10:30 am EDT, April 5, 2017

Did ‘Supernatural’ just backdoor pilot the ‘Wayward Daughters’ spin-off?

Um, is it just me, or did we just get a really big hint about something new and exciting on the way in the world of Supernatural?

Last week’s Supernatural saw Sam and Dean tackle a teenage werewolf case alongside British Man of Letters Mick Davies. On the job, they unexpectedly run into one of their adopted family members, Claire Novak. Mick and Claire come out of the job alive, but having learned a few home truths about their respective actions and purpose.

The episode itself was a really solid little thing — penned by newcomer Meredith Glynn, who last gave us the excellent “Regarding Dean,” “Ladies Drink Free” was relatively self-contained, but tied into the season’s overarching plot by letting Mick tag along with the boys to get some first-hand experience, his newly increased understanding about the victims of monster attacks, the personhood of the monsters themselves and the choices made by hunters in the field likely setting him up for an eventual rebellion in the name of Winchester.

The crux of “Ladies Drink Free” is that Claire herself becomes a werewolf while on the hunt for the vicious culprit. Always full of don’t-tell-me-how-to-live-my-life impetuousness, Claire has taken to hunting solo on the sly while her foster mom Jody Mills thinks she’s looking at colleges. Thematically, there’s a sense that this episode is a lesson about agency and bodily autonomy — Claire wins the battle of wills over what to do about her transformation, despite a protective Dean demand-begging that she choose to live a safe life as a restrained werewolf. Claire, knowing her own flaws when it comes to self-control, prefers the cure-or-die risk of a questionable remedy that Mick reveals the Men of Letters have experimented with. Thankfully, it works, and Claire comes out the other side stronger, smarter, and in charge of her own destiny.

However, what’s been lingering in my mind ever since last Thursday isn’t actually any particular moment of the episode itself. It’s what was teased in advance about what this sets up for the future. The CW sometimes chooses to release a “producer preview” in addition to their straight-up trailer for the following week’s Supernatural episode — a video featuring commentary from executive producers Andrew Dabb and Robert Singer about what fans can expect from their upcoming offering. The producer preview for “Ladies Drink Free” included a fond description from Dabb of Claire as “a fan favorite character, someone we really like,” and more fascinatingly, Singer states that it “very subtly tees up something that we’re gonna revisit next year, and that’s as much of a teaser as I can tease.”

Unless the episode’s throwaway mention of the Winchesters’ existing werewolf buddy hints at a Garth-centric season 13, which, doubtful (though I am a little worried about that slip of Dean’s tongue getting that cinnamon roll killed by the British Men of Letters this season — I’m still convinced that war will be declared due to the killing of a supernatural being that the Winchesters care about, and DJ Qualls did just cancel a convention appearance in Australia, possibly due to an offer of work) what’s being “teed up” is most likely a look at the lives of young hunters.

Not only does “Ladies Drink Free” see Claire firmly grasping her independence and setting out on the road — into her future, as the script stated — there’s also an unexpected mention of The Kendricks School, the Hogwarts-like training academy for the Men of Letters. One, or both, of these ideas could be the makings of a story specifically about the education and experiences of young hunters, younger even than the Winchesters were when we met them, especially if my prediction about a coup that distributes the Men of Letters’ resources and methods to the American hunting community comes true.

A Supernatural Hogwarts would be all well and good, but given the evidence at hand, there’s no more likely prospect than the idea that we’ll be returning to Claire’s life as a hunter, kicking off a woman-lead Supernatural spin-off. And if it’s a show about Claire Novak, the woman who raised her, and the other errant teens the show has introduced to the hunter life, then what you’ve actually got is Wayward Daughters — a fan concept for a female-driven series starring some beloved Winchster allies, which has taken on a show-supported life of its own over the past few years. If we’re getting a Supernatural spin-off at all, I’ll bet my life savings that it’s something to do with this.

Supernatural has ordered, backdoor piloted, and ultimately cancelled a spin-off before — season 9’s “Bloodlines,” by current showrunner Andrew Dabb, was intended to set up a brand-new series set in the universe, featuring a wide cast of new characters and exploring the paranormal underbelly of Chicago, including mob-like warring families of werewolves, shifters and the like. “Bloodlines” wasn’t a bad episode, objectively, but an audience so deeply dedicated to the Winchesters and their friends did not respond well to the idea of supporting a new series that had nothing to do with any characters that they’re already invested in. If that show had started from scratch, maybe it could have been another serviceable genre show, but it wasn’t captivating enough to gain traction on its own as an expansion of Supernatural canon.

Wayward Daughters, the title a riff on the “wayward son” sentiment of the show’s unofficial theme song, is a different kettle of fish — an idea that is at its heart borne of fandom, begged for, and featuring members of the Winchesters’ extended found family in a story designed to empower and support female viewers and characters alike. A brief history: Sam and Dean first met Sheriff Jody Mills (guest star Kim Rhodes) way back in season 5, and she’s thankfully survived everything their world has thrown at her, from deaths in her family to demon possession to a date with Crowley. In season 9, she adopted Alex Jones, a teenage girl raised by a vampire family, after their abuse was discovered and Alex herself was turned and subsequently cured.

Season 10 saw the reintroduction of Claire, as Castiel tries to make amends for his part in ruining her family, and eventually, after her mother is killed in “Angel Heart,” she’s also taken in by Jody at Sam and Dean’s request. With Alex (Katherine Ramdeen) in Jody’s care and, thanks to the hilarious “Hibbing 911,” Jody’s newfound odd-couple friendship with Sheriff Donna Hanscum (Briana Buckmaster) firmly in place, the pieces were already there for a show based on Supernatural’s rich female relationships that tangibly exist, hovering just out of sight as we follow Sam and Dean’s story.

But it was Claire’s unenthusiastic quip about Jody’s hospitality — “So, what? This is some sort of halfway house for wayward girls?” — that sealed the deal for the pipe dream. “At that moment,” Wayward Daughters campaign creator Riley Keshner explained to me, “thousands of fans took to social media and shouted ‘YES! THAT!’”

The concept — of Jody and Donna running a home for kids in need, hunters in training, women mentoring girls — took on a life of its own as the actresses and some of the writers also expressed their enthusiasm for the possibility. Keshner and another fan, Betty Days, created a petition, a twitter account and a tumblr in order to campaign for the possibility of the show existing, and were quickly partnered in their endeavors by Rhodes and Buckmaster themselves, who are the best of friends, as much of a double act in real life as Jody and Donna are on screen. The initial plan of the fan creators was simply to make a t-shirt, maybe raise some money toward making the idea a reality (perhaps in a Kings of Con-esque fashion), but they were advised by Rhodes that numbers — the volume of voices — would speak louder than cash.

“I knew we had the numbers,” Keshner explains, and indeed, the Supernatural audience has the numbers to move any needle — the engagement level on social media compared to the viewership of the show is astronomically high, and a faction of this fandom has a freaking mountain on Mars named after it — “and so I put out a call to action through the fandom, and Betty and I created the social media accounts and a petition so that we could funnel everyone’s enthusiasm through a central outlet. We called it ‘Wayward Daughters Academy.’ That was May 1, 2015, the day after ‘Angel Heart’ aired. That day, Kim and Briana both followed us and we discussed with them that we appreciated their support but wouldn’t do anything without their consent. They were both on board, and the rest is history.”

Fandom-savvy consumers can generally tell when a guest star is riding off of an audience and using them to create hype and further their career. In a climate that abhors anything other than total transparency, when fans can tell they’re being exploited, it’s kind of an embarrassing thing to watch. Rhodes, Buckmaster and the Wayward Daughters campaign embody none of that. Rhodes and Buckmaster, both funny and filterless women, share themselves with gusto, without agenda. They are Supernatural convention and social media superstars — their joint panels eschew the standard rules and feel more like therapy sessions. They host intimate pajama parties to celebrate being women with their fans. They pen heartfelt blogs and support fan creators and invite fans to impromptu meet-ups while on vacation and exchange low-key Facebook video blogs in their downtime.

By the way, Wayward Daughters did end up releasing a t-shirt — through Supernatural’s official merch store, Creation Stands, benefitting Misha Collins’ non-profit organization Random Acts. They’ve since done several more merchandise campaigns through Creation, benefiting Random Acts and New Leash on Life, a dog-training charity that pairs at-risk shelter dogs with incarcerated inmates to improve quality of life for both. Their latest: simply #WaywardAF, a term which has been massively adopted as a slogan by the fandom at large. Are Rhodes and Buckmaster selling their personal brand? Sure. But there’s nothing wrong with that when what’s on offer is something positive. Celebrities dismantling the public pedestal that they’ve been put upon in order to contribute to the shared experience is exactly the kind of lesson we need right now. If every public figure operated in the way these two do, the world would be more enriched, more compassionate, and more educated for it.

Business mornings with the wife. Plotting pj parties and basic world domination. #waywardAF ?

A post shared by Briana Buckmaster (@officialbrianab) on

Back to the show itself: season 11’s “Don’t You Forget About Me,” which focused on the home life of Jody, Alex and Claire when Sam and Dean are called to town to visit them, was a clear tip of the hat to the Wayward Daughters campaign — the Supernatural production team is vividly aware of what the fandom is up to, and this felt like a “yes, your voices have been heard.” The episode gained a fair amount of media attention, which drew parallels between the campaign and the canon, further fueling the flames that sparked the notion that it may, in fact, be viable as its own property.

The response to “Don’t You Forget About Me” compared to “Bloodlines” is notable particularly because it proves that organic development works — people prefer something that grows naturally from the circumstances at hand, not something that’s been very obviously constructed and slotted to serve a purpose. It’s the same mindset as when viewers prefer characters to fall in love who were not introduced as “love interests” — the idea of fully formed characters naturally stumbling into some sort of unexpected potential is always more gratifying than following a set path.

Supernatural has had controversies, over the years, about its handling of female characters. I, as a woman, don’t necessarily agree with Misha Collins’ famous “gratuitously misogynistic” comment. There have been some low points, but honestly, Supernatural often normalizes representation of women of all ages and ethnicities in positions of power — doctors, lawyers, detectives, sheriffs, hunters, witches, angels and queens. Sometimes they die, sometimes they get the better of the boys, sometimes they save the Winchesters’ bacon, sometimes they kiss, sometimes they keep going on with their day.

The death of Charlie Bradbury, arguably the boys’ closest female friend — which happened offscreen, with no honor or worth, left like a piece of meat to cause pain to her menfolk — was admittedly a misstep, but the backlash against that possibly sent a message, because most people close to the Winchesters — male and female — were generally expected to have a shelf life, as sort of a way to keep the guys isolated and dependent on one another. Since Charlie, no major allies have bit the dust — before that, it was approximately one super-close friend lost every season. It could be that Supernatural has turned a corner in this regard: Sam and Dean’s support network has grown and strengthened, easing their burden a little, and the show has heavily featured the ongoing plots and perspective of two female characters — Crowley’s mother Rowena and, of course, the newly resurrected Mary Winchester.

Regardless, no matter how well or badly the women are treated — and they’re treated extremely well by the cast and crew offscreen — this show is about men. The views expressed in the show are pretty progressive and liberal, our heroes treat women with respect and deference — a woman never has to qualify herself to the Winchesters — but at its heart it’s not about female characters. It’s about two brothers and the allies and enemies they interact with in their line of work — some of those are men, some women, but there’s never going to be a female character on Supernatural who enjoys as much of the point of view focus as Sam and Dean.

In the current televisual landscape of large ensemble casts, Supernatural’s structure is pretty unusual in that it does hinge so tightly on just these two characters — less so these days than in the beginning, but still quite a lot. Of course, the other series regulars, Cas and Crowley, are also both male. (Well, kind of.) That’s okay. There’s room in the world for all kinds of shows and all kinds of stories. Not every single story has to tick every single box, as long as no one is being offensive about the other boxes. However, for those who love all the Supernatural universe has to offer but who want to witness it from a female perspective — and make no mistake, the fanbase is overwhelmingly female, and no, most of them haven’t stuck around for 12 years purely because they want to shag a J — then Wayward Daughters may be the answer.

If this spin-off does, in fact, come to fruition, Rhodes and Buckmaster simply must be featured — they’ve earned it, as the official spokespeople of what it means to be a wayward daughter, and as fantastic role models for the young women in their care, both onscreen and off. But it looks like Claire Novak would be our star — though actress Kathryn Newton has recently enjoyed even more high-profile success in the acclaimed Big Little Lies, so hopefully she’ll have the time! Claire, who arguably fills Charlie’s little sister spot these days, is a survivor. She’s the daughter of Jimmy Novak, who lost both her parents in different ways as a result of the angel Castiel taking Jimmy’s body as a vessel, and Claire almost became his vessel herself — more of a walking miracle than Mick Davies could ever guess.

Last week’s episode showed Claire undergoing a horrid ordeal — a parallel to her foster sister’s experience — and even though Dean still won’t let her have a beer, she was allowed to make her own decisions about how it was handled. She has strong ties to all three members of Team Free Will — Cas, for obvious reasons, went through a lot with her when she came back into the picture; she and Dean, Cas’ go-to guy and her golfing-and-anger-management buddy (let’s not bring this up again… okay, let’s), have a peer-like friendship. “Ladies Drink Free” paired her with Sam in a lot of scenes, introducing an interesting and new dynamic — it’s Sam who defends Claire’s choice to risk her life, knowing all too well what it’s like to be loved possessively by Dean Winchester. Any of the show’s heroes could easily show up in a Claire-centric series, no questions asked, unlike the potential of extremely convoluted twists in order for Sam and Dean to drop by Chicago for “Bloodlines.”

All the groundwork is in place for a show like Wayward Daughters to exist, if the CW thinks it’s worth putting out there. Supernatural frequently introduces pithy, well-drawn characters, often women, who only participate in a singular story, but feel real enough for us to remember them and know they’re existing out there in Sam and Dean’s world. Any number of them mixing with Claire, Alex, Donna and Jody to share tricks of the trade would make for fantastic television, particularly for die-hards — characters like the psychic Missouri Moseley; Krissy Chambers, leading her own band of wayward teens; Detective Diana Ballard; deaf hunter Eileen Leahy (who we’ll actually see back on Supernatural this Thursday!) or the witch twins Max and Alicia Banes all have so much more to give.

Given Bob Singer’s hint about planning for next year, I have to assume that whatever does kick off kicks off as a result of this season’s big drama — I have a lot of theories about what may happen with the British Men of Letters that completely changes the lives of the American hunting community. It could be that it becomes necessary to train and support even more young hunters, or it could be an ethical challenge, trying to save the lives of these young people by keeping them out of the fray.

Either way, we’re ready, and even if this is all just a lot of hot air, Wayward Daughters is already so much more than a potential TV show. It’s a support network in and of itself, a community of people who gather strength from one another while sharing their voices and their vulnerabilities. This ethos — to be one another’s tether, to keep each other steady and safe, to carry another’s burden for a little while and to have yours lifted in return — should be the core foundation of this story, if it does make it onto our screen. If it doesn’t, that’s okay: it’s already real, and that’s even better.

‘Supernatural’ airs Thursdays at 8/7c on The CW

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