'Supernatural' Season 8: Sam Winchester hits a low point, and high praise for Jared Padalecki

supernatural-823-jared-padalecki.jpgThe "Supernatural" Season 8 finale aired almost two weeks ago, but we're only just starting a long, long summer of over-analyzing it until the show returns on Tuesday nights this fall.  At the beginning of this season, I wrote a tongue-in-cheek "letter" to Sam Winchester -- so I thought it only fair to take another, more serious look at his story, now that the season is over.

When Jeremy Carver took the reins this year as showrunner, he stepped in at something of a disadvantage. Though the Season 7 finale seemed to hold some promise, in retrospect, the season ended on a particularly weak note last spring. It was a premise we'd seen before -- one Winchester brother trapped in another world, the other stuck with the burden of getting him out. The only difference, this time, was that Sam didn't know where Dean was. For all he knew, Dean was dead, or evaporated, or in Heaven. Carver, understandably reluctant to tell the same story all over again, found that one key difference and built on it. With Dean missing, and Sam with no leads or reliable contacts, Sam decided to grieve his brother, instead of searching for him.

A lot of fans, myself included, didn't like it. Initially it felt out of character on several levels. When I asked Jared Padalecki about it, he admitted that Sam's decision not to look for Dean was unexpected, but he was relieved to have something different to play as an actor, and looked forward to injecting something fresh into the mix.

In hindsight, and having seen the endgame, I actually do like the choice that Carver made to have Sam not look for Dean. As we were reminded in the season finale, Sam has let Dean down many times. He spent Season 3 trying to keep Dean from going to hell, and failed. He then spent four months trying to get Dean out of hell, and failed. Then he spent a season trying to avenge Dean's death... and failed. Looking back, it's easy to understand why Sam wouldn't think he was good enough to save Dean at this point. He'd just gotten out of a mental institution. He wasn't exactly in peak condition.

What really worked about Carver's controversial choice, though, is that when all was said and done, it felt real. I'm the oldest of three sisters, and I can attest to the sadness that comes along with realizing you're not your younger sibling's whole life anymore. One day, you're their hero: they'd do just about anything to be allowed to hang out with you and your friends, they think you're the coolest person they've ever met, and they want to be just like you. The next day, they have a life of their own, priorities that don't involve you, goals that have nothing to do with what you've accomplished. Obviously, the Sam-and-Dean of it all is bigger -- heightened, more intense, with life or death on the line -- but Dean's realization that Sam didn't look for him is just a bigger version of that same familiar feeling.   

supernatural-sam-amelia-dog-season-8.jpgSam made a terrible mistake. We looked for excuses, theorized about how it would all play out, but in the end, there was no supernatural reason for Sam's betrayal of their unspoken pact. He just... messed up. He did something very selfish, and a little bit weak, and made flimsy excuses for it. What he did would be unforgivable if the person in question was anyone but Dean. But Dean will forgive Sam anything.

The greatest failure of the season was Sam's love interest, Amelia. There's no denying that. Personally, I think it comes down to a lack of chemistry, which wasn't the fault of the actors -- it was inevitable, given Sam's position when they met. Jared played Sam as very sad in his time with Amelia, and rightfully so. He'd lost his brother, which in Winchester world is equivalent to having half your body hacked off without anesthetic. So, even as the writers tried to create joyful moments in the romance, moments of connection and hope, Jared had to stay true to his years of playing Sam -- which meant that even with a great girl, Sam. Was. Sad. Really, it just wasn't the right time to introduce a love interest. Back in Season 6, when Sam was soulless, Dean told him that people with souls don't move on when their brother disappears. "You sit in the dark, and you feel the loss," Dean said. That's essentially where Sam was when Amelia found him: sitting in the dark, feeling the loss. It wasn't time for him to hit the light switch yet.

However, beginning the season with Sam and Dean emotionally raw (Dean betrayed, and Sam wracked with guilt and heartache) put us on a new playing field later, when they began to mend the bridge between them. That "unspoken pact" obviously wasn't working, and it became clear all the other things that have gone unspoken between them over the years needed to be expressed with words, not just meaningful beer bottle clinks over the trunk of the car. This season had more vulnerable, heartfelt conversations between Sam and Dean than we've seen in years. Not to mention more hugs -- which may seem trivial, but these guys have terrible lives. They need those hugs, and the audience needs them too, so we're reminded that they have something worth staying alive for.

There's been a lot of debate this season over whether the story and the mythology is too Sam-centric, without enough emphasis on Dean's contribution to the overarching themes. I'll admit that I may come at this from a biased perspective, because when I started watching "Supernatural" in 2005, I really only checked it out because the kid from "Gilmore Girls" was in it. Here lies a Jared Padalecki fan will be etched on my tombstone, basically. But, being as objective as I possibly can be, I've always seen "Supernatural" as a story about Sam, told from Dean's perspective. The audience lives in Dean's head, we feel his connections with secondary characters and understand his pain and frustration. Sam, on the other hand, keeps secrets from the audience, reveals himself only in fits and starts. The audience learns about Sam only as Dean does.

supernatural-823-jensen-ackles-jared-padalecki-dean-sam.jpgIn a way, Season 8 paid off an arc established in the pilot -- when the boys were just babies, and later, after Dean dropped Sam off at school. Sam has always been doomed, marked, tarnished. And Dean has always been the guy who pulls Sam out of fires. Sam's story is about evil. Dean's story is about Sam.

This season, there's been a lot of talk of purity. When Dean came back, he admitted that he missed Purgatory on some level. He said that the hunting there, the survival instinct, felt pure.  Dean finds purity in Purgatory because that is where Sam isn't. Sam has always been Dean's grey area, because Sam is the thing that represents goodness for Dean, but in reality, Sam is corrupted by an essential darkness. Sam, as he tells Dean in a feverish haze in "The Great Escapist," has never felt clean. From childhood, he had some subconscious awareness of the demon blood in his veins. His work to shut the gates of hell in Season 8 was about saving the world from demons, yes, but it was also about purification. It was about coming clean.

That purity came at a terrible price. Sam's disintegration over the second half of the season, as he endured trials and changed at a "sub-atomic level," according to Castiel, was absolutely spectacular to watch. I'd be remiss to write an article breaking down Sam Winchester in Season 8 without spending some time gushing about Jared's work this year, particularly in the episodes following the reveal about the three trials.

As I said, I've been a fan for a long time; "Gilmore Girls" debuted 13 years ago, and that's half of my life. But even when there was a Dean Forester poster on the inside of my ninth-grade locker, I'm not sure I ever expected Jared to turn out performances like he did this season. He was undeniably fantastic, not only when compared to his CW cohorts, but when compared to more celebrated, award-winning actors, as Jensen Ackles has been for a long time.

Having had the chance to spend a little time with him over the last few years, it's apparent that Jared's not someone who shows up and does the job and walks away. He's a guy who works on his craft and thinks deeply about his character. He analyzes scripts like they're pieces of literature. Talking to him about Sam is a lot like talking to a writer -- or to an extremely invested critic. He told me earlier this year that he's still hoping to go to college at some point in the future, and it's clear that for now, he's channeling a lot of that lust for learning into continuing to peel back the layers of Sam Winchester and, eight years in, to discover new ways to bring him to life.

That work all paid off tenfold this year. One of the reasons it took me over a week to write this piece was because I couldn't quite bring myself to re-watch the brothers' stand-off at the end of the season finale. It hurt too much. With Jensen upping his game (which was already at an astronomical standard, obviously) and Jared clearly emotionally flaying himself to do justice to Sam's plight, the conversation was likely the best work the two have ever done together. And that's really saying something, considering the emotional steamroller they've driven over us for the last eight seasons. Jared obviously set a high standard for himself this year, but he hurtled well over that mark. He surpassed expectations not only of the CW-actors-are-just-pretty-faces naysayer skeptics, but of die-hard fans like myself.

supernatural-sacrifice-sam-jared-padalecki.jpg When Dean bursts in on a weakened, messy Sam just as he's about to complete the final trial, Dean warns Sam that he'll die if he succeeds.

"So?" Sam says.

That response should've been old hat. These guys have been game to sacrifice themselves for the greater good, or for each other, or for any random faceless victim from day one. But this year, Sam got a glimpse of the simple joys of life outside hunting: a birthday cake in the park, a dog, a victorious battle of wits with a pretty girl's father. It reminded him not only what he was working to preserve for others, but what he was working toward for himself, and for the first time in a long time, Sam not only valued human life as a whole, but he valued his own life, and his own future. As he made clear in "Trial and Error," it was important to him that Dean be part of that future.

So that "So?" was not really about giving up on himself. His "So?" wasn't a surrender. It was a genuine question; even something of a challenge. In "Trial and Error," Sam told Dean how great and strong he thought he was.  In "Sacrifice," in Sam's moment of weakness, sickness, and pain, he needed to hear that back from Dean.

He revealed that in order to purify his blood, he had to confess his greatest sin: letting Dean down. All of that darkness in Sam kept him from being the good thing that Dean saw when he looked at him, and that, in essence, is their eternal struggle. In turn, Dean made it very clear to Sam that despite all of that, Sam is his priority. Sam is the one he'll forsake everything else for. Dean is, at his core, the guy who pulls Sam out of fires.

supernatural-sam-and-dean-season-8.jpgWinchesters aren't very good at saying "I love you." But this season, Carver coaxed them both to a place where they are pretty darn good at saying "You are more important to me than literally the entire world." Of course, the greatest achievement wasn't getting the boys to say it. It was getting them to hear it. If we can start Season 9 with each Winchester knowing and believing that he is essential not only to his brother's survival, but to his brother's happiness, then we're truly starting in a new place. Carver has managed to break the cycle of self-loathing and self-flagellation that has defined these men for much, much too long.

That pervasive unclean feeling that Sam was talking about might not go away any time soon. After all, he can't complete the trials now, and it would do a great disservice to Jared's work if there was an easy angel-touch fix to all of that trauma. But what Sam really needed was to confess his greatest sin to Dean. What Dean really needed was to hear it confessed. As usual, they have something truly catastrophic to deal with, now that all the angels from Heaven have fallen, graceless, down to earth -- not to mention Sam's state -- but it seems that after eight long years, they've reached a point of closure. They have an opportunity for a new start and a clean slate with each other. Maybe there's a future where Sam doesn't have to be the doomed child of Azazel with a destiny tied to hell, and maybe there's a future where Dean can establish an identity for himself outside of taking care of Sam.

I've got high hopes for Season 9, and after seeing the entirety of Season 8, I'll be much less quick to judge Carver's early decisions until I see how the cards fall. Eight years of watching Sam Winchester rise and fall was absolutely satisfied this season, and I've never been more excited to see what he -- and Jared -- tackle next.



Photo/Video credit: The CW