I have long said that the music of Supernatural has had a significant impact on the show – making it memorable and especially giving it the emotional resonance that it had for all fifteen seasons. That’s not something that every genre “horror show” can say, and I’m not sure any can say it with as much pride as Supernatural. The music added so much to the emotional impact of the series finale, so I was excited to talk to composer Jay Gruska about scoring that episode and the emotional episode ‘Despair’, as well as his fifteen years working on my favorite show.
As with many of the people working on SPN (and another thing that made it so unique and wonderful), the same two composers worked on the show for its entire run – Christopher Lennertz (now working with Eric Kripke on ‘The Boys’) and Jay Gruska. I’ve talked to Jay several times over the course of the show – he contributed to ‘Supernatural Psychology’ for the chapter on music in the show – so I know how insightful he is about how music is used on the show. Chris and Jay tend to alternate episodes, so Jay scored all the even numbered episodes of Season 15, including the final episode, ‘Carry On’, and episode 15.18, Castiel’s goodbye episode, ‘Despair’.
The week before we spoke, I had done a Supernatural music panel at the Southwest Popular Culture Association conference with two friends and colleagues devoted to the most recognizable musical theme in the show, ‘Americana’, which Jay composed. We had invited him to do the panel with us, but he was unable to make it due to a family party. Luckily he and I were able to coordinate our schedules for a phone chat afterwards though.
Jay: That’s amazing about the panel, and kinda flattering and sweet. I’m so bummed that I missed it, I would have loved to share my experience from my end.
Lynn: I don’t think that many composers get an entire panel devoted to one single piece of music at an academic conference – but that’s how important ‘Americana’ is to Supernatural fans.
The Emotional Rollercoaster of ‘Carry On’
Lynn: I know you read my review of the series finale so you know that I loved the barn scene even though it was incredibly painful to watch, but it was such a masterful scene. I was talking to Jensen about it recently and said that he and Jared killed it, and also that the music makes it so much more emotional. That whole piece, the piano then the strings, and then the most familiar part of Americana in the middle…
Jay: Right. As you know more than anyone, I try my best to not use Americana just at the drop of a hat. I try to really respond to when a scene is asking for it. I’ve probably made a misstep or two along the way as far as some fans are concerned – I used it once with Jack, but boy, I heard from people right away like hey, he’s not family! And I was like well yes he is to me! But don’t mess with the Supernatural fandom.
Lynn: So true. We’re passionate, that’s for sure. And some people would definitely agree with that and some wouldn’t.
Jay: But let’s start with those performances (Jensen and Jared). Because I’m gonna be crude right now and say that without performances like that, which don’t come along often, if there’s a scene where someone is not pulling it off? You’re basically polishing a turd with the music.
Jay: My job and particularly that scene, which I count as in the top two or three if not the most emotional, well acted, just hearts-on-their-sleeves as actors and as humans moments in the whole run of the show…
I don’t know why I ever entertained the thought that Supernatural might go out without all kinds of emotions and reactions, since the show has always inspired those in its fans – so why should its last few episodes be any different? The week before’s episode (Despair) brought intense and varied reactions and saw the loss of Castiel; this past week’s episode was very different but it somehow managed to engender varied reactions again. We didn’t lose any of the remaining three major players, however, and I’m still shocked about that. I had convinced myself, in an attempt to somehow prepare myself for the anguish, that either Sam or Dean or both were going to die in 15.19. I was so on edge I could barely think of anything else on Thursday (which makes work challenging) and I had my box of tissues and glass of wine at the ready. Slice of pie too, and fuzzy blankie, just in case. Not that any of that is going to be all that helpful next week, probably. But I was so convinced that we were losing at least one of them, that I spent most of the episode hyperventilating and hypervigilant, just waiting for the other shoe to drop.
And then…. it didn’t.
Until the moment the credits rolled, I was half hiding my face behind my hands certain that something horrible was going to happen and take all the good feelings away. I sat there in shock for a good few minutes after, probably muttering out loud “is that… it?”
It was also confusing because this penultimate episode (forgive me, but everyone in this fandom is using that word because it holds special meaning to us and how often do you get to use it properly?) – anyway, this penultimate episode felt so much like the end. Like the series finale, not just the season finale. There were lots of “let’s just leave it right here, okay?” posts on Thursday night. This fandom does not get to have feel-good endings. It just doesn’t happen. Not as a season finale, that’s for sure. We’ve been so conditioned to tragedy befalling us if we let our guard down, I think there was a collective “HUH?” from all over the world when this episode ended and Sam and Dean were still alive – and Jack was… Well, Jack. But also, for all intents and purposes, God.
The writers of this episode are not fandom favorites, which also made me nervous. They’re known for episodes that have so much going on, it makes your head spin, and this episode wasn’t an exception to that. There were things that made me scratch my head, but they also managed to tie up a ridiculous number of loose ends in a relatively satisfying way, so I’m not going to quibble too much. Maybe I just desperately needed something that felt like a happy ending, because I’m willing to just let myself feel good about this one. There is only one more episode left, and I want to hang onto any good feelings I can find about my favorite show EVER, for five days longer.
Special kudos for the amazing music in this episode, which really enhanced the story and made me feel more than I might have. Christopher Lennertz and Jay Gruska have knocked it out of the park so many times for so many years, making Supernatural so much more powerful and emotional than it would have been without their talent and how much they care about the show. I’m so appreciative. This episode was Lennertz; the series finale will be Gruska.
How many boxes of tissues will I need when the Winchester family theme plays for the last time? I don’t think there are enough in the universe.
The episode picks up pretty much where ‘Despair’ left off, Sam and Jack realizing the world is empty as we see scenes of empty streets in cities all over the world, mournful music playing that makes the scene so much more cinematic than it would have been otherwise.
Dean drives up to join them, finding a shell-shocked Sam and Jack.
Sam: I couldn’t save anybody…
Jack: (looking stricken already) Where’s Cas?
Dean: He saved me. Cas is gone. Jack, I’m sorry.
Dean still looks in shock, barely able to meet Jack’s eyes, his jacket still bearing Castiel’s bloody handprint.
Jack gasps, heartbroken. Sam looks even more shocked and guilt-stricken than before. He calls people, getting only cell phone answer messages. That little detail seemed so real, like exactly what any of us would do, unable to believe that everyone is really gone.
The three walk down the deserted street, mournful eerie music playing, into a deserted diner with the beer tap still running, like the best apocalypse fanfic. (With a little homage to Jensen’s Family Business Beer Co)
The diner itself is called “Sammy’s” and it resulted in some amusing tweets about bringing all the boys to the yard, because fandom knows how to have fun even in the midst of an apocalypse.
Jack calls to Castiel, but gets no response. As he walks dejectedly by some plants and trees, they wither and die as he passes.
Sam can’t shake his guilt.
Sam: I did this. We didn’t give Chuck what he wanted, we tried to rewrite him and the whole world paid the price…
Dean and Jack disagree, and Jack is the one who speaks the message that will always be inextricably linked with this show for me.
Jack: You can’t just give up.
Always Keep Fighting.
The Winchesters do seem to give up, though. They meet up with Chuck and tell him he’s won, that they’ll give him what he wants.
Sam: We’re giving up.
Dean: I’ll kill Sam, he’ll kill me. We’ll kill each other. But first, you have to put it back – the people, the birds, Cas. You gotta bring him back.
They are willing, both of them, to sacrifice themselves to save the world – as they have always been.
Chuck really is sadistic, though. He doesn’t find that story ending as compelling as he thought, deciding to leave the Winchesters and Jack wandering through a deserted world, dealing with their overwhelming guilt.
Chuck: Knowing it’s this way because you wouldn’t take a knee.
Three more episodes of Supernatural to go before the show comes to an end, so my highly emotional investment in every episode continues. Everyone is different in their way of coping with the show ending – some are pulling away, trying to protect themselves from the impending loss. Some are more invested than ever, determined to savor every last moment with their favorite characters. Some are just trying to hang on until the end. I’m clearly doing a terrible job of protecting myself or pulling away, since near the end of this episode I ended up bursting into tears and simultaneously screaming at fictional characters on my television as though they were standing in my living room. With gun drawn.
I’ve never loved a show that I knew so well that I had different expectations for an episode depending on who its writers were – until Supernatural. I like Meredith Glynn’s writing a lot, so I was already emotional knowing this was her swan song episode for Supernatural (though I’m excited she’s joining the SPNFamily who are over at The Boys next season!) Of course it’s not the writer who decides where the story arc goes, though, especially at this point in the series. I guess all that is to say I went into this episode with both anticipation and trepidation – and came out with a lot of feelings (and also profoundly emotionally exhausted). Mostly the episode worked for me, even if I had to do a fair amount of thinking about it to be okay with all of it. But I used up a lot of tissues in the process.
The episode title (“Unity”) tells us what will happen in it, which was inevitable considering there are only three episodes left. On each side, those who were ostensibly on the same team but at odds needed to come together so we could go into those final episodes with the battle lines clearly drawn. Sometimes that means plot comes before character in order to get from Point A to Point B, and that never makes me the happiest, especially with a show that I watch for the characters more than for the plot. Ideally the two goals aren’t antithetical. So with the title, we already knew where we were headed – it was just a matter of how to get there and would I enjoy the ride?
The first scene was very pretty. Amara in a pool in Iceland (which according to Emily Swallow was filmed in frigid weather, so argh poor Emily). Shooting stars fill the sky, reflected in her eyes as she looks up, and she says softly, “Welcome home, brother.”
Supernatural really is a sibling story, and Amara’s feelings for Chuck are as deep and complicated as Sam and Dean’s for each other. She’s a sympathetic character in this episode, which made me feel very bad for her throughout.
Much of the episode unfolds simultaneously, so they used chapter title cards of ‘Dean’ ‘Sam’ and ‘Amara’ to let us know that – which hasn’t been done before, so it pulled me out of the story momentarily. I don’t think we needed them, but I guess I see what they were going for.
At the bunker, Sam calls Cas, both of them frustrated at running into dead ends as they desperately try to ‘find another way’. Sam gives Dean the cold shoulder, things between the brothers strained and chilly after their car argument last episode.
Dean: So this is how it’s gonna be, you giving me the silent treatment?
They fall right into another argument, Dean insisting that “this is the only way” and Sam snapping back, “Don’t you ever get tired of saying stuff like that? Our last chance, our one shot…”
He’s so angry he’s ridiculing Dean, making fun of him for his sincerity and insistence.
Although both have a point here, really, since other times when they’ve let themselves be talked out of making a sacrifice, there have certainly been consequences, whether AU hunters being slaughtered by Michael or releasing the Darkness or Billie becoming Death or whatever. There are no simple answers on Supernatural.
Dean insists that they don’t have to like it – and he clearly doesn’t like it – but “you and me, we gotta get it done.”
The “you and me” theme runs through the episode, for both pairs of siblings, as they struggle to get back on the same page. I really like Meredith’s examination of the bond between siblings and how deep it runs, and how complex it can be – something the show has always had as an underlying theme.
Amara interrupts their argument to let them know Chuck is back, and to ask how they’re planning to cage him (which of course, they aren’t.)
Amara: When God caged me, he had four archangels. Do you have four archangels?
Dean: No. We’ve got one Jack.
It was possibly the only humorous beat in the episode that made me snicker – much of the episode was more about reaching for the tissues than laughing. Emily Swallow can pull off both the snarky and the sad, and she does both in this episode.
Once again, I’m keeping my resolve to document everything that happens in the final months of Supernatural – the things that make me cry, the things that make me dance around my kitchen with joy, the things that leave my head spinning because I have so many conflicting emotions. Hopefully it will help you too to make sense of all the feelings we’re invariably having about the ending of this show so many of us love.
The plan for today was to finish an article about another show and then to sit down and write about Jared and Jensen (and some other cast members) going back to film the very last two episodes of Supernatural. I knew it would be an emotional day – for them and also for us – as is every “last” that comes along for this show I have loved so much for so long. I knew I’d send them messages to “kick it in the ass” and hope that they feel joy in putting on Sam and Dean’s flannels and boots as well as some bittersweet sorrow knowing this is their last return from hiatus to become the Winchesters again.
The Powers That Be are keeping it under wraps as to when Misha Collins returns, or if – but I’m going with when until we know otherwise. Jared and Jensen joined Misha for a panel discussion with Senator Cory Booker and MJ Hegar from Texas last week to talk about the importance of voting – but the panel got hijacked temporarily by Booker, who is a huge Supernatural fan.
Cory: Screw you, Misha, I’ve got questions! (about the show)
Misha threw his head back to laugh so hard he nearly fell off his chair. It was wonderful to see how thrilled J2M were to realize that their little show has had such an impact even on someone as influential as Cory Booker, who referred to them as “his heroes”. I loved what Cory had to say about how important the art and media we love is and how much it inspires us, and the story MJ told about how Supernatural got her through some tough times. They clearly get it, and it was wonderful to watch J2M take that in and feel good about what they do.
Cory taking out his phone to take a picture of them all onscreen, unabashedly embracing his inner fanboy, was priceless.
Misha also did a panel for an online ReedPop convention a few days ago and said he had intended to take a sort of sabbatical once filming ended, giving him some time to reflect before taking auditions and maybe figuring out what he wants to do “when I grow up”. Of course, that didn’t happen – the pandemic happened instead. That’s left all of them, he said, feeling adrift because they started to mourn the ending of the show during this break – which must make it difficult to return and put those costumes on again. Misha hasn’t committed to what he’s doing next, but he has a lot of irons in the fire – a book of poetry, two true stories optioned, and his interest in politics very much on the forefront.
Misha said his favorite episode was 15.18, the last episode they shot before the shelter in place order. Many fans speculate that it’s in episode 18 that something big happens to Castiel, so that was both a hopeful and an ominous answer. They’re keeping it under wraps as to whether Misha is in Vancouver now in quarantine – my best guess is that while Cas may not be in episode 19, he will be in the series finale, episode 20. In some way!
The moderator also asked if Cas fans be satisfied with the ending of the show?
I was introduced to the new Amazon Prime show The Boys at San Diego Comic Con and was immediately intrigued. I was already excited about it simply because Eric Kripke, creator of Supernatural, is executive producer (and we all know how passionate I am about Supernatural...). So I went to the “activation experience,” which took you inside the first episode of the show and let you help some of “the boys” solve a superhero-related crime. That’s right, the superheroes in this show aren’t exactly the good guys. In fact, they’re a bunch of assholes. Most of them anyway. Propped up by big corporate money and power, the “Supes” are essentially the worst kind of fabricated and manufactured celebrities, their personas carefully constructed to appeal to the unsuspecting masses as the only hope for an increasingly frightened and powerless humanity. If that sounds a little too close to real life right now, that’s exactly the point.
That’s the premise of the comic on which The Boys is based, and the premise of the Amazon series as well. The show has something to say about who holds power in our current culture and how they wield it, including the role of social media and propaganda in shaping people’s views and keeping them in a perpetual state of fear – which makes a superhero who swoops in to save the day and claims to be able to keep everyone safe very appealing indeed. It’s a dark, gritty, cynical world that The Boys inhabit, but it reflects the fear-mongering and online manipulation that is all too real, that make people long for “saviors” and turn the other way when those saviors turn out to be the actual monsters.
All that hits a little too close to home, and if that’s all the show was about, the darkness would be too much to take on top of the overwhelming dose of darkness I get every day through every type of media. What makes The Boys instead as hopeful as the traditional superhero tropes it subverts were intended to be is the existence of a resistance. In the tradition of Supernatural’s Sam and Dean, the resistance comes in the form of a bunch of just plain humans, who nevertheless are willing to go against the odds and try to do what’s right. Instead of taking out demons and wendigos, the Boys are going after the Supes. Outgunned in terms of powers and definitely the underdogs, nevertheless the Boys are every bit as invested in the “always keep fighting” mantra that has made Supernatural such an inspiring show. I’ve only watched one episode so far, and I’m already rooting for them.
For a show whose first episode begins with an ultra violent occurrence and includes a decadent sex-fueled club scene and some full frontal (equal opportunity) nudity, The Boys tackles complex and relevant themes with a surprisingly deft hand. Main character Hughie, whose quest for revenge is instigated by one of the Supes callously running through his girlfriend at super speed and exploding her, has his trauma examined instead of just tossed out there as an explanation for what happens next. And while everyone on the show seems to live somewhere in the morally ambiguous grey area that I love seeing characters struggle through, that goes for the Supes too – or at least one of them.
The premiere episode also takes the time to examine new Supe Starlight’s recruitment into the elite “Seven”. Presented as young and naïve and fully buying into the cult of celebrity that she thinks she craves, Starlight soon finds that the Supes are not who she thought they were when she had that poster of The Deep on her wall. It’s a pointed commentary that was fascinating to me as a psychologist who’s studied celebrity and fandom for the past decade plus. There’s significant sexual assault-based trauma for Starlight that happens with that realization, and it too is not glossed over but explored realistically. That story line pulled on my heartstrings more than anything else in the first episode, and anchored the show in a feminist slant while critiquing the misogyny and power dynamics inherent in that world – and our own.
At the Comic Con press room, Erin Moriarty (who plays Starlight) said she loved the fact that you initially believe that Starlight is going to fit into the familiar stereotype, but it turns out she’s a lot more than that. So far, one episode in, she feels like the moral compass of the show, along with Hughie, who she just so happens to meet on a park bench as they struggle to come to terms with their respective traumas and how those traumas have changed how they view themselves.
The Boys is executive produced by Seth Rogen and Eric Kripke, based on the comic series by Garth Ennis. It stars Karl Urban (Billy Butcher) as leader of the Boys, along with recently traumatized Hughie (Jack Quaid), Karen Fukuhara (The Female), Laz Alonso (Mother’s Milk), and Tomer Kapon (Frenchie). The Supes include Anthony Starr (Homelander), Dominique McElligott (Queen Maeve), Jessie T. Usher (A Train), Chace Crawford (The Deep), Nathan Mitchell (Black Noir) and Erin Moriarty (Starlight). Elisabeth Shue plays Madelyn Stillwell, the corporate PR person who pulls the strings with a chilling smile.
As a passionate Supernatural fan, I was initially interested in The Boys because of Eric Kripke, who created the characters I love so much on Supernatural. I asked him a question at the press room for The Boys at Comic Con (see video link below), but couldn’t wait to talk with him some more about his new show and its similarities to his first ‘baby’, Supernatural. We’ve stayed a little bit in touch over the past decade by email, but having a chance to actually chat was a treat.
E: Hey Lynn, how are you?
L: It’s been like ten years since we’ve had an actual conversation!
E: It probably has been, but I follow you on twitter and we’ve had some twitter conversations and you seem like you’re doing great, so I know what you’ve been up to. And thank you so much for all the support over the years.
L: Pretty sure I should be thanking you – I’ve written six books about your show (Supernatural) that helped me get tenure and promotion to professor. Thank you for that!
E: Well, you’re welcome!
It really had been a while. I first chatted with Eric Kripke way back in 2008 when I began researching and writing books about fandom and celebrity, mostly focused on the show he created that I had fallen head over heels in love with, Supernatural. (Here’s Eric the first time we met at the Supernatural Creation convention in Burbank – he was a baby!)
We did a few phone interviews and met up at Comic Con that year to chat some more. We talked a lot about fandom and of course about fannish creativity and fanfiction. Eric’s first question: Am I ever in it?
Me: Umm, I guess? I may have run across a few…
Kripke: Oooh, is it porn? You have to send me that!
Fast forward to 2019 and Eric’s Reddit AMA when someone asked him if he’d read any Supernatural erotica and he said yes, and then described the definitely-not-G-rated fic…
L: I had to laugh when I saw you mention that fic with you and Jared from back in the day (laughing). I mean, what you said is true, you were assertive in it…
L: I had forgotten what it was actually about and was like OMG that’s right…
E: Yeah (laughing) I’ve never forgotten it, it made a major impact that’s for sure.
L: Well, either you’re welcome or… I’m sorry?
E: (still laughing) Yeah right, I think a little of both.
Side note: Eric has always been fine with fans “playing in his sandbox” and understands transformative works as a sign of affection for his characters and his worlds. There’s a whole chapter on our early conversations about Supernatural in Fangasm Supernatural Fangirls if you’re curious.
L: Anyway, The Boys! I’ve watched the first episode, I’m a bit old school in that I like to watch one at a time and space it out and sort of digest it. I LOVED the first episode and I think other Supernatural fans will really love the show too. There are some similarities to Supernatural for sure.
E: Mm hmm
L: For one thing, the protagonist is sent on a hunt for revenge because the love of his life is violently killed – Mary burning on the ceiling is an iconic image for Supernatural, and so is Robin being decimated and Hughie standing there still holding her bloody hands!
E: Hmm. That one, I mean yes, now that you’ve pointed it out, there are similarities to that. Robin dying in The Boys is taken almost frame for frame from the comic book so it’s funny, that hadn’t really occurred to me about that connection, because in The Boys the instigating incident is so infamous for anyone who’s a fan of the books. It was my job to capture it as faithfully as possible and that’s mostly where my head was, but yeah. Also, I think where they’re similar is there are a lot of tonal and thematic similarities. In a lot of ways, The Boys is a hard R Supernatural.
L: (silently) A hard R Supernatural….ohgod yes please…
E: And it’s funny because you don’t even realize these things until it’s hindsight. I don’t set out to say oh I’m gonna make something for Supernatural fans, I just make stuff – the only person I really try to please is me. But because I love Supernatural and those are the kind of things that I love, I guess it stands to reason that if left to my own devices to make another show that I put all my love into, it will have some similarities.
L: That makes sense.
E: What The Boys is really ultimately about is these kind of very down to earth middle class blue collar people taking on these arrogant ultra powerful forces that are overwhelming and all powerful. In Supernatural it’s angels and demons and (laughing) God…
E: And in The Boys, it’s the sort of pantheon of superheroes. The incredibly big guy with magical powers basically is something that I’m clearly interested in. I think I really like the idea of blue collar no bullshit guys taking on and puncturing these huge myths and kind of having to bring them down to earth just through their own wits, because they’re outmatched…
L: Yeah, and that’s all they have, their own smarts.
E: And that says something to me, I think, about the world. Like we’re always up against these seemingly insurmountable forces, but there are things we can do to get some equality. You just have to – it’s not easy and it’s not fair – but you just have to keep banging away at it.