The title cards for each of the fifteen seasons of Supernatural.
Supernatural is an American Horror-Drama series created by Eric Kripke, which originally aired in 2005 on The WB channel, and was later moved to The CW channel from seasons two to fifteen, which finished airing in 2020. Supernatural is considered the longest running American live-action fantasy series, with 327 episodes. The show centers on two brothers, Sam and Dean Winchester (played by Jared Padelecki and Jensen Ackles respectively), who travel the country hunting down monsters and demons, and saving people from supernatural entities. There are other prominent recurring characters in the show, most notably Castiel “Cas” (played by Misha Collins), who is an angel of the Lord, and a friend and ally who, along with the two brothers, makes up “Team Free Will” as they call themselves, as they work together to prevent the apocalypse, along with other world-ending events across the fifteen seasons. In season twelve, Team Free Will becomes Team Free Will 2.0 with the addition of Jack Kline (played by Alexander Calvert), Lucifer’s son.
Over the fifteen years Supernatural was airing, several queer characters were featured, though only in side and background character roles. One particular area of interest is the relationship of Dean and Cas, dubbed “Destiel” by fans, which fans and scholars see as being queerbaited.
The CW and Queer Representation
In order to talk about queer representation in Supernatural, and how is changed over the years, we should also look at queer representation on The CW as a whole. Currently, The CW has a reputation of being one of the queerest networks on TV, with an audience of largely young adult, largely queer woman for many of its shows, including The 100 (which also had a popular queer ship, and queerbating acusations), and Riverdale (which has multiple queer side characters and relationships, though notably none involving the four protagonists). GLAAD’s latest media report for 2019-2020, titled “Where We Are on TV.” revealed that of all major networks, The CW has the most queer representation, and of The CW’s series regular characters, 15.4% are LGBTQ. Despite having an edge in numbers however, many to do not see The CW as quality queer representation.
Most of The CW’s queer representation in limited in side characters, this isn’t necessarily bad, as these characters are some fan favorites for queer representation. However, when paired with the quite common queerbaiting of more major characters, such as Kara and Lena from Supergirl who rival Supernatural for accusations of queerbaiting, or Clarke and Lexa from The 100, or even Betty and Veronica, who kiss in the very first episode of Riverdale, it makes for a troubling pattern, even outside the context of Dean and Cas in Supernatural. The CW also has a habit of falling into the “bury your gays” trope, with many queer characters on The CW are killed off – Lexa in The 100 for example, and Charlie Bradbury in Supernatural itself, who was killed off in season ten solely to motivate Dean’s revenge against her killers.
Queer Representation in Supernatural and Dean Winchester’s Queercoding
There are, according to the Supernatural Wiki, about 35 canonically queer characters in Supernatural, though several remain unnamed background characters, and a majority are featured only in one or two episodes across the fifteen seasons. Only six of the queer characters are named, recurring, and relvant to the plot of the show.
Lorna Jowett argues that “the series finds fans among women and gay men partly because it demonstrates that masculinity is a performance”, and Darren Elliott-Smith argues that Supernatural’s early seasons engage in “comic yet homoerotic parodying of masculinity” in which many fans find queercoding, especially in characters like Dean Winchester, who overtly performs that masculinity. Emily Roach describes Dean’s hyperperformance of masculinity as a “bisexual panic”. Dean, as a character, hides a lot of sensitivity behind a lot of bravado. Dean’s character and interests are often paired in opposition with feminine and queer sterotypes, as a way of reinforcing how badly Dean fails at being his father’s ideal of a son;, being too sensitive is one of these traits.
The show is generally aggressively heterosexual, and even when queer characters appear, their queerness is either largely ignored – in the case of characters like Crowley, whose’s sexuality is mentioned sparesly, and usually in relation to sexual promiscuity as a demon – or played as a joke – in the case of characters like Charlie, who at one point has to flirt with a male security guard for a case, and panics because as a lesbain she doesn’t know how to flirt with a man, while the audience is meant to laugh at her plight.
In episode 7×20 “The Girl with the Dungeons and Dragons Tattoo,” when Charlie must flirt with a male guard, it is Dean who talks her through how to flirt, implying that Dean, unlike Charlie, knows how to flirt with a man. Instances liike this happen across the show, and are meant to make Dean the butt of a joke by feminizing him, or calling him queer in some way, but many fans see this as queercoding Dean Winchester, however unintentional it may have been. These moments of what seem to be closeted sexuality happen often – for one, in episode 4×14 “Sex and Violence,” Dean meets a siren – meant to take the physical form you are most attracted to – who appears to him as a man.
Is Dean and Cas’s Relationship Queerbaiting?
Castiel was initially introduced as a plot device, meant to last for a handful of episodes at the most. Season three was cut short by a writers strike, leaving Dean in hell at the end of the season, with no way to write him out quickly enough, so at the start of season four, Castiel is introduced, with his first words to Dean being “I’m the one who gripped you tight and raised you from perdition” in episode 4×1 “Lazarus Rising.” Castiel raised Dean from hell at God’s behest, leaving a physical mark on his arm in the shape of a handprint, which branded down to his soul. Throughout the show, Castiel refers to this as the beginning of their “profound bond” which he does not share with any other human, not even Sam. It is Dean and Castiel’s chemistry which kept fans begging for Cas to return – nearly every season the writers tried to find a way to kill off Castiel, and each time he returned as ratings dropped in his absence. For all that Supernatural is meant to revolve around the two brothers of Sam and Dean, Dean and Castiel’s relationship is centrally important.
Much of Dean and Castiel’s relationship revolves around physical intimacy – Dean constantly manhandles Cas, and often gripes about Castiel not respecting or understanding personal space – as well as codependency – Castiel relies on Dean to teach him how to be more human, and understand humanity, while Dean relies on Castiel for magical and emotional support through the show.
When it comes to Dean and Castiel’s relationship, subtext is where fans read the queercoding of their relationship. As one character in episode 10×5 Fan Fiction tells Dean, when mentioning Destiel to him (because Supernatural loves its meta-fiction):
Marie: … we do explore the nature of Destiel in Act Two.
Dean: Sorry, what?
Marie: Oh, it’s just subtext! But, then again, you know, you can’t spell subtext without… s-e-x.
When it comes to the subtext and fans reading their relationship as romantic, Dean and Castiel’s relationship stays in the realm of queercoding. However, the constant acknowledgement both by the writers and within the show itself by characters make Destiel a queerbaited ship, rather than just a queercoded one. The possibility of the relationship is constantly acknowledged and teased to a largely female, and significantly queer fanbase, without ever intending to follow through makes Destiel a queerbaited relationship.
After the finale, one fan made a 36-minute long youtube compilation video featuring every moment with Dean and/or Cas which could be construed as reinforcing their romantic relationship. Throughout the video, you can see moments where different characters refer to Castiel’s “love of humanity” making him rebel against heaven, implying Dean to be the human he rebelled for. Characters also refer to Castiel as “[the angel] who’s in love with you” to Dean, and Castiel frequently mentions his and Dean’s “profound bond.” Castiel clearly loves Dean, and even confesses his love to him in episode 15×18 “Despair” which will be discussed more in depth later. This confession prompted great fan reaction, as fans saw this as Destiel going “semi-canon” which is more than was ever expected from The CW.
But Dean also loves Cas, though he never openly admits as much, even after Castiel confesses to him, and this is shown even in the last few episodes, with Castiel’s conspicuous absence. Dean and Cas are constantly coupled as foils against romantic partnerships, such as Sam and his girlfriend Jess. In episode 15×19 “Inherit the Earth” Lucifer impersonates Castiel’s voice to trick Dean – and Lucifer, in the entire course of the show, has only ever tricked people by impersonating a romantic lover.
“Despair”: Castiel’s Confession
Episode 15×18 “Despair” is the third to last episode of Supernatural. The notable part of this episode comes at the very end Castiel confesses his love to Dean, and sacrifices himself to The Empty, effectively dying, in order to save Dean’s life from Billie, who has become the new Death. After years of jokes about Castiel rebelling against God and Heaven for Dean Winchester made by other characters, Castiel tells Dean for himself: “I cared about the whole world because of you. You changed me, Dean.” And Castiel says “I love you” as Dean begs him not to leave. You can watch Castiel’s full confession here.
“Despair” brought about many mixed feelings: on the one hand, Destiel went some-what canon as Castiel confessed his love for Dean Winchester as fans had wanted for over a decade, but on the other hand, Dean wasn’t allowed to respond, let alone reciprocate, and Castiel was with immediately effectively killed off. After a decade of queerbaiting, with the writers acknowledging the popularity of Destiel and teasing fans with their knowledge, fans thought they might actually have Destiel become canon, which didn’t end up happening.
Supernatural has an extremely large and dedicated fanbase, with 247575 fanworks posted on Archive of Our Own for the series. The official Fandom blog on Tumblr wrote up a recap of all the world events happening the night “Despair” aired, most notably the 2020 Election in the United States. Tumblr user spn-season-16-chronicles posted about the events in the fandom following the finale, most notably an internet campaign against The CW “They Silenced You” which accused The CW of removing LGBTQ identity from the series.
Another notable event was the premiere of the Sspanish dub of episode 15×18 “Despair” being released, which had Dean return Castiel’s love confession before Castiel died. In the Latin American dub of the episode, Dean responds to Castiel’s confession with “Y yo a ti” which translates to “and I you” rather than his response in the original english which is “don’t do this Cas.”
A screencap from 15×18 “Despair” with the subtitles from the Latin American dub. When “Despair” first aired, Cas’s “I love you” to Dean was argued by some to be platonic, but the use of “Te amo” in spanish implies romantic love. Misha Collins, who plays Castiel, has also confirmed Castiel’s feelings to be romantic in nature. The original english has Dean respond with “Don’t do this Cas” but the spanish dub response translates to “and I you, Cas” which implies that Castiel’s feelings are reciprocated by Dean. Note: The official CW subtitles spell the name as “Cass” while fans often spell the name “Cas”.
For a more detailed chronicle of the Iinternet drama following the finale please watch Youtuber Sarah Z’s excellent video detailing fan response following Castiel’s confession and the finale in general: The Supernatural Finale Aired, And Tumblr Exploded. The reddit thread “after years [of] queerbaiting, Supernatural staggers to the finish line” is also an excellent source for fan response. Fans continue to make jokes about Destiel going canon, even as they debate whether Supernatural should be given credit for confirming Castiel’s feelings for Dean, after queerbaiting fans for over a decade, and failing to give Castiel a satisfying ending of his own.
The Finale: “Inherit the Earth” and “Carry On”
Episode 15×19 “Inherit the Earth” is the penultimate episode of Supernatural, and acts as the end to the story arc of season 15. In this episode, Sam and Dean defeat Chuck once and for all – draining his powers away, and leaving him mortal. Without the power of God, Chuck cannot control their lives anymore, and Sam and Dean finally attain their free will which had been stripped from them. In order to maintain a balance in the universe, Jack takes on Chuck’s powers, becoming the new God.
Episode 15×20 “Carry On” is largely made of montages, and shows us where Sam and Dean end up: Dean dies on a routine vampire hunt seemingly months, if not weeks, after defeating Chuck, while Sam grows old (with an unknown woman, rather than his girlfriend of several seasons Eileen, another point of contention for fans) and raises a son he named after Dean. The episode ends with Sam dying of old age, and joining Dean in heaven. There is a singular throwaway line which leads the audience to infer that Castiel has escaped The Empty, but nothing else.
But Castiel is, whether he is really dead at the end of the finale or not, effectively dead, to both the audience and to Dean, after “Despair,” which left many fans feeling cheated. From the fans’ perspective, Castiel confessed his love for Dean, and was immediately sent to what fans have dubbed “super mega turbo hell” for daring to love a human, a man at that.
Supernatural has often not been kind to the fans that kept than on air for over fifteen years, often making fun of overexcitable fans in general, and making fun of and teasing the concept of Destiel within the show in turn as well, but many fans felt it was cruel, to give confirmation after all this time that Castiel had romantic feelings for Dean Winchester, and not let anything be done about it.
Beyond Castiel not returning, and the lack of Dean addressing his confession, fans were left disappointed by the finale because it undid everything they fought so hard for. If the show had never happened, if back in the pilot, Dean had never asked Sam to go hunting with him, then Dean would have likely died on a hunt at too young of an age, and Sam would have grown old and gotten married.
It should be noted here that Covid-19 changed the plans for the finale in some ways. More character cameos were planned with other recurring characters meeting the boys in heaven, but this couldn’t be done due to Covid-19 restrictions which impacted the filming of the last few episodes. However, even without Covid-19 restrictions, the story of the finale would have remained the same. The finale is supposably meant to mirror the season five finale, in which was intended to end the show, in which Sam dies, and Dean attempts to move-on and live life without him. However, this intention didn’t resonate with fans, as “Carry On” is the lowest rated episode of Supernatural on IMDB, lower even, then the famously most hated episode 1×8 “Bugs.”
“Nothing Really Ever Ends”: The End of Supernatural?
Supernatural has an extremely large and dedicated fanbase, with 247575 fanworks posted on Archive of Our Own for the series, and an extremely active fanbase on social media sites such as Tumblr and TikTok, even now, six months after the show ended.
However, despite fan dedication being a major factor in how the show lasted for fifteen years, fans are not always treated fairly within the show itself. Supernatural interacts with its fanbase more than most other shows – by writing fans into the show. In the world of Supernatural, Chuck Shurley, later revealed to be God himself, a stand-in for creator Eric Kripke, writes a series of novels called the Winchester Gospels under the pseudonym Carver Edlund (based on a reference to Supernatural writers Jeremy Carver and Ben Edlund), which has a cult-like following within the show, with a fanbase modeled after the show’s own.
In the episode 10×5 “Fan Fiction”, two girls put on a play version of Supernatural, featuring themselves – who are a couple – playing Dean and Castiel as love interests. Dean is annoyed by this, claiming he doesn’t see why they would think he and Cas would make a good couple, but comes to accept it saying:
Dean Winchester : You know, this has been… Educational… Seeing the story from your perspective. You keep writing, Shakespeare.
Marie : Even if it doesn’t match how you see it?
Dean Winchester : I have my version, and you have yours.
Dean’s attitude towards Destiel exemplifies the attitude the writers often seem to have towards the ship: it’s fine for fans to have their own ideas about the narrative, as long as they don’t expect it to change or dictate the true narrative. This is also, consequently, how Chuck seems to feel about the Winchesters – they can do as they like, as long as it doesn’t interrupt his plans for them.
One question Supernatural continually asks is what is free will, who has free will, and how do you exercise that free will. Which begs a question: Who owns a story, the writer or the watchers?
Chuck tells the Winchesters that he is the author of the story, of their story, and that their story ends when he commands it. In “Inherit the Earth”, he literally tells the boys “I’m cancelling your show.” While ostensibly the boys defeat Chuck, taking away his powers, and refusing to kill him, which is what he wanted, the show still ends, and Dean even dies in the finale, not getting to live his life of free will without Chuck writing the story.
Throughout the show, Chuck gets increasingly annoyed when the Winchesters and Castiel foil his plans, and change his story. He repeatedly tries to write Castiel out of the story, just as the writers, in real life, try continuously to kill off Castiel for good. But fan response always brought Castiel back. In 15×17 “Unity” – Chuck tells Castiel:
“You know what every other version of you did after “gripping him tight and raising him from Perdition?” They did what they were told. But not you…You know what? I’m over it. I’m over you.”
He affirms that Castiel is the only being that was able to write his own story, separate from Chuck’s vision. Castiel had free will, through the power of the fans, and Chuck, within the show, and the writers, couldn’t write him out – no amount of authorship overcomes free will, and apparently fan power.
This is further supported by Chuck’s own words. Earlier in season fifteen, Becky reads Chuck’s draft of his ending for the Winchesters, and tells him it isn’t good enough. But Chuck decides he wants to go with it anyways. Similarly, the writers know what fans wanted – a real Destiel confession, and a satisfying ending where the brothers and Castiel get to live their lives without Chuck’s influence. But the writers – and Chuck – got what they wanted. Before the Winchesters won, Castiel got taken by The Empty, he effectively died and never came back, even if he got to admit his love to Dean beforehand. Chuck, and the writers, couldn’t make Cas not love Dean, especially not from the perspective of the fans – but they could take him away from Dean, and the fans. The writers gave us Chuck’s ending – where even when the Winchesters think they won, they don’t get the life they wanted, they get the life Chuck wrote for them. Castiel doesn’t get to live with his fan-given free will. Chuck wins, and the show ends.
1 thought on ““No doubt; endings are hard”: Fan Reactions to Supernatural’s Finale and the End of the “Last Great American Queerbait””
This is a fascinating piece! Admittedly, ‘Supernatural’ is a hole in my pop culture knowledge. However, I’ve seen several papers given on it at the PCA conference every year. This felt like those and I welcome the perspective on this bastion of popular culture.
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