As someone who once frequently joked that Supernatural would outlive us all, I’ve spent a not insignificant amount of time over the last few years considering what the legacy of the show might have been had it ended after Season 5, with the culmination of the original angels-and-demons arc planned by series creator Eric Kripke. As it stands now, with 15 seasons of the family business under its belt, Supernatural is the longest-running sci-fi or genre series in American broadcast TV history (Doctor Who is the longest-running sci-fi series in TV history). It’s an incredible accomplishment for a show about “two brothers on a road trip” that was originally a scribble in a notebook, an idea Kripke pitched only after the studio passed on a different story about American culture and urban legends.
That this series ran for 15 seasons is even more unbelievable considering the obstacles that once stood in Supernatural‘s path. Not only did the 2007-2008 writers’ strike shorten the third season, which was heavy on mythology and pulled the trigger on a number of story developments that would ultimately come to determine the path of the show, but Supernatural was also a perennial bubble show early in its run. And yet, like Sam (Jared Padalecki) and Dean (Jensen Ackles), the show persevered in the face of certain doom, even surviving the ol’ Friday Night Death Slot in a time when timeslots played a bigger role in determining a show’s fate. But what if it hadn’t? What if the Season 5 finale, “Swan Song,” had actually been the show’s swan song?
I’ve been thinking a lot about this as the show prepares to sign off forever on Thursday. The first five seasons were a near perfect blend of absurdist comedy, compelling mythology, complicated family angst, and daring contemplations of free will. There are instant classics around every corner, especially after Season 3, when the looming specter of John Winchester (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and the Yellow-Eyed Demon were more or less in Baby’s rearview mirror. It wasn’t obvious at the time, but looking back now, fans were blessed with so many infinitely rewatchable episodes — like “Mystery Spot,” “Ghostfacers,” “No Rest for the Wicked,” “Lazarus Rising,” “Monster Movie,” “Yellow Fever,” “The Monster at the End of This Book,” “Changing Channels,” “The Real Ghostbusters,” “Abandon All Hope…”, “Dark Side of the Moon,” and “Swan Song” — in a three-season span. Most shows are lucky to create one or two truly excellent and memorable outings a year. Those final years under Kripke, Supernatural delivered episodes like that every few weeks.
Jared Padalecki, Jake Abel and Jensen Ackles, Supernatural
And while it might have seemed as if Kripke, executive producer Robert Singer, and the entire writing staff had everything planned out for that spectacular initial five-season arc, which eventually saw the brothers mirrored in the archangels Lucifer and Michael and culminated in the apocalypse, that is far from the truth. Although Kripke had the story loosely outlined from the start, angels weren’t part of the original plan, which makes the show’s success — and the writers’ ability to take advantage of storytelling opportunities — even more impressive. By the end of the fifth season, the puzzle pieces on Supernatural fit together so snugly and beautifully that it appeared to be as destined as Sam and Dean’s own tragic path had been.
After completing that heavily serialized, exceptionally successful arc, which seemed like the pinnacle of its narrative, the show was forced in Season 6 to find new mountains to climb. In comparing the first five seasons to what came after, it becomes clear that there are two versions of Supernatural, and that if Season 5 had been the end of the Winchesters’ story, it’s likely the show’s legacy would be very different than it is now. Instead of being honored and remembered for its impressive longevity, for beating the odds and constantly reinventing itself, and for the global fanbase it spawned, Supernatural likely would have been remembered, plain and simple, as one of TV’s very best, most creative shows, which went out on the top of its game after a shockingly compelling story about brotherhood, good and evil, and destiny and free will.
That’s not to say the WB-turned-CW drama doesn’t still carry on aspects of that legacy, or that it is not going to be fondly remembered by fans and critics alike, because it is. Supernatural continued to grow in popularity over the years, and the fact that it was able to deliver creatively ambitious episodes like “Scoobynatural” well into its twilight years is a testament to its overall strength, creative writing staff, and genre-bending genius. But its legacy is also more complicated now. For every Men of Letters, there’s a Leviathan. For every “The French Mistake,” there are multiple episodes that are probably best forgotten. The longer a show goes on, the more opportunities there are for mistakes and missteps, and Supernatural certainly made a few along the way. But much like the strong-willed men at its center, the show overcame the seemingly impossible to come out more resilient on the other side.
Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles, Supernatural
For 15 years Supernatural has been a reliable and sturdy port in a storm of change. If not a constant companion, it was at least a security blanket fans could turn to whenever they needed to be reassured that despite the challenges being thrown their way, there was always a path forward, as well as a place to call home. The adventures of Sam and Dean — and eventually Bobby (Jim Beaver), Castiel (Misha Collins), and Jack (Alexander Calvert) — became a familiar and comforting escape, the television equivalent of a bowl of soup on a cold day. That pervasive feeling of warmth is something I’m going to miss a lot in the coming months and years.
So while it’s easy to look back and play a game of “What if?” with the show’s first, undeniably great five seasons and Kripke’s original vision for the Winchesters, the truth is that Supernatural is more than that. The series surpassed every expectation most viewers had for it and will now be remembered for doing it all: for making us laugh out loud with its comedy, for making us cry when the brothers sacrificed themselves for the good of humanity, for creating a global family of fans, and for offering comfort, joy, and strength when we needed it most. I don’t know about you, but I have no complaints.
Supernatural‘s series finale airs Thursday, Nov. 19 at 9/8c on The CW. An hourlong retrospective, Supernatural: The Long Road Home, will air prior to the finale at 8/7c.