The hurt/comfort trope is an integral part of SPN. After all, the whole show is about the consequences of what these boys do, and getting bashed up occasionally is bound to happen. But the patterns that have emerged to this after ten seasons are quite telling- so I thought I’d take a closer look.
One of the first things I noticed is just how much Sam gets beat up. This has been pretty consistent since the pilot, actually, when this happened:
Then there are certain episodes- like Bad Day At Black Rock, When The Levee Breaks, The Born-Again Identity, The Great Escapist, and First Born- where literally everything that happens to Sam involves pain, whether a demon blood detox, being an insomniac on a psych ward (not to mention the whole electroshock thing), or having Cas jam a gigantic needle in his neck.
Also citing nasty scenes like the ghoul scene in Jump The Shark, the Gadreel scene with the giant pins in Road Trip, and the exsanguination in Alex Annie Alexis Ann, it’s practically become a fandom trope in itself.
In fact, on the SuperWiki there’s a page entitled ‘Unconscious’, showing the statistics for the amount of times each Winchester gets knocked out. Dean’s running total is at thirty-eight to Sam’s sixty-seven. And that’s without even referencing the one hundred and eighty (approx) years Sam spent being tortured in Hell, and the subsequent trauma that was a thru-line for most of Season Seven.
It’s not as if Dean hasn’t had his fair share of injuries; he spends most of In My Time Of Dying in a coma, for example. But it’s undeniable that the vast majority goes to Sam, and except when Dean’s the one doing the hurting- citing the recent beatdown in Brother’s Keeper and the fourteen punches in You Can’t Handle The Truth- that usually means we get the satisfaction of seeing Dean look after Sam, because the writers seem to really, really like it when that happens.
But why is it so often Sam?
Obviously, the surface reason is that he’s the ‘little’ brother, despite his three inches’ advantage. But I’d argue that it’s more than that- Sam getting hurt is often what restores balance to the Winchester dynamic. Sam is seen as the more independent Winchester, at least on the surface, and this often gives him a degree of power over Dean- although Dean automatically is the one to call the shots, being older (and, it’s implied, a better fighter), Sam can nearly always send Dean into a panic if Dean thinks Sam’s going to leave him. When Sam’s hurt- when he truly needs Dean- that evens the odds a little.
The obvious exception to this is the Demon Dean arc, during which Sam was captured and tortured by Cole. But I’d argue that the pain here was all because of Dean- he was being interrogated for Dean’s whereabouts, and the point of the whole last scene of Black was to impress upon us the extent of Dean’s indifference toward Sam’s wellbeing. It’s the worst kind of reversal- whereas most previous hurt!Sam scenes evened the power balance between the brothers, this just illustrates Sam’s total powelessness, and Dean’s total control over the situation. Cole barely comes into it at this stage.
However, possibly the most significant hurt!Sam arcs were the Hallucifer and Trial Sickness ones. These two were strangely linked- the Hallucifer arc was the result of Sam’s years of torture in the cage, which he considered to have freed him from the guilt of all his past mistakes. To Sam, Hallucifer is the reminder of these mistakes, stopping him from making further ones- indeed, Hallucifer even helps him look for Dean in Repo Man. Hallucifer also prevents him from sleeping- an interesting choice of torture considering Sam’s past relationship with sleep. Right from episode 1×2, Wendigo, we are aware of Sam’s sleeping problems following Jess’s death. In Bloody Mary, after a nightmare of Jess burning up, accusing him, he says to Dean, ‘Why’d you let me fall asleep?’
The importance of not falling asleep comes up again in episodes such as Heart and Dream A Little Dream Of Me. Sam also doesn’t sleep while he’s soulless- possibly Hallucifer was Sam’s subconcious seeking to remind him of that time and his past mistakes, including everything from letting Madison fall asleep and thus turn in Heart, to everything he did while soulless.
However, when Hallucifer is gone, and when Dean vanishes too at the end of Season Seven, Sam is left adrift, with no moral compass, and does things he comes to regret- namely, not looking for Dean. In this light, just as he thought of his torture in Lucifer’s Cage as a means of atonement for starting the apocalypse and letting Dean down in the first place, the Trials become a means of atoning for his more recent error- which, once again, involved letting Dean down.
It’s quite revealing. Sam’s meant to be the less invested of the Winchesters, but when he does think he’s let Dean down, he thinks he deserves to literally go through Hell for it. And indeed, when he says that the trials are purifying him, it’s akin to someone taking confession- and in Sacrifice, Sam does exactly that, and what he confesses are ‘all the times he’s let Dean down’.
Sam believes that he deserves to die for these things. He believes that the pain that he causes Dean by being alive is greater than the pain he would cause Dean by dying. This changes by the end of Season Ten, and Sam ends up fighting Dean for both their lives- and ends up whumped, of course, before beating Dean with the puppy eyes (and I’m not going to gif that again, I’ve used that gif far too much already).
The ‘close your eyes, Sammy’ scene could also go into the hurt/comfort category, but although all the power is with Dean, it’s Sam who owns the scene (in reversal of the Swan Song beatdown- I wrote more about this in a previous post). That scene is less about the shifting of power and more about the brothers uniting.
Overall, the h/c trope is used masterfully over the course of SPN. It’s used to show power dynamics, used to bring Sam and Dean together, used to show how far Dean’s fallen in Reichenbach- but most of all it’s used to move us. I mean, personally I melt whenever Dean strokes Sam’s hair. I’ve found entire blogs dedicated to hurt!Sam or hurt!Dean.
Oh, and power dynamics aside, it’s also kinda sweet. So there’s that