There seems to be a widely-held opinion right now that Sam has abandoned Dean and has no respect left for him; that after everything Dean has done for him, he turned his back when Dean needed him the most. Wow. What kind of brother does that? A selfish, arrogant, ungrateful, weak-charactered one, that’s who! I would like to explain why I think Sam is not that kind of brother, and why he is, in fact, the stronger character of the two. It's a big part of why I'm attracted more to Sam than Dean.
First of all, Sam is not a shallow person who selfishly ran away to college while leaving his father and brother to carry on the “family business”. His family epitomized the word “dysfunctional” from the time he was six months old.
Sam craved normalcy, and therefore he had an intense desire to “fit in”. How could he do this with the kind of life his family led? He learned to pretend. To hide his thoughts and feeling about what his family did. He learned to cope with it the best way he could; indeed the way he was ordered to: shut up about the Big Family Secret. Any anger he may have shown, any displeasure with the business, any resistance whatsoever was met with harsh rebuke from John, and almost certainly from Dean as well. Why from Dean as well? Because Dean agreed with his father about everything; he was the obedient, good little soldier who didn’t question his father. He would NOT have let Sam away with constantly resisting John or the business; he would have chewed out Sam royally for rocking the boat. And the one thing you don’t do in a dysfunctional family is rock the boat.
A dysfunctional family is only as strong as its weakest link; in this case, John. I don’t mean that John was weak mentally or physically, but it was his drive and obsession, justified or not, that put the family on this path. And Dean backed John. Who backed Sam? Who would have listened to his fears, and discontent, and anger? Exactly. Sam was the one who showed more strength of character by wanting to break free of an insane lifestyle. It’s much, much harder to go against the dysfunction than it is to go along with it.
So Sam mostly did what was expected of him. He learned to fight, to use weapons, to learn the hunt. And though he hated it, he doubtless learned a lot about himself. He was courageous, physically capable, and highly intelligent, and not only on the hunt. He was courageous enough to have a dream, and strong-willed enough to chase that dream. But of course, the inevitable happened when he tried to break away.
In a normal, well-adjusted family, each member is very solicitous about the others, and they encourage each other’s successful breaking away from the nest, not frown upon it! But Sam was made to feel like a traitor, that he didn’t care about Dean or John, that he was selfish, etc, etc, etc. Again, who is showing the dysfunction here? It’s not Sam, I’ll tell you that. After a huge fight with his father, Sam finally left. Do you think Dean stayed out of this and let his father and brother fight it out themselves? I doubt it. Remember, Dean sided with John. I’m sure he was quite vocal in tearing a strip off Sam. Because of the dysfunction, you don’t stick up for the one who is rocking the boat. You get angry at them. Because you think, if only he would stop whining and do what he’s told and accept the way things are, everything would be okay, and we’d be happy. But that’s not the way it works. It's an ideal only, and it's self-deceiving.
Dean did not deal well with Sam's leaving. If you think it was because he felt betrayed, think again. He was angry at Sam for doing something that he couldn’t do. Because of his loyalty to John? Nope. Because he was afraid to take that step and be independent. He didn’t know how.
“Okay, but Sam had Dean to look after him, and Dean had nobody!” you might argue. “Sam had it a lot easier than Dean!” you might argue further. But you’re wrong. Why? Because both boys grew up in that family. Both of them lived with the insanity. It doesn’t matter who played what role! Dean could not make Sam’s life any more normal than his own. And don’t think for even a second that Dean did not resent the role thrust upon him: to look after his little brother. He loved Sam deeply, there is no question of that. He had to give up so much of his own life to look after him. But he did it for Sam. Right? Sorry...wrong again. He did it because that is what the dysfunction of his family demanded he do. We see it clearly when he is fighting with his inner self in “Dream a Little Dream of Me”. He finally puts into words what he has known all along - that his father was obsessed, couldn’t take care of his family, and that Dean didn’t deserve everything that had been placed on his shoulders. That’s resentment. And a good deal of anger too.
After Sam has been in college for a few years, Dean drops by unexpectedly. It is never made clear why, but they have not spoken to each other for two years. My guess would be that Dean likely tried to cajole Sam into coming back, to “pull him back into the fold”, and Sam refused. Now some real envy has developed. In Dean’s mind, Sam has now gotten away scot free and is doing what he wants to do, rather than doing the dutiful thing and returning to his family.
He tells Sam he hasn’t seen their Dad for a while, and Sam doesn't immediately feel great concern. But when he catches on that Dean is worried, he goes with him. That doesn’t mean that he doesn’t love his father or care about Dean. For their family, it was normal that their Dad would be gone for weeks at a time, and that he would always show up again. Even when Dean was dropping him off back at Stanford, Sam asks Dean to give him a call when he finds their Dad - not if - when. Again, he showed his strength of character by refusing to be pulled back into the dysfunction - because again, it takes more courage to fight it than go along with it.
Sam does have his flaws, no question. We see the dysfunction creep back in whenever he is emotionally devastated: when Jessica dies, he blames himself for her death, even though there was no way he could have prevented it. In "Provenance", he tells Sarah that “people around him get hurt”. He is internalizing his feelings, and accepting blame for things he couldn’t have prevented, much in the same way that Dean does. When he learned that he was tainted with demon blood, he went so far as to ask Dean to kill him if he ever went darkside. We see how emotionally traumatized he really is, yet Dean ignores that and never tries to really talk about it with Sam. Again, the truth is that he can’t deal with it, so he pretends it isn’t there. “No, that doesn’t freak me out at all.” You may think he was trying to make Sam feel better by saying Sam wasn’t a freak to him, but what he was essentially saying is “I can’t be honest with you, because that makes me vulnerable.”
So what choice does Sam have but to deal with it on his own, because his brother is emotionally unavailable and cannot handle recriminations from him: “Don’t you be mad at me!” (AHBL pt. 1) And besides, Sam can’t burden Dean with his own problems; Dean is dealing with enough as it is, particularly through Season 3. It's another classic example of the dysfunction having its way.
In Season 4, Dean is finally able to break and tell Sam about his suffering in Hell. Yet almost no mention is ever made about what Sam went through trying to cope with Dean’s death. We see in Mystery Spot that he went on a path of near-self-destruction after Dean died on the Wednesday, and again in the months following Dean’s dying at the end of Season 3. Yet when Dean miraculously shows up at his motel room door, practically the first thing Dean does is jump down his throat because he thinks Sam has made a deal. So much for acknowledging Sam’s pain. So yet again, he is forced to bury his own feelings for the sake of Dean’s. It’s undesirable and unhealthy, but it’s another example of Sam showing strength enough to try to be there for Dean.
We see this all through Season 4. With Dean gone, Sam made a conscious decision to use his powers with the help of Ruby. Dean demands that he stop, again making no effort to reach Sam emotionally or even simply talk to him; he just gives an order and Sam is supposed to obey. This is exactly what he grew up with, and instead of blind obedience, he once again makes a conscious decision to do what he thinks is best. Whether it was the right choice or the wrong choice remains to be seen, but the point is, he was strong enough in character to choose to fight back.
By this time, Dean’s pain is great and he is overwhelmed by guilt at what he did in Hell. He reveals in bits and pieces some of what happened, but only enough to ease some of his profound guilt, then he shuts up tight again. Sam is actually very patient with Dean for months afterward, but when it becomes evident that Dean is not progressing, Sam has to make a decision - carry on without Dean if he has to, or be pulled down into Dean’s misery for who knew how long. This may sound callous of me, but there is nothing harder than watching someone you love deteriorate, because no matter how hard you try, you cannot help someone who will not help himself. Sam knew this:
Quote from “Dream a Little Dream of Me”:
Sam: “The truth is, no one can save you.”
Dean: “What I’ve been telling you.”
Sam: “No, what I mean is, no one can save you because you don’t want to be saved.”
So Sam made the choice to continue on without him. He did not “abandon” Dean; he is still there for when Dean needs him. But Sam recognized once again that dysfunction, no matter what it’s cause, was again pulling Dean down to a place where Sam could not go back to. It may have appeared that Sam was callously disregarding Dean’s soul-shattering pain, but you can bet it was an extremely difficult decision to make. He probably agonized over it for a long time, until finally, his strength and resolve allowed him to do one of the most difficult things of his life: leave his brother behind. As strange as it may sound, he was doing Dean a favour by refusing to fall with him. Nonetheless, it still took the intervention of an angel to try to get the message across.
I find it oddly amusing that Sam was fan-bashed so severely for telling Dean to stop whining about Hell, yet Zachariah turns around and tells him precisely the same thing! Seems to me that Sam knew exactly what he was doing. Why? Because he was able to see beyond the emotional mess that Dean was in and see the larger picture. Because he loved his brother and was allowing him the opportunity to stand on his own feet instead of coddling him. That’s not abandonment. That’s smart. That’s strength of character. And that’s love.