It has taken me four days to stop crying long enough to sit down and write something about the Supernatural series finale, which aired last Thursday, November 19 on The CW. After fifteen years of loving this show, writing about this show, publishing six books about this show and its fandom, and making forever friends through shared love of this show, to say that its ending was monumental for me is still an understatement. Supernatural changed my life, both personally and professionally. Its message to always keep fighting inspired me to fight to be myself and to be real when life had taught me the opposite for all the years before this little show came into my life. Its cast supported my writing when I first dipped my toe into the waters of a new venture, contributing to my books with courage and candor and humor – even writing their own very personal chapters – and being just as real as I was struggling to be. Its fandom became my community of like-minded people who validated every moment of my this-is-me journey, challenged me to open myself up to different perspectives, and joined me on adventures I never dreamt I’d go on.
And I’m not the only one. This little show has changed so many people’s lives. That’s exactly what the last two books I’ve published are about – in the actors and fans own words, why Supernatural has been special to them. How it has changed – and even saved – so many of us.
Supernatural was an unexpected, unanticipated blessing, and I wouldn’t trade this wild ride for anything. But when you love something that much, it’s hard to let go. I can’t really imagine the pressure on the writers, producers, cast and crew to try to wrap up fifteen years in a way that will satisfy the fans to whom they owe so much. There’s never going to be something that satisfies everyone, especially not with a fandom known for its wildly different takes on the show and its characters, who are all watching for their own personal reasons. Because Supernatural was personal. It fulfilled something for each of us that was important; something we don’t want to let go of. The last episode was going to hurt no matter what, but if it didn’t go the way you were hoping it would, then there’s the sadness and anger of the ending not being what you wanted, on top of the awareness that now it never will be. And that hurts even more. I have so much empathy for my friends who didn’t like the way the show ended and who are in alot of pain because of that. Those feelings are valid just as my friends who loved every minute of it have valid feelings too. I hope we can all have empathy for each other, because love it or hate it, we’re all trying to cope with the end of it and we’re all hurting.
As Rob Benedict (Chuck) reminded us yesterday, endings are hard, right?
I’m having my own very real emotional response to the last episode, but I’m also inevitably viewing both the episode and the fan reaction through the lens of what I do – I’m a clinical psychologist who studies fandom and has primarily researched this show and this fandom for almost fifteen years. I teach graduate courses in grief and loss, and I’m well aware of how indescribably difficult it is to lose something or someone that has been this important. It’s hard to figure out how to go on when what you counted on to get you through is no longer there. It’s terrifying to think of what will be like without what you lost, knowing all little ways that it was so present in your life, constant and continuous. Something to be counted on through the toughest of times and to share your joy in the best of times. Something so BIG that it defined all your moments, good and bad – that it felt like an integral part of who you are, a mirror that reflected back your own identity so you knew who you were in the world. A constant companion, a source of validation and comfort, and sometimes a challenge that changed your perspective whether you wanted it to or not. Supernatural and its unforgettable characters were all those things. Losing that is almost unbearable.
But not quite. And that, in a way, is what the finale was all about. I didn’t realize it while I was watching, curled up in a ball drowning in my own tears, but with time to process and put my soaking wet psychologist hat back on, the meta message alongside the equally important fictional story is clearer. This episode was like a master class in loss and grief, taught not only by the creator of the show and the writers, but by the fictional characters and the incredibly courageous and talented actors who played them. I understand some people wishing for a “happy ending” for the Winchesters and for Castiel before they died. It’s what they deserve after all they’ve been through. We’ve watched them battle monsters and angels and demons and God himself for fifteen years, enduring trauma after trauma, suffering horrifically, getting back up again and again and again to keep fighting. I too envisioned the last frame of the show being Sam and Dean driving toward the sunset in Baby, Cas with wings unfurled above watching over them. That’s literally the cover of my last book, aptly titled There’ll Be Peace When You Are Done. I would have felt content with that, like I did at the end of the penultimate episode, which ended like that (except we feared Cas was still in the Empty). My guess is that was the ending that Jensen Ackles originally wanted too, because he loves Dean and doesn’t want to lose him any more than we do – and because we all desperately want this to be a story that can eventually be continued. I would have been fine with that ending, and while I would have sobbed a lot anyway just to be losing the show, it probably wouldn’t have been me crying so hard I nearly made myself sick. Or not being able to stop for too long for the past four days.
This show has always made me feel so much more than any other show ever has, because I have truly loved it. I know this episode was hard to watch in a lot of ways, and some of my closest friends are really struggling with how their favorite show ended and I have so much empathy for that struggle. This is real to us; when we’re hurt and sad and angry about it, those emotions are as valid as our feelings about any other loss. We all need to feel what we feel, and deal with loss in our own way. The actors, writers and crew who created this show are also entitled to their genuine feelings about its ending, and I hope that we as a fandom can give them that space to feel their own emotions just as I think they’re trying hard to give us ours. The story, ultimately, is ours to take in and hold onto, however we need to. So I’ll try to share my own thoughts on the episode and what worked for me about it, in the hopes that it might validate your own feelings or help you figure out what your own thoughts are, whether similar or very different. As humans, we all need to make sense of our own experience in order to integrate it into our sense of self and our life story – so talking about it helps! As fandom used to say back in the day, your mileage may vary.
We all want to avoid loss and pain whenever we can; that’s just part of being human. It’s unfortunately also part of being human that we can’t avoid it, and one of the things that media does is to help us process that pain and loss when it comes. Supernatural from the very start has not been about happy endings. What has made the show so compelling to me is that it has always been based in reality – gritty, imperfect, unpredictable, sometimes tragic reality. Eric Kripke’s brilliance in creating this world and these characters is that they could tell us a story that would go right to our hearts (often breaking them) because the story was REAL. All the Winchesters were flawed, slogging their way through horrible circumstances that they didn’t deserve and then coping (often poorly) with the aftermath, hurting each other in the process. The show didn’t shy away from showing us the darkness of the life they had chosen, and the ways in which it shaped them – just as or own real life tragedies and challenges shape all of us. It’s not always pretty, I know that from being witness to the lives of so many of my clients and from living through my own challenges. We have all done that. Castiel may not have been human, but he followed the same path as the Winchesters on his own journey, having to endure failures and make mistakes and ultimately become who he really was despite (or because of) those.
The thing that made Supernatural so powerful is showing that journey in an unflinching way, not glossing over the harsh realities of the world the characters live in. The Winchesters’ lives were difficult – a million times more difficult than most of ours. Their lives were never perfect, and they were never perfect. Instead, their lives were real – and ultimately so were their deaths. They weren’t superheroes with super powers wearing super suits – they were real human beings who were vulnerable to being killed every single time they went out on a hunt. That’s what made them heroes, because they did it anyway. Maybe Chuck was manipulating their circumstances some of the time, but it doesn’t matter – they didn’t know that, and their courage came from their willingness to go out there, saving people, hunting things, even at great cost and risk to themselves. They were a lot more heroic than someone with super powers because they only had themselves and they did it anyway. (That was Kripke’s initial brilliance, and a theme he’s carried over to his new show The Boys, which is all about how the ordinary humans keep taking on the superheroes even when they’re ridiculously “outgunned”). What could possibly be more inspiring than that?
What kept Sam, Dean and Cas going – and what keeps all of us going – is the relationships we make along the way. That has always been the hopeful side, the light in Supernatural’s pervasive darkness. That love, ultimately, is what can save all of us. It can keep us going through the most horrendous failures, the most unbearable pain, the most overwhelming of tragedies and losses. It’s the way we find the strength to pick ourselves up and keep going even when we think we can’t. It’s the way we still TRY even when it feels like we’re going up against fate itself. These characters showed us that, week after week, month after month, year after year. They make sacrifices for each other that could never happen out of anything but love, as Castiel demonstrated so vividly in ‘Despair’. As the Winchesters have shown us time and time and time again.
It’s not always easy to watch. Sometimes it tears our hearts out. I still remember sitting on the floor sobbing when Sam was stabbed in the back and died in his brother’s arms way back in Season 2. I can’t even watch ‘Abandon All Hope’ because when Ellen and Jo died like that – so tragic and so REAL – I couldn’t get it out of my head for weeks. (Just like I’ve never been able to watch the Buffy episode ‘The Body’ ever again). But those episodes are, indisputably, brilliant television. I think this was too.
I know some people wanted Butch and Sundance, or a more big screen Marvel showdown, or something more “epic” or “dramatic”. Those endings are, as Rob Benedict said in his Stage It panel yesterday, what Chuck wanted. He wanted to be entertained, he wanted Sam and Dean’s endings to be grandiose, and he wanted to be a part of making that happen. But you know what? Sam and Dean and Cas and Jack defeated the last big bad when they took down Chuck. So instead, Dean died on a hunt like he’s gone on a thousand times – and every time he does, he knows it might kill him. He and Sam walked into that barn with machetes, human and mortal, and faced down more than twice as many vampires, knowing that they might not make it out of there this time. People saying Dean didn’t die a hero? What is more heroic than that? It was a vivid, stab-you-through-the-heart reminder that every single time Dean Winchester walked into a situation like that, it could have meant his death. It was a vivid reminder that Dean was utterly mortal, always vulnerable, completely HUMAN, and they still managed to save the world a time or two. Even at the very end, they killed the monsters. They saved the kids. And Dean gave his life to do that. That the monsters themselves didn’t directly kill him was a bit of poetic justice that I like to think Dean Winchester himself would have enjoyed just a little.
I’ve also seen some people say that Dean gave up, or that Sam gave up because he didn’t call 911. If you listen to the dialogue (that Jared and Jensen helped create for their characters) I don’t think that’s the case at all. Dean knows he’s dying, as people often do when they’re mortally wounded. He’s an experienced hunter; he knows what being impaled means. He just witnessed it himself earlier this season when his old friend was impaled on a pool cue, living long enough to share last words before Dean’s pulling it out ended him. He knows. He’s not giving up at all, and he doesn’t want to die and he desperately doesn’t want to leave Sam – but that’s the reality of life sometimes. It doesn’t go the way we want, and it’s messy and tragic and so fucking sad. Dean does the best he can with the time he has left, and is given the gift of being able to tell Sam what’s important to him for Sam to know. He accepts the reality because he can’t change it, not because he’s given up.
Sam is in shock, but he is also an experienced hunter who has seen more than his share of death. When he puts his hand behind Dean and feels what he’s impaled on, and his hand comes back covered in blood, he also knows. (Just as Dean did in the parallel scene in All Hell Breaks Loose, as his hand comes back equally bloody) Sam doesn’t want to believe it, of course, but when Dean calls him back and asks him to stay, Sam knows and eventually accepts this is what he can do for his brother. By the time emergency responders got there, they would have found Dean’s dead body and Sam standing among a bunch of beheaded people, and Sam wouldn’t have been able to carry on at all.
Sometimes life doesn’t go as you planned, and you have to always keep fighting anyway. Even when it hurts like hell. That’s been the theme of the show since the beginning.
The question of ‘where’s the character development’ is tossed around a lot in this fandom, and it was tossed around at the finale too in terms of Dean especially. But to me, there was tremendous character development here for Dean. He showed that he was able to be vulnerable, to let Sam know that he’d been scared and desperate when they were younger no matter how much bravado he’d put on, letting Sam now see his real feelings. He’s able to tell Sam right out that he loves him, just as Castiel did with Dean before he died, showing us some of his own character development. It’s what Dean wanted to be sure Sam knew — that for Dean, it’s always been them. In his last moments – and in the years before his death – Dean Winchester changed so much. He went from a lonely, repressed young man, full of self loathing and constantly afraid of being left alone, to someone who was in his words “okay with who I am” and able to enjoy a pie fest and love a dog and appreciate all the little mundane things in life that make it satisfying to all of us. Able to show his real self to his brother. He could see Sam for his real self too, in the nuanced way that we can when we mature and don’t see in black and white anymore. He could see Sam as the strong competent equal partner – and still, always, Sam his beloved baby brother. Dean could integrate all those feelings; his relationship with Sam had grown to a place where it enriched and sustained them both. He had come to an integrated view of hunting too, it seems. Sam and Dean weren’t only about hunting; they had joy and laughter and pie eating and friends and maybe even a part time job, as the application on Dean’s desk suggested. Dean had become his own person; he could own doing what he wanted to do, and he was courageous as hell in going out there and living his life the way that gave him purpose and satisfaction. (And later we see Sam’s success at integration too, perhaps with hunting and also being a good parent to his son or at the very least by not allowing a drive for revenge and an inability to set healthy priorities to keep him from raising his son in a healthy way). That’s real character development for both of them. It took a long time, but that’s how it works in real life too.
I’ve also seen the complaint that Dean died right after they finally defeated Chuck and didn’t get any time to enjoy living life free from Chuck’s machinations. I liked that the show left it up for interpretation just how long Sam and Dean lived in the bunker, hunting and taking care of Miracle and doing laundry (Robbie Thompson we finally got a glimpse of your day-in-the-life episode), but they were in such a well established routine, it seemed clearly meant to be a while. Someone apparently asked Jared at one of his weekend Q & A’s how long it was and he said about five years, which is about what I was thinking too. I don’t think they meant to imply at all that Dean died on the very next hunt they set out on – hence the montage. He had the opportunity to live free, as a big old fuck you to Chuck and in honor of Castiel’s sacrifice, doing what he loved and doing it with his brother.
There are also some who don’t like that Sam lived for a long time without Dean but was still clearly grieving. To me, that’s part of what made this a master class on loss and grief. We don’t ever forget the people we’ve loved and lost, and a part of us will always miss them and long for them. We see Sam’s pain vividly; we see his tears, we see him glance at the guns on Dean’s bedroom wall and then resolutely walk away. The ‘Always Keep Fighting’ message that’s explicitly called out in the barn scene is a real life reminder that this is what we all have to do. Sam was still able to keep his promise to his brother and make a life for himself. He felt joy raising his son, and he was clearly a good father, breaking the intergenerational transmission of trauma cycle that had held the Winchester family for so long. The episode foreshadowed all this in the pie scene, with Dean telling Sam, “that pain’s not gonna go away. But if we don’t keep living, then all that sacrifice is for nothing.” The montage of Sam’s life without Dean is purposely vague, left open ended and blurry (sometimes literally), with the invitation to fans to interpret it however works for you. Did Sam marry Eileen? Did Sam hunt for a while and then later settle down with someone else? Were there some other circumstances? We don’t know; fill in the blanks as you will. It was like the show acknowledged that its diverse fandom all wanted and needed different things from it, so it left plenty of openings as an invitation to make it what you need. (A fan asked Jared in one of the Q&A’s about who the blurry person was supposed to be and he said it was left open as to who Sam’s partner or co-parent was, and that Sam’s sexuality and gender is whatever speaks to us)
(In fact, there’s even an interpretation going around that the montage was really Dean’s fantasy of what Sam did while he was in Heaven waiting; that in reality, Sam died in that werewolf hunt in Austin and followed right after Dean. It’s not my interpretation, but even that one can work if you need it to!)
The point is, in my interpretation, Sam did carry on. He didn’t make a deal or beg Jack to intercede. He didn’t bring his brother back, just like none of us can bring back the people we‘ve loved and lost no matter how badly we want to. He lived with the loss and though he continued to grieve, he also went on with his life and lived it to its natural conclusion – that character development again. At the same time, the nuanced way Jared and the writers showed us Sam’s grief was so poignant, and again, so real. As Matt Cohen noted in his Stage It on Saturday, the way Sam looked around sometimes at the empty space beside him, hit hard. The way he sometimes had to go sit in the Impala and clasp his hands around the steering wheel that his brother always held, needing to feel close to Dean again. The way he wore Dean’s watch and his hoodie and carried his duffel when he left the bunker. Every second of the scenes in the bunker after Dean had died rang so true to me, it brought a fresh round of choking sobs. If you’ve ever experienced a crushing loss, so much was familiar to you. The way Sam wandered the halls, looking so lost, picturing Dean around every corner. The way he left Dean’s bedroom just as it was, beer bottles on the table and bed unmade. The way he sat on Dean’s bed and cuddled his brother’s dog, a tear trickling down his face. I understood when Sam made the beds and closed the doors and climbed the stairs of the Men of Letters bunker for the last time, turning off the lights as he left. Sometimes the reminders are just too painful; sometimes adapting to the loss means something new, even as you carry with you something that you’ll cherish forever.
I think Supernatural did that brilliantly. Like I said, a master class on grief and loss. And the final bit of brilliance, to me, was that the episode worked on a meta level too, as so many Supernatural episodes have over the years. Because in real life, we are all dealing with the momentous loss of the show itself. We are all feeling the pain that Sam Winchester did as he looked around and realized that his life was so much emptier now, without what he loved so much in it. In all its themes, the finale reflected what the cast/crew/writers/fans are actually going through in real life — as we feel the pain, grieve the loss, and ultimately Carry On.
The episode title was not just an homage to Kansas and the show’s unofficial theme song, though of course it was that too. It was also the theme of the episode – what Sam did, and what we all will do as well.
The story itself, as a story, also works for me, and worked for the people telling the story according to Jared, Jensen and Misha. There was a strong need, for the people who made this show, to bring it to an ending that felt right. To come full circle in some ways, to find the end of the heroes’ journey at the same place, but changed forever. There were lots of callbacks and Easter eggs to this end. The final hunt takes place in Ohio, in Eric Kripke’s old stomping grounds. The words the brothers say to each other as Dean is dying are a call back to what they’ve said to each other before. The first words they said in the pilot when they’re reunited, other than ‘easy tiger’, were Dean’s “heya Sammy” and Sam’s “Dean?” and also what they said to each other when Dean came back from hell; these are also the last words they say at the end of the finale. The clothes they’re wearing are a mirror of those they wore in the pilot. Many of those call backs were Jared’s idea, or Jared and Jensen together. They may not have been credited as creative producers, but there’s no question that’s what they became over the course of fifteen years. And this show – this ending – was so important to them that they had incredible input. That’s how much they care.
That was a four page explanation of why the episode worked for me, with the explicit acknowledgement that it might not have worked for you. It seems to have worked for the cast, who have all talked about their own emotional reactions and love of story that they see reflected in it. (Misha watched it as an audience member and I think cried almost as much as I did). I know there are plenty of people for whom the episode didn’t work, though, for multiple reasons. Life is hard right now and some people just wanted a happy ending for their favorite fictional characters, because in the midst of a pandemic there aren’t many of those. For some, it was a little too real when they just wanted an escape. For some, their favorite characters not being in the last episode was painful, for whatever reason they weren’t there. (Apparently there was supposed to be a brief scene at the end where all the people Sam and Dean had cared about over the years were there in Heaven with them, but Covid restrictions interfered). That would have been a lovely scene, and it was what I expected honestly. I would have loved to see beloved characters – and actors – have a chance to hang out with Sam and Dean one more time. That said, Covid made the finale episode a much more quiet and intimate story, and I think that ultimately worked to make it even more emotional. For some, an ending that was more traditionally ‘romantic’ was hoped for, but that has never been the show’s main story. It’s a shockingly subversive thing even in 2020 to tell a fifteen year story that’s all about platonic love and celebrate that bond so joyously in the final episode. Supernatural has never, ever, been like all the others.
So, five pages later, let me go through the episode as I usually do. Because hey, this is the FINAL Supernatural episode, so if this is long, so be it. Maybe I just don’t want to finish this review, knowing it’s the last one I’ll write… Sometimes grief is temporarily about some denial and avoidance, after all.