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Supernatural - Discussion - The Flattening of Sam Winchester



What makes a character interesting? Sometimes it’s a dark streak. Sometimes it’s a playful side. Sometimes it’s a colorful or mysterious past. Often there’s some degree of relatability. It almost always involves a certain degree of complexity – layers that may seem contradictory but are made to work. The question itself is big enough for its own article, but this article is about Sam Winchester with a critical look at the changes his character has undergone over the seasons.

Sam Winchester has always been a bit of a mystery. Some would argue too much of a mystery. You take an outwardly high-achieving college kid with younger-brother family issues, layer on a weird family business that hunts monsters, a dark history with a mother murdered under mysterious and supernatural circumstances, a tendency to internalize the dark stuff, and then add weird psychic visions that later in the series evolve into a connection to Lucifer, and you have a puzzle. The show has poked at this at least a few times, with Eva in season 2 saying, “Dude, who are you?” after Sam came to her talking about psychic visions and she discovered he knew his way around automatic weapons, and in season 5, when Sam, in response to Lindsey’s questioning about who he is, describes himself as a “riddle wrapped inside an enigma wrapped inside a taco.”

"Dude, who are you?"
The character has had quite a journey. He went from an ivy league existence to living out of a car and credit card fraud. He’s been conflicted over a desire for a normal life and a sense of duty in helping his family fight monsters. We’ve seen character growth, changing from a rebellious college student with intense anger issues toward his father to coming to accept that John just did “the best he could.” Sam died, was brought back by a brother who sold his soul for him, came to start drinking demon blood out of sense of powerless, and then jumped into Satan’s cage in a redemptive arc to make up for his role in releasing the devil and triggering the Apocalypse. And that was just the first half of the series.

The Supernatural Influence

A comment that I often see on Supernatural discussion boards is that Sam’s characterization suffers from having had too many supernatural influences. While I think there may be a small element of truth in that – I could make an argument that Sam’s “running away” and “being angry all of the time” were not organic character traits but rather season 5 inserts to try to draw links to Lucifer – I think the argument that Sam hasn’t had enough time being just “Sam” as an excuse for a lack of consistency in his character is a cop out.

The longest-running supernatural storyline Sam has had is the demon blood. Dormant most of the time, the demon blood has only had an active role in Sam's story in scattered episodes in seasons 1, 2, 4, and 5.  Most of the time (through season 5) it's been a threat in the background - something that has influenced his sense of identity and that has potential to turn Sam into a monster. The story goes that Sam was given demon blood when he was six months old, and that changed him on biological and psychological levels. He grew up feeling different from society and his family, like he was a freak, and he always sensed and feared a darkness inside which he spent his life trying to overcompensate for. An argument I often hear is that it’s important to know who Sam is without the demon blood – but why? 

Supernatural is not a story of Sam and Dean unaffected by the supernatural. The demon blood changed Sam when he was six months old. It influenced his personality during his formative years growing up. It’s a part of who Sam is now, and exploring who Sam would be without that part of himself is about as relevant as exploring who Dean would be if his mother hadn't died and he had never been brought up as a hunter.  It could be an interesting exercise for an episode or two, as it was for Dean in “What Is and What Should Never Be,” but it’s not relevant in understanding who Sam is now because even with the demon blood dormant, it has influenced the way Sam sees himself and the world.

Removing the demon blood as a factor that’s preventing us from seeing the “real” Sam, and instead accepting that the demon blood history is a part of who the real Sam is now, there has actually been very little screen time that we spent watching someone who was not Sam: an episode in season 2 when Sam was possessed by Meg, portions of a couple of season 5 episodes when Sam was possessed by Lucifer, the 11-episode soulless Sam run in season 6, and portions of several episodes in season 9 when we saw Gadreel in Sam’s body. Sam has been Sam in by far the majority of the show - more than enough time for strong characterization to have developed.

So that brings us to the next question – who is Sam?

Who Are You?

Who defines a TV character? The characterization obviously starts with the show’s creator, or a showrunner/episode writer if it’s a minor character introduced later in the series. And the actor portraying the character has a big influence on who the character becomes. But as a show progresses, a lot of people have input into shaping who the character becomes in small or larger ways: follow-up showrunners, episode writers, producers, directors, and even fans, if fan reaction effects the direction of the character. There’s a history with the character that starts to take shape as fans watch how the character responds to his world.  The nature of the character evolves from something that exists within someone’s mind to something that’s out there in the world – almost becoming shared property by the entire show community.

"Dude, who are you?"
In season 8, there was a lot of rumbling in the fandom about “out of character” writing, especially around Sam. I began to notice a lot of statements in online fandom discussions about who Sam was that seemed to contradict each other. I had my own ideas, and thought I was right, but then I would read a comment by someone who had given the matter about as much thought, but had come to different conclusions. I thought about the questions – how a character is defined, and more to the point, who decides if a character is “out of character” – and decided to throw a little statistics at them.

There’s an assumption in statistics that suggests one response can be very wrong, but as the number of people in the survey increase, those wrong answers begin to balance each other out and the margin error decreases. As you get closer and closer to including your entire group, the average results become more and more accurate.  But what would the “right” answer be for a question as subjective as who a TV character is? I decided that seeing as how an 8-year-old character (this was season 8) has a lot of history already, the "right" answer would be the average response if everyone in the community was asked to describe who the character is. I figured that while the writers can affect who the character will evolve into in the future by writing character arcs, the character's past and present is pretty well established and can be interpreted by anyone.

I don’t have the resources to poll literally everyone in the SPN community, so I had to do what I could with what I had. During the mid-season break of season 8, I ran a series of polls – each focused on one of Supernatural’s four main characters at the time: Sam, Dean, Cas, and Bobby.  The polls had a nominating phase in which fans who visited Spoiler TV could submit up to 10 descriptive words or phrases for each of the characters, and the top 20 nominated descriptions for each character were entered into the series of poll where fans could vote for up to three descriptions, creating a ranking of the submitted entries.

Like all online polls, the accuracy would not stand up to rigorous scientific scrutiny, mainly because there are a few big biases that affect online polls: the online community isn’t a representative sampling of the entire community (which includes casual viewers and show staff), websites develop communities that over time tend to slant in certain directions, and people who regularly post online tend to get defensive about their characters and as a result, don't always vote 100 percent truthfully. But despite this, I hoped to at least get a fair sampling of how the SPN community that interacts with SpoilerTV sees these characters. I had hoped for a good-size response from a mix of Sam, Dean and Cas fans, and that the atmosphere would stay friendly and not become defensive. I got my wish – a mix of people came out to participate and everyone for the most part played nice. Also in my favor was that these weren’t the type that people try to “win,” so there was no reason to campaign for a certain outcome. So here is what the results for Sam looked like:



It’s not exactly the list I would have come up with had I written my own, but I thought it was fair and seemed pretty accurate on how the community as a whole sees him. (Note that there are no submissions that made it into the top 20 representing “running” or “angry all of the time” (products of season 5).  Fans, I discovered, had a great way of filtering out the plot-contrivance inserts and focusing on who the actual character has shown to be over the long haul.)

And that brings us to where we are now. How has this list – which appears to be created from character traits more prominent in Sam in the early years of the series – stood up over time?

Although characters can and should undergo some changes over the years triggered by their growth and experiences, there are some core characteristics that should remain consistent. However, at about the second half of season 6, I began to feel like Sam was slowly and subtly being stripped of some of the core traits that make up his identity.  This was partially through omissions – ignoring parts of his history that should have been influencing the present – and partially by dialing back key character traits like his obsessiveness or sharp intelligence. In short, Sam’s complex character was becoming flattened.

This issue isn’t exclusively Sam's. A lot of this show’s history and canon has dropped, or directly contradicted, over the seasons, leaving viewers to feel like those characters in the movies that wake to be told that what they remember as real, never happened. But while this is a bigger issue, for the purposes of this article, I’m focusing on the effect these changes have had on Sam’s characterization.

Seasons 6 – Empty Vessel Sam

Season 6 started off with a radically different Sam Winchester, but there was a reason – at least at first.  He didn’t have a soul. He was sleepless, goal-driven, and without compassion – in some ways like Sam and in other ways very different. It was an interesting twist, but the show never went very deep in exploring who Sam was during this period, beyond a very superficial level. The first half was seen mostly through Dean’s perspective, and what we learned about Sam was from what Sam told Dean – and often soulless Sam lied. What exploration was done seemed to be more about looking at the importance of a soul to a person rather than exploring who Sam was.

It was in the second half of season 6 was when the real Sam should have joined us, and he mostly did. His compassion and empathy were back with a vengeance. We had several small moments in which Sam seemed be very Sam-like. There was a gag in “Mommy Dearest” in which Bobby asks for a computer and Sam hands him a tablet. While the intent behind this joke was probably to show Bobby’s reaction to a tablet, I loved that Sam – his soul out of hell for only a few weeks – had already upgraded to a tablet. The Sam from the early seasons was pretty tech savvy. Note that “geeky” is number 11 on the list.  Also note that I don't believe that we've seen the tablet since.

But in the second half of season 6, there was also a subtle shift in tone. Sam seemed more passive. Instead of coming across as one of two characters driving the action, Sam often seemed to be just along for the ride. Many episodes seemed be driven by Dean and Bobby paired up, or Dean pitted against Cas. While there was a logical reason in the narrative for why Sam might be more passive – Sam had just emerged from Hell and had a wall blocking off part of his memories that he was warned not to scratch – I can’t help thinking the old Sam would have been little bit more compulsive about needing to get at the itch. I'd chalk it up to just his season 6 storyline except that this more passive Sam didn’t change back when Sam’s Hell issues were resolved. It just intensified.

The biggest damage done to Sam’s character in season 6, though, was not in his characterization, but in the flattening of his history. Sam emerged from Hell, and of Sam’s connections to Lucifer, demons, and the biological and psychological effects of the demon blood, seemed to be purged from the show’s memory. There were still mentions of Lucifer torturing Sam in the cage – and in fact it was a big plot point – but the connection between Sam and Lucifer/demons, that had been such a big focus in Sam’s five-season arc, was never even mentioned in all of seasons 6 and 7. It seemed strange no one ever asked Sam what had happened to his psychic/ demon blood powers, especially given Cas’s warning that drinking as much blood as Sam needed to drink to contain Lucifer would change him forever.

What does this have to do with Sam's character?  A show can change plot direction, but a character's history affects how a character reacts to current situations.  Addressing the past and moving on in a different direction is a perfectly acceptable approach, but pretending that something never happened negates part of who the character is.  In the end, it was starting to look like Sam was just another hunter who had been tortured in Hell and not someone who had once been destined to lead a demon army.

Sam, at the end of Season 6


Season 7 – Exposition Man

A lot of the changes I mentioned in my write up of season 6 were continued and strengthened in season 7. Sam continued to play a more passive role in the storylines and had little proactive involvement in the Leviathan arc, or even take a strong stand in the Bobby arc, which was more personal. Sam suffered hallucinations of Lucifer for a handful of episodes, but scenes were disappointingly light in saying anything about who Sam was. Sam’s torture trauma seemed to be treated as something physical (hallucinations and sleep deprivation) rather than something emotional or psychological, and Sam didn't say much about how he "felt" about all that had happened.  Rather, the hallucinations were something that could be managed by a trick that helped him differentiate between what is real and what is in his head. When he knew it was in his head, he seemed unaffected, and as a result the hallucinations could also be completely ignored for long stretches of the season.

The effect of diminishing Sam's Hell storyline had on his characterization was long-term.  Very rarely does anyone anymore reference Sam's history with demons or potential dark side.  Sam's past should influence how he feels about demons in the present (whether that's feeling a connection or abhorrence), but his reactions these days seem to have nothing personal at all implied.

Season 7 also brought a new dumbing down of both Sam and Dean, with the pair needing to go to Frank to instruct them on how to fall off the grid (they hadn’t had experience with this already running from the feds?). Frank, and then later in the season Charlie, replaced Sam as the team's techie geek – with Sam apparently needing Frank to tell him that the Leviathans could trace them by their laptops and gadgets. Charlie has since become their go-to hacker, a role Sam used to play.

Personally, I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, Sam was always portrayed as someone with a little more knowledge than the average computer user, and a decent hacker for easy jobs. Sam went to school in Stanford, which for those who don’t know, is in the Silicon Valley area of California (I tend to think of it as the home base of the Google empire). What that should say about Sam is that he’s attracted to technology.  It also stands to reason that Sam would have left Stanford with a few tricks.

But that’s not the same thing as being a genius hacker. I consider Frank and Charlie as consultants with an expertise beyond that of the Winchesters (who are more generalists).  But what I would expect to see is Sam picking Charlie's brain whenever he sees her – the two tossing ideas around on ways to use technology in hunting.  Instead we tend to see Sam stepping down.  Geeky, by the way, is #11 on the list.

In season 7, Sam became noticeably quieter in expressing what was going on with him.  But while we lost point of view, Sam found a new purpose later in the season, and that was Exposition Man. Especially in the Bucker/Ross-Leming episodes, Sam would have a special role in restating what had been going on with the plot.  He also came in handy for delivering a lot of the set-up questions, such as "what do you think?" that allowed other characters to explain what was going on in the hunt.  In fact, a lot of Sam's dialogue seemed to shift toward questions in the second half of season 7.  Having a character mostly ask questions avoids committing the character to a clear point of view and muddies the viewers' understanding of who the character is and how he thinks. It also makes the character more passive, which directly contradicts a lot traits on this list.

Sam, at the end of season 7


 Season 8 – Who Are You?

Season 8 was when things got really wonky. We started off the season with a Sam who seemed conflicted on seeing his brother again, who apparently didn’t look very hard for Dean after he went missing, and who – instead of trying to rescue Kevin whom he had seen being kidnapped by Crowley – stashed away his phones so that he couldn’t be contacted even if there was news.

The fandom was in a tizzy, coming up with alternative rationales for what had happened, such as the angels put a spell on the brothers, Sam had actually made a deal to get Dean released from Purgatory, Sam had suffered a mental breakdown, or Sam didn’t look because he believed Dean was dead. Some of these had some credibility – there was a mysterious figure watching Sam the identity of whom has yet to be revealed, Sam in flashbacks showed signs of depression and mental instability, and Sam at one point did say he thought Dean was dead. 

But confusing things were other factors. Sam didn't just not look for Dean (assuming this was because he believed Dean was dead), but he didn’t look for Kevin either, and he had no reasons to believe that Kevin was dead. Sam didn’t see Dean die, he saw him disappear, and supernatural disappearances are just another day on the job for the Winchesters. Sam also made a comment that he didn’t know where to look, which seemed at odds with his later statement that he thought Dean was dead. While there are some hints of an emotional breakdown, that wasn’t clearly shown, and why wouldn’t it have been? Why wouldn’t have Sam just come right own and explained what had happened to Dean?

All of this was out of character for Sam on so many levels. Sam always tries to save Dean, and has shown on numerous occasions that he’s willing to sacrifice his own life for Dean’s. When things go very wrong on a personal level, Sam does not run. Sam becomes hyper-focused on fixing the problem. Sam is determined and smart. He wouldn’t quit just because he didn’t have a starting point. He would have kept poking at it until something came to him.

This all left many opinions on what had occurred. One thing I found interesting in reading fan response is how many fans were more likely to believe that Sam had chosen to not look for Dean over the alternative that Sam ran because he didn’t know where to look. Number 1 on the list of Sam attributes is “Smart / Intelligent.” Sam is first and foremost a guy with a plan, and when one isn’t initially obvious, he comes up with something (Resourceful, #18). He’s also seen by fans as stubborn (#8), obsessive (#13), driven (#17), and hopeful (#14), which points to a profile of someone who wouldn’t have given up because he didn’t know where to start looking. He’s heroic (#9) and loyal (#16), so he wouldn’t have abandoned Kevin.

We also started the season with learning that Sam had left hunting and started a relationship with Amelia while Dean was in Purgatory. This decision to have Sam leave hunting to pursue “normal” directly contradicted a major development in Sam’s seasons 1-5 character arc. Sam said several times in later seasons that he no longer wanted to go back to a normal life. He had changed and accepted his role as a hunter. The Amelia arc reset the character’s development back to a pre-season 1 era.

We ended the season with "Sacrifice," an episode liked by many fans because it offered a rare peak into Sam’s emotions and vulnerability, but I questioned the characterization we were shown. The part I questioned that's relevant to this article (continued in the Season 9 premiere) was the suggestion that Sam might be borderline suicidal. It’s reasonable Sam could become suicidal, given all he's been through, but the build up wasn't there. It also seemed to contradict Sam’s hopefulness (which was more consistent with Sam’s nature in the earlier seasons) and was at odds with the speech Sam had given to Dean in "Trial and Error" about wanting to survive the trials and seeing a "light at the end of the tunnel."

This example reflects what had been becoming a regular pattern in the writing for Sam – the authenticity of Sam’s reactions have seemed to become less and less important, and secondary to serving whatever plot contrivance need there is at the moment. Characters can change, in both positive and negative ways, but there needs to some build up – a character arc showing how and why the change occurred. Most everything that Sam did in season 8 could have been explained with proper build up, but there was no time invested in it. As a result, by the end of season 8, fans were a lot less sure of who Sam was than they were going into the season, and this further flattened the character.

Sam, at the end of season 8


Season 9 – Wait, What?

In season 9, Sam lost the ability to express his thoughts coherently. Sam woke up from his coma, unaware that this brother had tricked him into letting an angel possess him to heal him. When he did learn the truth, it was after the possession had gone bad, and the angel used Sam’s body to kill Kevin. While there was still some wonky writing for Sam spilling into this season (for example, Sam’s continued death wish and extreme mood swings from intense anger at Gadreel to referring to him as one of their friends), a lot of Sam’s reactions made some sense and basis for them could be found in the show's history if one bothered to look. For example, Sam’s anger at Dean taking away his voice in his possession made sense when thinking about other Sam's other possessions and demon manipulations – Meg in season 2, Lucifer in season 5, the demon blood). However, Sam – who was once excellent at expressing himself – never clearly laid out the reasons behind his anger, and not all fans remember the history.

From Sam, we got a series of half-finished thoughts:  "Don't go thinkin' that's the problem" (Me: What is?);  "You are certainly willing to do the sacrificing as long as you're not the one being hurt" (Me translating: both Sam and Dean understand that it's easier to be the one dying than the one left behind); "I lied" (Me: When, where?); "I'm saying, you want to work? Let's work. If you want to be brothers..." (Me: No idea).

Brain trauma from the coma? Possibly, but not likely since brain damage is not new to the brothers – it seems to be one of those things the show ignores. The result was extreme confusion and anger in areas of the fandom. Fans defensive of Dean interpreted Sam’s reaction as uncaring and mean. While personally I think most of Sam’s reactions were understandable if you look at the big picture and can translate the garbled messages, I do think that while Sam would have been angry, he also would have softened earlier upon recognizing Dean’s pain, as he did in season 3 when he was angry that Dean had sold his soul for him. Number 2 on the list of Sam’s characteristics is “empathetic / sympathetic,” and I think that trait should have played a bigger role in the writing for Sam in season 9.

Sam, at the end of season 9


So there you have it.  At the end of season 9, we were left with “lonely,” “rational,” and “introverted” from the list. If this is how the writers see Sam, that actually explains a lot about why they can't seem to be able to think of much more to do with Sam these days other than knock him out or have him possessed by another character.

Season 10 – Sambot

Finally, we're at season 10, and we're seeing a much more supportive Sam.  But Sam is still missing something.  In season 5 of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," Spike – a vampire with an obsession with Buffy – has a “Buffybot” built for him as a sex toy. Unlike the real Buffy, who was often cruel and demeaning toward Spike, Buffybot, who admittedly lacked some layers, was always supportive and has a singular purpose – to help Spike. I’m of course exaggerating a little in comparing season 10 Sam to the Buffybot, but it does seem that the once-layered Sam has been reduced down to a singular purpose this season, and that is to be unquestioningly there for Dean.

I want to make clear that I’m not opposed to the brothers supporting each other. Far from it. The episode “Hunted” was one of my favorites from season 2, and parts that I love inlcude the way Sam was unquestioningly there for Dean when he learned Dean was in trouble. Dean was captured by Gordon, and Eva argues that in her vision, she sees Sam die trying to rescue Dean. “Doesn’t matter, it’s my brother,” Sam says without hesitating.

The difference between then and now is that Sam and Dean were both fleshed out characters with other concerns and motivations. Sam was in Indiana against Dean’s wishes because he had to follow his own path. Dean was pursuing Sam against Sam’s wishes because Dean also had his own point of view and priorities. I love it when the brothers come together, but without all of the rest of this (all of the history and traits that make up a layered character), the brother moments feel a bit empty.

I will give Jeremy Carver some credit though in correcting one of the bigger issues of the previous seasons, and that is restoring the brother relationship. The biggest element affecting both Sam and Dean is that they love each other and would do anything for each other. This point didn’t make this list because of the question that was asked, but the brother bond is core to the show, so it’s nice to see a step in the right direction in that regard. The next step is restoring Sam’s history and other relevant character traits that seem to have been lost.

About the Author - Chris684
Chris684
Chris is a New Englander with a background in print and digital media, who currently earns a living by making web and technology products easier to use. She has a weakness for TV characters who are 'dark and twisty' (to quote Meredith Grey) and reviews The Walking Dead, Legends, Halt and Catch Fire, and Dig for SpoilerTV.
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