After 15 years, Supernatural will air its final episode next week. In the latest episode, one character confessed their love for another, and then immediately died, leaving fans both elated and confused.
Supernatural is a show with an easy to understand concept that has only grown more and more convoluted with each new season. It's a show about two demon hunters, estranged brothers Sam and Dean Winchester, who go on the road and well, hunt demons. Over the years the show has gained an expansive mythology including demons, angels and eventually the apocalypse. Over the course of its 15 seasons, they also added another character, Castiel, who the fandom has largely shipped with Dean. Shipping is the practice of being enthusiastic about a romantic pairing in fiction, and the term and practice is often attributed to Star Trek fan zines in the 1970s.
Even before Castiel, Supernatural has endured both rabid shippers and also accusations of queerbaiting, wherein the show would hint at particular characters maybe experiencing same sex attraction, but not actually make that part of the text. Prior to Castiel, the biggest ship in the fandom was Sam and Dean, helped by the fact that actors Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki are handsome white guys with pretty good chemistry that don't look related at all. An offshoot of that ship, J2, which paired the actors with each other, would eventually become the basis for the Omegaverse, which is a very specific kind of werewolf porn that is now the subject of a messy lawsuit.
While the show had episodes calling out Sam and Dean shippers for how uncomfortable the ship between brothers made pretty much everyone, viewers of the show noted that they would still make references to the ship and leave little shippy breadcrumbs for the devotees.
"Slash fiction and shipping has been a part of Supernatural since its inception," wrote TV Guide in 2014. "But while the wink-wink-nudge-nudge jokes about Sam and Dean worked (more or less), that's because the Winchesters are brothers, and therefore there was no real expectation of anything more."
Those wink and nudge jokes continued after Castiel was introduced. Castiel, not being related to Dean, was fair game in terms of the possibility of an actual, consummated relationship. Destiel is by far the biggest ship in the fandom now, with over 86,000 fics under the tag on Archive of Our Own, a fanfiction website. The show did finally put some of the questions about Castiel and Dean's relationship to rest, but couldn't help pulling a little queerbaiting on the way out. While Castiel does confess his love to Dean, he dies literally right afterward. Dean does not return the confession of love.
Even without the finer details of the plot, the scene is bizarre to watch. There's a full 15 seconds where Dean and Castiel just look at each other in silence where in any other show they'd be making out. It's true that when the show premiered in 2005 that the television landscape was less friendly to queer protagonists. But it's been literally 15 years. They can just kiss now. I'm not sure what I expected from a television show that had an episode about a racist truck.
It's important to point out that queer fans of Supernatural not only obviously exist, but also love Destiel. Who doesn't get their rocks off to a little slow burn romance every once in a while? Seeing these ships become canon is meaningful to the fans that have championed queer representation on television for over a decade. Still, in reaction to last week's episode, the show's fandom has gone a little bit bonkers. While some fans are happy to see their ship become canon—Castiel's actor, Mischa Collins, has confirmed that Castiel's confession of love was romantic—other people are left saying, "that's it?" To make matters worse, the finale of Supernatural also aired on the night of the US election, breaking everyone else's brains just that much more.
Although there are queer fans who are celebrating Destiel's canon status, it feels unfair to queer fans not to offer them at least one scene of Castiel and Dean happily and affirmatively in love. By skirting the issue until now, letting fans collate their own compilations of shippy moments on YouTube, Supernatural has been able to have its cake and eat it too. It's a way to feed a queer fanbase without actually giving them anything to chew on. If you can make your fanbase spend all their time scouring the show for gay moments, you don't have to have your characters do anything actually gay.
That was the general mode of fandom, and queer representation, on television in 2005. In its earliest incarnations, fandom was about finding queerness in the margins, in shows that were not intended to be about queer couples. Kirk/Spock from the original Star Trek, one of the first major ships, was all about reading the text as queer, rather than the text being literally queer. In 2020, when gay marriage is legal and queer people have many more legal protections and social acceptance, we don't have to have queerness only exist in the margins anymore. In the next long running show about demon hunters, I have only one wish: two hot dudes should open mouth kiss for a full 10 minutes.
Correction: This article originally said that last week’s Supernatural episode was the series finale. The series finale airs next week.