“Nightshifter” seems like a stand alone, monster-of-the-week episode in the overall arc of season 2. But with shapeshifters, it’s never good to take things at face value. The episode comes between “Playthings”, where Sam confesses to Dean his need to save people in the hopes of racking up enough points to save himself from whatever it was that John feared for him (no one knows what that fate is at this point), and where Sam forces Dean to make that horrible promise to kill him if he becomes something other than himself; and “Houses of the Holy” and Dean an the Magic Fingers . . . . (“Nightshifter is also the first episode where Sam no longer wore a cast.) There is a lot of continuity in the episode, but no obvious reference to Sam’s destiny and his fear of it or of the promise.
What “Nightshifter” does give us is references to “Skin” in season 1 and “The Usual Suspects” earlier in season 2 and lays the groundwork for “Folsom Prison Blues” later in the season and “Jus in Belo” in season 3. These five episodes make a distinct pattern in the tapestry of Supernatural: The “normal” world’s perception of hunters, especially through a law enforcement filter. And while I think it’s important to point it out, it’s not what I want to talk about. (Settle in, folks, this is gonna be a long one. But there are cookies at the end.)
I want to talk about the epiphany I had in my last rewatch of “Nightshifter”: We would have had a very different episode is Sam hadn’t made a huge error in judgment. It’s never really been mentioned in the show, which I think is a bit of a loss, as it provides an insight into Sam’s character that doesn’t really appear again until season 3.
What did Sam do? A bit of shapeshifting of his own. Our usually sweet and sensitive Sammy took a hard line with the equally sweet and sensitive Ronald Reznick (perhaps it was the association with clowns?) and it backfired.
Ronald was in a desperate way. His friend had died under some rather unusual circumstances and he wanted to know why. He did the research and found something mysterious on the surveillance tape of the bank. He did more research. He reached out to the local police with his findings and was treated like a crazy. He was beginning to feel that he was crazy, but aside from that, he knew something was very wrong, and that the cops were going to do nothing about it.
Enter Sam and Dean, posing as FBI agents. Ronald again, quivering with hope, explains his theory, showing the tape of the shapeshifter’s laser eyes. And instead of validating his instincts and acknowledging his legwork in tracking the mandroid/shapeshifter, Sam shuts Ronald down. Rather harshly.
Oh, Sam had a good motive, as he explains to Dean in their beer-themed hotel room, wanting to protect Ronald, but there was nothing in his character that leads me to believe that Ronald would have gone after the shapeshifter if they had said, “Hey, you’re right, or almost right, and thanks to you, we now know what we’re dealing with. We do this for a living, and you can trust us to take care of it.” Sure, he might have wanted to help, but Ronald Reznick was no killer, and once the killing part had been made clear to him, and having received the validation he was seeking, I’m really pretty sure he’d have been happy to provide technical support. Heck, he might have thought he was helping the X-Files unit of the FBI. He might have even ended up as a valuable research resource for the Winchesters. We’ll never know because Sam showed once again that he is his father’s son.
Sam Winchester believed he knew what was best for Ronald Reznick’s safety, but Ronald had other ideas. Instead of allowing Ronald to participate in events that effected him and enabling him to make an informed choice, Sam decided that Ron didn’t need to know. (Sound familiar?) Ronald rebelled, and ended up dead. Interestingly, I think what finally made this thread of Sam’s character standout for me was Robot!Sam in season 3’s “Mystery Spot”. Amazing how Supernatural builds on itself, yet manages to illuminate its foundations at the same time, isn’t it?
Mirroring Sam’s overzealous thick headedness in the “normal” world is Special Agent Victor Henricksen. Introduced in this episode, I thought SA Henricksen was going to turn out to be the normal world’s version of Gordon Walker: Focused, obsessed, zealous, unquestioning, ruthless. (Turns out I was wrong about that, but that’s a subject for a different essay.)
There is no room for alternate theories in Henricksen’s world: Dean, and the Bonnie to his Clyde, Sam, are evil and there is no one who’s going to convince him otherwise. Not Lt. Robards or Sgt. Tucker of Milwaukee PD. They know something’s hinky, but see no cause for worry. A hostage has been released and no demands have been made. They’re in the moment with none of Henricksen’s background on the Winchesters, and as experienced cops, see no cause to be alarmed for the hostages yet.
Henricksen’s plan of baiting Dean (and would you really want to bait someone you believed to be a psycho- or sociopath who had a bunch of hostages?), then lulling him into thinking he and Sam had an hour to give themselves up, then turning around and ordering a breach in five minutes seems the most likely to get a hostage killed. And thanks to Sam’s rather hot fighting skills (see, Sammy redeems himself a little) that backfires on Henricksen, with the Winchesters escaping in captured SWAT gear.
In the end, Sam lost more from his overzealousness in focusing on the mission than Henricksen lost in his. Sam sacrificed his compassion and empathy, denied his inner Sammy so to speak, and set in motion the events that lead Ronald to his death and SA Henricksen on their tales. Dean only lightly chides Sam for his behavior (“I don’t think he likes you much, Agent Johnson”), but then Dean wouldn’t. But it’s just the first example of what goes wrong when Sam stops being Sammy. And in this way, it’s a precursor to season 3 Sam.
Big thanks to everyone who stuck with it. Chocolate-dipped Winchesters are on the side table.