The Supernatural finale “Carry On” aired a year ago today on the CW. To say that reviews were mixed would be an understatement of epic proportions. Here, one fan tries to make sense of how things have changed in this first year without the show.
It doesn’t seem possible that an entire year has passed since the Supernatural finale, and yet it feels like we’ve lived through at least a decade of world events since then. Time is an illusion, etc. The sheer volume and speed with which everything happens so much has only increased in the pandemic, and nowhere more so than in fandom and on social media.
But the year we’ve been through has been tough for all of us, and certainly for me personally, so I’m more in my feelings than usual. So bear with me as I try to come to grips with what’s become of the legacy of a show that wormed its way into my life six years ago.
By Supernatural’s fifteen-year fandom standards, six years in the trenches isn’t quite enough of a veteran to remember the early Livejournal or Tumblr days, but I’ve been around the block enough times to be able to give a newbie a rundown of every major fandom drama of the show’s final era. I wasn’t expecting to become part of the SPNFamily as it’s known – I didn’t even know what a fandom was when I blew through the show’s entire run in a matter of months and caught up with the live airing of the end of season 11. I skirted around the edges of social media, peeping on tweets, reading interviews, watching convention videos, until finally joining Twitter in November 2016. And then, as they say, it was all over.
Why Supernatural? To this day I can’t answer that question. I can tell you that my brother recommended it to me, knowing that I loved The X-Files, knowing that I was at home with small babies and needed a distraction. But I can’t tell you why this story about two brothers and their angel friend criss-crossing America hunting monsters and dealing with the occasional apocalypse became an essential part of my identity when I’d never related to a piece of media in a fandom-like way before.
I do know that when the Supernatural finale aired on November 19, 2020 (that’s one year ago today!) I went into mourning. A year later, I wonder how I’ve even managed without the schedule of regular episodes to mark the passage of time. But I think what I’m realizing now is that it’s not so much the show itself that I miss – although if they announced tomorrow that Sam, Dean, and Cas were coming back for more adventures, I’d go back to getting up at 2am to watch them live, no questions asked. The lack of new canon content isn’t what I’m truly mourning though.
Because the Supernatural fandom is the way it is, I should declare myself up front as an unapologetic and enthusiastic Destiel (the relationship between Dean Winchester and Castiel, angel of the Lord) shipper. The online Destiel community is mostly wonderful, warm, welcoming, funny, creative, passionate, and long-suffering. There is not enough space here to get into erstwhile fandom politics, but let’s just say that Destiel shippers have not always had the easiest time of it around these parts. The history of Destiel, on screen and off, is a one-of-a-kind saga, and the handling of this ship has launched a thousand controversies in the Supernatural fandom and the wider internet.
So when Castiel finally, unbelievably, in the 325th episode of the show’s 327 episode run, confessed his love to Dean in order to fulfil the terms of a “true happiness” curse and save Dean’s life, immediately to be taken to his doom by the being known as the Empty, it was a stunning validation not only of those of us Destiel shippers who had read the subtext and enjoyed the chemistry between actors Jensen Ackles and Misha Collins, but also of Supernatural’s significant queer fanbase – of which there is much crossover, naturally. It was a carefully written and lovingly shot coming-out scene for the ages.
The explosion of communal joy and pent-up emotion on November 5th, 2020 (or 6th, for those of us watching in the middle of the night in Europe) was like nothing I’d ever experienced. I was happy for myself, happy for my friends, happy for Castiel getting to speak his truth and be free. We trended for days. The American presidential election and Vladimir Putin were somehow involved. We were unhinged. We were feral. Former members of fandom came back to rejoice with us, casual observers went from “that show is still on?” to “the hot angel is gay?” while some insisted (and still do! To! This! Day!) that Castiel’s “I love you” was meant to be platonic.
Collins himself posted about how proud he felt watching his own performance in the scene and we cried. Robert Berens, the episode’s writer and unofficial patron saint of Destiel, took to Twitter and directly clapped back at Destiel-hating Supernatural fans who were upset about the moral implications of the confession. What a time to be alive.
And then… the Supernatural finale. It is the rare episode of the show that I have only watched twice, and the second time was under duress (I had to talk about it on my podcast.) Calling the episode a disappointment doesn’t do justice to the creeping horror I felt as the final minutes of my favorite show flashed before my eyes. I remember sitting on my sofa at 3am staring at the screen as the credits rolled for the last time, my only thought a single, solitary, “WTF.”
We know that the COVID-19 pandemic had a huge and negative impact on the shooting of the show’s last two episodes. COVID hit in earnest in early March 2020, just as Supernatural’s Vancouver-based cast and crew finished shooting episode 18 (with Castiel’s confession and death) and production was shut down for about six months.
Supernatural was one of the very first shows to restart filming under new health and safety protocols, but many of the cast and crew had already booked their next jobs when they went back to finish a show some had worked on for 15 years. We’ll never know what sort of changes really happened behind the scenes, but thanks to script leaks and actor commentary, we do know more or less the bones of the pre-COVID ending, and it wasn’t wildly different in terms of plot lines.
But what aired – the stripped back, COVID-adapted Supernatural finale – ended up including three (!) musical montages, an eight-minute death scene, almost no major (or minor) characters, two different versions of the same song used back-to-back, and a bewildering last shot of the maskless cast and crew congratulating themselves on a job well done. WTF indeed.
Everything about the Supernatural finale reeked of compromise. The found family that had been the bedrock of the show’s narrative was nowhere to be seen, the Winchesters’ last hurrah seemingly validating the old-school “brothers only” lens that the show had spent the last four seasons, at least, railing against at every turn. Season 13, for example, saw “alone together” become Sam and Dean’s new rock bottom. But in the finale, whether intentional or not (I don’t believe it was), the damage was done.
Castiel, the brothers’ best friend, companion, and staunchest ally for more than a decade, disappeared from the story apart from a two-word reference that at least let us know he got out of the Empty (how, why, or where he ended up were left unanswered).
Misha Collins, the actor who played everyone’s favorite angel and the show’s third lead, didn’t appear at all in the last two episodes. It was a betrayal of what so many, myself included, had believed to be the show’s central thesis: that the Winchester brothers couldn’t go it alone, that they needed more than just being stuck with each other to be happy. You know. “Family don’t end in blood.”
Instead Dean died with only his brother by his side, while Sam lived an empty life with a faceless wife and unfortunately named son. In the newly redesigned Heaven, supposedly all of the boys’ loved ones were present but none were seen, apart from beloved father figure Bobby, while Dean seemingly did nothing but drive around waiting for Sam to join him after he died of old age in one of the worst wigs ever seen on television.
It felt phoned in, a truly shocking vibe from a group of people who have always exceeded expectations from day one. Perhaps they tried to make everyone happy, but in the end no one was. The fandom imploded after the Supernatural finale aired, starkly divided between those who defended everything about the ending and those who hated and felt traumatized by it, drowning out anyone whose opinions resided somewhere in the middle. We lashed out at each other in our grief, instead of coming together to take comfort in our shared sadness. It was an awful, heartbreaking thing to witness. It was absolutely devastating to be part of.
No one creatively involved with the show has addressed the fallout from the finale, apart from Collins who has been willing to engage in dialogue with fans about Destiel and about his character’s fate. But could any other show confirm that a lead character is indeed queer and in love with another lead character and then literally never mention it again, onscreen or off? Even Collins has walked back his early, definitive comments about Castiel’s “homosexual declaration of love” to say that the meaning of what happened is “open to interpretation.”
This steady erosion of what was a spectacular and definitive moment in Supernatural’s long history has only added to feelings of betrayal and disappointment among the show’s significant queer fanbase. The stony silence from the network and the show’s executive producers – even after the Spanish Dub, my God, the fucking Spanish dub! – has left us to fill the vacuum with speculation and bonkers conspiracy theories. But I’d better not mention that or the CW sniper will get me.
But the point – what I’m finally getting to – is that I could have moved on after the Supernatural finale, especially about Destiel. There are 100,000 ways for me to reimagine Dean and Cas being in love and happy together on AO3. We are a gloriously prolific fandom and the fan fiction and art created since the finale have been a balm to the soul. The show itself, despite actually being very good, better than it needed to be, has always fallen short of what I truly wanted. Why would the ending be any different?
The Supernatural finale had me questioning everything I thought I knew about the show. If they thought this was the best way to end the story, to do justice to the monumental accomplishment of fifteen years on television, to give the fans and the characters the ending they deserved? THIS is what they thought we wanted? To someone who’s spent years analyzing story arcs and devouring meta commentary, very little of their choices made sense. But. If I squint really hard, it’s not so bad. Sam, Dean, and Cas are “alive” in Heaven together. They’re together and they’re done fighting. That’s all I ever wanted for Team Free Will. I don’t like it, but I can live with it.
But there is something I can’t forgive, and that’s the disintegration of the fandom. The SPN Family can pull together and move mountains in the name of helping one of our own, and give tirelessly to help anyone, anywhere, if they need it. It’s what we’re known for. On a personal level, I found a community that accepted me, no questions asked, and I even came to terms with my own bisexuality with the help of some subtext and some very perceptive friends. It’s not an exaggeration to say that I wouldn’t be who I am without this community. This place means everything to me. And it just isn’t what it used to be.
Of course it was inevitable that things would change. No fandom can maintain the same level of engagement when a show ends. But the bitterness and toxicity of the past year was avoidable. Many fans were so upset by either one of their favorite character’s deaths, or the whole ending itself, that they left the fandom. Others have been harassed and bullied – on all “sides,” by all “sides.” But more generally, there’s a feeling that our safe space isn’t safe anymore. Opinions aren’t safe and there’s no good faith. Everything is tense and fraught all of the time, and I just don’t know how to talk to people.
And that – that – is what I am mourning. During the show’s run, watching episodes live, or following con weekends, was always a chance to communicate with everyone in public spaces in fandoms, casually crashing each other’s threads and making new friends. We all engaged about what was going on, and it was not perfect or drama free, but it was a hell of a lot better than this exhausted battlefield that has all sorts of lines drawn in the sand all over the place, some of which I barely understand.
I’ve put a lot of distance between myself and fandom in the year since the Supernatural finale. I used to be a regular tweeter, constantly checking in and DMing with friends about whatever the latest theory was. I started a podcast. I wrote fan fiction. I don’t do any of those things anymore. In January, I grudgingly started a rewatch of the whole series with friends, but I no longer feel the same compulsion to watch an episode whenever I get the chance. But I’m trying to get back to a place where I feel comfortable and good interacting with Supernatural. It means too much to me to abandon it completely.
As we mark one year since America’s longest-running genre show went off the air, I want to talk about another recent anniversary – one that felt much more celebratory. On November 5, 2021, much of the fandom came together to celebrate Castiel’s love confession and coming out. Because that’s what it was, and no amount of gaslighting will change what really happened. We trended again, because that’s what we do.
None of the actors, writers, or producers acknowledged that anniversary. But as fans shared their memories of that day, as they spoke about what Castiel’s words meant to them, as we rejoiced in the idea of a divine and eternal being falling in love with a flawed but perfect man, I thought maybe we weren’t done, and maybe there would never be peace, but there would still be love.
This article was written by Subjectify contributor Liliana Luper.