I wasn’t sure I’d do a happy birthday post for my favorite characters this year. Supernatural ended nearly six months ago, and that means the Winchesters haven’t been on my TV screen. But that doesn’t mean that they haven’t been in my heart, where I’m fairly sure Sam and Dean will live forever. So even though I can’t watch new episodes, in my heart Sam Winchester is having a birthday, and I want to celebrate!
Over the course of fifteen years, Sam became a beloved character to so many of us, thanks to Eric Kripke who created him and Jared Padalecki, who brought him to life. I was fascinated by Sam and Dean from almost the beginning, and over time, through good times and bad times, that fascination only grew. So here’s a post full of reasons of what I love about Sam Winchester, from the start to the finish (at least temporarily, because I’ll hang onto the hope that we’ll see the Winchesters again in time…) Instead of not doing a post at all, I got entirely carried away and took a trip down memory lane, reminding me of all the reasons Sam is special to me.
One of the reasons Sam Winchester is so inspiring as a character is because he’s been through the kind of trauma and loss that would have most of us flat on our backs and unable to put one foot in front of the other. The first losses come when he’s just a baby – his mother, his home, and his father too – still there but no longer the same man or the same father to his young sons.
Twenty years later, Sam’s at school, with goals and aspirations, kicking ass on the LSATs and planning his future with Jessica. And disaster finds him again, Jessica burning on the ceiling just like his mother did.
The boys hit the road. So young and pretty, so many challenges yet to come.
We experience Sam’s empathy and his strength early on. We’ve followed him on quite a journey in just one year, from the boy who struck out on his own to the boy almost as bent on revenge as his father, and finally to this – the young man who understands that there are things more important than revenge, including his love for his family. Sam goes against his father in a completely different way here, with Sam and Dean on the same page about family and reconnected with each other.
That reconnection with Dean and Sam’s big heart and capacity for love are heartbreakingly obvious as the second season begins, as Sam faces his brother’s death (for the second time, after almost losing him in ‘Faith’). Jared was so young here, and yet shows us the depth of Sam’s feelings vividly. Sam has a great capacity for love, and an openness to experience that allows him to make contact with Dean even on a different plane.
We also see Sam’s insistence on seeing individuals for who they are – even if that might be a ‘monster’. As he struggles with his own sense of being damaged, he uses that understanding to also understand others who are different, and who might be seen as less than, even dangerous. He’s willing to give Lenore the benefit of the doubt, and he’s right to do so.
Also if we didn’t know it already (we did), Sam Fucking Winchester is not afraid to go up against anyone or anything if he believes what he’s doing is right. Gordon found that out. Also, don’t call him Sammy, Gordon. Only Dean gets to do that.
So much of the show is about Sam’s internal struggle over feeling ‘dirty’ or contaminated. The demon blood he was forced to ingest as a baby is the canon explanation, but it works on a metaphorical level too. We all worry that we’re somehow not good enough, that something about us is unacceptable in some way, and that can lead to self loathing or addictions or depression or self harm. The character of Sam inspires so many people to keep fighting and not give in to those feelings – Sam’s so-called contamination never made him less than.
For the most part, Dean refuses to buy into that narrative too. Even when Sam might be infected with something that will force him to go darkside, Dean stands by him. Even when Sam tries to protect his brother from himself.
A major trauma in Sam Winchester’s life is that his bodily autonomy has been taken away from him – more than once. Possessed by the demon Meg, Sam torments Jo, unable to stop it. It’s a suitably upsetting scene, sexualized to be even more disturbing, and Jared and Alona Tal sold it perfectly. For a man who has strong beliefs about right and wrong and intense empathy for people, knowing he did this must have been unbearable. And it won’t be the last time he’s possessed.
When I say Sam Winchester has been through alot, I’m not kidding. When he keeps going, it makes the rest of us feel like we can too.
Possessed Sam doesn’t stop at Jo either; Dean gets tortured too, in a scene with just as much intensity.
Sam never loses his capacity for empathy or his ability to see individuals for who they are even if they’re labeled as “monsters.” His tearful insistence that he be the one to kill the werewolf Madison, who was also his lover, is unforgettable – as are Dean’s tears in empathy with his brother.
The brilliance of Supernatural is that these characters already, by this point in the series, feel nuanced and complicated and strikingly real.
By the end of Season 2, Sam faces what should be the ultimate trauma but actually isn’t in this show (at least not for the person experiencing it) – he’s murdered by Jake and dies in Dean’s arms. The trauma, for Sam, is that to bring him back, his brother sold his soul. Knowing that Dean is going to hell – for him – is the real trauma for Sam.
And he gets alot of practice at dealing with this overwhelming loss, as Dean dies again and again and again in ‘Mystery Spot.’ This is the episode where Sam’s level of trauma became difficult to even get my head around. Although the episode is in part played as dark comedy, what the Trickster did to Sam is horrific. I think about losing someone I love over and over and it makes me sick to my stomach. I don’t think I could survive; Sam barely does. It’s a version of Sam unlike the real person, hard and cold and almost unfeeling.
I’ve often said that Supernatural is like a master class on grief and loss and trauma, and this episode really shows what can happen when too much trauma is piled on and on and on. Even someone as strong as Sam Winchester is profoundly changed by such an experience.
The relief – so clear on Sam’s face – when Dean is finally alive again, is so palpable, and so relatable. I feel for Sam so much in this episode, I can hardly watch it.
Season 3 is hard to watch at multiple times, as Sam deals with anticipatory grief – knowing his brother will die at the end of the year. His heartbreaking plea to Dean to give up the facade of being unafraid and sleeping around and generally pretending he’s not going to hell – and to “be my brother again” makes me cry every time. The tears in Sam’s eyes as he says it, and all the emotion Jared puts into that plea, seem so real.
It’s no wonder I feel so attached to Sam, after going with him on a journey that’s so painful. I just wanna hug him, like alot.
Another part of Sam Winchester’s resilience, though, is his ability to put aside his impending losses and past traumas and still enjoy life. To still sustain his important relationships and allow himself to be real and vulnerable with those people, especially Dean. As much as Sam finds it hard to celebrate Christmas knowing it’s Dean’s last one, he does it for his brother, and there’s real joy on his face as he opens his gifts and drinks eggnog and watches the game with Dean.
As fandom would say, soft boy.
Nothing forestalls Dean’s eventual death though – for real this time (though temporary). Jensen insisted on being in this scene even though he didn’t have to, so that Jared could mourn the death of his brother without having to think of anything else. And wow, did that ever work.
Sam’s agony and heartbreak shape where his journey takes him next, inevitably.
As much as Sam realized there were more important things than revenge in Season 1, losing Dean like he did cracks Sam open and makes him vulnerable to outside influences – like the demon Ruby. It’s not so hard to understand why Sam wants these powers though, since he really is able to do some good things like exorcise demons without killing the people they’re possessing. Okay, having to drink demon blood and be at Ruby’s beck and call is a down side, but still.
Sam’s decision puts the brothers at odds in a way that was extremely hard to watch when I watched this season live. To some extent, it never felt entirely right to me – Sam would have been so relieved to have Dean back, and surely Dean would have understood why Sam wants to do this and why he’s so focused on killing Lilith.
It adds to Sam’s trauma that Dean calls him a monster – his worst fear – and they end up in a brutal fight that leaves Dean on the floor and repeating their father’s hurtful words to Sam that if he leaves he shouldn’t come back. Ouch.
Sam never really gives up his refusal to give up on people who might not have to be monsters. If he’s fighting it, so can the guy in Metamorphosis, Sam insists. It doesn’t work out that way, but I love that Sam always tries to see the good in people and to see through things like stereotypes and stigma.
Sam’s addiction to demon blood also makes the character relatable to many people, at times a reaction to trauma, whether it’s to drugs or alcohol or self harm or an eating disorder. In Sam’s case, it’s demon blood, but it works as a metaphor once again. And once again, I’m rooting for Sam as his well-meaning brother nearly kills him with a forced cold turkey while he’s locked in the panic room helpless against vicious hallucinations.
In the midst of a season that rips your heart out alot, we get some Winchester back story – which makes me love Sam even more. Colin Ford (opposite Brock Kelly as Dean) absolutely nailed the character. We saw Sam’s strength and courage, and were maybe even more in awe of him knowing that he was a kid on the small side before he grew up to be six foot plus.
Sam battles addiction with courage, but Jared also makes sure to show how difficult that can be. There are always people and situations that make it hard not to go back – much like the hunters who force demon blood into Sam’s mouth. But he spits it out! The guts it takes to do something like that, seriously.
The brothers get back on the same page in time for Sam to demonstrate the ultimate level of heroism, dealing with possession (again, and this time by the devil himself) and then gaining control and throwing himself into the pit, sacrificing himself to save everyone else. That it’s Sam’s empathy and love for his brother that gives him the strength to take control back is a perfect illustration of how the person Sam is makes him so much stronger.
It’s a different kind of trauma for Sam that he comes back soulless, not through any fault of his own. Despite the eye candy it provided for fandom, it will leave Sam once again with all kinds of regret and irrational guilt for what he did during that time and can’t entirely remember. It will also drive yet another wedge between Sam and Dean, always hard for me to watch and the Winchesters to live through.
Sam and Dean never really give up on each other though. Even in an alternate universe where there are no monsters and they’re rich TV stars, they don’t want to stay – they’re not even brothers there, man.
Another of Sam’s personality traits that I love is his sense of humor – and his willingness to go along with all sorts of things to allow his brother to find some happiness. Dean was like a little kid wanting to dress up for their time travel back to the Old West, so of course Sam went along.
The incredible trauma of being tortured by Lucifer – or Hallucifer – was also really well done. Sam Winchester really has endured almost everything you can think of when it comes to trauma, this one analogous to a psychotic episode that just won’t quit. Lucifer is Sam’s nemesis throughout many seasons of the show, and Jared never stopped making sure that we got to see the PTSD that Sam had as a result.
Even when it was only Lucifer’s meat suit (Nick, also played by Mark Pellegrino), Sam found it hard to be around him, with the flinches and hypervigilance that would be expected. Not scripted, but Jared made sure they were there.
Sam eventually battled it out – with himself – inside his head, while Dean fretted over him in the real world. How much strength does it take to kill off the version of yourself that’s kicking you in the butt and put yourself back out there, not wanting to leave your brother alone out there? ALOT.
Sam is still able to allow enough vulnerability that Dean can help him get himself stabilized – making Dean stone number one. Sam’s use of the scar to ground himself when he needs it was a realistic touch that Jared kept using long after the wound would have healed, but when Sam still needed it. These characters are so much more inspiring because, just like in real life, they don’t always get quick fixes and easy answers. You have this much trauma, you don’t just get over it. But you can carry on, even when it’s hard. Sam Winchester taught us that.
Sam has had to face all kinds of fears during the course of the show, including his (very understandable imho) fear of clowns. Look at that thing – who wouldn’t be terrified? And he is, and he shows us that, but he takes them down anyway.
Big damn hero.
And in between, somehow, Sam is still able to find joy in life, and to help his brother find some too. Sometimes you just have to give yourself permission to paint your face and indulge in a little cosplay.
The losses just keep coming for Sam – the brothers meet their grandfather, Henry, and lose him just as unexpectedly as he dies in their arms.
Sam, despite all he’s been through, undertakes the trials in an attempt to save the world, and almost loses his own life in the process. He’s so beaten down and feels so guilty and abandoned at this point that he doesn’t care about his own life – and damn, it’s hard to see him that way, the boy who personifies ‘always keep fighting.’
But he does listen to Dean, and he does believe him eventually, when Dean insists there is nothing he would put before his brother. No matter what he’s been hit with, Sam never loses the capacity for hope.
The second time Sam is possessed, Dean is trying to save his life, but trusts the wrong angel to ‘get in and get out’. Gadreel uses Sam’s body to do some horrible things, including killing Kevin Tran in front of Dean’s horrified eyes. Both brothers end up feeling guilty and once again dealing with terrible loss, and this time it’s Dean who leaves, feeling like he’s “poison”. It’s something Sam can relate to, but he’s also understandably angry at being tricked into letting an angel in, so he lets Dean go.
Once Sam is himself, Dean isn’t. Sam nearly loses Dean to the Mark of Cain and then Dean does die, killed by Metatron and dying in Sam’s arms.
Sam – not for the last time – must carry his brother’s body home, grieving his death once again. Dean doesn’t exactly stay dead, but he comes back as a demon, leaving Sam with another kind of trauma. Just as Dean was horrified to think his brother was turning into a monster, Sam has to watch Dean become one, taunting him that Sam can’t or won’t kill him.
Sam’s smarts and determination don’t fail him, though – he eventually captures and then cures Dean and brings his brother back.
Sam almost dies again at the end of the season, and he gets a chance to show a different kind of strength, accepting his fate as supposedly for the greater good. He’s determined to remind his brother what it was to love, though, using his own empathy to do that.
This heartbreaking moment when he looks up at his big brother, so trusting, tears in his eyes, killed me. It killed Dean too – he kills Death instead.
That capacity for joy, believe it or not, is still there too. In between their traumas and losses, the boys find time for rides in Baby and some ‘Night Moves’. I love Sam for his ability to find joy in these moments – look at that smile.
I love Sam for the way he had to cope when he was a little kid too. Left alone, feeling different than all the other kids, lonely and sometimes isolated, he turned to an imaginary friend for companionship. On Supernatural, that’s a Zanna; in real life, kids really do conjure imaginary friends. They’re company and they’re a great way to start working on figuring out your own identity, trying on different ways of being. Sully helps Sam understand himself better, and later helps him recognize his own courage – and lets Dean see his little brother through different eyes too.
I can’t talk about Sam (Fucking) Winchester and how badass he is without talking about Red Meat. He gets shot, loses a ton of blood, is choked until near death – and somehow he wakes up, takes out the bad guys, makes it back to the Impala, and ultimately ends up saving Dean’s life. I love this episode for what is says about Sam and Dean’s devotion to each other, but it is also the best example of what an absolute badass Sam Winchester is.
Empathy and soft side still intact. Badass yes, but Sam is also sentimental and hopeful and not afraid to access his own emotion. Damned if he didn’t pull the Samulet out of that trash can and keep it all these years, carrying it in his pocket once he suspected maybe God was back on the playing field. And once again, Sam’s capacity for vulnerability and emotionality save the day – he’s so compelling as a character because his strength comes from his empathy as well.
Sometimes it really does seem like the pain never ends for Sam. Tortured brutally at the hands of the British Men (and Women) of Letters, Sam doesn’t give in, though he looks incredibly defeated when he thinks Dean has been killed. He fights on though, no matter what.
His empathy is also able to save the day – albeit temporarily – when he relates to Magda and encourages her to not give up or think that her being different means she’s cursed. I hate that Ketch killed her anyway.
Reminder: Winchesters are still the ultimate badasses.
The losses keep coming. They will eventually include Castiel, who almost died here and said a tearful goodbye and ‘I love you’ to the Winchesters before an eleventh hour save.
Sam lost his brother in a different kind of way in ‘Regarding Dean’, a painfully accurate depiction of what it’s like to lose someone you love to something like dementia. Little by little, the person Sam knows and loves slips away as Dean no longer knows who he is. Sam does not give up on Dean despite his own pain, and his hopefulness when Rowena finally cures him is nail bitingly genuine. (I hate that bad joke at the end when Dean pretends he’s not for a second – no way that would have happened!) This episode was a tour de force for Jensen Ackles, but Jared Padalecki shows us Sam’s agony just as vividly.
I was on set for the filming of this episode below, so Sam’s death seemed extra real to me, as did Dean’s pain watching and not being able to save him. The editing made the episode itself play weirdly, but it was a powerful scene. What’s maybe even worse for Sam is coming back to life and realizing that it was Lucifer who brought you back – and having to return to your family and admit that. Sam never got a break when it came to Lucifer, a powerful and painful reminder of how trauma is hard to let go.
Sam and Dean lost their father way back in the second season, but John Winchester returned for the 300th episode – and Sam and Dean had to say goodbye to him all over again. Sam and his father had a heart to heart that was a long time coming though, and Sam got to experience his father’s approval in a way that had never happened. That evolution felt good, and both actors let us see the importance of that to Sam.
Sam lost his brother – AGAIN – to possession by Michael, grew a strikingly attractive grief beard, and reestablished his badassery by beating up a bunch of demons and proclaiming that there would be no new king of hell. It was like all the Boy King Sam fics had just come to life, and it was pretty damn glorious to watch, even if it didn’t get any real follow up.
Sam’s empathy for his brother is tested in season 14 with Dean’s decision to lock himself in the Ma’lak box. Sam holds his emotions in, trying to do what his brother wants, but eventually can’t stay silent and erupts in an unexpected confrontation in ‘Prophet and Loss’. Jared was so emotional in real life – perhaps about the impending end of the show – that he couldn’t get through the scene, and was legitimately upset about that. But somehow the final product ended up so raw and real that it’s one of my favorite scenes of the entire series – you can feel Sam’s desperation to get through to his brother, and Dean’s capitulation (which Jensen has said was as much Jensen comforting Jared as Dean comforting Sam).
Sam’s confrontations with Lucifer just keep going on and on, bringing back that PTSD again and again – and in this case, actually resulting in Sam’s (temporary) death once more.
The brothers lose their mother – AGAIN – after Jack accidentally kills her. The Winchesters are the only people who must endure losing their loved ones more than once, piling loss on top of loss.
Rowena wasn’t family, but she had a special bond with Sam forged by their shared trauma at the hands of Lucifer. So when she sacrificed herself and trusted Sam to be the one to kill her, he did it – but with great cost to himself.
And still, right up to the end, the brothers could find some moments of joy and humor. It’s part of their resilience, so it’s important – in real life as well.
The last few episodes were full of both loss and triumph. The brothers lost Castiel, who sacrificed himself and died a hero, and then they defeated God, emerging bloodied but victorious. I don’t think you can be more badass than defeating God.
They had a while of being truly free and living the life they chose, for at least six months (and in my head canon at least, more) and Sam made sure to exercise his capacity for having fun with pie in Dean’s face and early morning runs and reading novels while he did the laundry. It’s so much a part of his resilience, and so much a part of what makes the character of Sam so inspiring.
And in the end, we got to see both Sam’s empathy and emotional vulnerability, and also his incredible strength and resilience, as the message that the show conveyed and left us with. Dean, mortally wounded, asks Sam to do something he hasn’t been able to do before – tell Dean that it’s okay for him to go – and this time, Sam is able to do it. It’s a generous, selfless gift, because Sam desperately wants to try to bring him back, but he does it, and Dean dies in his arms unafraid.
Sam grieves, and it’s more painful to watch than even all the painful moments that have come before it, but he does it. He puts one foot in front of the other, and he takes care of Miracle, and he lives – he does what he promised his brother and himself that he would do.
Sam doesn’t shut himself down emotionally, even then. He has a son, and a family, and he’s a good dad. He smiles as they play ball or as he helps his son with homework, still able to find joy as he’s always been, even alongside his sorrow.
He lives his life, the very definition of resilience, keeping his promise to “always keep fighting” and to carry on.
And as hard as all that has been to watch and to experience along with Sam Winchester, he gets the happy ending that he deserves at the end of his long life. I still can’t watch this episode without crying, but at the end they’re a mix of happy and sad tears.
Jared had this to say about Sam in his chapter in There’ll Be Peace When You Are Done. It’s how I feel about Sam Winchester too.
I think most of us, like Sam, probably do struggle to forgive ourselves sometimes. But I feel like Sam’s actions have been kind and sacrificial and loyal, and I have always wanted him to keep fighting—for his brother, for his family, to save people. I value that about him. The way the Winchesters have faced insurmountable odds inspires me and hopefully others to keep on working as hard as we can.
I know that’s true for me, and I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one. Thank you, Sam Winchester, for showing us that you can be vulnerable and emotional and empathic, and still be a badass. Thank you for reminding us that we can survive the inevitable loss and pain better than we think, and still take the time to find joy sometimes. Thank you for your resilience that reminds us of our own – and for enriching my life for fifteen years.
Jared also said this in his chapter –
Someone asked me recently what it’s going to be like saying goodbye to Sam Winchester. And my honest answer was that I can’t say goodbye to him. Sam Winchester will forever be a part of my life. I’ll always love Sam, and he’ll be a part of me forever.
I’m agreeing with you, Jared. Happy Birthday, Sam Winchester.
And many more!
You can read Jared’s chapter and the other
actors’ and fans’ in There’ll Be Peace When
You Are Done and Family Don’t End With
Blood, links on the home page or at: