Not with a bang but a Winchester

“You guys are my favourite show!” – God

(SPOILER WARNING – DON’T READ UNLESS YOU’VE SEEN SUPERNATURAL RIGHT TO THE END!)

Well, I guess it was time.

Long past time, if I’m honest, for the longest running American genre show of all time to come to an end. Supernatural has been with us now for fifteen years. Cast your mind back to 2005 – a different world to the one we live in now. Nobody imagined a world where a baroque nutjob like Donald Trump was President, or a massive credit crunch that nearly destroyed the world’s financial system, or everyone having a supercomputer smartphone in their pockets, or a pandemic that had most of the world confined to their homes to varying degrees. I mean yeah, George W Bush was President, 9/11 was still fresh in American memories, and much of the world was outraged by the ongoing occupation of several Middle Eastern countries on which the US had imposed its will in the name of freedom. But still, compared to today, it felt like a simpler time.

Into this world came a genre show like… well, several others, actually. In particular, Supernatural  at first seemed to be filling the void left by the then recently departed X Files, as evidenced by the Winchester brothers turning up at spooky crime scenes as fake FBI agents with hard rock identities (“I’m Special Agent Plant, and this is Special Agent Page”). At first, the show seemed to be following the familiar X Files Monster of the Week formula, with the boys encountering a mix of classics like vampires and werewolves alongside embodiments of urban myths and the odd monster chucked in from other cultures like the Djinn.

But it quickly became clear that there was more to the show than just another X Files ripoff. For a start, it was determinedly blue collar, Sam and Dean the embodiments of ‘ordinary Americans’ turning up to investigate mysteries in the rural heart of backwoods America where Mulder and Scully frequented the likes of Washington DC, treating the heartlands with suspicion. And it quickly built its own mythology, of demons and angels, of a family torn asunder, of a secret world of scary monsters kept at bay by a secret army of enthusiastic working class amateurs who all drove classic American muscle cars.

In effect, it came across not so much as The X Files, but as a US equivalent to long running British horror comic Hellblazer. Creator Eric Kripke was a huge fan of the comic, and reportedly even tried to get the rights to use its central protagonist John Constantine in his own show. When that didn’t work out, he introduced fan favourite character, powerful but befuddled angel Castiel – who just happened to dress exactly like John Constantine.

And like Hellblazer, it gradually started building complex arcs that ran over several seasons. By the time of the fifth season, it was clear that Kripke had cleverly plotted the whole five years as one long story of the brothers becoming destined to avert the Biblical apocalypse. The ending of that season, as Sam sacrificed himself to Hell along with Lucifer to save the world, was a clear ending to the show proper.

Except that didn’t happen. Viewers loved it. The monsters, the mythology, the ever-present humour to balance out the horror; and the brilliantly drawn, irresistibly likeable pantheon of characters introduced over those five years. Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki anchored the show as Sam and Dean, but alongside them was an ever-growing army of recurring characters – Bobby Singer, Castiel, Crowley, even the likes of Lucifer and Death. Fans didn’t want it to end.

And so it didn’t. Well, does any network show that still pulls in millions of viewers on a weekly basis? Its original story told, Supernatural switched to the tried-and-trusted Buffy formula – each season became a self-contained story, invariably ending with a cliffhanger that set up the next. Along the way, the show’s mythology built and built as new characters were introduced for the fans to love – sweet-natured prophet Kevin Tran, hometown sheriff Jody Mills, the brothers’ formerly dead mom Mary, voice of God Metatron, and even God himself, revealed to be a hack horror writer called Chuck who’d been writing the show all along.

So maybe it was inevitable, in a show that had been trying to outdo itself with each season’s Big Bad, that it would end with the Winchesters facing off against God himself. Supernatural’s always had a love of doing stories that can best be described as meta – along the way there were classics like The French Mistake, in which the brothers found themselves catapulted into a world where they were just characters in a popular TV show played by preening, vain actors called Jensen and Jared (Ackles and Padalecki took particular delight in sending themselves up gamely). Or the one where Trickster god Loki (actually the archangel Gabriel – it’s a long story) stuck them into parodies of every rival show being broadcast the same night. Or the one where they found themselves animated in an honest-to-goodness episode of Scooby Doo 😊

Zoinks!

This final season, then, was an extended exercise in that kind of meta, as Sam and Dean found out that not only had God been writing their lives all this time, but he thought the show had run its course – like more than a few of the viewers. Chuck was cancelling the show (and therefore the world), and he had a particular ending in mind. Trouble was, it wasn’t the ending Sam and Dean had in mind…

Obviously, in terms of powerful opponents, it doesn’t get much bigger than the actual God, as sympathetic sceptical supporting characters, convinced of Sam and Dean’s impending doom, repeatedly commented. It’s interesting to note that, while Supernatural’s wider mythology (Heaven, Hell, demons, angels) is primarily drawn from Christian folklore, its treatment of them as pure fantasy emphatically does not make it a Christian show. We’ve seen over the years that angels are snobbish, self-important assholes with only contempt for humanity, while God himself is portrayed as a neurotic writer with a desperate desire to be loved, who sits around in his underpants churning out cliched pulp horror.

Rob Benedict was clearly having a whale of a time as God the Bad Guy, having been in the role on and off for over ten years. One of the delights of this show is its ability to retain most of the actors who’ve ever appeared in it in case their characters need to return, and this season was an extended example of that as loads of much-missed popular characters returned throughout for the show’s swansong.

The incomparable Mark Pellegrino was back as Lucifer again; lovely, sexy Osric Chau popped up as a version of Kevin Tran who’d been stuck in Hell; Jake Abel returned from Hell as lost Winchester brother Adam, still possessed by snooty archangel Michael; Shoshanah Stern was revived as Sam’s sometime love interest Eileen…

The only significant absence was an appearance from the legendary Mark Sheppard as Crowley, who reportedly split with the show on very acrimonious terms after seven years. But even he popped up in the pre-finale celebration The Long Road Home, perhaps secure in the knowledge he wouldn’t have to return to a show that had finished.

But for all that, this final season was a perfect demonstration of why the show really did need to end. We’d been here before, in almost every way. The season started with the gates of Hell opening and releasing all the damned souls onto Earth. Again. Jack (Alexander Calvert’s junior version of Castiel) died and was brought back. Again. Castiel sacrificed himself for the love of Dean (for at least the fourth time). Again.

That’s increasingly been the problem with a show where the characters can more or less freely pop in and out of Heaven and Hell at a whim. Like Steven Moffat’s run on Doctor Who, the death of a major character increasingly loses any dramatic impact when the viewer knows that they can return at any time (subject to spells, rituals, and actor availability). The showrunners even managed to bring back a boatload of dead characters from the parallel universe of “Apocalypse World”, rather undercutting the shocking deaths of, among others, Felicia Day’s Charlie, and Jim Beaver’s beloved stalwart Bobby Singer. In fact, Bobby’s been dead so many times now that I couldn’t work out whether it was the original or parallel universe version we met in Heaven in the series finale.

And of course the show ended with first Dean, then Sam dying too. I might have found those scenes (particularly Jensen Ackles’ heartfelt farewell speech) rather more moving if the pair of them hadn’t died and been resurrected about half a dozen times before. As ever, the script even knowingly lampshaded that in an earlier ep when Jack returned from the Empty, with Cas commenting, “it’s kind of a rite of passage around here”.

Cas, at least, did get a moving exit in episode 18, realising that his moment of perfect happiness was simply to be with Dean (as all ‘Destiel’ shippers have always suspected). Thus invoking an oath to the Empty, he was swept away along with (sadly) Lisa Berry’s magnificent version of Death (aka Billie). It helped that Misha Collins has so grown into the character that fans have come to love – the show’s very own ‘innocent outsider’ a la Spock or Data. Like Sam and Dean, Castiel’s been dead a fair few times before; unlike them, this time his departure, complete with satisfied, beatific smile, actually made me well up.

Sadly, despite some excellent individual episodes, that kind of dramatic impact was in short supply in a final season that could best be described as anticlimactic. The Big Arc was actually wrapped up in the penultimate episode, and never has there been a more appropriate use of the description ‘deus ex machina’. The ‘deus’ this time, turning out to be Jack, who absorbed all of God’s powers to use against Him, despite this never really having been seeded in any episode before.

In fact, the whole season seemed to consist of dead end subplots where an arcane method to defeat Chuck would be explored and then turn out to fail, only for him to finally be defeated by something that only cropped up in about the last five minutes of the penultimate episode. It was a damp squib of an ending to an arc about an enemy so powerful, particularly in comparison to previous conclusions in the show. Four ordinary looking people standing next to a lake chucking CG lightning bolts at each other in broad, sunny daylight until one of them fell over felt very much like Supernatural by the numbers.

Still, I did like Sam and Dean’s defiant refusal to stay down after a fist-pummelling from God himself – if ever anything has been a perfect celebration of ‘Team Free Will’, that was it. And Chuck’s final fate – not to be killed, but to live out his life as a regular human – felt like a greater punishment for him than simply ceasing to exist. For an all-powerful being desperately craving the love of others, to be an ordinary, forgotten guy eventually dying of old age must have been the worst fate imaginable.

With the season’s main arc wrapped up with one episode left to go, I’d expected the series finale to be some kind of massive, spectacular celebration; perhaps a big party, bringing back as many regulars as they could, to give the guys a real, sentimental sendoff. One of my favourite issues of Hellblazer, which had so much influence on this show, simply shows us John Constantine’s fortieth birthday party, with a good, drunken time being had by loads of DC’s supernatural characters. Swamp Thing even turned up to “give a helping hand” to one character’s underwhelming cannabis plant, leading to the amusing spectacle of an out-of-it Zatanna, slumped in the kitchen exclaiming in her trademark backward speech, “!denots os ma I” 😊

I’d have liked an ending along those lines. A party. After all, no matter how anticlimactic, it’s the final end for a beloved show that’s been entertaining viewers for fifteen years now. I imagine it was an option the showrunners considered, opting instead to go for the very low key finale we saw here. Fair enough, it’s their show, but it felt like going out “not with a bang, but a whimper” to me.

I can see what they were trying to do – draw a line under the show and eliminate the possibility of anyone trying to resurrect the characters yet again. So after having defeated God Almighty, we got the boys going back to normal life – ie taking on monsters in average backwoods American towns – only for Dean to finally fall foul of the most innocuous of hazards, being shoved ingloriously onto a protruding spike during the kind of fight he’d had hundreds of times before.

I got the point – with God gone, nobody was writing the show any more, and suddenly the risks were more real. But it lacked the kind of impact we’d seen before. Yes, an ordinary death, defending ordinary people – no sturm und drang, no universe-saving heroic sacrifice. I can see the intent, and that some fans might find it satisfying in the same way as David Tennant’s Doctor finally sacrificing himself just to save one ordinary man. But my preference would have been for the show to go out on a more operatic note.

The same was true of Sam’s final ending, dying of old age in a hospital bed. Again, I can see the intent – Sam’s always wanted nothing more than an ordinary life, a family, and the chance to live happily that he had before Dean reappeared in his life in 2005. This gave him that, with his son holding his hand as he slipped away to join Dean in Heaven. But at the very least, I was disappointed not to see his wife identified – the whole season had been pointing to him pairing up with Eileen, but in the event we only saw a shadowy silhouette around a corner. Perhaps Shoshanah Stern wasn’t available, but at least a line acknowledging that it was her might have been nice.

Ah well, for better or worse, it’s over now. And while I may not have liked the finale as much as I’d hoped, I can absolutely understand what the writers were aiming for, and I’m sure a lot of fans loved it. For now though, after fifteen rollercoaster, scary, funny, epic years, it’s time to say goodbye. Here’s to you, Sam and Dean Winchester, Mary and John, Castiel, Jack, Crowley, Rowena, Lucifer, Charlie, Bobby, Chuck, Amara, Zachariah, Billie, and so many more.

Carry on, my wayward sons.

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