Supernatural has put itself in a weird position this season. By “weird,” of course, I mean not “weird” at all: far too common, in fact, with this television season becoming something of a breaking point regarding the treatment of LGBTQ characters on television. As a slew of recent deaths on shows like Empire, The Magicians, Jane the Virgin and, perhaps most visibly The 100, has grown into a significant discussion of the toxic “bury your gays” trope, calls have gone out for TV writers and spearheads to sign the “Lexa Pledge,” a promise not to use LGBT characters as fridge fodder, ratings ploys, baiting tactics, or sensation but rather treat these characters, well, as characters.
It’s perhaps because all of this is occurring, and extremely visible, that I find what Supernatural is doing right now to be so peculiar.
I think we all remember the last time Supernatural ran truly afoul of its fans. No, not Charlie — no no, not those awful sexist episodes all through 9 and 10, either. No, not the general blathering nonsense that was most of the last two seasons. Think earlier, back to 9×03 and the nastiness that was Guy Bee and others calling Destiel fans “delusional.” Season 8 brought us a strange transformation in Dean and Castiel’s relationship to go along with a new series head. Coming out of purgatory, having lost Cas and presuming him dead, Dean was destitute. He began to see Castiel in windows and on the side of the road in a direct parallel to Sam and his long-fridged girlfriend, Jessica. He was moody, staring into middle distance to remember Purgatory and his time with Castiel. Ultimately, we discover he wanted so badly to believe Castiel wouldn’t leave him that he changed his own memories. When Castiel returns he’s being controlled by the angels — but Dean is so desperate he refuses to see it until the moment Castiel is standing above him holding a knife, when Dean’s shaky admission that he “needs” Cas breaks the spell and Heaven’s connection over a celestial body. Later on, we’re shown Dean & Cas in a bar, waiting on a cupid, when a television near them directs and shoots a ‘bow’ at them. Moments later, the cupid arrives and works her love connection, on the only two other men at the bar.
The point of this is: S8 felt like it was building to something. And then S9 aired, and Castiel had sex with his angel-sister, and we were told we were deluded for inventing things. For seeing parallels where there were none.
For many fans, the S8 bait-and-switch was offensive: out of touch at best, mean-spirited at worst. Absolutely tone deaf, at any rate. The problem with S11, though, for all that the individual episodes have been good, for all that the overall arc has been shockingly cohesive, is that it’s done nothing to prove itself as any more honest than its predecessor.
There’s no reason to believe or trust that S11 won’t ultimately go the way of S8. In fact, I rather expect it to.
It’s easy to watch a show and analyze it like a novel, or a film, or a mini-series. Hell — I have a PhD in literature; it’s practically ingrained in my head. I often find that I have to stand back and play the game of, “What Does The Average Viewer Think,” because I acknowledge that as both a (semi-)professional critical reader, and as a fangirl, I am very much outside of the realm of the “average viewer:” the audience member that tunes in casually, for whom the “THEN!” segment is attached each episode. Now, it’s debatable whether such a creature even exists for SPN, a show that has built itself off of a cult fan base, but more to the point, the fan base itself is extraordinarily fractured: there are at the very least two segments that watch episodes and often get entirely different readings from them. The key, for me, is to consider this the meter by which to measure “foreshadowing.” The fewer instances you have of multiple parties claiming subtext – the more consistency you have – the more weight I tend to give to the text as genuinely pointing in a specific direction.
Tonight’s episode, The Chitters, was an excellent example of this. A few minutes on my Twitter Feed immediately suggests the dominant reading of this episode within the DeanCas community: that Ceasar and Jesse were parallels to Dean and Castiel. There are certainly solid arguments for this: Ceasar and Jesse have been together seven years, the same amount of time that Cas and Dean have known each other; their introduction comes off of one of many very consistent intros in which Dean is desperately searching for Castiel, Sam trying to console him; Jesse’s relationship with his brother, however brief, was shockingly detailed in its rendering, including the closeness, the ‘us against the world’ mentality & support, and – significantly – the fact that the conversation we saw them having before his brother was killed was a direct parallel to the conversation we then cut to Sam and Dean having: Dean, struggling over his feelings for a boy; Sam, trying to support him while also keeping him pinned to earth and potentially harsh reality.
But a trip back to the dark corners of Tumblr immediately nets me a Wincest-heavy conversation insistent on this episode as a Sam/Dean parallel, and admittedly for good reason. This has been a season of Sam and Dean considering what happens “after” – if they get an “after.” This episode questioned what it was like, “settling down with a hunter,” and Dean immediately assumed the married couple were siblings — were “like me and Sam.” As many a joke over the show’s last few years has reminded us, at this point Sam & Dean are all but common-law married; even Castiel, Dean’s only ostensible “love interest,” acknowledges this aspect of Dean’s relationship to his brother. And of course, the episode is full of questions of moving on — an easy extension to make if you assume this scene, from 11×17, is also about Sam instead of Castiel:
Another line quickly claimed by two separate ships, with fair arguments for each. Destiel’s argument: the writers’ room debate about whether or not this episode should go before, or after, “Hell’s Angels.” The Wincest argument: this statement is coming only 30 minutes or so after we saw Dean (he thought) watch Sam die, and his corresponding reaction.**
** I’d argue that regardless of DeanCas intention, it was very clear Dean’s suicide attempt was not solely over Sam, but rather, Sam’s death was the final straw after having lost Castiel, and his own agency, but that’s neither here nor there.
Now, I’ll admit that I sound as though I’m reaching for cynicism, and it’s likely I am. Because for every truly, seemingly unquestionable moment:
(Dean finding out Castiel made a deal with Lucifer)
I’m reminded of an equivalent from S8 that, at the time, was held up as equally unquestionable.
Supernatural has a proud history of “maybe” moments that lead nowhere: lines that could mean anything; gestures that go nowhere. But again — “maybe” doesn’t work for the “average” viewer. Scenes like the confessional in Paint it Black are taken at the utmost face value:
— by which I mean, Dean wishes he had found love; Dean wishes he’d had a family; Dean wishes he’d had a life. It feeds cleanly into S11’s discussion of settling down, of being tired, of retiring, etc…but for the “average” viewer, Castiel likely doesn’t factor into the equation, because he’s (correct me if I’m wrong) never been physically present for this kind of thinking on Dean’s part.
Being a DeanCas fan is like being Charlie Brown, after a while. As much as you want to play, you know you’ll never be allowed to kick that football; you know it will always be pulled away at the last minute. The part I struggle with this season more than anything is the fact that this set of writers should know better. Whereas Singer, Carver, etc. seemed largely out of touch with the audience, Dabb, Berens, Robbie etc. are all active and engaged on social media; they were, for the most part, present when everything went to hell in S9. This is equally true of Misha for me, who went as far as to speak up against what happened, back in S9 — I’m genuinely surprised he’d go along with this level of baiting once more.
I suppose, ultimately that it’s possible they don’t see it this way; that to them, this is a story about platonic family that they’re writing. I have a hard time believing that given Berens is regularly on Twitter talking about queer subtext in ET and providing meta-analysis of indie horror stories and Archie comics, but Berens isn’t the incoming show runner. But if they do genuinely believe that’s the story they’re telling…
We have four weeks from the finale, and I do predict this much: SPN’s finale will be a very dramatic day for the internet. I don’t know why SPN has chosen to make these textual decisions, but I do hope that in this current media environment, if/when they pull another S8, it doesn’t slowly disappear, or worse, go silent as the DeanCas shippers are shamed into feeling guilty for their disappointment and anger. I hope that this time, the response is vocal and viral. And that SPN is put in a position where this is absolutely, positively no longer an option. In a dreamworld, I’d love to see TPTB sign the “Lexa Pledge” — though in reality, they could never do it; it’d be effectively consigning Castiel to never having a plot again.
I still have hope for this new set of writers creatively, but I won’t lie: it disappoints me that they’ve chosen to start their run by reliving Carver’s Great Queer Bait of 2013. I hope for better of S12, once they have full control from beginning to end. And in the meantime, I think back to “Little Slice of Kevin,” “Goodbye Stranger” and “Sacrifice” any time my heart gets ahead of my brain in terms of textual criticism.
(PS: I would like nothing wrong to be very very wrong with this post. I would print it out and wave it over my head like a flag, if I were proven absurdly wrong over this post. However, I am fairly likely I am more likely to one day wake up a manatee-icorn than it is such a thing will pass.)