Vivisecting Supernatural- Needles, Exsanguination, And The Hurt/Comfort Trope

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



41 thoughts on “Vivisecting Supernatural- Needles, Exsanguination, And The Hurt/Comfort Trope

  1. First of all can I say that your knowledge of episode names is outstanding….
    Next I wanted to say about Sam getting hurt; he does seem to get worse and worse as a fighter every year. I remember in season one (look at me saying that like I didn’t just finish rewatching it two days ago) he was so badass – in the first episode he whupped Dean’s ass (I just watched a video today on buddy tv of Jared saying he’d whup Jensen’s ass for saying he took a long time to get ready in the morning…he mentioned Jensen’s ass a lot) and in the episode with…’skin’? I think, he beat up fake shapeshifter Dean quite efficiently before the shapeshifter got him in a chokehold. but just more and more, he got beaten up easier and easier by the monsters. Dean on the other hand is the opposite; he started out relatively like efficient and then just went on to legendary badass…Have I digressed? I think I’ve digressed.
    I hadn’t thought about it like the way you’ve put it; but now that I read your words they seem so true. I do enjoy seeing when Dean swoops in and gets Sam out of whatever, and looks after him without ‘overdoing’ it. He’s just the right combination of concerned and matter of fact while threatening to eviscerate someone for hurting his brother. Let me stop here before it becomes a whole other post.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Firstly, thanks about the episode names thing- idk, weird retentive SPN memory, I have trouble remembering what I’ve had for breakfast most of the time.
      And yeah, I’ve noticed that- I’m putting it down to the fact that his physical health seems to have been deteriorating since season 8. I mean, he looked so exhausted for the first part of s10 especially. Plus I guess they wanted a contrast for Dean’s increasing MoC skills.
      And yes, I totally agree! It’s one of those really consistent in-character things. Which is probably what made it so awful when he refused to come rescue Sam at the start of s10.


      • Yeah. But I guess nothing else could have brought home to us that Demon!Dean is in the house more than him saying ‘fuck Sam’…but then I also think that even that Dean was concerned but less emotional about it so he figured that the Sam he brought up could get away from some guy holding him hostage and if he couldn’t he deserved to be killed. Would he really have embedded that hammer in Sam’s head though?

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        • I think there’s definitely more to it than straight-up not giving a shit- I mean, he promised to hunt Cole down and kill him. But I do think he would have smashed Sam’s head in. My current theory as it stands (though this is a subject for an essay) is that when Dean’s soul got twisted, his love for Sam did too- they say love and hate are two sides of the same coin, so what if all that turned to hatred- not immediately necessarily, but certainly over Soul Survivor? I mean, like I said with the hammer, that’s a hugely personal weapon to use. Quite telling that that was the second time in two episodes someone had tried to go at Sam with a hammer- and Cole’s time was because of a personal vendetta- so I’m seeing a link there. Both Cole and Dean had grudges.


          • all the resentments of every time Sam let him down behind the force of that blow? That definitely seems plausible. but taking both Sam and Dean’s perceived reflexes into account; it seems that Dean didn’t really need to miss.
            Cole had a hammer? *goes to rewatch* (any excuse)

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            • The stunt in Soul Survivor where Dean smashed the hammer into the wall just as Sam ducked was so well done that honestly it convinced me he meant it- and judging by Sam’s face, that’s what he thought too. But obviously there’s no way to be sure- I mean, I’m not sure I buy that Sam could have trapped Dean, handcuffs or no.
              (Also, handcuffs. And Dean. On his frickin’ knees. I mean, seriously, SPN, planting those images. No wonder you have so much high-quality porn floating round your fandom.)
              And yeah, he was just about to kneecap Sam when he faked a phone call and Sam managed to escape.


              • Yes it was VERY well done. Too bad horror shows don’t get Emmys. It could be that I don’t want to imagine that Dean would have killed him; still, considering how efficiently he took out those demons…
                And yeah…handcuffs.


                • I loved the way that whole episode was directed (wasn’t it a JA one?) with the Hitchcockian stuff and the way they filmed the scene with Sam and Dean hunting each other through the bunker.
                  Actually, Season Ten’s been really good-looking- probably the darkest palette-wise the show’s been since, what, s4?


                    • Great improvement, I think. All the noir lighting! And the creepy fans! And just the dinginess! This season felt very kind of… old-school SPN… to me. Only not old-school because now it’s new again. But it felt like they’d gone back and realised that they shouldn’t have thrown away the darkness of the early seasons.


                    • I saw a post on tumblr where someone was saying they should burn the bunker down and just go back on the road chasing monsters for one more season and then shut down. I felt like…nah I don’t think that’ll work. The reason why Supernatural has survived this long is because it evolves and grows in a very organic way and there is a natural progression. And although I’ve been nostalgic for the darkness of especially season one and two on occasion, I feel like as the great philosopher Shawn ‘Jay Z’ Carter said, If you want to listen to the same thing as my last album, buy my old shit. (I’m paraphrasing). That was just a side bar.
                      But yeah, a few ‘Bloody Mary” episodes would be great. (though I still can’t watch that episode alone at night. and I don’t have a mirror in my room because of it).

                      Liked by 1 person

                    • Yeah, I agree. They were already starting to need a home base in the middle seasons, I think, hence Bobby’s expanded role- and that need really got recognised with the bunker (which I wasn’t a fan of at first, but it grew on me and now I love it).
                      Definitely agree about it evolving being how it’s survived, and yeah, if you miss the old seasons you should go and rewatch them- but I do like the return of the darkness, especially given the ACTUAL Darkness that’ll be coming in s11.
                      And oh God, Bloody Mary. I couldn’t look in a mirror for weeks.


                    • I know right? and that episode with the chick who didn’t know she was a ghost on the road…I don’t even like to hear that song that was playing in the car now unless all the lights are on.

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                    • that mannequin was extremely creepy. loved the clumsy way Sam was trying to comfort Dean at the end of that episode though. And when he said, “I got your back” you could practically see the thought run through Dean’s head that this time, he meant it.

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                    • Yes- that whole arc was why I loved s6 so much. ‘Normal’ Sam was such an incredible relief after Soulless Sam. I think that was why the whole hallucinations plotline was so upsetting. Like, we’d only just got Sam back, and he was already breaking up again.

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  2. That Dean is often the brother who does the hitting also plays into this trope. Sam almost never hits Dean unless he’s possessed or under duress of some kind as in Swan Song or Asylum in season one.

    He almost never hits Dean even after Dean hits him. He usually just takes the pain, even in situations where you’re pretty certain he could easily take Dean, if he wanted. He could hurt Dean but CHOOSES not to.

    This is also the point of an excellent meta I read once about whether or not Dean hit Sam when they were children and if that constitutes abuse.It was heartbreaking to read but it was a good point.

    In the first season, Sam was often coded by the writers as being the show’s damsel-in-distress.

    I have seen that tally of the number of times they’ve been knocked out. I remember joking about this a few times in posts but after a while it becomes a little scary. I think the writers have noticed this and have cut back on it a bit.

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    • I think we needed a break from the overarching Sam-as-damsel theme, simply because after the Sam-pain-fests of s8 and 9 it would have become ridiculous. But yeah, I noticed the thing about Dean hitting Sam- there’s a line in episode 2×4, Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead things, when Sam confronts Dean about their dad dying, and Dean looks murderous and Sam just looks at him and says, ‘You want to take another swing? Go on, if it makes you feel better.’ It’s a beautiful line delivery- really gentle- and of course Dean doesn’t hit him again.
      And then there was that awful scene in s6 where Soulless Sam asks Dean for help and Dean beats him unconscious- punching him fourteen times I think- and Sam, even though he’s got no soul, doesn’t do a thing to defend himself.
      It really makes you wonder. I mean, Dean always protects Sam, but I think in this season he was starting to realise that maybe Sam needs protecting from him just as much as any monster.


  3. “Sam honestly 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.”
    If you take into consideration that all this mess started by him being conceived, Azazel noticing it and striking that deal with Mary, your sentence(s) gets a whole new meaning.

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    • Absolutely. He has literally overturned their lives just by being born. And it wasn’t his fault, just like the apocalypse wasn’t really his or Dean’s fault, but no-one else is going to take responsibility, so he has to.


      • Well, technically they were manipulated into starting it, but their chosen actions were what started/stopped it in the end. So the question of blame is tricky to begin with. But that’s a different topic.

        Still, it isn’t really surprising that Sam still takes the blame, from what we know of John, he most likely made him feel that everything was his fault. And if you pick something like that up when you’re a kid, it’s hard to get rid of.


        • John Winchester- controversial topic. I was actually slightly relieved when he died, to be honest…
          But yeah- he knew about the whole demon blood thing too, didn’t he? And constantly acted like Dean should take responsibility for Sam, as if Sam wasn’t able to- which was obviously bad for them both (and look what happened- Sam dying at Cold Oak was the catalyst for the apocalypse in a lot of ways). But he often treated Sam differently- like in Shadow, when they’ve been reunited, and JW hugs Dean but not Sam.
          Stuff like that probably fed into the whole ‘I’m not clean’ thing.

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  4. Pingback: Wren’s Top Five Episodes Of Season Eight | A Blog devoted to "SUPERNATURAL"

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