Somewhere in late season eight I read a piece of meta that explained something I'd been looking for from canon—Amelia had been so awkwardly handled that Sam's motivation seemed it had been tossed out with her charisma and the relationship's plausibility. Whatever would 'possess' Sam to not look for Dean, and how is he handling that now? Spoilers up to 9.14, Captives. (To 9.15 Thin Man in the comments)
The meta posited that Sam had made a mistake, and it was a mistake he'd admitted to and regretted, but it had been scattered throughout so many episodes that it had failed to make an impact. I was grabbing for some emotional closure on the topic, so I held tight to this as my headcanon.
But now it's clear why they never stated any such thing outright—it's not true. It wasn't a mistake. Sam currently intends that dead things should stay that way, and the fabled Winchester glue that so many of us show up for is not healthy or appealing for him. Not only does he want to stay dead, he's willing to let Dean stay that way, should either of them be unable to save his life.
He's not just signing his own supernatural DNR, he's disavowing extreme means for anyone. He's willing to follow a normal path of grieving and healing.
I've seen a lot of criticism that this season is retread with the same old same old rift between the brothers. As much as I hate rifts, I enjoy conflict, and I do think the writers know where their fanbread is fanbuttered. I think they're more likely to be codependent Winchesters at the end of the season than healthy ones. Especially with a tenth season in the offing.
What's new about the brotherly strife this late on in the show? Well, I consider these things new and important:
Dean admitted he was wrong, and walked away. Dean doesn't just have separation anxiety. He has abandonment anxiety. Even though he was willing to die to save Sam's life in season 2, that was him suborning his value to his brother's, and squeaking a year's worth more companionship out of their relationship. He's been abandoned (to orient him as the centre of the universe) by his mother, his brother, his natural and his ersatz father. In order to walk away from Lisa and Ben, he had to have their memories wiped, something I think he would agree in isolation is a bad thing, but is trivial in comparison to his need to be there for people—he's a compulsive provider/nurturer, even when he sucks at it (farewell Kevin, we still love you).
Sam's position is a culmination of years past. Sam didn't want to be resurrected in season 2. He didn't want to be possessed by either Meg or Lucifer, but took the latter hit to save the world. Sam made some tenuous sort of peace with the end of the fabled Winchester duo a year ago. He's always been able to walk away—look at his highlight reel of memories—they involve being apart from family—they involve striking out on his own and making his own life. Put those all together, now, in season 9, and I think we have enough of a difference that him shutting Dean out this hard with words no sibling would ever want to hear (even though they are much more literal in this universe than in ours) is hurting me in a new place.
I know—I'm the resident SPN fangirl. But I don't think that's the same thing as apologist. I just spend (a shitload) more time thinking about these things, and slicing them in multiple ways. What I can't keep track of is "Brothers fight! Brothers separate! Looks just the same as last five times!"
Is it really that repetitive to you? Does Little Orphan Dean walking away not turn everything on its head? Does Sam adding together things that span six years of screentime not make it different from before? Do you really think the writers won't make him wrong in the end (since, unfortunately, they usually do)? Should they?