It's time to let it go.
[Spoiler Warning for the CW’s Supernatural]
Very early this year, the CW announced that the hit genre series Supernatural will be returning for a thirteenth season. This isn’t a typo. The now cult-classic featuring two ghost-hunting brothers on the road to and from Hell has been on our televisions for the past twelve years.
Of the four fandom posters on my wall, two feature Supernatural fan art. My black-and-white cat is named Castiel, and I have a framed photo of the Angel of Thursday signed by Misha Collins on my wall, which I obtained when I attended VanCon in 2014. The phrase tattooed in Courier New font on my ribs is a quote from season seven: “cursed or not”. I have the title of every episode (seasons one through nine) imprinted in my brain, and could tell you that along with the season upon seeing a screenshot alone.
What I’m getting at here is: I’m a fan of Supernatural. From the jump, I grew quite attached to the characters, who (for the first five to eight years) mirrored some of my best and worst qualities. Put simply, I felt a kinship with the Winchester brothers; mostly Dean. Their intense sibling bond, relationships with trauma and addiction, various unhealthy coping mechanisms, and persevering need for love and goodness, were all things I connected to on a considerably deep level.
Before I knew the characters, what endeared me to the show was the world. I’ve been experiencing paranormal phenomena since I was a child. It triggered early in me an infatuation with ghosts, witchcraft and the spirit world, and so the world of Supernatural felt familiar and almost welcoming.
I’m also a fangirl by nature. Once I love a story and officially “enter” a fandom, I don’t typically jump the bandwagon. But when I heard that the show has been renewed yet again, I wasn’t sure how I felt. The show is currently halfway through season twelve and I couldn’t explain what the status quo is because I stopped watching last season.
To start, the show is problematic. That word might elicit an eye-roll response from anyone a bit adverse to social justice, but representation in media is important. Anyone who watches Supernatural knows it has a reputation for killing off women, but the fatalities aren’t even what I’m talking about. A high death toll can be expected for a show like Supernatural, but when characters aren’t written in a fair way before their demise, we have a problem.
Prime example: Bobby’s accident in season seven. After a run-in with a leviathan leaves him a paraplegic, we watch Bobby struggle with self-agency and grief as he adjusts to life in a wheelchair. Rather than Bobby mastering his new abilities and having a story which includes his wheelchair, he’s instead “cured” by Crowley. This is a horrible message for any viewer in a wheelchair - that ultimately, their situation is a tragedy that can only be remedied by being erased completely.
Then there are the recurring female characters, who (while they’re alive) are written as largely white, heteronormative and attracted to the boys. Unless a woman is canonically gay, underage, or a blood relative, then she will be either an old, wannabe, current or future flame. And she’s more than likely dead within four to five episodes. This means that after twelve years, we have absolutely no female characters who last more than three to four seasons - and you can bet she doesn’t have a story unto herself.
Representation for people of color is worse, as well as LGBTQ+ characters. Over the span of twelve seasons, we’ve seen only three canonically gay characters, and two of them aren’t recurring. Only one recurring, main character has been a person of color - Rufus Turner - who, despite being a fresh and entertaining character, didn’t survive season seven. Every single human character on the show is cisgender, and even agender beings such as angels are written according to that binary.
Regardless of these points, Supernatural has been making cringe-worthy sexist/racist/triggering jokes since episode one. Why was I willing to forgive them?
Before I saw this show, the concept of “shipping” characters was relatively foreign to me. I remember coming across Drarry (Draco+Harry) fanfic in a Harry Potter forum once, but I didn’t understand the draw.
I was first catching up on Supernatural while the ninth season was airing, and I steered clear of exposure to the fandom online for fear of anything being spoiled. I experienced the whole story pretty organically. Upon Castiel’s introduction in season four, it took me until around season seven to realize I shipped Dean and Cas. Their “profound bond” was a great story, and perfectly set up to be a romance for the ages. It was so convincing that as I watched into season eight, I was fully expecting the writers to take the plunge. Only after catching up to the show’s current episode did I dip my toe into fandom waters and discover the Destiel Will-They-Won’t-They Pit of Hell
From there, I dove head-first into theories around Dean Winchester's bisexuality and his relationship with the angel. Both Dean Winchester and Castiel are based off bisexual characters, and their bond has plenty of meta writing surrounding it. Most of the time it’s written against the background of classic romance tropes. But depending on who’s writing a given episode, the Dean/Cas fire is either stoked or doused with ice-cold saltwater. Whether or not you side with cries of queerbaiting, the fact that this argument exists about a show I love gravely disappoints me.
My loyalty to Supernatural was never contingent on canon Destiel. But when the natural culmination of the Dean/Cas bond is romance and the writers don’t want to step up to the plate, the result is awkward. We’re left with seasons’ worth of set-ups that are never paid off; left to die in the archives like ignored friend requests. Because the fandom explodes with rainbow heart-eyes and squee’s every time the hunter and angel appear in a scene together (and you have to admit that the characters have a natural chemistry) the writers actually jump through unnecessary story hoops to keep them apart.
I’m no stranger to tragic fictional character fatality (my favorite book is The Outsiders, for crying out loud). If a death makes fictional sense and serves a purpose in the story, it can be heartbreaking, but it has to be done.
Though I can’t find the tweet or source now, a rumor started - or maybe its Supernatural fandom urban legend now - that a producer had promised Charlie wouldn’t be killed off. If this did happen it was a huge mistake, and here’s why:
There are many reasons to bring in new characters or kill characters off, but they should all have to do with the integrity of the story. Choosing to keep a tired character around, simply by fan demand, will take a huge toll on a story. So first, the producers shouldn’t have promised to keep Charlie because the fans liked her. They should have known it was integral to keep her for this very significant reason: Charlie Bradbury was the negation of a lot of shitty themes in Supernatural.
[In order for a theme to be shown objectively, there must be a negation of the theme: an “exception” to the theme’s “rule”].
By being the first canonical, recurring gay character, she was the negation of the no-homo tone of the show up until that point. By allowing Dean to play in the episode “LARP and The Real Girl” (8.11), she was the negation of John’s controlling masculinity. She was the negation of stereotypical femininity, with her fandom t-shirts and flannel. And she was the beginning of the negation of the “Boy’s Club” world of hunters, when Sam called her a “Woman of Letters”.
If the writers would have properly realized this (or respected it), then their promise would have sounded different and they would have stuck to it. But promising to do anything purely for fan approval is dishonest, because writers don’t want approval – we want reactions. Which they got in spades, when they killed Charlie.
Charlie’s death was uncharacteristically harsh for Supernatural. Other notable deaths on the show have been written with a sense of dignity: saving the boys is the Harvelle women’s last act and we only see an explosion; Bobby suffers a clean bullet to the head and withers in the hospital; Kevin’s angel-smiting was quick and almost merciful.
Charlie was an orphaned lesbian who had lived her life forever on the run. Queer people have an exponentially higher risk of experiencing violence in their lives. In our media, when queer characters are unnecessarily and persistently killed off, it portrays that LGBTQ+ people are both “other” and disposable. The writers acknowledged that Charlie was important to the gay fanbase of Supernatural, who they’d been pretty intolerant of up until that point. The choice to kill her by such un-paranormal means and then leave her in such a dirty place, was pointed and shitty.
Charlie’s manner of death was unnecessary. At the time of her demise, this girl had been hunting for at least a year and spent time in Oz (?? I know, that particular storyline was random to me too). She was a first-person shooter gamer extraordinaire. I did not believe that Charlie would have been completely unarmed in that bathroom, and that she wouldn’t have tried to fight back - if not with a weapon, then at least that broken laptop. Her death just doesn’t make sense for her character.
Charlie loved the fantastical and was a warrior. Her demise should have come whilst slaying a dragon.
Additionally, her death doesn’t serve any kind of greater purpose in the story. Aside from giving information to the Styne family - which could’ve happened without her dying - it doesn’t set off a chain of events that carries the story forward. It doesn’t factor into meaningful character development for Sam or Dean. It seems that it might when Dean goes rogue and has a pretty spectacular ass-kicking scene with the Styne family (another random storyline that gets culled before it’s really started). But after that vengeance and a Hunter’s wake, Charlie’s more or less forgotten.
By giving the only homosexual character on the show such an undignified and violent death - when no other death has been handled that way - I felt targeted and betrayed, as a queer person. The death of Charlie Bradbury isn’t what made me stop watching Supernatural, but it is what made me first consider it. I did delete my Tumblr shortly after her passing.
The Supernatural fandom is an empire online, and its most populated home is Tumblr. I myself have been on Tumblr for about seven years now but the Superwholock side of it I more or less ignored until the Super part invaded my life. Early into the game, I learned I had to be picky in which Supernatual Tumblr blogs I followed in order to avoid “fandom wank” (drama). With these fans, shipping wars or arguments surrounding how abusive John Winchester was were the most common stains marring my dashboard.
Heated, lively debate is something I find invigorating. In Tumblr fandom, my happy medium was finding a page that fostered healthy debate while keeping things civil. But as time went on those users were few and far between. I followed intelligent and dedicated meta writers, only to watch them either grow cold as the quality of writing worsened, or abandon the show altogether. After deleting my own Tumblr I slowly started unfollowing the Supernatural blogs on my dash, until one day I realized I’d left the online fandom altogether (the exception being AO3, which isn’t as interactive).
I’d started watching Supernatural con videos on Youtube when I first got into the fandom. When they were started, the conventions were captivating: the questions asked by fans were new and intriguing. I first thought the conventions were one-time things but soon learned they’re ongoing - the actors tour around the world doing conventions roughly fourteen weekends out of each year.
There’s nothing technically wrong with this, but after a few years everything feels tired to me. The actors look tired, the questions being asked are tired. Sometimes I wonder if those guys would rather just be at home with their families instead because I would, no matter how much I love any story. And the only reason I can fathom to keep the cons going is because they rake in too much damn money. So it’s basically a circus.
At the end of the day, no amount of logic will fight my gut intuition. In regards to books, music, and TV, I’ll disregard the most glaring flaws if the feeling is right. Supernatural used to have a great feeling. I love the dusty Americana of the first three seasons and I can even appreciate the almost comic-like serialization of seasons six and eight (thanks to Edlund and Thompson, praise).
My personal preference is the more paranormal-centric stories of the series. Bringing angels into the mix gave us Castiel, and Heaven/Hell were always part of the fabric. But for the past six seasons now I’ve had to suffer through flip-flopping angels and the Neverending Adventures of Crowley (effing Christ, just kill him already).
I miss ghosts, haunted houses; Things That Go Bump In The Night. I’m not getting the same spark anymore.
[bring back that loving feeling; whoa that loving feeling… ]
I also miss road-bound Winchesters. Bringing the bunker in totally changed the tone, and in a great way. It was so satisfying to see Dean nest, cook meals; to see Sam have a library (never got the dog, unfortunately). But part of the comfy melancholy of Supernatural was the fact that the boys called Baby and the highway their home. Of course we should challenge that in the course of twelve years. Bringing in the bunker wasn’t the mistake; letting them keep it was. A good way to tear apart the hearts of fans would’ve been to have that bunker, and every single thing in it, burn to ash. I’d switch the bunker for Charlie any day of the week.
I’d actually switch the writers of the actual show for my fave fanfic writers any day of the week. It would probably be the best episode we’ve seen since Fan Fiction (10.05).
I’m a writer before nearly anything else. If something is off with the plot or characters, I’m going to know it, and not even on purpose. It’s an instinct that I have - typical of any other writer or storyteller - and can’t turn off. Rips in a story’s fabric are frustrating but I’ll ignore them if the characters/fandom/themes are worth the pain.
Supernatural was originally supposed to conclude at the end of season five, and it shows. The first five years had coherent plot lines woven from one season to the next; what was set up in the premieres, was paid off in the finales. Each individual season has its own set of stakes and character arcs, which directly effect the next season.
After those first five years, however, the storytelling formula shifts. Seasons six through eleven take on a yearly “Big Bad” formula, and the procedural feel of the Monster-of-the-Week episodes became much more serialized. While each Big Bad is technically different, the writing and story around each are pretty much the same.
Every story has stakes. Without them, we wouldn’t be invested in the story. Though we might not be consciously aware of it, when we engage in a story we intuitively need to know what’s at stake: Johnny Cade’s innocence; freedom for Furiosa and her sisters. If we care about these things, we’ll stick around for the story.
Supernatural has a tapestry of storylines woven throughout, but let’s call out the major stakes of each season:
Season One: Finding Dad
Season Two: Sam’s Life/Soul (John: “Save Sam or kill him”)
Season Three: Dean’s Life/Soul
Season Four: The Boys’ Free Will
Season Five: The World (the angels’ apocalypse)
This is where Supernatural was originally supposed to wrap up. But then:
Season Six: The World (Castiel has a God-complex)
Season Seven: The World (Dick Roman and the Leviathans threaten)
Season Eight: The World (Abaddon threatens)
Season Nine: The World (Metatron threatens)
Season Ten: The World (Cain threatens)
Season Eleven: The World (The Darkness threatens)
Season Twelve: Honestly who knows?
The show has actually been recycling stakes since the sixth season. But since the latter seasons take on Big Bads, like Dick Roman and Abaddon, the stories appear to be fresh and new. Once what’s at stake with each Big Bad is revealed there’s a sense of deja vu, because what’s at stake is exactly the same. Usually, there’s a fight over either heaven or hell, and Earth lies in the balance. This feels like the natural culmination of the story in season five because it is. When the entire world has already been at stake, where do you go that’s fresh and new?
The opposite: think small. The real stakes after season five are the raw, human, emotional ones that were repetitively pushed by the wayside in seasons one through five: John’s dysfunctional parenting, the boys’ various substance abuse, the effects of trauma, having a “normal” life. These avenues of storytelling are teased throughout the latters seasons so I’d keep watching, but they were always diverted or taken over by the more predictable Big Bad plots.
I’ll stick around for a repetitive story if the characters are at least growing, but those things are counterintuitive. The last big shift we’ve seen in Dean’s character was during his confession scene in the tenth season. That moment has never been mentioned since and that was two seasons ago.
If we cut and pasted together every scene with meaningful character development for Sam, Dean and Castiel within the past four seasons, it would probably take around twenty minutes to watch. In comparison the earlier five seasons can be quite emotionally heavy and we watch the boys grow in leaps and bounds. The shift in pace is palpable and uncomfortable.
Supernatural repeatedly sets up the ultimate payoff of: who is god? I assumed this would be the natural final climax of the whole story; when the boys could get answers to everything. Instead, God was prematurely brought back in season eleven and only to deus ex machina the whole finale. Literally bringing in god as a deus ex element was the straw that broke this fangirl’s back.
And then, as if to attempt to distract the writers brought back Mary. Mary Winchester is, at this point, a mythological figure in Supernatural. She is the epitome of the loss and pain experienced at the hands of evil; the tragic foundation that the entire show is built on. Every storyline involving Mary - using her likeness, placing her in dreams and alternate realities - was extremely poignant and emotional for me. And bringing her back completely de-fanged all of it.
For me, the writers including God and Mary was basically like me seeing the man behind the curtain. And there was no wizard; no greater workings happening, no endgame that I wanted to be a part of.
The reasons I kept sticking around for Supernatural having slowly fallen away. This should’ve been impossible; those reasons had their talons in me deep. I have an addictive personality and prefer fictional people over real ones; I’m usually the fan a story can’t get rid of. The same could be said for the numerous other fans I watched experience the same. But botch the plot and talk down to your audience enough, and I guess anything’s possible.
Bre Fischer is an author, screenwriter, passionate feminist, activist, and cat person living in Vancouver, BC.