15 years of Supernatural, what now?
On the 13th of September 2005, the first episode of Supernatural aired in the US. This new show wanted to bring the horror genre to mainstream television and in doing so faced a challenge that many before had lost. Two years later, the show started airing in Italy too and from that moment on, its popularity seemed undefeatable.
Before we begin, I would like to warn our readers that this review will be a little more intense and personal than my other pieces. This show has been a part of my life for such a long time and in such a deep way that it would be impossible for me to distance myself from it, and that might result in some very strong and specific opinions that not everyone might agree with or even understand.
In addition, this article contains some mild spoilers that will be hidden behind a black rectangle. To view them, all you need to do is select the text.
After losing their mother as young children, Sam and Dean Winchester were “raised to be soldiers” by their emotionally distant father. He taught them everything he knew about the paranormal evils that hide in the dark corners and back roads of America, and how to kill them. The series Supernatural follows the Winchester brothers in their journey through the desolate and mysterious back roads of the country on their ’67 Chevy Impala, hunting every dark supernatural force that crosses their path.
Starting from the end
On the 20th of November 2020, after a long process made even more difficult by the current pandemic, Supernatural came to an end.
Against all odds, the show managed to last 15 whole years and, regardless of your opinion on the quality, the last episode brought back very strong emotions in a lot of people, even those who had decided to stop watching it years prior. I am one of those people.
In December 2015, after having watched Supernatural for almost ten years, I decided that I’d had enough. At the time, Supernatural was already on its tenth season and many thought that it would also be its last. A few weeks before I decided to stop watching it, however, Supernatural was renewed for an eleventh season.
That was exactly the reason for my change of heart. Even then, in my opinion, Supernatural had gone through a decline in quality that, despite my intense love for the characters and the stories it tried to tell, was becoming exhausting. The only reason I hadn’t decided to stop watching it earlier was that the tenth season was supposed to be the last one, and it was important to me to know how it was going to end.
About one month ago, circumstances changed.
I’d known for almost a year that the fifteenth season would be the last and, even though I was reluctant to give the show another chance, the knowledge that I might finally know how it really ended pushed me into rewatching the whole series so I could finally experience the end of the story as it happened. I’m now wondering whether that was the right choice.
The entire idea behind Supernatural came from a single person: Eric Kripke.
Kripke began his pitch with the idea of bringing to the screen an epic journey – the likes of The Lord of The Rings or even Star Wars – that could bring into the spotlight an intrinsically American experience that goes much deeper than the usual bland Hollywood fare that reaches us on the other side of the pond.
Furthermore, Kripke had a specific plan for the story which was supposed to only last five years and that began and ended with a reflection of the Christian myth of Cain and Abel.
Even though Kripke’s intention might have originally seemed ambitious, its execution – a story contained in its entirety in the first five seasons of the show – had a sense of cohesion and coherence that almost all fans of Supernatural agree to describe as the golden years of the show.
So after losing their mom and being taught how to hunt by their dad, these two ridiculously good-looking brothers criss-cross middle America searching for the supernatural (duh) and destroying it.
Throughout the series, we meet a lot of monsters that are common elements of the horror genre: ghosts, ghouls, vampires, werewolves as well as some Native American folklore sprinkled in for authenticity. But if the initial mythology of Supernatural seems pretty basic, things get a little more complicated in later seasons when entities like demons, angels, and a whole lot of creatures that come from worldwide folklore are introduced, not to mention a good amount of pagan deities, which are handled with varying degrees of sensitivity.
The introduction of these elements makes it possible for the story to ask deeper philosophical questions. The existence of gods and goddesses that go beyond the Christian tradition that the main characters are bound to, in particular, challenges the concepts of destiny and free will and the preconceived notions that the characters themselves seem to hold, together with the contraposition between the roles they’ve been given and their desire to rebel against them.
The characters bring with them versatility and a deep understanding of literary tropes. Sam Winchester is introduced to the story as the rebel son, the second child who rejects his father’s expectations and seems to bring a rational point of view to the hidden emotionality displayed by Dean, the firstborn who never questions family even when it ends up hurting him. The clash between Sam’s desire for freedom from the “family business” and Dean’s near idolisation of their father and his teachings is explored through the early seasons, as both brothers grasp desperately in starkly different ways at their single shared desire for Family.
The core of Supernatural
Beyond its deceivingly simple premise (the heroes hunt monsters -> the heroes win against the monsters -> the heroes move the hunt to a new city, rinse and repeat), the success of Supernatural has arguably been the wide array of much deeper subjects it explores, that no one was expecting from its monster-of-the-week basis.
Sam and Dean Winchester, together with the many other characters that come and go throughout their journey, are part of a very accurate portrayal of several complex subjects such: mental illness, PTSD, alcoholism and broader addiction, suicidal tendencies, toxic masculinity, unwillingness to change, the consumerist-capitalist American war machine, familial relationships, free will, the meaning of destiny and fate, family expectations and many more.
If the first five seasons do a decent job of dealing with said subjects, there’s another side to the show that needs considering. How do you satisfactorily continue a show beyond its original plan?
Supernatural in 2020
It cannot be said that the aforementioned themes ceased to exist the moment Kripke left Supernatural. The more serious undertones that the characters face never leave Supernatural‘s story. The problem, however, is that the way the subjects are dealt with seems to have stayed in 2010.
During my 2020 rewatch, it became increasingly obvious to me that the problems I had originally ignored or explained away due to a love of the show were not only more problematic when viewed from my more morally developed position, but that the show itself had neither changed nor moved on in its treatment of sensitive topics.
Supernatural has always had a problem with its female characters and its characters of colour. The women of Supernatural, especially the recurring ones who dare show any sort of vulnerability, often end in tragedy. Mary Winchester (played by Samantha Smith), Ellen and Jo Harvelle (played respectively by Samantha Ferris and Alona Tal), Jessica Moore (played by Adrianne Palicki). All women who die horribly to further Sam and Dean’s story in the first five seasons of the show. Mary and Jess both die in the pilot episode in a classic example of the “Disposable Woman” trope. A fate that is shared just as much by its characters of colour and its LGBTQ+ characters. Castiel (played by Misha Collins), who entered Supernatural in season four and whose death mere seconds after a tearful love confession to Dean almost broke the internet when the episode aired on November 5th. At the same time, however, the show seems to go to great lengths to redeem its most villainous and evil characters as long as they’re white, straight, and male, without ever really making them deal with the consequences of their actions. The women are punished, the men are forgiven with a pat on the back.
It’s frustrating to see that kind of flaw, especially when, in its deepest core, Supernatural brings forth an emotionally impressive story. What’s even more infuriating as a fan is realising that every time a new subject gets introduced, it then gets treated with a superficiality and inconclusiveness that get increasingly more exhausting to try and justify.
Supernatural seems unable, especially but not limited to season six onwards, of treating its characters in a conscious manner. Everything is used as a momentary instrument to move the plot along and becomes almost immediately forgotten. Monumental plot points like Dean’s suicidal tendencies or the huge weight on Sam’s shoulders of rebelling against his destructive fate are treated like insignificant asides to fridge after a couple of episodes and bring back out whenever they’re useful again. As if these emotional tolls have no consequences on the characters and how they live and interact with the world around them.
In my opinion, a big part of the reason for this failure is that after the fifth season, Supernatural lost most of its heart and consistency.
Back in 2005, it was very unlikely for a horror TV show to succeed in the way Supernatural did. In the current hectic and crowded TV landscape, where it’s almost impossible for a show to get renewed for more than three or four seasons, it feels like Supernatural has wasted the opportunity it had to tell such an extended story.
All the themes it had brought forward up to that moment, all the existential questions, the opinions that it had expressed, could have been explored in renewed depth thanks to the prolonged presence on the television landscape that it was given. Instead, from season six onward, the myriad of writers and directors fell into the classic trap of thinking that every subsequent season needed to be Bigger! Badder! and More Apocalyptic! Forgetting in doing so the basic essentials that had given such a great start to Supernatural and garnered such a devoted fanbase.
After all the criticism I just made, you might be asking why come back? Why, after five years would I try and forget all the frustration and disappointment that made me walk away and not only start back up, but start again from the beginning? Simply put, love.
Because Supernatural was always made of people who loved it.
Supernatural was born from an idea made of love, an idea of adventure and family that, despite the difficulties the characters had to face, had never wavered. A family that had passed beyond the screen, through its cast and crew, and out towards its audience. To put it in words, using what is perhaps the most beloved quote from the show: Family Don’t End With Blood.
Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles, who play Sam and Dean respectively, have always been very open about their love for the characters they played. It would be hard not to connect to someone that was your life for fifteen years. Misha Collins, who played the Angel Castiel and almost immediately became a fan favourite both on and off the screen, has also been very vocal on the subject. Throughout the years their strong and positive support became a core strength of Supernatural. Their passion was definitely a guiding force on the international following the show garnered.
It’s not entirely far-fetched to assume that the only reason Supernatural managed to survive as long as it did is the sometimes near-rabid force with which its fans supported it.
Even though most seasons after the fifth one are a mess of sub-plots and an interminable quantity of filler episodes – the seventh season is inconclusive and anticlimactic, the eighth is a boring disaster with too many filler episodes, the ninth is downright hard to watch, just to mention a few -, the show has always been just good enough to make walking away from it almost impossible.
Rewatching it all in three weeks very easily reminded me of all the reasons why I had loved it and made it depressingly obvious how much – despite the demonstrability of the importance that the most passionate fans had in its success – the “powers that be” behind the show hate said fans.
The fandom, those who have never once faltered since the first day, has never shied away from expressing exactly what they thought of the show, what they expected from it, and what they would have gladly done without. While I agree that the creators of a specific story shouldn’t submit to the desires of the audience, when it comes to Supernatural‘s problems, the conversation is slightly more complicated.
Supernatural‘s problems go way beyond narrative minutiae; they’re often an open wound that lasts throughout multiple seasons and as much as a network might want to distance itself from them, it is simply impossible for a 15-year-long show not to engage in some way with the conversation being had in the fan base. Speaking from a fan perspective, what appeared to happen with Supernatural in the later series was that the showrunners often baited the fans as part of empty promises. For example, if we go back to the internet-breaking episode, s15.e18. Almost since his arrival on the show, a large subsection of the fandom have been very vocal about their desire for the relationship between Castiel and Dean to evolve into a romantic one. Originally treated as little more than a joke, the “powers that be” then engaged in a years-long campaign of queerbaiting that culminated in the scene the fans had been waiting for. Castiel confessed, out loud and unambiguously, his romantic love for Dean… and seconds later was banished to The Empty, a kind of hell within hell. It was the fastest “Bury Your Gays” the internet may have ever seen.
Regardless of your feelings on the matter of Destiel, (this treatment was one already mirrored in the storylines of innumerable other characters in the show) for a group of fans who have always blindly supported the show and given it a chance, to have the writers turn around and pull such a stunt was disappointing at best and overtly malicious at worst. The fandom has always been forgiving, have for years bitten their tongues and given their trust and told themselves “This is better than nothing, at least they’re trying.” To them, s15.e18 was the last in a series of doors slammed in their faces.
There was something magical in the first third of Supernatural‘s story. The seasons from one to five built the groundwork that granted the show the love that it managed to inspire. With Kripke‘s exit, there was an obvious decline in quality that nobody could deny, but it’s only starting in season eleven that the situation became tragic.
I have no idea why, I can’t even begin to theorize what might be the reason for such a choice, but from season eleven onward, it seemed that all the directors wanted to do with Supernatural was unravel everything that had made it lovable.
The writers, the directors, the network? It’s impossible to say who bears the responsibility, but whoever it was started a crusade of erasing everything that made Supernatural what it was and that culminated in a series finale it would be generous to call disappointing, and much more accurate to say that it awoke in me, personally, a rage that I never thought I could experience toward a fictional story. It is in itself a testament of Supernatural that even after fifteen years, it can still elicit such strong emotions.
Even with all the anger that I have often displayed while talking about this show in real life with the people around me and in this review specifically, the biggest thing I’m left with after the last episode is the enormous feeling of sorrow that comes with watching something I had loved so much get steadily, increasingly worse and lose everything that made it charming and gave it meaning to me.
It is unfair that much of this burden falls back on the actors who were part of it, who gave so much to the show only to be repaid so little. When a story ends this badly, it ends up inevitably staining many of the positive emotions that distinguished it.
Now, at this exact moment, it’s very hard for me to overcome the bitterness of a disappointing ending, but I hope that in time, what’ll be left for me, and for any other fans who share these feelings, will be having found in Supernatural‘s shared experience new friendships, new understandings, and new stories.
It might seem like a huge demonstration of hubris to openly say it; but the betrayal I feel toward the way Supernatural ended is due to the fact that I feel entitled to say that Supernatural was mine too and as such, it was stolen from me.
Supernatural was mine. Supernatural was of every fan who watched it from the first day and never stopped, unlike me. Supernatural was of the actors who made it good. It was Jared Padalecki’s, who has it to thank for a huge part of his life, Jensen Ackles’ who, rather than finding vindication in knowing that maybe his initial opinion of the ending wasn’t all that wrong, is most likely just feeling remorse. Misha Collins’ who made a huge contribution to its success and only got crumbs in return from those he trusted to faithfully tell the story. Supernatural was only briefly the directors’, the network’s, the writers’, and that is exactly why the ending stings so bad.
Fans were told that after all, Supernatural was never ours, but it is a lie. Supernatural is ours, and we’re the ones who decide the ways in which it is ours.
This article wouldn’t be what it is without the invaluable input by one S. Noakes, who not only gave her free time to make sure that it would be legible, but also made some essential additions that furthered the points of this review.
Thank you, S.!
1993, bisexual. Split between drawing and writing. Too many ideas not to waste a few. Amateur translator.
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