Whether it was the writers intent or not, Supernatural’s Sam Winchester has traveled the road of the tragic hero that we found in various works of classical literature. Watching the Supernatural Season 12 premiere episode, “Keep Calm and Carry On” where Sam endured both physical and mental torture, I found myself reflecting on some of the literature I read decades ago in high school and college. In examining the literary evidence against the framework of television execution, I would argue that Sam Winchester fulfills many characteristics of a tragic hero.
The Greek philosopher Aristotle in his work Poetics does a marvelous job in establishing the characteristics of a hero in both epic poetry and drama. I remember first reading Poetics in my senior year in high school back in 1982. I recently reread the book and found Aristotle’s thoughts quite relevant within the context of Supernatural.
I’ve been pondering this notion for a number of years, particularly after I first saw When The Levee Breaks on May 7, 2009. I always told myself that I would eventually explore Sam Winchester as a tragic hero, but put the question on the backburner. Well, after seeing the Season 12 premiere, I moved this treatment to the front burner. What follows are my thoughts on Sam Winchester as a tragic hero.
According to Aristotle, the characteristics of a tragic hero include noble birth or an important position, flawed personality that precipitated the hero’s down fall, and a feeling of guilt or remorse. Further, the tragic hero’s choices often led to his downfall. The Aristotelian tragic hero commits great societal wrongs without harboring any evil intent. Consequently, he suffers guilt and remorse from his actions. What inspires hope in his redemption is that he maintains his moral center. While guilt is his albatross, like the phoenix (who might be forsaken as its body is consumed by angry flames), the hero arises from the ashes.
Let’s take a look at Sam Winchester through Aristotelian lens. At first glance, one might argue that he fails the criteria of being from noble birth or in an important position. After all, his Midwestern roots are firmly entrenched in the Kansas heartland. Yet, with deeper reflection, an argument could be advanced that he was important to the history of the world. Way back in Season 2, we learned from Azazel that Sam was one of his “special children”. Of course, later in Season 4 as Sam was trapped in Ruby’s schemes and became a victim of her machinations by drinking demon blood, his choices were the dominoes leading to freeing Lucifer from his cage in Hell. Elder brother Dean may have broken the first seal (revealed by Alistair in On The Head Of A Pin), but Sam’s killing Lilith was the final straw (Lucifer Rising). Prior to that life changing event, we saw Sam wrestle with his uncertainty as to whether drinking demon blood was a good thing or whether he was making the right decision in confronting Lilith (When The Levee Breaks).
Aristotle noted that the tragic hero evokes both pity and fear. We saw both pity and fear play out in When The Levee Breaks. Confined inside the panic room with guilt and uncertainty and telling hallucinations of Alistair, a younger version of himself and his mother Mary as his sole companions (and later chained to a bed after the demon blood had him flinging himself into the wall), we felt sorry for Sam. How could he have fallen so low? But later in the same episode when his anger with Dean caused a physical confrontation with his brother (Sam even had his hands around Dean’s neck trying to strangle his brother!), we feared Sam Winchester. We also feared his use of his powers and when he bled that nurse dry to drink her blood.
Our tragic hero Sam Winchester suffered greatly due to his misguided choices. In an effort to right his wrongs, he willingly sacrificed himself to save the world by plunging himself into Hell to put Lucifer back into the Cage (Swan Song). His choices led to tragedy, but destiny also played a role. His “important position” as Lucifer’s vessel caused Sam to endure unspeakable torture from Lucifer, being resurrected from Hell without his soul and nearly dying as a result of the trials to close the gates of Hell (Sacrifice).
Now, the season 12 premiere episode “Keep Calm and Carry On” continues that vicious cycle of torture for Sam Winchester.
Sam Winchester, an Aristotelian tragic hero carrying the world on his broad shoulders.