Goodbye, My Wayward Sons: A Supernatural Retrospective

I started watching Supernatural in 2013, which is quite late for a show that aired on a channel that went defunct in 2006 (The WB). Supernatural itself had aired a year earlier, in 2005, and with its eleventh season became the longest running American fantasy television series in history. In 2013, I was a junior in college, just starting to develop a critical consciousness and an awareness of feminism, but at that point I had spent years immersed in fandom, so I was familiar with media criticism.

Said media criticism in fandom was precisely the reason why I had delayed watching Supernatural for so long, despite its urban fantasy allure. It was impossible to be in fandom spaces and not know that Supernatural was famously misogynistic and racist. You heard it all the time. Supernatural hates women. Supernatural kills off its female characters, often violently. Supernatural fridges women. Supernatural vilifies POC.

It was also impossible to be unaware of the Supernatural fandom’s own tendency towards misogyny. I distinctly recall reading a Livejournal post way back in 2010 about all the death threats fielded by Genevieve Cortese and Danneel Harris, the wives of the two main stars of Supernatural, Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles. Not only were these women receiving a flurry of hate messages, but there was also a particularly unhinged contingent of fans who believed that Genevieve and Danneel were nothing more than beards for Jared and Jensen, who were in a real-life relationship. These beliefs were a direct result of the popularity of the Wincest ship, which paired the actors’ characters, on-screen brothers Dean and Sam Winchester, romantically.

Perhaps this is unsurprising for a show whose first episode violently fridges not one, but two women, in the exact same way. Their awkward, broken bodies, clad in virginal white nightgowns, are plastered against the ceiling, their faces masks of agonized horror as they are engulfed in flames. The first woman to be fridged is Mary Winchester, the boys’ mother, whose death is the raison d’etre of the entire show; with her death, John Winchester, her husband, is driven to revenge, and raises his children to be monster hunters in order to find the demon that murdered their mother. The second death is that of Jessica, Sam’s girlfriend. Sam, who has run away from his monster hunting life to go to college, refuses to return when his brother Dean comes looking for him. But then Jessica is violently killed in the same manner as his mother, and likely by the same culprit, and so Sam is brought back into the fold.

Supernatural never hid its intentions. From the get go, it was all about male angst, male pain, male relationships, to the exclusion of women, who continued to be utterly disposable as the seasons went on.

Still, it’s not difficult to see why the show was such a success, or why I was so compelled by it. It is a triumph of urban fantasy, darkness and misery perfectly balanced with absurd humor, with a heavy focus on Americana and car culture (it’s no surprise that my love for the show decreased exponentially when Sam and Dean found a home in The Bunker and ceased their vagabond lifestyle). Sam and Dean Winchester’s devotion to one another was a kind of brotherly love rarely seen, to the point where it spawned an incestuous ship. The first five seasons were exquisitely plotted, following a planned series arc that fit together in a way that would have established a cult classic had it actually ended then, as it was meant to if not for its popularity.

But women were killed off so often it became a running joke. A fandom aphorism emerged: “Sleep with Sam Winchester and die!” because of the tendency of Sam’s girlfriends to die after they have sex with him, calling upon the unpleasant Death by Sex Trope. The show is not unaware of this: “Have you forgotten the lifespan of your average hookup?” Dean asks his brother. Over the course of the show, approximately eight women die after they sleep with Sam Winchester.

Bela Talbot, a character whose appearance was plagued from the start, when early scripts of her character leaked and fans were dismissive and critical, was a valiant effort on the part of the writers. Bela, who is actually a fantastic character and one of my favorites, was considered by the fans to be overly antagonistic towards Sam and Dean, and they despised her so much that the character was brought back specifically to be violently killed, all to appease the fanbase.

Jo Harvelle was also very poorly received by the fanbase, particularly her will-they-won’t-they dynamic with Dean, which led to her and her mother’s martyr-like death. It seemed any woman who had the temerity to appear on the show, whether as an antagonist or potential love interest, was anathema to the fans; this was even acknowledged by Jensen Ackles, who said that fans wanted the show to be “just about the boys.”

This is not to say that the writers were devoid of their own biases, nor that they were putty at the hands of their fanbase. It’s a kind of chicken and egg situation. Did the writers conjure this kind of fanbase from the start, by packing the show with male leads and fridging female characters? Or did their biases harden as a response to the fanbase who demanded the show remain woman-free? It’s a snake eating its tail.

However, it is impossible to talk about Supernatural in any capacity without acknowledging the relationship between fans and writers. The writers are very aware of their fanbase’s proclivities and often lampshade this on the show in various meta episodes. In 4.18, Sam and Dean discover a series of books written about them (eventually revealed to be written by a prophet who has visions). Though not a popular series, this in-universe Supernatural it still had its fandom, which Sam and Dean discover, prompting the following exchange:

Dean: There’s Sam Girls and Dean Girls and…what’s a slash fan?
Sam: As in Sam slash Dean, together.
Dean: Like together, together? They do know we are brothers, right?
Sam: Doesn’t seem to matter.
Dean: Well, that’s just sick!

In 5.09, Sam and Dean attend a Supernatural convention, with panels such as “The Homoerotic Subtext of Supernatural.” In 6.15, The French Mistake, one of the most bizarre and most hilarious episodes of television I’ve ever witnessed, Sam and Dean are transported into an alternate universe — which is actually our universe — where Supernatural is just a television show and Sam and Dean are played by actors named Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles:

Sam: Look, I’m not saying it makes sense. I’m just saying, we — we landed in some dimension where you’re Jensen Ackles, and I’m something called a ‘Jared Padalecki.’

The episode then proceeds to pepper this world with real-life details: Jensen’s past as a model and soap opera star, Jared’s marriage to Genevieve Cortese, Mischa Collins’ propensity for Twitter. It is completely bonkers and nigh unbelievable but also one of my all-time favorite episodes of probably anything ever. It’s indicative of Supernatural‘s extreme self-awareness as well as its often wacky humor.

Episode 10.05, titled Fan Fiction, has Sam and Dean meeting the teenage writers and cast of Supernatural: The Musical, which is all about subtext and angst and even references ship portmanteaus. The episode pokes fun at itself and the show’s fan’s, but it’s also a sweet kind of homage to its fanbase, even though it’s never quite clear whether the writers are laughing with or at the fans (think of Becky Rosen, introduced as an unhinged Supernatural fan in earlier episodes), or simply humoring them without having to take any responsibility for the intense queerbaiting that has plagued the show since the introduction of the character of the angel Castiel. With 10.05, the writers strove to placate the fans — to humor them — while doing absolutely nothing of real substance.

Which brings me, of course, to the finale.

Most people stopped watching Supernatural very early on, and many more gave up after the initial planned series arc, which ended at season 5, claiming that the quality had simply gotten worse. I could understand that, but as a huge fan of Supernatural‘s Monster of the Week episodes, I was happy to keep bopping along with the seasons. I was a devoted fan all the way until season 11, when the show absolutely jumped the shark by introducing a primordial entity known as The Darkness, later revealed to be God’s sister.

Oh yes, and, the prophet I mentioned earlier, the one who wrote the Supernatural books? Chuck? He is revealed to be God.

This is the point where Supernatural got way too big for its britches. You just…you don’t put God in the story. It may seem like that’s a difficult thing to avoid when your show is about angels and demons and Heaven and Hell, but they managed it ten seasons! It’s one thing to have your characters go up against demons and Leviathans and all kinds of supernatural and mythical beings, but once you pit them up against the literal creator of the universe, things start to get a little ridiculous.

This was also the point where plots, character beats, and entire character arcs started to be recycled. Sam and Dean died and came back multiple times. People died for Sam and Dean. There was lots of angst. The brothers fought and made up. All the main characters were white men. Rinse, repeat, ad nauseum. The show still had its devoted fanbase, so the writers had no motivation to innovate.

But back to the finale and the final few episodes. So, for years, Supernatural had been queerbaiting its fanbase with Dean and Castiel, known as Destiel in fandom spaces like Tumblr, where the fandom thrived as part of the Superwholock triptych (ft. Doctor Who and BBC’s Sherlock). As Tumblr lost much of its userbase (see the Tumblr NSFW Purge of 2018), so too did Supernatural lose much of its cultural relevance.

Until November 5th, 2020.

It was a bizarre night to begin with, as millions of people worldwide awaited the results of the U.S. election. Suddenly, hashtags were flooded with Supernatural and Destiel. It seemed that, right as Georgia seemed to be on the verge of turning blue for the first time in years, and as rumors of Putin’s resignation flooded the internet, Castiel confessed his love to Dean Winchester and was killed off and sent to a super-charged version of Hell. This confluence of events, happening in the Year of Our Lord Pandemic, was just too much: the internet, Tumblr, especially, exploded with memes (browse my Supernatural Tumblr tag to experience some of them).

Was Destiel finally canon? Well, it depended on who you asked. Fans anxiously awaited the finale for follow-up to confirm, only for Castiel’s confession to go completely unacknowledged. He didn’t even appear in the finale at all, even though he’s said to have escaped his Hell-prison, and should have been completely free to visit Dean Winchester, who had died and gone to Heaven. Instead, Dean reunites with his car and his brother.

My feelings towards the Supernatural writers at that point were not so much anger or even frustration but more of a resigned bewilderment at their bizarre narrative choices. Any discerning viewer knows that the heart and core of this show has always been the brotherly bond between Dean and Sam Winchester, so it is unsurprising that in the end, the show highlights this, and has the brothers reuniting and hugging it out with the Impala in the background. But then, why have Castiel confess his feelings at all? What was the point? I can only imagine that the writers just wanted to draw attention to the show before the finale aired, in order to boost their ratings. One last queerbait, one last cash grab.

This isn’t really about Destiel or queerbaiting or shipping or fandom entitlement (though it is of course also about all of those things). It’s about craft. Because what we have here, when all is said and done, is bad writing. It’s just one nonsensical creative decision after another, culminating in a finale that was emotionally stunted and generally unfulfilling. After fifteen years with this show, the fans deserved better than this hack job.

4 thoughts on “Goodbye, My Wayward Sons: A Supernatural Retrospective”

  1. Hadeer this is an EXCELLENT take. I did not actually watch Supernatural for the last five years of its run (it simply was… bad by that point), and I hadn’t thought about in it just as long, but because of Nov 5th, I watched the finale with my friends. And we were 100% sure it WAS just one final queerbait and we were just going to have fun looking at the memes, but like… we still watched it. The memes of November 5th were absolutely incredible but I think whatever just happened on Supernatural is genuinely a fascinating cultural phenomenon. Using queerbaiting to sustain your show works, apparently.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. ahhhh thank you Elle! Nice to know that at least one person has read this haha!

      I totally agree; Supernatural is such a fascinating cultural phenomenon. Like aside from whether it’s a good or bad show, objectively, the way it motivates fandom is so intriguing. Like what is it about it that draws people to it so intensely despite all of us acknowledging that it is Bad Actually? Is it its length? The back and forth between fans and writers? The characters? The queerbaiting? The controversy? The occasional EXCELLENT episode in a sea of terrible ones?

      But yeah, re: Castiel, I’m being cynical, but I’m certain the writers just wanted to draw attention to their finale, and they did it RIGHT. I can’t imagine what the ratings must have been for those final few episodes!


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