Saturday, 18 June 2011
Psychotically, irrationally, erotically co-dependent…the obsessive bromance of Supernatural
I am in love. With two guys. Brothers actually.
I fell fast and I fell hard. I'd seen them around a bit and thought they were cute, but didn't give it much thought until a friend introduced me properly.
So I got to know them. Took some time and started at the beginning of their story. It's a tale of a bond so profound that it cannot be touched by death. Of two brothers who turned Heaven and Hell upside down for each other. They have made me laugh and they have broken my heart.
It is the story of Sam and Dean Winchester.
At first glance, Supernatural, now in its sixth season, is a fairly standard concept show. Two brothers, brought up by their father as hunters of the supernatural after their mother is killed by a demon, are separated when the younger, Sam, quits 'the life' for the relative normalcy of college and a steady relationship. But he is dragged back into his old ways by his older brother, Dean, when their father goes missing, and his girlfriend is killed by the same creature and in the same brutal manner as their mother was.
It has gore, big guns, a classic car (a black 1967 Chevrolet Impala AKA The Most Important Object In The Universe) and a classic rock soundtrack. It has been noted that women and minorities do not always fare well in Supernatural, as is often the case within the horror genre, and while this can be a source of frustration for some fans at times, the largely female following has not been deterred primarily, I believe, because in many ways it is actually a very subversive show.
There is a rich tapestry of mythology, Biblical lore, pop culture references, a great deal of humour – including in-jokes, parody and self-referential or 'meta' episodes - and undeniable chemistry between the two leads, Jensen Ackles as Dean and Jared Padalecki as Sam.
But what makes this show so unusual, and so immediately absorbing for its legions of die-hard fans, I think, is the relationship between Sam and Dean. At its heart, Supernatural is an unconventional, modern day 'epic romance'.
Death Is Not The End...
Even those who eschew the concept of the relationship between the brothers being anything more than familial cite their interaction as the main draw of the show. The relationship between the Winchester brothers is absolutely the heart of Supernatural. From the very start of the pilot, the bond between the boys is cemented by that classic fairytale trope – the death of their mother. The moment their father, John Winchester, places baby Sam in four year old Dean's arms, we know that he is destined to be his brother's keeper:
John: Take your brother outside as fast as you can and don't look back!
In the beginning, the set up is that of a traditional Harrowing of Hell type romance: the grieving widower, John Winchester, must endlessly roam the wilderness looking for the creature that stole his wife and took her to the Underworld. Even the family name reflects this. The Greek myth of Orpheus, when transposed to Britain in the 13-14th Century, became the poem Sir Orfeo. And his Kingdom, Thrace, became...Winchester.
But while John is hunting, it is Dean who is left holding the baby, effectively raising his little brother. Years later, when John goes missing, Dean must pluck Sam from his attempt at the safety of an 'apple pie life' at Stanford, and history repeats itself as Jessica Moore, Sam's girlfriend, is killed in a perfect reenactment of Mary Winchester's death. This sets the precedent and we soon realise that all the boys' attempts at domesticity and normative, heterosexual relationships are quickly and often violently thwarted.
Canadian academic Catherine Tosenberger has written extensively about queer theory and slash fiction in relation to Supernatural, arguing that a romantic reading of the relationship between the brothers ('Wincest' as it is called in Supernatural 'fandom') is not in opposition to the themes and content of the show, but is actually canonical, noting that even the show's Executive Producer and current show runner, Sera Gamble, once referred to it as the 'epic love story of Sam and Dean'.
Read Tosenberger's article here.
I would suggest that a more than brotherly frisson between the Winchester boys is apparent from the pilot. The first time we see Sam and Dean interact as adults, it is intensely physical. Dean's very first words to his brother after four years apart are, “Woah, easy tiger!” which has both affectionate and possibly sexual undertones, spoken as he has Sam pinned under him on the floor.
Watch scene here.
Their roughhousing culminates in them standing face to face, breathing heavily, in silhouette – a visual reminiscent of 'first kiss' scenes in countless movies - before Sam's girlfriend interrupts them and they spring apart. Dean then proceeds to disrespectfully eye Jessica's body before trying to dismiss her so he can "borrow her boyfriend" for some "private family business". As well as being an interesting turn of phrase, his exclusion of Jess demonstrates Dean's opinion that he should always take priority with Sam as, we come to see with increasing fanaticism, Sam does with Dean.
It soon becomes clear that while John's mysterious disappearance is of paramount importance, Dean has been itching for an excuse to claim his brother back and have him hunt alongside him:
DEAN:I can’t do this alone.
SAM: Yes, you can.
DEAN:Yeah, well... I don’t want to.
Dean tries to talk Sam out of returning to Stanford while they are on the road together culminating in an argument and another physical encounter (Dean slams Sam up against a bridge). Later when Sam apologises, Dean stops him, stating he doesn't do "chick flick moments", a line now synonymous with Dean's character. It is at this point we get the boys' first "jerk" and "bitch" exchange, names they use to demonstrate affection without losing face, with Sammy being the feminised 'bitch':
Sam's attempt to return to school is aborted when Jess is killed, and the boys take to the road to find John as well as the thing that killed her and their mother.
From this point onwards, the narrative centers on the brothers and the rebuilding of their relationship after a long separation. Over the subsequent episodes and five year story arc, the focus shifts away from the idea of the heroes' quest to avenge their mother and Sam's lover, and becomes about the lengths the boys will go to in order to keep each other alive and even to bring each other back from the Underworld.
The first time Dean's life is in the balance comes in the season 1 episode, Faith, when his heart is damaged by a massive electric shock during a routine hunt. In the hospital, we get a first glimpse of the dogged determination the brothers will display when it comes to saving one another from here on in:
DEAN: What options? Yeah, burial or cremation. And I know it’s not easy. But I’m gonna die. And you can’t stop it.
SAM: Watch me.
Sam takes Dean to 'faith healer' but it transpires that his healing power is reliant on controlling a reaper, deflecting death from the intended victim at the expense of another. Dean is saved but only due to the unwitting sacrifice of a healthy boy.
At the end of season 1, Dean voices his concern about the lengths the Winchester men will go to for each other, even if it means innocent people will be sacrificed:
DEAN: Killing that guy, killing Meg - I didn't hesitate, I didn't even flinch. For you or Dad, the things I'm willing to do or kill, it scares me sometimes.
He also reinforces the Harrowing of Hell imagery when telling the demon he thinks has killed his father how he'll exact his revenge:
DEAN: For your sake, I hope you're lying. 'Cause if it's true, I swear to God I will march into hell myself and I will slaughter each and every one of you evil sons of bitches, so help me God!
The opening of season 2 sees Dean's life in jeopardy again when a car crash orchestrated by the Yellow-Eyed Demon which killed Mary Winchester and Jessica, leaves him in a coma. In In My Time Of Dying, an episode with a plot reminiscent of the romantic tear-jerker, Ghost (Dean himself calls attention to the similarity with the line "I full on Swayze-d that mother"), Sam feels his brother's spirit is close by, and buys a Ouija board to communicate with him. Sam repeatedly tells Dean he will not give up on him, and their ability to speak across this divide again demonstrates the strength of their bond.
The episode culminates with John Winchester bargaining his soul away to save his oldest son. Sam and Dean are heartbroken, but note that they do not attempt to bring John back, instead burning his body on a pyre so it cannot be repurposed by sinister forces.
From this moment on, Sam and Dean are each other's only remaining family. It is literally the two of them against the world, and although they still hunt the Yellow Eyed Demon that tore their family apart and destroyed Sam's chance at having a normal life, the show becomes more about the complexity of their relationship in the face of revelations about Sam. Sam is 'marked' by demon blood, chosen for a shady purpose as a baby and developing supernatural powers of his own. It becomes apparent that he foresaw Jessica's death and that John has warned Dean he may have to kill his brother if he becomes too like the things they hunt.
In 2:9 Croatoan, Sam seemingly becomes infected with a demon virus which will turn him into a monster. Realising he needs to end his life before he turns, he resigns himself to being shot by one of the men they are stranded with. But Dean won't let anyone near Sam:
DEAN: I'm gonna say this one time — you make a move on him, you'll be dead before you hit the ground. You understand me? I mean, do I make myself clear?!
Dean then sends the others in their group away, giving them the keys to his beloved Impala so that they may escape the infected townspeople, while he stays with his brother. A tearful Sam begs Dean to leave with them and save himself, but Dean makes it clear he intends to stay and die with him.
Watch the scene here.
Sam assumes Dean's judgment is clouded by grief for John, but Dean denies this, claiming he is tired of the burden of the life they lead. The implication is clear: Sam is the only thing worth carrying on for.
It transpires that Sam is immune to the virus, and that the whole scenario was a set up in order to experiment on him - although the brothers are not aware of that part. Reflecting on their reprieve over a beer, Sam asks Dean to explain his decision to stay and die, but Dean brushes it off at first. He suggests they go to the Grand Canyon "or Hollywood, see if we can bang Lindsey Lohan". Dean counteracts his rather sentimental desire to experience a wonder of the natural world with his brother with crude humour, but interestingly uses 'we' instead of 'I', making Sam complicit in his sexual fantasy, however tongue in cheek.
Sam presses Dean to explain his change in attitude towards the job, and Dean eventually reveals that John told him a secret about Sam just before his death. It is clear that John's warning is weighing heavily on Dean, and that he's already decided he'd rather die than have to watch Sam become evil. In this emotional scene, he is making an attempt to give Sam some semblance of 'normality' and create happy memories for them, as well as trying to steer them away from Sam's potential corruption. Note also that many pivotal moments in Sam and Dean's relationship take place next to a large body of water - usually a lake. Water has always been used to symbolise a range of things in romantic fiction, and lakes especially are associated with secrets and revelation - a smooth, reflective surface masking dark, unknown depths.
In the episode, Playthings, Sam, in a tension-charged drunken encounter, begs Dean to kill him if he becomes evil as John foretold.
This scene is especially potent within the context of this episode, as the boys are repeatedly mistaken for a couple, and even play along to gain intel during their case. Dean acknowledges this, asking Sam why everyone makes the assumption that they are gay. Sam responds that Dean is "kind of butch" and that people probably think he is "over-compensating". On one level this is simple dig – Sam getting his own back for being feminised and mocked by Dean and possibly a swipe at his promiscuity. But this observation by the characters themselves forces the viewer to question how we see their relationship, so by the time this incident happens, we are actively looking for eroticisation:
Watch the scene here.
Sam leverages his absolute hold over Dean and uses physicality – both violently and tenderly - to draw out the promise. He is inebriated – his inhibitions lowered. He paws at Dean and looks at him imploringly, claiming he is “the only one who can do it.” Sam is choosing a death at the hands of the one person he adores and trusts. Once Dean grudgingly agrees, Sam cups his face and thanks him in a hushed voice, the tension palpable for a few heartbeats – the viewer cannot help but equate this kind of physical intimacy with the prelude to a kiss - until Dean shoves him back onto the bed.
It’s worth noting that despite his promise, when it seems Sam has turned evil in Born Under A Bad Sign, and asks Dean to shoot him, he is unable to and says he "would rather die". Dean watches while Sam writhes and turns on his front as he falls asleep – a reversal of the opening scene of the season 1 episode, Phantom Traveler, when the camera pans lovingly over Dean's sleeping form, showing Sam's POV when he returns to the motel room with coffee. In both instances they are lying on their fronts, their back to the observer – a vulnerable position for a hunter to choose. It is also worth noting that later – in the season 6 episode Live Free Or Twi-hard – Dean refers to watching someone sleep as 'rapey'. Shortly after this, it is revealed that Sam no longer needs sleep, suggesting Dean has been observed slumbering by his brother for months without realising.
At the end of season 2, when Sam is stabbed and killed by another 'special' child – Jake – we begin to see the full extent of the brothers' co-dependence. Despite Bobby's efforts to rouse him and draw him away from his dead brother's body, Dean states his unwillingness to carry on living without Sam who is essentially his raison d’être:
BOBBY: Something big is going down, end of the world big.
DEAN: Well then LET IT END!
BOBBY: You don't mean that.
DEAN: You don't think so? Huh? You don't think I've given enough?
He refuses to let Sam's body be destroyed, instead keeping vigil and talking to his dead brother:
DEAN: Always tried to protect you. Keep you safe. Dad didn't even have to tell me. It was just always my responsibility, you know? It's like I had one job. I had one job, and I screwed it up. I blew it, and for that, I'm sorry. I guess that’s what I do. I let down the people I love. You know, I let Dad down, and now I guess I’m just supposed to let you down, too. How can I? How am I supposed to live with that? What am I supposed to do? Sammy? What am I supposed to do?
Although Dean's other loved ones stay dead for the most part, it is clear this is not an option when it comes to Sam. His belief that the dead should stay that way which he voices in Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things, fundamentally out of guilt for his father's self-sacrifice, does not extend to his brother. In desperation, Dean makes a deal with a crossroads demon, but the bargaining is hard going and he only manages to negotiate one year of his own life before he will be dragged to Hell in return for Sam's resurrection. He agrees. But when Sam finds out about the deal he is horrified and vows to get Dean out of his predicament in this moving scene:
Watch the scene here.
Again, the tenderness shown, the excessive nature of their love - “there's nothing I wouldn't do for you” - is much more in line with our notions of romantic love than fraternal love. Dean literally selling his soul to bring Sam back from the clutches of death because he will not live without him - this type of ultimate sacrifice - recalls some of the greatest love stories ever told: Romeo and Juliet, Anthony and Cleopatra, Pyramus and Thisbe, Salim and Anarkali and of course, Orpheus and Eurydice.
Season 3 follows the boys throughout Dean's final year. Sam tries to break the deal, killing a crossroads demon despite Dean's advice that he accept his brother's fate. In Bedtime Stories, Dean tries to make sam face up to the inevitability of his death, which a teary Sam reacts to with incredulity:
SAM: Is that what you want me to do Dean? Just let you go?
Watch the scene here.
Sam's inability to accept that Dean will die is also very apparent in A Very Supernatural Christmas, when Dean, usually not interested in celebrating Christmas, wants to do their last one together properly, only to find Sam can't face it:
SAM: I don't get it. You haven't talked about Christmas for years.
DEAN: Well, yeah. But this is my last year.
SAM: I know. That's why I can't.
DEAN: What do you mean?
SAM: I mean, I can't sit around drinking eggnog, celebrating Christmas, when I know next year, you'll be dead. I just can't.
Eventually he folds, but the enormity of the situation is something neither Winchester is prepared to confront, as demonstrated in this moving scene.
In an especially poignant moment, Sam – clearly building up to telling Dean what he means to him – looks at Dean and is overcome, utterly unable to voice the fact that they will lose each other, and instead asks him if he “feels like watching the game”. They side-step the elephant in the room by immersing themselves in a traditionally masculine pastime, but their pain is obvious and their awkwardness at being forced to play at being 'regular guys' serves to highlight the life of insularity and alienation they have led since they were children.
In the mid season episode, Mystery Spot, The Trickster (later revealed to be the angel Gabriel) tries to teach Sam a lesson by trapping him in a perpetual 'groundhog day' style time loop of Tuesdays. Each day starts out exactly the same, and each day Dean dies. Every attempt to change their path only results in another method of death. When Sam discovers who is behind the loop, the Trickster transports them to Wednesday, but Dean is shot and this time they do not go back to the beginning. The ensuing montage shows Sam living for months without his brother. He is cold and mechanical, thinking only of locating the Trickster.
When Sam finally catches up with him, he begs him to bring back Dean:
TRICKSTER: This obsession to save Dean? The way you two keep sacrificing yourselves for each other? Nothing good comes out of it. Just blood and pain. Dean's your weakness. And the bad guys know it, too. It's gonna be the death of you, Sam. Sometimes you just gotta let people go.
SAM: He's my brother.
TRICKSTER: Yup. And like it or not, this is what life's gonna be like without him.
SAM: Please. Just — please.
TRICKSTER: I swear, it's like talking to a brick wall. Okay, look. This all stopped being fun months ago. You're Travis Bickle in a skirt, pal. I'm over it.
The episode serves to demonstrate how single minded Sam has become, and how damaged. His determination to get Dean back at any cost continues after Dean's death at the claws of the Hell hounds in the season finale and is echoed later in season 6 when the tables are turned, and Dean is fighting for Sam's soul. The phrase "he's my brother" almost becomes a catch-all, a mantra. It encompasses everything the Winchesters cannot or will not articulate about their relationship but it is loaded with a deeper, more ambiguous meaning.
The comparison to Travis Bickle leads us to another recurring theme in Supernatural. Sam and Dean are often likened to historical or fictional characters – usually male/female duos, with Sam being the woman. Most are outsiders, dangerous, psychotic or unhinged (or at least perceived to be), and they are often lovers, or at least have strong sexual chemistry: Mulder and Scully. Bonnie and Clyde. Mickey and Mallory.
The latter is particularly fascinating. It is Veritas (the goddess of truth) in the season 6 episode, You Can't Handle The Handle The Truth, who tells Dean that Sam is “Mallory to your Mickey”. Natural Born Killers could certainly be used to describe the boys, having been brought up in the hunting life from a young age. But this comparison, spoken by Truth itself, forces the audience to draw parallels in the relationships depicted in both works, and Mickey & Mallory's is overtly sexual and dangerously obsessive.
Mallory's wedding vow could very easily be the unspoken one made when Dean Winchester first takes baby Sammy in his arms and away from their burning house:
MALLORY: 'Til you and I die, and die, and die again. 'Til death do us part.
There is also use of apocalyptic imagery in NBK which underscores the brothers' intended roles as vessels for warring angels, and the fact that their love enables them to overcome predestination and eventually avert not only death, but the end of days:
MICKEY: The whole world's comin' to an end, Mal!
MALLORY: I see angels, Mickey. They're comin' down for us from heaven. And I see you ridin' a big red horse, and you're driving them horses, whippin' 'em, and they're spitting and frothing all 'long the mouth, and they're coming right at us. And I see the future, and there's no death, 'cause you and I, we're angels...
Dean's time expires, and despite Sam's protestations, he surrenders. In characteristically sexualised language, Dean tells Sam that their relationship is their Achilles' Heel.
DEAN: All I'm saying, Sammy, all I'm saying, is that you're my weak spot. You are, and I'm yours.
SAM: You don't mean that. We're family.
DEAN: I know. And those evil sons of bitches know it too. And what we'll do for each other, how far we'll go. They're using it against us.
SAM: So, what, we just stop looking out for each other?
DEAN: No. We stop being martyrs, man. We stop spreading it for these demons.
But Dean's time in Hell only serves to drive Sam to more and more desperate measures, resulting in him becoming addicted to the demon blood Ruby feeds him to strengthen his psychic powers and exorcism abilities. After Dean is resurrected by Castiel in the opening episode of season 4, his relationship with Sam is jeopardised as the boys slide towards the apocalypse. The main cause of consternation is Ruby, and the fact that Sam now keeps secrets from Dean. In a potent display of what appears to be possessive rage (“You don't need me – you and Ruby go fight demons!”), Dean reveals to Sam that he's becoming like the things they hunt, harking back to when Sam made him promise to take action if he became "something I'm not":
Watch the scene here.
Their relationship deteriorates dramatically throughout season 4, mainly due to the dependence Sam has on Ruby and her blood. She is an interloper, and having taken advantage of Dean's time in Hell to ensnare the grief stricken Sam, she reinforces all of Dean's guilt and insecurity and throws his borderline obsession with his brother into stark relief. The culmination of their meltdown and Sam's perceived betrayal of Dean is the breaking of the final seal (Lillith's death by Sam's hand) and the start of the apocalypse. Note also that Dean was responsible for breaking the first seal while in Hell and separated from his brother. Although Sam maintains he went to Ruby only to enable him to destroy Lillith as revenge for killing Dean, Dean can only see it as an act of betrayal, and he's vindicated when it is discovered Ruby has mislead them all along. Their broken down relationship – and Sam's need for redemption in the aftermath - brings down the end of days. For the Winchesters, separation literally is the end of the world.
Season 5 sees the brothers at odds. Dean and Sam have been placed in a Cain and Abel scenario. Sam has been chosen as Lucifer's vessel, and Dean as Michael's. In order to save the world, Michael (Dean) must end Lucifer (Sam). The weight of this knowledge, combined with the fractures in their relationship due to Sam's dealings with Ruby, and subsequent addiction to demon blood, leads to what can only be described as a break up scene in The End:
DEAN: Look, Sam—it doesn't matter—whatever we do. I mean, it turns out that you and me, we're the, uh, the fire and the oil of the Armageddon. You know, on that basis alone, we should just pick a hemisphere. Stay away from each other for good.
SAM: Dean, it does not have to be like this. We can fight it.
DEAN: Yeah, you're right. We can. But not together. We're not stronger when we're together, Sam. I think we're weaker. Because whatever we have between us—love, family, whatever it is—they are always gonna use it against us. And you know that. Yeah, we're better off apart. We got a better chance of dodging Lucifer and Michael and this whole damn thing, if we just go our own ways.
SAM: Dean, don't do this.
DEAN: Bye, Sam.
This line in particular – “whatever we have between us– love, family, whatever it is” – indicates Dean's inability to classify their relationship. He is acknowledging that their mantra of 'family' is not the whole truth of what they are. He cannot define it, but he recognises that it is something which can be construed as destructive – a notion which is echoed time and time again. In season 1's Asylum, Dr. Ellicot tells Sam,
DR. ELLICOT: You're avoiding the subject.
SAM: What subject?
DR. ELLICOT: You... this brother you're road-tripping with. How do you feel about him?
We, the audience, don't get to see the reply until it results in violence later in the episode, and this idea of 'unhealthiness' is reiterated in Sam, Interrupted when Dr. Fuller calls the Winchester's relationship “dangerously co-dependent”, in You Can't Handle The Truth when Lisa Braeden calls it “the most unhealthy, tangled up, crazy thing that I've ever seen” and most interestingly in Point Of No Return when the angel Zachariah tells their estranged half-brother, Adam Winchester, “You know Sam and Dean Winchester are psychotically, irrationally, erotically co-dependent on each other, right?”
It seems that 'whatever it is' encompasses an erotic element and we are no longer in subtext territory. This time it is explicitly stated.
But it is their unwillingness to give up on each other – to let go – which ultimately saves the world, although it is at the expense of Sam's soul.
Their reconciliation is a result of Dean being sent five years into the future by Zachariah to witness the consequences of refusing to become the angel Michael's vessel, and failing to prevent Sam being claimed by Lucifer. But seeing his future self and meeting Lucifer in his brother's guise only serves to strengthen Dean's resolve and he returns to Sam.
DEAN: The point is...maybe we are each other's Achilles heel. Maybe they'll find a way to use us against each other, I don't know. I just know we're all we've got. More than that. We keep each other human.
SAM: Thank you. Really. Thank you. I won't let you down.
DEAN: Oh, I know it. I mean, you are the second-best hunter on the planet.
SAM: So, what do we do now?
DEAN: We make our own future.
Realising it is the only way to avert the coming Armageddon, Sam decides to let Lucifer take over his body, hoping to overpower him long enough to fling himself into 'the cage' (a special prison in Hell for Lucifer). The events of and leading up to Swan Song (the season 5 finale) demonstrate how Sam and Dean's love is so powerful it can literally change the course of humanity's future, and contain some of the most compelling examples of canonical 'Wincest' in the show.
In The Dark Side of the Moon, the boys are killed by hunters who have heard that Sam is responsible for breaking the last seal. Dean wakes in his version of Heaven – in the Impala, on a road with a thirteen year old Sam, letting off fireworks for the fourth of July. But Dean becomes increasingly distressed as he realises lots of Sam's Heavenly memories involve times when he broke away from John and Dean and their turbulent life on the road:
SAM: Man, I never got the crusts cut off my PB and J. I just don’t look at family the way you do!
DEAN: Yeah, but I’m your family!
SAM: I know.
DEAN: I mean we’re supposed to be a team. It’s supposed to be you and me against the world, right?
SAM: Dean, it is!
Here there is an interesting demarcation of the different ways in which Sam thinks of 'family'. Where he has previously used the terms 'family', 'blood' and 'brother' to summarise his attachment to Dean, here he is placing Dean outside of that. Dean is something other and seems to transcend the negative connotations that 'family' has for Sam. Their reliance on each other is absolute and excludes all others – even their other 'blood': “You and me against the world.”
But Dean can only interpret Sam's youthful desire for severance from his traumatic upbringing and unstable childhood as abandonment. His anguish is most apparent when they arrive at the scene of Sam's departure for Stanford, which Dean refers to as "one of the worst nights of my life". But a reunion with their dead friend, Ash, brings a revelation:
DEAN: So everyone gets their own slice of Heaven?
ASH: Pretty much. A few people share. Special cases. Whatnot.
DEAN: What do you mean 'special'?
ASH: Oh, you know, like soul mates.
Again, this is explicit. Sam and Dean are only able to share the same Heaven because they are a 'special case'.
The Ancient Greek concept of soul mates as posited by Aristophanes in Plato's Symposium tells us that human beings were originally created with two faces, four arms and four legs, but that the Gods, fearful of their power, split them in two. Therefore, people are destined to search for the missing part of themselves – the other half which makes them whole. Virtually all mythologies, religions and belief systems have a similar creation story: Chinese, Jewish, Egyptian, Sumerian, Maori. Given that Supernatural draws from so many of these myths, it is reasonable to assume Ash's implication is that Sam and Dean are somehow soul-bonded.
When Sam allows Lucifer to possess him, Lucifer applies this imagery to himself and Sam:
LUCIFER: I've been waiting for you... For a long, long time. Come on, Sam. You have to admit -- You can feel it, right?
LUCIFER: The exhilaration. And you know why that is? Because we're two halves made whole. M.F.E.O. Literally.
But Sam resists Lucifer and the path carved out for him by Michael's plan (as does Dean) and it is his bond with his brother which enables him to do this.
Both Sam/Dean and Lucifer/Michael fit the Chinese philosophical model of soul mates - Yin Yang – the notion that seemingly contrary forces are interdependent. In both pairings there is one good son – dutiful and unquestioning for an absent and flawed father (Dean/Michael) and a wayward, rebellious son (Sam/Lucifer). In both cases, the loyal son is asked to destroy the rebel son by their father, but while Michael seems determined to follow orders, Dean's love for Sam won't allow him to do this – whatever his brother has become. Sam is Dean's personal 'fall from grace'.
Both relationships are fiercely insular and guarded. Sam telling Gordon Walker that "only he gets to call me that" when the hunter calls him 'Sammy' parallels Lucifer's words to Castiel when he throws burning angel oil at his brother: "No one dicks with Michael but me". Both lines are delivered with menace. This hints at an intimacy which strays into murky territory. With Sam and Dean it's a 'pet name' – a private thing usually associated with lovers. With Lucifer/Michael the incongruously vulgar terminology is sexual in nature and the implication is clear: Possession – 'he is mine alone to do with what I will'.
Swan Song marks the pinnacle of the five year story arc creator Eric Kripke had planned for the show. It is intensely bittersweet and littered with references to the boys' pursuits which we as viewers have never been privy to – most of which are usually the reserve of romantic love. It is memories of them together through the years which enable Sam to overpower Lucifer enough to throw himself into the cage. He remembers them carving their initials into a wooden surface of the Impala's interior (the way sweethearts would a tree-trunk), being held by Dean as he was dying, and star-gazing from the hood of the Impala, in comfortable silence, for hours on end:
CHUCK: In between jobs, Sam and Dean would sometimes get a day - sometimes a week, if they were lucky. They'd pass the time lining their pockets. Sam used to insist on honest work, but now he hustles pool, like his brother. They could go anywhere and do anything. They drove 1,000 miles for an Ozzy show, two days for a Jayhawks game. And when it was clear, they'd park her in the middle of nowhere, sit on the hood, and watch the stars... For hours...Without saying a word. It never occurred to them that, sure, maybe they never really had a roof and four walls, but they were never, in fact, homeless.
Every facet of everyday life the Winchesters lack – a home, family, friends, companionship, even dating, they get from each other. It is Dean who realises this when he loses Sam. Previously, Dean has expressed the idea that if he imagines himself in a 'normal', 'apple pie' life, it is with Lisa – a woman he actually barely knows and – more importantly, I would suggest - her son with whom he forms an immediate attachment. Being a role model to a younger male is the only relationship Dean has ever really understood and primarily it is Ben – a surrogate little brother figure – who draws Dean to the Braeden household.
Sam makes his brother promise to pursue that life after his death:
DEAN: So then what am I supposed to do?
SAM: You go find Lisa. You pray to God she’s dumb enough to take you in. You have barbecues, and go to football games. You go live some normal apple pie life Dean. Promise me!
But it is merely going through the motions for Dean, who has now lost his soul mate and purpose in life – looking after Sammy:
DEAN: Watching out for you is my job. More than that, it's who I am.
After witnessing Sam's death we are told that:
“Dean didn't want Cas to save him. Every part of him, every fiber he's got wants to die or find a way to bring Sam back. But he isn't gonna do either. Because he made a promise.”
This makes Dean's choice (or lack thereof) very clear. He will attempt a settled, family life only because he promised Sam.
Season 5 ends with Dean sitting around the dinner table with Lisa and Ben, drinking from a full tumbler of liquor and looking mournful, and Sam watching him from the street outside, having been mysteriously resurrected. But as we find out as season 6 progresses, his soul is still locked in the cage with Michael and Lucifer.
Sam and Dean's reunion, when it happens in the first episode of season 6, is sterile and coloured by Dean's anger that Sam's return has been kept from him for the best part of a year and, although it's not revealed until later in the season, because Sam has no soul. Dean is instantly aware that something is wrong and from the moment Castiel confirms Sam's soul is missing, Dean becomes intent on getting it back at any cost despite being warned by the angel that it could kill Sam or worse:
CASTIEL: Sam's soul has been locked in the cage with Michael and Lucifer for more than a year. And they have nothing to do but take their frustrations out on him. Do you understand? If we try to force that mutilated thing down Sam's gullet, we have no idea what will happen. It could be catastrophic.
DEAN: You mean he dies.
CASTIEL: I mean he doesn't. Paralysis. Insanity. Psychic pain so profound that he's locked inside himself for the rest of his life.
The risks are reiterated by Death, the one being who can return Sam's soul, which he agrees to do on the condition that Dean takes over his duties for one day:
DEAN: Okay, so that's the choice -- Sam with no soul, or Sam with some drywall that if or when it collapses, he's...Done?
DEAN: Do it.
It is worth noting that, at first, Dean asks Death to return both Sam and their half brother, Adam, who is still in the cage having been used as Michael's vessel when Dean refused. But when Death says he must choose one, Dean replies that he wants Sam in a heartbeat. While this is an obvious choice for the eldest Winchester, Dean's very visceral response, the fact that he doesn't even try to plead a case for saving Adam as well, demonstrates how desperate and single-minded he has become by this point, and that Sam has long since transcended the labels of 'brother', 'blood' and 'family'.
In agreeing to the deal with Death, Dean must kill innocent people including a little girl. He fights this at first, but soon finds it has a knock-on effect and so he reaps the souls as he's told. This development shows a marked progression in Dean's willingness to kill for Sam since season 1 when he worried about killing demons because of the bodies they inhabited. At this stage he not only kills humans, but is prepared to ignore the possibility of long term complications for his brother in order to have his Sam back with him. Soulless Sam himself highlights this when he says:
SAM: Oh, yeah, what some wall inside my head that maybe stays up? Come on.
BOBBY: If it works-
SAM: Well, what if it doesn’t? Dean doesn't care about me. He -- he just cares about his little brother, Sammy, burning in Hell. He'll kill me to get that other guy back.
At this stage, Dean is prepared to do absolutely anything to put Sam's soul back in place. It's not enough that he has a version of Sam back alive. He needs the Sam that can reciprocate his feelings, and this one is incapable:
SAM: You wanted the real me. This is it. I don't care about them. I don't even really care about you, except that I need your help. And you're clearly not going to stick around for much longer unless I give it to you straight, so... I've done a lot worse than you know.
It is this lack of empathy, this lack of love for him which drives Dean to re-soul his brother at any cost. Despite the warnings from Castiel, Bobby and Death, despite Sam's own pleas, Dean's obsession, his inability to let Sam go, wins out. When he finally achieves this, Dean and Sam are reunited, their relationship stronger than it has been in years:
Watch the scene here.
Sam is back but his situation is precarious, and Dean resumes his role as protector. He is whole again, his purpose restored, and, even though the threat of Sam's memory hangs over them, happier than he has been for long time. It is possibly Death himself who best summarises the brothers' relationship, and the cataclysmic nature of their love for one another, when he says:
DEATH: You and your brother keep coming back. You're an affront to the balance of the universe.
He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss)...
It is often said that there is a fine line between love and hate. While the scale of Sam and Dean's love for one another is demonstrated by the things they do for each other and the sacrifices they are prepared to make, there are many instances where the boys are at odds – emotionally or physically - which reveal just as much about the passion and intensity of their relationship.
Sam and Dean are hunters – finely honed killing machines - as well as being closer than most siblings. Their relationship is often compared to a marriage. In 2:16, Roadkill, Sam identifies with a woman who is driven to a fight with her husband by a long car journey:
MOLLY: Right before, we were having the dumbest fight. It was the only time we ever really argued... when we were stuck in the car.
SAM: Yeah. I know how that goes.
[DEAN scowls at him]
When Bobby accuses them of acting like an old married couple due to their bickering in Tall Tales, Dean quips that couples can get divorced and they are more like "Siamese twins". As well as reinforcing their relationship as being forever, and the idea of them being two souls in one body, this takes the notion of co-dependence to a new level - the boys being literally symbiotic.
Their duel physicality is often accentuated by the way the boys are perfectly in sync when on the job. They will often slam the Impala doors shut at the exact same moment, fight as a complimentary duo and assume disguises which mean they have to wear matching clothes. Much of their dialogue is unspoken – furtively communicated via glances and tiny gestures. They live in each other's pockets, sleep in the same room, share a bathroom – even brushing their teeth at the sink together in Mystery Spot.
Watch the scene here.
Living at such close quarters means the usual boundaries regarding intimacy and physicality which would exist between two grown men in a platonic relationship are broken down, as this scene from Houses Of The Holy demonstrates:
Dean is particularly sensual with a voracious appetite for drink, junk food and sex, which prompts Sam to comment later in the episode:
“You're like one of those lab rats that pushes the pleasure button instead of the food button until it dies.”
Although Sam is "uncomfortable" watching Dean "enjoying that way too much" and tries to avert his eyes at first, Dean continues to engage him in conversation while he is aroused by the vibrating bed, finally pursuing Sam to the small bathroom - generally considered a place of privacy. And while Sam protests, it is actually fairly commonplace for them to see or watch each other at what would widely be considered inappropriate times. Dean displays his curiosity about his brother’s sexuality when watching Sam sleep in Dream a Little Dream of Me:
DEAN: Dude, you were making some serious happy noises. Who are you dreaming about? Angelina Jolie?
DEAN: Brad Pitt?
Their teasing and squabbling is often sexual in nature. “Jerk” and “bitch” while used affectionately, have certain connotations. Dean often calls Sam by female names, questions his sexuality and prowess, and even overtly flirts with him (“Sammy, I get all tingly when you take control like that!”) The following examples demonstrate this lack of parameters:
"Sam Winchester cries his way through sex!"
In the season 2 episode, Hell House, the brothers start a prank war, and Dean takes the opportunity to put itching powder in Sam's underwear. Although this is an innocuous, childish act, there is also a more illicit and erotic element to the aesthetic of the scene. Sam interrupts his brother handling his most intimate apparel, wearing just a low slung towel, still wet from his shower, and, in a moment of awkward tension, Dean's gaze sweeps guiltily over his brother's bare torso before he takes his turn in the bathroom.
Watch the scene here.
In both season 5's My Bloody Valentine, and then again in the season 6 episode, Mannequin 3: The Reckoning, Dean offers Sam a human heart (one real and one from an anatomy model) and asks him to be his Valentine:
While this done in a teasing manner, it is worth noting that in both instances it happens when Dean is feeling insecure about their relationship. In season 5 it comes in the aftermath of Ruby and the demon blood addiction, as the boys are trying to find a way to evade their fated roles as vessels on opposing sides of a war. And in season 6 it is when Sam has just had his soul returned and had Death's 'wall' shaken by memories of some of his soulless deeds.
At first glance, Dean is mocking a symbol of romantic love by using a human heart – a bloody, visceral thing - just as he is subverting the modern (heteronormative) tradition of Valentine's Day by offering his heart to his brother. But his joke takes on a different meaning when you delve a little deeper into the significance of the symbolism and its roots in Romance. The first recorded link between St Valentine's Day and romantic love was in the late fourteenth century – in Chaucer's Parlement of Foules – when the idea of courtly love was popular, the definition of this being chivalry and worthiness, with suitors often undertaking 'ordeals' to prove their devotion to the object of their desires. Although courtly love was not platonic, it is often depicted not as the pursuit of sex, but more as an all consuming, soul bonding type of love. Love in its purest and ideal form. Though Dean is taunting Sam, I would argue that the sentiment is true, and this gory favour reminds us he has (and will again) endure a multitude of physical and emotional traumas to keep his brother's love.
While their teasing provides moments of humour, the Winchesters' world is largely one of violence, pain and extreme physicality, and this is often strongly fetishised.
When the boys are working together, there is a strong element of that fan fiction staple – hurt/comfort. Forced to eschew hospitals and legitimate medics, the boys rely on each other to patch up their wounds with rudimentary anesthetics and tools (whiskey, dental floss, darning needles). This point is particularly emphasized in Mystery Spot, With Dean dead, Sam is left to stitch his own wounds. He no longer has his brother there to heal him – to literally put him back together.
There is a certain amount of pride and competitiveness derived from their ability to be able to take pain stoically. In fact, both boys have survived unimaginable pain, and Dean's eventual inability to withstand any more torture in Hell after forty years, instead choosing to inflict it on others, is a source of constant emotional torment for him. But their biggest weakness is seeing each other in pain. Their concern is manifested in the way they call each other's name in times of peril. This is demonstrated in the torture scene from A Very Supernatural Christmas, in which the brothers find themselves tied up and tortured by Madge and Edward:
DEAN: Sammy?! Sammy?!
EDWARD slices SAM’s arm and collect his blood in the bowl.
SAM: D-Don’t! (Screams)
DEAN: Leave him alone, you son of a bitch!
And again in season 1's The Benders:
DEAN: If you hurt my brother, I'll kill you, I swear. I'll kill you all. I will kill you all!
There is also a lot of flip sexualisation of violence which speaks to another prevalent theme in slash fiction – non consensual encounters. Rape jokes are rife in Supernatural and Dean is often the butt of them (pun absolutely intended). This starts right from the pilot:
POLICEMAN: I'm not sure you realize just how much trouble you're in here.
DEAN: We talking, like, misdemeanor kind of trouble? Or, uh... "squeal like a pig" kind of trouble?
Dean uses this terminology himself when he feels violated in some way: After being forced to work for the demon Crowley (“I feel like I need a daily rape shower”), when stranded in an alternate reality in season 6's The French Mistake – the title of which in itself alludes to anal sex as used in the film Blazing Saddles - (“I feel like this whole place is bad touching me”).
It is used by others about him as well: Soulless Sam mocks him a number of times during the episode Clap Your Hands If You Believe as Dean is tormented by fairies disguised as aliens:
DEAN: Close encounter! Close encounter!
SAM: Close encounter? What kind? First? Second?
DEAN: They're after me!
SAM: Third kind already? Better run, man. I think the fourth kind is a butt thing.
DEAN: And suddenly I was in a different place. And there were these... beings. They were too bright to look at, but I could feel them pulling me towards this sort of... table.
SAM: Probing table?
DEAN: God, don't say that out loud!
MARION: Personally, I think they're taken to Avalon to service Oberon, king of the fairies.
SAM: Dean, did you...service Oberon, king of the fairies?
Dean also uses this language in relation to others: To a victim of the Trickster in Tall Tales (“Some alien made you his bitch”), to Sam in Folsom Prison Blues (“Don't worry Sammy! I won't trade you for smokes”) and interestingly about a suspect in All Dogs Go To Heaven:
SAM: Bag him now?
DEAN: No, we make sure.
DEAN: Before we hand him over to a lifetime of demon rape? Yeah, really.
This could be figurative, but seems to suggest Dean has firsthand experience of being sexually violated in Hell, a notion supported by Balthazar in Appointment In Samarra:
BALTHAZAR: Well. The plot thickens. Where's your soul, Sam? Good God, no. It's not still...It is.
SAM: My brother found a way to put it back in me. I don't want it.
BALTHAZAR: No, you don't. No, no, 'cause Michael and Lucy are hate-banging it as we speak.
It follows that demons are part of the dark sexuality of the show. Deals are sealed with a kiss – by their very nature acts of dubious consent – and Meg and Ruby make constant quips about the pleasure to be had in being bound and hurt by the Winchester boys:
MEG: You know, if you wanted to tie me up, all you had to do was ask.
Indeed, both brothers enjoy inflicting pain to some extent. Dean actively enjoys hunting, and it is a cause of distress to him that he gets a certain kick out of torturing human souls in Hell. It is their adversary, Bela Talbot, who flags the potential danger within to him:
DEAN: We help people.
BELA: Come on! You do this out of vengeance and obsession. You're a stone's throw from being a serial killer.
Indeed, Dean's time in Hell serves to seduce him into enjoying his latent sadistic tendencies:
DEAN: I enjoyed it, Sam. they took me off the rack, and I tortured souls, and I liked it. All those years; all that pain. Finally getting to deal some out yourself...I didn't care who they put in front of me, because that pain I felt, that just slipped away. No matter how many people I save, I can't change that. I can't fill this hole. Not ever.
Sam similarly gets a thrill from the power of being able to exorcise demons with his mind, although he also tries to justify this to himself and to Dean with the fact he's saving innocent people in the course of his actions. This is revealed when he brags about the people he's saved and how he is a better hunter than Dean while under the influence of a siren.
As Meg's words suggest, there is an aesthetic of bondage in Supernatural. While they mete out their fair share of physical justice and torture to the things they hunt, the boys themselves are constantly tied up, untying each other, handcuffed, incarcerated, restrained, slammed into walls and over car bonnets, threatened. This is underlined in the exchange between Henricksen and Dean in Jus In Bello when Sam and Dean are incarcerated:
HENRICKSEN: I got a lot to celebrate. I mean, after all, seein' you two in chains?
DEAN: You kinky son of a bitch. We don't swing that way.
Sam in particular spends a lot of time handcuffed or bound – often by his own brother in times of demon blood addiction or withdrawal. In this scene from the season 4 episode When The Levee Breaks, Sam is cuffed to a bed, struggling against his bonds, while he imagines Dean stalking around him, watching, predatory.
Watch the scene here.
The worst torment Sam's own fevered mind can conjure is Dean telling him he doesn't care about him (a fear which becomes an actuality for Dean in season 6):
DEAN: You're nothing to me.
SAM: Don't say that to me. Don't you say that to me.
Sam's other greatest fear is that he is becoming a monster – again something which happens to Dean in the season 6 episode Live Free Or Twi Hard when Soulless Sam lets a vampire turn him into one of them. The turning of Dean is highly eroticised. While the whole episode is a pastiche of the chaste teen sexuality of the Twilight novels, Dean's attacker – a large male vampire – calls him "pretty" before slamming him against a wall and forcing blood into his mouth, leaving the viewer in no doubt there is a sexual element to the attack.
Sam – realising having his brother infiltrate the vampire nest will get him better access to the Alpha he is hunting – stands by and lets his brother get violated. Although his inaction is calculating, there is something intently voyeuristic about the way Sam watches the scene, the way his face quirks into a predatory half smile as the vampire presses his body into Dean's:
Later, in his altered state, it is Dean who faces a struggle as his protective instincts war with the overwhelming physical desire to sink his teeth into his brother:
DEAN (to Sam): Dude, you reek. You're like a walking hamburger.
DEAN (to Sam): Sam, I can’t hear you, your blood is so freaking loud!...just back off!
While many instances of conflict between the Winchester boys are as a result of supernatural influence, they usually unearth a deep seated fear or insecurity within each of the men about their relationship. In the season 1 episode, Asylum, Sam is driven to shoot Dean by the spirit of a doctor who was carrying out unethical experiments on his patients. Sam and Dean are still searching for their father at this point, and it is Dean's unquestioning following of John's orders, and Sam's rebellious streak, which fuel his resentment and make Sam fair game for possession. This episode also sees Dean taunting Sam in a characteristically feminising and flirtatious way:
DEAN: Hey Sam, who do you think is a hotter psychic? Patricia Arquette, Jennifer Love Hewitt, or you?
It is Sam on the receiving end of some home truths when he is confronted by a Shapeshifter in Dean's form in Skin. The creature plunders Dean's psyche and tells Sam that his brother has "issues" with him:
SAM: Where is he? Where’s Dean?
SHAPESHIFTER: I wouldn’t worry about him. I’d worry about you.
SAM: Where is he?
SHAPESHIFTER: You don’t really wanna know. (He chuckles.) I swear, the more I learn about you and your family—I thought I came from a bad background.
SAM: What do you mean, learn?
SHAPESHIFTER: He’s sure got issues with you. You got to go to college. He had to stay home. I mean, I had to stay home. With Dad. You don’t think I had dreams of my own? But Dad needed me. Where the hell were you?
SAM: Where is my brother? (The shapeshifter leans in close to SAM.)
SHAPESHIFTER: I am your brother. See, deep down, I’m just jealous. You got friends. You could have a life. Me? I know I’m a freak. And sooner or later, everybody’s gonna leave me.
SAM: What are you talkin’ about?
SHAPESHIFTER: You left. Hell, I did everything Dad asked me to, and he ditched me, too. No explanation, nothin’, just poof. Left me with your sorry ass. But, still, this life? It’s not without its perks. (He laughs.) I meet the nicest people. Like little Becky. You know, Dean would bang her if he had the chance.
The Shifter plays on Sam's desire for normality and his disobedience of John to drive a wedge between the boys. It also uses their insularity and fear of being separated when it uses the word 'jealousy' and then tells Sam his brother would 'bang' his friend, Becky. As there is nothing to suggest Sam is interested in Becky romantically (she is a Stanford friend so presumably knew him primarily as Jessica's boyfriend), it seems strange to taunt Sam with speak of his brother's sexual intent. Once the boys are reunited, Sam realises maybe he doesn't want an 'apple pie life' as much as he may have previously thought and their bond is strengthened by the experience:
DEAN: Sorry, man.
SAM: About what?
DEAN: I really wish things could be different, you know? I wish you could just be….Joe College.
SAM: No, that’s okay. You know, the truth is, even at Stanford, deep down, I never really fit in.
DEAN: Well, that’s ‘cause you’re a freak.
SAM: Yeah, thanks.
DEAN: Well, I’m a freak, too. I’m right there with ya, all the way.
But jealousy is a huge cause of conflict between Sam and Dean. Sam's relationship with Ruby tears them apart with devastating effects. And Dean's burgeoning friendship with hunter Gordon Walker – whom he views as a potential father figure in the period after John's death – upsets Sam to the extent that when Gordon calls him 'Sammy', he rounds on him, stating Dean is the only person who is allowed to call him by that name. It is extremely possessive and confrontational, and prompts Dean to retort:
“Sammy? Remind me to beat that buzzkill out of you later, all right?”
The tension between them at this point is palpable, and Dean makes good on his threat when an argument between the boys results in Dean physically punching Sam before they are reconciled.
Perhaps the most extreme incident of a possessive, violent confrontation between the brothers is in the aptly titled season 4 episode, Sex And Violence, when first Dean and then Sam are poisoned by a siren and made to fight each other to the death for its affection. This episode reveals the extent to which the brothers are co-dependent and unhealthily entangled, and highlights distinctly erotic elements of their relationship.
The case starts with Dean being typically brash as they have to investigate a strip bar where they believe a siren has been using the guise of lap dancers to lure men into killing their loved ones:
SAM: Yeah, you see, Siren’s can read minds. They see what you want most and then they can kinda, like, cloak themselves, y’know, like an illusion.
DEAN: So it could all be the same chick? Morphing into different dream girls?
But things get complex as Dean realises Sam has been in contact with Ruby, and his jealousy is exacerbated when Sam is seduced by the medical examiner and chief suspect in their case – Dr. Cara Roberts:
DEAN: Did you sleep with her?
DEAN: Holy crap you did. Middle of Basic Instinct and you bang Sharon Stone? Sam, you could be under her spell right now.
SAM: Dude; I’m not under her spell.
DEAN: Unbelievable, man, I just don’t get it.
SAM: No, say it.
DEAN: It’s just; first it’s Madison and then Ruby and now Cara. It’s like, what is with you and banging monsters?
It is interesting that Sam denies having had relations with Cara to his brother instinctively. While Dean flaunts his numerous sexual conquests, he is less comfortable hearing about Sam's. In fact, the reality of Sam's intimate experiences often upsets Dean for one reason or another. Blinded by anger, Dean walks right into the trap which has been set for him by the siren – posing as FBI agent Nick Monroe – and is poisoned by his saliva while sharing a flask. Despite Dean's seeming enthusiasm for the scantily clad women who have been duping other men of the town, the young male agent spells out for the boys that in fact he is the embodiment of Dean's deepest desire, telling Sam:
“I gave him what he needed, and it wasn't some bitch in a g-string. It was you.”
After poisoning Sam as well (shooting a jet of liquid into his mouth from what can only be described as a phallic looking protuberance concealed under his tongue), the siren pitches them against each other for his love, turning their obsessive need for each other on itself and opening a floodgate of resentment and jealousy:
Watch the full scene here.
This is extremely explicit. Where every other victim of the siren has been made to kill for someone they were sexually attracted to or intimate with, Sam and Dean are set against one another for the love of a surrogate brother. Their argument, before things get physical, is reminiscent of a couple thrashing out an alleged infidelity – Dean accusing Sam of hiding things from him and sneaking around with Ruby, Sam insisting he is being driven to it by Dean's weakness and mistrust. The title of the episode - Sex And Violence – reinforces the age old concept that these things are two sides of the same coin. Love and hate. Yin and Yang. The Winchester brothers fight like they love. Their devastating conflicts reflect the excessive nature of their feelings for one another.
About A Girl
It is hardly surprising that that any attempts Sam and Dean make at lasting relationships with the opposite sex end in disaster.
The issue of female characters in Supernatural is complex. The show is accused of misogyny by some and on the other hand female characters get a notoriously hostile reception from some factions of the predominantly female fan base.
The four longest surviving leads (Sam, Dean, Bobby & Castiel) are male. Female characters do not seem to have longevity and they are frequently considered somewhat one dimensional. But I would suggest this is a little unfair. The simple fact is that no one fares well in Supernatural. Most people who come into close contact with the Winchesters meet a sticky end. The themes of loss and insularity are what makes Sam and Dean's relationship so compelling. And while the show occasionally dips a toe into genre stereotype territory (virgin sacrifice in Like A Virgin, a racist phantom truck in Route 666) I would argue that it is self-aware, playful and generally subversive enough to avoid this.
It is worth bearing in mind also, that all peripheral characters are presented to us through Sam and Dean. Most of their contact with the wider world is fleeting and transient, and this is how we experience those characters. A lot of the female characters we meet are simply decoration because that's how Dean views them. Similarly, we experience pivotal characters such as Mary Winchester and Jess Moore mostly in memories and flashbacks. John Winchester is absent for the first half of the first season even though he's the reason the boys are reunited – as he has been for much of their young lives.
More established female characters with a platonic attachment to the brothers all reflect something about them and their relationship: Ellen Harvelle is a surrogate mother figure to the boys. She is a connection to their father. Her daughter, Jo Harvelle, meets them at a time when John's death is still raw. She has also lost her hunter father, and it is Dean's empathy with her, her headstrong desire to hunt which simultaneously irks him and fills him with affection. She is the same age as Sam and ultimately Dean views her as a little sister, which I would argue makes his love for her the most profound we ever see him feel for a woman. Pamela Barnes is both afflicted with psychic power like Sam and sexually predatory like Dean. She's independent, capable, funny and prepared to die for their cause.
Many of the recurring female characters are adversaries – monsters like the crossroads demons, Lillith, Eve and Meg, or human ones like Bela Talbot. There are also characters like Tessa, Lenore and Ellie Visyak who straddle the line between monstrous and sympathetic and challenge the boys' perceptions of good and evil.
But it is the boys' romantic connections which speak the most about the extent of their dysfunction. When we first meet Sam and Dean, Sam is in a steady relationship with Jess, while Dean is incredibly promiscuous – or at least appears that way. Dean and Sam have been separated for nearly four years. As an interesting aside, Jess and Dean share the same birthday – 24th January - which presumably would connect them somewhat in Sam's mind. But the relationship Sam has with Jess – and in fact his whole life at college - is based on untruths. Jessica has no idea about Sam's past as a hunter or his family.
After Jess's violent death (which we later discover Sam had premonitions of), Sam's first potential love interest is Meg, a girl he meets on his way back to California after a bust up with Dean. They fight over Dean's blind faith in their father, and Sam's frustration at being no closer to finding Jessica's killer. In the portentous episode, Scarecrow, Dean struggles to keep Sam on the road with him, while Sam still feels drawn to his life at Stanford. Although they are reconciled by the end of the episode, their brief separation gives Meg – a demon – access to Sam.
SAM: I still want to find Dad...And you're still a pain in the ass. But Jess and Mom...they're both gone. Dad is God knows where. You and me. We're all that's left. So, uh, if we're gonna see this through...we're gonna do it together.
DEAN: Hold me, Sam. That was beautiful.
Meg re-appears a few episodes later in Shadow, where her true nature is revealed and, although nothing happens between him and Meg, the precedent of Sam being seduced by monsters to Dean's chagrin is set:
DEAN: Hey Sam. Don't take this the wrong way, but your girlfriend...is a bitch.
DEAN: Hey, Sam…?
DEAN: Next time you want to get laid…find a girl that's not so buckets of crazy, huh?
This episode also sees Dean reach the end of his tether about Sam's continued threat of departure.
SAM: But there’s got to be somethin’ that you want for yourself—
DEAN: Yeah, I don’t want you to leave the second this thing’s over, Sam.
SAM: Dude, what’s your problem?
DEAN: Why do you think I drag you everywhere? Huh? I mean, why do you think I came and got you at Stanford in the first place?
SAM: ‘Cause Dad was in trouble. ‘Cause you wanted to find the thing that killed Mom.
DEAN: Yes, that, but it’s more than that, man.
This is an emotional scene, and his anxiety about being abandoned by his brother, combined with his annoyance at Sam having been taken in by a demon, foreshadows Dean's pain in later seasons when he feels he has lost Sam to Ruby.
Later in season 1, Sam and Dean meet Sarah in Provenance, and it is clear she is interested in Sam even when she discovers the truth about what he does. But Sam is reluctant to pursue anything with her despite his brother's encouragement:
SAM: You know what, I don’t get it. What do you care if I hook up?
DEAN: Because then maybe you wouldn’t be so cranky all the time. You know, seriously, Sam, this isn’t about just hooking up, okay? I mean, I think this Sarah girl could be good for you. And I don’t mean any disrespect, but I’m sure that this is about Jessica, right? Now, I don’t know what it’s like to lose somebody like that, but….I would think that she would want you to be happy. God forbid, have fun once in a while. Wouldn’t she?
SAM: Yeah, I know she would. Yeah, you’re right. Part of this is about Jessica. But not the main part.
This is a turning point. Here, Sam is making a conscious decision to opt out of trying for the 'apple pie' life he was previously desperate to return to, because he realises it is not sustainable for him, even though he has found someone prepared to accept the truth of who he is.
Dean's attempt to foster Sam and Sarah’s romance is also out of character. Their dynamic is usually such that Dean will impede or sabotage Sam's chances, seemingly in favour of improving his own with the woman in question. But primarily – as he demonstrates with Jessica – this is a way of reinforcing his dominance in terms of his relationship with his brother. Although he starts typically by competing with Sam for Sarah's attention, he soon realises this is futile and turns his efforts to setting them up on a date. While he genuinely seems to want his brother to be happy, it may be that Sam's reluctance from the outset leaves Dean feeling secure enough to let him off the leash. Sarah is only ever going to be 'a bit of fun'. Sam himself questions Dean's almost zealous interest in his 'hooking up', and in light of Zachariah's 'erotically co-dependent' jibe and the lack of boundaries between them, this suggests an element of pleasure being derived vicariously. While he pushes Sam towards Sarah, he also physically interrupts them each time things get slightly intimate, and when they finally do kiss, Dean watches them intently.
While Dean appears to be more blasé about relationships, in Route 666, we find out that he did actually date and seems to care for – even love - Cassie. But this relationship is ended by her when she finds out about Dean's life as a hunter. This time it is Sam who is annoyed by this revelation:
SAM: You told her? The secret? Our big family rule number one: we do what we do, and we shut up about it. For a year and a half I do nothing but lie to Jessica, and you go out with this chick in Ohio a couple of times and you tell her everything? [Dean says nothing] Dean!
DEAN: Yeah, looks like.
Where Sam has previously been more concerned with visiting danger on 'outsiders', here he appears to be irked by the fact Dean has allowed someone into their 'private family business' (as Dean refers to it when addressing Jessica).
In this instance, it is Cassie who puts a stop to their relationship for the second time, and their parting presents us with another instance of a continuing theme – the voyeuristic element of the brothers watching each other with women. Sam first watches Dean and Cassie kiss before they go to stop the killer truck, actually interrupting them by clearing his throat. After watching Dean drag up the actual truck from swamp in a display of machismo, he says:
DEAN: Hell, yeah.
SAM: Now I know what she sees in you.
And when Dean kisses Cassie goodbye before their departure, Sam watches from inside the car.
Sam is first accused of voyeurism by Dean in Shadow when he is surveilling Meg. He is also called out as a ‘pervert’ by a female passerby. Meg herself, once she is revealed to be a demon, tries to seduce Sam in front of Dean, telling him she knows he likes to watch. There is an interesting expansion of this in the episode, Tall Tales, when we see Sam watching Dean kissing a woman in a bar from Dean's perspective. Sam's perception of 'Starla' is that of a drunken, blonde girl who is on the verge of throwing up, whereas Dean remembers her as a 'classy chick'. As Sam watches them kiss, Dean imagines his tone as prissy and outraged as he demands to know “Dean! What do you think you're doing?” To Dean's mind, Sam is camp and his voice tinged with something that sounds like jealousy.
But perhaps the most bizarre and overtly voyeuristic incident comes in The Magnificent Seven, when Sam sits outside a house in the Impala, watching Dean through the bedroom window as he strips to his underwear and cavorts with two women. The understanding is that Sam is letting Dean have fun, knowing he has less than a year to live (having sold his soul to resurrect Sam). But after a call from Bobby with a lead on their case, Sam lets himself into the house and walks in on Dean having sex.
SAM: Let me see your knife.
DEAN: What for?
SAM: So I can gouge my eyes out.
DEAN: It was a beautiful, natural act, Sam.
SAM: It's a part of you I never wanted to see, Dean.
DEAN: (chuckles, slaps SAM on the thigh)
Hey, I appreciate you giving me a little quality time with the Doublemint Twins.
DEAN: Really? Well, I got to say, I was expecting a weary sigh or an eye roll, something.
SAM: Not at all. You deserve to have a little fun.
This encounter is jarring on a number of levels. Dean coming to the window to give his brother the thumbs up indicates that he knows Sam is watching and derives some kind of amusement or pleasure from the fact. Even given the intimate nature of what he's about to do, he keeps that bond with his brother, drawing him in. Sam is aware of what is happening inside the house, which makes his decision to enter the bedroom, knowing what he will find, pretty transgressive. This is reminiscent of the lack of boundaries displayed when Sam watches Dean on the vibrating bed. He voices distain, but never actually avoids seeing his brother in a sexual context – quite the opposite in this case.
This 'over sharing' works the other way around. In season 4's I Know What You Did Last Summer, Sam confesses to Dean all about the alliance he formed with Ruby while his brother was in Hell – including the sexual nature of their relationship:
DEAN: Too much information.
SAM: Hey, I told you I was coming clean.
DEAN: Yeah, but now I feel dirty.
Sam, knowing how betrayed his brother feels by his seduction at the hands of the demon, makes a full and frank confession. He is seeking benediction, laying it all out like a faithless lover in hope of forgiveness. I would argue that Sam's relationship with Ruby is born out of grief and desperation. Sam is a shell of a man having watched his brother dragged to Hell, and bent on avenging his death. Ruby offers him power, and a hope at revenge when he has nothing else left. Dean mirrors his brother's transgression in the following episode, Heaven and Hell, when he sleeps with a non-human - the angel, Anna. While this act serves to underscore the roles the boys are being forced into as vessels on opposing sides of a holy war, it can also be seen as retaliation. Dean reacts to Ruby's presence by sleeping with her antithesis. But Dean immediately sells Anna out the second Sam's life is threatened by the angels who wish to destroy her.
Sam's penchant for 'banging monsters' is a metaphor for his inability to conform to a heteronormative lifesyle. His brief relationship with Madison in season 2's Heart could be seen as his last attempt to form a genuine attachment, but this ends in tragedy when she turns out to be the werewolf they have been hunting and he has to kill her. Madison's death is effectively also the death of Sam's hope of ever having that regular life. From here on, his dealings with the opposite sex are either with 'monstrous' women like Ruby and Cara in Sex and Violence – although the latter is later vindicated – or, in a reversal, with a string of meaningless one night stands while he himself is 'monstrous', having lost his soul. Even with Cara, before he loses his soul, Sam's attitude towards relationships is shown to be irrevocably altered:
DEAN: You gonna say goodbye to Cara?
SAM: Nah. Not interested.
DEAN: Really? Why not?
SAM: What’s the point?
DEAN: Well, look at you. Love ‘em and leave ‘em.
In the season 6 episode, Clap Your Hands If You Believe, Dean, thinking he has been abducted by aliens, is particularly distressed to return, only to find Sam having sex with a 'hippie chick' he has just met instead of out looking for him. Sam argues that he had no leads, so searching would have been futile, and Dean tries to explain to his soulless brother that even if there was nothing he could have done, he should have been too upset to pursue his own pleasure:
DEAN: You sit in the dark and you feel the loss.
SAM: Absolutely, but couldn't I just do all that and have sex with the hippie chick?
There is an irony and an echo of past mistakes in Dean's words, as they could refer back to his time in Hell when Sam felt his brother's loss so keenly he was driven towards Ruby and demon blood addiction. There is an element of possessiveness too – Dean is upset that his position as Sam's first priority has been waylaid by a casual encounter. It is also interesting that Dean does not leave the motel once he interrupts his brother and 'Patchouli'. Instead he watches them get up and search for their clothes, before unceremoniously slamming the door on Sam's conquest. This again underlines the lack of boundaries the boys have, and the voyeuristic element of their relationship.
The full extent of Soulless Sam's sexual exploits during his missing year become apparent in Unforgiven, when a newly re-souled Sam is lured back to a town he hunted in. Women have been going missing presumed dead, and it is Dean who realises the connection:
DEAN: Sam, answer the phone, damn it. I found the connection between the missing chicks. They all banged the same dude -- You. It's you, Sam.
This episode serves as justification of the younger Sam's fears about getting close to anyone after Jessica's death. Indeed, not many women survive an intimate encounter with Sam Winchester.
Dean's attempts do not fare much better. We get a brief suggestion that he was capable of loving Cassie, although interestingly, in Sam, Interrupted, the idea that they had a relatively long term relationship is contradicted by Dean himself:
DR. CARTWRIGHT: Okay. When was the last time you were in a long-term relationship?
DEAN: Define long-term.
DR. CARTWRIGHT: More than two months.
Dean's promiscuity is interesting in light of Sam's comments about him being 'butch' and 'overcompensating'. Many of Dean's conquests are stereotypes – women who are overtly sexual and available. A lot of Dean's interactions with women are fleeting - so seemingly not consummated, and many of his experiences are relayed to the viewer by Dean himself – an unreliable narrator. He also finds himself in situations where he attracts male attention and is forced to protest that he "doesn't swing that way".
But there are instances where Dean's sexual tastes are portrayed as experimental, his sexuality more fluid. His speech is littered with references to sexual acts, pornography and positions ('plushies', 'the full cowgirl', Casa Erotica). In The End, Dean and his future self establish their credentials by sharing a secret only they would know about. That secret turns out to be that Dean enjoyed being made to wear women's underwear by a partner in his teens. He often quips about strippers and interestingly, having a threesome with twins, and it's clear in the humorous episode, Changing Channels, that Dean has a crush on the male lead of his favourite TV show, Dr. Sexy MD:
But Dean's few attempts at deeper, lasting relationships with women are equally as doomed as Sam's. Aside from Cassie who is unattainable, Dean's next long term relationship exists only in his mind. In the season 2 episode, What Is And What Should Never Be, Dean is kidnapped by a Djinn and locked inside an elaborate fantasy life while his body is being drained in the real world. In this alternate existence, Mary and Jessica were never killed, but John has died of natural causes and Dean is settled with a nurse called Carmen. She appears to be the ideal partner, but Dean cannot be truly happy in this life because he and Sam are not close.
We are told Dean 'hooked up with Rachael Nave' – Sam's prom date - which Dean proudly admits "does sound like him". In this reality where Jess is alive and Sam and Dean have "nothing in common" (because they were never hunters and didn't grow up living in each other's pockets), this 'typically Dean' behaviour irks his brother. It seems that the success of their respective relationships is only possible at the detriment of the brothers' intimacy.
The fractious relationship between the boys is particularly interesting because, in terms of the narrative, it is incongruous. The Djinn relies on Dean being so seduced by the fantasy that he won’t want to break the spell. The dreamscape is constructed around Dean's wishes, so it follows that if he desires his relationship with Sam to be better, it should improve. But this is not the case:
DEAN: My favourite. I guess you know me pretty well.
CARMEN (sits down next to him):
'Fraid so. You alright?
DEAN: Sammy and I... You know we don't get along.
CARMEN: Well, you don't spend a lot of time together. I mean, I just think you don't know each other all that well.
CARMEN: For the record: He doesn't know what he's missing.
DEAN: I can fix things with Sam. I can make it up to him.
In a mirror of the pilot, Dean breaks into their family home and confronts Sam, dragging him along for the ride as he pieces together his situation, just as he pulled him away from Stanford. Once Dean realises his 'reality' is just an illusion, no amount of persuasion from his mother, Jessica or Carmen can get him to stay. Dean accepts that what he and Sam do in the real world means sacrifice, but ultimately he won't trade because his relationship with Sam is damaged. He takes his own life in the dream to get back to his frantic brother:
SAM: Thank God. Thought I lost you for a second.
(He pulls out the tube in DEAN's throat)
DEAN: You almost did.
Dean is quite explicit in his reasons for breaking out of the trance when he speaks to Sam.
SAM (smiles):So we didn't get along then, huh?
SAM: I thought it was supposed to be this perfect fantasy.
DEAN: It wasn't. It was just a wish. I wished for Mom to live. If Mom never died, we never went hunting and you and me just never... you know.
SAM: Yeah. Well, I'm glad we do.
Dean cannot be content without Sam in his life constantly. It's not enough for him that he and Sam are settled in their respective relationships and lives, and that they are brothers. He wants all of Sam. He keeps digging until he uncovers the truth, and once he has, he won't leave his brother alone in the real world. He is choosing their insularity and co-dependence over comfort.
This is mirrored in the season 6 finale, The Man Who Knew Too Much, when Sam's 'broken wall' results in him being locked inside his mind with fragments of his own personality. His guide on this journey is an attractive bartender with a smart mouth called Robin, and there seems to be a rapport between the two. But it transpires that Soulless Sam shot the real Robin to get to a demon who was holding her for leverage. Robin wears an amulet and a leather jacket so that, visually, she resembles a female version of Dean.
On meeting the version of himself that remembers his time in Hell, Sam is told to stay in his fantasy and to "go find that bartender, go find Jess". But he refuses without hesitation, wanting to get back to his body:
HELL SAM: “Why is this so important to you?”
SAM: “You know me, you know why. I’m not leaving my brother alone out there.”
As demonstrated time and time again, their exceptional bond enables the brothers to find their way back to each other whether they are in Heaven, Hell or locked inside themselves.
Dean's only other attempt at a lasting 'apple pie life' is with Lisa and Ben and, while he cares about them, he only settles with them for the year that his brother is in Hell because he made a promise to Sam that he would. This is made clear in Exile on Main Street when he first finds out Sam has been back for almost the whole year:
SAM: You finally had what you wanted, Dean.
DEAN: I wanted my brother! Alive.
And reiterated later when Dean discovers Bobby knew about Sam's resurrection:
DEAN: Do you have any clue what walking away meant for me?
BOBBY: Yeah -- a woman and a kid and not getting your guts ripped out at age 30. That's what it meant.
DEAN: That woman and that kid -- I went to them because you (points at Sam) asked me to.
DEAN: Good for who? I showed up on their doorstep half out of my head with grief. God knows why they even let me in. I drank too much. I had nightmares. I looked everywhere. I collected hundreds of books, trying to find anything to bust you out.
SAM: You promised you'd leave it alone.
DEAN: Of course I didn't leave it alone! Sue me! A damn year? You couldn't put me out of my misery?
This is Dean laid absolutely bare. Even while trying to keep his promise, he cannot entirely turn his back on 'the life', and certainly not on his brother. While he manages to stay faithful to Lisa (as demonstrated in the opening of the episode when he tears up the waitress' phone number) and maintains a veneer of domesticity and normality, the implication is that this is more to do with the fact he is 'sitting in the dark and feeling the loss' than because he genuinely wants to make a go of things. In much the same way as he turns down Jo when he's grieving for John, Dean's newly tamed nature speaks more about how numb and broken he is without Sam than how much he values his relationship with Lisa. By his own admission, he is in 'misery'.
Once his brother is returned to him, Dean's reasons for staying become clouded by guilt. Knowing they are potentially jeopardised by association, Dean stays with the Braedens for a while but it is clear his heart is not in it, as Lisa herself tells Dean in You Can't Handle The Truth:
LISA: You've got so much buried in there, and you push it down and you push it down. Do you honestly think you can go through life like that and not freak out? Just what? Drink half a fifth a night and you're good?
DEAN: Hey, you knew what you signed up for.
LISA: Yeah, but I didn't expect Sam to come back. And I'm glad he's okay, I am, but the minute he walked through that door, I knew it was over.
Lisa here is summarising the extent to which the Winchesters' "crazy, tangled up thing" defines them by this stage in their story. Both have proved completely incapable of sustaining a long-term heteronormative relationship, and even Dean's flirtatiousness has dried up somewhat as demonstrated in Frontierland:
DEAN: Think we'll have time to hit on saloon girls?
(Sam gives Dean a look)
DEAN: I'm kidding. Come on.
In Let It Bleed, Dean asks Castiel to wipe Lisa and Ben's memories of him, meaning he can never go back, thus ensuring by the end of season 6 that a line has been drawn under his own efforts at having a family which conforms to social norms. Sam is once again all he has.
All In The Family
While Sam and Dean's unorthodox relationship is the crux of Supernatural, it is set within a network of equally complex and ambiguous connections. The notion of 'family' while being central to the universe they inhabit, is often complicated and even perverse.
Sibling relationships especially are often portrayed as unhealthy. In Simon Said, the boys meet Andy - another child who was visited by the Yellow Eyed Demon. Although he is suspected of killing people in his town using mind control, it transpires that the crimes are being perpetrated by his long lost "evil twin", Webber, who is murdering people he feels kept them apart. In Bloodlust, it is revealed that Gordon's grief at having his "beautiful" sister turned vampire drove him to hunt her and become consumed by hatred for all things supernatural. In Playthings, Rose and Maggie are sisters, separated by death as children, but still bound to one another. Rose is only able to prevent Maggie's spirit killing people by giving up her own life so that they can be playmates forever.
The angels and demons of Supernatural have their own attachments and hierarchies – most clearly illustrated by the battle between Lucifer and his angelic brothers. God is depicted as an absent father. Demons such as Crowley and Azazel are also fathers.
Family ties also extend beyond mere biology. Sam and Dean look to Bobby as a father figure before, and especially after, John's death. Their bond is such that Balthazar assures Soulless Sam that killing Bobby will be patricide for the purpose of scarring his vessel to ensure his soul cannot be re-seated.
Dean and Castiel have a "profound bond", forged when Castiel raised Dean from perdition, and this is strengthened as Castiel becomes more humanised with the passage of time. Dean even refers to him as "like a brother" in the latter part of season 6 when trying to persuade Castiel away from his determination to open Purgatory.
But Dean and Castiel's relationship also deviates from the traditional concept of familial love. Castiel's regard and affection for the Winchesters – especially Dean – causes him to rebel. Much like with Sam, Cas's faith in Dean is such that when it is tested, the repercussions are often highly emotional and sometimes violent as demonstrated in the following scenes:
"I did it, all of it, for you!"
"I gave everything for you!"
Dean plays on Castiel's seeming naivety and taunts him sexually, flirtatiously, in much the same way he does with Sam, as in The Point of No Return, where he draws attention to the intensity of Castiel's gaze:
DEAN: Well, Cas, not for nothing, but the last person who looked at me like that…I got laid.
The angel's weakness for the Winchester boys, and the obvious tension between Cas and Dean in particular, is also highlighted by other characters. Balthazar refers to Cas as "your boyfriend" to Sam. He also tells Dean in My Heart Will Go On:
“Sorry, you have me confused with the other angel. You know, the one in the dirty trench coat who's in love with you.”
This may be partly jest, but as with the brothers' love for one another, Castiel's sacrifice and his willingness to rebel against God himself for the Winchesters is excessive. It is also part of a broader tradition of homoeroticism on the show. There is palpable tension between Dean and Castiel, and also between Sam and Castiel. There is also a hint at a deeper love turned bad between Cas and Balthazar. Trickster/Gabriel flirts with and sexually teases the boys and Crowley uses sexuality to taunt Bobby, Sam, Dean and especially Castiel, referring to him as "the bottom in this relationship" – an explicit reference to gay sex.
Balthazar's brash and gung-ho nature is often used to bring the shadier subtext to the fore. In the season 6 finale, The Man Who Knew Too Much, he interrupts Dean watching over an unconscious Sam, asking,
“How's Sleeping Beauty? You didn't steal any kisses, I trust?”
This serves to recall Dean's indictment of watching someone sleep as 'rapey', and also the many occasions that the boys have watched each other in a less than wholesome way.
Incest is referred to both directly and indirectly with surprising frequency in the show. The season 4 episode, Family Remains, deals with the subject directly. One of the cases the boys investigate turns out not to be supernatural at all, but rather the crimes are being perpetrated by the damaged children of a woman who was raped by her own father, kept locked away for their whole lives.
In the season 4 episode, In The Beginning, Mary Winchester makes a deal with the Yellow Eyed Demon who is inhabiting her father's body. She agrees that he can visit Sam in ten years time in exchange for bringing John (whom he has just killed) back to life. The deal is sealed with a kiss, which presents the viewer with the visual of young Mary kissing her father passionately, if unwillingly, on the mouth.
Sam and Dean also comment that they find their mother attractive on the occasions they are sent back in time to meet her as a young woman. In the same episode, Dean says:
“Sammy, wherever you are - Mom is a babe! I'm so going to hell. Again.”
And in season 5's The Song Remains The Same, it is Sam who cannot stop staring at the young vision of his mother:
SAM: W—oh. Yeah, yeah. Um, I'm just, um — You are so beautiful.
JOHN [leans forward].
DEAN: He means that in a—a non-weird, wholesome, family kind of a way.
SAM: Yeah, right.
Dean’s attraction to his mother in In The Beginning is seemingly referred to by the episodic title of The End:
Superwiki tells us: The episode title might refer to The Doors Song "The End", which uses themes of the apocalypse and a world gone mad ('all the children are insane'). The song also evokes the image of the devil ('the snake is long, 7 miles...and he's old, and his skin is cold'), and has an Oedipal part, where a son goes to murder his sister, brother and finally father, to confront his mother, who he wishes to have sex with.
The boys’ discovery that John fathered Adam Winchester, leads Dean to remark that he’s “thinking about Dad sex” in 4:19 Jump The Shark. Incest is also alluded to in the season 6 episode And Then There Were None, notably in a taunt from their grandfather:
(Samuel gets up. Sam blocks his path)
SAMUEL Relax. Bathroom break. So unless you want to hold it for me...
Bobby also makes a joke involving the brothers in the same episode when they meet up with Rufus:
DEAN: Well, look what the cat dragged in.
SAM: It really is good to see you, Rufus.
RUFUS: I can believe it. It must get old dealing with this miserable cuss here all by yourself.
SAM: Is it that obvious?
BOBBY: Why don't you three get a room?
Indeed, the boys' rooming habits lead to much of the speculation touched on earlier. They are assumed to be a couple in 1:08 Bugs, in 2:11 Playthings, and in 1:18 Something Wicked. On checking into a motel, Dean is confronted by a young boy called Michael:
Michael: King or two queens?
Dean: (Asking for a room) Two queens.
Michael (Looks at Sam waiting outside): Yeah, I bet.
Michael and his younger brother, Asher, are mirrors of Dean and Sam, and remind Dean of an incident in their childhood when he left Sam unattended and put him at risk from a Shtriga which nearly killed him. It is worth noting that although Michael assumes Sam and Dean are a couple, Dean never corrects him. Although he uses the fact that he and Michael are both big brothers who would do anything for their little brothers to bond with the kid, he never actually tells Michael that Sam is the little brother in question even though Sam is often in the same room. Michael only finds out when overhearing Dean call Sam 'little brother' in a moment of panic once they have killed the monster. Dean's angst at having let the Shtriga get away once before and his desire to protect Sam at any cost is apparent in the way he continues to shoot at its lifeless body after it attacks the now adult Sam.
While their being mistaken for a couple is usually played for laughs – most recently in Frontierland when Sam tells Judge Mortimer “We're looking for a man” and the judge replies, “I'll bet” - occasionally the brothers themselves act the part to obtain information. Dean calls Sam "honey" in Bugs and playfully slaps him on the ass, and in A Very Supernatural Christmas, they lead a shopkeeper to believe they are together to gain intel for their case:
SHOPKEEPER: Help you, boy?
DEAN: Uh, hope so. Uh we’re playing Jenga with the Walshes the other night, and a… he hasn’t shut up since about this Christmas wreath. I don’t know you tell him.
SAM: Sure. It was yummy.
SHOPKEEPER: I sell a lot of wreaths, guys.
SAM: Right, right, but you see, this one would have been really special. It had, uh, it had, uh, green leaves, um, white buds on it. It might have been made of, uh… meadowsweet?
SHOPKEEPER: Well, aren’t you fussy one?
DEAN: (Smiles) He is…
This tactic is interesting within the context of the episode, in which we have the scene of awkward domesticity between the boys when they are determined to have Christmas together but unable to face the reality that it will be Dean's last.
In the season 4 opener, Lazarus Rising, Ruby watches Sam and Dean – who is freshly back from Hell - share an emotional reunion hug, and asks them if they are "together". Although Dean doesn’t recognise her in her new body, she knows that they are brothers. This is both a taunt and foreshadows the role she will play as an interloper, responsible for damaging their relationship.
Incest and the show’s perceived subtext is dealt with in the self-referential ‘meta’ episodes. The season 4 episode Monster At The End Of This Book, deals directly with the concept of Wincest and slash fiction. Finding definitions of ‘Sam girls’, ‘Dean girls’ and ‘Sam/Dean girls’ online prompts the following exchange:
DEAN: What’s a slash fan?
SAM: As in Sam slash Dean. Together.
DEAN: Like together together? They do know we’re brothers right?
SAM: Doesn’t seem to matter.
Having the Winchesters acknowledge this perception of them, their bewilderment at it, is both comic, and serves to highlight how blinded they are to the obsessive and unusual nature of their relationship.
In season 5’s The Real Ghostbusters, Sam and Dean attend a Supernatural fan convention and are confronted by lovers Demian and Barnes who role-play as Sam and Dean. When Dean questions why anyone would want to pretend to be him and Sam, Demian cites their love as the appeal:
DEMIAN: I'm not sure you get what the story's about.
DEAN: That so?
DEMIAN: In real life, he sells stereo equipment. I fix copiers. Our lives suck. But Sam and Dean. To wake up every morning and save the world. To have a brother who would die for you. Well, who wouldn't want that?
DEAN: Well, maybe you've got a point.
The fact that they are lovers in ‘real life’ who hold Sam and Dean’s relationship up as an ideal, something to aspire to, means we once again draw parallels between romantic love and familial love. The edges begin to blur.
Season 5’s Changing Channels also presents some interesting situations in terms of the brothers’ relationship. In a parody of Knight Rider, Sam is turned into the Impala, an object Dean refers to as his ‘baby’ and fetishises deeply. Much of the comedy in these scenes is derived from the fact that Dean must get inside Sam and retrieve things from his trunk:
DEAN: Rummages in the trunk of the car.
SAM: That, uh, feels really uncomfortable.
The way that Dean has previously joked about Sam being possessed in Born Under A Bad Sign (“Dude you... You like full on had a girl inside you for like a whole week. It’s pretty naughty”) and Bobby’s anti-possession charms stopping the demon "getting back up in ya"(“That sounds vaguely dirty, but er, thanks”) makes it difficult for the audience to experience these scenes without hearing sexual connotations. The idea of Sam’s transformed body as an object of desire is reinforced by Trickster/Gabriel:
TRICKSTER, appearing from nowhere: Wow. Sam. Get a load of the rims on you.
SAM: Eat me.
The nature of Sam’s objectification and the inappropriate intimacy this affords Dean is then underlined:
TRICKSTER: Well played, boys. Well played. Where'd you get the holy oil?
DEAN: Well, you might say we pulled it out of Sam's ass.
In season 6’s The French Mistake, Sam and Dean are sent to another dimension where Supernatural is a TV show, and meet their real life counterparts, actors Jared and Jensen. In this alternative reality, Jared is married to Genevieve – the actress who played Ruby (as he is in reality) which makes Dean very uncomfortable. His old insecurity creeps in when he suggests that Sam might prefer to stay in this world, where there is no supernatural and no magic, and he has an attractive wife. But Sam rebuffs this, citing the fact that they are "not even brothers here" as the reason he’d rather go back to their dangerous, less comfortable life. This harks back to What Is And What Should Never Be. Jared and Jensen do not get on. Someone who resembles the demon that came between them shares a bed with Sam. They cannot exist in a world where their relationship is damaged, where they are not everything to each other, even if all other aspects of that world are preferable.
In the season 6 episode, Two And A Half Men, Sam finds a baby Shapeshifter and drags Dean away from Lisa and Ben to help him look after it. This episode deals with the notion of fatherhood. Dean feels like a father to Ben, but he still leaves the Braedens to hunt with his soulless brother. He is aware he doesn’t want Ben to have the kind of childhood he had – on the run or ‘on lockdown' - but Sam accuses him of making the same mistakes John made with them.
Sam and Dean name the baby ‘Bobby John’ after their dead father and their living surrogate father. Interestingly, it is Sam who suggests ‘John’, and Dean who says ‘Bobby’. Dean's unswerving devotion to his father has been somewhat adjusted since John's death, by his relationship with Bobby and all he has been through. Sam - no longer in posession of his soul - plumps for John, although he has always had the more strained relationship with their father. Since a young age he has placed faith in his older brother, even gifting him the amulet he intended as a present for John once he became disillusioned with his father's lies and failure to come home for Christmas.
Placing Sam and Dean in the roles of parents to the baby monster, muddling through and on the road, is both comic, but also juxtaposed with the life of domesticity and fatherhood Dean is being pulled away from. Once again, when presented with the safer, ‘normal’ alternative of a family life with a woman and child, Dean chooses Sam, minus his soul, a baby monster, and motel rooms. Dysfunction over normalcy. Sam over all.
While Dean’s entire existence is focused on Sam and vice versa, fans’ enjoyment of the show also seems reliant on the state of Sam and Dean's relationship. However you view it, their "crazy, tangled up thing" elicits fervour and devotion and inspires fan fiction, art, videos and heated debate. While the show gets dark and characters are lost along the road, the love between the brothers keeps us hooked and gives us succour. It remains to be seen where Castiel's betrayal and Sam's damaged mind will lead us in season 7, but the Winchesters are together which means they can overcome pretty much anything. As Dean Winchester tells his brother in Born Under A Bad Sign,
DEAN: But you're, you're okay, and that's what matters. Everything else we can deal with.
N.B. I am in no way affiliated with Supernatural or CW. All views expressed in this piece are entirely my own. This article is purely for fun - no offence intended.