Last week’s episode of Supernatural, “Mamma Mia,” featured one of the most important moments of Sam Winchester’s life to date, and we’re super emotional about it.
In Supernatural’s second episode of season 12, Dean, Mary and Castiel were able to locate Sam and rescue him from where he was being held and tortured — including with the use of some incredibly questionable sex magic we hope was intended as sickening proof of how unethical Lady Toni is rather than a titillating glimpse at how hot they might be together in the future — by the British Men of Letters.
Sam’s discovery that both Dean and Mary are in fact alive happened at a rather inopportune moment with not a lot of spare time to trade notes. We never got to see his reaction to the full explanation, but Jared Padalecki took home MVP of this episode in his final scene — the first private conversation he’s had with his mother in his entire life.
Padalecki promised that watching Sam be a son for the first time would be a super interesting thing for him to play and for us to watch, but I couldn’t have predicted the way he uses his voice and body language here. He’s goofy and nasal, so young and so, so, so nervous — offering Mary tea and John’s hunting journal, the thing that helped him to understand his father’s choices, and then, this brave and resilient hero, who has been broken down so many times and rebuilt himself stronger, needs to screw up every ounce of his courage in order to tell his mother it means a lot that she’s back. He then gets the best hug he’s ever had in the series and just melts into it, and I cry for ten thousand hours.
It’s interesting that the journal offer wasn’t a go-to option for Dean — not that they’ve had many moments for him to have thought of it before going out to save Sam, but it’s already confirmed that Dean was worried about overwhelming Mary, and it’s easy to imagine that those worries may have included telling her the full truth about John, given that he still struggles with so much about his father himself. Dean’s admitted that the journal is a source of anguish for him, complicating his love for his father, but for Sam, the journal represents answers, and it elevates his memories of John, and his first port of call is to share that with Mary, not hide it from her.
I feel like Sam and Mary may have great things ahead for them — Dean’s been hung up about his mother for his entire life, but “Mamma Mia” proved that he’s got some misconceptions about his image of her, and that it may be mutual. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t trade that awkward phone call to Cas or that family dinner scene for the world, but Mary remembers Dean as a four-year-old — a person, with likes and wants and a personality, and she and he both slightly regressed to that dynamic in their interactions.
However, Sam was a literal baby, and it’s impossible for Mary to project that onto him. They’re not trying to undo anything, they have no expectations, or incorrect or outdated assumptions. I don’t want it to be a competition, and I don’t want it to hurt anyone, but for all that Dean is the one who has loved Mary more for his entire life, there’s a chance that Sam is going to have an easier time getting to know her adult-to-adult and have a less awkward relationship with her than Dean will. The potential for Sam and Mary to become, well, sort of best friends, really, is thrilling, fascinating and heartening.
All in all, definitely one for the Sam Winchester sob-fest books. Dean Winchester, of the perfect single manly tear, is one of the most vivid and complex characters I have ever watched. Jensen Ackles suffers beautifully, and I am deeply moved by the nuances of his performance. Watching Dean’s emotional arcs is generally a cathartic and exciting experience in a “hurts so good” way. But Sam just plain hurts. His biggest moments — or sometimes completely random ones — tend to feel the realest, and mess me up the worst. So naturally, I decided it was a good time to dwell in some more of them.
You’ll notice that there’s nothing here that particularly pertains to Sam and Dean’s relationship, and that’s because Supernatural’s best brotherly moments is a whole other ball game for another day. Sam’s also had his share of romance-related tragedy, which, again, is not what I’m talking about today, but if you’re desperate, just pretend that “Heart” is on this list because it did actually really upset me despite my better judgement. Anyway, these moments belong to Sam and Sam alone, and along with that Mary hug, they’re the ones that jump out at me the most when I think about the mile markers of my Sam Winchester experience. Your mileage may vary.
‘Bad Day at Black Rock’
In this episode, Sam falls victim to a cursed rabbit’s foot — unbelievable good luck while he possesses it, then uncontrollable, life-threatening bad luck once it’s stolen from him. Look, I am perfectly aware that this is a farce and should not be included, and that “Mystery Spot” — one of the best episodes not just of Supernatural, but of television as a whole, that I’ve ever seen — should probably have this slot, but I don’t care. Padalecki, usually the straight man to Ackles’ eccentric, does an outstanding job with the comedic pathos of his plight, and it really isn’t a poignant episode at all, but for me, it was a big deal because “Bad Day at Black Rock” was the moment that Sam Winchester finally clicked into place in my brain.
There’s a reason, storytelling-wise, that it was Sam and not Dean hit with this curse. Dean could deal with a bad day — to be clear, I’m not talking about the effects of the curse itself here, but the emotional response to being cursed. Dean’s a juggler: if he drops one ball, he can pick another up and keep going — he’s kind of used to everything going wrong and knows how to wing it, but Sam — Sam is a tightrope walker. He undertakes life with perfect and precise preparation until the moment that he suddenly can’t, and then he crashes helplessly and just fails to handle anything. This trait becomes apparent in more sinister ways later — his descent into demon blood addiction, his going off the grid for a year after hitting the infamous dog — but weirdly, it was this episode that gave me an extreme case of empathy for Sam and, to get personal for a minute, a deeper understanding of how similar he is, in this regard, to myself.
‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’
This is probably going to get me blacklisted from any Supernatural event I may want to attend for the rest of my life, but I didn’t actually like “Swan Song” — the season 5 finale, the official end of creator Eric Kripke’s era, and the initial designated end point for the show — all that much. That’s why I’m glad that this episode, the season 6 finale, ended up being Kripke’s actual final contribution to the show. For me, it’s a million times better than “Swan Song,” and it’s inarguably some of Jared Padalecki’s finest work, as he portrays a threefold version of Sam who “wakes up” with amnesia and races through a confusing quest inside his own mind in order to put the pieces of himself back together.
Killing versions of yourself is never a fun day, but I’m not sure what’s more upsetting — Sam facing the soulless part of himself, who’s determined to come out on top, or the moment when he finds the Devil-tortured part, the part that’s been hidden behind a mental “wall” until now. The original Sam emerges victorious, but full of memories about his time without a soul and the torment he underwent in the Cage. Which brings me to…
‘The Born-Again Identity’
Sam’s soul-searching actions in “The Man Who Knew Too Much” begat the season of Hallucifer. For most of season 7, Sam’s hellish PTSD leads him not only to viscerally remember the time he spent in the Cage — showing us, along the way, a little of what he endured — but to have visions of Lucifer following him around, causing him to lose track of reality. Even when he confirms and accepts that what is happening with Lucifer is not actually real, he still continues to see and live with the Devil, in his Mark Pellegrino meatsuit, mocking, taunting and threatening him.
This episode is a startlingly truthful metaphor for living with other, slightly more real-world, mental illnesses. It’s also all but explicitly confirmed that Lucifer also raped Sam, so there’s that to add to his list of traumas, and when no one is able to find a supernatural cure for Sam’s state, Hallucifer’s permanent presence becomes something that Sam cannot cope with. Eventually, when sleep deprivation takes its toll, he ends up in a locked psychiatric ward, undergoing standard medical treatment for a psychotic break. It’s all a bit too real.
In “Hunteri Heroici,” which was new showrunner Andrew Dabb’s first Supernatural solo writing credit, Sam and Castiel enter the mind of an old hunter with special powers in order to stop him from unconsciously altering the world around him. Fred Jones, the hunter himself, is an innocent, and a friend of their father’s, but his shady doctor has figured out how to use Fred’s power, which shapes reality to cartoon logic thanks to Fred’s childlike regression — in order to commit crimes. I’m not sure why this episode, and Sam’s interactions with Fred, strike such a chord with me, but they do.
There’s such a layered empathy for me in this moment. There’s the obvious parallel of their “living in a dream world” escapism not working — this is also the only episode where the scenes from Sam’s whole lost year with Amelia really invoke any strong feeling in me — but though it’s not what Sam is referring to here, there’s also something about the whole psychokinetic thing that makes me feel like they’re kindred. Sam has a history with experiencing various mind-based powers and hallucinations, and that kind of thing is never really going to leave him.
‘I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here’
There are some hugely iconic Sam’n’Dean moments in both the season 8 finale “Sacrifice,” which leads to the near-death pickle that Sam’s in here, and later on in this episode itself as well. However, it was this bit, just before Dean busts into Sam’s head with his ain’t-no-me-if-there-ain’t-no-you’s, that messed me up to a surprising degree. While comatose, Sam is confronted by parts of his consciousness that appear as Bobby and as Dean, battling over whether he should let go or fight his way back to life.
He ultimately chooses to die, and instead of meeting a normal reaper, Death himself comes to usher him on his way. At first Sam’s uncomfortable about this, or maybe embarrassed, accusing Death of seeing this as some sort of vindictive victory, but watching him take in Death’s patient correction, and his pride in Sam’s life and his choices, is wrenching. Julian Richings’ portrayal of Death is so no-nonsense yet so gentle and trustworthy, and his quiet delivery of “well played, my boy,” speaks multitudes. An honor indeed.
‘Just My Imagination’
Confession: this is my number one most sobbed-in episode of Supernatural. I’ve enjoyed some cathartic tears in many an emotional moment in this show, but this is the only one where I’ve had to reel back a full-on day-ruining breakdown. Again, it’s a premise that should be ridiculous but actually lands shockingly well — Sam is visited by his childhood imaginary friend, Sully, who turns out to have been completely real — a being called a Zanna, who act as guardians and emotional support for children who need them.
The Zanna are maybe the first truly non-evil supernatural creatures that we’ve ever seen on the show — I’m not talking like, a random vampire who abstains, I mean genuinely a force for good, and that’s a concept that I’d love to see more of — and this episode offers up a severe case of emotional whiplash between some of the show’s funniest scenes of all time and some of the most upsetting implications about Sam’s childhood and how isolated he’s always been, even, unbeknownst to his brother, from Dean himself. The moment that Sam reverts back into their old “ever think” game destroys me. Sully is the ultimate cinnamon roll, and I would legitimately welcome him as a permanent character if it meant that Sam got to have someone so pure supporting him every single day.
Which Sam Winchester moments would you add to this list?
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