12:30 pm EDT, May 17, 2017

Dismantling the ‘Supernatural’ death toll – is there a better way?

Last Thursday, Supernatural killed off another female minority character. What’s the right way to handle this?

I don’t know. That’s what I’ve got. I don’t know. There’s no hot take here. I don’t know what they should do, I don’t know what we should do. But we’re gonna talk about it anyway.

So, “There’s Something About Mary” was a thing that happened. Unfortunately, the bulk of the relatively solid episode – including the fantastic performances by Samantha Smith as Mary and Elizabeth Blackmore, making her return as Lady Toni Bevell, who became, last week, the first character to ever, however cruelly, correctly label John Winchester’s treatment of his sons as child abuse, was overshadowed by the murder of hunter Eileen Leahy, played by deaf actor Shoshannah Stern, who was killed in a pre-credits cold open without a single line of dialogue, on the orders of the British Men of Letters.

Eileen’s death sparked somewhat of an outrage among the social-media-active Supernatural audience, reminiscent of the reaction to the last brutal death of a close friend to Sam and Dean — that of Charlie Bradbury, in season 10’s “Dark Dynasty.” Another female character, another minority representation — Charlie a lesbian, Eileen a deaf woman, violently killed by an enemy of the Winchesters in order, narratively, to provoke the boys into emotion and action.

Countless tears have been shed, arguments have been had, articles have been written, over this circumstance — this accusation, really — that Supernatural is one of the most misogynistic shows on television, because of the deaths of so many female characters in a show starring two to four white men as the only true regular characters. The same accusation has been made in regards to racism, and the deaths of characters of color, both male and female. Recurring minority characters meet their demise, Sam and Dean (and Cas, and Crowley) survive. These patterns are seen as damaging microaggressions.

This problem is a tough one for me to make a call on, even in my own mind, and it’s certainly not up to me to tell any marginalized group what they should or should not feel attacked by. I am just one queer white woman. My experience is not everyone’s experience. This is in no way an attempt to refute that anger about Supernatural’s history with minority deaths. Nor is it an outright criticism of the show’s narrative direction, and the conflict there is something I’ll return to. However, I will say this for starters: I was actually expecting a lot worse.

As most readers know, I’m relatively new to the show, and the infamy of these claims and controversies was well-known to me long before I started watching it — in fact, they probably contributed to me not watching it, for a long time. When I did catch up on the series, I’d been expecting the worst, so I was shocked by how problematic I didn’t find it.

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I was pleasantly surprised by the normalization of women in positions of power — doctors, cops, hunters, psychics, villains, whatever — and how misogynistic Sam and, a few sleazy performative exceptions aside, Dean themselves weren’t. You guys, with the reputation this show has? I went into Supernatural expecting Sam and Dean to be terrible human beings. Imagine my surprise when I found the actual opinions of the characters to be understatedly quite liberal and progressive. Their respect for women as powerful members of society was unquestioned.

The same went for their admittedly very occasional interactions with LGBT characters, and their seemingly colorblind take on many hunters, civilians, demons and angelic vessels of color. The only real red flags for me were a number of strange sexual encounters or sexually threatening behavior that seemed unnecessarily gratuitous or, worse, somewhat akin to coercion, abuse and rape. These occasions were not instigated by our boys, and sometimes did not involve them at all even as the victim, so I tended to pass them over as “bad guys doing bad things that we all know is bad.” But that’s an issue for another day.

I was more impressed than I expected to be from the start — hey, even the racist truck episode had the right morals at heart — but the normalized visibility of minorities has noticeably increased in Supernatural’s later seasons, and the season 11 introduction of Eileen Leahy, a hunter who’s an example of the world’s biggest and least media-represented minority, the disabled, was a lauded high point: something that the entire Supernatural audience, for once, seemed to agree on.

But here’s the thing. Here’s the double-edged sword. Supernatural is a horror fantasy show. Bodies drop every single week. Brutal deaths that set the plot wheels in motion are the show’s bread and butter. Most of the time, it’s a stranger that we don’t know. Sometimes, when the stakes get high, it’s someone we — and the boys — know and love. The issues at hand — the lack of recurring female or minority characters, their underdevelopment or their unfair deaths once they are developed, the “fridging” of characters to inspire Sam and Dean’s angst — seem to be, most simply, an unfortunate product of the structure of the show.

The show will always have a body count, and the body count is going to be made up of whoever’s on the show besides Sam and Dean. More diversity in casting meaning more diversity in deaths. If the show casts women to play significant roles, if the show casts people of color over white people, then those are the people populating Sam and Dean’s world. Those are the people who may die. Have they been fridged? Technically, yup. Every single character to ever die on Supernatural, recurring or brand-new, young or old, male or female, gay or straight, black, Asian, Latino, white, angel, demon, hunter, lover, family, enemy — every single one — has been fridged to further the story of two attractive white men, Sam and Dean Winchester. Well, occasionally they’re fridged to further Cas or Crowley. People die, so the guys do stuff, or the guys don’t do stuff, so people die. That is the literal, entire premise of the show.

I also always feel the need to factor in, when arguing about this concept with myself — and this article is very much an argument with myself — the reality that for two thirds of the series, seasons 1 through 8, the lives of our protagonists were extremely transient. They quite literally had no home except for their car — recurring characters in general were few and far between before the guys settled down a bit and opened their lives up to a wider safety net of people they’d come to call family.

A big part of the bond between the Winchesters — particularly before they started dreaming of a hazy someday where their lives may get a little easier — was the fact that they only had each other, that everyone else they’d ever loved had been taken from them in some way. Brand new episode-of-the-week characters never got a chance to flourish, because the guys are rarely in the same town twice — that’s still true, regardless of their Bunker home base — and the cyclical nature of television storytelling, stripping a story back to the core, means that unless a major change in tone and direction takes place, Sam and Dean will continue to experience losses that highlight or strain their bond. It’s the nature of the show, and, in-universe, the nature of their lives. Supernatural: it said “deathtrap” on the tin when you bought it.

That being said, Eileen’s killing is a real punch in the gut, because the Supernatural audience isn’t unreasonable to have assumed that change in tone and direction had, in fact, taken place. Charlie’s death, at the end of season 10, provoked next-level noise from the fandom — more than just anger at the plot itself, there was serious outrage at the morality behind the decision-making and what Supernatural was choosing to represent with it, including the off-screen yet still gratuitous nature of her murder, which didn’t even allow her to go out with honor, ultimately assigning her more value to the story as a prop dead body than a living woman. This particular death has never been forgiven, and seemed to be disapproved of even by the lead cast, who famously threw former showrunner Jeremy Carver under the bus onstage at San Diego Comic-Con when a fan raised the issue.

After the demise of Charlie, Supernatural’s following season, which transitioned from Carver’s leadership to that of longtime staff writer Andrew Dabb, was much less trigger-happy. We lost no major recurring characters (besides from Metatron, but like, good riddance) and the finale, “Alpha and Omega,” was an outlier in that death and destruction was completely avoided. Dean, who’d at last started valuing his own self worth, was prepared to die, but ended up saving the world with the power of friendship or whatever, and it ended, of course, with the great un-fridging of Mary Winchester, the woman whose death was the basis for the entire series.

Mary’s development as a woman — more than a mother, more than a martyr — has been a major highlight of the extremely coherent season 12. It’s felt natural and perfect and she — along with Ruth Connell as Rowena — has proven that there is certainly space in the current scope of Supernatural for the show to have female regulars. Despite the threat of death being as present as ever — we’ve certainly seen plenty of horrible deaths this season, just, perhaps, not ones we’ve been quite as invested in — it’s possible that this factor, along with the gentler season 11, or maybe the idea that the show is winding down, therefore those currently involved have a chance of sticking it out ’til the end, has lulled us into a false sense of security about the stakes.

Earlier in the season, I did predict this. I predicted that the British Men of Letters would kill or try to kill someone that Sam and Dean cared about, and that it would be what sets off the outright war between them. It’s not much of a stretch — it was set up very early on, when Ketch took out a psychic girl that the boys had deemed innocent. However, Eileen Leahy was the last person I expected to lose, for several reasons.

Firstly, she’s human — I’d assumed they’d go after someone with supernatural qualities — Garth, Cas, Sully, Rowena, even Crowley. Her recent plot — the accidental killing of a British operative — in “The British Invasion” explains the in-universe why, but I honestly didn’t think the show would do it. I had thought — particularly as Shoshannah Stern’s reappearance was kept secret until recently and there was vague speculation that Garth’s actor DJ Qualls had also worked on this episode — that the Brits would go after hunters en masse, kill a few of them, including Garth, and that Eileen would be the one Sam and Dean managed to save. I thought they’d keep their powerful disabled girl. I thought they’d keep the one that it mattered more to the world to be able to keep seeing on screen.

The extra little kicker here is that ironically — given past claims that the audience responds very badly to girlfriends for Sam and Dean — Eileen is the only woman that fandom has pretty much unequivocally agreed that Sam should end up with. I’d personally have quite happily seen Sam marry her — this vivacious woman not introduced as a love interest, but as a fully-fledged character in her own right who organically fits the bill of what Sam expressed his desire to find, a fellow hunter who naturally developed chemistry and an ongoing charged friendship with him. If Sam is to get that happy ending as the series winds down, it’s hard to imagine a better introduction of another new character who might fit that bill, so the prospect of a peaceful payoff to the series is also slightly squelched.

Eileen’s death was wrenching, sickening — as she was mauled by a Ketch-controlled hellhound. (Don’t even ask. Crowley, what are you doing?) It used her deafness against her, pitting her against a foe she could not see or hear. She had no lines in the episode, she died before the credits in an anonymous manner usually reserved a monster-of-the-week victim, and her final “interaction” with the brothers was as a corpse, naked on a slab. To add insult to injury, she apologizes for her need for a safehouse in a found-too-late letter, calling that request “girly,” — one of the show’s most truly bizarre missteps.

I admit I’d hoped for better. I accept that this is a show about white dudes. I accept the need for a body count. I’d just hoped that the writers would choose to kill off someone who was equally high stakes in terms of emotional investment for the boys — still fridging, still doing the job, but, perhaps, after Charlie (and to be frank, I never even liked Charlie, but objectively the situation with her was horrible) less high stakes to the world at large.

The guys are wrecked by the death of Eileen — particularly Sam, with great work from Jared Padalecki, who visibly reins in his devastation but remains unfocused and erratic, with Dean taking charge — but they’d have also been probably equally wrecked by the death of Garth. However, the slaughter of a disabled action-hero woman plays very differently, in the context of the real world, to that of a scrawny white werewolf guy.

Of course I understand the microaggression argument. Of course I do. This is a problem, but it’s one I don’t know the answer to in this scenario. Of course I’m annoyed that Supernatural didn’t figure out a plot that would provide the same emotional impact while being able to keep one very rich, unique character alive. I wish they’d be able to do deaths that affect the guys in a big way in the narrative, while also doing the right thing by giving marginalized people power.

Behind the scenes, there are all sorts of reasons a character may live or die. Meg, for instance, our free-will-achieving demon, whom I could have watched forever, was written out due to the illness of actor Rachel Miner, at Miner’s request, and perhaps some recurring characters are still alive out there in Sam and Dean’s world purely because the actor did not want to, or was not invited to, return to the Supernatural set in real life.

Some of the show’s biggest deaths — Bobby Singer, I believe, is the most crucial one — do really, truly seem like a necessary turning point for the story. The reaper Billie, earlier this season — if those cosmic consequences do, in fact, come into play. Gabriel, Sarah Blake, Jo Harvelle (though not Ellen) and even, heartbreakingly, Kevin Tran, whom I wish beyond measure could have been saved — all these characters, I get their deaths, story wise.

A large majority of others could have had more to offer us, if the show had chosen to be less death-driven. Eileen Leahy. Charlie Bradbury. Bela Talbot. Pamela Barnes. Tessa. Abaddon. Dagon. Alicia Banes. Rufus Turner. Victor Henriksen. And the white dudes too — Ash, Benny, Balthazar, Cain, Frank Devereaux or even Death. Simply speaking, Supernatural could have done a lot more with any one of these characters alive rather than dead, if it was the kind of show to service a large number of characters. But it’s just not. I don’t know if it could be, or should be — some days I think yes, some days I think no.

Should stories with deadly stakes be specifically saving and preserving their minority characters, on principle? Is it better to cast as diverse as possible and then treat those characters as equal opportunity cannon fodder? Even if that was the answer, on paper, does that tactic actually play as intended when your untouchable, unkillable center (though they definitely all have been killed several times, as well) is a group of white men? Is it better to cast white, cast male, cast straight, as the standard, to avoid showing brutality to those who are not white, male, straight? Is it better to lower the body count and change the direction and the stakes?

I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.

I do know that the large majority of people involved in making Supernatural are good, liberal, progressive people — particularly the new writing team hired by Andrew Dabb, not one of whom is a straight white man. I do know that the environment of the set and its long-term crew is praised to high heavens by everyone who’s ever set foot on it, including many female actors, and that it is renowned and unusual in this regard.

I do know that even the actors involved have been conflicted over these issues, with Misha Collins, for example, both criticising these storytelling choices and defending them on different occasions. I do know that I am a woman and a member of a marginalized group and that I do not feel like Sam and Dean Winchester would hate me, or see me as valueless, or that the creators of Supernatural hate me or see me as valueless. I do not believe they are out to get me, and I do not believe they should be treated as such.

But I do worry about what it means to them, to kill a character the audience cares about. I do wonder if they realize how that extends outside the fictional narrative, that it’s more than just fandom rage about a fave. I do want them to be aware of the objective implications of showing such things in the media, in a time when we need everyone who we intrinsically know is on our side to be helping out productively in terms of both equality and equity.

In this circumstance, equality would imply that everyone is fair game for the manpain and the monsters and the demons and the sociopaths. Equity, however, would lean towards preserving those who are less likely to get a chance, in terms of media representation. These two options are at odds with one another, and I just don’t know which one should win out.

Until then, a deaf woman is dead, and it’s an effective story, sure, but it’s a bloody shame.

The ‘Supernatural’ two-part season finale airs Thursday at 8/7c on The CW

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