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The Cheesy, Beloved, Historic ‘Supernatural’ Will Carry On in Our Hearts

The CW show will finish its improbable 15-year run this week. During its (very) long time on the air, it was many things, but never stale

CW/Ringer illustration

Certain shows just feel like they’ll be able to stay on the airwaves forever. I won’t be all that surprised if the Survivor or Bachelor franchises outlive me—just keep plugging in new contestants and scenarios and tinker with the formula just so, and the viewers will keep coming back. Or look at Jeopardy!. While nobody will ever live up to the late Alex Trebek’s tenure at the helm, fans certainly won’t abandon their nightly dose of trivia once the show finds his replacement. I mean, there are already betting odds for who’s going to take over hosting duties. (Give it to Mina Kimes, cowards!) But unless we’re talking about a titanic soap opera like General Hospital, this feeling doesn’t usually translate to scripted dramas, which (typically, eventually) have expiration dates. That’s probably for the best: You don’t want your favorite series to end up like Dexter.

Still, it’s hard to wrap my head around the fact that Supernatural is finally ending this week. The series, which began on—millennial nostalgia alert—the WB, the now-defunct network that merged with UPN to become the CW, has somehow been chugging along for 15 (!) seasons. If Supernatural was an actual person, now would be a good time for it to start studying for the SATs. Supernatural has earned a place in the record books as the longest-running sci-fi series in the history of American broadcast television. Not bad for a show that started as a modest tale about two mopey, flannel-loving brothers saving people and hunting things across the United States in a vintage muscle car.

Those brothers, Sam (Jared Padalecki) and Dean (Jensen Ackles) Winchester, open the series chasing after their emotionally distant father, John (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), who in turn is trying to track down the yellow-eyed demon responsible for killing the boys’ mother. At its core, Supernatural was a standard procedural: Sam and Dean usually handled a monster of the week—a wendigo, a vengeful ghost, vampires, other demons, etc.—with the occasional interlude that addressed the overarching conflict or Big Bad of the season (i.e., reuniting with their dad and avenging their mom’s death). But to understand the selling point of Supernatural, it helps to look back at the television landscape that the show entered in [deep breath] September of 2005.

Supernatural arrived on the airwaves before Peak TV and the streaming era brought forth a plethora of (mostly good) horror shows. If you wanted a series that could, as Supernatural creator Eric Kripke hoped, be “SCARY AS SHIT,” options were more limited. (Nowadays, you have your pick between American Horror Story, Channel Zero, The Haunting of Hill House, a Twilight Zone reboot, several Stephen King adaptations, an entire horror-centric streaming service, and so on.) It also didn’t hurt that, with Padalecki and Ackles, the show’s demon hunters with daddy issues were easy on the eyes. Supernatural might’ve premiered before Tumblr hit the internet, but Sam and Dean are practically royalty on the platform.

For all the silliness that the show would ultimately embrace—more on that later—Supernatural was pretty unrelenting in all the awful stuff that it brought down on the Winchesters. The only reason Sam and Dean realized that their father had become possessed by the very demon who killed their mom in the Season 1 finale is because the demon was nicer to them than their dad and it made them suspicious. After shooting their dad in the leg to get the yellow-eyed demon to leave his body, a truck driver possessed by another demon rams into Winchesters’ car to end the season. In the hospital, John then sacrifices his life to the yellow-eyed demon in order to save Dean, giving the brothers two dead parents by the beginning of Season 2.

Death was a constant on Supernatural—not just as a function of the plot, but as an actual supporting character. And cheating death basically became a rite of passage for the Winchesters. Whether it was through making deals with a crossroad demon to resurrect a brother or benefitting from divine intervention in the form of angels—yes, angels are introduced in the fourth season—Sam and Dean have been respawned on Earth as often as video game avatars. (If you took a shot for every time Sam and Dean were brought back to life over the course of the series, you’d end up in the hospital.) The in-show explanation is that Sam and Dean are—repeatedly, it turns out—destined to save the world. By the time both brothers have been revived in the fifth season, they’ve been brought back to prevent Lucifer and the angel Michael from starting the apocalypse.

If you’re keeping score at home: Supernatural went from the more intimate conflict of the Winchesters avenging their parents—the yellow-eyed demon is vanquished at the end of Season 2—to dealing with Lucifer and the End Times, and that’s just what happened through one-third of the show’s run. It’s well-established that Kripke originally had a five-season plan in mind; if you watched the Season 5 finale without any knowledge of future installments, it’d work just fine as a series finale. But Supernatural has persisted, and rather than overstay its welcome, it has used its lengthy run—the show celebrated its 300th episode in Season 14—to experiment in every conceivable way.

The series has done an animated crossover episode with the Scooby-Doo gang, went meta by acknowledging that there’s a book series called Supernatural that follows the Winchesters’ adventures within the show’s universe, traveled back in time, entered parallel worlds, and even filmed an entire episode from the perspective of the brothers’ beloved Impala. The story lines, in turn, increasingly felt like they were written by a superfan on Adderall: Sam and Dean have dealt with in-universe Supernatural fan conventions and high school musical productions based on their lives (the episode was literally titled “Fan Fiction”); the author of the book series was revealed to be God in hiding; the brothers enter an alternate universe where they become the real Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles; saved imaginary friends; Dean killed Hitler (not a joke); both of their parents have come back to life; and Lucifer returned to possess an aging rock star and the president of the United States. (The Good Fight notwithstanding, President Lucifer might be the most effective satire of the Trump era.) While certain moments on Supernatural quickly became redundant—if you took a shot every time Sam and Dean somberly leaned on the hood of their car and had a heartfelt talk about The Difficult Thing They Know They Have To Do by the end of the season, you would be dead—the series’ playful spirit endured.

Some Supernatural fans believe that the first five seasons were legitimately good television, and the 10 seasons that followed, while undeniably entertaining in moments, have essentially lost the plot and devolved into nonsense. (I certainly can’t remember the last time the show was “scary as shit.”) It’s hard to argue—I tapped out as a regular viewer around the time it was revealed that God had [squints] an evil twin sister named Amara who had the hots for Dean. (Though who can blame her?) But the show’s everlasting appeal is best understood as a vibe. Supernatural hasn’t left an indelible mark on pop culture like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, or Game of Thrones, but the series has outlived superior shows because it has gamely embraced its status as TV comfort food and refuses to take itself too seriously. (In case that wasn’t already clear from the Winchesters hanging out with Scoob.)

For some people, that kind of escapism came in the form of reality television or game shows; since high school, I’ve been indebted to Supernatural. The series was around before I even knew what I wanted to do with my life—who the hell knows at 15, anyway?—let alone trying to make a living writing about pop culture. I don’t want to admit publicly how many times I’ve bypassed pressing play on a critically acclaimed prestige drama to return to the familiar comforts of Sam, Dean, the Impala, and the latest monster to cross their path, but Supernatural has always been a balm.

Over the years, returning to the series was like catching up with an old friend who’s still exactly how you remembered them. (Seriously, did Ackles and Padalecki make their own deal with a crossroad demon to never age?) It’s way too early in life to start thinking about my own mortality, but having one of my favorite, flawed, and most formative shows from adolescence come to an end is bittersweet. I always assumed Supernatural would be as unkillable as the Winchesters, but even though Sam and Dean have defeated Death, gone to hell and back, saved the world repeatedly, and confronted God, time remains undefeated.

In a strange way, the show did defy conventional limits one more time: Supernatural should’ve ended its run in the spring, but COVID-19 shut down production before it could wrap up the final season. But Sam and Dean’s last adventure, the two-hour series finale, will finally air on Thursday night. The finale’s title, “Carry On,” refers to Kansas’s 1976 hit “Carry On My Wayward Son,” which became the show’s unofficial theme song. When it first arrived in 2005, very little of Supernatural’s decade-plus, history-making run on television could have been planned. But as “Carry on My Wayward Son” blares on Supernatural for the final time, the song’s lyrics sure sound like they were always destined for the Winchesters, who have more than earned their swan song: “Carry on, my wayward son / There’ll be peace when you are done / Lay your weary head to rest / Don’t you cry no more.”