writers still choose to say, "Shit happens."
Well, duh. I already knew that. I’d like to think there’s something more here. Something more profound. Something deeper. Something that at least strives to speak to who we are in our souls rather than who the world sometimes forces us to be.
So I choose to think it’s there. Maybe it isn’t, but I’m sticking with the idea that it is. Because that’s what Supernatural does to me: It speaks. And what it says, I love hearing, even when the language it uses included consonants that strike the ear like the tortured shrieks of metal on metal as the Impala dies a horrible death and vowels that fall from battered lips like blood dripping from the motionless bodies of characters we love while we wait to find out if they live or die.
Cause that’s art. And be it Impressionism or Supernatural, art beats reality, hands down, every time.