This isn't the first time we've had to ask this question, and it probably won't be the last, but does death even mean anything on Supernatural anymore?
After 13 seasons in the family business, both Sam (Jared Padalecki) and Dean (Jensen Ackles) have died numerous times, especially Dean thanks to the memorable Season 3 episode "Mystery Spot." But in Thursday's "Beat the Devil," Sam was killed by vampires while attempting to reach Dayton, Ohio (not worth dying for, if we're being honest) to rescue Mary (Samantha Smith) and Jack (Alexander Calvert) from the hell of the apocalyptic alternate universe. A few minutes after his death, which actually happened off-screen because Castiel (Misha Collins) stopped Dean from rushing in to save his brother, Sam was brought back to life by Lucifer (Mark Pellegrino). Yes, Lucifer.
Now, Sam's resurrection wasn't really a question of if as much as when; fans learned long ago that death for the Winchesters is more of a brief inconvenience rather than a permanent end to an Earthly existence. The first few times the Winchesters were killed in action was actually quite shocking, and we reacted emotionally, but in Season 13 it's almost routine to the point that we don't even flinch. Also removing some of the emotional weight from Sam's latest death is the fact The CW has already renewed Supernatural for a fourteenth season, and Supernatural can't survive without both brothers co-piloting the ship. So, if we know all of this, why then do the writers even bother "killing" Sam or Dean at this stage in the game?
The most obvious answer, of course, is that death still has to feel like it is a real and dangerous possibility on Supernatural so the fight to live also carries weight. The Winchesters regularly put their lives on the line to save the world from whatever apocalypse has come calling this time, and if they constantly escape with nothing more than some minor flesh wounds, it's terribly unrealistic. (And yes, we say this knowing this is the same show that once featured a suicidal teddy bear and an alternate history in which the Titanic never sank.) There is also a dwindling number of supporting characters who can take the metaphorical bullet instead. So basically, a brief death now and then gives the appearance that the risks involved in saving the world are still real.
The second most obvious answer — and this one is our personal favorite — is that if Sam dies, Supernatural can squeeze a single glistening man tear from Jensen Ackles. A single man tear is greater and more powerful than any last minute rescue! It's also more painful than a thousand angel blades to the gut. The second Dean's eyes begin to well with unshed tears for his fallen brother, warning bells start to sound in the tear ducts of women everywhere. And when one of those tears falls, it's all over. Say goodbye to ever feeling happy again. It's just not possible. Such is the power of Dean Winchester's single man tear.
But there is also a third option, and it actually has nothing to do with the Winchesters at all. Sam's death in "Beat the Devil" wasn't about the dangers present in the alternate universe. It wasn't about Sam, and it sure as hell wasn't about Dean — who says he doesn't care about his own life but wants to protect Sammy — not being able to save his younger brother. No, this was about pushing Lucifer's arc forward. The former ruler of Hell says he's evolved from the archangel he used to be, but bringing Sam back to life here was actually selfish and all about helping himself; Lucifer wants to have a relationship with his son Jack in the way that Sam and Dean now have a relationship with him, and by bringing Sam back to life, Lucifer is hoping to earn some goodwill with his son.
This is all well and good on a character level. Exploring a Lucifer with familiar, relatable goals but who hasn't actually changed all that much is enough progress that it continues to extend the life of Supernatural, which is proving to be as immortal as the Winchesters themselves, while also allowing one of the show's best characters some quality time in the spotlight. But did Sam actually have to die to achieve, well, any of this? If we know that Sam and Dean will always be resurrected, are there any stakes left? Yes, we might crumble at the sight of Dean's single man tear, but we also know his pain, and thus our pain, is temporary. And so the question then becomes, does any of this even matter? Does it matter at all what Supernatural does anymore?
The same outcome probably could have been achieved without Sam falling victim to a nest of vampires in an alternate apocalyptic universe, but if he doesn't die, then we might not get to go down this road with Luci. We definitely don't get to see Luci yell "boo!" at Sam when he wakes up in the dark, disoriented and confused. And so, even if death actually has no real meaning on Supernatural anymore, all the pieces still manage to come together in "Beat the Devil" to remind us what it is we love about the show in the first place. And right now that is man tears, emotional bro pain, and the never-ending saga of Lucifer. You keep doing you, Supernatural. You keep doing you.
Supernatural airs Thursdays at 8/7c on The CW.
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