On Supernatural Season 15: Legacy, Longevity, and Personal History

TV Features Supernatural
On Supernatural Season 15: Legacy, Longevity, and Personal History

On Thursday, October 10, Supernatural returns for its 15th and final season. The (for lack of a better word) supernatural series originally debuted on The WB in the fall of 2005; it was then one of two new series from the 2005-2006 television season to be renewed for the network’s merger with UPN into The CW. (The other being Everybody Hates Chris.) At this point in its run—and, arguably, any time past around the series’ fifth or sixth season—if you try to discuss the series with someone who’s not “extremely online,” you’ll probably get the same response: “That show’s still on?” Or: “I could’ve sworn that show was canceled years ago.” There’s also the oldie-but-goodie response about confusion that Dean from Gilmore Girls doesn’t play Dean on Supernatural.

Created by Eric Kripke (who at that point, had given us The WB’s Tarzan), and executive produced by McG (the brilliant Charlie’s Angels films), the little horror series that could is indeed still on the air, certainly long enough for those of us who can still have extended arguments with friends about Rory Gilmore’s awful taste in men to differentiate between Gilmore Girls Dean and Supernatural Dean. (For what it’s worth, Gilmore Girls Dean is played by Jared Padalecki, who plays Sam on Supernatural. Supernatural Dean is played by Jensen Ackles, who was never on Gilmore Girls.)

As the show enters its 15th and final season, co-dependent brothers/monster hunters Sam and Dean Winchester have gone through a lot: demonic possessions, angelic possessions, deaths (both their own and their circle of friends and family), trips to Hell, trips to Purgatory, trips to alternate dimensions, resurrections, deals with demons, deals with angels, deals with the literal Devil, loss of souls, getting addicted to demon blood, getting addicted to suburban life, knockouts, overcoming fears of flying (and bugs and racist trucks), witches, vampires, ghosts, and everything in between. Because there is still a lot in between.

The Winchester brothers have simultaneously learned from their mistakes over the years and repeated those same exact mistakes, usually as a result of both their extremely unhealthy (though well-acknowledged) co-dependence and individual savior complexes. But part of Supernatural’s longevity stems from that unhealthy repetition of patterns alongside the curious question of whether either Winchester will ever break the cycle. (Probably not, but it’s at least led to some epic finales as a result.) The Winchesters will die for each other and have died for each other, they’ve sold their souls for each other, and they’ve also done these things for the good of humanity. So what better way to end it all than to take on their greatest challenge yet: God, who has always been a dick on this series.* And now it officially confirms how intentional that was, as he is the series’ final Big Bad.

*I’ve long felt weird about this series causing me to react to certain aspects with, “God is a dick,” only for it to double down. It’s since tripled down on His dickhood.

For additional context, Buffy Summers saved the world a lot; but she only had two deaths and seven seasons under her belt when she did so. If Buffy the Vampire Slayer had gone on as long as Supernatural has, with as many protagonist deaths as the Winchesters, it would not have remained as good of a series as Supernatural has. That’s not to say Supernatural is a better show than Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but Supernatural certainly cracked the code when it comes to relatively fresh longevity in a way even the best supernatural/horror series of all-time never could. Because while so much of Supernatural relies on the ever-expanding world it’s recreated, it also relies on reinvention, even in the face of intentional repetition. Which is even more impressive for a series that originally had a five-year plan (which Kripke executed, before leaving the series).

That’s also not to say Supernatural has been without its flaws. One of the worst bits of repetition comes in the form of Dean’s black and white beliefs regarding monsters, despite regular reminders that it’s certainly far more complicated than that. (Especially once angels were introduced as not as definitively good as one would expect.) And while it was able to bounce back, the series reached a nadir halfway through its run during its seventh season—a time when most series would have just finally ended, not gotten eight more seasons to see if they could get out of the slump, which Supernatural eventually did. Then there’s the fact despite the series’ existence on a network predominantly known for its young female audience, there have been thousands of words written about Supernatural’s women problem.** Plus, on paper, Supernatural probably shouldn’t have ever worked. The two leads cast to play the grizzled young monster hunters were, at the time, the doofy ex-boyfriend Rory Gilmore had just had an affair with (Padalecki) and Lana Lang’s doofy boyfriend-turned-stalker (Ackles). You’ve got to remember that Ackles, especially—who plays the gruffer Dean—was considered so squeaky clean at the time that it came down to him and Tom Welling for the role of Smallville’s Clark Kent.

**I could write a couple thousand more words about this problem, especially in terms of how much of it has been in response to the predominantly female fandom’s quite vocal negative reaction to series’ female characters. Particularly any that could or did serve as love interests to Sam and Dean. This especially came to a head in Season Two with Alona Tal’s Jo—who retroactively became beloved to the vocal fandom after she died and was no longer a viable potential love interest—and then in Season Three with the only female series regulars in the show history: Katie Cassidy’s Ruby and Lauren Cohan’s Bela.

But I have seen all 307 episodes of Supernatural so far, and I will watch the final 20. However, I do have a confession to make: With all of these seasons, all of these episodes, all of these years and hours dedicated to watching the series, on a personal level, Supernatural has never gotten any better for me than the first three seasons.

That probably makes it sound like I’m suffering from Stockholm Syndrome by watching the show for a dozen more seasons after that, but bear with me. As successful as it has been on a weekly basis, I honestly find Supernatural to be one of the best shows when it comes to binge-watching. With each new season, I always intentionally end up falling behind on episodes—not because the show isn’t a priority anymore, but because I realized during those early seasons (which I’ve rewatched the most) that I love watching the episodes in a chunk. Even prior to the introduction of Chuck/God (Rob Benedict), I’d always considered each episode of Supernatural like a chapter in a book. And while the series never really drew attention to it prior to the character’s introduction, things like “The Road So Far” at the end of the seasons and the fact that episode scripts would end with not “THE END” but instead “TO BE CONTINUED…” gave me the impression that it was intentional. But I will admit that has, however, somewhat contributed to my feelings on later seasons, because I did originally fall in love with those early seasons week-to-week.

I’m still attached to Sam, Dean, and the majority of the characters (as well as actors) on the series, even though I don’t love the series as much as I once did. And another confession I’ll sneak in: I’ve never really been that big a fan of Castiel (Misha Collins). To compare it to Buffy the Vampire Slayer again: While, most of the time, I wish that Buffy the Vampire Slayer had ended with Season Five, I’m actually glad Supernatural didn’t. I don’t have as strong of feelings about post-Season Five episodes of Supernatural as I do Seasons Six and Seven of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but I also don’t resent the series for lasting as long as it has as much as I sometimes do Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Wild, right?

But when it comes to those first three seasons of Supernatural, the thing that really gets me is that I prefer the darker horror vibe of the series. The vibe where you couldn’t quite see everything and the series clearly needed to turn on the lights. (Season Three proved that the series was aware of lights, but it still maintained the lightless vibe.) To this day, first season episodes like “Phantom Traveler,” “Bloody Mary,” and “Scarecrow” are still genuinely unnerving, which I feel is something the series has lost in favor of telling a more epic story and general growth. It’s actually almost cute to watch Season One too, as demons are an absolute rarity when the series begins (introduced in “Phantom Traveler,” the fourth episode), and the Winchesters are over their heads when it comes to dealing with one. Especially when Dean says that “demons don’t want anything, just death, destruction for its own sake”—perhaps the biggest falsehood ever spoken on the series.

To put a finer point on each of those first three seasons: Season One admittedly isn’t the greatest in terms of the overall episodes, but it is great at building the fundamentals and characters for the series, and it gets how to mix the episodic and serialized from the jump. (By the way, “Hook Man” is actually worse than both “Bugs”—which has really good character work hidden inside—and “Route 666” combined, though is ultimately forgotten because of how boring it is.) The pilot is highly underrated, especially in terms of world-building, even though Jensen Ackles hasn’t found his “Dean voice” yet. It’s also near the end of Season One that Supernatural reveals its ability not to take itself that seriously, with its first comedy episode, “Hell House,” introducing characters eventually known as the Ghostfacers.

Season Two is my personal favorite, and it is when the series really starts to play around with what it can do with genre and its particular approach to storytelling, with episodes like “Born Under a Bad Sign” (the way it draws out the reveal that Sam has been possessed offscreen and eventual heel turn are a true showcase for Padalecki), “Tall Tales” (the introduction of Richard Speight Jr.’s Trickster), “Hollywood Babylon” (the earliest dip into the deep end of the meta pool), and the alt-world triumph of “What Is and What Should Never Be” (a true showcase for Ackles). It’s also the season that really kickstarts the epic nature of the series—without forgoing the horror of it all—as the story behind Sam’s special “psychic” ability (introduced right before the half-way point of underrated Season One) evolves so far past what anyone could have predicted in the first season.

Season Three is actually marred by two things: the 2007-2008 Writers Strike and the “ghost ship” episode (“Red Sky at Morning”), which truly challenges the “racist truck” episode (“Route 666”) as an idea that needed more work (perhaps because of said strike). At the same time, the season might be as good as it is because it’s a tight 16 episodes instead of the full 22. And also because of Katie Cassidy’s Ruby and Lauren Cohan’s Bela, as surprising as the latter might sound. My appreciation for these characters isn’t a hindsight situation for both actresses either: The combination of Cassidy’s work here and then later on The CW’s Melrose Place 2.0 truly had me dream-casting her as Black Canary before The CW ever got to work on Arrow, and while I can admit I didn’t love Bela initially on a week-to-week basis, I appreciated her much more on a binge rewatch, as a foil to the heroic Winchesters and an honest portrayal of what more people who are aware of the supernatural world would be like (if not completely traumatized). “Bad Day at Black Rock,” “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” “Mystery Spot,” and “Ghostfacers” alone would be individual classics in any season, and they’re all in this one.

It was also the season that had the ticking clock of Dean going to Hell, which I can’t underestimate the newness of at the time. It seemed like something of such a large magnitude—the result of Dean bringing Sam back from the dead at the end of Season Two—that the series would be able to get out of at the last minute. And then it just couldn’t. And didn’t. That was the last time I truly felt the anxiety of Supernatural. It wasn’t actually the last time a story in Supernatural could be surprising in scale, because the following season, it introduced angels. And then it introduced God himself. And then Lucifer himself. (And all of that, of course, begat things like the prophets, other gods, time travel, the antichrist, Jack the Nephilim, the alternate dimension, etc.) But that also came with Supernatural becoming even bigger than it ever seemed like it would when it first started. And while that has led to the series’ longevity, it just never felt as special to me. It was so much more than the little horror series—or really, a horror series at all, if I’m being honest—that could after that.

But Season Three—the end of what I consider the golden age of the show—was also my last Supernatural season viewed as a teenager, and I can’t deny that that most likely has a lot to do with my formative thoughts on this (and a lot of other) series. When Supernatural Season Five premiered, I was newly-21 years old and had a new supernatural/horror obsession on The CW: The Vampire Diaries, which blew me away with its storytelling structure in a different way than Supernatural ever did. (Supernatural’s meta and comedy style-episodes were simply never anything The Vampire Diaries ever attempted to touch, though its spin-off Legacies could get away with it.)

Meanwhile, Supernatural is now finally old enough to get a learner’s permit to drive “Baby” (Dean’s car, which got its own genre-bending episode in Season 11), and I’m over the hump of 30, wanting to see how it all ends. But I go into all of this knowing that, as much as Supernatural has adapted and grown in order to last these many years, I’ll probably never love it as much as I did during its (and my) formative years. Mainly because I’ve also adapted and grown, too.

I don’t expect to go into this 15th and final season of Supernatural and end up loving it as much as I do those first three seasons, but I still hope I do. I still hope I do with every season, and I should admit that there are episodes I genuinely love outside of those formative years, that almost scratch that seemingly unscratchable itch. Meta humor episodes like “Monster Movie,” “Changing Channels,” and the more recent “Scoobynatural” come to mind, but I’ll also admit that the post-Season Three seasons also to blend together move for me, which is another part of the equation when it comes to the love not being as strong. And the things I tend to latch onto, story-wise—like the witch/hunter sibling duo introduced in Season 12’s “Celebrating the Life of Asa Fox” and then followed up on in the tragic horror of “Twigs & Twine & Tasha Barnes”—simply end up being small detours instead of larger components of the series. (There are still episodes I remember vividly but can’t believe got made, like “Man’s Best Friends with Benefits,” which is at least an inventive twist on the show’s women problem.)

For the first time in years, I’ll be watching this final season week-to-week, to see if that does anything to rekindle the magic (and what I’ve written here is essentially a manifesto citing why I’ll clearly be doing a full series rewatch sooner rather than later). But even the Winchesters, at this point, know they can’t truly get back what was lost—even if they sometimes literally do, like they did their dead mother Mary (Samantha Smith), for the past two seasons—which is why every passing season features an even more weathered version of the brothers, with a “been there, done that” approach to all that they face. They still take it all deadly seriously, and they still certainly love it, but they acknowledge it’s just not the same. I can at least still relate with that.

Despite her mother’s wishes, LaToya Ferguson is a writer living in Los Angeles. If you want to talk The WB’s image campaigns circa 1999-2003, LaToya’s your girl. Her writing has been featured in The A.V. Club, IndieWire, and Entertainment Weekly, among other publications. You can find her tweets about TV shows, movies, and music you completely forgot about @lafergs;.

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