Human beings have a very interesting relationship with the end of the world. It’s one of the most terrifying things to imagine, and no one would ever actually want to experience it for real. But it’s also one of the most fascinating ideas we have. A great deal of our stories, from the very first world origin myths to Joss Whedon’s Avengers, use the threat of the apocalypse as the final stakes in the hero’s journey. We also like to explore what would happen if the world did end. It’s a way to explore some deep existential fears and never get truly lost in The Void.
For Supernatural, the apocalypse comes down to the immensely complicated relationship between brothers Sam (Jared Padalecki) and Dean (Jensen Ackles) Winchester. While Season 4 centered on trying to prevent the apocalypse, Season 5 sees them trying to stop a resurrected Lucifer from torching the planet. This season has a truly wonderful set of episodes and it was really difficult to pick just one, but the Ben Edlund-written “The End” is both a fan favourite and an excellent showcase for how Supernatural raised the stakes of its originally envisioned final season (creator Eric Kripke left the show after his planned five-year arc concluded). One of the reasons I like it so much is the way it sets up a prototypical Big Choice for our heroes, and then completely subverts the seemingly obvious answer.
When we catch up with the boys in “The End,” Dean and Sam have learned that they are destined to be the vessels for the archangel Michael and the evil Lucifer, respectively, and as you can imagine, the news hasn’t gone over very well. They have also gone their separate ways, apparently for good. In the previous season, Sam’s lust for power and deep-seated anger allowed him to be manipulated by a demon named Ruby, and he inadvertently kickstarted the Apocalypse as a result. Dean is furious and betrayed, and upon hearing that they are destined to fight each other for the fate of humanity he suggests “picking a hemisphere” and staying as far away from each other as possible. “We’re not stronger when we’re together,” he says. “I think we’re weaker. Because whatever we have between us—love, family, whatever it is—they are always gonna use it against us.”
But when Dean wakes up from his nap, he discovers a very different world outside his hotel window—the end of the world, to be precise. A particularly cunning angel named Zachariah (Kurt Fuller) has transported Dean five years into the future, as part of a ploy to convince him to allow Michael to possess him. In this Lucifer-run world, most of humanity has been wiped out by the incurable Croatoan virus. Future Dean runs a militia of a few surviving humans, and much to our Dean’s horror, he has turned into a ruthless killing machine who is willing to torture and murder without a second thought—the very antithesis of everything Dean has tried to be since he got out of Hell. The angels have all fled Earth, and the normally stoic angel Castiel (Misha Collins) has had his powers stripped from him, becoming a stoned, lecherous guru-type who organizes orgies in the name of peace and love. And Sam? Well, Sam did what Dean assumed was unthinkable: he agreed to be possessed by Lucifer. He and Future Dean haven’t spoken since that phone call five years ago. Future Dean pleads with his younger self to let Michael possess him, and fight Lucifer, as Sam, until one of them dies. To give up on this silly idea of free will and let things happen as they’ve been written. And it turns out that he was wrong to fight for his own agency.
Current Dean tags along on a mission to trap and finally kill Lucifer, and sees his future self willingly sacrifice Castiel and the rest of his allies as distractions. When they reach Lucifer, Future Dean is killed, and Current Dean gets a glimpse of the epitome of evil, speaking with his brother’s voice. We see Sam-as-Lucifer dressed in an impeccably white suit, standing in a garden and tending to a beautiful rose. Padalecki gets to have a lot of fun being Lucifer in these scenes, carrying his considerable frame with a delicate, refined grace. Supernatural‘s Lucifer is far from the pitchfork-wielding Devil we normally assume him to be; he gently explains his side of the story to Dean, recalling how much he loved God and how abhorrent it seemed to bow down to silly hairless apes. “Now, tell me, does the punishment fit the crime? Especially, when I was right?” he asks. “Look at what six billion of you have done to this thing, and how many of you blame me for it.” While every Christian denomination pays most attention to the “fallen” part of Lucifer’s story, Supernatural re-frames it so that we also remember the “angel” he once was, and it’s one of the most compelling aspects of the show’s fifth season.
Lucifer also tells Dean that he should have said yes to Michael, and that even when he is sent back to his own time, his stubbornness will win out and doom the human race. “I know you won’t say yes to Michael … And I know you won’t kill Sam. Whatever you do, you will always end up here. Whatever choices you make, whatever details you alter, we will always end up—here. I win.” This conversation between Dean and Lucifer, and the episode as a whole, contains some of Supernatural‘s best genre subversions. Angels are almost universally depicted as out-of-touch jerks who are more soldier than seraph. Lucifer is cast as an oddly beatific psychopath. And the typical Hero’s Journey of free will is the wrong path to choose.
But when Dean returns to the present, he reconciles with Sam, and they become partners again. They acknowledge that while they may be each others’ Achilles heel, they are definitely stronger as a team, and the only way they’ll find a different route to stopping the apocalypse is if they work together instead of letting the universe rip them apart. The fate of their decisions is left up in the air, but even with all the odds stacked against them, the boys decide to try making their own destiny anyhow. And thus, the fan-dubbed Team Free Will is born.
“The End” is a fascinating episode because it showcases why Supernatural works so well. It takes these well-known genre tropes and gently twists them into something new, from mythical ideas like Lucifer’s right to sympathy to thematic arcs like the hero’s sacrifice. While it’s not perfect—Ackles teeters into overacting soap-opera territory during some particularly emotional scenes—“The End” does many things very well. I admire how the episode deals very casually with two versions of Dean in the same place (it skips the typical stages of disbelief and lies, because Dean has seen enough weirdness that this wouldn’t really faze him). Misha Collins is also fantastic–as Present Castiel, he’s starting to show some of the deadpan humour that makes the angel so endearing, and as Future Castiel, he gets to really flex his comedy skills and go a little loony. It’s a neat episode which presents a surprising answer to a seemingly obvious question, and makes Dean—and the audience—re-examine their assumptions about the right and wrong thing to do.
Overall, “The End” is a highly memorable part of one of Supernatural‘s best seasons, and an important example of how to put a new twist on one of the oldest stories in the book.