Supernatural reaches its series finale with "Carry On!"
Spoiler Level: Major
Fifteen years and 328 episodes later, Supernatural has come to an end with the aptly-named “Carry On.” Fans have been bracing for this finale for months now, since its airing – like so many other things in The Year of Our Lord 2020 – was delayed from its originally-intended May air date by six months. The end has come for Sam and Dean Winchester at last, despite many fans wishing their drive across America could go on forever.
When the show began, it bore little resemblance to what it would become: Jenson Ackles and Jared Padalecki were young, fresh-faced, clean-cut, and probably a little too pretty for the world they inhabited. But it was a WB show; the network knew its audience and had no qualms about molding their shows to fit a particular aesthetic. But the basic DNA was there. The show immediately took American legends and mythology and dropped the Winchester brothers into a monster-of-the-week blender, gradually adding more to their world and its mythology and building a genuinely compelling genre mash-up where anything could happen from week to week.
It didn’t happen all at once, of course. Earlier seasons are relatively grounded compared to the cosmos-shaking plots of later years. That process of steadily growing the world was crucial to its success: it’s one thing to have a wendigo or a rugaru as the big bad one week; it’s another to go straight from that monster to, say, God’s pissed-off sister. But the slow-grow of the mythos worked: by the time watchers get to those later seasons and their impossibly-high stakes, the fundamental building blocks were firmly enough entrenched that the walk from Point A to Point B had had enough stops in between that there was an underlying logic. And all along, even when dealing with God, the Devil, and everything in between, the show never lost sight of where it started: two brothers with very different personalities, saving people and killing things. The monster-of-the-week format never left, either, and was often a welcome respite from whatever the season’s big bad was. The writers could comfortably and confidently go back to that well without ever feeling like they were milking it.
So it’s appropriate, then, that “Carry On,” the Winchesters’ final ride, takes on that one-and-done format. Having humbled Chuck and transferred his power to Jack, thus setting up a new God for the universe as a far more benevolent presence who genuinely cares for His creation and doesn’t see them as mere puppets for his amusement, the boys find themselves back to what passes for normal for them. A fairly typical case arises; children are being kidnapped by a nest of vampires and leaving parents’ bodies in their wake. Everything appears to be going like normal, and the brothers are going to yet again win the day – until the unthinkable happens, and Dean is mortally wounded. Impaled and unable to move without instantly bleeding out, Sam and Dean Winchester have one last emotional moment together, with Dean telling his shocked little brother how proud of him he is and asking him to tell him it’s okay to let him go. Through stubborn refusal to accept the situation and tears, Sam does. The brothers grasp hands, and Dean’s burden is quietly laid to rest. Sam gives his brother a hunter’s funeral, and carries on the work without him, despite the pain of having to do so alone.
Except it’s not so unexpected. The scene plays with a certain inevitability; the episode’s veteran director, Robert Singer, masterfully plays with viewers’ expectations of waiting for the shoe to drop. This is just too easy, the camera communicates. Something awful is about to happen. And since it’s the final episode, the writer, Andrew Dabb, is canny enough to know that the viewers are expecting this. There’s a brief shot of the Checkhov’s metal that will eventually impale Dean, but other than that, the entire scene plays like it’s waiting to exhale. And when the moment happens – Dean, impaled, and his brother oblivious to the fact that his brother is dying before his eyes – it hits with a quiet inevitability rather than an explosive release.
The reason it hits that way, though, is something longtime fans have always known, because the show has been so good at consistently reminding us: Hunting monsters is a dangerous profession, and any hunter could die at any time. Indeed, the show has mercilessly cut through supporting cast members like a chainsaw almost from the start; one of its few predictabilities was that when a new hunter was introduced, it was just a matter of time before their number was up. In fact, it became more noteworthy when the occasional hunter didn’t die. So death has always been in the cards; Sam and Dean made a second career of cheating it, but with “Carry On” being the series finale, permanent death at last was all but certain.
And so it went. With fully half the episode left to go.
One of the first things Dean ruminates on about his looming demise is that it was always inevitable. Not just because of the life he leads, but because being a hunter is who he is. It defines him. He was always going to die on the job. And in doing so – rescuing some children and killing some monsters – he was able to go out on his terms, doing not only something he loved, but fulfilling who he is. It’s bittersweet, but acceptable. This narrative choice effectively closes Dean Winchester’s story in a satisfying and fulfilling manner.
And then, he gets his eternal reward: peace, with the people he loves. Jim Beaver returns for one last hurrah as grumpy father-figure Bobby Singer, and welcomes Dean to Heaven: eternally peaceful, getting to do the things that make you happy and spend forever with the people you love. This is a pretty blissful re-imagining of what Heaven is; under previous management, people simply lived out reruns of their most treasured memories forevermore but were otherwise ignorant. Jack, as the new God, has made some changes for the better. (And we get an off-handed confirmation that Castiel was freed from The Empty and went on to do great things alongside Jack, though Singer and Dabb were wise enough not to give in to fan service and bring Misha Collins back after his sacrifice two episodes ago. Instead, we get to use our imaginations to fill in the blanks: somewhere, Castiel is out there, watching over everyone again, the fallen angel returned to glory.) Dean smiles that wily smile of his, looks over at Baby, and goes for a drive into the sunset.
That leaves Sam, though, to pick up without him. And although the show makes sure we know that Sam did his best to carry on the family business, he did so on his terms: marrying, fathering a son (named after his big brother, of course), and growing old, content and fulfilled. When it’s his time, Padalecki’s hair is streaked with grey and white (apparently never succumbing to male pattern baldness), and his son grasps his hand and tells him the same thing Sam once told his brother: “It’s okay. You can go now.” Sam passes quietly and without fanfare, but with no less impact than did Dean. In his own way, Sam got his own happy ending: a family, but still in the family business (confirmed by the anti-possession tattoo on his son’s arm). He gets a long life well-lived (with Eileen?), which fulfills his own narrative arc throughout the series: the little brother who didn’t want to follow his father’s footsteps, who instead desired to forge his own path in life that had nothing to do with monsters. For the series’ final scene, Sam and Dean are reunited in the afterlife, free to accept their reward for lives well-lived.
Sam’s arc throughout the series has been marked by the push-pull of his desire to be his own man versus his sense of responsibility in helping and protecting people. Therefore, the decision to have Sam get to live out his life fulfilling both aspects of himself gives him his own happy ending, in a way that suits him just as much as Dean’s ending fit him. Certain fans may balk at the idea of the show killing both its leads in the finale, but doing so in ways that fit their arcs so specifically brings a sense of closure that to do otherwise would have not.
And to be fair, the show definitely left the door open for that: in the previous episode, Jack, in his role of the new God, resurrected everyone that Chuck had snuffed out. It would have been too easy for him to have simply said, “Oh and by the way guys, I didn’t bring the monsters back. Have fun living normal lives now.” There’s an alternate universe where that happens, and Sam and Dean spend their series finale ruminating on what they’re going to do now that the world doesn’t have things that go bump in the night anymore. They would have gone on about normal, boring lives, unmarked by violence or suspense or pain or saving.
That ending would have been a cop out.
For fifteen years, Supernatural has, to a degree, telegraphed its own ending. Sam and Dean have not only died multiple times themselves (with the benefit of resurrection, of course), but they’ve also watched everyone in their lives die brutally in one way or another. (Bobby’s death still hits hardest, though Ellen and Jo’s is a pretty close second, and the stark violence of Charlie’s demise is easily the most upsetting.) But all the while, verbally or not, the show has effectively communicated that every hunter’s luck runs out eventually. Some fans may have wanted a different kind of happy ending, and although everything is up to interpretation that’s exactly what they got. Dean was never going to settle into suburban life and die an old man with fat happy grandkids (he tried the soccer dad thing in season six; suffice to say it didn’t go well). Sam was never going to be content to just be a hunter, but with Dean around, he was never going to get a chance to forge his own path. Dean’s death released Sam from his familial obligation and he was free to make a new family while carrying on his family’s legacy on his own terms.
Supernatural fandom is in mourning that their favorite show has ended and that Sam and Dean Winchester have gone on to their great rewards. That’s understandable. But stepping back and looking at things in the broad view, we got ten more seasons than we were supposed to. Creator Eric Kripke’s vision for the show was famously only five seasons; the show’s word-of-mouth success is what catapulted it from little-show-that-could to genuine phenomenon. That’s all down to the fans, whose loyalty, passion, and singular inability to not go toxic like so many other fandoms is quite frankly remarkable. Supernatural cons have sprung up all over throughout the years; the show’s stars have never been shy about going there and not just sitting at a removed space from their fans but genuinely interacting with them and clearly reveling in mutual love. Ackles owns a brewing company; footage of him and Mark “Crowley” Sheppard playing in a full-on band at one such con reveal a genuine affection for not just the fans but for one another and the culture they’ve nurtured and blossomed over the last decade and a half. (And Padalecki, of course, married Fake Ruby.) The stars of the show have a kind of positive relationship with their fan base that is built not on one-way adoration but on a mutual love and respect. The stars know they wouldn’t be here without the fans and spare no expense at paying that love back. There really isn’t another fandom like it. It’s not only special, it’s one of a kind.
But now, it’s time to close the door on the saga of the Winchester brothers. Like all good things, it had to come to an end eventually. Some might say it overstayed its welcome; it certainly has looked a bit shaggy and long in the tooth and bereft of new ideas at certain points throughout its run. Signs had been there that the show had needed to retire for a few years now: The endless merry-go-round of death and resurrection; the “ghost hole” at the beginning of season fifteen with its string of greatest-hits returnee antagonists; the out-of-character attempt to look “cooler” with lots of slo-mo shots during season fourteen; Lucifer, again?!; the angels are being dicks, again?!; the increasingly dull revolving door of who’s ruling Hell this week. But the mere fact that despite these bumps in the road, the show never became a hate-watch, always remained faithful to its core tenets, and always managed to recognize its shortcomings and course-correct is some kind of minor miracle. Supernatural wasn’t perfect, but it was never outright bad. And it was more than occasionally outstanding, one of the best genre shows on TV – or any kind of show. It’s endlessly quotable and rewatchable. That’s the mark of greatness. It wasn’t just Sam and Dean Winchester and their assorted friends and foes and family; it was the world they inhabited, too. A world where anything could happen, but at its core, was a story about two brothers who loved each other, despite being very different people. Strip everything else away, and that’s something anyone can relate to. That brotherly love is the heart of Supernatural, and the reason it will continue to resonate even though it’s come to its end.
Carry on, wayward sons.
"Carry On" gives Supernatural the ending it deserves. Bittersweet, it fulfills Sam and Dean Winchester's stories in such a way that their world and stories are closed with a kind of quiet perfection. Powerful in its execution, there's nothing negative that could possibly be said to bring this episode down. Everyone involved: take a bow, pop open a Margiekugel, and rest well. You've earned it.
SUPERNATURAL Series Finale: “Carry On,” Wayward Sons
- Writing - 10/1010/10
- Storyline - 10/1010/10
- Acting - 10/1010/10
- Music - 10/1010/10
- Production - 10/1010/10