I’ve just finished episode 10 of the fifth season of Supernatural, and I’ve rarely felt so conflicted about a show I’ve been watching long-term. The demon-hunting, Christian mythology-drenched drama exceeded my initial expectations and has occasionally flirted with greatness, egging me on to persevere. But each episode is inescapably littered with missed opportunities, and so the show fails to resonate nearly as much as it could. Plus, the misogyny and macho posturing have become distressingly obnoxious.
So instead of debating an episode’s strengths and shortcomings every single time, I’ve decided to finally get my ideas down and articulate why I like Supernatural enough to stick with it (for now) and why exactly it continues to let me down.
Now, I’m two seasons behind on the show, so you might discredit this article as outmoded. But the problems I have with the show are long-standing, and later episodes will likely just provide more evidence rather than overcome my objections. Its flaws are deeply embedded in its construction, so I don’t think enlightenment is around the corner.
Fans may just tell me to give up if I don’t like it, and believe me, I’ve considered it. I may yet call it quits with the conclusion of season five, since it apparently resolves several of the long-running storylines. I gave up on the Wheel of Time early in book eleven with a heavy heart because of its procrastination and misogyny, so I’ll give up on Supernatural too if need be.
But the last few episodes have been strong enough to give me some hope. I’m going to take a look at why they’ve worked and what holds the show back from being truly accomplished.
To many and to me, Supernatural seemed at first glance to be a show about hot guys hunting ghosts and stuff. I rejected it for a long time for that reason (and the woeful, braindead title), but enough people I trust recommended it as a worthwhile genre show. The first episode made me a believer: it’s genuinely scary and unsettling, with a final image sufficiently otherworldly and brutal to suggest that the show had more ambition and skill than I expected. However, the story itself was familiar enough that I wondered if Supernatural would break any narrative ground.
As seasons went on, it absolutely did with the format and structure of individual episodes, but not so much with the arc plotting. Supernatural is clearly a post-Buffy show in its incorporation of self-aware humour and dialogue, but whereas that style was consistent in Buffy, Supernatural often surprises you with its comedy. A deathly serious episode can be followed by a metatextual, fourth wall-smashing script. Granted, The X-Files and other genre shows were breaking down these generic borders in the 90s, but Supernatural goes one step further.
Two-thirds through a comedy episode, it can suddenly reveal itself as crucial to the arc storyline. There has been no hint that it’s connected, but the shift is nonetheless warranted. Our expectations of what the episode is have been subverted, while still validating what’s come before as a plausible path to this point.
Take the recent episode ‘Changing Channels’. It begins by bridging a previous comedy storyline with the arc as Sam and Dean try to locate the Trickster to determine if he will side with heaven or hell. The Trickster then traps Sam and Dean as players in different television shows, from a Grey’s Anatomy satire to a painfully unfunny domestic sitcom. In the latter, the writers take yet another opportunity to make fun of the show’s conventions and Sam and Dean’s predictable behaviour and dialogue. The story is sharply funny and metatextual in a way you would never expect from the safe, teen-skewing CW network Even so, we’re given no sense that any of this matters to the arc beyond the lip-service motive for contacting the Trickster.
Then, when trenchcoat-loving fallen angel Castiel is overpowered by the illusion and suggests they may be dealing with something more powerful, the Trickster is revealed to actually be the archangel Gabriel.
This is akin to one of the Lone Gunmen in The X-Files revealing himself to be part of the Syndicate.
Such a jarring collision between the show’s two modes shouldn’t work, but Supernatural ducks and weaves through its own generic conventions so regularly that the writers make these rapid shifts cohere. For this alone, Supernatural should have more attention from critics than it does. Some dismiss it as rehashing Buffy‘s genre deconstruction, but the magic act that Eric Kripke and his team present in certain episodes is its own beast entirely.
That confidence in playing with format is the show’s strongest attraction for me, but the arc itself can be pretty engaging. Christian mythology has driven a ton of movies, books, and shows in the past, so Supernatural‘s embrace of it in season four, while inevitable given what had come before, wasn’t the most original course it could have plotted. The secular conceit that both heaven and hell are right and wrong in this struggle is refreshing though, particularly when angels are as merciless as the demons.
But the execution is where Supernatural falls down on the job. As engaging as the narrative is on paper, it routinely fails to resonate. The writers don’t seem to know how to make us feel for Dean and Sam, with much of their interaction founded in macho posturing and cliched dialogue (“we have to do this together!” “I’m gonna kill that son of a bitch”). Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki are quite convincing as brothers, but much of their relationship is forged from what’s said rather than unsaid, except for some soulful eye-bulging courtesy of Padalecki. Most of the dialogue has precious little subtlety and there are virtually no quiet moments where the two actors are allowed to communicate silently to demonstrate that the characters have any interiority.
So because we’re rarely allowed to intuit the characters’ feelings for ourselves, the show has only been genuinely moving. A scene early in season two where Dean explained his grief for his father is wrenching, and demonstrated just how capable Ackles is as a performer. He also shone in season four when he confessed to Sam that he remembers everything from his time in hell and that he tortured for years. Just the notion that one of the show’s two heroes became a sadist was far more subversive than I expected of the show.
Dean is most effective as a tragic figure who has lost and suffered greatly for a cause that few are willing to fight for. But in the last season or so, this has been swallowed up by the macho bullshit the writers saddle Ackles with. His constipated tough-guy delivery has come to dominate his performance as well, and it’s become insufferable.
So a moment in the latest episode reminded me that these opportunities still exist, and underlined how the show has failed to make us feel the cost of the war between heaven and hell. As Dean leaves Jo to sacrifice herself with a bomb, he says “see you on the other side. It probably won’t be too much longer.” There’s a sadness to Ackles’s delivery, and suddenly the war they’re fighting feels like a crushing burden they may not escape, and Dean knows it. The exchange reminded me of Fringe, a more effective genre show than Supernatural on virtually every front, particularly because it’s infused with profound melancholy. You feel for the characters and their plight in all the ways you can’t for Dean and Sam.
Dean has talked like this before, of course, but it was always angrily and brusquely to Sam or Bobby or someone else. You don’t feel for Dean because he seems strong enough and empty-headed enough to not be truly fazed by what’s happening, precisely because we’re given little reason to think otherwise. That’s not how you elicit empathy for your protagonist. You also don’t overload the characters with dialogue that tell us everything they’re feeling in plain language. Supernatural doesn’t understand how to show rather than tell.
The focus on Sam and Dean leads us to the most offensive of Supernatural‘s problems: its attitude to women. Many have denied it or written it off as a welcome flaw in Dean’s character, but misogyny is so entrenched in the show that it clearly informs its worldview. The show being male-dominated hasn’t helped matters, but didn’t cause the problem. Strong, interesting female characters could still have been incorporated, but virtually every one is either a pure, virtuous, personality-free maiden (see Jessica, Sam’s late girlfriend) or a conniving, deceitful ‘bitch’ (Ruby, Bella, Meg), as we’re repeatedly reminded. Mother and daughter Ellen and Jo have been the closest Supernatural has come to writing inoffensive women, but they’re still fairly featureless. Ellen is the tough mother figure and Jo the sassy but ultimately innocent object of desire.
Introduced in season two, the pair largely vanished until an episode earlier in season five. Their return promised to boost the show’s gender diversity, but instead in ‘Abandon All Hope’ they get blown up, probably only to return as a hallucination to remind Dean how he’s let down absent women who couldn’t survive without his help.
And what were poor Ellen’s final words as a hellhound bore down on her? “You can go straight back to hell, you ugly bitch!” How empowering. Dean has also been calling the hellhounds ‘bitches’ through the episode, even though they’re – wait for it – invisible! How would he even know? Not that he would if he could see them either. But that doesn’t matter: they’re primal, evil, ravening monsters, so they’ve gotta be chicks, right?
The show never misses an opportunity to use loaded, misogynistic language even when there’s a host of alternatives. Supernatural bludgeons us with “son of a bitch” at nearly every possible opportunity; rarely has a phrase been repeated so damn often in a TV show, and it contributes to the uneasy, anti-feminist undercurrent to the show.
Exiled demon Ruby embodies the show’s misogyny the most. From her first scene, Katie Cassidy drips sarcasm, disdain, and bitchiness, and almost never deviates from that style. Sam and Dean spend much of the season complaining about how abhorrent she is and that they can’t trust her. Given that the other female cast member in season three is manipulative jewel thief (I know…) Bella (Lauren Cohan) – who is also a bitch, according to Dean – the female presence on Supernatural is myopically negative. Dean and Sam are allowed to be multi-faceted and make huge, selfish mistakes, so why are they not impugned as being fundamentally flawed like the women are? Sure, they’re the main characters, but to not extend some of that nuance to your secondary characters is just lazy writing.
Ruby’s death in the season four finale offers the single most unsettling image in the show. After her deception is revealed, Sam holds both her arms from behind while Dean rams the demon-killing knife into her belly with an almost sadistic glee. The rape symbolism is so startlingly obvious I’m amazed it wasn’t reshot, because it’s not what you want audiences associating with a triumphant evil-vanquishing moment, especially since Genevieve Cortese doesn’t have the range to convince us that Ruby is now a villain. Sam and Dean seem to be viciously killing someone who sounds pretty damn innocent even if her words aren’t, so the overpowering rape imagery hits like a sledgehammer.
What’s most startling about all this is that Supernatural‘s fanbase is predominantly female. Female fans are often drawn to shows about male relationships, and Supernatural fits that bill perfectly. But if I were in that position and noticed the misogynistic undercurrent of the show by writers no doubt aware they’re writing to huge numbers of women, I’d be pretty damn insulted. Is the trade-off for a male-centric show that women embrace that female characters barely feature and are demonised (usually literally) as a result? Sure, Supernatural is one of many shows guilty of an inequitable portrayal of women, but rarely is the disparity so stark.
As I articulate my disdain for the show’s gender politics, I’m starting to wonder if I should stop watching it in protest. I suppose there’s been just enough ambiguity in how the writers themselves perceive women for me to have given them the benefit of the doubt. The revelation that their mother was not a pure, personality-free angel but actually a hunter in her youth raised the possibility that Dean wasn’t so much a mouthpiece for the writers as just a pig who has a problem with women. The empowering of their mother, who was previously notable only for being a dead victim, suggested that the writers were fine with a strong woman who wasn’t hateful, manipulative, and defined by the men around her. Ellen and Jo, bland as they were, also went some way to reassuring us that Supernatural wasn’t as into putting women in their place as it was busting demons.
But now they’ve killed off Ellen and Jo so they can become collateral damage for Dean and Sam to avenge like the manly men they are. Swings and roundabouts…
So I’ll proceed with Supernatural for a while longer, at least until the end of this season. The show tells a good yarn, and some of the stand-alone episodes are still kinda creepy. But watching it in conjunction with Fringe has made me realise that there is far better genre material on television and that my love for genre may be lowering my standards due to the sheer dearth of it on TV. Because even if there is precious little of it, the subpar stuff shouldn’t be endured. I hope Supernatural can meet and preferably exceed that standard as it forges ahead with its reasonably ripping end-times arc.