What could have been: the end of “Supernatural” and the CW’s 15-year queerbait

Let’s take it from the top. The day is Sept. 13, 2005, and the first episode of a new horror-drama series has just aired on the now extinct Warner Brothers Television Network. The show is called “Supernatural,” the tale of two brothers who spend their days hunting ghosts, demons, and all things… supernatural. Unbeknownst to the network, the show would go on to become the longest-running American live-action fantasy series, coming to a close on Nov. 19, 2020, after 15-seasons, one of the lead characters canonically dying over 100 times, several semi-apocalypses, and the overthrowing of God. Over the course of its runtime, “Supernatural” has been a source of intrigue, both for those in, and outside the fanbase, with the recent finale being no exception. The show perpetuated one of the biggest fanbases that would end up putting the social media site tumblr on the map. In its heyday, tumblr was where “fandom culture” came to be, providing a platform for fans to post their thoughts and works, allowing them to interact with others in the community. This is how “Supernatural” rose to prominence: this is the show’s core demographic. So after 15 years, and a finale rivaling that of “Game of Thrones” in terms of its atrociousness: where and how did it all go wrong?

For those not familiar with fan culture, there are a few key phrases one must familiarise themselves with. First “fandom” is simply a term for fan culture surrounding one specific media (ex. The “Supernatural” fandom, the “One Direction” fandom). A “ship” is short for “relationship,” or fans desired pairing of two characters (ex. Draco Malfoy/Harry Potter, Jim Halpert/Pam Beesly); these pairings are then given “ship names” for easy identification (ex. Drarry, Jam). The other thing one must understand is that fandom culture, and the need for it, evolved primarily from LGBTQ+ individuals. Typically cast out of traditional spaces, queer spaces came out of a necessity for a place where queer persons could exist in a welcoming and accepting way. Now, fandom is a space for all, this is just to say that the most popular ships tend to be Male/Male, homosexual pairings.

“Supernatural’s” biggest ship to date is Destiel: Dean Winchester, one of the two main brothers, and Castiel, the angel of the lord who pulled Dean out of Hell when he was introduced in the fourth season of the show. From that moment on, Castiel, became a prominent character on the show. After the angel’s fall from grace, he “falls in love with humanity,” turning his back on heaven and spending his time on Earth with the Winchesters, hunting the supernatural alongside them. Through Dean, he learns what it means to be human. Now, at its core, “Supernatural” is about two things: family and trauma, and Dean Winchester is the embodiment of this. Arguably, the show’s tagline for many years was “family don’t end with blood,” a quote from one of the show’s characters. The show was all about “saving people, hunting things, the family business” and how those the Winchesters saved became a part of that family. Dean would do anything if it meant keeping those he cared about safe, and out of harm’s way. Now Dean is a character who has been to literal Hell and back (multiple times), become a demon, been possessed by an archangel, taken on the mark of Cain (the first murderer in the Bible), and died over 100 times. So one could say… he has been through a lot. “Supernatural” is a show about trauma, and how two brothers, despite all odds, get up, every day, and to save people. The Winchester brothers tend to keep their feelings more hidden, under wraps, only occasionally letting them show in a tender conversation on a long drive home after a hunt. There are 15 years of suffering below the surface; lots of repressed emotions. So frankly, it’s not that hard to see how the pairing comes together.

Dean: the big brother who constantly has to be strong, taking care of everyone, keeping his worries and feelings hidden behind a mask of aggression. An all-American man: macho, good with the ladies. But Dean is faithless; he’s fought vampires, demons, werewolves, shape-shifters, but he’s never seen an angel, until Castiel, the one who goes to Hell and back, just to save him. Castiel: the angel, a soldier in heaven’s army, carrying out heaven’s will and way. But he, the one raised on faith, falters, as heaven’s true misguided intentions are revealed. The faithful becomes faithless, and the faithless finds faith in an angel’s arms. Castiel turns his back on heaven for the Winchesters, and Dean turns his back on everything he thought he knew for one angel.

As mentioned, it’s important to acknowledge that quite a bit of “Supernatural’s” core audience are queer individuals in fandom. The show knows this, make no mistake; the most prominent example being in the show’s 200th episode entitled “Fanfiction,” to which the Winchesters discover a musical production being put on by highschoolers of their life story, and “Destiel” is acknowledged by name. “Supernatural” has had many playful “meta” moments and episodes over the course of 15 years, and being aware of their audience plays a big part in that. Which is possibly why the show took on a more harmful trope over the years: queerbaiting, the tactic of marketing potential same-sex relationships with no follow-through, or representation, ever actually portrayed. In terms of “Supernatural,” prominent examples include Dean regularly referencing queer media, “checking-out” men, helping a lesbian character flirt with a male security guard to get passed him, and a siren (seductive merfolk who lure and kill sailors) appearing to Dean as a man, rather than a woman. That’s barely scratching the surface of all that’s gone on over 15 seasons, the point being, the theory that “Dean Winchester is bisexual” did not come from nowhere.

Screencapped GIF from Supernatural 10×5 in which Destiel is directly acknowledged in the show (Courtesy of the CW)

So Castiel betrays heaven because he has “fallen in love with humanity.” Many creatures in the know comment to Dean on “the angel in the dirty trenchcoat who’s in love with you” or “ask him, he was your boyfriend first.” The whole of the universe (God included, yes, he’s a character in the show) seems to know and accept that Castiel, angel of the lord, is in love with Dean Winchester. Which brings the story to season 15, episode 18; the third to last episode of “Supernatural.” In the simplest terms possible, in order to save Dean’s life, Cas must experience true happiness, which will kill him and the threat to Dean. Castiel’s true happiness is finally confessing his love for Dean. A simple, verbal confession, and Castiel dies. Dean is not given time to reciprocate, but there are still two more episodes left… surely something big is going to happen to resolve this… right? Now Dean is going to save Cas, just like Cas saved him, perfectly completing their character arcs?

A week later, season 15 episode 19 airs… and no Castiel. The boys kill God. The story is finished… but there is still one more episode left, with the fandom having no idea where things could possibly go next.

Season 15, episode 20… the finale.

Dean Winchester dies in a barn from a rusty nail… while fighting clown vampires. The character who has died, over 100 times (granted some of those were due to a time loop)… goes out because of a rusty nail? Tetanus, is how you’re going to end the show? Then he goes to heaven, along with his car, because the heterosexual car gets to go to heaven while the gay angel gets sent to “the Empty,” a place worse than Hell, because he confessed his gay feelings? Again, he confessed said feelings, to save the life of a man who would go on to die, maybe two weeks later… from a nail. Then Dean’s brother, Sam, gets a faceless wife (we love female representation), and an old man Party City costume. There is again, no Castiel, no resolution: only turbohell for gay angels.

Sam Winchester “aged” via costuming akin to an old man costume found at Party City (Screencapped from Supernatural 15×20 Courtesy of the CW)

Now, Castiel dying because of a non-hetero love confession hopefully ing rings one’s alarm bells. Piggybacking off the concept of “queerbaiting,” “bury your gays” is an unfortunate TV trope where queer characters are viewed as more expendable. They are killed off, left unresolved, or not addressed. See the boxes being ticked? Over the show’s 15-year run, “Supernatural” has not only killed or written off all its confirmed LGBTQ+ characters, but all its characters in minority groups. A poorly written finale and this in mind, leaves a sour taste in one’s mouth.

But then, something strange happened. Season 15, episode 18 aired for the first time in Latin America; a version of the episode dubbed in Spanish. When Castiel confesses his “I love you,” in the LA dub… Dean responds “and I, you, Cas” as opposed to the American version being “don’t do this, Cas.” Also in this version, Castiel uses the Spanish word for romantic love, “Te amo” as opposed to platonic love “Te quiero,” giving this version of the episode explicit implications and reciprocation on Dean’s end. This dub singlehanded makes Dean Winchester, the main character of a 15-year long, mammoth of a show, a confirmed bisexual man. Now that is absolutely huge in terms of representation, but the CW, “Supernatural’s” network, and individuals involved with the show, were quick to dismiss this. The confession was meant to be left “up to interpretation,” Dean’s feelings as well. But, when Dean had feelings for women over the years… why was that never “up to interpretation?” What makes a male/male pairing any different that it’s important that we “no-homo” let it slide under the radar?

Spanish subtitled screencaps from Supernatural 15×18, using the dialogue from the Latin American dub (Courtesy of the CW)

Just as “Supernatural” has two main themes, the finale has two main problems: no resolution and no heart. Fans don’t just dislike the end because the ship they liked was not made official; they are upset because the ship was dangled over them like bait, and then chucked full force into turbohell. No resolution. Dean’s character has always been about “saving people, hunting things,” going out guns blazing. The man literally helped take down God and suddenly decided his life is over because of a rusty nail two weeks later? Wow…these writers seem to know the characters so well (not). Sam, Dean’s brother, gives up hunting entirely to lead a white picket fence life. You’re telling me, that every day for the rest of his life, that man woke up to see an article on the news about someone with their blood drained (vampire victim), or missing a heart (werewolf victim), and decided to do absolutely nothing about it? That’s definitely the Sam Winchester I’ve grown to know and love these past 15 years (not). Ah, and of course, Castiel is so unimportant that he’s not even in it! Wow, sounds like the perfect ending (not).

In the end, “Supernatural” was, and still is, a show that played a big part in many fans’ lives. But the finale, and the production team’s history of queerbait and wounds which take a long time to heal. So for fans of the show, carry on my wayward sons, continue to write fanfiction, and cherish the parts of this show that you have loved so much for these past years. And for fans and non-fans alike, all one can hope for is one day, there will come a TV show where the main character is bisexual, and that won’t matter to anyone. There will come a show where a man and his love can kiss on screen, where nothing is left “up to interpretation,” and that won’t matter to anyone. There will come a day, where queer is not something left to subtext, longing stares, and swells in the music. There will come a day where queer, doesn’t seem “queer” anymore, it just is.

But for now, at least the heterosexual car went to heaven.