In running down the plethora of shows where the main characters are in various spots of danger, it’s rare to come across one that has me fearing for said characters’ safety. How often do we see the super cop get out of an impossible situation (Jack Bauer, anyone?) before taking it to the bad guys on his own? While more and more shows are trying to use character deaths as shock value, many of them fail in one regard; making death matter to those characters left behind. This has never been the case in ‘Supernatural’.
[Plot Spoilers Ahead!!]
When you have a show that deals with the supernatural, chances are people are going to get dead. We learned this early on in the series when, within the first three minutes, Mary Winchester, the family matriarch, was burned alive on the ceiling of baby Sam’s room. Keeping with the neat little book-end was Sam’s fiancée, Jessica, who is killed in the very same fashion to end the episode. Even if these weren’t main characters, they were used as the motivation for the Winchesters delving into the world of hunting.
It really wasn’t until season two that I knew Eric Kripke was playing for keeps. After one of the greatest season finales I’ve seen, season two began with Dean on his death bed being healed by his father John, who made a deal with a demon. Dean ends up saved but John Winchester—the man the brothers spent the entire first season one step behind in their efforts to find him and Azazel (the yellow-eyed demon responsible for their mother’s death)—was gone. Even that, as shocking as it was, could be written off as John being a supporting character who only appeared in a handful of episodes. So was he really that important?
And then Sam died.
Yes, he was only dead for maybe 20 minutes of screen time but his death was truly a catalyst for just how precarious the safety of our ‘Supernatural’ favorites are. His death spurred Dean to making his own deal with a crossroads demon (like father, like son, ay). Whereas John quietly passed as if he no more than faded away, Dean’s demise was quite a bit more unpleasant. Hell hounds, tasked by crossroad demons to fetch those whose deals are up, tore Dean apart as Sam watched, helpless to offer his brother aid. It’s in this moment, glimpsing Dean in hell, chains and hooks piercing his flesh, that I was convinced I didn’t know what the hell was coming next.
Death is a precarious topic show writers have to navigate. On the one hand, they need to be true to the perils characters face, but at the same time need to mete out with audience expectations and contractual obligations to the actors. How has Kripke and Co handled it? By keeping the main cast small yet tearing our heartstrings by introducing memorable supporting characters we fall for and ultimately end up losing. Ellen, Jo, Ash, Rufus, Gabriel, Madison, even Bela are but a few of the recurring characters that have shown up only to have their epithets written on the show.
Granted, all were important in some way (Ellen and Jo were especially important to Sam and Dean while Rufus was Bobby’s brother from another mother) but the strength and pull of death really hit hard this season. Bobby, a recurring character since ‘Supernatural’s inception and Castiel, the out of place angel humanized by Dean and basically a series regular since season five, were both killed. While Cas’s death happened early on and has had a lasting impact on Dean, we have yet to see just how much Bobby’s recent passing will affect the boys.
Queue the perfect segue into the most important aspect; the lasting effects on the other characters. If there is no emotional and definitive impact, the death is nothing more than an unnecessary plot point. To make it poignant—and memorable—it has to mean something to the remaining characters for us, as an audience to step back and say, “Damn, that really happened.” As mentioned, Mary’s death was the catalyst for the show: without it there is no ‘Supernatural’. Similarly, had Jessica not encountered the same fate as her mother, Sam would never have gotten back into the hunting life. Sam’s own demise at the hand of Jake opened up a darker part of the younger Winchester, one that was used as fuel for the exploration of the darker aspects of Sam’s character that aren’t truly rectified until season six. Bobby’s guilt over killing his best friend—though he was possessed by a Star Trek-like ear worm—made the gruff hunter even more cynical than usual.
The character that has been shaped more by death than anyone, though, has to be Dean. Old enough to remember his mother, from an early age he was burdened with the responsibility of an adult; hunting things that should have been only the stuff of nightmares. When John died for him, Dean’s guilt only intensified. But it wasn’t until dying and going to hell where, after 30 years of being tortured he ultimately succumbed to the demon Alistair’s wishes and became the dispenser of agony. Without dying, he never would have experienced the hellacious conditions where he unwittingly broke the first of 66 seals needed to break Lucifer from his prison. The guilt only mounted when he discovered that his actions were indirectly responsible for not only Jo & Ellen dying but Sam as well. I mentioned in a previous article on just how much loss can one person take before something inside of them being permanently broken. Though he is still strong, there is something inside of Dean, something that has seen too much death that has fractured and will never be the same.
Death will always be a part of the world, our world and the ones created by such talented individuals like Stephen King, J.J Abrams, and ‘Supernatural’s father, Eric Kripke. It’s the one immutable fact that everything dies (even God if Death, ‘Supernatural’s chief reaper, is to be believed). It’s not the dying that injects an air of believability/reality into a show, rather it’s those left behind and how they deal with the loss that touches us. In the case of Sam and Dean, they often behave as larger than life, battling demons, ghosts and creatures out of the world’s cultural mythologies. But despite the fantastic nature of the things they fight, there is nothing supernatural about the grief and pain each brother has felt that us, as an audience has empathized with them, over the years. Every season we’ve seen a bit of the armor chiseled away, making them both a little more vulnerable, but at the same time, stronger. Doubt may slither its way in, especially in Dean’s case, but so long as they remain vigilant, they will continue to get by and fight the good fight.
That is, until death comes calling for them in a more permanent fashion. When that comes, there will be more tears shed in front of the television than there will be on the show. Though we could go on for some time listing those unfortunate souls that have been lost on ‘Supernatural’, here is a list of some of the best remembered characters whose swan song has been played…
Jessica Moore (Sam’s girl)
Madison (Sam’s werewolf love)