No, you didn’t read that wrong. Destiel is canon. And yes, it’s still 2020.
Last night, CW’s Supernatural aired its third-to-last episode of the entire series. This close to the end, fans were prepared for some big twists and big losses. But it’s safe to say that many weren’t expecting the lot we got.
The Road So Far
“Hold on, back up,” you’re saying. “I haven’t seen the word Destiel since 2012. Can we recap?”
Sure thing. For a detailed recap of Supernatural Seasons 1-14, take a look at our handy 14-Minute Guide. As far as the Destiel essentials are concerned, here’s what you need to know.
In the first half of Supernatural Season 14, the Winchesters were worried about Jack. For those who have stayed out of the loop, Jack is a Nephilim, Lucifer’s biological son, and Team Free Will’s adopted son for lack of a better term. Jack is dying without his grace, but his soul is caught between Heaven and the Empty—the void where angels and demons go to die. However, the Empty is also the name of the cosmic entity that guards the Empty, which is pretty much a very angry being that just wants to go back to sleep.
It should come as no surprise that Castiel has been in the Empty before; he’s died and been resurrected like any other character on Supernatural. But the Empty takes this very personally and hates Castiel for escaping. So with Jack’s life in the balance, Castiel offers a deal: the Empty can have him if Jack is released. The Empty accepts with one condition: they won’t take him now. They will collect on the deal only when Castiel is finally, truly happy.
Again, no surprise, Castiel told no one about this agreement. It’s been hanging over his head for a season and a half now, and with the end drawing near, it was bound to come up again.
The Final Setup
On Supernatural Season 15 Episode 18, aptly named “Despair,” the Winchesters face the fact that they were unable to defeat Chuck (God). Jack is dying in front of them, again, and in their desperation, they turn to Billie (Death) to save him. But Billie is another cosmic entity with a distaste for the Winchesters. After vanishing Jack to the Empty, Dean takes a swing at her with her own scythe and manages to cut her arm. Ultimately, it’s revealed the cut was fatal, and Death is dying a slow and painful…death…
As their friends and family begin vanishing into thin air, Dean and Castiel go to confront Billie for taking their loved ones. Though Billie turns out not to be the one responsible, she does have one wish before she goes: she would love to kill Dean Winchester. She chases Dean and Castiel through the bunker, trapping them in a room where they only just manage to hold her off with some warding. And as Dean apologizes for leading Castiel into another one of his messes, Castiel realizes that there is only one way out, one other cosmic being who can take on Death herself.
The best way to experience this scene is to watch it for yourself, but in short: Castiel begins by admitting that what he truly wants, he cannot have, but that happiness comes not from having but “being able to say it.” He launches into a speech about how Dean has always believed the worst of himself—that he’s broken, a mindless soldier, a blunt instrument, a ruthless killer. But everything Dean has ever done, misguided or not, has been out of love. He is the most selfless, caring, loving human being that Castiel has had the privilege to know. And then, “I love you. Goodbye, Dean.”
He places a bloody hand on Dean’s shoulder—the same one he used to raise Dean from perdition—and pushes him to the ground. The wall opens up, and the Empty emerges to claim both Castiel and Billie. Dean is left curled on the floor of the bunker to cry alone.
Needless to say, the reaction to this scene was mixed. My immediate response was to scream many curse words at my television. But I want to start by focusing on the good parts of this story. Let’s be self-indulgent, play “Angel with a Shotgun” by The Cab, and celebrate the fact that this ship actually gets to be canon. Eleven seasons of subtext, meta jokes, and acting choices, all suddenly validated. Destiel. Wild.
First of all, it’s obvious how much care went into crafting this scene. In an episode directed by Richard Speight Jr, I wouldn’t expect anything less. Castiel’s speech comes right after a tirade of insults from Billie, taunting Dean about he embodies everything she hates about Earth. Castiel combats that with his compassion, reminding Dean that he is the best of humanity, and that his selflessness has made the world a better place. Dean taught Castiel how to care about others, how to care about the world, and changed Cas into a better person.
That detail specifically is something to marvel at. Just last week, Chuck mentioned off the cuff that the one thing that makes this world different from the others is that Castiel rebelled. This is the one world where Castiel disobeyed, the one world where he fell for Dean and everything else fell into place. With three seemingly throwaway sentences, the Supernatural writers said, “This entire story hinges on Dean and Castiel.” Destiel changed this entire world.
Also, despite what many online reactions have to say, I think Misha Collins and Jensen Ackles did an incredible job given the restrictions. Obviously the pandemic restrictions put a strain on a scene like this, which should have been filmed in close quarters. But also due to their character restriction. They’ve almost switched since Season 4, with Castiel being open and emotional and Dean being emotionally shut down. Jensen’s acting is done almost entirely through micro-expressions. A lot of people found that unappealing, but there’s a Sam quote in this episode that sums it up best: “If I let myself go, I’ll lose my mind. I can’t right now.”
And to the person who decided to leave Castiel’s handprint on Dean’s jacket? I’m not sure if I’d like to shake your hand or break it. That image was released long before the episode, and had me clinging to the edge of my seat. With context, it only becomes more potent.
The fact remains that this so-called victory comes, as I’ve mentioned, after eleven seasons of subtext and jokes. This isn’t the first time someone’s raised the subject of queerbaiting on Supernatural. In general, the CW’s history of representation is lackluster at best and outright harmful at worst.
I don’t pretend to be a scholar on queerbaiting. As a bisexual viewer, I have spent years watching this show being equal parts amused and frustrated by the crumbs the writers have thrown Destiel fans. Perhaps it was queerbaiting the entire time. But at some point, for me, it stopped feeling like that because I’d accepted that the show had no intentions of an emotional payoff. I’d never actually anticipated Supernatural addressing any of the subtext, and the jokes felt as though they were included as a nod to the fanbase the writers were so thankful for.
If there’s a word for that in-between space, I’m not sure what it would be. And just because it isn’t “technically” queerbaiting doesn’t make it right. Either way, it was eleven years of television where a show profited from joking about the relationship between two men without confirming or exploring it. Supernatural doesn’t have a lot to show for queer representation, and their stories for women and people of color are also lacking. But that’s also one of the things that complicates things for me.
I fully believe that at no point in the first ten years of Castiel’s arc was it intended for Destiel to be canon. It feels like a finish line decision. Does that change anything about the show’s conduct? Does retconning all that subtext make up for anything? On the one hand, it feels nice to have the show say, “You were right all along.” On the other, we’re also being told, “And that’s all you get.”
The pinnacle of the debacle comes with Castiel’s death. Supernatural manages to include the “bury your gays” trope in a devastating way that only the CW can perfect.
I had made peace with the fact that I would be saying goodbye to Castiel last night. Interviews with actor Misha Collins alluded to the fact that Castiel would bow out just before the end, and leave Sam and Dean to complete the finale on their own. I knew that the Empty would capitalize on the deal, and the Castiel was going to be happy only to be taken from his loved ones. But I did not sign up for this.
Castiel confesses his love for Dean, and is immediately dragged to the Empty. There is no time for explanations, for reciprocation, for processing those words and emotions. The insidious part is, Castiel is dragged to the Empty as a direct result of his confession. This is not just a queer character that was written off. This is a gay character being written off because of who they are. The moment they accept themselves, accept their relationship and the happiness that comes with it, they are killed for allowing themselves to do so.
The only other time I’ve seen this done so pointedly was also on the CW, The 100. Clarke and Lexa only danced around each other for a season or two before allowing themselves a moment of happiness. And then Lexa was accidentally assassinated by a member of her guard. It was enough to make me stop watching The 100 entirely. Lucky for Supernatural, there’s only two episodes left anyway.
Even with all of this put together, I’m having trouble deciding how I personally feel. I sat down to this episode ready to say goodbye to Castiel, whose character arc has been one of my favorite things about Supernatural. And for the most part, the writers delivered. Castiel’s final scene talks about how much he’s changed since Supernatural Season 4 Episode 1, “Lazarus Rising.” It pays homage to his development, and the most important relationship in his life. Because Destiel shipper or not, it was always clear that Castiel and Dean had a “profound bond.”
I know not everyone feels the same way. The hours after the episode aired saw the internet flooded with memes and insanity. Many fans who abandoned the show are coming back just to revel. Many who left are thankful now that they see what’s left. Most of us who stayed aren’t surprised, but are working through this massive intake of information in our own way.
Ultimately, I don’t think I’ll be able to make a decision about it being “good” or “bad.” Not until I see how Supernatural handles the fall out in the next two episodes. They have a bad habit of dropping bombs and walking away, because there’s too much to deal with in the plot. If that’s the road they choose to take here, the consequences could be disastrous. Supernatural’s work is not done just because Castiel confessed his feelings. There’s a thin line the show needs to walk to avoid going the way of Game of Thrones.
I wish I could enjoy this Destiel scene in a vacuum. I wish I could take what the writers have given me, combine it with my own interpretation of the show, and leave it at that. But Supernatural doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It exists in a complex web of media that affects so many people and groups around it. Watching the CW take this route on yet another one of its shows has been disheartening. Well-intentioned or not, it feels like they’re unwilling to learn from their past mistakes.
But at the heart of it all, I can’t erase what this show means to me. I think it’s just as important to acknowledge the failures of stories as it is to celebrate the victories. So despite the heartbreak, tonight I’ll be listening to “Angel with a Shotgun” and remembering the long road so far. And hopefully when I tune in for the last two episodes of Supernatural, I’ll feel a little more at peace.
What are your thoughts about Supernatural’s treatment of Destiel? Are you glad to see it confirmed or annoyed by the fan service? Or are you just along for that wild 2020 ride? Let us know in the comments, and share your thoughts with us on Twitter!
Supernatural airs Thursdays at 8/7c on the CW.