A miracle occurred on the evening of November 5th, 2020. On this day — Guy Fawkes day, the third day of the 2020 US Presidential Election, the day that rumors of resignation swirled around long-empowered Russian politician Vladimir Putin — Destiel (the popular pairing of protagonists Dean and Castiel) became canon. If you had asked me to bet on this happening, I would have lost money. For years, Supernatural acknowledging the possibility of a gay relationship between these characters seemed more than improbable — it seemed entirely beyond the framework of the show.
Supernatural began in 2005 on the WB, a network that no longer exists. The broad, cultural myth of Supernatural emphasizes that the WB is no more. It’s a weird detail to hang the fascination upon — it was not a particularly notable network and that Supernatural ran for 15 years is so much stranger. It began in 2005, nine months after the second inauguration of George W. Bush, not even a month after Hurricane Katrina. Supernatural weathered half of the Bush years, the entire Obama presidency, and all but the final months of the Trump presidency. In 2005, when Supernatural started airing, my family’s television still had rabbit ears. There have been bigger media phenomena (Twilight, Game of Thrones, Glee) but there have been few as long-running. Supernatural’s longevity has long hinged on its relentless capacity to change everything while paradoxically preserving its status quo.
Supernatural was originally five seasons of story. Eric Kripke, the show’s creator, departed when it became clear that the network wanted a season six, at which point it passed into the conservatorship of a succession of showrunners. If the first five seasons of Supernatural are defined by a semblance of continuity and a singular, all-encompassing threat, the following ten are defined by ever mounting, ever more-powerful foes. The first five seasons asked what could be more powerful than heaven or hell and definitively answered that it was human hands. The following ten seasons asked what could be more powerful than heaven or hell and each season answered that it was clearly some kind of new super-devil. Each season is the season in which everything changes, and as a result, nothing seems to change in Supernatural at all.
“Showrunner” has become a ubiquitous title. It supersedes “creator.” This idea of a creative professional whose job is to come up with the characters, central conflict, and idea of a show has largely evaporated. Roseanne continues without Roseanne Barr — now it is The Conners and any mention of a creator is scrubbed from it’s discussion. The Conners is showrun, as is Breaking Bad/Better Call Saul/El Camino, as is the MCU. The first two Star Wars trilogies were created, but the third trilogy is showrun. But before any of these pieces of intellectual property began their unstoppable churn into infinite profitability, there was Supernatural.
Supernatural has made money even as its world has strained and groaned from the pressure of ever-mounting threats and villains. But it made The CW money, which is why its clear narrative and boundaries were abandoned to fully render a perfect product. There’s a potentially apocryphal quote, in which a CW exec, when asked when Supernatural would end, jubilantly declared that he would run it as long as he could. The network no longer determines whether or not a show will live — it determines whether or not a show will die. It is impossible to understand Destiel without the knowledge that Supernatural presaged a model of media in which stories are not written to be told; they are written to print cash.
Consumption and Consummation
I shotgunned the first five seasons of Supernatural the summer before I went to college. At the time, Netflix did not have season six streaming and season seven had not yet aired. When I got into the series, one of the biggest active fan projects was Redemption Road, a multi-creator, alternate sixth season comprised of almost seven hundred thousand words of fanfiction. Redemption Road makes my heart ache, like so many other fanworks for Supernatural. It was made with so much obvious love, and this love is held in contempt by the institution itself.
Supernatural’s ratings hinged upon the unbearable frission of a will-they-won’t-they romance. The problem of genre fiction made with the exclusive input of cis, straight men is that the relationships shown are overwhelmingly ones between cis, straight men. When all of the characters that are running on spaceships or solving mysteries or driving cross-country to exorcise demons are men, it follows that the closest relationships will be between those men. When only straight, white men are afforded onscreen interiority, it follows that the fans are most clearly drawn to those men.
When Castiel the angel appeared in the season four premiere, the most prominent living female character on Supernatural was a demon who did not survive the season finale. (I am told in the fifteenth season, the protagonists re-encounter her in Ultra-Hell.) Before Castiel entered the picture, the most prevalent ship for Supernatural was, as the show occasionally poked fun at, between the brothers Winchester themselves. Why wouldn’t it be? They were the only real characters.
The tension of Supernatural from season four forward was whether or not to give the fans what so clearly fascinated them or to initiate a long trend in which nothing is truly resolved but also nothing truly matters. Of course, they took the latter. And when the Destiel moment finally did arrive, it wasn’t a radical break — it was transparently a straight person’s idea of gay love. And Supernatural’s idea of love is awful.
Within Supernatural’s paradigm, the consummation of love is use. Dean loves his brother so he takes his place in Hell. Sam loves his brother so he takes his place in Hell. Castiel loves Dean and so he is subjected to every indignity of Supernatural’s endlessly escalating plot. He falls from heaven, he is tortured by angels and demons alike, he is possessed by leviathans, and now, finally, he goes to Super-Hell to again entrap some new threat. Who is this love for? Who does this paradigm serve? Within this paradigm of use, the purpose of a fandom’s love is not generative, it is an exploitable resource. Love as Sam and Dean and Castiel do and sacrifice — give and give and give your time and your money. It cannot be reciprocated, but it makes the devotion no less beatific. Please go to Hot Topic and buy another overpriced shirt with a pentagram and Jensen Ackles’ rapidly wrinkling face on it.
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Love Wins 🙂
In 2005, it seemed deeply impossible for there to be anything resembling gay love on network television. It seemed even less likely for gay love to appear on a genre show. But Supernatural outlasted the God Hates Fags era and hung on past Obergefell v. Hodges. Nothing about the calculus of love within Supernatural changed, however. Castiel confesses his love to Dean Winchester — he looks him in the eye and says, “I love you.” The script notes immediately afterward that Dean is incapable of reciprocating such a gesture — and he doesn’t. He tells him, “don’t do this,” at which point, Castiel is dragged into Ultra-Hell. It is immediate. It is a fulfillment only in the technical sense of what the fanbase has most desired for at least ten years. It is followed immediately by evident disgust and a swift resolution in which man’s man Dean Winchester’s sexuality remains unquestioned.
Supernatural was perfectly positioned as a show to leverage the explosive potential of online fan engagement as network airing became less significant and streaming became everything — nothing happened quite like Supernatural happened and everything since has tried to catch the same lightning in its own bottle. But when I think of the Destiel confession, I think of the “exclusively gay moment” in Disney’s remake of Beauty & the Beast. A bone to throw at a minority that hungers to see themselves in stories, reified by culture. A thing so fleeting and inconsequential that it can be easily ignored, whether by homophobic families having a nice day at the movies or homophobic governments looking for things to censor. It was what the audience wanted, in a way that would hardly challenge the potential for profit, in the final moments of the story. In much the same way Disney’s ‘exclusively gay moment’ happened mere minutes from the end, the Destiel confession came three episodes from the series finale. Of course, it makes sense that the network would do it now — what use is love to a finished show?