Supernatural: Resolution or Idealization of Winchester Codependency
Trigger Warning: The following article contains discussion of harmful psychological conditions, and includes a brief reference to eating disorders.
While the last Supernatural was primarily a Monster of the Week and fairly unremarkable in a history of similarly formatted stories, the final three minutes of the episode have sparked debate and discussion within the Supernatural Family regarding a repeated theme that has divided the fans for years: the codependency of the Winchester brothers.
Codependencey is signified by, essentially, making a relationship more important to you than you are to yourself. Within the Supernatural fandom, it’s a heated point of contention: for some fans, it’s a rallying point, a symbol of the fact that the Winchesters are willing to die for each other. For others, it is a repetitive story device that has become a tiresome trope, used to manufacture drama between Winchesters and the rest of the Supernatural world.
Regardless of personal stance on the matter, Sam and Dean Winchester are undeniably codependent, following many of the denial, low self-esteem, compliance, control, and avoidance patterns outlined as characteristics of codependencey. They are on-screen “diagnosed” as codependent within the season 5 episode “Sam, Interrupted” where Dr. Fuller separates them, taking Sam away to group therapy and stopping Dean from following him. When Dean splutters “What? Why?” the doctor responds “Well, to be frank, uh, the relationship that you have with your brother seems dangerously codependent. I think a little time apart will do you both good.”
Later within the season, in the episode “Point of No Return,” Zachariah furthers the season commentary about their codependency, warning Adam about his brothers by saying: “So you know you can’t trust them, right? You know Sam and Dean Winchester are psychotically, irrationally, erotically codependent on each other, right?”
It’s important to note a few significant pieces of information about these two episodes before we really dive into the meat of the codependency theme of Supernatural: first of all, that “Sam, Interrupted” was penned by Andrew Dabb (with Daniel Loflin), who most recently wrote “Road Trip” and had the Winchester brothers to go separate ways. “Point of No Return” with the second direct reference to their codependency was written by Jeremy Carver, now one of the show-runners for Supernatural.
Perhaps most important to realize is that Season 5 was written as if it were the final season for Supernatural, which was originally devised on a five-year plan. All major themes were to be tied off and addressed, the storyline wrapped up, and major problems resolved for a satisfying ending. Our final word on codependency was intended by creator Eric Kripke to be the exchange at Singer Salvage Yard during the season 5 finale, “Swan Song.”
DEAN: I’m in.
SAM: In with…?
DEAN: The whole “up with Satan” thing. I’m on board.
SAM: You’re gonna let me say yes?
DEAN: No. That’s the thing. It’s not on me to let you do anything. You’re a grown… well, overgrown… man. If this is what you want, I’ll back your play.
SAM: That’s the last thing I thought you’d ever say.
DEAN: Might be. I’m not gonna lie to you, though. It goes against every fiber I got. I mean, truth is… You know, watching out for you… it’s kinda been my job, you know? But more than that, it’s… it’s kinda who I am. You’re not a kid anymore, Sam, and I can’t keep treating you like one. Maybe I got to grow up a little, too. I don’t know if we got a snowball’s chance. But… But I do know that if anybody can do it… it’s you.
SAM: Thank you.
This is very significant—Kripke’s final intentions for the codependency of the brothers was to end it. Dean was to struggle with and conquer the instinct, and Sam was to decisively act as an independent adult, even at the expense of his own life for the sake of the entire world. That is, ultimately, precisely what Sam does, and Dean goes on to live a life for himself outside of his brother. While fans of the codependency declare it the saving grace which with the Winchester brothers were able to avert the Apocalypse, it’s Dean’s belief in Sam, harkening back to this conversation, that does the trick. Dean realizes that Sam is in there somewhere and strong enough to fight, just as planned. This is an act of love and faith, not an act of codependency, and to further confuse the two creates idealization of the flaw that is their shared psychological condition, rather than focusing on the strength of their love for each other.
The latest episode, “Sharp Teeth,” brings us the exact opposite of that “Swan Song” conversation as Sam and Dean’s trust has been strained, and relationship fractured, by the unwilling angelic possession (as opposed to the planned and orchestrated possession by Lucifer).
SAM: Something’s broken here, Dean.
DEAN: I’m not saying that it’s not. I… I just think maybe we need to put a couple W’s on the board and we get past all this.
SAM: I don’t think so. No, I wish, but… We don’t…see things the same way anymore. Our roles in this whole thing. Back in that church, talking me out of boarding up hell? Or tricking me into letting Gadreel possess me? I can’t trust you… not the way I thought I could, not the way I should be able to.
DEAN: Okay, look. Whatever happened… We are family, okay?
SAM: You say that like it’s some sort of cure-all, like it can change the fact that everything that has ever gone wrong between us has been because we’re family.
DEAN: So, what… we’re not family now?
SAM: I’m saying, you want to work? Let’s work. If you want to be brothers… Those are my terms.
This most recent interaction has led many fans to declare a need to “repair the codependency” of the brothers, as it’s a repeated motif within the show and therefore in their opinion the “heart of Supernatural.” However, that is a damaging assertion.
When writing psychological conditions within fiction, it is imperative that creators do so respectfully, without either glamorizing the condition or furthering the stigma of those who struggle to overcome it daily. Failure to do so can result in idealization of damaging concepts: for instance, media representations of eating disorders need to be responsible to ensure that health is prioritized, rather than creating shaming body image (a fact I truly hope Supernatural keeps in mind as we move into “The Purge” next week).
More significantly for the whole of the show, the codependency needs to be handled as the damaging psychological condition that it is for the Winchesters. Eric Kripke’s finale in “Swan Song,” and his direction throughout Season 5 to address it, was responsible storytelling in action. The problem was addressed, examined, and eventually overcome by our heroes.
Failure to do this, and to allow the Winchesters to establish themselves as self-reliant and capable individuals, does a disservice to these multidimensional characters we love.
Season 6 began a reversion to codependent behaviors, with Sam’s return from Hell. The phone conversation between Lisa and Dean in “You Can’t Handle the Truth” illustrates how the codependent relationship between the brothers continues undermining connections outside of their duo:
LISA: You’ve got so much buried in there, and you push it down, and you push it down. Do you honestly think that you can go through life like that and not freak out? Just, what, drink half a fifth a night and you’re good?
DEAN: You knew what you signed up for.
LISA: Yeah. But I didn’t expect Sam to come back. And I’m glad he’s okay. I am. But the minute he walked through that door, I knew. It was over. You two have the most unhealthy, tangled-up, crazy thing I’ve ever seen. And as long as he’s in your life, you’re never gonna be happy. . . That came out so much harsher than I meant.
DEAN: It’s not your fault.
LISA: I’m not saying don’t be close to Sam. I’m close to my sister. But if she got killed, I wouldn’t bring her back from the dead!
DEAN: Okay, Lis… I’m not gonna lie. Okay, me and Sam, we… we’ve got issues. No doubt. But you and Ben…
LISA: Me and Ben can’t be in this with you. I’m sorry.
The show itself does little to romanticize the codependency. Their dysfunctional inability to move past it has alienated the Winchesters from the rest of their world, and put a stumbling block up between them and all other outside relationships. This is a classic symptom of pathological codependency illustrated in both Season 5 references to their codependent relationship, with Doctor Fuller wanting Dean and Sam to make friends outside of each other, and with Zachariah illustrating that even their half-brother wouldn’t factor into their concerns. Benny is literally sacrificed in the name of codependency in Season 8, and Amelia (and therefore symbolically romantic relationships in general, much as Lisa before her) is left behind.
In Season 8, Winchester codependency derails the entire season mytharc, with “Sacrifice” as the bookend to “Swan Song,” showing the brothers choosing their codependent relationship over the safety of the world by not closing the gates to Hell. The climactic conversation in the church shows both brothers falling into the roles their codependencey dictates for them: Sam is a little brother feeling usurped by Dean’s outside relationships, while still resentful of Dean’s control as he has been in the past, thus showing that Sam plays his own part in the codependency dynamic. Dean, meanwhile, puts everything aside to play the caretaker role to Sam.
DEAN: Think about it. Think about what we know, huh? Pulling souls from hell, curing demons, hell, ganking a Hellhound! We have enough knowledge on our side to turn the tide here. But I can’t do it without you.
SAM :You can barely do it with me. I mean, you think I screw up everything I try. You think I need a chaperone, remember?
DEAN: Come on, man. That’s not what I meant.
SAM: No, it’s exactly what you meant. You want to know what I confessed in there? What my greatest sin was? It was how many times I let you down. I can’t do that again.
SAM What happens when you’ve decided I can’t be trusted again? I mean, who are you gonna turn to next time instead of me? Another angel, another… another vampire? Do you have any idea what it feels like to watch your brother just…
DEAN: Hold on, hold on! You seriously think that? Because none of it… none of it… is true. Listen, man, I know we’ve had our disagreements, okay? Hell, I know I’ve said some junk that set you back on your heels. But, Sammy…come on. I killed Benny to save you. I’m willing to let this bastard and all the sons of bitches that killed mom walk because of you. Don’t you dare think that there is anything, past or present, that I would put in front of you! It has never been like that, ever! I need you to see that. I’m begging you.
The idea that Dean has literally killed Benny, his own friend, “for Sam” is a chilling illustration of how far they are willing to go. Who else might they be willing to kill, or allow to die, in order to maintain this dependency? Charlie? Ben? Lisa? This is a disturbing trend, with potentially catastrophic personal repercussions, as they take the isolationism of codependency and add in the violent motifs of Supernatural. They “did what they had to do,” in order to maintain codependency, and this is the catchphrase of the moment, and a driving point for Dean, in particular, through all of Season 9 so far. Their codependency this year has necessitated exiling Castiel to cover the behaviors, and ultimately resulted in the death of Kevin Tran. While there is no question that the characters’ intentions were for the best, the behaviors to support them only furthering the ongoing issues.
“I’m doing this for your own good” is a such a common mentality in codependency that it is essentially a stock phrase for that dynamic in television and literature, and surfaces to cover any number of sins. Similarly, we see other clinical symptoms of codependency taking its toll on both brothers. Codependents, like the Winchesters are portrayed to be, often fall into low self-esteem, guilt and shame. They feel responsible for the well-being and happiness of another, over their own well-being, and often resort to self-destructive behaviors (risk taking, alcoholism, self-neglect) when they are unable to achieve the standards that they believe they should maintain for the object of their dependency. They often compulsively seek the acceptance of their focus, prioritizing their opinion over self-evaluation. The Winchesters fall in line with many of these symptoms, as illustrated throughout their interactions, and through how they are referenced by others.
Continuing the theme that Season 5 was intended to address and deal with the codependency once and for all, we have this interaction in “Fallen Idols,” illustrating Sam’s growing need for independence:
SAM: No. You can think whatever you want. I deserve it, and worse. Hell, you’ll never punish me as much as I’m punishing myself, but the point is, if we’re gonna be a team, you and I—it has to be a two-way street.
DEAN: So we just go back to the way we were before?
SAM: No, because we were never that way before. Before didn’t work.
SAM: How do you think we got here?
DEAN: What’s that supposed to mean?
SAM: Dean, one of the reasons I went off with Ruby…was to get away from you.
SAM: It made me feel strong. Like I wasn’t your kid brother.
DEAN: Are you saying this is my fault?
SAM: No, it’s my fault. All I’m saying is that, if we’re gonna do this, we have to do it different, we can’t just fall into the same rut.
DEAN: What do you want me to do?
SAM: You’re gonna have to let me grow up, for starters.
Sam feels as if he is allowing himself to fall into dangerous reactions as he rebels against Dean’s control the way he once did John’s, regarded as a child because of Dean’s need to be the caretaker. Dean, meanwhile, falls into alcoholism and depression, and disregards his own self-worth outside of his ability to care for his brother; his instinctive need to be Sam’s caretaker driving him from the first episode, spurring him to sell his soul for his brother, and to encourage his possession by Gadreel, in order to keep Sam alive.
The narrative shows the codependency as a negative by illustrating the fallout and having both Sam and Dean acknowledge their partnership as broken: this flawed dynamic is heavily romanticized only by segments of Supernatural’s fragmented fandom, and seen as the ideal and most pure form of love, the willingness to die for someone–more importantly, the willingness to live for the success and health of another without personal regard.
This is a disturbing trend, but not an unfamiliar one for anyone with an ear to pop culture.
The last major franchise to rely upon romanticized codependency as its core was the Twilight Saga.
Feminist media has shined a spotlight on the relationship between Bella and Edward as being dangerous for the audience to idealize, and pointed out the many flaws in using codependency as the basis for a relationship between the primary characters without offering resolution. The glamorization of codependency leads to mistaken notions of what “love” is. Bella Swan wished for death because Edward left her, and felt fulfilled only because of her relationships, around which she built her entire life. Edward, meanwhile, lacked any sense of boundaries when it came to Bella, made decisions on her behalf (“for her own good”) and treated Bella as if she was child in need of protecting from his own instincts, and her own ability to get herself into trouble.
This is not love. If someone is unable to function without the object of their affection, if they become self-destructive in conflict, if they subsume all sense of self in favor of another, lose all personal goals outside of that relationship, and alienate themselves from their friends and family in order to do so, it is codependencey. Love and codependencey are not one and the same.
In Twilight, this codependency is presented in a romantic light even as it is shown within the books to be damaging to the characters involved. Because the condition is never addressed and resolved within the text, it remains a part of the supposed fairytale that the readers clung to and aspired to.
That idealization is no less dangerous here for it being familial, rather than inherently romantic. In fact, one could argue it’s potentially more damaging because even after resolving it in Season 5, we are in Season 9 and still there are audience members who believe that the codependency is a positive aspect of the show. That’s a long time to grab on to an idea and internalize it.
The concept of codependency is being misappropriated to signify demonstrations of love–and after “Road Trip” and “Sharp Teeth,” I truly hope that the narrative is once more on track to resolve this, and put the Winchesters in a healthier place. Personal goals, self-worth, a sense of agency, mutual trust, and equality are necessary for a stronger bond between the brothers, and even maintaining their reliance upon each other as brothers and hunting partners is possible without psychological conditions binding them together.
The ideal, then, wouldn’t be codependencey–it would be interdependence, or a mutually beneficial and reciprocal reliance upon each other–to achieve that, Supernatural would need to address the destructive codependent behaviors that instead take it into a pathology. No viewer expects the Winchesters to leave this story the poster children for well-adjusted society, but growth and movement towards a healthy relationship is ideal, once again touching upon Season 5’s theme of addressing the past toxicity and allowing them to grow as people, with outside friendships and relationships and a sense of self-worth outside of each other, while maintaining brotherly love and support.
I don’t hope for this merely because I want what’s best for the characters, like any invested viewer. The narrative requires resolution, and further romanization of the condition reduces the characters to simply being a grittier, different kind of Bella Swan.
Nobody here wants that.
Author: Exorcising Emily
Emily is one of the first contributors to the Geekiary and helped set the standard for convention Twitter coverage for conventions. She’s been involved with fandom all of her life, especially active in the Firefly, Veronica Mars, and Supernatural fandoms. She’s known for her excitement over tea and the planet Pluto, as well as her activism towards fan led charity events and anti-bullying initiatives.
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