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Supernatural’s bonkers series finale marked the end of an era of fandom

After 15 seasons, the show’s attempt at a happy ending raised more questions than answers.

Jared Padalecki as Sam and Jensen Ackles as Dean in the show “Supernatural.”
Supernatural reached the end of its 15-year run.
Robert Falconer/The CW
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

Thursday night saw the end of an era: the series finale of the CW’s cult hit and longest-running show, Supernatural. After 15 seasons, over 300 episodes, and innumerable character deaths and revivals, the show that was synonymous with internet fandom culture finally let its demon-hunting brothers, Sam and Dean Winchester (Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles), drive the Impala into the sunset.

After the Covid-19 pandemic interrupted its final season in the spring, Supernatural rounded out its last few episodes throughout November. And as it headed into the home stretch, the show caught unexpected mainstream buzz for something barely related to the show itself. The sudden attention was due in part to the total accident of the show’s most popular fandom ship, Destiel (Dean and his guardian angel Castiel), becoming canon during the 2020 presidential election’s lengthy waiting period for results.

The coincidence spawned endless jokes and memes across social media. But less tangentially, the show’s second wind was also due to pandemic-driven emotion over the rare departure of a show that had been around for so long, many of its fans had literally grown up with it.

To anyone familiar with Supernatural’s long history of putting its characters through the narrative wringer, Thursday’s finale — titled “Carry On” in homage to the show’s unofficial theme song, which we heard repeatedly throughout the episode — was both bittersweet and baffling, simultaneously surprising and predictable. We’ll spoil specific details further down, but suffice it to say that there’s a reason that Jensen Ackles, who plays Dean, said over a year ago that he’d had “so much trouble” with the ending.

The end of Supernatural, however, was arguably much bigger than the resolution of its plot. Alongside older monster-of-the-week dramas Buffy and Angel, Supernatural arguably helped spawn a whole legacy of low-key ensemble fantasy series. The show’s fandom was perhaps one of the first to help usher in the modern era of geek culture: an environment in which creative teams cojexist with its series’ fans, evolving the show in harmony with them rather than in spite of or in direct opposition to them. This is a lesson plenty of newer franchises have failed to learn, to their ultimate detriment, but that many others have also taken in stride.

At the same time, Supernatural and its fandom spent years locked in a delicate love-hate tangle, From 2005 to 2020, Supernatural wrestled with its own regressive tendencies and a pattern of flagrant misogyny. Throughout the series’ many memorable meta-episodes, Supernatural originally kept portraying its own female fans as creepy, embarrassing stalkers, while perpetually treating its female characters as cannon fodder. Over its first decade, however, this gradually changed, shifting from open derision to open celebration.

The result of all this was an ending to the plot that fans could be satisfied with — though the final episode arguably wasn’t the story’s proper ending, which actually came in the episode right before the finale. The series finale itself was — well, it was a lot, and it clearly wasn’t designed to make every fan happy. And despite everything I just said about how the show evolved its depiction of women over time, the finale didn’t feature a single recurring female character.

“Carry On” was a bonkers look at what a “happily ever after” might be for the Winchesters. It lasted about a day.

Carry on, wayward Impala.
The CW

Prior to the premiere of “Carry On,” the CW aired an hour-long documentary commemorating Supernatural’s 15 seasons and giving members of the large ensemble cast a chance to bid the show farewell. The special served the dual purpose of letting everyone fondly reminisce and jerking fans’ tears; by the time the documentary’s recap reached the 300th episode, which showed the Winchesters having a loving family meal together for the first and only time, I was a little verklempt myself.

Supernatural actually resolved its big final season story arc in the penultimate episode, which drew praise from both media and fans for being a satisfying wrap-up of the themes of the season and the series as a whole. We’d followed the efforts of Sam and Dean to oust a corrupt God — who, in this universe, is an egocentric writer named Chuck — and deliver free will to the universe once and for all. In what might be considered a twist, that story wrapped up before the finale, leaving Sam and Dean free at last to live happily ever after.

Of course, this being Sam and Dean, they keep right on fighting monsters — and it’s a random monster fight, not long after their big win, that finishes Dean off once and for all. That’s right: Dean actually dies, not nobly or epically, but in an inconsequential baddie-of-the-week fight, after he gets randomly impaled on the butt of a giant knife. That very weird injury allows him just enough time to bid a teary goodbye to Sam, and allows Sam enough time to come to terms with the fact that it’s really the final goodbye.

We marked this section for spoilers, but really, if you thought Dean, with his perpetual death wish, was going to make it through the series finale, you’ve been watching a different show. At its heart, Supernatural has always had one core conflict: Sam’s wish to be able to live his own free life, away from Dean and the monster-hunting business. Meanwhile, Dean has always dreamt of the kind of peaceful existence that the show has repeatedly hinted to us that he was only ever going to find in heaven. As Dean himself tells Sam in the episode as he’s dying, “You knew it was always going to end like this for me.”

The second half of the series finale focuses on Dean’s arrival in heaven as Sam moves on with his life back on Earth. We get a montage of Sam living his own life through the years, including fathering a son whom he names Dean. All the while, Dean enjoys a long quiet joyride through the heavenly countryside in his beloved car.

In the final moments, Sam passes away on Earth, with his son at his side, and rejoins Dean in heaven after what’s been only a few minutes for Dean. As the two brothers embrace in an idyllic spot in the countryside — because even heaven still looks like America’s heartland — we’re treated to a flyaway shot and a final shot of the cast and crew, standing there with Jared and Jensen, thanking us and waving goodbye.

The rapid pace of all this is jarring — but it’s also exactly how I predicted that the show would end. Because of the quick pacing and the randomness of Dean’s death, however — practically ignominious, with Dean getting randomly impaled, and with barely any chance for him to enjoy his freedom — it was destined to be controversial.

Still, fans were mainly baffled at both Dean’s manner of death and the many unresolved plot lines or absent elements from the episode. One of these — Castiel — is a glum footnote that many fans will have a hard time accepting. Cas, an angel whose fourth-season arrival involved personally dragging Dean out of hell, had always been particularly fond of Dean. Two episodes before the series ended, he confessed that “the one thing I want is something I know I can’t have,” before going on to tell a shocked Dean that he loves him. Cas then promptly yanked himself into another dimension in a sacrificial attempt to save Dean’s life, but eh, this is Supernatural. We know death is never that permanent — and hey, there were still two episodes left.

But Cas, though he somehow made it back to heaven, didn’t reappear in the finale. Whether or not you think Dean himself is queer, as many fans do, having Cas declare his love for Dean and never getting a response is a large plot thread for the show to leave dangling. Perhaps the creative team decided to leave the confession of love for the fans to play around with on their own. Yet given that the show’s mantra has always been “family don’t end with blood,” and that Sam and Dean’s “family” has always included Castiel, it’s a sad thing to see actor Misha Collins left completely out of the final episode.

Also missing were the women: Not one still-living female character made an appearance. The show obviously intended the finale to be all about Sam and Dean, but it brought their surrogate father Bobby back; why not a few more friends? The other longtime characters don’t even get to bid Dean goodbye — Sam builds a private funeral pyre for his brother, and mourns alone.

All in all, this was an extremely strange, even alienating finale. But then again, ending the series by being totally at odds with its fanbase is a classic Supernatural move.

Supernatural’s fandom was always more progressive than the show itself

During election week 2020, an unexpected source of entertaining counter-programming emerged: the sudden social media noise generated when Supernatural kinda made Destiel canon. The revelation immediately revived the show’s fandom, as many previous fans of the show who’d stopped paying attention in recent years abruptly tuned in again to see how their beloved ship was doing.

The jokes flew that an unpredictable election week had generated the unlikeliest possible outcome of the show — a ship that most fans considered too taboo for its famously regressive canon suddenly becoming textual, and before the election results were announced to boot. (Additionally, an unconfirmed rumor that Vladimir Putin might resign hit the internet at the same time the Destiel news did, turning many of the memes into an even weirder spin on Destiel somehow spawning Putin’s resignation.)

But all of this celebration over the show’s overtly queer reveal, particularly as it seemed to come mainly from fans who supported democratic candidate Joe Biden, wasn’t without a certain amount of irony. After all, Supernatural spent most of its 15-year run delivering regressively conservative themes, despite having a large, relatively progressive female fanbase.

It took a long time for the show itself to acknowledge its own core demographics, though. Throughout the series’ early and middle seasons, the writers consistently seemed to be writing for (and in some instances about) an imaginary audience of mostly male viewers. The show catered to the idea that Supernatural fans were akin to archetypal superhero or comic-book fans, geeky men driven by fantasies of becoming the hunky Winchester bros, rather than geeky women (and queer people) driven by fantasies of — well, you can fill in your own blanks.

At the same time, Supernatural’s omnipresent American heartland aesthetic wasn’t exactly easy to align with its weird fangirl demographic. Its heroes sported a family name synonymous with “gun.” The show combined the urban fantasy themes — first made popular by its CW (then-The WB) predecessor Buffy the Vampire Slayer — with the denim-clad, muscle car-driving character tropes of Dukes of Hazzard.

In keeping with the theme of Sam and Dean as “good old boys,” the show clung to regressive views of gender, race, and sexuality. Over its long run, it became notorious for killing off scores of its female characters, most of whom had been introduced as brief love interests for the heroes.

That wasn’t necessarily misogynistic — plenty of other characters also died to provide more ongoing angst for Sam and Dean — but that storytelling approach left the show little room to evolve in the directions that many of its fans desperately wanted it to. It didn’t help that a romantic relationship between Dean and Castiel headed up the list of unlikely possibilities that the show’s most loyal fans wanted to see the most — or that the show had a tendency to queerbait those fans instead of truly taking the idea seriously.

The result of this core aesthetic conflict was an ever-widening disparity between the imaginary fanbase that Supernatural writers thought they had, and the imaginary progressive show that many fans were recreating for themselves on Tumblr, AO3, and other fandom social platforms.

But over time, all of this conflict began to settle. It helped that around 2012, in conjunction with the rise of Tumblr as a fandom platform, and the subsequent rise of interest in both SuperWhoLock (the notorious mega-fandom combining Supernatural, Doctor Who, and Sherlock) and Destiel, the show’s ratings miraculously started to increase. In 2013, the show’s viewership jumped from the previous season by a full 33 percent among women age 18–34 — something almost unheard of for a show then nearly 10 seasons into its run.

That ratings increase made it much harder for the creative team to dismiss the women ensuring that it continued to air, and this new Tumblr-driven audience began to rapidly shift the relationship between Supernatural and its fanbase. By the time the 200th episode, “Fan Fiction,” aired in 2014, the show had come around swiftly to a full embrace of its fandom as being full of geeky, passionate women.

To its credit, Supernatural kept evolving from there: It took notable pains to expand its world-building, add more female characters, and give more depth to the few female characters it hadn’t killed off at that point. There were definite setback moments, including two painful season 10 character deaths, a spinoff pilot attempt that no one liked, and another spinoff pilot attempt that everyone did like — but which still failed to win a series pickup.

Still, it’s incredibly revealing that the second spinoff attempt, “Wayward Sisters,” was centered entirely around a group of female demon hunters, rather than being another recycled dude fest. Ultimately, “Wayward Sisters”’ failed spinoff attempt embodied the Supernatural producers’ shortcomings rather than its creative evolution. Producers couldn’t embrace a full story-verse built around women, and the show continued to uphold a dudebro-centric worldview.

While Thursday night’s controversial series finale may have left fans consternated, the amount of nuance and evolution Supernatural showed over time was a testament both to how much love went into crafting the story, and how much mutual respect the production and its audience came to share.

How much of that consideration ultimately went into the finale is difficult to say. While there’s still no Supernatural spinoff series currently on air or in the works, fans who’ve stuck with the show for 15 seasons undoubtedly still want more. Wherever Supernatural’s legacy goes from here, the road so far has clearly been a unique one — and the fans who’ve walked it this far will make sure it’s not over yet.

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