“Freedom is a length of rope. God wants you to hang yourself with it.” – Castiel, Supernatural S6E20 “The Man Who Would Be King”
Content Warning: frequent usage of the word “queer” and mentions of suicide.
On November 19th, some two million people around the world sat down to watch the final episode of the CW’s Supernatural, my favorite 15-season long, pseudo-religious horror-fantasy soap opera. Fans were excited to see our beloved characters one last time, waiting for the final loose threads to be tied off, and anticipating a complete, if bittersweet, ending to the show.
Instead, I’m here, trying desperately to figure out what went wrong.
The final season has been fairly well reviewed, particularly by fans, who were delighted by the meta-narrative of the season’s villain—the returning character of God (or “Chuck”, played by Rob Benedict), as a sort-of stand-in for the writers in a metaphor about free will. It was a wonderful way to say goodbye to the characters as they fight to write their own story and find meaning.
The penultimate episode, “Inherit the Earth,” followed the Winchesters finally defeating Chuck and giving the power of God to Jack (Alexander Calvert), their adopted son. It was a fitting end to the Season 15 arc that would now allow the series finale, “Carry On,” to say a thorough, fulfilling goodbye to Sam (Jared Padalecki) and Dean (Jensen Ackles) without the threat of an apocalypse hanging overhead.
Instead, we got a disaster. Themes were abandoned, character arcs were torn to shreds; the writing was trite and confusing and TWO versions of “Carry On Wayward Son” were played back-to-back.
What, on Jack’s green Earth, happened to Supernatural?
Sam & Eileen
“Carry On” was so bad it managed to commit the world’s first heterosexual hate crime in whatever they did to Eileen (and the second by putting Jared Padalecki in that wig).
Eileen Leahy (Shoshannah Stern) was a fellow “hunter” (monster-hunter) introduced in Season 11. Not only was she one of only a handful of actually well-rounded women on the show, but she was also Supernatural’s first deaf character. Stern (also Spn’s first deaf actress!) played her with a delightful sense of humor and heart that instantly made her a fan favorite. Eileen returned a few times, only to be killed in Season 12 to invoke some man-pain for Sam. Fans were quick to call out the show for “fridging” Eileen (a term used in media criticism to describe the way women are often killed off to motivate/sadden/develop a man’s character), but she stayed dead until her resurrection this last Season.
Eileen was brought back in S15E6 to thunderous applause from fans, both as a beloved character in her own right and as a potential love interest for Sam, with whom she’d had crazy chemistry in her previous appearances. The scene where Eileen gets her body back after wandering around as a ghost after her return is one of the most beautifully shot, loving moments in the series.
It was clear from a narrative standpoint that she would be there through the end, finding her own peace by establishing a relationship (and potentially a family) with Sam, and helping him achieve his own. Both of their characters’ arcs would have benefited by being safe and loved. In S15E9, “The Trap,” Eileen’s body is taken over by Chuck and she is forced to torture Sam. At the end of the episode, Eileen tells Sam she needs to go away for a while, exclaiming “I don’t know what’s real anymore.” They kiss for the first time, and he says to her in return “I know that was real.” (Remember this moment for later.) Eileen gives him a knowing smile and walks out the door.
And is never seen again.
No, for real. Eileen is mentioned a few episodes later, when Sam takes her out on a date (off-screen) and it’s implied that they sleep together (also off-screen, and might I say, what a crime it was that we were not privy to that interaction). In S15E18 “Despair,” when Chuck is killing everyone on Earth, Eileen disappears mid-text (off-screen) before Sam can get to her. Sam takes a moment to grieve, then shoves it down and he and Jack drive away in her abandoned car. She is not even mentioned for the rest of the show.
It gets worse. Halfway through the finale, Dean dies, and Sam is left alone. Not only does Sam not even call Eileen, he lives out the rest of his life in a five minute montage, featuring a hilariously monogrammed-overalls-wearing child named “Dean;” the ugliest grey Party City wig $5 can buy; and a now infamous faceless blurry blonde wife in the background of one shot (check out “sams-blurry-wife” on Tumblr for some well-deserved giggles). Sam dies of old age to a Neoni cover of “Carry On Wayward Son” (played IMMEDIATELY following the original version of the song) and meets Dean on a bridge in heaven. Fade to black.
It would be impossible to read the writers’ minds when they came up with this borderline hilarious ending. Presumably, they wanted to return to the “two brothers one road” situation that started the whole show, but that’s not all Supernatural is anymore, and to imply that returning to the beginning of the story would be narratively satisfying ignores the entire central theme of the show.
Sam’s whole storyline has revolved around wanting to find his own place in the world—first, by abandoning hunting to go to college, then by discovering fulfillment in the hunter’s life; by becoming a leader in later seasons and eventually through his love for Eileen. Dean, the obedient son, had to learn to let go of the mythological images he had of his parents and seek his own life. Sam, the rebellious son, had to forgive himself for abandoning his blood family to discover joy and self-forgiveness in the arms of chosen family.
Found family has always been at the heart of this story. Yes, the show began with two brothers and yes, they are the emotional core of the plot, but their relationships to the people they chose are the only thing that moves the narrative forward. Fan favorites like Cas, Bobby, Charlie, and Kevin were the boys’ family. Stated explicitly by Bobby as Dean and Sam try to leave him behind for Dean’s self-sacrifice at the end of Season 3: “Family don’t end with blood, boy.”
Sam and Dean clung desperately to each other throughout the show in a myriad of unhealthy ways. Sam learning to let Dean go in death has been played out over and over again—in Season 4, when Sam shirks the pain by hooking up with Ruby, in Season 8, when he chooses to settle down with a girl and a dog, in Season 10, when he drives himself near-mad searching for Demon!Dean and Crowley.
Over the past few years, the brothers have learned to treat each other as human beings and respect their differences. Since Season 13, they’ve talked about retiring; Sam has mentioned settling down with someone who understands their life; he led an army of hunters in Season 14 in Dean’s absence. Sam even grew a beard at the top of Season 14, as visual shorthand for “he is his own person now.” When Dean comes back and tells Sam he hates the beard, Sam shaves it. They’re not quite there yet.
So now we come around to Season 15, and the narrative revolves around seeking free will—what it means to make your own choices. Sam and Eileen are clearly falling for each other, and it’s looking like Sam will finally have love and peace at the end of the show. Then Dean dies, and the plot comes to a halting stop. Like a pileup at a traffic circle.
Sam’s entire life is suddenly devoted to grieving Dean. Gone is his will to pursue his own dreams, the love of his life, and his ability to lead. The audience gets no information as to his occupation, his hobbies, or his joys. All we get is that he devoted his remaining years to raising a son named Dean and sitting in the Impala in the garage as a sad, old man. He dies surrounded by photoshopped pictures of only his blood relatives and with his son at his side. When he meets Dean in heaven again, nothing has changed. For Dean it’s only been like five minutes, for god’s sake.
There is no purpose, no thematic point to Dean dying and Sam living an apple-pie life; the plot unfolds the same way it would have if this had happened in Season 1. If the point is “you have to move on without the people you love,” then they’ve done that about twenty million times on this show, and furthermore, Sam clearly didn’t get to move on. He is reduced to the repentant, remorseful 22 year-old from the pilot who abandoned his family to go to college and let his girlfriend be murdered by a demon. When Sam tries to get away, he’s just pulled right back. The show may as well not have happened at all.
And poor, poor Eileen. We thought you’d be safe as the newly-resurrected love interest of a straight white man, but no! There is no logical conclusion as to her absence from the last episode. Even if they couldn’t get Shoshannah Stern, there’s no reason the extra playing Blurry Wife couldn’t have had dark brown hair, or that Sam couldn’t have signed something to her so the audience would know it’s Eileen. She is simply erased from the narrative, as though she had never existed. It’s the final regression of the finale to its woman-less, found-family-less Season 1 state. Sam is only allowed to mourn Dean, which demands clumsily cutting Eileen from the narrative with jagged scissors.
I also want to acknowledge that with no story-related reason, the only speculation fans can come to was that the decision was rooted in ableism—that the writers never actually intended to let Sam settle down with a deaf woman. We can’t know that was the case, but we also have no evidence to the contrary, and it is, unfortunately, not uncommon in Hollywood. Either way, my heart goes out to all the disabled fans who loved Eileen and were heartbroken by the finale. You deserved so much better.
Alright, I know why you’re all really here. You want to hear about Destielgate.
“Destiel,” as I’m sure you all know, is the wildly popular ship between Dean and Castiel (Misha Collins). Here we have a human who, in Cas’s own words, doesn’t think he “deserved to be saved,” and a four billion year-old being of celestial intent, suddenly struck with a singular purpose—to save one man.
Forgetting the fact of the bonkers-level chemistry between Ackles and Collins (the only reason Cas wasn’t killed off three episodes in, like he was supposed to be) and borderline-explicitly romantic plot lines, it’s easy to see how Castiel, to many fans, was coded as a queer character.
Cas comes from a strict religious upbringing. He is only freed from that when he first has a serious relationship (of whatever sort) with another man. Hell, the narrative goes so far as to make it a plot point in Season 8 that Cas has nearly rebelled against Heaven before, and every time he does, the other angels literally lobotomize him. In a flashback we discover he once came to Earth in a woman’s body. Many people were hoping the show would be brave enough to take a step towards textual queerness before it ended.
In Season 14, in order to save Jack’s life, Cas promises his own life to the “Empty,” a being/place where angels and demons go when they die. The Empty, who has clearly seen Buffy the Vampire Slayer, agrees to the deal, on the condition that it will take Cas when Cas experiences a moment of true happiness (speaking of, just… go do yourselves a favor and watch Angel).
Flash forward to S15E18: “Despair,” and all the Winchesters’ friends are dying. In a moment of desperation Dean and Cas go to confront Billie (or, Death, played by Lisa Berry), who they believe to be the one responsible. Billie, angry that Dean mortally injured her at the beginning of the episode, chases Cas and Dean through the bunker. In a moment of brilliant visual storytelling, Billie takes a grip on Dean’s heart as she stalks the men, Castiel half-carrying Dean to safety in the Winchesters’ dungeon. Cas cuts his hand to draw a sigil on the door, revitalizing Dean’s heart and keeping Billie temporarily at bay as she knocks: the cold, ever-present countdown to death.
They try to think of a way to defeat Billie, and Cas remembers the Empty deal. The Empty, in true deus-ex-machina fashion, not only hates Billie but is the only thing powerful enough to defeat her. As Cas explains the deal to Dean for the first time, Cas begins to smile. Slowly, through tears, Cas tells Dean everything he learned from him: most importantly—how to love. Dean and Cas step closer together and Cas finally allows himself one moment of true happiness by saying: “I love you.” The Empty is summoned; it takes Billie. Cas knocks Dean down to safety, offering him one last smile before being consumed by the Empty. Dean is left gasping on the floor with nothing but Cas’s bloody handprint on his shoulder.
It’s a beautiful scene. Jensen Ackles and Misha Collins are magnificent, but Collins deserves considerable praise as we see the rare truly emotional breakthrough (and smile!) from Castiel. The episode ends with Dean sobbing on the floor, ignoring calls from his brother—the person he puts before everything—as he mourns Cas.
And, if you’re sensing a pattern, Cas’s confession is never mentioned again.
Here’s the thing: on Supernatural, death is rarely ever the end. Particularly for its leads. Cas has died at least three times off the top of my head, and already escaped the Empty once this season. Clearly the writers wanted his final sacrifice to have weight, but not only does Dean never speak about Cas in a non-expository way ever again, but the fact that Dean’s best friend of 12 years (and one of the show’s leads) just confessed his love to him is never mentioned again. Even if Dean didn’t return Cas’s feelings, his silence is baffling, given the lengths he has gone to to revive his best friend in the past. It’s out-of-character at best, shady at worst.
While Cas’s death fits an exhausting pattern on this show, if it had happened independently of all the other queer deaths I would’ve been fine with it. His final monologue was entrenched in a gay experience, written by a gay writer who knew what he was doing. It was beautiful and heartbreaking in all the good ways. It was excellent, intentional storytelling. Queer love was the one true thing in this entire universe. Cas’s romantic love for Dean and Cas’s parental love for Jack are the only two things that saved the world. What a bomb-ass way to go out.
Except the writers decided that Cas’s sacrifice was not worthy of attention.
Cas’s character arc hinges upon his discovery of his own free will, and how he’s attached that to Dean. He found the only true family, the only love he’s ever known, through this man. In a near-death experience in Season 12, Cas admitted his love for Dean…and his family (ouch). Dean has never returned the phrase, and it remained an unanswered but ever-present question in their narrative.
Romantic or not, their relationship conflict has been the main tension of Season 15. They spend the first three episodes fighting over Mary’s death the season before. In Episode 9, Dean nearly loses Cas and falls to his knees in prayer, crying, and finally forgiving him. Cas’s want for human experiences—love, joy, will—is what drives him, and what would be the most satisfying completion to his character for him to receive.
Over 12 years on the show, Dean and Cas learned to trust, to teach, and to find faith in each other. Cas rebuilt Dean’s body and soul after Dean was in hell. At the end of his first season, Cas learned free will from Dean and managed to cast off an abusive family to choose a new family with the Winchesters. Time and time again, Cas has chosen Dean over the world; over God; over himself. Their arc together is epic. It’s the cosmos-melting shit that people write poetry about. Canonically, “the first time Castiel laid a hand on [Dean] in hell, he was lost.”
Oh yeah, and that “I don’t know what’s real anymore” exchange between Sam and Eileen from earlier? That was a Cas and Dean scene first. In S15E2, Cas and Dean have a terse exchange as they’ve discovered their whole lives have been dictated by Chuck. Dean angrily exclaims “Nothing about our lives is real,” mid-argument. Before he exits the scene, Cas replies: “You asked, ‘what about all of this is real?’ We are.” Seven episodes later, an explicit romantic pairing in Sam/Eileen mirrors this exact conversation as they kiss.
Cas has spent his (considerably long) life looking for meaning. He found it in the Winchesters, and when he finally revealed his truth, he was abandoned by the narrative. Found family who? Free will what?
Cas dies for loving Dean, and nobody speaks about it again. He is subtextually deemed not worthy of love. It is a gaping hole in the fabric of the finale, crappily stitched up by Bobby as he meets Dean in heaven—telling him “Cas helped” in the rebuilding of a peaceful afterlife. Two words. We are not offered anything as to Dean’s thoughts on the matter. Dean smiles and nods. Silent.
With that, let’s talk about Dean.
Dean Winchester died on a meaningless hunt, perhaps just a day after defeating God and writing his own future. He and Sam rush into a barn to save some kids (brothers, of course) from a bunch of vampires, and Dean is impaled in the back by eight inches of rebar sticking out of a beam. (Yeah, he gets nailed-from-behind to death. Let’s…not think about that too much.)
For many of us, Dean represents what it feels like to be stuck in a life you did not choose. He was the eldest sibling; he wanted to protect his baby brother and so he was forced into a life of abject violence. Dean saw his mother brutally murdered when he was four, and has lived nothing but blood and pain ever since. But that’s not who he is.
In Season 2, Dean is kidnapped by a monster that makes him live through his deepest desires in a fantasy. Remember what Dean’s most precious wish in the whole world is? To mow his mother’s lawn. Dean’s greatest desire is to have a safe, happy family; his S13 retirement plan was himself, Sam, and Cas on a beach in Hawaiian shirts with little umbrella drinks.
Dean is one of the most violent characters on television, but not by choice. He did it to protect his family; something he learned to step away from over time. He learned his mother was no longer a myth and could take care of herself when he finally met her; most importantly, he learned to treat Sam as a fully-grown, independent human being. The brothers’ unhealthy codependency has been broken down over the last few seasons to allow them freedom—the very freedom removing Chuck promised. The freedom this ENTIRE season was about. The freedom Dean offered Cas, that set their storylines in motion, entwined, as the main dramatic conflict of the final season of this show.
His whole life, Dean thought he would die young and bloody on his father’s mission towards vengeance. Never of his own volition, never of old age. He wants his own life badly enough that he was willing to threaten his brother—a person he has given his LIFE to—to achieve it in S15E17.
Dean’s character arc was begging for him to grow old. With Castiel’s last sacrifice, Dean finally knew he was loved. Cas spent his last moments on Earth telling Dean that his life was worth living; that Dean was not the heartless, violent monster he saw himself as. Cas told Dean what we, the audience, all know to be true—that Dean does everything for love. In the following episode, Dean refuses to kill Chuck after Chuck begs him to, saying “see, that’s not who I am.” Dean is ready to live his own life, free will in hand, finally learning to love himself.
This is the true crime of the Supernatural finale.
The paradox of having your vaguely suicidal and at best self-sacrificial main character’s arc end by telling him the only way to achieve peace is through death is cheap, uninspired writing at its finest. Dean’s entire character arc is swept under the rug when he dies; there is no other family around but his brother, who he was finally ready to let go of, and who he instead has to spend his last minutes on earth consoling.
To be clear — both actors do a tremendous job with what they are given. I sobbed my way through this scene because of their performances, but that doesn’t change the fact that it makes absolutely no sense. Dean dies scared and sad, never able to express his true desires, never speaking about his own wants or needs until his comically long death speech, plagiarized from the other time he died in Sam’s arms in Season 9.
And I would maybe take it if it had been framed that way; if the message was about accepting your life as it comes to you (regardless of how that clashes with the whole, y’know, “free will” thing), but it wasn’t. This was framed as the “bittersweet and fulfilling” ending to the show. Dean goes to heaven, is consoled by Bobby, and is immediately fine. Then goes on a drive to wait for Sam, who he left a few minutes ago in his own timeline.
The brothers have died and mourned each other so many times that it’s almost a running gag on the show. Sam and Dean deserved to love and honor each other, not through death and grief, but through life.
Which begs the question…why did Dean die?
Every time Cas dies, Dean grieves loudly. The last time it happened at the end of Season 12, Dean spent the first five episodes of Season 13 being a general asshole to everyone around him until he attempted to kill himself, then immediately recovered to the point of giddiness when Cas returned. Their decade-long relationship was integral to the very basic plot of the show; it was with free will that Dean first released Cas from serving heaven in Season 4; it was with free will, by falling in love with Dean, that Cas created the one and only deviation from Chuck’s story.
Because of this, I, and thousands of other viewers, were waiting with baited breath for Dean to talk about Cas in the finale. What would it be? Will Cas stay dead as Dean learns to grieve and move on? Would Cas return? Can Dean finally pray a well-earned “I love you” to the angel, platonic or otherwise?
Nope. Dean barely speaks in the finale outside of his Season-9-plagiarized death speech. He is reduced to a stereotype—pie, Sam, car, hunting. It’s…conspicuous, to say the least.
If they brought Cas back, they would have to address the “I love you”; if they addressed the “I love you,” Dean would either say it back and be canonically queer, or turn Cas down gently. It wouldn’t have been difficult to keep Dean straight—even sexually ambiguous—while allowing him an emotionally satisfying conclusion. Instead, they killed Dean and sent him to heaven, then resurrected Cas off-screen to pacify the shippers.
Dean dies, because for whatever reason, the writers knew they couldn’t address the rest of his life without Cas. In the most accidentally meta, most Supernatural-y way possible, they kind-of-adjacently confirmed his queerness via untimely and narratively unsatisfying death. Go figure.
We will never know if Dean is canonically queer or not. We were never allowed to answer that question. Dean’s answer died in his throat, on one of his father’s old hunts, relegated to being the parental substitute he was forced to be his whole life. Young, like he was supposed to. The writers chose to abandon Dean’s entire character arc—the last fifteen, hell, forty-odd years of pain and growth and healing—instead of addressing the slightest possibility of queerness.
Cas and Dean’s relationship was so baked into the fabric of the show that removing it took a sledgehammer to the plot, themes, and basic storytelling narrative of the finale. Nobody gets to exercise their free will, and the only family that matters is blood.
Dean’s death means nothing. The brothers are reunited in heaven to live out the rest of their lives(?) as they could have on earth. I guess, after all that, I’m just trying to say that absolutely nothing of consequence happened in the Supernatural finale. What a waste.
So, fans, where does that leave us?
I myself have been oscillating between abject despair and peaceful detachment.
But I will say this: I think it’s important to allow yourself to build space between you and the media you consume. That isn’t to say Supernatural can’t or won’t be important to you—it was a fundamental part of my exploration of my queerness, discovering my gender identity, and learning to have compassion for myself and my own traumas. Even if it’s just something you enjoyed casually, there’s a reason we love the show in the first place. But take time (even if it takes a long time) to remember that at the end of the day, it isn’t real.
That’s not to say that the stories we tell exist in a vacuum. What you put out into the world will determine how people see themselves and each other (that’s kinda the point of this whole review). But just because Supernatural ended in a shitty, disgraceful, offensive way does not make you any less worthy or the experiences you had with it any less important. Many storytellers touched this show and impacted your experience. That’s never going to go away. The urge to scream and be mad and look for a conspiracy may feel good in the moment, but it may not actually bring you any answers. It may not actually bring you peace. (See where I’m going with this?)
The writers, executives, and actors can only offer so much input. I implore you to step away from their social media, to take some time to yourself, and to breathe. All these people are just people, like you and me. They have the resources to learn and grow, and if they truly mean to do well, as individuals, they will. That’s what it comes down to in the end.
And, hey, if you liked the finale, I’m not trying to dunk on you. You do you. I’m glad you get to love this show completely and wholly all the way through the end.
For the rest of us, move on from here with your love intact. It’s okay to be sad and exhausted—hell, I leapt in to write about this stupid finale because I was so hurt by it. But at the end of the day, it happened. We’re going to learn and move on and create more beautiful art impacted by our drive to not disappoint people the way we were let down, and more importantly, by all the invaluable, many good things in Supernatural.
Over the past three weeks, tens of thousands of dollars in donations have flooded in to “The Castiel Project,” funding the TREVOR project for LGBTQ+ youth; the National Alliance on Mental Illness via the “Dean Winchester is Love” fundraiser; and the National Association of the Deaf in Eileen Leahy’s name. What did the fans do, when the show they loved so much for so long betrayed the values they fell for 15 years ago? They organized. For a fandom known for being quite rabid, they actually have some of the biggest hearts in the world.
It’s time for us to write our own stories and carry on.