Rants and Reviews

What’s Dead Should Stay Dead: A Supernatural Retrospective

Quarantine is the perfect time to rewatch old favourites. Or dwell on past sins. And with the end of the road finally, finally in sight, what better time to revisit Supernatural? 

If you’re reading this post, you probably don’t need an introduction to the show, or its fandom. Two hot brothers battle monsters and daddy issues while crossing a desaturated America (Vancouver) in a cool car. It was part of the Superwholock trifecta in Tumblr’s heyday, the show that launched a thousand reaction gifs. There was shipping, obviously, and a conspiracy theory that the two lead actors were secretly in love but the network was forcing them to keep it secret. The show acknowledged its fanbase and their deep investment in Wincest and Destiel through an in-universe fandom and never ever making anything canonical.

With that out of the way, I’m probably the wrong person to write this retrospective. Supernatural began airing when I was in my teens and I loved it. Each episode was a well-crafted horror story I could enjoy with my family, and the two leads were hot enough I could argue with my friends over who we liked best (we settled on Dean, mostly by virtue of how bad Sam’s hair got in later seasons). I watched through university but after season five I got bored and stopped watching. Even before then, my interest had begun to flag after the increasing escalation of stakes that were life or death to begin with. After betraying each other over and over again in little ways and in big ones, it becomes hard to root for the increasingly toxic and codependent relationship between the Winchester brothers. And after both brothers have cheated death or died and been resurrected multiple times, it becomes increasingly hard to care whether they live or die.

But those early episodes. Those ones I loved as a teenager. Those are still good, right?

Well, yes and no. I’d be lying if I said Wayward Son didn’t still hit me with a wave of nostalgia. I’d be lying if I said most episodes weren’t fun and tightly written, or that Sam and Dean aren’t charming, or that the bleak mythology isn’t exactly my jam – hunters are, universally, bitter, damaged people, saving people and hunting things because they can’t conceive of doing otherwise, however ultimately futile their bloody work is. John Winchester’s failures as a parent hit even harder now I’m an adult myself – when your son can tell you’re possessed because you’re being nice to him, you done fucked up.

And yet…

The Winchester family’s codependency and toxicity is exhausting. The supporting cast and the brothers themselves call it out constantly but Sam and Dean do unforgivable things to each other and for each other a hundred times over the show’s run. Dying for each other means less and less each time you do it, and it becomes harder and harder to believe they even like each other. Which, again, the show calls out, but that doesn’t do anything for my engagement. Also, Dean is a misogynist and a homophobe (see: his constant digs at Sam’s sexuality and masculinity) in a way that didn’t bother me as much fifteen years ago but is way less tolerable in 2020. That aside, we get a good sense of Dean as a person – despite his fears that John raised him just to be a soldier, we know what he does for fun, we know the movies and music he likes and what he envisions his life would be like if he hadn’t become a hunter. Sam feels like a far less complete person which may be intentional given how consumed he is with the job, but makes him far harder to engage with. He gets annoyed at Dean’s frivolity but what does he do for fun? Why did he want to study law? What drew him to Jessica?

Despite being a deuteragonist, the show doesn’t seem to know what to do with Castiel. Both in the sense that they struggle to balance having a supporting character with divine powers and constantly need to find ways to remove him from the board so he doesn’t solve the week’s monster hunt with a snap of his fingers. And then there are the queerbaiting accusations. The show certainly isn’t obliged to compromise its vision (although creator Eric Kripke did infamously state he had a five-season arc in mind and anything after that was cashing in) but it feels incredibly cynical for Supernatural to devote multiple episodes to exploring the brothers’ relationship with their fanbase using the in-universe fandom as a stand-in while never proving the queer rep fans were so desperate for. Unless they did in season ten or something, but I think I would’ve heard.

For a show about America, Supernatural is white. It’s really white. While by its nature the show rarely uses recurring characters, the characters being victimised each week are almost always white, the recurring African American characters tend to be antagonistic and other ethnicities are basically nonexistent. There’s a running joke that Dean is a fan of porn site bustyasianbeauties.com but how many Asian actresses do we see positioned as potential love interests?

Which brings us to misogyny! Nearly every episode has a damsel in distress who may or may not be a quasi-love interest for one of the brothers, but is always attractive in the same way, which becomes increasingly uncomfortable if you binge-watch. The Winchester family business – saving people, hunting things – was set up in response to the deaths of saintly women (I think Mary gets better and it turns out she was a hunter herself? …I didn’t get that far).

Maybe the later seasons fixed these issues but we just started season 4 and my resolve is already wavering under the weight of all this misery. Maybe I should have left my memories buried. What’s dead should stay dead.

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