Character: Sam Winchester
Spoilers: massive, detailed spoilers for the entire first season
i. carry on my wayward son
When we first meet Sam Winchester, he's wearing a diaper and drooling. He's also only six months old.
As the "Pilot" opens, baby Sammy is laid down to sleep by his very normal mother, Mary, and kissed goodnight by his very normal four-year-old brother, Dean,1 while his very normal father, John, smiles like a proud papa and makes very normal football jokes.
It's November 2, 1983. They are the Winchester family of Lawrence, Kansas.2 They are very normal.
And they're all about to die.
Well, okay, not all of them; that wouldn't make for much of a show. Ickle Sammy wiggles in his crib while John goes downstairs to watch a (very normal) war movie. Mary heads off to bed, where she hears not-so-normal baby noises coming through the baby monitor and gets up to investigate. In Sammy's nursery, she sees a shadowy man who looks very much like John standing over the crib.
When she asks if Sam's hungry, the man only says, "Shhhhh." Mary apparently doesn't think there's anything odd about that, and she goes downstairs...
...where she finds her husband fast asleep on the sofa.
Panicking, Mary runs back up to Sammy's room. The camera cuts away before we get to see what she sees, but downstairs John is awoken by her screams. He charges up to the nursery, where Sammy is awake and doing that gurgling-wiggling-drooling thing babies do, but nothing else is amiss.
Nothing, that is, until drops of blood fall from the ceiling onto Sammy's blankets. John looks up and finds Mary pinned to the ceiling by some unseen force, a red gash across her stomach. As he tries to find a way to get her down, a storm of flames erupts around her, engulfing her body and filling the room.
John grabs Sam from his crib and carries him into the hall, where he hands the baby to little pajama-clad Dean with the fateful order to carry Sam outside to safety. John goes back into the nursery but cannot rescue his wife. He runs outside, scoops up his boys, and watches his home go up in flames.
What happened that night in Sammy's room in Lawrence defines the entire lives of all three surviving Winchesters. It happened over Sam's crib, in Sam's nursery, to Sam's family, quite possibly because of something that is special about Sam.
Fast-forward twenty-two years. Hallowe'en, 2005. Palo Alto, California. Sam Winchester is much taller now and no longer wearing diapers, and he has miraculously grown up to look exactly like Jared Padalecki. He is in dire need of a haircut and has a mysterious dislike of Hallowe'en, but otherwise he looks like a perfectly nice and happy young man with a beautiful girlfriend, Jessica, and a bright future.
Things change, as they always do, when he is awakened in the middle of the night by the sound of somebody breaking into his apartment. Getting up to investigate, Sam launches into a dark, confused scuffle with the mysterious intruder, only to find himself pinned to the floor by a guy who looks amazingly like Jensen Ackles.
Sam is dismayed and bewildered3 to find a man who looks amazingly like Jensen Ackles in his living room, and it is revealed the mysterious, shadow-wrestling, Sam-straddling intruder is his long-estranged older brother, Dean.
Dean has dropped by -- not bothering to knock, of course, because why knock when you can simply break in? -- to tell Sam that their father has been missing for a few weeks after going on a "hunting" trip, and to ask for Sam's help finding him.
Sam is not very happy about this.
But the viewers are, because that means it's time to get this show on the road.
1 Despite what a large portion of the fandom believes, this is, in fact, the only time either of the brothers kisses the other in the entire course of the show.
2 If legends are to be believed -- which they are when you're watching Supernatural -- Lawrence, Kansas, is located near a real-life hellmouth. Of course, nobody calls it a hellmouth, because that's a really dumb name, but the legend claims that the nearby town of Stull contains a stairway that goes right down to the fire 'n brimstone. As if the Board of Education isn't enough, you now have more evidence that Kansas is evil.
3 Rather than "delighted and enthralled," which would be the normal reaction to discovering Jensen Ackles in your living room.
ii. once I rose above the noise and confusion
Sam: When I told Dad when I was scared of the thing in my closet, he gave me a .45. ("Pilot")
Sam has no memory of his mother; he knows her only through photographs and stories. He never knew a normal childhood. Sam and Dean's upbringing were defined by John's quest to find the monster that had killed his wife. After Mary's death, John devoted his life and his sons' lives to seeking out and killing evil things in the world. Ghosts, monsters, demons, poltergeists: you name it, the Winchesters hunt it. John, an ex-Marine, raises his sons like undercover soldiers in an endless war, training them in firearms and fighting, lying and subterfuge. They survive on credit card scams, traveling the country chasing leads about mysterious deaths and strange happenings.
That is the life John Winchester chose for his family after his wife died. They are hunters who protect unknowing, ordinary folk from things most people don't even believe in.
Sam was raised as much by Dean as by his father, and that created a bond that stays strong into adulthood. It was Dean who carried him out the fire the night their mother died, it was Dean who became fiercely protective of the infant Sam in the following months. And it is Dean who, Sam acknowledges, has always been somebody he could count on even when he had no one else in the world. (Yes, he does say it just like that. Sam can really be a big girl sometimes.)
John was in the habit of leaving his young sons alone for days at a time while he hunted, trusting that a locked door, a loaded gun, and Dean's ability to obey orders and watch out for Sammy would be enough to keep them safe. The fact that Dean was charged with protecting Sam while Sam was accustomed to being protected explains why Sam, unlike his brother, grew up to rebel against the family's hunting lifestyle.
Life in the Winchester family during Sam's teenage years was a real barrel of laughs. As a few of Dean's very telling remarks show, Sam and John spent the majority of Sam's adolescence pulling in opposite directions, fighting over every little thing, sniping and snapping and bitching, never seeing eye-to-eye on anything and forcing poor Dean to play peacemaker to all of their fights.
As a result, after all the fights and disagreements, Sam left the life his father had chosen for him.
Of course, because even when they try their hardest the Winchesters can't do anything normally, Sam's mutiny did not come in the form of drugs, gangs, booze, a peculiar affinity for pale skin, unflattering black clothing and multiple piercings.4 No, the ordinary teenage rebellion simply wouldn't do for Sam Winchester, not when what he was rebelling against was so far from ordinary in the first place.
Sam rebelled by wanting to play soccer rather than learning how to bow-hunt. He rebelled by doing well in school, by playing by society's rules, by joining the drama club and landing a role in Our Town (the most quintessentially, symbolically normal play that ever graced a high school stage).5 He rebelled by applying to college and not only being accepted, but earning a full-ride scholarship to one of the most prestigious universities in the country...and taking it.
As Sam states in the "Pilot" and later in the "Bugs,"6 he never intended to leave his family forever. He wanted only to go to college, to give himself a chance for a safe life beyond hunting ghosts and ghouls, to become more than a foot soldier in a war he never signed up to fight, forever trapped in a life defined by his father's single-minded quest, his brother's rockin' taste in music, and a couple of family cars with gas mileage bad enough to make a handful of Texas oil barons very happy.
So Sam left. He accepted the scholarship and went to Stanford, even though his father told him -- in what Dean recalls matter-of-factly as one hell of a fight -- that if he left he should never come back. Sam, being all of eighteen years old and as wise in the ways of the world as most eighteen-year-old boys,7 took his father's words to heart and didn't look back.
Sam: I was just going to college. It was Dad who said if I was gonna go, I should stay gone. And that’s what I’m doing. ("Pilot")
Though the show writers are apparently graduates of the J.K. Rowling School of Maths and Timelines, it seems that about three years passed between the time Sam left for college and that fateful night a smokin' hot guy broke into his apartment and challenged him to a poorly-lit impromptu wrestling match on the living room floor.
(Unbeknownst to Sam, John and probably Dean often checked up on him while he was at Stanford, making sure he was safe whenever they were in town. This is a tremendous surprise to Sam when he learns it, as is the observation, voiced by someone outside the family in "Phantom Traveler," that John was extremely proud of Sam for his academic success.
There are many reasons that this information should so shock Sam, but all of them can be summed up as simply yet another example of the First Law of the Winchester Family: They love each other madly and unconditionally and beyond all reason, but they can't communicate with each other worth a damn unless their lives depend on it...and sometimes not even then.)
In those years he was on his own, Sam did quite well for himself. In the beginning of the "Pilot," he's a pre-law student with a shiny LSAT score and a good chance at a place at a esteemed law school. He has a beautiful, loving girlfriend who likes to dress up like a nurse,8 great friends, and a place to call home. He is, as we learn in the season finale, shopping for engagement rings and planning to ask Jessica to marry him.
Nobody in his current life knows anything about the way he was raised or how his dad and brother spend their time, and he is determined to keep it that way. Sam is well on his way to having the safe, ordinary life he always wanted.
Then everything goes to hell.
4 No piercings that we know of, anyway, though we are still hoping for extensive photographic evidence that will conclusively prove this theory.
5 Sam's experience in the drama club comes in useful in the boys' work, much to the delight of every fan who harbors lustful fantasies of seeing the Winchester brothers dressed up as repairmen ("Shadow"), police officers ("The Benders"), or firemen ("Devil's Trap"), as well as various charades that require the wearing of suits and ties.
6 An episode worth watching only if you are a skilled viewer capable of ignoring god-awful plots in favor of gleaning out tiny nuggets of backstory gold and giggling when one handsome boy slaps another on the ass.
7 Which is to say: not even a little bit.
8 Yet the fandom is strangely lacking in smutty sponge bath fics. Why? Your guess is as good as mine.
iii. masquerading as a man with a reason
When Dean shows up asking for help finding their missing father, it seems pretty obvious that Sam goes with him not because he's worried about John, but simply because Dean is asking him. Sam makes derogatory comments about John's habit of drinkin' up and holin' up -- comments which are neither substantiated nor refuted by Dean or anything else we learn in the show -- and agrees to join Dean's search only if he is back in Palo Alto in time for his law school interview on Monday.
That, of course, doesn't go as planned, and instead he returns just in time to watch Jessica exit life en flambé on their bedroom ceiling, killed in exactly the same way, on exactly the same day, that Mary Winchester died twenty-two years ago. Dean has to carry his baby brother from the fire again.
With Jessica dead, Sam has a mission, and it ain't law school. It is the exact same mission that has consumed his father's life for more than two decades: find and kill the son of a bitch that likes to burn up pretty blonde ladies on the ceiling.
Even after Jessica is murdered, however, Sam's outlook is that of someone who is taking a temporary detour, someone who has a specific mission to accomplish before he can go back to his ordinary life.
This is the attitude that dictates Sam's behavior throughout the first half of the first season: a reluctance to return to the hunting life, a single-minded determination to find their father and the monster that killed Jessica, and a persistent impatience when faced with Dean's equally stubborn determination to help whatever pretty girls, small children, and endangered families9 they encounter. This is the thing over which the brothers clash most frequently and most violently throughout the year they spend on the road together, and it reveals the fundamental difference in how they view the hunt.
Dean: But the way I see it, Dad’s giving us a job to do and I intend to do it
Sam: Dean, no. I've got to find Dad. I've got to find Jessica’s killer. It’s the only thing I can think about.
Dean: Ok, all right, Sam. We’ll find them, I promise. Listen to me, you’ve got to prepare yourself. I mean this search could take a while, and all that anger, you can’t keep it burning over the long haul, it’s gonna kill you. You gotta have patience, man.
Sam: How do you do it? How does Dad do it?
Dean: Well for one…them. I mean I figure our family’s so screwed to hell, maybe we can help some others. Makes things a little more bearable...I’ll tell you what else helps: killing as many evil sons of bitches as I possibly can. ("Wendigo")
As Dean and everybody watching the show can see plain as day, Sam is very much like his father in that he's driven almost entirely by the need for vengeance.10 (Dean, unlike his father and brother, has an entirely different motivation for hunting, but that's the subject of another essay.) From the beginning, Sam has little patience for any jobs or leads that don't help them find John. In "Wendigo" and later in "Scarecrow," he is willing to let strangers fend for themselves in favor of searching for John, and there are several times in which Sam voices the opinion -- in varying degrees of whiny-little-brotherness -- that Dean is wasting their time by checking into mysteries that have nothing to do with their father.
Despite their differences, the brothers quickly fall into the routine of working together again, and they really do make a wonderfully complementary team. Sam is does research while Dean shoots things; Sam picks locks while Dean kicks in doors; Sam asks annoying personal questions while Dean shuts him down; Sam turns his puppy-dog eyes and how-can-you-not-trust-me? face on strangers while Dean...well, the less said about Dean's people "skills," the better. Dean bonds with sad, winsome little brats over childhood trauma (see: "Dead in the Water," "Something Wicked") while Sam bonds with sad, winsome chicks over tragically lost loved ones (see: "Hook Man," "Provenance"). Dean plays his protective big brother game while Sam plays his makes-fun-of-anything-and-everything-his-b
They are a beautiful team, right from the start. It is impossible to consider one of them without the other; even when they are apart, the characters can't be separated. Monsters and ghosts and damsels in distress are all well and good, but the main reason many fans watch Supernatural and fall in love with its boys is the camaraderie and companionship they have with each other.11
It soon becomes clear, however, that there is more behind Sam's dour demeanor than he is letting on. In "Bloody Mary" we learn -- with the help of a very creepy mirror-dwelling bleeding-eyed alter-Sam -- that in addition to grief, Sam also feels profoundly guilty about Jessica's death. He dreamed about her death for weeks before it happened, complete with all the gruesome details -- ceiling, blood, flames -- but he ignored the dreams, said nothing to her, and did nothing about it. Hence, the guilt.
That guilt and sense of responsibility come to the forefront in the episode "Home," when Sam dreams that the family now living in their old house in Lawrence is in danger. That dream represents a turning point for Sam -- and for Dean, once Sam tells him about the prescient dreams -- as he begins to realize that there may be some greater plan behind the deaths in their family.
Sam has no idea what it is, no idea why the demon attacked his mother and his girlfriend, no idea why he's having visions about things that haven't happened yet. It's got him worried and scared, but he is determined to help the family he sees in his dreams.
Shortly thereafter, Sam's attitude toward the hunt, toward life on the road, and toward his family begins to change. It's subtle at first, but throughout the second half of the season it becomes apparent that while he is still driven primarily by his desire for vengeance, he is slowly beginning to understand that there might be more to the hunt than revenge.
Before he can start down that road, however, he has to shoot his brother in the head.12
9 As well as little old ladies crossing the street, down-on-their-luck waitresses, curmudgeonly veterans, woe-faced orphans, troubled teenagers, forlorn puppies, stranded kittens, unloved ponies, abandoned cars...Dean Winchester may try to put on a tough guy façade, but he's really the schmoopiest schmoop in the universe, and he doesn't fool anyone, least of all his little brother.
10 This is of no great to surprise to anybody who has ever been either a parent or a child -- i.e., everyone -- because one of the immutable laws of families is that parents always clash the worst with the children who most take after them. Trying telling that to John and Sam, though.
11 *commence shameless fangirling*
12 Hey, we all grow in different ways.
iv. my charade is the event of the season
Sam and Dean's ever-present disagreement over the purpose of their journey comes to a head in the episodes "Asylum" and "Scarecrow." In the former, they follow another text-messaged set of coordinates from their father to a haunted asylum in which Sam is treated to the delightful experience of having his brain taken over by the ghost of a crazy psychiatrist.
The result of this crazy dead psychiatrist's treatment is not, alas, a prescription for Prozac and a renewed interest in affirmation exercises, but instead a fierce, uncontrollable, sadistic rage that leads Sam to say aloud everything he hates about Dean, most notably that he thinks Dean is a pathetic loser for always following Dad's orders. Everything that angers Sam, everything he hasn't said, all of his frustrations about his family and his brother, it all comes out.
And then he shoots Dean. Several times.
Luckily for Dean (and for the longevity of the show) the first shot is with rock salt, which does not so much as mar Jensen Ackles' lovely, lovely skin, because injury realism is something that only happens on shows with far less pretty actors. The second, third, and fourth shots are from a gun that is not loaded, thanks to Dean's quick thinking and total unwillingness to trust the crazy, demented version of Sam.
The boys, being boys and brothers and Winchesters and everything they are, do not talk about it, and that would probably be the end of it except for one little thing that happens: Dad calls.
John, in a display of that especially abominable timing that makes parents walk in on their kids giggling over porn or making out with their pillows, chooses that very night to call his sons for the first time in months and issue another set of orders that he expects them to follow without question. (Say whatever you will about the man, but you can't deny he's got brilliant dramatic timing.)
Dean says, "Yes sir," Sam says, "No way," and then they both say a great many other things, none of which are very nice, and after they fight they split up. Sam is determined to go to California to find John; Dean is going to follow John's orders and save a random road-tripping couple from being eaten by a carnivorous scarecrow in Indiana.13
Of course, their separation doesn't last very long, because they're worse than a couple of teenage girls with the way they absolutely have to call each other all the time because oh my god this is just so important, like, totally and it can't wait.
While they are apart, however, a few important things happen to Sam:14
1) Sam meets Meg, a demon-possessed agent of evil who uses a blood-filled chalice to do her girly phone-calling and is quite important to the overall story arc of the show, despite having an appalling haircut.
2) Dean lets Sam go. This is important. Sam is determined to go his own way (again) and Dean is willing to let him (again). He tells Sam that he's proud of him (all together now: awwwwww!) and they say goodbye, except that they don't actually say the word "goodbye," because they are Winchesters, and clear-cut and straightforward communication is something that only happens on lame, unrealistic "family" shows like 7th Heaven.
3) Sam comes back. This is even more important. Sam comes back. It's his decision; Dean lets him go, but he comes back. Got that? I'll say it again in case you missed it: Sam comes back.
After Sam gets all manfully weepy because his big brother is proud of him, he realizes that Dean is probably being eaten by a carnivorous scarecrow while he, Sam, is sitting in a bus station flirting with demon-spawn and being attractively emo. So he ditches the tonsorially-challenged demon-spawn, steals a car, rescues his brother, and says these fateful words:
"You and me. We’re all that’s left. So, if we’re gonna see this through, we’re gonna do it together."
And thousands of fangirls weep with joy.
After that, Sam is different. One might even call him more likeable, if one is a heathen who didn't like him from the start.
It becomes apparent right away, when his "It's All About Revenge!" way-way-off-Broadway song and dance is pre-empted by the shocking (teehee!) events of the next episode, "Faith." It seems that the very first thing Dean does after escaping from the Hoosier Apple Orchard of Doom is electrocute himself,15 causing permanent damage to his heart and sending Sam on a unwaveringly optimistic, utterly unstoppable, fiercely determined mission to save Dean's life.
It's very cute. There is probably a healthy dose of guilt driving him -- wouldn't you feel slightly guilty after trying to shoot your brother in the head then almost leaving him to be eaten by a carnivorous scarecrow? -- but it doesn't matter, because nothing is more adorable than a little brother being willing to move heaven and earth and everything in between to keep his big brother alive.
And he succeeds, of course, with the help of a kickin' Blue Oyster Cult musical montage and a whole boatload of angsty soul-searching. (Have you ever before seen a show that can combine a Blue Oyster Cult soundtrack with angsty soul-searching? I didn't think so. And you ask why Supernatural is special. Bah!)
The new and improved Sammy is a wonder to behold, and his character grows by leaps and bounds in the second half of the first season. He takes a more proactive role in the hunt, occasionally being the one to find the jobs and convince Dean to take them. He teases mercilessly when they meet an ex-girlfriend of Dean's. He lightens up, smiles more and actually laughs, and in "Hell House" takes gleeful, boyish delight in playing pranks on Dean. He even goes on a date and flirts with (and kisses!) a real live girl.16
He's still in mourning, he's still seeking revenge, but he's also letting himself come alive again.
13 If you think that's a weird thing for a character to do, perhaps Supernatural isn't the show for you.
14 A few things happen to Dean, too, including meeting the infamous Cigarette-Smoking Man, getting whacked in the face with a rifle, being locked in a cellar, and ending up tied to a tree, but they aren't really important.
15 While rescuing a couple of winsome little children, of course.
16 He also gets locked in a cage by some crazy inbred cannibalistic hillbillies, but that's not so much a character-defining moment as a "Things you never thought you'd want to do before watching Supernatural: build a cage in your basement to imprison comely lads" moment.
v. on a stormy sea of moving emotion
Throughout the season, Sam is also making an very real effort to understand his brother and father. He pokes and prods at Dean's emotional walls (even while setting up his own walls, silly boy, but nobody is perfect); he asks questions when he doesn't want to let an issue rest; he refuses to take "just because" as an answer; he asks, multiple times, whether Dean is truly happy in the hunting life (he doesn't get an answer, of course, but at least he tries).
Sam left home at age eighteen convinced that he had no common ground with his father and brother, that he would never understand them and they would never understand him and the only solution was to break off all contact and do his own thing.
Now, however, he realizes that pretending his family doesn't exist perhaps isn't the only workable course of action. He is beginning to understand that there are reasons for why John and Dean act the way they do.
In other words, Sam is growing up.
In "Nightmare," Sam's premonitions return and he meets another young man whose mother died the same way Mary and Jessica did, with the added twist that the other guy has telekinetic powers. When faced with new questions about his premonitions and his mother's death -- as well as an impressive demonstration of his own ability to move large pieces of furniture with his brain when Dean is in danger -- Sam shares his fears with Dean immediately, rather than hiding them as he did before, and expresses gratitude for the way their father raised them.
Sam: Well, he could’ve gone a whole ‘nother way after Mom. A little more tequila, a little less demon-hunting, and we would’ve had Max’s childhood. All things considered, we turned out okay -- thanks to him.
In "Something Wicked," when he learns the reason for Dean's hyperprotectiveness and willingness to follow John's orders, Sam immediately and earnestly offers Dean the forgiveness he needs, even though Dean doesn't want to hear it.
Sam: Hey, Dean, I’m sorry.
Dean: For what?
Sam: Well, you know. I’ve really given you a lot of crap for always following Dad’s orders. But I know why you do it.
Dean: Oh, God, kill me now.17
Alas, all is not puppy dogs and candy canes and snogging pretty art dealers for Sammy. As the boys and their father come closer to facing the demon that killed Mary and Jessica, the sharper edges of each man's character are thrown into relief, and Sam is no exception.
In "Shadow," when the boys believe they might be close to finding the long-sought ceiling demon, Sam says what are perhaps the most carelessly hurtful but also the most truthful and telling things he has ever said to Dean:
Sam: What if this whole thing was over tonight? Man, I’d sleep for a month. Go back to school -- be a person again.
And then, while viewers everywhere are still shrieking at him for that very heartless, offhand "be a person" comment:
Sam: I'm not gonna live this life forever. Dean, when this is all over, you’re gonna have to let me go my own way.
Sam hasn't changed his mind. He has still not signed up for a permanent role in the hunting life (perhaps because nobody has told him that Jared Padalecki has signed up for a permanent role on the show...), and he knows it is important for Dean to know that, even if fangirls everywhere will accuse him of ripping his brother's heart out with a rusty spoon and stomping on it.18
But it is not the same as when Sam was eighteen. As every sentient creature in the known universe except for Dean can see, Sam has no intention of dropping out of Dean's life again. He may want to do his own thing, but this time he's going to call, he's going to keep in touch, he's going to keep his family as a part of his life.
Of course, he doesn't say that, because he is a Winchester and Winchesters never say anything if they can get away with being stoically and stubbornly uncommunicative instead, but it's clear nonetheless.
Sam may be growing up, but he's still the bratty baby of the family. When the brothers are finally reunited with their father in "Dead Man's Blood," it is both a little amusing and very frustrating to see how quickly Sam and John slip into their old habits. John issues orders without bothering to explain; Sam immediately questions them. Sam is, in fact, quite right to question John's commands, but he does it in a way that makes him look like a petulant teenager. He and John are immediately at each other's throats again, and Dean is nominated for sainthood by sympathetic viewers for putting up with their endless crap.
But another piece of Sam's ongoing Winchester Family Puzzle falls into place when he and John have a little manly heart-to-heart (complete with gruff voices and flannel shirts), and Sam finally realizes that his father isn't blind to the effects of the life he's dragged his sons into. In the same conversation, Sam also takes the first step toward understanding what Dean and every fan has known all along: he and John are far more similar than either of them realizes.
Just how similar they are becomes painfully clear in the gut-punching, hair-tearing, teeth-gnashing, nail-biting, heart-squeezing season finale episodes of "Salvation" and "Devil's Trap." While John is off being tricked by the aforementioned tonsorially-challenged demon-spawn Meg, Sam and Dean finally come face to face with the demon they've been hunting forever...
...and it gets away.
And Sam flips out. He totally loses his shit, tries to literally run back into a burning building to have another chance at the demon, perfectly willing to sacrifice his own life if it means killing that monster. He is furious and irrational, blind to everything except his own need for revenge and his hate for the demon.
It is only when Dean employs a very Winchesterly combination of rough brotherly manhandling, a not-quite-tearful confession of vulnerability, and some choice remarks about just what John and Sam's single-minded obsession is doing to them that Sam begins to reconsider. Maybe, just maybe, Dean is right and John is wrong. Maybe killing the demon isn't worth losing everything else.
And that's the decision he ends up making in the end, when it really matters. In "Devil's Trap," when the brothers find themselves up against the demon (in possession of John's body and looking very fine indeed), Sam unquestioningly trusts Dean's instincts and faces the demon beside him. When Sam is put into the terrible, awful, no good, very bad position of having to decide whether to shoot his demon-possessed father or let the demon escape, he opts to save his father's life.
All along, Sam has been talking the tough talk that nothing is more important than revenge, that nothing is more important than killing the demon that that has so hurt their family. But when it comes down to the wire, when he is forced to make the choice (rather than just talk about it), he finally hears what Dean has been saying for a year, and he finally sees, with open eyes, the damage that the single-minded quest for revenge has done to his family.
Sam decides that there are some things more important than revenge. So he doesn't shoot the demon-in-John, and the demon escapes. When John berates him for the decision, Sam stands his ground, certain that he has made the right choice.
Not that it does much good, of course, because they're all smashed to hell by a speeding semi a few minutes later, but Sammy sure did make a decision and stick with it.
And the last time we see Sam, he's unconscious and bleeding, and things are looking very bad indeed for Winchester family.
17 In the complex and mysterious language of Dean Winchester, "Oh, God, kill me now" means approximately the same thing as "I love you, man."
18 The way the fandom reacts to this declaration of Sam's is very...funny, but it says far more about the fandom than it does about Sam. The fandom, apparently, is chock-full of people who have no problem whatsoever with parents nagging them to go to medical school or marry nice rich men or doing what the parents have always wanted rather than what they want. The fandom is full of people who love being told exactly how to live their lives by their parents. Seriously. It's the only explanation for why people so hate Sam for just wanting to do his own thing like every other twenty-something person does. People are weird.
vi. for there'll be peace when you are done
Sam Winchester is the protected baby in a family that devotes its every waking moment to protecting helpless strangers. Sam is the kid who wants to be safe when his father and brother are constantly throwing themselves into danger. Sam is the rebel who wants to be a yuppie rather than a badass; he is the one who challenges and questions and fights when he doesn't agree with the decisions his family makes.
Sam is the wayward son, the one who left to make his own way in the world, the one who struck out on his own without the protection and support of his family, the one who is still determined to make his own choices and have his own life.
Does that make him selfish, as a large portion of the Supernatural fandom seems to believe? Maybe. But does it make him wrong? Certainly not. There may be rather more demons and sawed-off shotguns in his life than in ours, but he's a person we all know and have been at some point: he's just a twenty-something kid trying to find his own way in a very loving, loyal, stifling, and frustrating family.
After the end of the first season, there are still a lot of things we don't know about Sam. We don't know what, exactly, the demon wanted from him and the other kids whose families it attacked. We don't know why Jessica was in the demon's way. We don't know if Sam was going to law school because he has a passion for the law or simply because he thought it was a safe career to choose. We don't know how much responsibility he feels toward the people his family can protect, and we don't know just what is going to make him stay if and when the demon is gone for good.19
But the things we do know about Sam are more than enough reason to love him. He loves his family more than anything in the world, and he is devoted to them even when they don't see eye to eye. He is the only one who ever asks if Dean wants something for himself. He is working through life-shattering grief, sometimes overcome by anger and fear, but still learning how to laugh again. He has a smile that lights up a room and a very silly side that occasionally comes out to play. He doesn't follow anybody's orders without reason, but he trusts his brother's instincts and judgment. He feels guilty that terrible things are apparently happening because of him. He makes a conscious decision to stick with his brother and see their mission out together.
He is slowly, deliberately collecting the clues his brother and father drop about what makes them tick, about what they want, what makes them happy and how all of them, as a family, can get there.
That's Sam Winchester.
He also looks really hot while wearing nothing but a towel.
19 But we do know he's going to stick around, because there wouldn't be much of a show if he didn't.
For more information, check out the Supernatural entry over at newbieguide. There are about ten million links there than will keep you occupied for a good long time.
Also read marinarusalka's essay about Dean here on idol_reflection. No discussion of either boy is complete without the other. They are so gosh darn cute together.