Supernatural 200th Episode Review: “Fan Fiction”
Recently, Supernatural aired its 200th episode, and as it was a metafictional episode dealing with fandom, fan fiction, transformative works, and the interaction between show and fandom, it resulted in a rather lengthy review from me, where I explore some of my thoughts on the interaction between Supernatural and its fandom, and the interaction between show and viewer in general. Read the review below; originally published on Blogcritics.
On Tuesday night, Supernatural aired its 200th episode. It’s a landmark that few shows achieve, and many celebrate the achievement with a very special episode (Stargate, for example, made fun of every sci-fi show known to man, including itself). Supernatural chose to celebrate the occasion by doing something that’s become its trademark over the years: a metafictional episode that’s so meta it makes your head hurt.
This time, the meta madness took the form of an all-girls school putting on a Supernatural play (well, after 10 seasons, at least someone clued in the writers that most of the fandom is female. It took a while!) based on the in-canon Carver Edlund books (otherwise known as the Winchester gospels), and adding some of their own….interpretations. After all, Chuck stopped writing after “Swan Song,” so it was up to these fictional fans to tell their own story of events – which apparently includes robots and tentacles.
Conveniently, there’s also a case in the same town that brings the Winchesters there; unsurprisingly, it turns out that the play and the case are related, and not for the first time, the Winchesters run into their own lives, with their usual trademark faces of astonishment mixed with annoyance. It turns out that the play is haunted, and the culprit is Calliope, the Muse, who helps a work of literature be brought to completion, then eats the author (maybe it’s the literary grad student in me, but there was a wry voice of humor in my head whispering “Death of the Author.” Thanks, Barthes). The only way to catch Calliope and defeat her? Well, that requires getting her to show up, and that means putting on the show and believing in with all their heart.
It’s an obvious and transparent culmination to the story: the only way to save the day and defeat the monster is to stage the story, to believe in Supernatural with all of your heart, and to remember everything that made you fall in love with the story in the first place. It means acting the hell out of the story, “putting all the sub in that text,” as Dean puts it, and making the show go on. This episode’s been billed as a “love letter to the fans” for the past few weeks, and it’s obvious why: because it’s not just the show, but the fans’ love of it, that quite literally saves the day. That’s pretty inspiring.
At the same time, though, it wouldn’t be a 200th episode without a celebration of the show itself that we’ve all fallen in love with, and that’s where it all fell apart for me. It didn’t feel like a celebration of the show I had come to love and the community I had come to be a part of. I mean, sure, Robbie Thompson (the show’s resident meta episode writer) got a lot of things right: the fandom’s still lamenting that Adam’s in Hell with a sort of wry humor, the drama teacher’s comment about there being “too much drama” is a pretty perfect description of the Supernatural fandom, and all the monikers the fandom comes up with, from “Samulet” all the ship names such as “Destiel” and “Samstiel” (for the uninitiated, “shipping” the romantic pairing of fictional characters by fans). The episode had some great funny moments – including Thompson taking the mickey out of the show’s own storyline by having the fans react to it and call it really awful fan fiction. And it also had some touching moments: one of the ending scenes, for example, had the entire cast singing a cover of “Carry On Wayward Son” with Sam and Dean watching, visibly touched – and it brought back all those feelings I had as I feel in love with this show and listened to this song on repeat.
And yet, I didn’t see a celebration of what made Supernatural so great and what made me fall head over heels in love with it. I wanted to be moved and touched by this episode, because this show has meant the world to me – but somehow, that show didn’t quite understand what makes it so special. In fact, it seems like the show’s vision of what makes the show so special is “two brothers against the world.” That’s the heart-felt “boy melodrama” moment that Sam and Dean watch towards the end of the episode, as the fictional Sam and Dean drive away together in the Impala, reveling that it’s “the two of us against the world.” The episode itself ends with that exact scene: Sam and Dean driving away together in the Impala, the two of them against the world, as Dean hangs a replica of the Samulet in the mirror. It’s pretty clear: we fell in love with the story of two boys who made their own family.
Except that that’s not what I fell in love with. It’s only a small piece. I didn’t just fall in love with the boys – I fell in love with a story about family, and family “don’t end with blood,” as Bobby said. I fell in love with Castiel and Bobby Singer. I fell in love with Team Free Will taking on the world together – and yet this landmark episode didn’t even include Misha Collins, who plays Castiel. That’s despite the fact that every time the “two brothers against the world” storyline started getting old (notably, seasons three and seven), it was Collins who resuscitated the show. In season seven, when Supernatural tried to go back to the two brothers format and get rid of every other character, ratings plummeted like a roller coaster, before shooting up again when Castiel returned. Both Castiel and Misha have been part of the family for years, with Castiel being so popular that a character originally contracted for a handful of episodes stayed around for six years. And yet, despite Collins’ requests, he didn’t even get to be included in the episode. So much for family.
Sure, the first few seasons were about the Winchesters against the world – and those Winchesters managed to single-handedly start the Apocalypse, which they ended because they branched out on their concept of family, including Bobby and Castiel and Ellen and Jo. At first it was just two brothers fighting monsters – but then the story got so much bigger. I recently rewatched “Lucifer Rising,” which I believe to be one of the masterpieces of Supernatural, and I was reminded all over again what I fell in love with: two brothers and an angel who fought for Free Will and humanity and made an epic story out of it. Dean and Sam and Castiel standing up and rebelling for what they believed in. And I saw so little of that being celebrated in “Fan Fiction.”
And to me, this was indicative of a much larger problem that, as a member of the Supernatural fandom, I’ve felt brewing for a while now: a fundamental disconnect between show and fandom. And this episode? It just felt like a pretty damn heavy reinforcement of that disconnect.
After all, the episode is a pretty thinly veiled allegory of the interaction between show and fandom. There’s the Winchesters, who are writing their own life story, and who represent the writers and producers, and then there’s the fans, who write fan fiction, have their own interpretations, and read into the subtext. And, as Dean says, pretty obviously, towards the middle of the episode: “You have your version, and we have ours.” The message the writers are sending is pretty obvious: it’s okay, fandom. Keep shipping, Keep reading into it. Keep finding that subtext and keep enjoying it. But it’s just subtext. It’s your version – and it’s pretty different from our version.
The problem? It’s that the line between the fandom version and the show is pretty damn messy. It’s that the subtext that the fans can interpret into their own version was intentionally included in the show by the writers, and yet keeps being denied. “Fan Fiction” was full of references to subtextual romance and “shipping,” with the writer/producer of the play itself admitting that they explore the “Destiel subtext” in Act Two. Dean encourages it to save the day: “You keep putting the sub in that text,” he says directly to the actress playing Castiel, encouraging her to play up the “profound bond” between Dean and Castiel. Go for it – as long as you recognize it’s only subtext, of course. Play it up as much as you like – but only because it’s your version, not ours.
But that doesn’t change the fact that our interpretation doesn’t come out of a void; it emerges from the things that the writers intentionally write into the show – and then deny. It doesn’t change the fact that Robbie Thompson tweeted “Destiel isn’t canon?” – and then went on to delete that tweet the day the episode aired. It doesn’t change the fact that a lot of us started shipping Destiel because there are scenes in Supernatural that almost literally came out of The Notebook – and now we’re told that we’re fans with our own “interpretations” of the “subtext.” It doesn’t change the fact that Dean and Cas have the exact same conversation as an explicitly romantic couple on the same show – which makes telling us “we have our version, and you have yours” an incredibly frustrating denial of the romantic aspects that the writers explicitly put into the show (that is, barring the possibility that they have absolutely no clue what they’re doing). The whole dynamic screams some pretty ugly words that I won’t get into – but to summarize, it feels like the episode puts any queer or romantic readings of the show squarely on the fans’ shoulders – without taking responsibility for the mile-long list of romantic TV Tropes in Dean and Cas’ relationship.
It’s all okay, say the writers. Keep shipping. Keep putting the sub in that text – in your version, that is. In the end, it’s pretty much an entire episode dedicated to validating the fans in their fan-fiction writing, in their shipping, and in their interpreting. In the final scene, Chuck Shurley (who everybody decided long ago is God, and is also the writer of the novels about the Winchesters’ lives) comes to the play as the author, and, in answer to “What do you think of our version?” says “Not bad.” Well, that’s pretty validating.
But in the end, that comes as pretty damn condescending. Fans – readers – are going to have their own interpretations no matter what. They’re going to imagine what their favorite characters had for breakfast, fill in the blanks that the author didn’t get in, and wonder about the possibilities, because that’s in the very nature of fiction. That’s how it works. Virgil didn’t need Homer’s permission to write fan fiction about Aeneas, and Milton certainly didn’t ask God for permission to write a twelve-book fan fic about Satan. Thanks for your blessing, Supernatural, but in the end, we really don’t need it. As Barthes put it a while ago, the Author is Dead, and the readers will see the story as they do.
What we’d rather have than this validation that we can have our fan fiction and you can have your story is recognition that there’s a relationship between the two. We’d like you to acknowledge that a lot of us ship Destiel because of the damn romantic scenes that you wrote. We’d like you to recognize that what you push onto us as “reading into the subtext” feels like some pretty damn intentional writing on your part that you just refuse to acknowledge. What I’d like to have, for once, is a meta episode of Supernaturalwhere the fans get something right instead of having “our own version.”
The Supernatural fandom’s pretty evenly divided down the middle right now, with some people loving this episode and some being incredibly disappointed. I’m not sure which camp to be in – because I love Robbie Thompson’s episodes, because he clearly did want to write a love letter to the fans, because it was clearly good natured – but at the same time, I’m really, really tired of the same song and dance of subtextual suggestion and then denial. And the place that leaves me is the same cynicism I’ve had in regard to this show for the past year or so.