The Morning After
That’s the last time I’ll write those words about Supernatural. The Morning After. The morning after a new episode of Supernatural has aired. The morning when I try to capture my first impressions and the emotional impact an episode inspired before there’s time to logically analyze and explain, or emotionally process and understand. I’ve always considered those words to be pivotal to my reviews because I believe it’s important to capture first impressions, but they are just that. First impressions are the human response that signals fight or flight, safety or vulnerability, love or hate. Events get sorted out through discussion and careful examination, and emotions wane or change with time, but first impressions are always our starting point. So I will share with you what I’m thinking and feeling today, November 20, the day after Supernatural’s series finale aired, but I reserve the right to change my mind in a week, month or year from now.
It’s interesting, actually. My first impression of last week’s episode, 15.19 “Inherit the Earth”, was that the idea was good but it was flawed in its delivery. Don’t get me wrong. The acting and directing were brilliant, but the script that was tasked with communicating the climax of the plot was troubling. I love the resolution that Jack is the new god. I love that he retained his humility and all the lessons that Sam, Dean, Castiel and Jack’s mom, Kelly, taught him as he assumed the mantle of the most powerful being in the universe. Arriving at that climax was written so unemotionally, though, I felt very little as I watched it the first time. There were so many plot holes and logic gaps that threw me out of the story, I didn’t feel engaged at all with what was happening. Eventually, through our discussion of the unanswered questions, my mind filled in the blanks and I now look forward to watching it for the semi-happy ending it portrays. I’m sad that Jack left Sam and Dean but Jack looks happy, and together they all saved the world - again. It’s become a feel-good episode for me.
My reaction to “Carry On” is the exact opposite. The execution of the episode was flawless. The acting and directing were once again brilliant, but this time the writing was also superb. The acknowledgement of all that had come before and the nods to beloved scenes and phrases that mean so much to fans wove a tapestry that was both intricate and seamless. It was also arguably the most emotional episode of the series, or at least a close tie with “Swan Song.” Dean's death scene, and everything that came after it, was relentlessly gripping. I was so emotionally wrecked after watching “Carry On”, it took me a few hours to even be able to identify what I was feeling. I didn’t know if I liked or didn’t like what I saw. I just knew that it all made me devastatingly grief stricken.
So its delivery of a powerful, epic, intense series climax was undeniably successful. It has no equal. Then the epilog of Jared and Jensen thanking fans, and their loyal crew waving goodbye to us, was one of the most beautiful moments on television. The love that went into Supernatural for 15 years was all summed up in that one shot. Tears streamed down the face of even the most stoic fan. I know I was sobbing.
But the feeling of emptiness that Sam felt for half of the episode lingered with me. Once I understood what I was feeling, I could label my grief. It was then that I recognized that I was crushed beyond description by the ending chosen for Sam and Dean’s epic journey.
In an interview that I believe took place at SDCC last year, Dabb said that he expected only 30% of the fans would be happy with the way he was going to end the series. Judging by reactions on social media last night, I think maybe he exceeded that low expectation. He may have hit 50%. Half the fans seemed to love the ending, while the other half were appalled. There was no middle ground.
If you are in the half of the fandom who loved Sam and Dean’s fate, you might want to stop reading after this paragraph. I don’t want to bring you down from a happiness you deserve after watching 327 hours of their story. I know Alice loved the episode and I suspect several of our other WFB writers will also enthusiastically laud the perfection of that ending. I encourage you to share in their happiness.
Sadly, I’m in the half that is devastated, and if you are a loyal “Threads” reader, you know how impossibly uncharacteristic that is for me. I have a reputation on the team of being the optimistic reviewer. I love episodes that everyone else despises. I’ll find the tiniest kernel of redemption in poor scripts and latch onto that as the reason why the episode is worth watching. I am upbeat and happy almost all of the time. I think that may be a big part of why I couldn't accept Dean dying as the ending.
“Ending are hard. Any chapped-ass monkey with a keyboard can poop out a beginning, but endings are impossible. You try to tie up every loose end, but you never can. The fans are always gonna bitch. There's always gonna be holes. And since it's the ending, it's all supposed to add up to something. I'm telling you, they're a raging pain in the ass.” - Chuck, “Swan Song” 5.22
My problem with this ending to a 15 year journey with these brothers is that it all added up to a pessimistic view of the world. 10 years ago, when the boys saved the world from the first apocalypse, Sam died and Dean was left behind. Alone with his crushing grief, Dean lashed out at Castiel and summed up their “ending” like this:
But what about Sam? What about me, huh? Where's my grand prize? All I got is my brother in a hole!
Castiel: You got what you asked for, Dean. No paradise. No hell. Just more of the same. I mean it, Dean. What would you rather have? Peace or freedom?
Switch brothers and the sentiment is the same 10 years later. The boys have just saved the world, but after only a few days to enjoy their triumph, they are again separated by death. Sam could easily now ask the same “what was it all for?” question:
But what about Dean? What about me, huh? Where's my grand prize? All I got is my brother in a hole [well, actually burned on a pyre so there is no chance of resurrection]!
Sam is the brother left grieving this time, and there’s still no paradise on Earth, just “more of the same.” Dean got his precious free will, but he was killed almost immediately afterward by the monsters he hunts. He never got to live a happy, free life. He left Sam alone, forever feeling the emptiness of not seeing his brother happy, or having his brother see him happy.
It was clear that Sam never got over his heartbreak despite “carrying on” with his life. Dean warned Sam about grief:
Dean: You know that pain’s not gonna go away. But if we don’t keep living, then all that sacrifice is gonna be for nothing.
When Sam was old and grey, he still cried as he sat in the driver’s seat of the Impala and remembered Dean. Neither one of them got the happiness they deserved on this Earth. Yes, absolutely, they got their eternal reward in Heaven (which I’ve always personally believed in) but their “heroes’ journey” ended with them being reduced to mere mortals who died with sadness in their hearts and unfinished business. As depicted in 15.10 “The Heroes’ Journey”, the moment they stopped being the heroes in Chuck’s story, they lost their superpowers and began living “Ordinary Lives” (the song that played behind their “day in the life” montage). Sam had to contend with an old, broken down washing machine, Dean had to wash dishes, but most importantly, the very first hunt they went on when they weren’t under Chuck’s supernatural protection, Dean gets killed in a straightforward vampire hunt. He predicted his own demise when he told the vampire,
This isn’t a “you walk out of here” situation…. No muss, no fuss. You blink and you’re dead.
Dean died a hunter’s death, which he always predicted would happen, but he didn’t die a hero’s death to save Sam, Castiel, his friends or the world. He died saving people and hunting things, but that made him a simple human being who died in a dark, deserted spot by being stabbed in the back.
“Sad Sam” was then left to carry on without Dean. They didn’t die together, as Sam promised would happen. They didn’t eradicate the world of monsters, as was Sam’s dream. The whole point of him (and Mary) siding with the BMoL was to pursue a solution that rid the world of monsters forever. If that was too ambitious a quest, he at least should have been allowed to revel in the books and pass along his infinite experience, wisdom and knowledge to generations of future hunters. Instead, Sam left behind the MoL legacy of which he was so proud. He turned off the lights in the MoL bunker not because monsters were eliminated and they didn’t need centuries of lore anymore, but rather because it was too painful for him to be there without Dean. He left in defeat, not victory.
Simply put, the monsters won. Sam and Dean lost.
Neither brother was put to “rest” knowing that they saved “all the people” as Sam so often reminded Dean was their true goal. The world now has free will but it’s still at the mercy of supernatural monsters. All that work, and humans beings just ended up with “more of the same.” None of the paradise Jack, Castiel and Kelly foresaw as Jack’s destiny. None of the final victory that Sam and Mary fought so hard to achieve. The battle against monsters that Dean mentally tracked with “Wins” and “Losses” ended with a win for the monsters, as strategically Dean’s death means the monsters have the advantage in their on-going war with hunters.
I guess my fundamental divergence from the view of Supernatural that was delivered in “Carry On” is that I always saw it as a fight for good over evil, not a fight for free will. When Chuck was defeated in “Inherit the Earth”, season 15 delivered an ultimate victory of free will for humanity. That represented a just and fitting ending of the free will storyline. If that was the goal you were rooting for, you might feel that the Winchesters accomplished what they felt they were put on Earth to do.
But I never bought into the premise that Heaven, angels or God were corrupt. I identified with the all-knowing, deeply complex Chuck who loved humans so much he chose them over his angels. That was the Chuck we saw until the season 14 finale made him into the ultimate monster who manipulated humans for sport and was "incapable of love" as Lucifer said last week. So when season 15 concluded with defeating him as the biggest monster of them all, and Jack restored the celestial supernatural to paradise, my reaction was “Finally we’re done with that ridiculous corruption of “good”! It took a long time to get there but Jack and Amara are in harmony, and all is right with the forces of light! That was an immense accomplishment and a fascinating journey in the fight for good over evil.
Even more, “Carry On” confirmed that Jack saved Castiel from the Empty, and perhaps put Castiel in charge of Heaven. Again, going back to how “Swan Song” ended,
Dean: What are you gonna do now?
Castiel: Return to Heaven, I suppose. With Michael in the Cage [now dead with Chuck defeated], I'm sure it's total anarchy up there.
Dean: So, what, you're the new Sheriff in town?
Castiel: I like that. Yeah. I suppose I am.
I like that too, although I desperately wanted to see Jack and Castiel in the finale. I can’t believe their goodbyes in 15.19 and 15.18 respectively were truly their final appearances in the series. Knowing that Cas can check in on Sam and Dean in Heaven at least closes Castiel’s story satisfactorily. He’s where he belongs, leading the angels with the compassion and skills he learned from the Winchesters. Bobby, Mary, John plus presumably Ellen, Jo, Ash and all the boys’ other friends will be with them in Heaven, too, since Bobby was enjoying a beer on the porch of Harvelle’s Roadhouse. That’s definitely a happy ending for the boys’ eternal rest, and a partial victory in their battle against evil.
The same can be said of Hell, if you reach just a bit. Sam and Dean didn’t close the gates of Hell, ridding the world of demon deals, but maybe Rowena’s new rules will take care of that. It’s a temporary solution at best, I admit. Just a few weeks ago in “Gimme Shelter” we saw a bored crossroads demon drive away with a troubled girl, suggesting that free-lance deals may still be happening. Still, I can hand wave that as at least partially under Rowena’s control. I believe all the Knights of Hell are now destroyed and Lucifer is dead (again) instead of just caged, so Rowena has a chance of maintaining order in Hell. That’s another battle won against the forces of evil.
If you think about the arc to redeem Heaven and restore the paradise it was meant to be, and defeat the forces of Hell that were dormant but still a threat, we could probably draw a line all the way from the season 1 to 15. Michael and Lucifer finally had the fight they (and the angels) longed for, so the promised apocalypse is over. Satan and his Knights are all dead. Amara is released from her cage and is reigning with a more just god. Presiding over it all, there are new rulers in Heaven and Hell that the Winchesters redeemed and/or mentored to be protectors of humanity. Sam and Dean are epic heroes in that they defeated the titans of mythology and put in their place just and humble champions for humanity. 326 hours well spent, I say. So far, the show’s and my visions on happy endings and victories in the war against evil are in sync.
Sam: So – so, what? I - I - I just die?
Bobby: Just die? All the good you've done, all the people you've saved, all the sacrifices you've made? You've saved the world, son. How many people can say that? How many people can say that they have left this godforsaken hunk of dirt that much a better place? What you call dyin' I call leavin' a legacy. - 9.01 “I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here”
The Winchesters truly are heroes. They left behind a legacy of mythic proportions. All’s good.
But what about the fight on Earth? The fight to rid humans of supernatural monsters that preyed upon people in the backroads of Americana? The boogey monster. The soulless, terrifying things that kill innocent people? Those are still around. Yeah, sorry, we ran out of time to fix that problem? Sam and Dean, humanity’s greatest champions, the greatest hunters on the planet – their fate was only to right the cosmic supernatural problems in Heaven and Hell? Once they did that, their epic quest was complete? One gets killed off with a barn spike immediately after he fulfills his destiny, and we let the other die of old age, both brothers knowing that monsters are still out there preying on people?
Several days after posting my review on “Inherit the Earth”, I described my reaction as a question: “why does an episode with a happy ending feel so sad?” The answer for me was because Sam, Dean and all of us had to say goodbye to Jack, a character I loved for the past 3 years. I don’t have to ask that question about “Carry On” because the answer is obvious to me. An ending where Sam and Dean are together in a perfect Heaven is deserved and poetic, but they didn’t get their happy ending. They died separately, not together, and without having finished their mission of saving all the people from monsters. They needed to have won their fight on Earth as well as in Heaven and Hell. They needed to see their work get done, then each get their picket fence, smart sons who they help with homework, and loving uncles who teach them how to drive down the road to rock music! They deserved a true happy ending not a Greek tragedy! They fulfilled their purpose and defeated the corrupted god on Mount Olympus. The next day they adopted a dog, had pie… and were struck down by bad luck? Sorry, no.
They are only partially done with their “jobs.” They still “have work to do.” Treating them as normal humans who have a limited life span to make the world a better place betrays every reason I’ve dedicated that past 8 years of my life to this show. These guys are heroes, yet they didn’t get done what they started out to do. Good has not yet triumphed over the evil that lurks in the shadows. The boys are gone and the monsters remain.
After seeing the show’s retrospective hour twice last evening, I realized that it wasn’t so much a celebration and recap of 15 years of the show as much as it was a justification for the ending that was chosen. Listen to the specific scenes and quotes that are used. Each one foreshadows one small piece of Dean’s death and Sam’s life afterward. Bobby’s talk with Sam when Sam should have died, Dean’s “lucky day” contrasted with his bad luck of being pushed into a spike, the "I'm so proud of you" goodbye from John to his sons – everything foreshadowed, and attempted to show the continuity with the events we saw in “Carry On.”
I started out this morning despondent about the ending we all saw in “Carry On” but in the course of the few hours it took me to write this, I’ve determined that the only way I can live with what I saw is to believe that it wasn’t the boys’ end. They deserve a vacation in Heaven after eradicating a millennia of corruption, evil and ticking time bombs that threatened humanity from Heaven and Hell. Instituting idyllic versions of Light and Dark and restoring balance to the universe warrants a few days off. But Sam and Dean can’t truly rest until they have saved the Earth from the supernatural evil that still remains there in the form of everyday monsters. They haven’t yet won the fight of good vs. evil.
“Swan Song” was seen by many as the ending of a chapter in the boys’ lives. Sam was dead and Dean needed to carry on. As the series finale, “Carry On” extended the time we saw after Dean dies, showing us Sammy getting a normal life after all. But his normal life was not entirely happy because he never got over losing Dean. So I propose that “Carry On” is just another “pause” in the Winchester Bibles. We’re putting the book down for a while, but the final journey hasn’t yet been written.
Chuck: No doubt -- endings are hard. But then again... nothing ever really ends, does it? - "Swan Song"
That’s the only way I can deal with that ending. “Carry On” was a perfect episode as far as I’m concerned, but it wasn’t a perfect ending for the story. That is yet to come because eventually the boys will realize they have work to do. There’ll be peace for them when they get their true happy ending, i.e. they win, in life as well as in death, or they continue the fight together.
I honestly don’t know if I’ve succeeding in explaining why that ending didn’t work for me. It was a phenomenal A+ episode to be sure. But when Sam, then his son, tearfully uttered,
It’s okay. You can go now.
I felt they were giving me permission to let go of Supernatural. Dean’s dying words to Sam were to "Always Keep Fighting", so they both knew their fight against evil wasn’t over, yet the brothers’ lives ended separately, sadly, without feeling they were winning (or had won) the fight against evil, and as humans no better than the rest of us. They weren’t super-hunting heroes any more.
That ending gave me the reason I had been seeking to carry on with my life, without Supernatural. I can’t accept that I devoted 8 years to an epic tragedy. I really wanted to love the ending, but the disappointment and heartache they endured for 30 minutes before their last minute together in Heaven wasn’t what I’ve been waiting for, what I’ve believed in, all this time. I apologize for being a “friggin Eeyore.” I loved their ending in Heaven with all my heart, but I needed to love the ending of the lives, too.
So I exercise my free will to believe that there’s more to come. Maybe I’ll be like Jensen and change my mind about the ending after I’ve had more time to process this loss. I watched the episode three times now and I have sobbed every time. But, oddly, the third time I smiled at the end. Like “Inherit the Earth”, my view of it is softening. Maybe my first impressions are waning, and you and my SPNFamily will help me see things differently, but at least now I have something to look forward to.
*To Be Continued*
P.S. I might be able to insert more pictures into my review in a few days but for now, I need to step away. I just can't start crying all over again.