Supernatural’s Legacy: The Trauma of Silence
Understanding the unique grief of Supernatural fans, and the power of stories to liberate and to punish. [Warning: spoilers for season fifteen of Supernatural]
In the wake of Supernatural’s controversially underwhelming finale last Thursday, many fans are left adrift, angry, and deeply hurt. They are left grappling with an ending that blindsided them, not only leaving the traumatic death of a canonically queer lead emotionally unresolved but going so far as to scrub the character and all evidence of the decade-built queer romantic plot from the finale, mere episodes after a celebrated and victorious on-screen love confession between Castiel and Dean Winchester.
They were given a shell of a finale that saw all suggestion of queerness removed, all sense of heart and chosen family eliminated. Even the relationship between Sam and Eileen, too deeply tied to the themes of the queer love story, was dropped, dealing the added blow of abandoning a disabled character in favor of a random, unidentified partner for Sam.
Fans are, to put it simply, devastated.
And through all of their reactions, as people are processing their disappointment, grief, and rug-pulling confusion, one accusation stings so very clearly and pointedly for queer fans:
You’re just mad because you didn’t get your ship.
The legacy of Supernatural and its finale’s impact goes so much deeper than fans of Dean and Castiel’s pairing not getting their way. This isn’t about a ship.
This is about stories, and the intricate ways in which they become part of us and our world– the ways our lives and struggles are reflected, subverted, and reinforced.
This is about a story and characters that people deeply connected with, a story that people let into their hearts and souls, devoted their time and love to because they saw themselves in it and had faith that they might be worth something to it in return. They had faith that once, just once, they would get what they deserve in this world, that they would see themselves treated with dignity, respect, and love. They had faith that the story being told would be finished, that the emotional catharsis and resolution they had waited fifteen years for– the resolution that so many have been denied in their own lives– would be granted. It was not.
And not only did Supernatural deny this resolution, it actively regressed every moment of growth that led to it. It spat in the face of its own themes: found family, choice, unconquerable love, self-determination and acceptance, freedom from the seemingly insurmountable obstacles that seek to control and suppress us. Themes that people connected with because they are real to them. Themes whose treatment impacts them. Whose reflections on their lives are tangible.
Whether it was the writers or the suits, creatives or executives ultimately responsible, Supernatural gutted this journey and took characters who were stand-ins for vulnerable people and denied them their truth and closure. They set up clear, beautiful, meaningful endings– I would go so far to say the narrative promised them– and they burned it all down. Unapologetically, cruelly, and yes, homophobically.
This affects people’s lives. This is real.
The treatment of Castiel, Dean, and their love story, and the ultimate messages of their endings, are unconscionable.
Castiel is a stand-in for viewers suffering from depression, PTSD, self-worth issues, isolation, alienation. His story is about breaking free from abusive and controlling circumstances and building a family who loves you and chooses you for who you are, and learning to believe in that love. His arc is about feeling unloved and unworthy, feeling like no one around you could possibly want you for who you are and sacrificing your own wants and needs to earn the small bit of space you dare to take up. Believing this all your life and slowly learning that it isn’t true. Learning that you are wanted, that you have worth, inherently, just by being you.
Castiel’s story built to a point where he specifically needed to hear this from Dean. From the one person who he chose, whose love was quite literally the foundational starting point of his journey to autonomy and self-acceptance. The narrative demanded this in order for Castiel to finally believe in and live his whole truth, in order to reach the end of his arc. It set up a simple need: someone who has never understood the love they have been given, the love they deserve, must be told that they have it and deserve it.
Instead, not only was this journey to accepted, reciprocated love and ultimate self-actualization left unfinished, its ending point on screen was a premature and self-sacrificial death. This is Supernatural, so I am not talking about death in the sense that it is innately bad, because more often than not in the show it is transformative, transcendent. I am talking about the death of his character in the sense that he truly and permanently is not allowed to experience another moment of growth. That he is punished by the story for expressing his truth, that his journey toward internal and external love and worth ultimately leads to him giving himself and that love up, and this is never meaningfully subverted.
Castiel dies by finally letting himself speak his truth– by allowing a moment of actualization that is never rewarded with experiencing the thing he has finally let himself admit he wants. That is never rewarded with actually experiencing the acceptance, love, and reciprocal choice that we have spent over a decade waiting for with him. Castiel, our stand-in character for overcoming depression, alienation, and self-hatred, confesses that he is in love with a man and is so filled with the happiness of this love, so fully actualized in his identity– his love, his queerness, his acceptance of self– that it kills him.
His depression personified consumes him in the vulnerability of his happiness, and he is never heard from in a meaningful way again. His journey is utterly unacknowledged emotionally by the family who he was journeying to, by the man whose love he died for. His intrinsically queer story ends with that queerness literally killing him. Because taking this power for yourself, taking control of your life and claiming love as your own, must be punished.
This could all have had meaning. It was supposed to. This was set up to be subverted, the dark before the dawn, with Cas’s actualization honored by a confirmation of reciprocal love (be it romantic, familial, platonic, whatever, his arc is utterly unfinished without this) and a peaceful eternity spent as a fully realized soul. The consumption of the shadow subverted by integration with it, by wholeness and love consuming it in return. Instead, he is left off screen, given an offhand mention of an unexplored move to heaven, and is never shown to experience any sort of love or reciprocity from the family he built or the man he loves again. The message, in the end, is clear, no matter what the original intention was. Speak your truth, and it will silence you. Live your truth, and it will punish you.
Dean, too, is silenced and buried by his ending. Like Cas, Dean’s character is a stand-in for people suffering from trauma and abuse, for people who have had their personhood diminished and sacrificed by their families and circumstances, for those who have been harmed and pushed aside by the very people in their lives who are supposed to love and protect them. Dean’s story is about learning to overcome the limitations placed on you by others’ expectations, learning to value your own wants, needs, and dreams when you’ve been told your whole life they don’t matter. It’s about letting go of the toxicity that a cruel world will imprint upon your soul– distilling yourself and your truth from the darkness that corrupts you when you’ve experienced the world and all of its ugliness, when you have had insurmountable pain inflicted on you and have dealt that pain back in return.
His story is about learning that you can love and be loved, and that this love does not have to come at the expense of your autonomy or identity. It’s about accepting that you are not your worst moments, you are not your flaws; that there is someone within you who is worthy of forgiveness and life, who is inherently good.
Dean’s arc was built to a point where speaking his truth and choosing to live it were integral to its resolution. And this truth could only be one thing, the narrative demanded one specific ending that would do this for him. This truth was that he loved Castiel, that he wanted to be with him. This truth fundamentally symbolized Dean finally taking control of his life and choosing the one person who had always chosen him in return, whose love reflected and rewarded every aspect of Dean’s growth and journey to selfhood.
Speaking this truth to Castiel, to the person who loved him for exactly who he was, who always saw his light even through the darkest moments of his soul, the person whose love is established as the only thing that ever truly grew outside of God’s control– the only thing that was REAL– was fundamental to Dean finally accepting his own goodness and the value of his love, of his identity, and breaking free of the structure that had controlled and corrupted him his entire life to experience something of his own. Dean loving Castiel in return is how he could finally love himself, because this love at its core symbolizes freedom, truth, forgiveness, choice, and the overwhelming power of the soul.
But Dean never gets to experience this. Dean is never freed.
In the end, Dean learns that Castiel loves him and has always seen his true self, and then he never gets to live that truth. He goes right back to the life he has spent his whole journey learning to free himself from: Daddy’s little soldier, marching orders straight from his book, with only his brother by his side. Left only with the person he had been forced, time and time again, to sacrifice his identity, goals, and soul for. None of the family, support, or love, nothing he has built or chosen for himself remains.
And this man who has been told all his life that he isn’t good for anything more than a violent death on a random hunt, alone and afraid and dirty and only worth the body he can throw on the sword, dies exactly in that way. His body burns, alone, only his brother there to watch the smoke curl from his pyre.
Dean’s death, like Castiel’s, did not have to be an inherently bad thing. The story had very clearly built to a choice in this matter: a choice on how to spend the rest of his life and who to do it with. If this choice had involved passing on from this world to the next, in the context of choosing a life in whatever plane he moved to, it wouldn’t have mattered whether that life was mortal or eternal, on earth or in heaven, dead or alive. But that is not what happened. Dean didn’t choose to move on. He fought for decades to learn that what he wanted mattered, that his soul and identity were worth something, that his choices were real. And in the end, he is taken from his life randomly and violently, with absolutely nothing left to show for it. No choice, no act of the soul, no meaning.
And even after he gets to heaven, to his eternal reward, it is devoid of his heart and empty of any choice he had or would have made for himself. He does not seek out any of the people taken from him, he does not go to the man who confessed his undying love for him and sacrificed himself to save him, he does not start building the life that he never got to experience on earth. He doesn’t experience a single moment of actualization or make any choice besides getting in his car and driving aimlessly. He drives and drives to the end, to Sam, existing solely for his brother even in death. No choice, no soul, no meaning.
Dean died because his truth could not be spoken. He was punished by the story, by our world, because his only true ending would have been to love and be loved by another man. His only true ending would have been to fully experience his own identity and choice, and to live a new life surrounded by the things he built with his soul and the people who loved him for it. The message, again, is clear. Dare to seek your truth, and it will be taken.
The love between Dean and Cas was never just something people wanted to see because it was gay, or cute, or whatever people try to reduce it to in order to delegitimize queer stories and their power. The love between Dean and Cas was so deeply tied to each character’s journey, so fundamental to the resolution of each individual’s struggle and growth, so essential to the core themes and emotional substance of the narrative at large, that removing it from the ending caused the entire story to collapse. Failing to resolve it rendered their pain, sacrifice, love, choice– rendered the soul of the story– moot.
So no, people are not just upset that their ship didn’t get to kiss. People are upset that its removal functionally destroyed the story they love, and that the characters they so deeply identify with never got the endings they had built toward for so very long. That they, as viewers, never got to experience the moments of catharsis, acceptance, joy, and peace demanded by what they’ve gone through over the last fifteen years.
People are upset that pieces of their own souls, the pain and love that they identified with so personally and meaningfully, were burned with it. Yes, this is about queerness being fundamentally integrated into the story and its themes, and then being removed cruelly and hopelessly; it is about the painful message for every queer person watching that in the end, the world does not love you or even acknowledge you back. That you do not matter to it, no matter how convincingly it tries to pretend otherwise.
But this is also about our broader identities and struggles– feeling alone and scared, feeling alienated and othered, struggling with depression and trauma, losing autonomy, fearing and hating your flaws, feeling trapped or unloved or toxic or unworthy– it’s about these deeply vulnerable aspects of the self that people let this story connect to. That people found comfort and value in seeing reflected, validated, and overcome. It’s about the deeply traumatizing experience of something you love, something you have found yourself in, turning around and telling you none of it mattered.
The trauma of knowing that this will fuel the very hate, injustice, and devastating indifference that we live in spite of each day. Knowing that our love can make us as vulnerable as it makes us strong, and that this vulnerability has been and will be used against us whether it is in a story or our world.
People are in pain. People are grieving.
They are grieving a story that meant the world to them, they are grieving characters who never got to live their truths or experience their peace, they are grieving the parts of themselves that they saw in them. They are grieving the people they used to be, in those moments when they let themselves believe that they could finally have this– the innocence and authenticity in believing that their stories mattered. In believing that years of waiting, of dedication and faith, of real-life pain and struggle, were about to be honored with a simple act of love that they have been denied over and over again in their stories and their lives.
This is not about a ship. This is about us. This is about the power of our stories, and the pain of their suppression. It always has been.