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Supernatural - On Guilt and Growth

We got a good helping of guilt and angst dropped on us over the past two episodes. Raising issues is supposed to make you feel better, but somehow things feel heavier now than they did two weeks ago. We had a new lie added on the piles of lies from the Winchesters’ past, but that’s not all. On the one hand we saw Dean, who has been drowning in guilt and depression, possibly gaining some awareness about all of the unnecessary guilt he carries around. But what this episode highlighted for me was just how far still he is from solving his core issues. On the other hand we have Sam, who says Hell acted as a kind of catharsis in washing away his guilt. He seems well pulled together – a little too together considering he was shooting at walls and considering suicide just two episodes ago. So that brings me back to Dean’s comment about waiting for the other shoe to drop and wondering if I was too quick to judge Dean for not trusting Sam’s assurances that everything was OK.

Dean’s story
I’ve finally figured out why I sometimes have problems with relating to Dean. It’s not that I object to the angst or the guilt that he carries around. It’s that he shows feelings of guilt for all of the wrong things. There seems to be layer upon layer of guilt with Dean, and he’s scratching at some surface issues – some of which aren’t even his fault – and not even looking at the bigger issues.
There’s good guilt and there’s bad guilt. Good (or healthy) guilt stems from something the person should feel some remorse about. It forces a person to reexamine their decisions and grow. Bad guilt serves no positive purpose – it stems from things that really aren’t the person’s fault, and just serves to weigh a person down. In this past episode, when Osiris was judging the guilt that lies in Dean’s heart, he pulled up two examples of bad guilt and a third (not confirmed, but I’m assuming it was Amy) that I would categorize as good guilt.
The first two – Jo and Sam – I’m calling bad guilt because the issues raised were not Dean’s fault. Dean was always a good friend to Jo and he couldn’t, and shouldn’t, have stopped for her from hunting. He can’t make other people’s decisions for them, and it’s wrong to suggest that he should try. Sam also chose willingly to come back into the hunting life after Jessica was killed. Dean may have wanted that, but that didn’t stop it from being Sam’s decision. The third – Amy – is something Dean should feel guilty about and should learn from. I’m not talking about whether it was right or wrong to kill her. I’m talking about lying to Sam who has been not only his brother but his best friend through all of the craziness of their lives. In the case of Amy, guilt should forced Dean to take a closer look at his motivations and hopefully give him a better understanding of what leads to his mistakes.
The fact that Dean can’t seem to bring himself to look too closely at his mistakes seems to be because he is so weighed down by the bad guilt that he can’t even face the good guilt. And Dean has made mistakes that need closer examination. Even though I said that Sam getting back hunting wasn’t Dean’s fault, Dean selling his soul to bring Sam back from the dead in season 2 was wrong. Sam’s death was tragic but it was natural. Dean used his knowledge of the supernatural to break the laws that govern the natural order, which led to a chain of events that ended with Sam in Lucifer's cage. Dean knew how John’s decision to sell his soul had affected him, and he chose to do the same to Sam without apology. Dean’s role as torturer in Hell is also something that Dean needs to closely examine. I’m sympathetic as to how Dean got to the place where he was torturing people, but there has to be residual guilt from that experience, and I can’t believe burying it is doing Dean any good.
Where did all of this misplaced guilt start? It obviously ties back somehow to his mother’s death and his upbringing by John. For Dean to really delve into these issues, he’s going to need to have a lot more self-awareness than what we’ve ever seen from him – probably years of psychotherapy – and I have my doubts that the writers will take this that far. In the end we’ll probably get a band-aid – enough to push this issue from the foreground to background – but not enough to make it believable that Dean has really changed 30 years of his patterns of thinking.
Sam’s story
Sam said in this past episode that he’s not feeling the heavy guilt anymore after having paid his dues in Hell. We are seeing Sam start to forgive himself, which is all well and good, except for the fact that guilt was never really Sam’s main problem.
Unlike Dean, Sam didn’t start off in the earlier seasons being overburdened by guilt. Sam seemed to get it early on that John’s problems were John’s and not Sam’s to internalize. The flashback scenes from A Very Supernatural Christmas were very telling. John disappoints the boys by not coming home for Christmas. Dean takes on responsibility for John’s failures by trying to cover for him and telling Sam that John is a hero. Sam sees it differently. He knows John is at fault and he gives the present he planned to give to John to Dean instead.
Unlike Dean, Sam always had some sense of self-esteem and in the earlier seasons believed he was worthy of a happy future. He had faith. He didn’t want to grow old as a hunter. He went to college. He ate salads, which implies he’s taking care of his body for his retirement years. Sam’s journey hasn’t been about misplaced guilt. It’s been about understanding the evil inside him. His need in season two to save everyone wasn’t about making up for some wrong. It was about proving that monsters can choose good over evil, and that Sam could come out on the side of good even though he believed he had a monster inside himself.
Sam’s redemption arc didn’t start until season 5, and it wasn’t misplaced, despite the fact he was tricked. Sam had given into the evil inside himself, which led to Lucifer being released from his cage. Both Winchesters have always had a strong sense of personal responsibility, and Sam needed to fix what he had broken. He did that by getting Lucifer back into his cage, so his debt was paid.
We saw what appeared to be more guilt from Sam in season 6’s Unforgiven, when Sam comes to understand that he did some really bad things when he was soulless. But even then, Sam’s guilt wasn’t misplaced. At the time I was among those who argued it wasn’t Sam’s fault, but Sam’s point of view was that it was him – at least part of him – and Sam might have not been wrong. This wasn’t a case of Sam feeling guilty over someone else’s actions, this was a case of him taking ownership of his own, even if he was impaired at the time. I also think a big part of Sam’s compulsion to find out what he had done when he was soulless stems back to Sam’s need to understand himself, which includes the evil demon blood part of himself. Sam’s journey has been about coming to understand his many sides and reconciling them.
Sam now seems to have accepted his dark “freak” side, so the question is now, what does that mean for Sam? Season 1 Sam was a person who was feeling the effects of the demon blood but didn’t understand why he was angry. Season 2 Sam was beginning to understand that he had a monster inside himself and was doing everything in his power to repress it. Season 3 Sam was overwhelmed by fear of Dean dying and was entertaining the thought of following Ruby’s advice to use the monster side to achieve his goal, which was to save Dean. Season 4 Sam was a man who had given into following the path suggested by Ruby. He believed he could turn that power into good and was committed to seeing it through. Season 5 Sam was a person who fully recognized the evil and was back to repressing it and atoning for his actions. Season 6 Sam was fractured into different pieces. Season 7 Sam is finally back together again and for the first time at peace with his freak/monster side. So I’m guessing that’s where Sam’s story is headed this season. Sam’s guilt arc was ended so quickly because it was never really his story. Sam’s story is now about integrating Winchester and the Lucifer sides of himself in a controlled way.
I love how self-assured Sam looks right now, but I’m a little nervous about the extremely rapid healing curve, the fact that Lucifer is still whispering to Sam but we can’t hear what he’s saying anymore, and that Dean’s gut reaction was that it would turn bad. But I have to trust Sam’s judgment too. Sam’s comment, “I might be a freak, but that's not the same thing as dangerous,” may give us the best hint as to where this is heading.

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