Shortly after releasing the Darkness (and the many and sundry traumas of the year(s) leading up to that moment), we opened 11x01 with Sam having an inopportunely timed existential crisis about shooting first and asking questions later, saving people, and other parts of the bumper sticker. About what it is, exactly, they're really doing--and how much of that is wrapped up in his and Dean's fucked up codependent beautiful relationship, how much of that is accrued grit from a lifetime or ten of Winchester Destiny, and how much of that might(??) actually be innate moral defect/abomination.
This isn't a new discussion in itself, as these questions of morality and hunting and selfishness and martyrdom (and usually the inhabitation/cohabitation of multiple alleged binaries simultaneously) happen in some form every season.
But I think the way that we've been seeing this thread itself through S11 so far has been exceptionally specific and interesting. Case in point, 11x11 "Into the Mystic."
When Sam and Eileen are sharing backstories, we hear some familiar strains of conversation. Sam immediately jumps in to tell Eileen that--speaking from, at this point, a vast amount of experience--revenge will leave you empty. We've already seen this theme enacted multiple times across this season alone, it did nothing to help Castiel (with Metatron); would have done nothing to help the bereft twin from 11x08 "Just my Imagination." Sam takes it all the way back to S1/2 when he mentions going to school and being pre-law, and I got the impression that when he was talking about empty revenge he was still talking about the Yellow-Eyed Demon, and not every intervening crusade, betrayal, or retribution in between.
What I loved is that if there are things Eileen already isn't, they're callous and revenge-driven. She's tracked this banshee down, but it's just another monster; her parents are another set of victims. As tragedies go, it almost feels impersonal. Not in the sense that it doesn't matter, but in the sense that Eileen already has some sense that this kill won't be a watershed moment. And I don't thinks she needs it to be.
Of course, the irony is, Sam and Dean have known this all along, too. They've known this since at least 2007 (RIP, YED), if not before. But that didn't actually stop a good many of their revenge-driven machinations. I mean, the last half of S7 was almost entirely Bobby-driven revenge, EVEN as they kept telling each other, multiple times, that revenge was no bueno, and EVEN as the presence of Bobby's ghost became even more apparently also no bueno. Revenge was BASICALLY THE ENTIRE PLOT OF S7, since no one actually cared about Leviathan in the first place. XP
So really, it's not about straight-up knowledge, or comprehension. It's not about this re-assertion of ah yes, gray areas. Ah yes, when you look into the abyss the abyss also looks into you. It's not about OMG WHY ARE YOU GUYS BEING SO STUPID
That's not what's lacking. Rather, there's some critical missing piece here that makes this knowledge actually meaningful.
Sam and Eileen don't trade on the objective moral truths of revenge, the hunting life, etc. Instead, they offer each other a space to consider humanely what these things do or will feel like, what they will incite or inspire, and how one can begin to grapple with these lived realities and ambivalences.
Which is what I think made their moments together so valuable, especially taking into account the effervescent strains of retirement whispering throughout the episode, because you can't help (and Sam and Dean can't help) thinking about the civilian/hunting divide and their potential existence on either side of it.
I mean, the episode takes place in a retirement community (A REALLY NICE ONE). We open with Lucifer's accusations of what Sam's time with Amelia supposedly means (according to Lucifer, anyway)--selfish "apple pie" retirement. We have Mildred really jazzed about her own retirement, and Eileen considering what she'll do next, after the banshee.
And of course what she'll do is continue to hunt--not because there's no getting out of the life (though that's also entirely possible, too--most hunter biographies are do not have happy endings) but because that's who she is, and has decided to be. The divide between civilian/hunting life becomes less of a LIFE/DEATH, GOOD/BAD (or DEATH/LIFE, BAD/GOOD, which gets just as much play in this show) and something more palimpsestic, multiple. There's livability on both sides, and condemnation on neither (I mean, one thing that's for sure: Sam's time with Amelia wasn't exactly a Princess Cruise Vacation, PEACE BLISS YOLO).
It opens up possibility in ways that I think we've seen, in peeks, or in horizons we've then quickly doubled back from in the past.
What helps Sam get from Opening Bed Scene to Closing Bed Scene isn't the hunting things part of the bumper sticker--at least, not this time, though that can also be therapeutic in its way. The banshee, the research, the actual fight, were basically incidental. XD But it almost wasn't even about saving people, either--the first two victims were basically incidental, like so many of them are. Mildred was never a victim (you can't tell me that in that entire retirement community the MOST VULNERABLE TENANT was a spry woman with a mild atrial fibrillation, omg).
It was, in the healthiest possible way (AKA ways that don't involve the morally questionable extremities of brotherly devotion), about the hunters and savers themselves. It was about making life livable, open to experience--full and meaningful experience. Which is something you don't often get when you're fulfilling Trials or possessed by an angel or mourning your brother or dealing with his demonic state or his multiple violent murders and, you know, all the rest that inheres in the Mark of Cain and its potent mythologies.
Beyond the blacks and whites of revenge and hunting and all else, the subjective truth Eileen lives out across this episode is someone making a life out of the hunting life--scoring it with options and futures and emotional dwelling spaces. And I think seeing a life well lived (even marked by a succession of tragedies, monsters, nightmares) was something Sam really needed modeled at this moment.
It reminds me of the now infamous scene from 1xz02 "Wendigo" when Dean is trying to talk Sam down from losing it at Roy and the Collins siblings and the fact that this dumb Wendigo case wasn't getting them any closer to their father or to revenge for Jess (see: "revenge"; "see: "dad's crusade)--you know, the conversation that spawned the "Saving People, Hunting Things" line in the first place.
After that line, though, Sam asks, okay, but how does that work in practice?
How do you do it?
Back in S1, it was about killing as many evil sons of bitches as they possibly can--and it still is. It was also about watching lives well lived in the faces and bonds of the people they save. And it still is.
But now, it's also about practicing a life well lived. It's also about practicing your own life as a hunter, while you're busily saving and hunting. It's about finding that middle ground between...whatever messed up things Sam and Dean both tend to panic into, and self-erasure/abnegation.
You don't run from the Devil just to save your own soul--but you don't give yourself over to him, either.