I spend a lot of time online talking about social justice issues. Over many years of being in discussion groups all over the internet, I’m confident in calling myself an intersectional feminist and ally, and I try to engage in discussions about issues of representation in media. Our TV shows, video games, and movies are overwhelmingly filled with white, male, heterosexual and cisgendered (identifying as the gender one was born with) characters, and this can only change when we raise our voices as audience members and demand more diversity.
But at the same time, one of my favourite shows is Supernatural: a show about straight white guys and basically nothing else. Almost every woman or person of colour has either died or been written off; and while the eighth season brought us an Asian supporting character (Osric Chau) and his mother (Lauren Tom), neither of them survived to the end of the next season. While this would be problematic enough, Supernatural also has a big unspoken non-canon-but-acknowledged-by-several-actors-and-writers secret that has loomed over the show since Season 4: Dean Winchester (Jensen Ackles) and Castiel the angel (Misha Collins) are in love. Maybe. Probably.
Castiel was initially only supposed to appear for about five episodes, but critical reaction to Misha Collins was excellent and he had fantastic chemistry with Ackles. There was a female angel named Anna who was supposed to act as an ally to the Winchester brothers and a romantic interest for Dean, but her lines and plot arcs were rewritten for Castiel. As a result, their relationship took on a much more emotional aspect; it is Castiel who eventually rebels against God so he can save Dean, sacrificing his powers in the process. Whenever Dean has a serious crisis of identity, he prays to Cas for guidance. In Season 7, when Dean finds a newly resurrected Cas (see: “The Born-Again Identity”), he is torn between joy and mistrust because he was so deeply hurt by the angel’s death. Four years of slow-boiling chemistry have resulted in a friendship that is more than a friendship. And now we come to Season 8’s “Goodbye Stranger,” the script of which originally contained a flat-out declaration of love from Dean to Cas.
For the entirety of Season 8, Cas has been brainwashed by an angel named Naomi (Amanda Tapping), as Heaven races for control of two immensely powerful tablets that could permanently alter the fate of all supernatural beings. Under her control, Castiel has been forced to conceal information, kill fellow angels and lie to the Winchesters, all without ever remembering why. After getting lost in Purgatory for a while, Cas is confused and vulnerable; he gives in to Naomi’s plotting because it gives him a sense of purpose, even though that purpose forces him to do awful things. For example: the opening of “Goodbye Stranger” shows Cas hunting down and murdering Dean in cold blood. As he stands over the body, Naomi congratulates him and says, “You’re ready.” The camera then pans back to show the room littered with hundreds of dead Deans. This is a training simulation, forcing Castiel to murder his closest friend over and over until he can do it without hesitation.
The main characters spend a good deal of the episode searching for one of Lucifer’s buried crypts, which contains many incredible treasures including the ‘angel’ tablet, which Naomi has told Cas to retrieve. She manipulates him into lying to Dean and Sam (Jared Padalecki), who don’t know that the angel tablet exist, but Dean begins to suspect that something is off. With the help of the demon Meg (Rachel Milner), the boys eventually do reach the crypt, but Castiel cannot open the box he needs because it is warded against his kind. Naomi pushes him to get Dean to retrieve the tablet, and then beat him to death.
As Castiel advances with his knife in the real world, he argues with Naomi inside his mind. “I won’t hurt Dean,” he insists—and that’s the moment when he begins to break free of her grip. But Castiel can’t stop his body, as he deals blow after blow to Dean. It’s an intense and brutal sequence that cuts really effectively between Dean’s assault and Naomi’s office, as Cas tries to prevent himself from doing the worst thing he could possibly do. As he’s poised to strike the killing blow, Dean pleads with him: “I know you’re in there. I know you can hear me. Cas, it’s me. We’re family. We need you. I need you.” And it works.
The original script for this scene called for Dean to say “I love you” instead of “I need you,” and Jensen Ackles apparently changed the line. Whether it was a reflection of himself or his understanding of the character (Dean isn’t the L word type) is up for debate. The Daily Dot’s coverage of this episode asked a very good question: “If a male TV character says ‘I love you,’ to another male character, but the line is cut from the script, did it ever really happen? … And does it mean the showrunners are finally admitting that one of the show’s leads, Dean Winchester, might be bisexual?”
It’s entirely possible to love something while still acknowledging its flaws, and Supernatural is a textbook example. ‘Slash’ is a term referring to the romantic pairing of two heterosexual male characters, and it’s been around for almost as long as fandoms have existed. The term originated with Kirk/Spock romance stories in the earliest online fan fiction circles, and has become ubiquitous today. The heteronormativity of popular fiction results in ostensibly straight male characters having very intense relationships with each other, on an emotional level that is rarely seen with male-female character pairs (which are usually focused on romance). Slash is basically always relegated to the world of fan imagination, but on Supernatural, Castiel’s love for Dean (and vice versa) have been discussed by several writers and actors at fan conventions, including Collins himself, but never, not once, acknowledged on screen. This is a problem, in part because there’s already a solution that hasn’t been taken.
Episodes like “Goodbye Stranger” are problematic because they chicken out, preferring to engage in queer-baiting and tease the audience with the possibilities of non-heterosexual themes, but instead leaping back at the last minute and alienating LGBT people even more. Supernatural could subvert some of TV’s most prevalent stereotypes in regards to the definition of masculinity, but so far they have only winked about it. It’s frustrating, because it’s a well-written show with pretty good acting, and it already focuses on—as Aisha Tyler put it—the loving relationships between men. Hell, they had Felicia Day guest star for three episodes as a gay woman. But no homo—heaven forbid. Despite steady increases of acceptance for same-sex marriage in the United States and more and more actors and public figures coming out each year, Supernatural has just kept dancing around the topic. The CW network topped GLAAD’s survey of the most LGBT-friendly broadcast networks in 2012, and has had gay characters in everything from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Gossip Girl. With Season 10 of Supernatural starting in just two weeks, I hope that the showrunners will be willing to take the leap and give Cas and Dean the relationship they—and we—deserve.