Endings are hard.
In “Swan Song,” the season 5 finale of Supernatural, Chuck, the meta mouthpiece (and later literal Godhead) of show creator Eric Kripke, tells us that “Nothing ever really ends.” Ten seasons later, Supernatural has finally ended.
But has it?
There’s something fitting about the fact that we watched the finale in the isolation of our homes on opposite sides of the country when we began watching together 12 years ago as roommates living in the Midwest.
How Did Supernatural End?
In terms of plot, the season-long narrative arc ended last week with episode 19, as did the Chuck-centric multi-season arc which started with episode 18 of season 4 back in 2009. The brothers saved the day, again. But it wasn’t the last episode.
The discussion on social media between fans for the week between episodes revolved around wondering what that final episode would be—God had been defeated, after all. What could possibly be left to say? The “genre” of television series finales—and even transmedia finales (like the interconnected MCU) —had not prepared us for this. The series finale of M*A*S*H* (which still holds the record as the most-watched television series finale of all time), continues to be the standard in terms of satisfyingly closing out the story of the POV character. Buffy may be the closest genre-cousin to Supernatural, and its series finale resolved the narrative by going in the opposite direction, epically transferring the focus from the main character to an ensemble (and in a way, to the audience). (As a note, Ben Edlund, who worked on the Buffy spinoff Angel, also wrote and produced episodes of Supernatural up until 2013.)
Supernatural was a show that broke from tradition over the past 15 years in a number of ways, so perhaps we shouldn’t have been surprised that it broke with convention in this way as well. But even people who had expected the unexpected could not have anticipated the show’s approach. In some ways it combines both of the above narrative closure strategies, while also surpassing the previously-held beliefs of what is possible for both television stories and for audiences.
Firstly, finales that are two-part events fall into one of two categories. Either it is an extra-long episode (sometimes two episodes airing back to back), or it can be a finale episode paired with a one-hour post finale special with the cast and creators reflecting on the show (as seen previously on The CW). Supernatural flipped that model, with the traditionally post-episode retrospective airing before the episode. The show always had a “The Road So Far” before the finale episode, and “The Long Road Home” was, essentially, a one-hour “The Road So Far” with one essential difference: the cast and crew. It’s only in retrospect that the purpose of this generic mash-up becomes clear, but we’ll come back to that later.
The second convention that this flipped-intertextual finale presentation challenges is that the show’s ending is separate from the audience’s final experience with the show. The finale argues, textually and extra-textually, that this separation is not only false, but unhelpful.
Much of the fan reaction on social media has been hyper-focused on the narrative itself and its resolution. And while there are many valid critiques of the ways in which the narrative valued certain relationships over others (look, we wanted to see Cas in Heaven as much as anyone), to only focus on the narrative choices is to ignore half of what Supernatural is, at its heart, about. The narrative itself directs the audience towards this conclusion. “It’s crap, but it’s fantastic,” Dean says to Bobby as he takes a sip of beer on Bobby’s porch in Heaven. The beer tasted horrible. But to focus on the taste is to ignore the second half of that sentence: it’s fantastic. Because it was tied to the memory Dean had of drinking beer with his father.
And that’s what the finale, as a whole, asks the audience to do. Even if the ending feels like crap (emotionally, structurally, narratively), when viewed in retrospect (and 15 years of canon is a lot to retrospect), the series was, is, and always will be fantastic. The two-part finale itself is the show’s way of telling its fans to focus on the memory and the experience of being a fan for 15 years. (In as much as a show can be anthropomorphized to have intention, but this is a show that had an entire episode written from the narrative perspective of a car, so fuck it.) And now we have to figure out what to do next.
How Do We Carry On?
The title of the final episode is “Carry On.” It’s a well-known Supernatural tradition to play “Carry On” by Kansas during the final “The Road So Far” montage of the finale. It’s become the anthem for the show, and the fans.
The band KANSAS wants to wish the entire cast, crew, and all of #SPNFamily well and congratulations on tonight's series finale of @cw_spn. The little show that could has had quite the run and created quite the legacy. (1/2)
— KANSAS (@KansasBand) November 19, 2020
As the show’s anthem, the lyrics became tied to the show’s meaning in ways that no one could have anticipated. It became a mantra for the fans, and the actors. Actors Kim Rhodes and Brianna Buckmeister started a “Wayward AF” charity campaign which evolved into a “Wayward Daughters” campaign that would lead to the title of their proposed spinoff series, “Wayward Sisters.” (It’s worth noting that the phrase “Always Keep Fighting,” which was a mental health campaign started by Jared Padalecki, was spoken by Dean to Sam in the show’s finale, tying the two together canonically.)
In this sense, the title is on one level directing the fans to carry on, but also telling us what this episode would be about: carrying on with the ending we were given in the previous episode. The first half of the show definitely felt like a continuation.
One of the hallmarks of Andrew Dabb’s time as showrunner (and this season in particular) has been the way he’s gone back to pick up continuity—all the continuity. And no showrunner has had the same level of success in being not only aware of fans’ expectations and wants, but being able to deliver them. The first half of the episode was domestic in a way that we had only seen in brief glimpses or dream sequences. We see them doing chores, cleaning their guns. Dean’s adopted a dog. The brothers travel to a pie fest in Akron, Ohio. This is curtain fic, set to the soundtrack “Ordinary Life” by Van Morrison, an echo of the season 6 premiere montage set to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Simple Man.” It felt like they were giving all of us One Last Thing. One last shower Sam scene. One last Winchester breakfast. One last fake FBI agent scenario. One last trip into Dad’s journal. One last ridiculous monster (Vamp!Mimes!). One last throwback to a character from the early seasons. In an age where endings are big—ahem, Avengers—this felt like a series of small endings that kept carrying us onward without a big smash battle.
And then we hit the halfway mark. If the first half of the episode was the joy, the second half was the catharsis. It’s Dean telling Sam everything we’ve wanted him to say for years. (Just like two episodes ago, where Cas told Dean everything we’d been wanting him to say for years.) We get one last death scene. One last heart-to-heart with Bobby. One last trip to Heaven. One last reference to Cas. One last joy ride in the Impala. And one last, “Hey, Sammy.”
The episode is filled—even overfilled—with callbacks (dialogue, visual, and aural), which would be easy to dismiss as fanservice, or even as salt in the wound, reminding the audience that they will never have these moments again. But these callbacks serve a different purpose in our minds. The goal of the episode wasn’t to tell a plot, but to tell a story, and that story is more than the canon. This is the heart of what “Carry On” means for the Supernatural fandom.
The story’s continuation beyond the plot is made explicit in the final minutes of the episode. The audience is transported from the bridge in heaven, with Sam and Dean, to the bridge in Canada, with Jensen, Jared, and the rest of the cast and crew of Supernatural (or at least those who were on set that day) in a single shot. While this is not the same bridge as in the pilot (because that location is in LA County and is super-expensive to shoot at), the reference is pretty clear, and the use of a bridge is an easy metaphor for transitions and journeys. Jared and Jensen thanking us fans is an extra-narrative callback to Dean’s final words to Sam.
On a strictly technical level, the real final shot of Supernatural is not canonical—except it is. “Thank You” is more than a marketing move; it’s a cue to the audience about the show’s actual (rather than intentional) meaning, which has always challenged the boundaries between “show” and “fandom” (or communal) meaning-making. And the pull out to an extreme long shot to show the crew on the bridge adds to the emotional weight of ending a show that has always celebrated its teamwork.
This final-final-final shot on a bridge creates a nice pair of bookends for the show, and Chuck’s (read: Kripke’s) need for literary symmetry, to remind fans where they’ve been. But even more important might be the true final line, delivered by an unseen voice: “And…cut.” We have been unable to discover who actually says it—but that, itself, reinforces the idea that it doesn’t matter who says it. Since the crew is now off screen, the “cut” command is given to the audience, to the fans. The plot is over, but the story is now in our hands. The director tells us to “cut,” but he doesn’t say, “That’s a wrap.” The story lives in the fans, not in the canon material. So while we may have been given our first explicit direction, it doesn’t feel like the last.
At the end of the day…there’s never really been a show like Supernatural, and it’s possible there never will be again. The finale might not have been what the fans wanted, but it didn’t fail to deliver exactly what the show has given us over the years: a new way of storytelling and permission to use its characters, plots, and worlds as our own.