Fans of Supernatural had more than just the USA election to think about last week. In a year full of surprises, one of the show’s biggest ships, “Destiel,” was made canon and it took over the internet.
While some Destiel fans were overjoyed, others were disappointed and angry. I couldn’t watch the episode “Despair” live so I woke up to a barrage of angry posts on my timeline that had me deeply concerned about the show that I’ve been watching regularly for so long. Now having seen “Despair” and analyzing the Destiel moment, I have to wonder whether I watched the same thing as everyone else.
Supernatural is far from perfect. There aren’t enough people of colour or substantial female characters who don’t die. The show has been accused of homophobia and queer baiting in the past, with the show often teasing out the natural chemistry between its three white male leads. Now 15 years old, the show’s consistent lack of canonically queer main characters led to fandom filling in the blanks with shipping: “Destiel” refers to the relationship between Misha Collins’ Castiel and Jensen Ackles’ Dean Winchester, while the incestuous “Wincest” grew out of Dean’s codependent relationship with his brother Sam (Jared Padalecki).
I’m happy to ship characters with chemistry, but I’m also aware of the fact that many major properties refuse to build on obvious relationships, especially if they fall on the queer spectrum. Companies tend to blame foreign audiences for not being open to queer characters, but the reality is its plain old-fashioned homophobia. And TV shows don’t even have that excuse—their stuff gets shown with scenes censored or edited out, so they still get eyeballs on their content. I know. I grew up in India and the UAE, and have watched everything including The Tudors, which had the naughty scenes pixelated over.
Despite the popularity of the Destiel ship, it never really seemed to be in the cards. Dean, Cas, and Sam have always been aggressively heterosexual, and were often depicted as uncomfortable in the presence of anyone not straight. There are examples throughout the show. In “Criss Angel is a Douchebag,” Dean is sickened when a villain sends him to meet The Chief, a queer dungeon master. In “The Real Ghostbusters,” Sam and Dean visit a Supernatural convention and meet a pair of cosplayers who are a gay couple. Even in Season 10’s “Fan Fiction,” Dean is shown as slightly alarmed when he sees two female students dressed as him and Castiel kissing.
I would say the show has mellowed over time. In Season 11’s “The Chitters,” Dean was working with Cesar and Jesse Cuevas, fellow hunters who were husbands. There have been queer female characters in the show, including Felicia Day’s Charlie Bradbury, who was lesbian in both the Earth Prime and Apocalypse World versions of the character. Interestingly, Apocalypse World-Charlie is revealed to have a live-in partner in “Despair.” Claire Novak, the daughter of Jimmy, the vessel for Castiel, is also lesbian and was in love with Kaia Nieves. Cas, Dean, and Sam had no reaction to this revelation. Despite these few other characters, there has never been any overt move to create queer relationships that include any of the three leads.
So seeing Destiel all over my timeline on Nov. 5 had me confused. Supernatural, in its 12 years since Castiel was introduced, has never openly alluded to Dean and Castiel getting together. Off-screen, Ackles and Collins have joked about the ship and have been supportive of Destiel cosplayers. A Twitter user shared a thread with some examples.
Jensen Ackles is not a homophobe/biphobe/transphobe or anything people claim he is just because he doesn't think Dean is bisexual. Not shipping Destiel doesn't make someone a homophobe. It just means they don't see it.
A THREAD of him being being supportive of LGBTQA+ people:
— 💚 Correct 🐚 JenMish 💙 (@Incorrect_JDMV) September 2, 2019
But on-screen? Nada. Which led to fans filling in the blanks. ScreenRant has a list of moments that illustrate why Destiel became a popular ship. Castiel and Dean moved heaven and earth for each other, died for each other, came back to life for each other. They considered each other family. Castiel turned his back on Heaven and his fellow angels for Dean. Had either one of them been a female character, it would have led to a romantic relationship ages ago. It’s nothing short of queer baiting, which is something so many shows have indulged in. When there’s so little good queer content available, to constantly bait a fanbase in order to get their views, while still never delivering on the promise of a relationship between two characters, is unfair.
Despite what I read on my timeline, I could not believe that Destiel would be made canon. The show’s writers just didn’t seem brave enough. My major concern, if they did try, was how badly they did whatever they did. Every week, my sister and I look forward to watching Supernatural, a show that has been part of our lives for so long. But this week, we dreaded tuning in, knowing that something had gone down.
The episode started normally, at first, and we really got into it. And then… the scene. Castiel and Dean are trapped in the basement of the bunker, Billie/Death (Lisa Berry) breaking the door down to kill them both. It looks bad for our heroes, so Castiel does the most Supernatural-thing possible—he sacrifices himself.
But first, Dean has a kind of breakdown about how he’s all rage and hate and that’s why they’re going to die. Castiel, knowing he’s about to make the sacrifice-play, tells Dean that everything Dean’s done is actually out of love, not hate. Which is true, though Dean has never been led to believe that. And then Castiel tells Dean that he loves him. Dean doesn’t say the same back, but he does look terrified that Cas’ declaration is a sign that he’s saying goodbye. He is. The Empty—the being Castiel had made a deal with some time ago—comes for him, takes Death in the process, and leaves a distraught Dean behind.
The episode ends with the world seemingly empty of people, except for Sam and Jack (Alexander Calvert) in a hideout, and Dean in tears in the bunker. And me at a complete loss.
As the scene began, my heart was thudding in my chest—I was legitimately terrified about how badly the Destiel moment would play out because there had been so much outrage about it. But it was…fine? I’m not saying it was a great scene or it did Destiel fans justice. It literally ends with Castiel being killed, so the Bury Your Gays trope is alive and well in 2020, apparently. But it was nowhere near as awful as my timeline had led me to believe. It did not feel homophobic to me and I was surprised by people reading the scene that way.
To me, it felt like it made sense from a character perspective. Castiel is usually not emotional, so seeing him break down in tears was a bit surprising. But this was also his happiest moment—being able to declare his love for Dean even though he knows Dean doesn’t feel the same way. He knew it would end in his death, so it makes sense for him to let the tears flow. Dean, meanwhile, was barely recovering from a literal heart attack induced by Death, and was confused and terrified of losing his friend. The scene featured Dean being as Dean as he could be; he was swallowing a lot more than usual, which was different from Ackles’ usual acting, but it didn’t feel unusual for the situation.
Once the episode ended, I had to ask my sister whether we’d watched something different from everyone else. Honestly, the Destiel scene was par for the course for a show that has ridden on the coattails of its queer fans’ reading of a central relationship. There were trope-y moments, yes, and that is frustrating, but there were also some sweet elements that I felt were well-done. Castiel’s handprint on Dean’s jacket—which harkens back to Castiel’s first appearance on the show—and Dean being so torn up about losing Castiel that he can’t even answer the phone when Sam calls felt like memorable moments for me.
I’m writing this wondering whether I’m being kind to the show because I’ve watched it for so long. I’m usually not kind when I’m angry—I still think Disney did everything to avoid FinnPoe when it was staring us right in the face, for example. But I really don’t think the Destiel scene was that bad. I think it’s fine for what it was; I can’t help but compare it to Olicity being made canon on Arrow, and how that ruined Felicity Smoak and made Oliver Queen even more annoying.
The Destiel scene felt the opposite for me. It gave Castiel the freedom to be human—he’s an angel, so this is hard for him—and gave fans a Dean that was emotional and relatable. Dean has faced a tremendous amount of loss. He’s lost Castiel before, as well. His usual reaction is to bury his emotions and work around the problem. But this scene felt different than usual. Castiel’s death feels more final and Dean goes to pieces after witnessing it. Again, I don’t understand the homophobic reading. Dean’s penchant for shedding a single tear is well-known and was even joked about in a song written for the “Fan Fiction” episode. It wasn’t out of character for him to not start bawling immediately, especially as he was clearly trying to process the situation.
Having said that, would I have changed anything in this scene? Yes. I would have liked for Castiel to be more obvious in his declaration. He’s told Dean and Sam that he loves them before, so more precise language would have been nice. Dean telling Castiel that he loves him—or doesn’t—would have helped, but to me he was still processing the fact that his best friend was going to die, so there didn’t seem to be time for it. I know a lot of Destiel fans wanted something physical and tangible, like a kiss, but intimacy wasn’t in the cards.
More than anything else, there’s still an episode left, and I’m reluctant to write the Destiel scene off already. It could be resolved further or forgotten completely; I really don’t know what’s going to happen. All I know is, the scene felt in-character for everyone involved, and though it was an abrupt end to a beloved character (though Castiel may still be back, who knows), at least we got to mourn him alongside Dean.
Everyone is allowed to have their opinions. The Destiel scene may not sit well with fans considering the show’s long history of queer-baiting, but I didn’t think it was as awful as the internet made it out to be.
Instead, I’d like to appreciate this moment as it is: if Castiel really is gone, I’m glad that he managed to go out on his own terms and by freeing himself from the constraints of heterosexuality to declare his love for his partner. For Dean, Castiel’s loss is one in a long line of death and suffering that he has faced—it’s his lot in life. Whether it has any repercussions for the boss fight ahead between the Winchesters and Chuck remains to be seen. Nobody stays dead in Supernatural, but love doesn’t last on the show either. Anything and everything is possible. And hey, it’s 2020. Who knows what will happen next.