I recently made a vid of the Winchesters dueling and some of the responding comments got me thinking about all those moments the boys come to blows.
It's not often the Winchesters physically fight. So far, in 145 episodes, we've seen:
- 5 times they've physically fought each other (Pilot, Skin*, Sex and Violence*, When the Levee Breaks, Slash Fiction*)
- 7 times Dean has punched Sam without Sam retaliating (Asylum, Bloodlust, Metamorphosis, Born Under a Bad Sign, You Can't Handle the Truth, Appointment in Samara, The Girl Next Door)
- 3 times he knocked Sam out (Asylum, You Can't Handle the Truth, Appointment in Samara)
- 2 times Sam has punched Dean without Dean retaliating (Born Under a Bad Sign*, Swan Song*,)
- 1 time he knocked Dean out (Born Under a Bad Sign*)
- 1 wrestling match (Tall Tales)
- 1 time Dean wrestled Sam to the ground (What Is and What Should Never Be*)
And in slightly different categories:
- 2 times Sam has shot Dean (Asylum*, Born Under a Bad Sign*)
- 1 time Sam has "killed" Dean (The End*)
* episodes where one or both brothers were something "other".
Often these fights happen when they are either cursed or not entirely themselves. But not always. I want to take a closer look at these fights to examine when and why they occur. I also want to see who wins most often and what that reveals about our boys.
Let's start at the very beginning...
1. Pilot (1.01)
I love looking back at the pilot episode. So many themes are set up in such a short time: Dean saving Sam, Sam leaving Dean (for Stanford - seen twice in this episode) and the boys fighting.
It's interesting that the very first time we see the boys together as adults they are attacking each other. It isn't as intense or as serious as the ones to come but I think it sets up the dynamic between the brothers beautifully. It's such a brotherly thing to do but it also reveals that these two know how to fight and that there's tension between them.
Dean knows who he is up against here so it gives him the upper hand. Sam is, quite literally, in the dark about who he is fighting and therefore is taking it a lot more seriously. Dean "wins" (pins Sam down) before he gleefully reveals himself. We get the sense that Dean might be stronger or more skilled until Sam turns the tables and in one swift move pins Dean down. Sam hadn't lost his touch as Dean thought he might have.
Throughout the series the physical confrontations often reveal an underlying mental struggle. Sometimes they are used to gain control of a situation, sometimes to express emotion.
This clash foreshadows the future push-pull between the brothers - sometimes light-hearted, sometimes deadly serious.
It's also worth noting that it is in this episode that we first witness Dean use physical aggression when he's angry. It's not a punch but he does shove Sam against the bridge railing when Sam hits a nerve by mentioning their mother. It's an early indicator of how Dean handles both Sam and his own emotions when things get too intense. Pushing, punching and fighting are all "acceptably masculine" ways of dealing and this becomes a recurring character trait for Dean.
Later, Sam mirrors this action in Salvation when he slams Dean into a wall. We only get these two examples of wall slamming (unfortunately) but in both cases the boys are expressing emotions that don't exactly require a punch but rather push to say "you've gone too far".
2. Skin (1.06)
This is probably my favourite of all the physical encounters between the boys. Mostly because it's not actually a fight between Sam and Dean, but rather Sam and the MotW (a shapeshifter). It's also much deadlier than the previous one and allows us to see our favourite brothers in full-on combat mode.
Shapeshifter!Dean has "downloaded" Dean's memories so we can assume that much of what we see here is actually how Dean would fight. Both boys seem to use a mix of "styles" - Sam putting his fists up as though boxing, using some karate-style kicks and taking advantage of any "available" weapons to hand (pool cue). They know each other's moves and it's from this scene we can assume the boys grew up sparring. Not!Dean says "Even when we were kids, I always kicked your ass". I know this is a taunt but it's not a far stretch to assume that Dean would probably have won most sparring matches between them. Dean's more experienced and until Sam's growth spurt (which must have come after he was 14) Dean would have been a lot bigger. Though we can see here that Sam has a few tricks of his own.
It's interesting that Sam had to remind himself that this isn't really Dean he was fighting. You're not him. It's as though thinking that it could be Dean would mean he might not give it all he's got. And this is a fight to the death. It's also important for Sam to show the shapeshifter that he is not as vulnerable as his other victims were. Sam knows this isn't Dean, whereas the other victims were convinced their loved ones had turned on them. (It's curious that this becomes quite a strong issue later on between the brothers - the threat of them turning on each other.)
Not!Dean wins this fight rather convincingly. Sam puts up a good fight but he is finally pinned to the floor and strangled before real!Dean comes to the rescue. I'm pretty sure shapeshifters are stronger than humans, which would count for the win. And Sam was on the back foot right from the outset - having been knocked out by the shapehshifter before the battle even began.
There's a lot revealed about the brothers in this episode. Mostly Dean's jealousy of Sam having a chance at the "apple-pie" life. Sure, it's coming out of the mouth of a monster but I believe much of it is Dean's thoughts. This type of reveal is the start of a pattern of the boys expressing their inner thoughts to each other whilst not themselves.
3. Asylum (1.10)
I know this isn't a physical fight as such but I want to include it because it is rather revealing and a lovely counterpoint to the Skin episode. This time Sam has a chance to air his grievances.
This isn't exactly not!Sam because it is him - though he is altered by Dr Ellicott's mind control. As with shapeshifter!Dean, Sam is able to voice his inner thoughts and feelings. He reveals that he's sick of following his brother's orders and is tired of Dean being a "good little soldier" - following their dad's orders without question.
Sam fights by shooting his brother. It's drastic and opens up a rather large can of worms in regards to the "issues" they have with each other. I find it interesting that these two episodes reveal the brothers' capabilities to actually hurt each other when let loose.
Dean ends up taking control of the situation by tricking Sam. Whereas Sam has "lost his mind," Dean has used his. Dean lands two solid blows to Sam's face to knock him out. It's the first time we actually see Dean forcefully hit Sam in the series. There's quite a bit of emotion tied up in that punch. Dean's just heard what Sam really thinks of him and even though Dean knows Sam isn't quite himself those words stung. The punches were also ones of necessity. Dean needed to knock Sam out to be able to kill the monster. I love his little apology to Sam after he knocks him out.
4. Bloodlust (2.03)
This punch is so awesome. Before you all yell at me, it's not "awesome" because Dean hits Sam, it's awesome because this is the first time we see Dean unleash his anger on Sam (unlike the punches in the previous episode which were more necessity than pure anger). It's awesome because it's the continuation of a pattern started in the Pilot - using force when pushed too far. As much as Dean is protective of his little brother he is not averse to putting a fist in his face when he's pissed with him. It's happened five times to date (not counting the two "necessity" punches). It's also interesting because Sam has never thrown a single pissed punch at Dean. This is part of their brother dynamic. Sam tends to walk or run away when pissed. Dean throws punches.
It's so very Dean - it's physical, immediate and explosive. It's also a big brother thing. Just something about big brothers whaling on little brothers. Each time Sam receives a pissed-off punch from Dean he literally takes it on the chin. He doesn't retaliate. Sam verbally pushes Dean, sure. Here, he almost wills Dean to lash out at him. Get rid of some of that pent up hurt and anger over John's death. I get the feeling Sam knows this is how Dean deals and this probably isn't the first punch he's received.
5. Born Under a Bad Sign (2.14)
This is most definitely not Sam beating Dean. It's demon!Meg. This is pretty damn brutal. It's interesting that Dean does little to fight back here. I know he's in a lot of pain and that would make it difficult but I feel like he's holding back because he still sees his little brother. Fighting back would also be exactly what Meg wanted. She has been pressuring Dean to hurt or kill Sam the whole time. To do what John said must be done. But Dean refuses. It's not until she's gone that Dean can "safely" land a punch on Sam (something he probably wanted to do the entire time). And we musn't forget that Meg!Sam landed a solid punch on Dean earlier in the episode to knock him out.
I remember there being a bit of an uproar about Dean treating Sam like this but, man, Dean really copped it in this episode. From worrying about Sam when he was missing, to believing Sam killed a hunter, to being knocked unconscious, to being shot and just damn worried about Sam. I think it's totally in character to take some of that frustration, anger and pain out on Sam. From that one punch Dean's told Sam he's had one hell of a day. (A bit of added trivia: apparently the punch wasn't written into the script. The Js wanted to mess around with a punch and they liked that take the most so it stayed).
6. Tall Tales (2.15)
This is a rather wonderful brotherly tussle. They are pretty frustrated with each other by this point but they don't actually throw any punches. It seems perfectly right that they would wrestle like this and it makes me think that they probably did a lot of this kind of wrestling growing up. As all brothers do, I suspect. You have to think that Sam would win this just on size alone, but Dean has a few sneak moves up his sleeve so I think they are evenly matched. Also - wrestling! \o/
7. What Is and What Should Never Be (2.20)
This encounter is very short but worth mentioning as it wonderfully mirrors the Pilot tussle between the boys. It's another instance where one brother is something "other" (alternative universe!Sam) and serves to show us that without a hunting upbringing the boys would not be able to fight like they do now. I love Dean's line "That was so easy, I'm embarassed for you."
8. Metamorphosis (4.04)
Oh boy. The king of all pissed Dean punches. If I had to pick my favourite pissed Dean punch (two punches in this scene) this would be it. There is so much anger, hurt and frustration contained in these two punches. Again, (as with Bloodlust), it's Dean's way of dealing with Sam when he thinks he's done the wrong thing. Sam, who has done everything Dean told him not to do. Sam, whom he loves more than anything in the world, and is putting himself in danger by allowing his powers to manifest themselves. Once again, Sam doesn't retaliate because he knows where Dean is coming from. Sam verbally defends himself but he accepts the beat down. He knows he's crossed the line.
It's interesting to note the different ways fights in the Winchester world work. Sometimes they help by relieving tension (like in Bloodlust and Tall Tales) or by opening up the doors for discussion, like in this episode. Sam knows Dean is pissed so in giving Dean this outlet he's also clearing the way for a proper discussion. Though sometimes the fights make things worse...like the next one.
9. Sex and Violence (4.14)
This battle is the result of a lot of underlying distrust. Sure, the boys are cursed (or rather poisoned) but as with Skin and Asylum some truths come out. This is a painful fight to watch because even though they are acting under the spell of the succubus they are voicing some real grievances. It seems they have to be something "other" in order to say what's really on their minds. It's a shame they don't (or can't) hear each other. Neither of them is in a caring or sharing mood at this time. So what they are saying is more for us. It's a device the show uses to good effect, I think.
I like that we get the mix of verbal, mental and physical fighting all at once. Pretty damn intense.
This is a no-holds-barred fight. They are out to kill each other and Dean wins this one fair and square. They are as evenly matched as they ever get in the show and it's likely that Dean would have put that axe through Sam if Bobby hadn't come to the rescue.
10. When the Levee Breaks (4.21)
*sob* If I had to pick a fight that was the most painful to watch this would be it. This one is a heartbreaker because it's the result of a whole season's worth of built-up tension, distrust, anger and love.
This is the climax of all the fights so far in the series. It's an example of how far both of them can go when fuelled by this level of anger and frustration. Neither of them can communicate their point verbally (though both try) so it results in them arguing with their fists.
Dean can see how far Sam has fallen and Sam just can't get through to Dean how important what he's doing is. Sam is fighting to save the world whereas Dean is fighting to save Sam. They only slog it out like this because of the all-encompassing love they have for each other. It's a passionate fight and one that Sam desperately needs to win. And he does.
I don't believe they are on an even playing field here. Sam is hopped up on demon blood and fuelled by an absolute rage. Dean is hurt, betrayed and on the back foot. This is also the first time Sam throws the first punch. He leads the charge and all but kills Dean in the process. He pulls back before choking the life out of Dean (thank God!) but only to turn and leave (like he often does). Dean's comeback is a rather feeble, but heartbreaking repeat of his father's words "You walk out that door, don't you ever come back." But he's lost the fight and it looks like he's lost Sam also.
It's probably worth mentioning Lucifer!Sam killing Dean in The End (5.04) here. It's the next time we see violence between the brothers and even though it didn't technically happen we did witness it. We saw the final result of Sam succumbing to Lucifer - "his" foot snapping Dean's neck. It's gut wrenching. It's the ultimate use of one brother being used to hurt the other. It's the price they would have paid if they decided to part ways and not support each other. (Luckily we didn't get THAT outcome!)
11. Swan Song (5.22)
The last time Sam was possessed (by Meg, BUaBS) "he" pummeled Dean fiercely. This beating makes that one look like a cake walk. This time Lucifer has control over Sam's body and the beating is brutal. Lucifer is not only beating Dean with his actions but also Sam.
It's extraordinarily powerful when "monsters" use one brother to hurt the other. The boys often take a beating but when the person doing it is wearing the face of your brother it adds an extra level of hurt and heartbreak. As with the last beating Dean took from possessed!Sam, he doesn't attempt to fight back. Instead he uses words, reassurances. He knows Sam is in there and instead of trying to fight back he lets Lucifer do his worst hoping Sam can hear his support and love. It works and Sam is able to beat back Lucifer to save the world. It's interesting because Sam doesn't always hear words of support and love from Dean (he's a man of action after all) so by using words now it's enough, I believe, to reach Sam in a way that retaliating physically won't. Also, Dean knows Sam would be trying to fight Lucifer - that was the plan after all. It's an interesting contrast to when Sam was possessed by Meg. They have both learned so much since then.
12. You Can’t Handle the Truth. (6.06)
This is another pissed punch from Dean. Or rather a lot of extremely pissed punches. Dean ploughs into Sam, having found out that he's been lying to him ever since he got back from Hell.
There was some fan uproar with this beat down but it was very in character for Dean, I felt. Consider all the times Dean punches Sam - it's when he's been conflicted and angry (Bloodlust), hurt (BUaBS) or betrayed and angry (Metamorphosis). Here it's a culmination of ALL of these things. No wonder he loses it.
At this point we (and Dean) didn't know what was wrong with Sam or even if it WAS Sam. My feeling is that Dean wasn't actually seeing his brother when laying in to him here. He was seeing a monster and that's what makes this beat down one of the hardest to watch. I don't feel that Sam "deserved" this treatment (he didn't ask to be soulless), but I can definitely see where Dean came from when unleashing this fury on Sam's face.
It could also be that this is Dean's only course of action. He knows Sam is lacking emotion and whereas in the past a single punch would have telegraphed to Sam how Dean was feeling, a single punch at this point won't cut it. Dean knows he has to take control and this is the only way he knows how. It's particularly brutal and quite shocking as we've never really seen this level of fury come out of Dean before.
13. Appointment in Samarra (6.11)
This is another punch of necessity, though it does carry emotion. Much like Dean's punch in Asylum he had to take control of the situation quickly and a swift hard punch does the trick. Unlike his volley of punches in You Can't Handle the Truth, this is much more controlled and tactical and, unlike Asylum there's no apology. He's still carrying a lot of emotion - anger, desperation, worry and despair - and even though it's more controlled we can see all this behind it. "Hi Sam. I'm back." Punch!
14. Girl Next Door (7.03)
Another pissed off punch from Dean and I have to say I really felt this one. It came out of the blue and at a time when Sam had already had a lot of knocks to the head. But in true Dean form he was acting with emotion. Sam had left without word of where he was going. He says: "New rule, you steal my baby you get punched". But of course it's more than just Sam taking his car. He was scared and worried for Sam and this is Dean's way of showing Sam just how much he cares. As in the past the aggressive explosion of violence opens the door for discussion. As in the past, Sam doesn't retaliate. He knows Dean has to let off some steam and he is now, hopefully, open to hearing his point of view.
I don't think Dean can be blamed for using his fist in showing this level of concern. It seems counterproductive but considering his upbringing and job it's hardly surprising. And besides, Sam is aware of it and probably feels he deserves (maybe even needs) Dean bringing him into line like this. Though it's interesting that after this incident we haven't seen this dynamic between the brothers again. Maybe they are moving on from this kind of solution.
15. Slash Fiction (7.06)
This is a very interesting fight. Dean has to fight and kill both LeviaSam and LeviaDean. As in previous fights with their "other" (Skin, BUaBS) or "altered" (Asylum, Sex & Violence) selves some truths are revealed.
I am going to directly quote maenad here as I love this line of thinking:
There’s a bit of a blurry line there with Slash Fiction. They used the ‘other Dean’ to tell Sam the truth about Amy and about Dean’s fears for Sam’s sanity, but it was Dean who did all the fighting. Interesting, I think, in the way it redirects Dean’s anger. When he goes up against the Sam leviathan, it’s actually highlighted in the dialogue that it’s not Sam: ‘Sammy? … Not Sammy!’ and Dean looks a little freaked out when he decapitates him – there are all those underlying fears of losing Sam, and he’s not angry at Sam. But when he takes out his own leviathan he remarks ‘That felt good’, showing up his self loathing, his discomfort in lying to Sam and his suicidal tendencies. He doesn’t want to fight Sam, he wants to fight himself. But circumstances are forcing him to fight Sam – since he will lose him at the end of the episode and have to argue with him to get him back.
I love the idea that Dean enjoyed killing "himself" as a way of reflection his own self-loathing. I suspect there's also a level of anger at the Leviathans using their bodies to go on a killing spree. It's those multi layered themes that makes this episode one of my favourites of S7.
There haven't really been any major physical bust ups between the brothers since You Can't Handle the Truth. The boys seem to be on a path of recovery and much of the distrust and rivalry is behind them now.
Dean states in Hello, Cruel World (7.02) - "I am your flesh-and-blood brother, okay? I’m the only one who can legitimately kick your ass in real time." It's a fabulous acknowledgement of how Dean has dealt with Sam in the past. It's rather ironic that words about violence became words of comfort and support. But it's something Sam understands. It also sums up the world these boys live in.
The boys have been through some tough times and no doubt there are (hopefully!) plenty more to come. But the days of using a physical confrontation to either speak unspoken truths or put each other in their place seems to be past. They are coming clean with each other more often and they don't seem to be have those underlying secrecy, distrust and frustrations issues they used to. Without them we may not see the Winchester brothers come to blows again. It's hard to say.
Something I do know though - if the boys do ever fight again I'll be mighty curious as to what brings it about. They always exist for a reason and pack a powerful punch whenever we witness them.
THANKS! Massive thanks to my two fabulous betas meanad and bythedamned. Their input has been amazing and if this in any way coherent it's due to them! *HEFFA SMISHES* <333