Thursday, March 19, 2009

Brother vs. Brother

It started in the pilot.

Sam wakes up in the middle of the night, hearing an intruder in the house. He engages him, they fight, and I'm hooked. Passion ignited.

That "fight" scene did more than grab me (and many other fans). It grounded the boys' relationship, in a way. They were pretty evenly matched in that fight. Sure, Dean was holding back because he knew it was Sam, but Sam wasn't swinging to kill, either, just subdue. One got the upper hand, then the other, and such has been their relationship ever since.

For three seasons, Dean's role as protector and leader was undisrupted. He saved Sam from possession, from death, from the Yellow-Eyed Demon, even sacrificed himself to keep Sam safe. But all along, Sam has matured (in most ways) and learned how to lead, himself. He exerted some control when he saved Dean from Gordon and later killed Gordon with his bare hands. At the end of season 3, when they were going after Lilith and trying to save Dean from Hell, Sam pushed harder and harder to influence their course of action. He learned things about himself, and was forced to go out on his own when the Trickster killed Dean "for good."

And then he was alone. Dean's influence could never disappear, but when he was in Hell, Sam made all the decisions. He made his own choices, and explored every facet of his identity, including the part manifested by the demon blood forced on him when he was six months old.

You can't go back after that, and I knew the brotherly dynamics would change. Dean had missed four months, and his time in Hell would have permanent effects. Sam wouldn't be subverted to his brother's will anymore.

In some ways, I was right. I mean, Dean does still get to choose the music in the Impala. But Sam doesn't listen to him anymore, especially when his reasons are "Because I said so!" But I hoped their partnership would grow stronger, that they could see each other more as equals. That their fight against a common enemy would be enough to help them overcome the adjustment to the changes.

But Kripke doesn't play that way.

It starts out simple, and gets more and more complex the more detail you add:

Sam works with a demon. He has demon powers, and that's bad.

Dean works with an angel. Angels work for God, so that's good.

But the demon has a good goal, ridding the earth of one of the worst demons in existence. Her motives are suspicious and likely selfish. She manipulates to get her way.

The angels have a good goal, stopping that same really bad demon from freeing Lucifer and bringing hell to earth, but they don't seem to care how many people die to stop that from happening. They, too, manipulate to get their way.

Sam's powers enable him to save people while killing demons. Dean equates "demon" with "evil" and can't seem to unbend even a little. So Sam has stopped trying to make him understand. That opens a rift between them, one that gets wider and wider the more he lies. It was worsened by Dean lying, too, about Hell, but Dean's lies were internal and didn't affect others (so far!). And he came clean. He opened up to Sam, who didn't offer any support or commiseration for the pain Dean's been suffering. Is Sam too wrapped up in his own issues, or did Dean's confession change how Sam feels about him? Or does he just feel inadequate and therefore does nothing?

The angels, and Dean, and now Pam have all told Sam that he does not have the right idea, using his powers, that he's going down an unknown path they all fear. But Sam's intentions have always been noble. Even though he has a need for personal revenge, and his own pain to exorcise (hee--get it?), his goal, getting rid of Lilith, is consistent with the rest of their lives. Saving people, hunting things. Evil things.

Until "Sex and Violence," I could envision a path where the brothers were at personal odds but still had the same goals, the same core values, the same basic way of looking at things. They could continue down the road side by side, or fighting back to back, with nothing in the world more important or more valued than each other.

But then, under the siren's spell, Sam said some horrible things, things he really seems to believe, despite his repeated assertion that he didn't mean them. He has decided his powers, his history, elevates him above others. In "Death Takes a Holiday" he said the rules don't apply to "us," not just himself, but the fact that he's including Dean in the "specialness" doesn't help. It's not that he's wrong, on the face of it. They are different. They've escaped death, and Hell, and all manner of bad things. At this point, they've probably defeated more and worse things than any hunter on earth, which would put them at the top of the game.

But Sam now seems to be equating "different" with "better." He acts superior toward
demons, angels, and Dean alike. His disillusionment with the angels and his fear of the future have brought him to a dangerous place. A Spider-Man place*, a test that I think he's going to fail, devastatingly.

Since early in season 4, many people have predicted a "brother against brother" showdown. I've fought the idea not just because I hate it, but because I didn't think the events, early on, necessarily supported it. The complexity of the influences (good demon, bad angel) didn't pit the brothers against each other, and they had, and still have, the same goal.

My position is getting harder to hold onto, now that Sam is lying to little boy ghosts as well as his brother, and he seems to care less and less about the people than about winning the battle. Now that Dean seems to be letting Sam's attitude and his words sever the ties he has knotted so tightly in the past.

In season one's episode "Scarecrow," Dean leaves Sam on the side of the road. Their needs were at odds then, but it never felt like they were truly ready to cut each other off. If something similar happened now, I don't think it would be so easy to overcome. They've damaged each other, and been damaged by outside sources, and the bond that would hold them through anything is far more tenuous.

What's coming, though? Speculation is really difficult when we don't know if this war will continue into season 5, if we avoid any spoilers or pretend we didn't hear anything about the season finale. And the external framework still makes it really hard to envision Sam and Dean truly fighting each other, as themselves and not some monster's plaything.

Still, every episode, every moment of character development, seems to be leading us to that end. I'm kind of resigned to facing it, but I cling to the belief that Kripke and Co. know--they have to know, how can they not know?--that breaking the brothers the wrong way will break his show completely, so whatever they do to them in the end, they'll fix. I am, of course, fully invested in the ride.

Your turn! What do you think of the inevitability of a brother-vs.-brother showdown, and how do you think it will manifest? (Speculation only, let's avoid spoilers!)

*With great power comes great responsibility.


Anonymous said...

Natalie, I think this is one of my favorite posts so far! But also sad--it's like the end of an era. I beleve (HOPE!) that the boys will come through this, yet it almost feels as if there's no coming back from some of the things that they've said and done.

LOL at the Spiderman warning and "Kripke doesn't play that way" (too true). On the one hand, it would be easy to sympathize with Sam since Dean IS hard too talk to (shutting down conversations with absolutes and the illogical "Because I said so!) and, as you said, Sam has noble intentions (as far as we know). But, as you pointed out, it's not just Dean warning Sam now. Pamela's last words to Sam gave me chills, and it broke my heart to see Sam lie to that little boy. Granted, Jared did a nice job with that scene--we could see SOME emotional conflict on his face, but not nearly as much as we would have two seasons ago. Heck, two seasons ago, I don't even think he would have done it! Dean might have (against Sam's objections).

Your post title is great since this is fundamentally brother against brother (sibling rivalry at its zenith) but I've always maintained that John and Bobby aside, Dean has had to play the central parenting role in Sam's life. And recent episodes have reminded me of the sometimes painful (some sociologists argue, necessary) phase of conflict when a teenager is becoming adult and eventually doesn't need their parents anymore--at least, not in the same way. There are clear parallels. After all, Sam's been sneaking off in the middle of the night to hook up with the Wrong Girl!

And when Dean tries to reassert his authority, Sam's no longer even pretending to listen, basically just telling him to butt out. The majority of the time, parents and adolescents move into a new phase (one where the parent has to let go, and the teen moves out) and so I hope that ultimately Kripke can give us an emotionally satisfying resolution--one where the brothers view each other as equals, neither one necessarily in charge. Yet even as I want to believe that, I'm skeptical, watching these two alphas jockey for position. It will be interesting, of that I have no doubt, but watching this escalating conflict makes my heart hurt a little. Sam and Dean and their love for each other (even when squabbling, which as Natalie pointed out, started right away in the pilot) have always been the soul of the show.

phouse1964 said...

I just know that since Kripke already has the pickup for S5, he will leave us in an even more horrific place than last year when 4.22 ends. Maybe both boys screaming? I can hell a long summer coming!

I am glad than Sam has finally grown up even if it means he is at odds with Dean for awhile. He is a much more compelling character for me now. I honestly believe that they will somehow figure out that they need to pull together and fight the good fight together to "win"' in the end. But that will be in S5.

Natalie J. Damschroder said...

Phouse, I think you're right about how he'll end the season. Just look back at his previous finales! Season one had the boys (and Dad) all hanging at death's door. It doesn't matter how many shows/movies use that broadside smash, it's SHOCKING. And that was a SEMI! Season 2 was different because they didn't know if there was going to be a season 3. That was both hugely satisfying (the tie-in to the pilot) and compelling (Dean's uncertain future). But of course last year they went where a lot of people didn't think they'd go, and Hell is a lot worse than a smashed Impala. He's got to amp it up to beat himself.

And I'm totally with you on Sam being more compelling now that he's grown up a bit. I ache at the bad parts, though. When he's being strong and decisive, he's amazing. When he's making choices that hurt himself or others, he's heartbreaking.

Tanya, sheer brilliance, bringing in the parental component and Sam's breaking away from it! Dammit, I should have thought of it that way. LOL Everything you said is dead on. Dean has always been difficult to have a true conversation with. He's incredibly stubborn and has a hard time seeing the other person's point of view. He's changed, and I think after his admission and Sam's breakdown about having demon blood in him, he's more open, but I don't think Sam believes that.

My ultimate resolution is just what you describe. The brothers as true partners, fully on each other's side, fully trusting each other, and heading off to the next hunting job (or some other really satisfying ending--someone suggested an Alias-type flash forward). Every time Jared or Jensen makes a Cassidy/Sundance reference, I want to stick duct tape over their mouths! I hope Kripke is more us and less them. :)

kaybee said...

Great post Natalie!

I too tried to have hope that a brother v. brother showdown wasn't looing in the finale but, especially after 'Sex and Violence' I think it's inevitable.
I have faith in Kripke and hope he handles the showdown the right way because I agree with you that breaking the brothers the wrong way will break the show.
Even if their conflict lasts till Season 5, it better be resolved before the (possible) series finale. It started with the brothers and should end with the brothers.
I liked how you pointed out that the demons and angels aren't exactly evil or holy. They both can be manipulative to get what they really want. Hopefully Sam and Dean will realize this too.
I am really torn in this season's mytharc. In some ways I find it very compelling and even though this rift is becoming bigger and bigger between Dean and Sam I can't help but want to see how it plays out. It's the most interesting dramatic mytharc since Season 1.
In other ways, I hate it. I don't mind the little bortherly disputes but I hate seeing them really truly hurt each other. I thought once Dean came back from Hell, Sam wouldn't necessarily fall back in line but he'd be grateful and happy to have his brother back. Not resent him for what he did in Hell and think he didn't need him to hunt anymore.
Kripke said Season 4 would splilt the fandom but I didn't think he'd mean this much.
Still, Season 4 has bought new excitement to the series and certainly has people talking.

phouse1964 said...

The Sam growing up thing got me thing about something else. As he matures, he becomes more and more like John. And after last season, I really think Dean realizes that John was a dick and now Sam as almost a daddy is really rubbing Dean the wrong way. I think Sam expects Dean to do what he says and Dean ain't having any of it.

Natalie J. Damschroder said...

I'm totally with you, Kaybee! I've resisted the path all season, while simultaneously loving it. The boys hurting each other is a killer. But it's been so well done (the few "meh" episodes this season haven't been mytharc eps!) I can't really complain.

I am very relieved that the next two episodes are departures from this heavy, dark drama, though, I have to say that!

Natalie J. Damschroder said...

Oooh, interesting point, Phouse. John did say back in season 1 that he and Sam were too much alike (I think it was him, wasn't it?) and now I'm not going to be able to see S4!Sam the same way, now that you've said that!

Hey, Terri, where are you? I'm agreeing with everyone today! LOL

Anonymous said...

Natalie, that was the best damn write up! I loved how you covered their journey from pilot to present. Very touching and thought provoking. And Tanya I love the parallel you made between teen and parent. Really good! This week I've been haunted by this quote and a large part of it is because I think of Sammy. "He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster." -- Friedrich Nietzsche. I think Castiel witnessed the start of that transition and it scared the crap outta him.

Natalie J. Damschroder said...

Thanks, Terri!

Re: Cas witnessing Sam turning into a monster...God, I hope not. I hope he (Sam) can stop it. But you're right, of course. He's well on his way.