For far too long, being a fan or even a casual viewer of Supernatural, The CW’s long-running series about men and monsters, has meant having to justify your fandom. Specifically, it’s meant having to justify your love of a show with little cultural clout — a show whose own writers have historically scoffed at their female fan base and killed off the majority of Supernatural’s supporting female characters, until the smog of its misogyny seemed unlikely to ever dissipate.
In recent years, it’s been clear the show is trying to evolve by overcoming its beleaguered past and its tendency to treat female characters as disposable. And on Thursday night, with the airing of the highly anticipated backdoor pilot for a proposed spinoff, Wayward Sisters, Supernatural seemed to finally and definitively signal its readiness to leave its troubled past behind.
The episode was Supernatural’s second attempt at a spinoff pilot, and it clearly demonstrated just how closely the show has been listening to its fans’ repeated requests for badass female characters. Because Castiel bless us, that’s exactly what fans got.
Supernatural has long been shadowed by underlying misogyny
Despite being in its 13th season and having ratings that miraculously increased late in its run (in conjunction with the rise of its Tumblr fandom), Supernatural has largely remained an underground show, ignored by the cultural mainstream.
But its largely female fan base spent the first decade of the series’ run being ignored by the production itself. Throughout the show’s early and middle seasons, the writers consistently seemed to be writing for (and in some instances about) an imaginary audience of mostly male viewers — men more like Sam and Dean, the hunky heartthrobs at Supernatural’s center, rather than the geeky, often female, progressive-leaning people who were actually investing in the show.
At the same time, the narrative clung to regressive views of gender, race, and sexuality that left it little room to evolve in the directions that many of its fans desperately wanted it to.
The result was an ever-widening disparity between the imaginary fan base Supernatural writers thought they had and an imaginary progressive show that many fans were building for themselves — through perpetual discussions about the show’s values on Tumblr and at conventions, and through fanfiction.
This disparity finally became hugely apparent in 2014 with The CW’s first attempt to launch a Supernatural spinoff.
Supernatural’s first spinoff attempt was bad — but it got the show to finally start listening to its fans
Supernatural’s 2014 backdoor pilot, “Bloodlines,” was roundly criticized by fans and reviewers for treading old ground, and for seeming to ignore virtually all of the common critiques of the show — that it was overwhelmingly centered on straight white men; that it too often sentenced women and characters of color to violent deaths — frequently discussed within its fan base.
It may seem like a paradox that fans devoted to a blatantly misogynistic show about white men were simultaneously clamoring for a spinoff show that was nothing like the original — a show that was diverse, female-centric, and integrated with the world and characters they loved. But many Supernatural fans were simply hoping that “Bloodlines” would be the show they had long wanted Supernatural itself to become.
Instead, “Bloodlines” hinged on a cluster of new male characters, instead of drawing from the existing, beloved Supernatural ensemble. It also blatantly recycled the most notorious and heavily criticized plot point from the first episode of Supernatural — in which Sam and Dean’s mother is burned alive solely as a catalyst for manpain — a plot point that was deeply, violently misogynistic when it originally aired nine long seasons before, in 2005, and had not gotten better over time.
The backlash to “Bloodlines” among Supernatural fans was intense, and ultimately The CW opted not to move forward with the series.
But “Bloodlines” also seemed to mark the beginning of a rapid shift in the relationship between Supernatural and its fan base. By the time the 200th episode, “Fan Fiction,” aired later that year, the show had come around swiftly to a full embrace of its fandom as being full of geeky, passionate women. And while there were definite setback moments — two painful season 10 character deaths in particular — the show has been evolving ever since. It has notably taken pains to expand its world around the female characters who are now, hopefully, getting their own spinoff.
“Wayward Sisters” made crafting a show built around girl power look effortless — the way it should always have been
All of this brings us to Thursday’s episode. With one spinoff already having tanked, there was a lot riding on “Wayward Sisters.” It’s significant that The CW fully ramped up the buzz within the fandom for weeks in advance, touting the episode’s female characters and circulating high-octane pics of girls with weapons. The fandom was clearly eager for the spinoff; all it had to do was not suck.
And it didn’t suck! Supernatural has always been at its best when it’s an ensemble, relying on episodic plots with clear goals rather than meandering through its larger, often weaker season-long arcs. Throw in a touch of meta and an emphasis on family, and don’t kill any major female characters, and you have the ingredients for Supernatural magic.
With “Wayward Sisters,” writers Robert Berens and Andrew Dabb seemed to have fully understood the importance of this recipe. They not only corrected the basic plot mistakes of “Bloodlines” but built their storyline organically from the plot of the current Supernatural season, drawing from the core ensemble of characters we already knew and loved.
Plus, the entire premise of the backdoor pilot and potential series actually originated from within Supernatural’s women-dominated fandom. In April 2015, Tumblr user peter-pantomime wrote a post arguing that recent developments on the show (which we’ll get to in a moment) set the stage perfectly for a new, better, girl-powered spinoff. They tagged the post “wayward daughters,” and this cry was quickly picked up and turned into a legitimate fan campaign, one that was championed by members of the Supernatural ensemble and ultimately embraced by the production team.
The result: “Wayward Sisters,” an episode that felt fun, fast-paced, full of energy, and more vibrant than Supernatural has been in ages.
Fans have adored the feisty Sheriff Jody (Kim Rhodes) since her arrival on the show in season five, and welcomed the arrival of Sheriff Donna Hanscum (Briana Buckmaster) in season nine. Miraculously, the two women, both “hunters” of evil supernatural forces, have managed to survive until now, presumably because they’re neither love interests for our heroes, Sam and Dean Winchester, nor lesbians.
Over the course of recent seasons, Jody has begun informally housing wayward girls who’ve had life-altering run-ins with the show’s monsters. “Wayward Sisters” revolved around this community of women, working and living together in a sort of girl-powered demon-hunting commune strongly reminiscent of season seven of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Its residents include a serious teen named Alex (Katherine Ramdeen), psychic newcomer Patience (Clark Backo), and a “dreamwalker” named Kaia (a scene-stealing Yadira Guevara-Prip) who has the rare ability to enter a Stranger Things-ish underworld known as “the bad place.”
In “Wayward Sisters,” it’s Patience who alerts Jody and company that Sam and Dean have been trapped in the underworld, and Kaia who ultimately takes them on a rescue mission to bring the men back. Along the way we meet a couple of cool new monsters, including a giant flying purple people eater, a kind of scurrying mini Cthulhu with legs, and some kind of cloaked ninja-y Sith Lord.
And then there’s Claire Novak (Kathryn Newton), clad in black leather and a semi-permanent scowl, sporting leading-man vibes all over the place. She’s been popping in and out of Jody’s conclave from season to season; now she’s back and ready to take charge — and ready to snatch Dean’s mantle as Supernatural’s new main character.
Claire Novak is the perfect lead for the next iteration of the Supernatural universe
Claire’s evolution over the course of Supernatural is arguably one of the best and smartest things the show has engineered in its long run. Claire first appeared nine long seasons ago, initially as a victim and nothing else. As a child, she was treated like collateral damage by her father, who served as the angel Castiel’s earthly vessel, and by Castiel, who ultimately left Claire fatherless. As a teen, she was in and out of foster care and was finally orphaned completely when her mother died. In her grief, she began to transform herself from a victim into a fighter; it’s this path that’s led her, albeit reluctantly, to Jody.
As a young adult, Claire has grappled with a cadre of emotions we might typically refer to as manpain: a host of daddy issues, anger, trouble with authority, and stoic mourning for the dead. Supernatural loves to zoom in on Claire’s wary face, just in case you forgot her main character status — or her ever-present death wish.
It makes perfect sense, in this era of galvanized, angry feminism, for the show to crown a new younger, female version of Dean to lead a spinoff. Supernatural needs its main characters to be defiant, rough-hewn, and broken. No wonder Claire feels as if she’s been a main character all along.
It makes sense, too, to promote the ever-popular Sheriff Jody into the gender-bent equivalent of Bobby, the gruff but kind caretaker who watched after the Winchester brothers as Jody now looks after the girls. In earlier seasons, I worried Jody’s new maternal role would usurp her role as a badass sheriff; lately she’s more active than ever, and if Wayward Sisters becomes a series of its own, I look forward to seeing it explore her bond with each of the girls.
“Wayward Sisters” didn’t quite pull off fleshing out all its ensemble character dynamics. But what was there was compelling and clear and felt like a natural extension of Supernatural. If Claire’s decision to stay with her found family at the end of the episode felt a little rushed, it was forgivable, because it was then that the show reached through the fourth wall for its requisite meta moment — to remind Supernatural fans that family don’t end with blood.
There was another meta moment, as well: the opening “Previously on” montage. Supernatural takes its “Previously on...” segments very seriously, and the one that opened “Wayward Sisters” was, like its many elaborate predecessors, set to the requisite Supernatural hard rock power anthem. Only this time, the anthem was sung by the woman-led Halestorm, and the narrative journey of the montage recapped the journeys of a host of female characters who would almost certainly have ended up dead at earlier points in this series.
Watching it, I couldn’t help but feel grateful for the long trajectory of this show that has gradually allowed its masses of female fans to drag it toward a better, repurposed vision of itself. We had a clear idea of the many ways “Wayward Sisters” could fail, because we’ve seen Supernatural fail many times before. But we’ve also seen it transcend itself, grow, and change; and in this regard, whether or not it actually gets greenlit by The CW, “Wayward Sisters” still feels like a permanent stride forward for the franchise — if nothing else, a reminder of how much fun evolution can be.