The Winchesters, Killer Couples, and Psychotic Co-dependency
CW: discussion of abuse/csa, trauma, rape, mental illness
In Supernatural 5:18 “The Point of No Return”, the angel Zachariah tells Adam Milligan, half-brother of the show’s central characters,
Zachariah: You know Sam and Dean Winchester are psychotically, irrationally, erotically co-dependent on each other, right?
While Supernatural is packed with meta and pop-culture references, and allusions to myriad films and television series, there is one trope which perfectly illustrates the excessive nature of the Winchester brothers’ relationship as described by Zachariah: the comparison of Sam and Dean to notorious psychotics and killer duos. The show positions the familial bond between the pivotal characters at the heart of the narrative, and rhapsodises the notion of the traditional American family but I would argue that the prevalent language of sickness, mental illness, and decadence actually stands in direct opposition to this idealisation of the heteronormative unit. The viewer is actively encouraged to read the brothers’ relationship as something unnatural, unhealthy, and ultimately dangerous, not only for them but for the world they are sworn to protect.
It is FBI agent Victor Henricksen, a ‘civilian’ with no knowledge of the supernatural, who first accuses Dean Winchester of being a monster and states:
Victor: And yes, I know about Sam. Bonnie to your Clyde. (2:12 “Nightshifter”)
Dean replies, “well, that part’s true” suggesting he agrees with the comparison somewhat. There is something iconic about Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, a twisted romance story that continues to spark public imagination, their story having been glamourised in a Hollywood movie starring Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty, and referenced countless times in popular culture since their crime spree dominated the headlines of 1930s America. Like Sam and Dean, they were transients, living out of their car (ultimately the scene of their bloody deaths) and evading capture by the law. And like most of the infamous killers the brothers are compared to, Bonnie and Clyde were lovers, the illicit, extramarital sex undoubtedly a huge part of their appeal to Depression-era Americans. It may be that Dean’s concession to the comparison, his hint of macho pride even, is derived from the fact that Sam is always the seen as the more feminine of the two brothers. The Winchesters frequently use gendered terminology about each other as demonstrated by their use of the nicknames “Jerk” to refer to Dean and “Bitch” to Sam, and Dean’s use of traditionally female names for Sam, such as Frances and Samantha. In 1:10 “Asylum”, Dean mocks Sam’s visions, comparing him to other fictional mystics, both of whom are female:
Dean: Hey Sam, who do you think is a hotter psychic? Patricia Arquette, Jennifer Love Hewitt, or you?
Even the affectionate nickname ‘Sammy’ is diminutive, gender ambiguous and exclusive to Dean. When Gordon Walker tries to use it in 2:03 “Bloodlust”, Sam tells him in no uncertain terms, that only Dean may do so.
Sam: He’s the only one who gets to call me that.
Dean mocks Sam in episode 2:07 “The Usual Suspects”, when they compare themselves to Mulder and Scully from The X-Files, with Dean concluding Sam is the “red-haired woman”. This is another episode in which Dean and Sam are perceived to be criminals and murderers. Dean twice references Kubrick’s The Shining (one of the most frequently-referenced movies in Supernatural history), specifically Jack Nicholson’s psychotic character who is plagued by hallucinations and delusions and is eventually driven to attempt to kill his family. While the Winchesters’ choice of parallel in this instance aligns them with characters who are FBI agents, and so puts them back on the right side of the law, it nevertheless reflects their position as outsiders, considered spooky and unhinged by the rest of the establishment. It also suggests an element of overt sexual tension. Dean acknowledges this in 2:11 “Playthings”, an episode in which the brothers are repeatedly mistaken for a gay couple by other characters, and Sam retaliates by teasing Dean about his hyper-masculinity:
Sam: Well you are pretty butch. They probably think you’re over-compensating.
Dean’s willingness to accept the Bonnie and Clyde analogy reveals a lot about how we are encouraged to view his relationship with his brother. Dean is placing himself in the Clyde role, the man who lives outside the law. Sam is Bonnie, the one who tries to build a ‘normal life’ (i.e. heteronormative, lawful, professional) despite being a ‘freak’, until Dean shows up in his muscle car and drags his brother back into the hunting life. This has disastrous results, namely the death of Sam’s girlfriend, Jessica, all because Dean doesn’t want to carry out his brutal work alone. It’s widely held that while Clyde Barrow was a career criminal with violent tendencies and a history of sexual abuse, Bonnie Parker went along with his activities because she was infatuated by him and drawn to his dark nature. Indeed, the paraphilia or sexual disorder, Hybristophilia, defined by controversial sexologist Dr. John Money in his book, Lovemaps as “being sexuoerotically turned on only by a partner who has a predatory history of outrages perpetrated on others”, is also referred to as ‘Bonnie and Clyde Syndrome’. By aligning Sam with Parker, the show is underlining Sam’s hero worship of Dean, and the implicit homoeroticism of their co-dependency.
Dean later becomes agitated when Henricksen compares their father to ex-military, Lone Wolf terrorist Timothy McVeigh. And in 3:12 “Jus in Bello”, Henricksen again implies the brothers have been psychologically damaged by John Winchester, even speculating that he was sexually abusive:
Victor: Truth is your daddy brainwashed you with all that devil talk and no doubt touched you in a bad place.
While Dean takes no issue with him and Sam being compared to a killer couple, he becomes angry at the suggestion of a sexual relationship with his father, which would seem to indicate that Dean is aware, on some level, that there is a murkier dimension to his relationship with his brother. Indeed, he has trouble articulating the nature of their bond, as demonstrated in 5:04 “The End” in a scene – arguably coded as a break-up or divorce – in which Dean tells Sam their relationship is detrimental to them and the safety of the world:
Dean: Whatever we have between us, love, family – whatever it is – they’re always gonna use it against us, and you know that. Yeah, we’re better off apart.
This is particularly interesting within in context of this episode given that the title is taken from The Doors’ song, which references the oedipal concept of killing one’s father (and other family members, in this case) out of an incestuous desire for one’s mother. And when Lisa Braeden, the woman Dean attempts domesticity with at Sam’s request, calls Sam and Dean’s relationship, “The most unhealthy, crazy, tangled up thing I’ve ever seen,” (6:06 “You Can’t Handle the Truth”) Dean admits, “Sam and I have issues. No doubt.”
Henricksen assumes that John Winchester was a damaged Vietnam veteran, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and his sons are affected as a result. But while the FBI agent has no knowledge of the existence of supernatural phenomena, similar accusations are levelled at the boys by non-humans such as Zachariah and people who do have a supernatural frame of reference and who understand the true nature of the Winchesters’ work. In 3:19 “Mystery Spot”, Sam is forced to experience Dean dying over and over again by the angel Gabriel (in the guise of the Trickster) to teach him that one day he will have to let his brother go. But instead of grieving, Sam, foreshadowing his behaviour when he returns from Hell with no soul in a later season, becomes single-minded and almost robotic in his determination to find the Trickster and avenge Dean’s death. Sam’s weapons are organised with military precision in the trunk of the Impala, in the same way that his father’s were in 1:20 “Dead Man’s Blood”. He stops returning surrogate father Bobby Singer’s calls, and stitches up his own wounds, seemingly without registering pain. In a confrontation with the Trickster, Sam ends up pleading with him to bring Dean back to life:
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.
Although the Trickster/Gabriel is himself a non-human and aware of the work Sam and Dean do, he still believes that Sam’s need to have his brother alive is on a par with the obsession displayed by paranoid and delusional Vietnam survivor, Travis Bickle as played by Robert de Niro in the Scorsese movie, Taxi Driver. Like Sam, Travis believes the world needs cleansing of monsters (although the monsters are all too human in Travis’ universe) and is driven by a compulsion to save certain people at any price. While Sam generally rescues ‘civilians’ from literal monsters, when it comes to saving Dean, he loses his rationality, seemingly prepared to break his own code of ethics and sacrifice an innocent person if it means getting his brother back. And note, the Trickster calls Sam “Travis Bickle in a skirt”, continuing the feminisation usually associated with Sam.
Bela Talbot, a human adversary of the Winchesters, mirrors the Trickster’s opinion in relation to Dean Winchester when she questions his supposedly altruistic motives and tells him:
Bela: You do this out of vengeance and obsession. You’re a stone’s throw away from being a serial killer. (3:06 “Red Sky at Morning”)
Like the Trickster, Bela is fully aware of the existence of the supernatural and she demonstrates many tendencies often associated with psychopathy: charm, criminality, manipulation, lack of empathy or remorse. We are told she made a deal with Crowley at the age of fourteen, giving up her soul in exchange for the death of her parents, the implication being that her father was sexually abusive towards her. This recognition of Sam and Dean’s irrational behaviour by Bela serves to underscore the extent of their obsession. It’s one thing if ‘civilians’ with no understanding of the world of the preternatural think they are crazy, but even monsters and sociopaths think their insularity and preoccupation with payback are unhealthy in the extreme.
Episode 6:06 “You Can’t Handle the Truth” goes one step further still. Firstly, we see evidence of Lisa’s deep-rooted anxiety about the brothers’ relationship with her admission that she knew as soon as Sam came back into Dean’s life, after his spell in The Cage with Michael and Lucifer, that Dean’s attempt at a heteronormative family life was doomed. We also have another crucial reference from the mouth of Veritas – the goddess and actual manifestation of truth:
Veritas: So Sam walking back into your life must’ve been a relief. Mallory to your Mickey.
Mickey and Mallory Knox, the homicidal characters from the 1994 Oliver Stone film, Natural Born Killers, are perhaps the most interesting and clearly drawn parallel for the Winchesters. They are the epitome of vengeance and obsession, and it is this movie that Supernatural references the most during episodes in which others voice anxieties about the excessive nature of Sam and Dean’s brotherly love, or when the brothers themselves are at odds. Mallory is abused by her father in childhood and kills her parents once she meets Mickey. She is ‘rescued’ by Mickey Knox and the two take to the road in a stolen car. The pair ‘marry’ on a bridge, with Mickey telling Mallory, “we got the road to Hell in front of us.” They even cut their palms with a knife to mix their blood as (traditionally male) children do when they make a ‘blood brothers’ pact, and in much the same way as Sam and Dean cut themselves to collect blood for spells or to prove they are themselves and not monstrous or possessed to one other.
The scene in the pilot episode of Supernatural, where Sam and Dean get out of the Impala half way across a bridge and Dean tries to convince his brother to join him on the ‘road to Hell’, and the marriage scene in Natural Born Killers are similar in several respects. They are visually reminiscent of one another. Both take place on bridges spanning bodies of water, and involve classic cars. In both cases there is the threat of violence. Both undermine the traditional institution of marriage. Dean tells Sam he needs to help him with their father’s ‘crusade’, and when he refuses, he taunts him, stating that marriage and a career in law are not meant for people like Sam and telling him that his dishonesty about “the things he’s done” make his relationship with Jessica unhealthy. Dean’s insistence that Sam face up to who he really is – “one of us” – may be a reference to the 1932 Tod Browning film, Freaks, in which the circus performers chant the phrase as a form of acceptance at a wedding. Indeed, Sam is well associated with the freakish and monstrous, having been fed demon blood as a baby, and singled out as the one true vessel for Lucifer.
The song playing as Mickey and Mallory exchange vows is “If You Were the Woman and I Were the Man” by Cowboy Junkies, the lyrics of which play with traditional gender roles, while in the Supernatural pilot, we have the first instance of Dean calling Sam “Bitch”. Other songs from the Natural Born Killers soundtrack include “Route 666” and “Sex is Violent”, both of which closely resemble Supernatural episodic titles. Perhaps most strikingly, Mallory’s apocalyptic language of angels and horsemen and her promise to stay with Mickey “’Til you and I die, and die, and die again,” resonates in light of the many times Sam and Dean will die only to be brought back to life by the other, usually at the expense of someone or something else, even including the natural order of their world. As Death himself observes,
Death: You and your brother keep coming back. You’re an affront to the balance of the universe, and you cause disruption on a global scale. (6:11 “Appointment in Samarra”)
Natural Born Killers uses different styles and methods to tell the story. One scene apes old US sitcoms, with a show within the film entitled I Love Mallory. This allows the audience to glimpse Mallory’s abusive and dysfunctional home life, the canned laughter juxtaposed with violence, cruel dialogue, and disturbing subject matter to create a heightened sense of malice. It also depicts her meeting Mickey after he brings rounds a delivery of meat, his job as a butcher clearly symbolic of his murderous tendencies. Supernatural 5:08 “Changing Channels” opens with Sam and Dean trapped in a sitcom with a live studio audience, their talk of the apocalypse and the spectacle of a bloodied angel Castiel being flung brutally into a wall met with laughter. In this scene, Sam is annoyed with Dean for having eschewed his work responsibilities in favour of having sex with a scantily clad woman. Sam ushers her off the set, explaining he and Dean have work to do, despite her protests that they “did do work. In depth.” The use of ‘work’ as a euphemism here serves to blur the meaning of Sam’s words, and his manner, though played for laughs, suggests both jealousy and anger. Similarly the lyrics of the ‘sitcom’ theme tune are at odds with the cheery melody, and reveal the insular nature of the brothers’ relationship.
Town to town, two-lane roads.
Family biz, two hunting bros,
Living the lie, just to get by.
As long as we’re movin’ forward,
There’s nothing we can’t do,
Together we’ll face the day.
You and I won’t run away,
When demons come out to play,
Together we’ll face the day.
Both the opening scene and finale of Natural Born Killers are paid direct homage by 7:06 “Slash Fiction”. Dean and Sam’s Leviathan clones slaughter the inhabitants of a diner, with Leviathan Sam telling the only survivor to keep a camera phone held aloft because they “want the world to know what Sam and Dean Winchester are capable of”. They then kill the remaining diners, echoing the finale of Natural Born Killers when Mickey and Mallory gun down journalist, Wayne Gale, claiming his camera will be the last witness to their crimes. It is also worth noting that the opening of Natural Born Killers shares a strong road movie aesthetic with Supernatural, a world of diner interiors, motels, dusty highways, and classic cars. And after the carnage, Mickey takes Mallory in his arms and they laugh and celebrate as fireworks appear behind them, an image reminiscent of the Fourth of July scene which Dean experiences with a young version of Sam in Heaven (5:19 “Dark Side of the Moon”). The ‘road trip’ format is subversive in and of itself, with both Dean and Sam and Mickey and Mallory living out of motel rooms, places which are culturally associated with illicit affairs, drug taking, and having no fixed abode. In her essay, “Purgatory with Color TV: Motel Rooms as Liminal Zones in Supernatural”, Lorna Jowett notes that:
Family is valorized by the brothers and the show, yet the lack of private or domestic space (and female family members) challenges standard representations of the American family and of heterosexual masculinity. The show consciously plays with the nature of the brothers’ intimacy…Extreme intimacy between the characters is only possible because of their lifestyle as itinerant hunters, sharing motel rooms and living in unusually close proximity. (TV Goes to Hell: An Unofficial Road Map of Supernatural).
Indeed, the fact of Sam and Dean’s ‘homelessness’ is addressed in 5:22 “Swan Song” by Chuck Shurley, when he notes that:
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.
Here we are presented with an alternate picture of domesticity, one which excludes woman and traditional spaces, yet uses imagery culturally associated with heterosexual ‘courtship’; Date nights, stargazing, carving initials into an object for posterity, and comfortable silences.
The title “Slash Fiction” is multi-faceted and open to interpretation. It might refer to the slasher movie genre, to the nod it pays to a killer couple in another movie, Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, and also to fan fiction in which there is a romantic or sexual relationship between two male characters, known as slash, and specifically ‘Wincest’ when the pairing is Sam and Dean. Certainly Supernatural has made many meta references to ‘Wincestuous’ fanworks with Dean and Sam openly discussing them in 4:18 “The Monster at the End of This Book”. Whilst reading an internet forum about the works of Chuck Shurley, Dean notes:
Dean: There’s Sam Girls and Dean Girls and…What’s a slash fan?
Sam: As in Sam slash Dean together.
Dean: Like together, together? They do know we are brothers right?
Sam: Doesn’t seem to matter.
Dean: Well that’s just sick!
The world of fan fiction, and slash in particular, is further explored in episodes such as 5:09 “The Real Ghost Busters” where the Winchesters meet Demian and Barnes, fans of Chuck Shurley’s books who LARP as Sam and Dean at a convention and are revealed to be lovers, and most explicitly in 10:05 “Fan Fiction”, in which the boys find themselves hunting a muse, Calliope, at an all girls’ school where a production based on Shurley’s books is being staged. Dean, on witnessing the actresses playing him and Sam rehearsing an emotional scene, questions the director as to her interpretation of their relationship:
Marie: Oh, uh they’re rehearsing the “BM” scene.
Dean: The bowel movement scene?
Marie: No, the boy melodrama scene… You know the scene where the boys get together and their driving or leaning against Baby, drinking a beer, sharing their feelings. The two of them alone, but together — bonded, united, the power of their pain is-
Dean: Why are they standing so close together?
Dean: You know they’re brothers, right.
Marie: Well, duh. But subtext.
The episode ends with Dean telling Marie the girls should stand as close as she wants them to. This constant re-framing of the Winchesters’ partnership, the way in which the audience is frequently invited to view it within the context of established codes and tropes usually reserved for romantic love, sits in direct opposition to the traditional notion of ‘family’, and underscores the confusion and anxiety surrounding their bond. Just before the Leviathan versions of Sam and Dean re-enact the Pumpkin and Honey Bunny diner robbery from Pulp Fiction, they discuss the fact that they are now privy to the brothers’ psyches and how many issues they have. They single out Dean’s inability to form lasting, heteronormative attachments, and call Sam “Schizo,” a reference to his hallucinations brought on by his time in Hell, and marvel that “he’s walking around in a jacket with detachable arms”. Later, Leviathan Dean tells Sam that he cannot fathom why the Winchesters are “so caught up in being good and taking care of each other,” and tries to drive a wedge between the brothers by telling Sam that Dean lied to him about killing Amy, the Kitsune who saved his life as a teenager. The Pulp Fiction homage in “Slash Fiction” uses dialogue directly lifted from just after Pumpkin and Honey Bunny share a passionate kiss in the original, and in the context of the episode title and Mickey and Mallory references, it serves to highlight the ambiguity around the brothers’ indefinable relationship.
“Slash Fiction” is also the episode in which conspiracy theorist, Frank Devereaux, refers to the Winchesters as “Psycho Butch and Sundance”, another pair of notorious outlaws who have been glorified and romanticised by Hollywood. Although the relationship between them is depicted as largely platonic it is still unhealthy and doomed. Frank also gives the boys new identities, calling them “Mr. and Mr. Smith”, referencing a fourth killer pairing as portrayed by Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt in the 1995 film of the same name. This is followed by a scene of Dean mouthing the words to an Air Supply song in the Impala, while Sam looks on in disbelief. Again, this is a direct pastiche, although the song in the film is “Making Love Out of Nothing At All”, while in Supernatural it is “I’m All Out of Love”, foreshadowing the conflict between the brothers and their separation at the end of the episode. In the movie, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie play husband and wife assassins who are tasked with killing one another but must pull together to override their fate and save their relationship. This is echoed by the struggle Sam and Dean have resisting their destinies as vessels for warring angels, and also serves to highlight their own strange brand of domesticity. It is worth noting that both principal actors, Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki, felt the need to rewrite the final scene of “Slash Fiction”, as they believe the script originally implied the breakdown of a romantic relationship. The subsequent episode 7:07 “The Mentalists”, which deals with the fallout of Dean’s transgression in killing Amy, centres around a destructive relationship between two sisters, contains implied necrophilia, and references a psychic double act called The Campbells who pretended to be brothers as a cover for their “alternate lifestyle” (note Campbell is also Mary Winchester’s maiden name). But it’s not just strangers who convey unease during times of conflict between the Winchesters. Even those closest to the boys occasionally question the true nature of their bond. In 2:15 “Tall Tales”, Bobby accuses the boys of “bickering like an old married couple,” to which Dean responds:
Dean: No, see, married couples can get divorced. Me and him? We’re like, Siamese twins.
Here, Dean is defining the pinnacle of co-dependency, seeing him and Sam as literally symbiotic and, to use the language of the sideshow again, ‘freaks’.
We’ve seen how external perceptions of Sam and Dean’s relationship, and constant comparisons to killer couples and various historical and fictional psychotic characters by both ‘civilians’ and those operating inside the world of the supernatural, invite us as viewers to share in the anxieties about their co-dependency. But we are also presented with numerous examples of Sam and Dean’s own fears about their mental health. Both brothers see medical experts and spend time in institutions for apparent psychological issues, often playing up their maladies to gain information and access, taking advantage of doctors’ scepticism and lack of supernatural experience. Many times the brothers’ relationship is seen to be an underlying issue or cause for concern.
In 1:10 “Asylum”, an episode in which resentment between the brothers erupts in violence, Dr. Elicot pinpoints Dean as problematic immediately and asks Sam how he really feels about his brother. In 5:11 “Sam, Interrupted”, Dr. Fuller declares their relationship “dangerously co-dependent.” This idea of their sibling bond being something unhealthy or dangerous reflects the show’s decadent, gothic sensibilities to some extent. Many of the familial relationships presented in the show are co-dependent to the point that a dead sibling will attempt to bring about the death of the other so that they can be together forever. In the same episode, Dr. Cartwright highlights Dean’s inability to form long term relationships and diagnoses him as having a narcissistic personality, as well as paranoid delusions:
Dr. Cartwright: You’re my paranoid schizophrenic with narcissistic personality disorder and religious psychosis.
Given that any kind of incestuous attraction can be seen as inherently narcissistic, it could be argued that Dr. Cartwright’s analysis of Dean, as a civilian, is a projection of her discomfort when observing his relationship with Sam.
Dean’s self-awareness and his own fears about his fraternal relationship are also sometimes expressed. We see this in the use of the gothic motif of the ‘double’ or ‘doppelganger’ as in the case of the Leviathans, or the shape shifter in 1:06 “Skin”, that assumes Dean’s physical appearance to voice his abandonment and jealousy issues to Sam. There are also moments of lucidity such as in 4:11 “Family Remains”, an episode which deals primarily with incest and sexual abuse, when Dean confesses that he enjoyed torturing souls in Hell:
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, it just slipped away. No matter how many people I save, I can’t change that. I can’t fill this hole. Not ever.
Similarly, Sam enjoys the sense of power he exercises over his enemies while addicted to demon blood. Sam is innately monstrous, having been ‘infected’ as a baby as a result of his mother’s deal with the Yellow Eyed Demon. It is worth noting that the deal to bring John Winchester back from the dead is sealed with a barely consensual kiss between Mary and the demon possessing her own father’s body, so that we are presented with an onscreen image of father-daughter incest, and also that Dean expresses an attraction towards his mother when he goes back in time to visit her younger self and tells Sam he is “going to Hell again” (4:03 “In the Beginning”). This notion of the sins of the parents being visited upon their children is one which pervades gothic literature, and the milieu of Supernatural. Madness is seen as something hereditary and almost inevitable where such a transgression has taken place.
Sam becomes truly ‘other’, more revenant than human, when he is returned from Hell minus his soul and begins to display the violent tendencies and lack of empathy usually associated with psychopaths in popular culture. In the aftermath, when his soul is restored, Sam continues to be fractured and unable to distinguish between reality and his time in Hell. In 6:22 “The Man Who Knew Too Much”, Sam is comatose, and the various fragments of his psyche are embodied by several versions of Sam: one with a soul, one without a soul, and one who remembers their time in Hell. With the help of a woman named Robin, who physically resembles Dean in her clothing and mannerisms, Sam must literally put his shattered Self back together in order to re-join the real world and help his brother defeat Crowley. This episode is littered with references to psychosis as well as Sam’s feminisation, and both homosexual and incestuous panic. Robin suggests amnesiac Sam might be “a hooker”, and says his motel room is “very Beautiful Mind meets Seven”, a reference to schizophrenic maths genius, John Nash, and the fictional ‘deadly sins’ serial killer, John Doe. Sam doesn’t remember Dean is his brother initially, but remarks on his physical beauty, calling him “a male model type”. Crowley refers to Castiel, as “the bottom in this relationship”, a direct reference to anal sex, and Balthazar likens Sam to Sleeping Beauty, asking a watchful Dean, “You didn’t steal any kisses, I trust?”
The repercussions of Sam absorbing his Hell memories and re-homogenising the separate parts of his psyche are explored in 7:02 “Hello Cruel World”, where his own subconscious, taking the form of Lucifer, reveals Sam’s history of sexual and mental abuse and his own anxieties about his relationship with Dean. Lucifer taunts him with sexualised and feminised language, calling him “bunk buddy” and “my little bitch in every sense of the term.” He tries to convince Sam he never escaped from Hell and that Dean is a figment of his imagination. He mocks Dean’s attempts to nurse him and dress his wounded palm:
Lucifer: Oh, he wants to hold your widdle hand. How sweet.
Given that Lucifer is a product of Sam’s delusions, this teasing suggests Sam himself has issues around the continued physical intimacy with his brother. Lucifer also tries to shake Sam’s faith in his brother by taking on Dean’s physical appearance, essentially conflating Dean with Sam’s torture and rape in Sam’s mind. Lucifer likens Sam to the damaged Martin Creaser from “Sam, Interrupted”, an ex-hunter who voluntarily checked himself into a psychiatric unit, and tells him he is never going to be normal. This particular episode is crammed with references to mental illness and suicidal tendencies: the title is a play on the traditional suicide lament, goodbye, cruel world and also the title of a 2006 book by genderqueer author, Kate Bornstein, the subtitle of which is 101 Alternatives to Suicide for Teens, Freaks, and Other Outlaws; Lucifer calls Sam “American Psycho”, referring to the Bret Easton-Ellis novel of the same name, and its serial killer anti-hero, Patrick Bateman; Dean references both One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, set in a psychiatric hospital, and A Beautiful Mind once again; Bobby references Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, her semi-autobiographical work about struggling with depression, released shortly before her suicide; Sam refers to himself as being “5150”, i.e. certifiable, and assures Dean at one point that he is “not seeing white rabbits”, possibly a reference to Alice In Wonderland, or the Jefferson Airplane song it inspired about hallucinating, and possibly to the 1950 movie Harvey, in which James Stewart’s character hallucinates a giant rabbit. Dean too, is shown as mentally fragile at this stage. Increasingly reliant on alcohol, he tells Bobby’s answerphone that if the old man has been killed he will “strap my Beautiful Mind brother into the car, and I’m gonna drive us off the pier.” This threat recalls the final scene of the 1991 film, Thelma and Louise, in which the two central characters are forced to go on the run in a classic car after shooting a would-be rapist, and embark on a crime spree. In the iconic denouement, the two women are finally apprehended by the law near the edge of the Grand Canyon, and instead of being captured, share a kiss before driving off the edge to certain death.
Death and resurrection, and the overwhelming need to save, self-sacrifice, and subvert the natural laws for one another define Sam and Dean’s relationship. I would argue that their co-dependency and inability to function without one another means they are trapped in a perpetual cycle of what Freud called ‘repetition compulsion’; the urge to relive traumatic experiences through dreams, hallucinations, re-enactment, and even orchestrating events which make the traumatic incident likely to happen again. In the case of the Winchesters, this traumatic event is the loss of one another to death. Although Dean’s life hangs in balance in 1:12 “Faith” when he is electrocuted, and again in the aftermath of the car accident in the first season finale, the first actual loss is experienced by Dean at the end of Supernatural’s second season when Sam is stabbed by Jake Talley. In this instance, Dean expresses his desire to let the world end, implying he has nothing left to live for, and then makes a deal with a crossroads demon to bring Sam back in exchange for his own soul after a year. In that year, despite Gabriel’s attempts to teach Sam to live without his brother, Sam looks for a way out of the deal (unsuccessfully), and then tries to bargain for Dean’s soul after his death. Sam’s failure to do so fuels his addiction to demon blood, and sets off a chain of events which lead to him breaking the last seal to free Lucifer in the fourth season finale. Sam is killed again in 5:22 “Swan Song” when he jumps into Lucifer’s cage in order to avert the apocalypse, although he is restored by Castiel (as Dean was) fairly soon afterwards, minus his soul. Dean, unable to live with a version of his brother which has no conscience and is unable to return his love, is willingly euthanised in 6:11 “Appointment in Samarra” in order to meet Death and plead for his help in restoring Sam’s soul. It’s during this period of Sam being in Hell and then soulless, that Dean attempts to settle down to an “apple pie life” with Lisa and Ben Braeden, but this heteronormative domestic arrangement (arguably only attempted because Sam’s dying wish was that Dean should find Lisa and quit hunting) implodes the moment Sam returns. Sam makes his own attempt to settle down when Dean is transported to Purgatory at the end of the seventh season. He meets a vet, Amelia Richardson, after hitting a dog with the Impala, and begins a relationship with her, unaware than the soldier husband she thinks has been killed serving overseas is actually still alive, as is his brother. Sam’s failure to search for Dean becomes a huge bone of contention between the brothers, despite Sam’s insistence that they agreed to try and break the cycle of self-sacrifice:
Dean: I wasn’t dead. In fact, I was knee-deep in God’s armpit, killing monsters. Which, I thought, is what we actually do.
Sam: Yes, Dean, and as far as I knew, what we do is the thing that got every single member of my family killed. I had no one. No one. And for the first time in my life I was completely alone, and honestly I didn’t exactly have a road map. So, yeah, I fixed up the Impala and I just drove.
Dean: After you looked for me. Did you look for me, Sam?
Dean: Good. That’s good. No, we always told each other not to look for each other. That’s smart, good for you. Of course we always ignored that because of our deep abiding love for each other. But not this time, right Sammy?
Dean’s bitterness and Sam’s guilt permeate the eighth season, resulting in Sam’s determination to complete the trials which will seal the gates of Hell. When it’s revealed that the ordeals will kill Sam, Dean begs him to stop, vowing that whatever has happened between them, there is nothing he will put before Sam. The damage Sam sustains as a result proves life-threatening, and Dean’s obsessive need to keep his brother alive at any cost lead to him compromising Sam’s agency by allowing the fallen angel Gadreel to possess his unconscious body in order to heal him. Given Sam’s history of possession, sexual abuse, and hallucinations, this is a real violation, especially as Gadreel’s presence leads to Sam entering a kind of fugue state, with time lapses, memory loss, and acts being committed by his body without his consent or control.
Dean is once again killed at the end of the ninth season, and resurrected as a demon by the Mark of Cain before Sam can find a way to bring him back. In 10:23 “My Brother’s Keeper”, Dean recognises that he needs to remove himself from the world and asks Death’s help in banishing him from the Earth. He also realises that as long as Sam is alive, he will look for a way to bring his brother back so Dean resolves to kill Sam first. But when Sam tells Dean he will always believe he is good, and acquiesces to his own death, Dean has a change of heart and instead turns the scythe on Death, releasing The Darkness into the world. At this point, the Winchesters can no longer claim that they are acting for the greater good. Even with full knowledge of the consequences, Dean chooses to execute Death and wreak havoc on all of Creation, rather than lose Sam. And when he thinks Sam is dead in 11:17 “Red Meat”, he immediately takes an overdose of barbiturates to bargain with those who control the afterlife. It’s Billie, the reaper who confronts Dean with the truth about his actions:
Billie: It’s cute though, you pretending to save Sam for the greater good, when we both know you’re doing it for you. You can’t lose him. But even if Sammy could win the title bout, the answer would still be ‘no.’ The answer will always be ‘no.’ Game’s over Dean. No more second chances. No more extra lives. Time to say bye-bye to Luigi, Mario.
Of course there will always be another chance while Supernatural is on the air, because without both Sam and Dean Winchester, there is no show. While Supernatural champions the importance of home and family, the brothers’ dysfunctional version of it is often mirrored in the dynamics between monsters, angels, and demons, notably Lucifer and Michael and, most recently, God and His sister Amara. Trying to prevent Amara – the ‘Big Bad’ of the season – unleashing oblivion on the entire universe in revenge for God locking her away for millennia, Dean likens her situation to his own and, in doing so, reinforces once more that the Winchesters’ co-dependency is not only potentially harmful to the brothers themselves, but could have cataclysmic repercussions for all humanity:
Dean: Me and Sam – we have had our fair share of fights – more than our share – but no matter how bad it got, we always made it right because we’re family. I need him. He needs me. And when everything goes to crap, that’s all you’ve got – family. And you might be an all-powerful being…but I think you’re human where it counts. You simply need your brother. (11:23 “Alpha and Omega”)