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Why fans have high hopes (but low expectations) for ‘Supernatural’
Supernatural’s success is intrinsically tied to its fandom—so when will it give the fans what they want?
“How many times have we been around this block?” Sam asks Dean in the latest episode. The answer is nine. Nine seasons of see-sawing character development, endless manpain, homoerotic subtext, and vanishing lessons learned from earlier seasons—themes that play out over the bodies of dead women, with jeering nods to SPN’s worn-out fandom.
As we drive toward a 10th season that would tie SPN with Smallville for the CW’s longest-running show, Tuesday night’s season finale should feel exciting. Instead, it sags beneath the weight of fandom’s growing expectations for a show that never existed.
GIF by Aja Romano
SPN’s recent backdoor pilot episode for the potential spinoff “Bloodlines” should have been different. SPN is a road trip; “Bloodlines” had a contained radius. Supernatural follows demons and angels; “Bloodlines” featured underused creatures. SPN has only had three or four major recurring characters of color during its entire nine-season run, and has become notorious for axing women. One main “Bloodlines” character was black; another was female. Yet despite these flickers of promise, “Bloodlines” retread the same ground as every other episode of SPN, with cringe-worthy moments, heavy-handed drama, and awkward expository dialogue.
Perhaps SPN’s creative team felt these things wouldn’t matter. After all, the show’s fandom spent nearly a decade swooning over characters whose origins lie in angst, loss, and family tension, which “Bloodlines” copied by rote. But the episode received a roundly negative reaction from fans, and last week the CW announced that while it was still keenly interested in an SPN spinoff, “Bloodlines” was DOA.
To understand why “Bloodlines” failed is to understand how, over time, SPN has simultaneously cultivated and exhausted the hopes of fans. “Bloodlines” failed, above all, because it reminded fans how expendable their opinions are to the SPN creatives. It was less a new direction for the franchise than a simultaneous retread of ground no one wants to walk, and a painful reminder of everything the old show has yet to become.
Screengrab via Netflix
The Trouble With Sammy
From afar, SPN fandom seems divided into Destiel vs. Wincest, two queer ships the show has deliberately teased again and again. But the fault line is not really about ships, but about Sam Winchester (Jared Padalecki), and the way his character has become increasingly sidelined as Castiel (Misha Collin)’s role on the show has grown.
Initially, Sam seemed like Supernatural’s hero. The pilot killed off both his mother and girlfriend and endowed him with a major identity crisis. Sam was the foil to his brother Dean (Jensen Ackles), who hid a rigid moral code behind an exaggerated dudebro facade dedicated to Things Manly Men Like: women, beer, classic rock, and cars—traits that made him the focal point of the fandom’s push for a queer pairing.
From the beginning, Dean’s private angst, his stoicism mixed with inner grief, his manly tears, held the narrative focus. SPN backed itself into a writer’s corner with Sam: gentle characters don’t generate drama. So Sam’s actions became increasingly passive-aggressive, he became prone to getting taken over by dark forces, and the relationship between the brothers became increasingly dysfunctional. Their core conflict, Sam’s desire to leave the hunting business and Dean’s sense of betrayal, is just as unresolved now, in Season 9, as it ever was.
By the end of Season 8 it looked as though Dean might finally be willing to accept his brother’s choices for himself. Instead, Sam’s possession by Gadreel was a heavy-handed retread of earlier seasons, causing subsequent brotherly bonding moments to feel flat and superimposed instead of cathartic. Dean’s gutted, “There ain’t no me if there ain’t no you!” should have been as epiphanal for fans as his “I need you” to Cas was last season. Instead it played like one more rehashed trust issue to add to Sam and Dean’s game of dysfunctional Jenga.
GIF via supernatural-crowley-thekingofhell
But in Supernatural, love seems less like intimacy between characters who evolve together and more like a series of increasingly meaningless grand gestures on a show so bloated with drama that it obscures character development. SPN insists the brothers love each other, but what the brothers do suggests they know each other less than ever. These days, neither acknowledges Sam’s own period of addiction, or Dean’s decade as hell’s torture master. With so little effort made to explore Sam’s character and provide continuous character development this season, fans are eager for the finale to make amends.
But there’s a major reason that might not happen, and it has wings.
Photo via girlslovesarcasm
More Castiel shouldn’t mean less Sam, but historically, it has. Castiel’s character has developed more consistently between Seasons 4-5 and 8-9 than anything else on SPN, but as his popularity grew, less attention went to Sam. After Castiel’s unsatisfying “death” and bizarre character detour during Season 7, SPN’s viewership plunged so dramatically that showrunner Sera Gamble left and Misha Collins returned as a series regular, bringing with him the highest ratings the show had seen in years, and setting the stage for the new era of Supernatural fandom on Tumblr.
In 2013, Supernatural was the most reblogged TV show on Tumblr, and Ackles, Padalecki, and Collins were in the top five most-reblogged actors. Part of that popularity comes from Superwholock; but another huge factor is the fanbase’s support for a romantic relationship between Dean and Castiel.
GIFs via mary-winchesteer
On Tumblr, a tantalizing male/male OTP is the best possible currency a show can have to barter for an audience. For a show in its ninth season to actually see its ratings increase is almost unheard of. But Destiel is a perpetual motion machine, drawing more people into the fandom and investing them in the show—specifically, in Destiel becoming canon.
Destiel shippers believe their ship’s “profound bond” is “endgame,” a relationship five seasons in development, ready to blossom into romance any day. The show eggs shippers on through frequent sly winks to the pairing, encouraging the tiny possibility that Destiel could become canon—a possibility fans have magnified until the ship’s shadow looms large over the show.
There’s just one problem: Destiel is a constellation away from the narrative of Supernatural.
Photo via Cracked
A Wasteland of Dead Girls and Testosterone
In Supernatural the only permanent bonds are masculine. The only thing higher than SPN’s female body count is the number of white men on the show. Women further the angst of the male characters. At least twice, SPN has taken female characters who’ve already been killed off and resurrected them in an alternate timeline, only to kill them again solely to provoke more manpain. At one point this season, Linda Tran makes a welcome appearance, only to declare that her priority is being a good mother to her son—who is dead.
Sam, Dean, and Cas are lost and parentless, with no idea how to express intimacy, because intimacy in SPN is feminine, and all the women they know are dead. Dean’s heteronormativity is so rigid it’s taken years for him to express how he feels to Sam or Cas in moments when the stakes aren’t life and death. Castiel has spent the last two seasons learning how to hug people. The theme of Crowley’s current addiction to human blood is his inability to deal with emotion. “I’ll cheer the day when the last trace of humanity leaves me,” he says in a recent episode “FEELINGS!”
GIF via sevendeanlysins
SPN’s final Big Bad has always been the threat that real male intimacy poses to its proto-masculine image of itself. It’s a fight of continual repression and internalized shame, waged in sideswipes, gay jokes, and incessant shaming of effeminacy, nerdiness, and anything that might resemble nuanced expressions of male gender. Narratively, out of nine seasons, SPN has only had five canonically gay characters with a 50% survival rate. And “dorky guys” including Castiel are consistently made fodder for Dean’s and the show’s amusement, not admiration or attraction.
Photo via reiko-jason
But the more SPN mocks and represses, the more it has to contend with its own fandom—female, queer, genderqueer, nerdy, and unashamed. The fandom’s culling of queer and genderqueer readings from SPN deliberately repudiates its textual scouring of their own identities and emotional landscapes.
SPN’s fandom is diametrically opposed to the straightlaced mainstream audience SPN wishes it had. So SPN’s creative team routinely breaks the fourth wall in the most passive-aggressive way: to remind fans that they see you and they disapprove.
Photo via hysteriabannon/Tumblr
Carry on, wayward fans
Supernatural is notorious for fan-shaming, especially male nerds and female fanfic writers. In the latest episode, Metatron is labeled “a nerd trying to be one of the popular kids.” Metatron’s arc is an allegorical punishment of fanfic writers, with attendant assumptions about their misguided entitlement. “We are writing our own epic story,” he says as he disrupts the natural order of heaven.
Felicia Day’s Charlie is SPN’s ambassador for the positive aspects of geek culture. But her “positive” space is gaming and roleplay, which have traditionally been seen as the purview of male nerds—some of whom have fought hard to exclude women unless they happen to be, well, Felicia Day.
GIF via xsapphirecloudx
And while Charlie is a step forward for queer, nerdy fangirls, this season found her being shamed for loving stories, in an episode where she’s instructed to abandon her own ideas about her favorite story and accept a different reality.
In Supernatural‘s reality, geeks are losers unless the thing they’re being nerdy about, like Charlie’s gaming, Sam’s research, or Dean’s cars, is sanctioned by male culture. And since geek culture is also a natural home for alternative gender and sexual identities, when SPN shames the former, it’s implicitly shaming the latter.
The result is a snake eternally eating its own tail. SPN builds its homoerotic subtext into the narrative, using traditionally romantic plot tropes to advance its brotherly bonds…
GIF via kindly-hers
…then lays waste to that subtext by turning queer male sexuality into an awkward punchline.
GIF via supernatural-crowley-kingofhell
When fandom responds sincerely to that subtext, the show lashes out with derision and amusement at their geeky audience for thinking their show is anything but a straight dudebro fest. When Supernatural kills off its women, fandom responds by celebrating them and making as much noise about it as possible, in hopes that the creative team will move the narrative along a progressive trajectory.
They Were Expendable
Season 9 has already sabotaged possibilities for more interesting narratives, particularly by offing two of its best characters without even a climax:
GIF via fucking-castiel
Kevin (Osric Chau) was a recent addition to the SPN Family, and one of the few things the SPN fandom could agree on. Brilliant, snarky, and cursed with a gift he never asked for, he had more potential for growth than any character since Castiel. Instead, his narrative development floundered, and midway through the season, he was killed off—on his birthday, no less—in a particularly wasteful way.
Abaddon was set up to be one of the season’s biggest threats. But in her final episode, she spent more time facilitating family bonding time between Crowley and his long-lost son than she did fighting, and when she finally got busy she never stood a chance.
GIF via idjitsintheimpala
Recently characters like Jody Mills have had promising character development. But given SPN’s inconsistent track record and its willingness to waste the great characters it’s already got, it’s difficult to hope for more.
Still, SPN’s long strategy of “tease and deny” is good at generating hope. It’s practically running on the fumes of fan enthusiasm, or should we say Fangasm. At best, Season 9’s backhanded reminders that the fans are negligable seem ill-considered.
The real mystery of the Season 9 finale is not Sam, Destiel, or Dean, but rather: Is the show finally listening to its fans? For a series steeped in meta statements, intentional teasing, and occasionally direct messages across the fourth wall to fandom, SPN seems incredibly quick to shut out fannish input.
But SPN couldn’t do that when it came to “Bloodlines.”
“Bloodlines” failed in its first five minutes, when a character sees his girlfriend die in front of him. Of all the things “Bloodlines” could have culled from the SPN pilot, the SPN writers chose to mirror the horrible opening sequence, fridging a female character in order to imbue the surviving male character with angst. Around and around the devil’s trap we go.
GIF via sweetpotateos
In a recent interview, Jensen Ackles noted that he felt the Supernatural pilot, in which two women are killed off in the space of an episode in order to fuel the brothers’ angst, would be greenlit today.
But in 2014, SPN’s female-dominated fandom doesn’t have to accept such a weak, misogynistic premise. And when it was time for fandom to stand up and be heard, SPN’s systematic exclusion of those female fans proved its undoing—especially because if it had been listening to its fans, it wouldn’t have written such a shitty plot point in the first place.
Fandom’s hopes for the finale are incredibly high and its expectations are incredibly low. By the end of the penultimate episode of Season 9, a minor recurring character gives a speech about the repetitive horror and endless tedium of the life she’s been living out ever since her fall from heaven. Then she commits seppuku.
Perhaps that’s the most unwittingly meta statement of all.
Aja Romano is a geek culture reporter and fandom expert. Their reporting at the Daily Dot covered everything from Harry Potter and anime to Tumblr and Gamergate. Romano joined Vox as a staff reporter in 2016.