On Supernatural, death isn’t the end. It’s a speed bump on the road to the next hunt, the next slice of pie, the next world-ending scenario. It also acts as a vicious cycle that brothers Sam (Jared Padalecki) and Dean Winchester (Jensen Ackles) never seem to break, forming a dangerous codependency that the show seems to celebrate and condemn, and always when the fate of the world is at stake.
Whether or not Sam and Dean are fighting or working together will determine what happens to the world, but one thing remains true: no matter their feelings, they will always save each other, even if one of them has already pierced the veil of death. At current count, this has happened 14 times (or 117, depending on your take on Dean’s 103 deaths in season three’s “Mystery Spot”) over 14 seasons. And that’s not one death per season, folks. Sometimes, this happens on more than one occasion in a single season! After a while, however, the dying gets repetitive and the stakes feel lower with each resurrection. With the show going into its 15th and final season, death is on everyone’s minds.
At the 2019 Television Critics Association earlier this month, in response to a question about what the life-or-death stakes look like in the last season, co-showrunner Andrew Dabb said, “We’re looking at this as a true ending. People can’t keep coming back over and over again. This time it’s for real.”
With the death/resurrection toll at 14, it’s hard to believe that any death in the last season — including Sam and Dean’s — will strike the right emotional cords. After all, death has a way of reversing itself. A 15th time might not be all that effective. I’m afraid I’ll be left thinking about all the times Sam and Dean conveniently found themselves breathing again and wondering why it isn’t happening this time.
That’s what happens when a show so carelessly allows its main characters to die, with barely any exploration of grief. The worst offender is season 13”s “Beat the Devil,” in which Sam dies and is resurrected, all in the last ten minutes of the episode. Everyone else gets about three lines of dialogue to react before Sam is stepping into their lives again, with no follow through in the next episode.
It’s quite maddening. What’s the point, if there’s no moment to reflect, take stock, and deal? And why, for the love of all of our sanity, does this show find it necessary to cap 15 seasons off with a final death(s), and no time to really ponder what death means in this universe we’ve been a part of since 2005?
Revenge, and when death meant something
There has really only been three times in which death has meant anything on Supernatural:
- Season 2, Episode 21 “All Hell Breaks Loose: Part 1”: The first time a brother kicks it. Sam is stabbed in the back and dies in Dean’s arms. It’s even more tragic when it sets up meaningful death number two.
- Season 3, Episode 16 “No Rest for the Wicked”: Sam is unable to save Dean from his demon deal and Dean gets shredded by a pack of hellhounds, who drag him all the way to hell.
- Season 5, Episode 22 “Swan Song”: Sam redeems himself for his transgressions by allowing Lucifer to possess him and then regains control long enough to throw himself and the devil into hell.
Any other brother death is either played for laughs or happens too late in the show to be anything other than ridiculous.
In the beginning, death was a motivator. One of the very first images of the show is Mary Winchester burning on a ceiling, killed by the demon Azazeal, kicking off John Winchester’s decades-long revenge path for his wife, bringing his two sons along with him. At times, the show was extremely good at portraying how fruitless a path of revenge is, no more so than with John Winchester. John’s revenge for his wife’s death ends in his own, before he can complete his mission. The real kicker, however, comes in season four. Dean gets sent back in time by the angel Castiel to better understand the events that led to Sam’s dark path. While there, Dean learns, as we all do, that Mary was scheduled to die anyway. It’s the hunter’s way, after all.
But even then, Supernatural has never had anything to say about what it means to die. How can it, when sacrifices are quickly reversed and the greater good left to its own devices? The show has so little to say on the topic that it even went and killed one of its coolest characters.
Death and all his friends
Death stepped out of a pale 1959 Cadillac Coupe Deville to the tune of Lloyd Chandler’s “O Death” in one of the most badass and thrilling moments of the show. After being teased throughout all of season five, here finally was a character Sam and Dean couldn’t possibly (or easily) dispatch. Death is death and there’s no stopping the natural order of things. In just his entrance scene, Death bumps into a guy on the street, who then drops dead. With a brush of his shoulder, Death continues on, because that’s the way it’s supposed to be. The ceremony of the scene in “Two Minutes to Midnight” topped every other character entrance, instantly turning Julian Richings’ portrayal of Death, one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, into one of the most iconic characters on the show. He’s measured, with an ancient air about him, but he’s funny, too.
During every appearance he’s made, he’s warned Sam and Dean that their time will come, all the while giving them the means to survive one more day. So, yes, there needs to be some level of the supernatural factoring into Sam and Dean’s continued survival. On Death’s own authority, Sam saves the world and is then rescued from hell. But that same authority gave some level of order to a world that seemed to defy logic with every resurrection. Reapers played a small role in guiding Sam and Dean when Death couldn’t, allowing for levity in times of “oh my god, again?!”
Then, season 10’s “Brother’s Keeper” invites Death back, only for Dean to kill him in a desperate attempt to save Sam, even though the danger had been orchestrated by Dean in the first place. In this same episode, Dean argues that both he and Sam have a habit of putting themselves before the greater good. Remember when they had a chance to close the gates of hell forever? And in the space of a few minutes, Death is killed and the Darkness is on its way.
Death is never the end
There’s also the matter of the many, many deaths of other characters. Bobby, Ellen, Jo, Ash, Missouri Mosley, Charlie, Gabriel, Kevin, Lucifer, Mary (twice!), Rowena (probably, like, five times! It’s hard to keep count), Crowley, and Castiel. And man, does that Castiel get resurrected almost as much as the brothers.
In this case, Supernatural’s longevity has actually played a pretty cool part in bringing back characters in various forms. The biggest culprit is Bobby, the brother’s pseudo-father. After his death in season seven’s “Death’s Door,” Bobby has returned as a ghost, a spirit stuck in hell, a mental manifestation of Sam’s, in flashbacks, and as an alternate universe version of the character.
Death is never final, not even for secondary characters (unless they’re Ellen or Jo!). It’s the nature of the show and something we sign up for when we watch it. But that doesn’t mean Supernatural should be a show that ends with the death of any character. It won’t be believable, it won’t tug at our heart strings, and it certainly won’t say anything about death and dying that it has failed to say the 100+ times someone’s died before. That’s because the show has always been about living. No matter how many times a death occurs, it’s reversed, and Sam and Dean continue on living their lives the best way they know how — saving people and hunting things.
Consider then an ending where death is taken out of the equation. Instead, consider an ending in which death isn’t the ultimate stake, but a mere inconvenience on the road to happiness.