If you know one thing about me, you know I don't believe people can change who they are. They can adjust their behavior, sure, for the situations and circumstances in which they find themselves. People are great at adapting, especially if it's any kind of "survival" issue. But who they are, what they want, and what they believe are things so ingrained them in an almost unconscious way, they are in there permanently and forever. It is a part of fate and destiny that Supernatural tried so hard to fight in season five.
And it did kind of successfully back then, which was problematic for me, because suddenly I was struggling with what I wanted for beloved characters versus what I saw as plausible plot points or just wishful thinking. I'm not going to digress into a really belated postmortem of that season five finale, though-- an hour of television I think could have been the strongest end to any television series ever had it actually been the end and had Dean fallen into the pit as Michael, just as God had intended. Instead, I'm going to look only ahead to season eight and its turn of events (or lack thereof, as the case should be).
I think the hardest thing for any writer is to sustain a character's true self over time and tribulations. Sometimes elements need to be sacrificed or simply pushed aside to serve the plot. Sometimes diehard fans will nitpick and say something doesn't make sense, and sometimes they will justify something that doesn't make sense to the bitter end. It all depends on to what part of the story they are most attached.
There has been a lot of talk online already about how the Sam of season eight is pretty much the Sam of season one, just older. While I don't disagree with that, I don't say it with as much disdain as so many commenting on it seem to. To me, that is the highest compliment a viewer can pay a writer-- to say that a character-- after so many trials, tribulations, and plot twists that weren't always properly arced out from the beginning-- still rings true. To me, that doesn't say that Sam has not matured, but rather it speaks to who Sam is, as a character, at his core.
Sam in season one just wanted a normal life. He wanted to go to school, get a regular job, be with a girl, and have a family someday. Hell, Sam in his version of heaven was a normal guy, too-- visiting a girl's family for a proper Thanksgiving, living with a dog, etc. He has always wanted to be normal-- as anyone who grew up feeling different would. The grass is always greener and yada yada. Sam has never hidden the fact that a sense of family obligation pulled him back into hunting as an adult, but it has never been his whole life, let alone his true love. Sam has always been extremely comfortable dealing with the problems right in front of him, as they affect him and his loved ones, but he has never felt like he needed to be a martyr for a greater cause the way Dean at times has struggled with.
Dean in season one was very much a soldier still in training. He wanted to go out and do the job, but he needed other soldiers around him, "getting his six," as it were. Dean threw everything he had into hunting, and while it was also more of a job than a love for him, it certainly consumed him in a way it never seemed to with Sam. Think about it: every time Sam and Dean split up, Sam tried to sneak little bits of normal life back in. Even when Dean was in Hell, and Sam was with Ruby, he was using her to make himself stronger for the hunt to get Dean back, but he was still using her as a girlfriend, too.
Dean's soldier mentality always put the job and the family first. It put brotherhood in general first. He craved the camaraderie came from fighting alongside each other, and he had no problem sacrificing himself for them, always assuming he was only something great because he was part of this greater hunter "team." He needed to feel a part of something in a way Sam never seemed to: Sam always seemed much more comfortable being alone. In that sense, I've always related more to Sam, even though I rarely agree with his actions. Though, when you think about it, Dean and Sam have both exhibited selfishness through the seasons, just in different ways.
To that note, I see season eight Dean as being perfectly true to season one Dean and therefore Dean's innate character at his core, too. The year away or apart or whatever you want to call it, for once, based on where they each were, allowed each guy to live the purest life each ever could.
And what so fascinates me about Supernatural's season eight journey, at least thus far, is that it perfectly exemplifies this idea of people being who they are at their core, and the toughest times bringing that out. When Dean was sent to Purgatory, he was completely alone. Castiel defected, leaving him in an unknown place, surrounded by unknown creatures. He could do nothing but trust his instincts, and his instincts were to carry on the family business no matter what. Sam, on the other hand, was left alone "topside." He had no ties to be found in the hunter community, and so he walked away. He tried to live his apple pie life now just as he did way back when in Stanford and with Jess. His instinct was to just try to be normal. As much as he may have had to resign himself to the fact that his life never could be normal in seasons past-- and as much as Dean may have tried to live a hunt-free life, too-- each guy ended up falling back into comfortable patterns; each guy followed his own heart, only to find they led them down much different paths.
Yet, at the end of the day, when they came back together, what they personally wanted didn't matter. Just like countless times before, they each set aside their own interests for the good of each other.
The true test should be, then, if Dean and Sam manage to close the gate of Hell forever-- at the end of this season, next, or in twenty-five years, then what? Can either guy actually live a regular life for longer than a year? Thus far, Sam has always been reluctant to give up one year of a normal life, even for a chance at fifty. And Dean, well, Dean never could stop looking over his shoulder, even when he was trying to be Mr. Dad. Without hunting to bond them, will their relationship dissolve the way of "What Is and Never Should Be?"