What could be worse than remembering your time in hell, with your soul attacked and flayed by Lucifer and Michael? For Sam, it very well could be remembering his actions during his year of forgetting. Understanding this is the key to recognizing what works in this episode, because “Unforgiven,” on the whole, was a flawed narrative.
As with most episodes of Supernatural, the payoff is in remembering what has come before. This is an emotional episode, with the true focus being the torture that Sam is currently undergoing. Recognizing that remembering his time in the cage will leave Sam a drooling, broken mess, I would still argue that the real punishment, the real hell, is discovering what his soulless being did during its year on Earth.
Going back to previous Supernatural discussions, Sam has always been the character most likely to go darkside. Although it should seem that he’s the most moral — the one who plays the white hat more often — when you examine their behaviors, Dean is actually the one most righteous (with the exception of his vampire killing in “Bloodlust”). Sam, however, is the most emotional, and his emotions are driven by the conflict within himself. He cares about the well-being of other people, but he often makes the wrong decision. In the effort to stop the apocalypse from starting, he is easily led into being the person who ensures its genesis. Outwardly his behavior seems to be predicated on keeping the world safe from danger, yet it’s actually grounded in childish yearnings. Sam wants to be the one to save the world — he wants to be the hero — he wants to get out of his brother’s shadow. His intentions are understandable, and his desired end result is good, but we all know where the road paved with good intentions leads. Then to compensate for his actions, he agrees to martyr himself, serving as vessel for Lucifer in order to trap the devil in the cage. Sam seems to always be driven to extremes — every quest that’s impelled by Sam’s emotions invariably results in questionable decisions and someone’s demise.
Yet even with all of this, it’s important to realize that Sam has never deliberately harmed another person. Even in “Born Under a Bad Sign,” when it seems like Sam is going to kill either Dean or Jo, it all turns out fine because Sam was possessed. His actions are then understandable and excused. You’re not responsible for what happens when a demon is using you as a meat suit. Sam has never really had to confront his dark side, whereas the writers have given Dean many opportunities to see his own, embrace it, work through it, and keep it controlled. Sam is the coddled one — everyone working to keep him safe — even if keeping him safe means keeping him safe from himself.
What’s the significance of this? Well, this episode revolves around the idea that Sam wants to seek out forgiveness for his actions during the past year. No one seems to understand why he would need to do this — why scratch at the wall? As we’ve heard over multiple episodes, no one in Sam’s universe (with the exception of Bobby) thinks that anything that happened is Sam’s fault. His soul was in the cage, so Sam really wasn’t Sam. Dean keeps asserting that during the past year, the bag of bones sharing Sam’s physique and brain wasn’t Sam. To Dean, it’s the same thing as in “Born Under a Bad Sign.” Technically Sam wasn’t possessed by a demon, but his actions still come from the same place. What Dean refuses to see is what drives Sam now — it *was* Sam. It might have been a soulless Sam, but it was still his brain, his body. Sam wasn’t possessed — he was just lacking what gave him his humanity. It’s the first time that Sam has ever caused human damage that cannot be explained away by something beyond his control. His actions were his actions, and that’s something that he can barely deal with.
So in many respects, yes, remembering his time in hell would almost be better for Sam than discovering his actions during the past year. The pain he caused, the havoc he wreaked, the death he was responsible for are all too much to bear. It’s a weight that emotional Sam is forcing himself to embrace, but it’s crushing him. Scratching at that wall does make memories of hell return and the ramifications are instantaneous and physical — Sam drops to the floor and has a seizure. Yet even in this moment I still couldn’t help but think that the physical damage is easier to deal with than the emotional suffering that Sam will continue to undergo as he remembers the past year. For if he suffers so mightily about his actions in a small town full of strangers, what will happen when he remembers letting Dean get attacked by vampires?
Knowing Sam’s history and how painful discovering his actions will be for him, makes the Arachne plot successful. We get to see the contrast between soulless and soulfull Sam, a behavior that perhaps isn’t as shocking for the viewer, since we’ve been on this journey with him for a while now. Soulless Sam is a cad, a lothario. He has no concern for the infected humans, quickly and casually making the decision that they all must die. He has no problem using a sheriff as bait, basically implying that the sacrifice made is for the greater good. And he also mercilessly beats a deputy, physically crushing him and leaving him on the side of the road. As we’ve seen all season, that’s not the Sam we love.
I’m hoping that these revelations are just the building blocks for more to come. There’s not much in Sam’s discovery that should shock the audience. We’ve seen Sam attempt to kill Bobby and allow Dean to be turned into a vampire; there’s little in this small town adventure that was worse. I would think that we’ll discover more from that year — perhaps things that will shake our belief in Sam — as he starts to remember more of his time pre-Dean.
What we’ve lost in both this episode and the one prior is the lore that goes with these monsters. Dragons and Arachne? So cool. The delivery? Not so much. In both episodes the monster of the week is just a means for more of Sam and Dean’s emotional adventures. Don’t get me wrong, I love the emotional sibling repartee, especially now that Sam is back to being Sam, but I want this discovery to work in tandem with a great story. In “Bloodlust,” the vampires and Gordon Walker are really a means for Dean to deal with his father’s death and the resulting issues that threaten his moral center. With Gordon Walker he sees what he could become. But this is a somewhat subtle reveal. We learn quite a bit about Gordon — the loss of his sister to vampires and her death by Gordon’s hands — and about vampire lore. We might not spend loads of time with them, but we discover that they are not like regular vampires — not like the nest that the Winchesters hunted in “Dead Man’s Blood.” There is enough monster development so that we find out about their struggle to stop feeding and how they’ve embraced animal kills rather than human. This is the gift of a great Supernatural episode. They can have the parallel narrative tracks without sacrificing one for the other. Yet in “Unforgiven,” we learn little about the Arachne. It’s a throwaway plot, which is disappointing.
Perhaps what bothers me most is that they had Sam do something that goes against all of his hunter training. He sees the remains of an immense cobweb, stares at it, recognizes it’s importance, and then walks away. I realize that the narrative design is that Sam is hiding his memory recall from Dean, but it was a MASSIVE, MONSTROUS COBWEB; he could have come up with a reason to explore the area.
Also, after discovering that the soulless Sam didn’t actually kill any of the arachnes that were spawned from the female, the boys seem to ignore this and prepare to leave town. They are hunters after all, shouldn’t they deal with that? Or at least call someone? As Dean mentioned in the episode, they aren’t the only hunters in America, they could call for reinforcements. I know that’s a tiny gripe about the narrative, but why have the arachnified sheriff bring up the fact that they all survived, if only to abandon that thread within minutes of discovery?
I know that all the monster narratives will come back into play — I realize that “The Mother of All” storyline will fill in many of the gaps — I just miss the lore.
Monster development — thumbs down.
Sam epiphany, suffering, and emotional torture — thumbs up.