Who Are Sam and Dean Winchester in the Supernatural Mythology?

by Paula R. Stiles

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[This article has spoilers for seasons one through four]

Plot? What plot?
Along the way to Supernatural season five, a few odd things happened to the show’s protagonists. Sam Winchester started out as a college student with a nice girlfriend, Mr. Normal to his feral, ghost hunting older brother, Dean. This also made him, paradoxically, the black sheep of his screwed-up family. Then Sam’s girlfriend was killed and his life destroyed. Out on the road with Dean, he began to realize that he was the “cause” of his family’s misfortunes, that he had a demonic destiny as, apparently, the show’s version of the Antichrist (or not). This slowly began to make Dean seem the more “human” of the two, at least until Dean made a deal with a Crossroad Demon for Sam’s life at the end of season two and went to Hell for him at the end of season three.

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Sam missed Dean so much after Dean died that he tried to trade himself for Dean. This was when he discovered the demonic lie – they’d always wanted Dean’s soul more than his. When Dean came back, Sam seemed happy at first but later, resentful again. In a way, he seemed to be so angry at Dean for dying that he could not forgive him once Dean came back. This proved to be his biggest mistake for it made him vulnerable to Ruby’s lies.

In season four, we saw Sam act like a real jerk (not the writers’ finest moments, let’s be honest) by neglecting his brother for a demonic girlfriend who told him everything he wanted to hear and got him hooked on demon blood. And yet, Sam also became increasingly human, even as he slid toward his demonic destiny. On the flip side, Dean, who had never really had a separate storyline from Sam’s before, was recruited by the angels who had rescued him from Hell for a secret mission. In the season four finale, “Lucifer Rising”, Dean made a last-ditch attempt against many angelic and demonic obstacles to get to Sam in time and stop Lucifer from rising. Dean failed and Sam released Lucifer, leaving the two of them to face off against the original Hell’s Angel himself in the cliffhanger.

While Dean has portrayed himself (and the audience has tended to see him as such through his eyes) as the “human” brother, the introduction of angels in season four has shaken up this idea. Sam’s demonic destiny became far less of an argument for his being non-human after Ruby told Dean in season three’s “Malleus Maleficarum” that all demons were ex-humans. Meanwhile, angels have consistently been portrayed as never human and very inhuman in their thoughts, goals and morality. The glibness of “bad” angels like Uriel and Zachariah does not quite hide their utter lack of understanding for (or interest in helping) humanity. If they were human, we would call them sociopaths. But they are not human and Dean’s association, his troubled history, with them implies that he may not be human, either. Demons still have human traits because they used to be human. But even fallen angels like Anna in “Heaven and Hell” are not truly human. Once they regain their memories (and, more importantly, their grace), they go back to their angelic nature. Dean seems to be fighting the strong opposition of the angels, who want him to give in to their agenda, regardless of whether he is truly human or not. Dean’s true nature remains a central mystery of the show – is he human? Part-demon after his sojourn in Hell? A fallen angel? Or something else? Something new? Or incredibly old?

“Lucifer,” Zachariah says in the voiceover for the first season-five CW promo, “is powerful in ways that defy description.” But the inevitable flip side to that is that whoever is the only person capable of stopping/defeating/killing Lucifer must also be powerful in ways well beyond Lucifer himself. That person is Dean Winchester.

Cain versus Abel
While Sam is the most human of the brothers, he is human in a way peculiar to ancient and medieval heroes. Sam has special powers and a connection to the demonic, the magical and esoteric. He is also played by the very-tall Jared Padalecki, which makes him a literal giant among men. Sam is a hero, not in thegilgamesh_louvre flesh-and-blood sense so much as the superhuman sense of Gilgamesh, whose wildman friend Enkidu resembles Dean, and who goes off the rails after said friend dies, just as Sam did after Dean died.

Sam is a combination of superbrains (like Theseus in Greek mythology) and superbrawn (like Heracles, Theseus’ semi-divine friend). Like Heracles, his birth/early childhood is marked by sinister marvels. In his crib, Heracles strangled two serpents sent by his goddess stepmother to kill him; Sam was blooded by a powerful demon and saw his mother, Mary, burned to death on the ceiling at about the same age. Heracles had a human brother, named Iphicles. Sam’s brother, Dean, has always been deemed “merely” human by the demons. Sam is human, has human thoughts and feelings, human desires and flaws, yet he also has superhuman powers from age 22 onward, and exists uneasily in the world between the human and the divine.

Despite the writers’ declaration that the show’s heroes are Humanity and heraclesspecifically, hunters, humans are not portrayed at all well on Supernatural. Even most of the hunters are petty, ungrateful, mean-spirited, vengeful, weak, dumb and about any other negative trait you can think of that rhymes with “useless and deserves to be wiped off the planet”. Even the brothers’ father, John Winchester, has been shown to be very human and not the paragon of a man and hunter Dean made him out to be in season one. Adam, their dead brother with the name of the first human in the Bible, was just cannon fodder. Only the preternaturally wise Bobby Singer (and possibly bartender Ellen Harvelle) seems to have escaped this tarring. Though Bobby may turn out to be more than human, himself. Or not.

Sam also has a lot of analogues in biblical literature, especially in the Book of Genesis. The official Supernatural Magazine, issue 10, compares him to the “civilized” farmer Cain versus Dean’s feral hunter Abel (even though Cain was older than Abel in the original story).

In his desire to take away Dean’s angelic mission for himself, Sam also resembles the patriarch Jacob, a pastoralist who stole his older hunter brother Esau’s birthright through guile and treachery, with the help of their mother. Rebecca favored Jacob. Sam’s hallucination of Mary in season four’s “When the Levee Breaks” and her ghost in season one’s “Home” also appeared to favor Sam over Dean. But Jacob’s father, Isaac, favored Esau, much as John seemed to favor Dean over Sam, even though John and Sam were more alike than John and Dean. So, Rebecca encouraged Jacob to steal Esau’s birthright through trickery, much as DreamMary and Ruby encouraged Sam to take away Dean’s angelic mission. Sam said that he wanted to lift Dean’s burden, that Dean was too “weak” to do the job. But Sam’s anguish over his own demon blood and his fanboy awe of the angels until well into the season hinted at a much darker motive – that he felt Dean simply had the more “fun” job.

Sam never seemed to understand Dean’s true job and how painful and unpleasant it was/is. Dean has been set up to be God’s hitman, and if Dean’s connection to the angels plays out in the way the writers have strongly hinted all season, Dean may well be forced to kill his brother – just not the brother he thought he’d have to kill, Lucifer and not Sam. Dean, however this plays out, looks to be stuck in the role of fratricide. And it may well get him killed permanently.

Sam seemed to believe that it was killing Lilith (his own obsession), not stopping Lucifer, that was Dean’s job. Like Arachne, who was turned into a spider for showing up the goddess Athena in weaving, or Pan, who tried his rustic pipes308780_e8147374-50ac-46df-9ac3-c1f3f68f3d6c-2jared against Apollo’s harp, Sam aspired to compete with higher powers (in this case, angels) and brought down disaster. Like Pandora, he opened a box of misery for humankind. Like Eve, he listened to the flattery of a wily serpent and plucked the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, only seeing the truth of his actions once he had done the forbidden and bitten into it. Like Adam, Eve’s husband, he let getting laid take priority over making the most important decision in his life, and that of humankind.

Sam’s resentment of Dean’s older-brother status and angel-given job at the end of penultimate season four episode “When the Levee Breaks” resembled the resentment of the older brother in the parable of his younger brother the Prodigal Son. The Prodigal was accepted back home, after having been “lost” for many years, with great rejoicing, despite having squandered his own inheritance. In the parable, the Prodigal represented those who came to Christianity late in life while the older brother represented those who had been good, lifelong Christians. Though Sam has never completely voiced it, Sam must have resented the fact that, while he prayed every night and believed in angels, his brother the unbeliever was the one they chose.

Paradise Lost or Apocalypse Now?
Yet, there may be a good reason (or five) why Dean doesn’t believe in a higher power. Dean said in season two’s “Houses of the Holy” that he did not believe in a God that would allow so much suffering. Dean has a great deal of anger toward God and was quite startled to discover at the beginning of season four that he had been rescued by angels from Hell. This makes Dean unique in the show in that he has been to all three of the realms of the Supernaturalverse – Earth, Hell and Heaven – yet still remains Dean Winchester with human thoughts, feelings and abilities in a human body. As far as we know. This and his job of fighting ghosts make him a strongly shamanistic figure in the show.

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At first, it seemed as though Dean had been chosen randomly by Heaven, then because of his experiences down in Hell. This was proven partially correct in “On the Head of a Pin” when Dean’s Hell-torturer, Alastair, informed him that he had “jumpstarted the Apocalypse” by becoming a torturer himself and breaking the first seal as a “righteous man” shedding blood in Hell. Even more shocking was the revelation (by Castiel, the angel who had pulled Dean out of Hell) that Dean was also the one destined to stop the Apocalypse, the only one. Over the course of a single season, Dean had gone from being a pawn on the cosmic chessboard to the King, the one who would decide the fate of everything. Dean was unique.

Alastair’s other jibe, that John had been the original “righteous man” slated to break, was subsequently forgotten as, presumably (so far), a demonic lie. After all, no one besieged Hell to rescue John the way the angels did to rescue Dean. If John had truly been the One, the Crossroad Demon would never have offered a deal to Dean in season two’s “Crossroad Blues” to bring John back. And if John were so important as all that, why was he in a position to escape through the Hellgate at the end of season two? Alastair’s claim, made at a moment when he was plotting escape, doesn’t “fit” the story except as a distracting lie.

Dean eventually discovered that the prophecy meant killing Lucifer after he had risen not before, something the angels left out until the end of season four. But the show has categorically stated that only an angel can kill another angel. And the job of defeating Lucifer has been traditionally ascribed in folklore to one being only – the Archangel Michael. In the season finale, Castiel explained to Dean in Heaven, “Try to understand: this has long been foretold. This is your destiny.” Dean is fated to kill Lucifer and bring in a golden age, a true Paradise. Albeit at the cost of a few billion human lives during the Apocalypse.

The angel imagery for Dean in season four was in overdrive. There’s the angel skylight through which he escaped a crypt in “Jump the Shark” (echoing his rescue from Hell) and a still of him in “Lucifer Rising” in exactly the same position often seen in pictures of Michael throwing down Lucifer. The still is set immediatelySN422__0083 before Dean kills “the dragon” (the evil demon Ruby who had led Sam astray). You even have a farcical take on this role in season two’s “Roadkill” where a damsel in distress cries out, “Oh, thank God!” on Dean’s arrival to save her, whereupon, Dean cheerfully replies, “Call me Dean!” This is reinforced by Anna in season four’s “I Know What You Did Last Summer” when, on first meeting Dean, she refers to him as “The Dean”.

But Dean’s angelic imagery is nothing compared to the Christ imagery (Michael is a pre-human version of Christ in some traditions, even God himself, so the conflation is not that strange). There are little things (as Dean’s standing right in front of a stained-glass window image of the Cross in the “Lucifer Rising” still). Then there are the not-so-little things, like his giving up his life and soul for Sam’s “sins” (the “original sin” of his demon blood heritage), and his being crucified in Hell, first suspended in midair and later on a “rack” that is invariably portrayed in the show as a crucifix. His perpetual torment, in which he is ripped to shreds each day and at the end of each day made “whole again – like magic”, also references that of a precursor to Christ from Greek 229150190mtKGWq_fsmythology. Prometheus, a Titan, incurred Zeus’ wrath for helping humans (whom he had created) against the gods and giving them the gift of fire. Zeus condemned Prometheus to be chained to a rock where, every day, an eagle would come down and eat Prometheus’ liver. And every day, Prometheus’ body would grow back. Eventually, Zeus’ semi-divine son, Heracles, rescued Prometheus.

There is more. Dean’s mother (and Sam’s mother) is named Mary. The angels are supposed to follow Dean in “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Sam Winchester”. In “On the Head of a Pin”, Castiel’s loyalty to God is conflated with his loyalty to Dean when he confronts Uriel and refuses to join him, even on pain of death. This is what saves him when Anna, also Dean’s ally, kills Uriel instead. Similarly, Uriel’s disloyalty to Dean (by attempting to have him assassinated) is what gets him killed, not his disloyalty to a God who has apparently “left the building.

“In Lucifer Rising”, the angels take Dean to a heavenly “green room” and offer him sex, burgers and beer (the latter being bread and wine, as in Communion, but also possibly food meant to force a binding tie, as with the Greek goddess Persephone and the pomegranate offered her by Hades to tie her to the Underworld or the food and drink of Celtic fairy folk). The offer is also like the recruitment view of Paradise attributed to the medieval Shi’ite Assassin cult by their enemies. Zachariah even irreverently references this rather crude vision with the comment that Dean will have “70 sluts and two virgins” in Paradise after he defeats Lucifer.

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Castiel says in the season four premiere, “Lazarus Rising”, that angels have not come down to earth in two millennia (i.e. between the First and Second Comings of Christ) and demands in “Are You There, God, It’s Me, Dean Winchester?”, “You expect the angels to just follow you around?” This is an obvious echo of Satan’s temptation of Christ in the New Testament where Satan encourages Christ to throw himself off the Temple in Jerusalem because the angels will catch him as he falls.

Once the seals cat is out of the bag, we get another Christ image: Alpha and Omega. Not only did Dean start the Apocalypse by breaking the first seal (Alpha) but he’s going to end it by killing Lucifer (Omega). This is probably the clearest and most unambiguous identification of him as the Second Coming.

Just because the writers cover their butts by not using the term or ever mentioning Christ by name, doesn’t make the mythology they’re using any less obvious, much as planting Dean in front of a painting (for the second time in the show) of the Archangel Michael killing Lucifer and having an angel tell Dean he has to do the same thing makes it any less obvious just because it’s a pictorial metaphor and nobody ever actually mentions the name “Michael”.

If it changes shape on bright nights and howls at the moon, it’s a werewolf. If it sucks your blood, it’s a vampire. If it’s a dead body walking, it’s a zombie. If it’s the guy who kills Lucifer, it’s the Archangel Michael and if it’s here to end the Apocalypse (after it began the Apocalypse), it’s the Second Coming.

Even Dean’s becoming a torturer in Hell echoes Christ’s harrowing of Hell on Holy Saturday in medieval English legends. It’s not a pleasant image, but Christ is sometimes portrayed as wrathful and deadly, a punisher not a superunderstanding best friend. Dean is asked bitterly by the ghostly Witnesses in “Are You There, God? It’s Me, Dean Winchester” why he is spared while others are not raised or rescued, a hint of Christ’s job of raising of souls who did not deserve damnation from Hell. Dean feels he should have been able to save the Witnesses in that episode, and indeed, he is the one who is willing to talk to them and who ultimately succeeds in putting them to rest.

There is also the case of Dean’s “daddy issues”. In “Jump the Shark”, we find out that Sam and Dean had a younger brother they never knew, Adam, who was murdered by ghouls. Dean finally realizes that Sam is more like John than Dean will ever be – in other words, human. This forces Dean to increasingly turn to God, a “father” whom Dean resents even more bitterly than he starts to resent John in season three. It’s an interesting idea – what if, during the Apocalypse, the Second Coming became alienated from and angry at his Father, who turned away from the world, to the point where he lost all memory of his true nature? What if angels were forced to choose sides between Heaven and Heaven’s fated leader? What if Christ rebelled against Heaven? This appears to be Dean’s storyline.

Luke and Han versus angels and demons
As the show has shifted its emphasis from demons to angels (angels being far more powerful than demons), it has also changed its protagonists in midstream. The writers’ original intention (though they have given conflicting stories about this) appears to have been for Sam to be the protagonist and Dean to be a sidekick or even antagonist. In earlier drafts, Dean was an alcoholic and abusive toward Sam. Eric Kripke has stated that Sam and Dean started out being like Luke Skywalker and Han Solo in Star Wars. And indeed, the uberplot of the first two seasons was All About Sam. The original plan for season three was even All About Sam, where Sam would negate the meaning of Dean’s sacrifice and go darkside to save his brother. The writers eventually (and wisely) decided that this wouldn’t work. Dean had to see the deal through. He had to go to Hell.

However, as the emphasis shifted from Hell to Heaven early in season four, things also began to shift from being All About Sam to being Much More About Dean. In Star Wars, this would be as if the story had shifted from the Jedi to Han Solo’s backstory on Corellia, except that Dean’s angel storyline is a lot more compelling than that. In a way, this reflects a sea change in the way genre protagonists are portrayed on television. When Supernatural first came out, the old-style protagonist who dominated the show and made it All About Him/Her, even when the plot wasn’t (or when there was an ensemble cast, as in Star Trek), was still prevalent. Whether it was Dylan Hunt of the spaceship Andromeda or Buffy Summers of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or Max of Dark Angel, or Clark Kent from Smallville, the protagonist was also the Hero, the one who could do no wrong, who was always right, even when the audience could see that he/she wasn’t. Other characters (most notoriously, Tyr on Andromeda) were sidekicks, cut down to that level, or cut out of the story.

Sam was created in this mold, even when they first cast Jensen Ackles (who would later play Dean instead) in the role. Only slowly, as other types of protagonists began to appear on cable and in popular foreign shows, did the writers perhaps begin to realize that they also had something in Dean. Dean is more like the boozing, skanky Grace Hanadarko of TNT’s Saving Grace than Thomas Magnum. And fans liked that. They liked that Dean wasn’t perfect, that when he made mistakes the writers would acknowledge that, that he was colourful, that he was unpredictable. Dean could act weak, insane, even kill in cold blood and remain sympathetic. Dean had, as Stephen King once put it in his study on horror, Danse Macabre, a “gorilla in a cage”. His subconscious was on full display for all to see, and he constantly struggled with it. This gave the writers enormous leeway. Unfortunately, it also threw Sam’s shortcomings, as written, into high relief and the writers then took him down a jerky, clumsily-written, Lifetime-Movie-level addiction storyline.

Hopefully, though, the writers will be able to rehabilitate Sam this coming season. There’s a great model for Sam’s demon-blood storyline in A&E’s The Cleaner. Benjamin Bratt, less-than-impressive in bland, co-leading man roles in the past, burns up the screen as an ex-heroin addict who’s become addicted to helping others kick the habit. If the writers are going there with Sam, that could be very interesting. Let’s just hope they’re not going to try to return him to the same old Hero type of mold. Even as the Antichrist Superstar, he’s outgrown it.

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About Paula R. Stiles

Paula is not at all paranoid about government conspiracies after six years in EMS, two years in Africa for the Peace Corps, a few summers with the Park Service, and ten years studying the Knights Templar. She's seen governments in action. They couldn't cover up a toy picnic table, let alone evidence of alien visitation. Writes about science for fun, history for money, and zombies for the company. You can read her sober-as-a-judge book about Templars in medieval Spain, Templar Convivencia, on Amazon. You can find her homepage at: http://thesnowleopard.net.

Paula R. StilesWho Are Sam and Dean Winchester in the Supernatural Mythology?