You know that you’ve reached a peak pop culture moment when a new word, crafted to describe a fictional TV coupling becomes one of the hottest trending topics on real life social media during an election season.
The fans of the long-running CW network television show Supernatural were already getting whipped up in a frenzy for the series finale in late November when one male character, the angel. Castiel (Misha Collins), confesses his love for one of the protagonists: Dean Winchester (Jensen Ackles).
This revelation aired on November 5 in the series’ third-to-the-last episode, the aptly titled “Despair” and immediately set off a firestorm of chatter on social. The last thing anyone expected in early November and all the world was dealing with was that the portmanteau “Destiel” – the blending of Castiel and Dean’s names a la Brangelina and Kimye – and the hope that this might actually lead to a same sex couple on the show would dominate social media along with industry blogs and trade publication coverage. The storyline briefly outshone the presidential election and the pandemic in the number of references.
Perhaps some of this interest is just that people have been fans of this show since it premiered 15 seasons ago and there has long been a rabid fan base that has taken to social media platforms to discuss the show, create fan fiction spin-offs and generally “Stan” (superfan) out for the show.
Others point to the LBGTQIA+ community which, like so many others, has found 2020 to be a year of reckoning to get more representation on screen, on the page, and on the stage. But not everyone was greeting this potential coupling as a good outcome with bisexual people, gay men and lesbians among the most conflicted about the storyline if not the most vocal critics of the confession.
The reason for this scrutiny varies in reasons such as the length of the drawn-out nature of this relationship, as well as the fact’s Castiel’s confession of love quite literally kills him. As popular LGBTQ+ history youtuber and former Supernatural fan, Rowan Ellis, summed up the sentiments of many fans: “I regret ever having heard of this show. Remember that the writers were in control of this the entire time and they could have absolutely had this moment seasons ago and you could have had whole seasons of actual romantic relationship between these two characters.”
First, some background on the fantasy drama. Supernatural, which first aired on the CW in 2005, was created by Eric Kripke and stars Ackles and Jared Padalecki as the Winchester brothers, who follow in their late father’s footsteps as “hunters, fighting evil supernatural beings of many kinds, including monsters, demons and gods that roam the earth,” according to the show’s tagline. Misha Collins joined the main cast in the fourth season as the angel, Castiel. The three hunters have fought alongside each other against various deadly magical threats, the latest season culminating in the characters fighting against God himself.
The show has been beloved to many and developed a strong fan following. Unfortunately, criticisms of “queer baiting,” a marketing technique where creators of fictional entertainment hint at but do not actually depict same-sex romance or other LBGTQ representation, have followed the series for more than a decade.
For a community desperately longing to see itself represented equally in the mainstream, “Destiel” seemed to hold that promise of becoming a reality for many watching. Dean has had many numerous blatant and subtle inferences of being attracted to men as well as women, and his relationship with Castiel has on numerous occasions been flirtatious if not outright romantic “Cas, not for nothing, but the last person who looked at me like that, I got laid.” The timespan Dean & Castiel’s relationship in having been drawn out for over decade has also provoked much criticism over the years. “It’s time Supernatural stop playing both sides. Dean either is [bisexual] or he isn’t—stop giving false hope to those who want to see real change in the way we view sexuality on TV,” Sadie Gennis wrote in TV Guide in 2014.
The additive of this not being something the writer’s intended to build up as part of the course of the story also created a divide in what sentiment to takeaway. The “Despair” episode’s director and writer, Richard Speight Jr. and Robert Beren’s respectively, categorizing it as a “group realization/inspiration by Rich, Misha and Jensen, triggered by a location move that happened the very day they shot the scene.” It’s hard to discern any positive value of this story beat when it wasn’t part of the overall story plan.
The fact this relationship also ended in death didn’t do much to ease those who felt they’d been led on the line. Many were in fact irate that Castiel’s love confession was actually the catalyst of his demise; in that in achieving true happiness in saying “I love you” fulfilled a deal Castiel made earlier in the series that he would be dragged to an empty void, known as “the empty” for eternity. The fact Dean also gives no concrete signs of reciprocating Castiel’s feelings, nor truly grappling with the fact his friend held romantic feelings for him in the series’ remaining two episodes left viewers greatly embittered.
Misha Collins’ input on the subject of Castiel’s fate has been rather polarizing, some soothed while others were further enraged. In the initial fallout of Castiel’s death Collins said “Castiel tells Dean he loves him and basically makes Destiel canon. Fans are freaking out after that. To complicate matters, he dies after that. So Castiel makes his homosexual declaration of love and then dies, which plays into a timeless Hollywood trope of ‘Kill the gays.’ We give, and then we take away.” The kill/bury your gays trope, as described by The Take “is pervasive both in its literal form and also in its more subtle impact, because even when queer characters aren’t subjected to overt violence or death, many of them still haven’t been allowed to be happy.” It’s a universally reviled trope for those under the rainbow flag, as who would want to accept the message that they are doomed to ceaseless despair for who they are?
This isn’t the first time Supernatural has been stated to have played into bury your gays in the past. The death of Felicia Day Hannigan’s character, Charlie, who was a recurring ally to the main cast as well as a proud and out lesbian, was the most prominent example of such when she was gruesomely killed off in season 10.
Controversy erupted again even after the show’s finale. When the Spanish Dub to Despair aired it had Dean reciprocate Castiel’s love Confession, “Yo a Ti, Cas” essentially translating as “me, too”. This prompted a wave of further angered fans to start using the hashtag “They Silenced Them” accusing the CW network of interfering in Supernatural providing a mutual same-sex romance. In this case fans are seemingly jumping the gun in accusing the network. Though the sense is understandable as one of the other most prominent examples of the bury your gays trope in public discourse was also on the CW’s The 100. The death of the female protagonist’s same sex lover, Lexa, being killed right after the two slept together for the first time.
It’s unfortunate 15 years of a once beloved show is going to carry this scar on its legacy, but the series has in many ways made its own bed and now must lay in it. Supernatural has done resurrection numerous times over. They could have brought Castiel back to life or actually had Dean acknowledge and reciprocate those feelings; that’s what so many viewers were hopeful for when they watched the two final episodes. Sadly, those hopes went unanswered and the show squandered a chance to provide groundbreaking male same-sex representation and affirm those who may need it most. With some luck there’s a chance this debacle has gained enough traffic and attention that future stories learn from this and think more thoughtfully about how to include and represent the LGBTQIA+ community.