Television is the bastard child of film and radio: it has the production values of the former, but the never-ending serialized format of the latter. As a result, television finds itself at odds with the economics of storytelling. It uses film’s tightly constrained story structure, but has the potential—and, indeed, the unspoken obligation—to go on for years and years. Films, even if part of a series, must tell a concrete story with a beginning, middle, and end. TV shows, on the other hand, can keep going for as long as they make money—just look at The Simpsons, plodding into its 26th year even though it’s totally out of ideas. It’s tough to keep a TV show going for a long time; actors age, inspiration fades, and everyone begins to run out of steam. Fans, too, become fickle and emotional when a show is in its twilight years. They don’t want to say goodbye to their beloved characters, but it’s painful to see a show decline into a lifeless shadow of its former self.
So what’s a show like Supernatural to do? While the last few seasons have had their ups and downs, the network has stopped toying with its fate. CW network president Mark Pedowitz was quoted in February 2014 saying, “As long as I’m here and those numbers hold, God bless them. They can go as long as they want.” With that in mind, the Season 9 finale (“Do You Believe in Miracles”) had to inject some serious juice into the show’s formula, and refresh things enough to keep the good will flowing. Luckily, I think they pulled it off.
This past season was marked by two main villains: the manipulative Metatron (Curtis Armstrong), an angel who destroyed Heaven in order to become the new God; and Abaddon (Alaina Huffman), a Knight of Hell from back before demons even existed. Brothers Sam (Jared Padalecki) and Dean Winchester (Jensen Ackles) have been torn between these factions, finding allies and enemies on both sides. The first part of “Miracles” deals with Metatron, who was once the Scribe of God–literally the divine storyteller for all of Creation. Fittingly, his plan involves as much drama as possible. He dresses up as a homeless bum and begins performing miracles all over the country, always within sight of a camera to ensure that he receives worldwide exposure. And, equally fittingly, Castiel (Misha Collins) defeats Metatron with one of the oldest tropes in the book, conning the self-aggrandizing villain into ranting about his plans, letting him realize too late that the microphone has been on the whole time. Being able to tell a great story doesn’t make you infallible—and it doesn’t make you immune to plot twists in life.
That notion brings us to the real surprise of “Do You Believe in Miracles.” Early in the season, Dean found a way to defeat Abaddon by receiving the Mark of Cain and the blade which slew Abel. While the Mark gave him the necessary power, it also came with rather dangerous side effects. In “Do You Believe in Miracles,” Dean is struggling with insatiable bloodlust. He blows off his brother and even rejects help from Crowley, the King of Hell (Mark Sheppard) in his quest to kill Metatron, but ultimately proves no match for the superpowered angel. Dean succumbs to his mortal wounds, and begs Sam to let him die rather than allow the Mark of Cain to turn him into a mindless killer.
In the last scene of “Do You Believe in Miracles,” Crowley is standing by Dean’s corpse, watching it with quiet fascination. “Your brother, bless his soul, is summoning me as I speak. Make a deal, bring you back,” he says. “It’s exactly what I was talking about, isn’t it? It’s all become so … expected.” The Mark, he explains, has a habit of keeping itself alive. Dean thought his story was over, but he’s actually on the brink of a whole new chapter. “What you’re feeling right now—it’s not death. It’s life; a new kind of life. Open your eyes, Dean. See what I see. Feel what I feel. And let’s go take a howl at that moon.” Placing the First Blade into Dean’s lifeless hand, Crowley stands back and waits.
Incredibly, Dean opens his eyes and they’re solid black. He’s been turned into a demon.
This finale smashes a big reset button on a lot of things. Castiel is back to being a regular angel. Crowley is once again in charge of Hell. One of the Winchesters has died, and the other is trying to save him. The status quo is an alluring place because of its familiarity, but it’s also stagnant; when things don’t move forward, they begin to rot in place. In these last few minutes of the episode, Dean is a metaphor for Supernatural itself. We’ve come to expect certain things from the show and its characters over nine years, but those things need to die. A Winchester’s death (or presumed death) at the end of a season is a classic. It’s happened about five times by now. We’re used to that. Turning Dean into a demon is a beautiful step out into the unknown, giving the characters a whole new dynamic that they must traverse.
Season 9 began with Crowley becoming addicted to human blood, and slowly turning back into a mortal man. Now the tables have now turned, and one of our heroes has become the embodiment of evil he’s always feared. It’s is a metaphor for adulthood, in a way. When you’re a child, there are good guys and bad buys and ne’er the twain shall meet, but when you grow up—say, over the course of nine years—you realize that most people are a steady combination of both. The Buffy the Vampire Slayer spinoff show Angel did something very similar. While Buffy‘s monsters represented puberty and the perils of high school, Angel made the title character’s vampirism into a metaphor for addiction and recovery, and the monsters were often just trying to go about their day jobs like everyone else. With Mark Sheppard now a series regular, Supernatural has a whole new set of stories to tell from a unique new perspective.
So here we are at “Do You Believe in Miracles,” the finale that looked the audience right in the face and made it very clear that ten years of a premise is no slouch, and that change is good even when it is painful. After a rough, meandering ninth year, this finale episode has given me a lot of hope that Season 10 will have a renewed sense of energy and focus.