Supernatural season 13 concluded in May, and is available to binge-watch on Netflix now. It’s also the show’s best season, ever.

Look, I always knew that Supernatural under showrunner Andrew Dabb was going to be good. But I never dreamed it could be this good. I know that claim sounds impossible to believe. Any television show running for 13 years, odds are it’d be far more likely to feel stale, recycled, unnecessary. What more could there possibly be to say?

But Supernatural is legitimately, genuinely better than it’s ever been before. If you ever cared about these characters and suffered from some sort of burn-out: catch up now. Seriously. If you’ve been watching along faithfully, I’m sure you’ll agree: this is Supernatural’s golden age. Here’s why.

It’s unprecedentedly emotionally consistent

After suffering immeasurable losses in the season 12 finale, viewers found the brothers slapped right back down to step one of their emotional journey: stuck in an impossible situation with no one to lean on but each other. While the audience knew that Cas and Mary were set to return eventually, what we didn’t know was how the show would handle their absence.

Supernatural has a history of leaving problems behind pretty quickly, in order to get back to its status quo: Sam and Dean Winchester saving people and hunting things without too many distractions to muddy the waters. Repeatedly, we’ve seen huge tragedies followed by no real exploration of the lingering trauma – not every single time, but fairly often, including after many important character deaths. A week or so later, that loss is no longer obligated to affect the plot or tone, and while the Winchesters are repression experts, sometimes it can be jarring to look at in perspective – say, when a genuinely comedic episode pops up two episodes after a massive loss.

That’s the first element that makes season 13 stand out as having seriously raised the bar – or rather, the avoidance of that. It seems like the showrunners had some firm ideas about how a loss of this magnitude should actually be handled, so during the first five episodes of the season, that grief, and the downward spiral it causes, is actually the show’s A-plot, amidst the regular case-solving (which here serves as window-dressing, juxtaposing the attempts at normalcy with the ultimate impossibility of it) and the introduction of new mythology and characters. There is no “back to normal” this time – instead, it is one long aftermath, with the focus entirely hinging on those absences, and how each brother is handling them differently.

That’s why they were necessary, after all. Mary and Castiel were both unconditionally loved, both unacceptable losses, so their respective perils were included to prove a point about the way Sam and Dean have changed. Back in the day, when they lost someone close to them, they did not react like this. They repressed and moved on, repressed and moved on, conveniently removing the mourning period from show’s tone sooner rather than later. This season, we see a story where the entire point, the build and climax of each episode, is about how the boys are unable to do that this time, and through this, it proves that they’re no longer willing to accept those kind of casualties as their lot in life – they’ll repress and move on no longer.

This is huge progress, and I’ve written a lot of words about why it’s a game-changer, but that initial grief-stricken arc is just one of several threads throughout season 13 that’s allowed to breathe and grow and take up space, instead of being conveniently tucked away when a certain episode doesn’t have room to cater to it. Sam’s trauma bubbling to the surface upon the discovery of Lucifer’s return is one, as is Castiel’s sense of purpose and belonging upon his return from the dead, Jack’s story, Gabriel’s, Rowena’s, even Lucifer’s. Nearly every ‘monster of the week’ is a situation that the boys step into in pursuit of that goal of saving Mary (and later Jack) from the Apocalypse World, rather than your traditional “so, get this” case discovery spotted in a local newspaper.

But those first five episodes – especially juxtaposed against the ridiculously indulgent joy of the sixth, in which Castiel returns to them – left many viewers utterly overwhelmed. Supernatural pushed that arc harder than most fan, given past precedence, ever dared to expect. The show has always been a mixed bag, with strong multi-season storytelling interspersed with standalone formulaic episodes, attracting both a dedicated and a casual audience – it’s got so much variety that it can be all manner of things to all manner of people. But season 13 was uncompromising, utterly unwilling to cede emotional ground for the sake of entertainment. It was rich, deep, driven, truthful, exhausting, and ultimately, unequivocal proof that these days, Supernatural isn’t here to play.

They actually pulled off ‘Scoobynatural’

Even if you don’t religiously follow the show, you’ll probably have noticed that the biggest, most publicized promotional hype of the season surrounded the (ironically standalone, given the point I’ve just waxed lyrical about) Scooby-Doo crossover that aired in the second half of season 13. It was a huge talking point – the cast appeared at PaleyFest to screen it; a marketing goldmine – it even got its own line of merchandise; and ultimately a massive success, including a notable ratings bump. People definitely tuned in for this one, even if it was just to see what the hell was going on.

The fully animated cartoon episode was conceptualized and recorded way before season 13 went into production – animation takes time, yo – so it isn’t related to the ongoing plot at all, but it’s flexibly written, and book-ended by some later-filmed live action scenes that do neatly anchor it in the narrative. It’s goofy, and ridiculous, and it steals time from the main story when things are really reaching a crisis point. But despite all this, it bloody well works. Supernatural really swung for the fences, on this one, and they did not strike out.

Literally no other show in history could have achieved what Supernatural did this season, when they used their Warner Brothers connection to send Team Free Will into the world of Mystery Inc. Sure, plenty of shows could have created an animated crossover for kicks, but nothing else could have done it with this amount of plausibility and actually given it integrity. Supernatural is no stranger to meta, but what sets the show apart when they attempt it is how solidly it actually lands.

No matter how weird a concept you can think of, Supernatural can pull it off with both serious tongue-in-cheek self-awareness and deadly seriousness. For some reason, their meta episodes never feel stupid, even when they’re silly. It never feels like a gimmick. And “Scoobynatural” is next level, in that arena. With its gleeful enthusiasm, its fourth-wall-breaking old-school animation jokes, its startlingly poignant reflection on childhood innocence and childhood trauma, “Scoobynatural” rips out the heart of a beloved nostalgia series, examines it, and replaces it intact. It’s a labor of love, and a true testimony to the legacy of both shows.

The action kicked it in the ass

Supernatural has never been lacking in combat – obviously, it’s a violent paranormal drama. It’s kind of a crucial part of the DNA of the show. But this season, there was a noticeable shift in the fight scenes – in scope, yes, and in technicality (The battle scene on the abandoned ship! The vampire tunnel in total darkness! Gabriel vs Loki!) – but also in characterization. Week after week, they felt richer, cleverer, and above all, more true to the individual character, in a way that the audience maybe didn’t realize was missing until it was gifted to us here.

Thoughtful elements, including a lot of character-specific details, were incorporated into the fight choreography as a matter of course – the way someone in particular handles a gun, what this person’s life experience would mean about their approach to a fight. Sam using his height and range to his advantage more, less hand-to-hand combat. Dean getting really up-close and scrappy, grabbing random objects in his environment and using them as weapons.

Not to discredit the past hard work of all involved, I should acknowledge that deeply perceptive fight moments like this do exist peppered throughout the series, but during season 13, it was every single episode. Every single week. Gabriel. Loki. Ketch. Donna. Jody. Jack. Castiel. Everybody. This was picked up on by many dedicated viewers, who quickly learned to direct their questions and compliments to stunt coordinator Rob Hayter – a new hire for season 13, with an extremely impressive pedigree – and his fight choreographer Kirk Jacques.

Hayter’s influence has breathed new life into the action of Supernatural, giving us countless scenes that include highly character-specific weapon use, movement, thought-processing, and body language, all just as greedily analyzed as the dialogue is. There’s story, backstory, subtext – it’s all extremely carefully crafted to express not just how someone would fight in any given moment, but how that character would fight, and why. It’s not something I ever pegged as lacking, before, but now that it’s there, I’m not going to settle for less. And we won’t have to – Hayter, Jacques and their team are set to return for season 14!

Danneel Ackles is an angel among us

Fulfilling a tongue-in-cheek promise made long ago, Danneel Ackles (wife of Jensen and star of One Tree Hill under her unmarried professional credit Danneel Harris) finally joined the Supernatural family as an actor for two episodes during season 13, after many years of being heavily involved in the off-screen community that has grown around her husband’s show – attending conventions, sitting on the board of Misha Collins’ Random Acts and welcoming fans at the Ackles’ Family Business Beer Company, just to name a few.

It was about time the couple shared the Supernatural screen – especially given the fact that Jared Padalecki actually met his wife, Genevieve Cortese, working on the show, when Sam had a steamy but dangerous relationship with Genevieve’s character, the demon Ruby. However, anyone who was hoping to see an Ackles hook-up here quickly re-prioritized – that was not a role Danneel ever wanted to perform, and instead we were introduced to the wiley faith healer Sister Jo – who turned out to be an angel in disguise. This is no cameo – it’s a clever, nuanced performance in a necessary role.

Anael, as she’s really called, formed an alliance with Lucifer in an attempt to back the winning horse, and together they returned to Heaven to try and take control there. However power-hungry her intentions were, they were never evil, and when she discovered that Lucifer could not actually do what he claimed – make more angels to stabilize the Heavenly Host – she challenged him and severed their partnership. She came out of their confrontation alive, but right now we don’t know where she is, leaving the door open for Anael to potentially appear as a recurring character during season 14.

Depending on Danneel’s availability, it makes sense that she will – Lucifer is dead and he better stay that way, but the fragility of Heaven is an unsolved problem, an arc that’s only just beginning. As Castiel discovered towards the end of the season, Heaven is failing – the severe depletion of the Host means that the cosmic structure of Heaven is powering down, and if it is extinguished, all the human souls it holds will flood the earth as unhappy ghosts. Some sort of solution is going to have to be found before Supernatural draws to a close, and as Anael is one of the very few angels left, she could be a big part of that story.

In the meantime, get stoked for some couples’ commentary when the season 13 DVD is released!

Old friends – and old enemies – return

Season 13 saw a cast of recurring characters so plentiful that rarely an episode went by without a visit from someone in the Bunker family’s wider circle, either original flavor or AU edition. Old friends and old enemies re-entered the scene, helping to keep season 13 a really close-knit affair. As I mentioned, there are very few old-school case-of-the-week episodes this year – in fact, “Scoobynatural” is the only true standalone of the season, a possibly unprecedented circumstance. The rest are either tightly tied to the ongoing mission, or they feature an existing character who is eventually recruited into said ongoing mission.

In the regular world, we caught up with the prophet Donatello Redfield and the psychic Missouri Moseley, both of whom had crucial parts to play, but unfortunately, both met sticky ends. We learned of the resurrections of Rowena and Ketch, each of whom died in season 12. These former enemies were both given a serious swerve towards redemption, and it seems like it’s going to stick: they’re currently valuable allies, both having pledged allegiance to the Winchesters as members of the season’s final climactic rescue squad.

On a cosmic level, we got three huge shockers – Billie, the tired-of-Winchester-bullshit reaper who Cas killed in season 12, was revealed to have become Death. The lessons Sam and Dean learned from her raised a few huge new questions about the role of fate in the Winchsters’ journey – questions worth pondering quite seriously as we theorize about the set-up of Supernatural’s inevitable ending.

Another huge unsolved mystery is that of Heaven – it’s about to burn out, and Castiel gets that news from none other than Naomi, the stern, bureaucratic angel that tortured Cas in season 8, believed killed by Metatron. Naomi is another of the less-than-dozen angels left alive, so when that Heaven plot does comes to a head, she’s sure to be involved. And of course, Richard Speight, Jr. returned as Gabriel: we saw a seriously vindicating deep-dive for the long-term fan favorite character before his untimely end.

Then there’s the AU. In the season 12 finale we met Bobby, as a new version of Jim Beaver’s character appeared to the brothers in the desolate wasteland. Throughout the season, a few more duplicates are encountered, and we discover more about the divergence of the worlds – the AU seems very similar to ours until about eight years ago where, without Sam and Dean as the chosen (and ultimately incorruptible) vessels, the Apocalypse did take place. The alternate versions experienced life much the same until that point, and so they are, intrinsically, the same people – but since that point they’ve gone down different paths.

Osric Chau appeared as the prophet Kevin Tran – a Kevin commandeered by angelic forces to serve God – and we see the naturally anxious Kevin as he would be, after eight years of trauma and substance abuse. His ultimate end is maybe even sadder that the original Kevin’s, but it feels necessary – a harsh and horrifying human consequence of this awful alternate world. I don’t know if the fact that he never encountered the brothers makes things better or worse, because Kevin is, of course, one of those seriously close adopted family members that the boys lost, and whom they blame themselves for. Without them in his life, he survived much longer – but at what cost?

And of course, there’s one more character who, without getting dragged into Sam and Dean’s mess, survived this universe much more successfully, and that circumstance deserves its own point…

The Unfridging of Charlie Bradbury

The biggest head-turner – the one guest star casting that may have made news all the way outside of the fandom bubble – was the return of Felicia Day as Charlie Bradbury. Of all the friends the Winchesters have lost over the year, Charlie’s by far the most controversial. Her death served a purpose, sure – it pushed Dean to fully embrace the influence of the Mark of Cain – but it was only that: a woman butchered, left like trash, merely to further a man’s pain.

A gay woman, too, in a time not so long ago when their presence on TV was much less prevalent than it is today. And it was a gratuitous, unhonorable killing, a whimpering, defenseless off-screen murder to a previously powerful role-model character. Everything about it left a bad taste in the mouth, it was panned across the board, and the cast themselves joined the audience in shaming then-showrunner Jeremy Carver at San Diego Comic-Con, giving him just enough rope to hang himself with. There was a seemingly willful naivety about the real-world hurt caused – more than just investment in a fictional character – by this kind of death.

With the introduction of the Apocalypse World, the Supernatural writers were free to resurrect as many killed characters as they saw fit – and they didn’t go overboard, but instead chose very wisely to reinstate the characters that should be included in the Winchesters’ family, now that they’re allowed to have one. Of course, Charlie isn’t really their Charlie, (and Bobby isn’t really their Bobby) but they’re the same people, with the same hearts and the same internal wiring – they just lack the same memories and experience. But they have exactly the same capacity to eventually love the boys, and be loved in return, despite the tinge of sadness.

Charlie’s re-introduction was possibly more than just “we miss this character,” though. It felt, to a lot of fans, like a pretty explicit apology, an acknowledgement that what happened in the past was wrong and should have gone differently, and a declaration of “this is not who we are anymore.” It was heavy-handed, sure, but it was blatant – Dean’s unloading of the baggage he carries about his Charlie (baggage tonally hand-waved for convenience after her death, despite season 10 running straight into season 11 with no time jump… see my first point), the guilt he holds over her brutal murder, and his declaration that he failed her… it all practically breaks the fourth wall in telling the audience that Supernatural is doing its best to right an unforgivable wrong.

Charlie herself is super weirded out by Dean’s interest in her, and – on the surface at least – she’s tougher cookie than her Earthly counterpart, a rebel leader who’s survived years and years of angelic terrorism in a war zone. But ultimately, without the Winchesters around, she survived, and so now we have a Charlie again – not quite the same as having never killed her, but most fans seem thrilled to take what they can get, and grateful to boot. Day’s tweet to showrunner Andrew Dabb on the night of her return says it all.

Charlie survived the season (of course!) and made it through to our world with the other rebels. She’s currently off road-tripping with Rowena, of all people (now that’s an episode I want to see!) but presumably she’ll appear as regularly as any other Winchester ally, especially as a plan is formulated to eventually save that other world from whence she came. Balancing the feelings Dean pins upon her with her own actual experience should be an interesting thing to explore. If her death was the reason you dropped the show, now’s the time to pick it back up again.

It was totally Wayward AF

While we’re talking about the wonderful women of the Supernatural world, I cannot say enough about Wayward Sisters. Obviously a bit of a sore spot – the CW’s confusing choice to pass on the series is still making waves – but it’d be remiss not to talk about this incredible achievement when reviewing what made Supernatural season 13 so special. Much of the first half of the season was shaped around the setup for this backdoor pilot, as the threads of Wayward were carefully woven into the overarching plot, as the boys and Jack are trying to access another world.

Episode 3, “Patience,” saw the introduction of one of the new Wayward girls, setting up her relationship with Jody Mills. Dean, also present on the case while lost in grief and nihilism, warns young Patience Turner away from the life, serving as a sharp contrast to Jody and the worldview of Wayward – and indeed, that was always one of the spin-off’s aims, to show how some young people might cope with the perils of a hunter’s life when given an opportunity to have a normal home, a family, a support network, as opposed to Sam and Dean’s miserable, transient isolation.

Such faith was there in Wayward Sisters that the Supernatural team got the green light to shape their mid-season finale and premiere around the spin-off, and regardless of that final shocking decision to not move forward, what Robert Berens, Phil Sgriccia and the cast presented was a true labor of love: 80 minutes of rich, expansive set-up to a story we’re already so deeply invested in. The fact that Wayward got on the air at all is still too amazing to truly comprehend – the development of this fan-conceptualized idea, the shift from community movement to televisual reality, is entirely unprecedented.

There’s no question that Wayward Sisters deserved a pick-up and that having Supernatural running concurrently with a closely linked spin-off would have been a complete success, a practically guaranteed win both commercially and thematically, promising a survival of Sam and Dean’s legacy beyond the eventual end of Supernatural itself. For whatever reason, the CW did not want to take advantage of this opportunity and maintain the viewership of this particular audience, and chose to pursue other pilots for their fall season.

But that decision does not make the passion and the recognition and the representation that Wayward Sisters reflected any less important. This world of women who prove more than capable of rearranging the universe to save the famous Winchesters, who show us so many different ways to be strong – and that it’s okay to be not strong sometimes, too, when someone else has your back. This scarred, broken, beautiful, cheerful, nerdy, naive, bitchy, reluctant, reckless, honorable, scared, badass group of girls show us that there’s no wrong way to do the right thing. And we got to see it because we believed in it. And their story is far from over.

The deftly wielded, scalpel-sharp humor

Despite the season’s grim tone, it was also really freakin’ funny – some of the best comedy moments that Supernatural has ever done, made all the more brilliant because of the clever juxtaposition against the misery. Too much drama sucks all the life out of the audience, so even a really tragic story needs comedic beats as a release of tension-build up, and the way those beats are placed throughout season 13 is masterful.

While Supernatural has always been a very funny show (obviously the Winchesters are never having a whole lot of fun, but Ackles and Padalecki both have serious comedy chops, and the humor surrounding their pathos is often genius), it has, as mentioned, suffered from lapses in emotional consistency. All too often, an inappropriate shift from dark to light can make two episodes that would both be totally acceptable in isolation feel really inconsistent. But the use of humor in season 13 was perfect – they knew how and when to use it to give the audience a break without ruining the overall mood or throwing us out of our suspension of disbelief.

One factor that was particularly noticeable was the incredible use of sharply written bit-part characters as comedic relief – via the Pirate Pete’s employee arguing with the drunk fries-loving party girl, to the middle-aged store cashier Brenda checking out Dean’s ass, Joanne the waitress savagely teasing Sam about his drink order, Drexel the unwilling hell-minion and Indra the alcoholic nihilist angel, the audience was allowed to laugh in circumstances that did not require a hand-waving of the boys’ state of mind.

This careful crafting on every level followed through, of course, to the comedy involving the lead cast itself – Jack and his friend Clark raiding the vending machine, Cas taunting Lucifer when they’re imprisoned together, Dean and Sam attempting to eat lizard while stuck in The Bad Place. The two most humorous episodes, aside from “Scoobynatural,” which sits apart, are arguably “Tombstone” and “The Scorpion and The Frog,” and both grant full narrative permission for their lightness by their position in the chain of events.

In the ridiculously indulgent “Tombstone,” we see a hyperactive Dean getting fully and delightfully nerdy, making the newly-resurrected Cas dress up and roleplay cowboys with him just for the pure joy of it. “Scorpion” is a lighter heist caper, and that tonal breathing room is allowed because it’s at a period where the guys think everything is as fine as it possibly can be – they’re on their way to finding Jack, and they’re unaware that Cas has been imprisoned.

We witness an utter farce when Dean is put under a love spell in “Various and Sundry Villains” – he’s not in control of his feelings and actions, so the cheer isn’t jarring, and Jensen Ackles just shines – and when Dean and Cas face off against Gog and Magog, in “Good Intentions,” the ridiculous turn of events has a lovely, natural tone of uncontrollable hysteria: Dean in a state of “everything’s too much, and I’ve finally cracked, and this, right now, is the funniest thing in the world to me.”

Visual comedy, like the incredible elevator fight scene between Dean and Rowena’s butler Bernard, or the drooping portal powered by the grace of an archangel with performance issues, contribute to the mix, and of course the inclusion of both Gabriel and Rowena – two intrinsically cheeky scamps who are more than double the trouble when they meet one another for the first time – adds extra-special spice.

A lot of the most humorous scenes rely heavily on irony or deeply mundane absurdism – many of the best gags are closer to the style of British comedy, rather than what you might expect on American network television. The fact that this season is so funny in such clever and subversive ways without sacrificing characterization or compromising an inch of its gravity is the delicious icing on what was already a very, very satisfying cake.

We got to fall in love with Jack Kline

The Supernatural audience is infamously resistant to change, so when the news broke that Alexander Calvert – the young man cast as Lucifer’s instantly-grown nephilim son Jack – would be made a series regular for season 13, there were definitely a few raised eyebrows. But a combination of very careful writing and very skilled acting resulted in a new favorite who most of the fandom would now lay down their lives for.

When Jack was born in the previous year’s finale, he appeared, to the Winchesters, as an unknown threat, but season 12’s specific themes about the monster vs. the monstrous, nature vs. nurture, Sam and Dean’s shades of grey vs. Men of Letters’ black and white, as well as the show’s wider theme of free will, all but dictated – to the audience, if not to the brothers – that Jack was destined to be be a complete innocent, unaware of his powers and ready to be molded by whoever chose to guide him.

That’s exactly what we got, but the thing about this type of naive, born-yesterday archetype is that all too often, they’re freaking annoying. Introducing a kid for an established group of adult characters to look after is hard enough to pull off, and the naive, just-got-to-this-world element is an extra-tough quality to get the audience invested in – especially an audience that’s followed a series for an unprecedentedly long time, and who doesn’t often respond well to a mix-up of the status quo.

Although (at least to me) his morality was never in question, any possible stakes of “is he gonna go evil” were non-existent after the season 13 premiere “Lost and Found.” Jack could have so easily been cheesy. He could have been bratty. He could have, horror of horrors, been Connor from Angel. But instead, he was – almost immediately, almost universally – adored. Just like that! This fandom doesn’t agree on anything! But apparently they agree that Jack is the best thing to happen to this show in a long time.

The character serves as a wonderful mirror for all three of Team Free Will to project their own self-actualization arcs onto – Jack provides specific, and separate, potential for growth in the individual journeys of Sam, Dean and Cas – but he’s not just a tool to show us things about the others. Jack’s path throughout the season, as he becomes adopted into the family and eventually confronts his powers and his birth father, turns him into his own man, all while retaining the perfect purity and openness that made him instantly lovable.

Calvert’s performance is masterful – his control is impeccable, never pushing too far. His Jack is infectious, full of sweet humor and innocence, childish bravado, and desperate pain – he holds his own against the veteran stars, and it looks like he’s here to stay. In fact, he’s probably the key, once and for all, to saving the entire universe.

Castiel gets his groove back

Castiel’s season 12 death was always going to be about validating the character’s value further than ever before. The suffocatingly deep arc after Cas died, with a huge focus on Dean and his inability to shake the loss, contrasted with a sharp, bright, immediate recovery upon his return, spoke volumes about Castiel’s place in the Winchester family. That was well-proven, in his absence from Earth – but enough about Castiel’s death being used as a vehicle to show us things about others. What about the growth of Cas himself?

Castiel has made many mistakes, in the past – “stupid for the right reasons,” as this show likes to say – and as a result, has ended up with a terrible sense of self-worth. He has long believed himself expendable, a burden, no matter how hard he has tried to help. This hit rock bottom when he gave himself over to Lucifer, and during season 12, he continues to try and show care for the brothers by keeping himself and the messes he blames himself for out of their hair.

But in season 13, everything changes for Cas. Right from the start, we see him fighting for his right to exist – going toe to toe with a cosmic entity that steals his face and taunts him about how unloved and unwanted he his, tries to convince him that he wants to stay asleep in the void forever. It’s readable as a metaphor for depression, for suicidal ideation, for the voice in your head telling you you have nothing to live for, and Castiel stands his ground, and he wins. He’s kicked back to life, and he returns to the Winchesters a new man.

We see a Castiel more confident, more comfortable with duty and responsibility. He stands taller, dresses better, and even his hair is styled more attractively – he’s the closest in years to that driven, powerful Castiel we first met in that barn, miles away from the limp, hunched, sad and broken-down figure that he has become. He’s grounded, though – he’s not steely or evangelical, he just knows what he’s doing. He isn’t second-guessing and while he still adores humanity, he’s thinking and planning on a cosmic scale when he attacks a problem.

Cas takes his responsibility to care for Jack very seriously, so when Lucifer re-enters the picture looking for his son, it’s a delight to see Cas confidently (and sassily!) keep an upper hand, even when the pair are captured and imprisoned together. And it’s fist-pumpingly good when Cas savvily spots Lucifer’s betrayal and one-ups him once again upon their escape. Lucifer isn’t the only abuser Cas gets to stand up to – he also reads Naomi the riot act about her past treatment of him, and he’s pretty much done taking shit from anyone who gets between him and the safety of his boys, but in a hot, righteous, empowering way, not in a sad, self-sacrificing, misguided way.

Cas’s screen time is treated very carefully and considerately, in a way that emphasizes his value as an equal part of the team, despite Misha Collins not appearing in every episode. Unlike seasons past, context is given for every absence, and none of these absences rely on forced conflict with the brothers. Exposition, including one-sided phone calls, keeps Cas in the picture, and his well-being is checked in on constantly – onscreen and off. Episodes that do put him on a separate path to the brothers often start out with all three of them at home, in a way that proves that this is, in fact, his home – that the normal state of affairs is for the gang to be together.

Most fascinatingly, we get to see Castiel face his own darkness a second time – when we meet the Apocalypse World version of himself, who tortures people on Michael’s command. The Castiel that our Cas could have become, before Dean Winchester opened the gates of Heaven for his fall. It’s going to be interesting to see how Cas handles Dean’s current predicament as Michael’s vessel, given what he originally rebelled for, but when Cas kills his alter-ego, it’s a stark metaphor for slaying one’s own demons, and the perfect conclusion to the self-worth arc that began with his own death.

Sam Winchester speaks to his trauma

Sam Winchester is a very special kind of hero. Every main character on this show has been kicked around to high heaven, but Sam has arguably suffered more trauma than anyone else. From day one, he was marked for a terrible fate, fed demon blood to prime him as a weapon of hell, in a story that eventually grew into the apocalyptic climax of the show’s original era – the reveal that he was pretty much bred into existence to become the perfect vessel for Lucifer himself, as Dean is for Michael. After being possessed by Lucifer, violated and tortured by him in the Cage for an unearthly length of time, and then stalked by hallucinations of him until he became insane, the fact that Sam Winchester is still kind, hopeful and standing tall today is nothing short of a miracle.

Over the years we have seen much unspoken subtext regarding this trauma in Jared Padalecki’s exemplary performances. Whenever Lucifer and Sam are in the same room, the man practically trembles, no matter how determined he is to get whatever the job at hand is done. Lucifer doesn’t make Sam weak, exactly – no one could ever call Sam Winchester weak – but he is constantly and realistically triggered by his PTSD. You can feel it, in every line of his body, in every word that he stutters, in every moment. But it’s rarely been actually addressed onscreen, even – somewhat egregiously – when Lucifer was living in their home, inside Castiel.

This season, that all changed. In “Various and Sundry Villains,” Sam finds an unlikely connection in Rowena – her outpouring about Lucifer leads to Sam sharing his own innermost truths, for the first time. All those years of watching Sam push his trauma down – it finally boils over and bubbles out, as he admits how present that damage still is, how deeply he represses it and how he doesn’t know how to talk about it.

It’s a credit to Padalecki that we knew all this already, just from his acting, and there have been other moments that have proven that Sam’s ability to compartmentalize, about pretty much everything, is often what keeps him functioning. But hearing it spoken so honestly was one of the most validating moments in the show’s history, raising the bar on Sam’s entire series arc.

But even before that incredible development, season 13 was already giving Sam a refreshingly insightful voice, in some really special ways. Sam has always had some issues with accepting any sort of power for himself – Padalecki once explained them to Hypable as those of an addict, so given his history, they’re fears, perhaps, of what he has the potential to become – but in season 12, we saw Sam take on more of a leadership role, on the first steps to potentially overcoming those fears. That sense of self-empowerment continued in season 13, and Jack was a wonderful vehicle to explore that for Sam.

Through parenting Jack, we see Sam both as a role model, and taking a second chance for self-care, in a way. Here is a child, a child with powers that he doesn’t understand, a child labelled by the wider world as inevitably evil, and Sam is almost immediately able to recognize a kindred spirit, one who needs the help of someone who has been there before.

Sam’s compassion for Jack is 100% genuine, but we see his compartmentalization in play a little, because he also 100% wants Jack to be able to help rescue Mary, so his determination does rise to the surface in frustration as he works with Jack on honing his power. But he quickly course-corrects and is more open with Jack his circumstances, and from then on out the pair are pretty much bonded for life, which leads to the season’s incredible climax of Lucifer attempting to pit the pair against one another before the Archangel Dean swoops in to save the day.

As the season progresses, Sam is forced to confront the reality of Lucifer more and more, and he eventually falls prey to the hopeless nihilism that Dean suffered from earlier. Sam, always a big picture thinker, starts to fall to pieces and becomes very lost without a clear path to follow, but his resolve is reset as the gang begins to amass unexpected allies and a plan takes shape.

The end of the season is a rollercoaster for him, as we get to see him oh-so-satisfactorily watch Lucifer get used and abused for his grace, and then suffer the horror of not only being killed by monsters but resurrected by Lucifer himself, as a bargaining chip to get close to Jack. Sam is clearly very troubled by being in Lucifer’s debt in any way, but not much time is left to ponder on the consequences of that before he gets to help his big brother slay his greatest oppressor. His joy is, of course, short-lived, but that’s a problem for season 14…

Dean Winchester uses his goddamn words

It sounds simple, but for a character whose entire arc is wrapped heavily in both repression and in performativity, who took eleven years to admit that he likes chick flicks, and who openly confirms that sublimation is “kind of his thing,” seeing Dean Winchester actually being honest about his emotions not once, not twice, but as a matter of course, is kind of a new horizon.

For starters, there’s the whole emotionally-consistent grieving period thing, which has already been discussed at length. But it’s worth reiterating that this is just completely and startlingly progressive, especially when looking at Dean specifically and his battle with depression. His brutally honest conversation with Billie (which he expands upon later with Sam) about how very not okay he is represents a huge development for the character.

It also represents a huge development for Supernatural itself, as we see unequivocal proof that the show wants to truly and permanently widen the Winchester family circle beyond the heart of Sam and Dean. Once upon a time, a brother losing anyone other than a fellow brother was kind of like cutting off a finger – horrible, but survivable. Now, as Dean shows us, it’s like cutting out a lung. Without an urgent fix, his life is not sustainable. And Cas turns out to be that fix, the life support that gets him breathing normally again.

But it isn’t just that. It’s the aftermath of that. Instead of spilling his true feelings like a gut wound and bleeding them out as he has done so many times before, Dean is… reasonable? Open? Rational? Emotionally responsive? Calmly honest? This is all boggling, but absolutely, utterly delightful. When Castiel returns safe and sound, for example, there’s a noticeable shift in Dean’s treatment towards him – in the past, he’d often end up snapping in anger about Cas’s comings and goings, and later having to explain that outburst was actually just worry. Now, we see him change his approach, carefully checking in on Cas’s wellbeing, asking if he needs help, respecting his missions, and accepting his judgement.

He’s also miles more patient with Sam. Although Dean doesn’t believe – or perhaps doesn’t want to believe – in Jack’s innocence at first, his communication with Sam on the matter is also absolutely first-class. Sam and Dean are very much not on the same page, but they remain entirely on the same side, largely because Dean accepts Sam’s choices regarding Jack even if unwilling to accept them for himself, instead of blowing up and causing conflict.

Same goes for Sam’s enabling of Rowena. Anyone with a working knowledge of the show will remember that the boys have seriously feuded over issues less divisive than this one, so the way that season 13 consistently handles Dean’s responsiveness to his loved ones in the wake of his shattering grief is deeply significant – it seems like he knows, once and for all, that he must cherish what he has while he has it, and do his best to show what’s important to him, in ways those people will understand better.

As Jack earns his place in Dean’s heart, this extends to him as well, and we see Dean drawing him into that unconditional circle of family – another organ Dean would rather die than live without. I’ve already mentioned his outpouring about Charlie, whom of course he entirely adored, but the fact that it’s Ketch he opens up to is surprising – but yet more proof of his growing confidence in speaking his truth in all matter of circumstances. But it’s also the little things.

It’s Dean unashamedly quoting Frozen, and being indulgent in his enjoyment of things, like his rampant cowboy fetish and his lovingly assembled mancave and what Scooby-Doo meant to him as a child. Little by little, Dean is shedding his old skin, and becoming more comfortable in showing himself. He’s believing that he’s allowed to want things. He’s believing that he’s allowed to have things. He’s learning how to ask for them, and he has faith in his own happy ending. Ultimately, he’s so close to his final, self-actualized form that I can almost taste it.

Which makes where we leave him in season 13 so interesting. Michael is Dean’s Great Perhaps, the fate and destiny that he swerved all those years ago. It makes a sort of sense that Dean must go through this and overcome it to finally be free to live his life almost entirely unburdened, the way Sam is (hopefully) now free of Lucifer. But of course, there’s still the question of that important work that Billie claims the universe still needs him to do…

Team Free Will: bigger and better than ever

While “Team Free Will” will always truly mean that core trio of Sam, Dean and Cas, this year it’s gotten a bit of a redux. Dean himself was the first to brand the awesome foursome, Jack included, as “Team Free Will 2.0,” and it seems as though beta updates might need to be run in future as the players just keep lining up at the Winchesters’ door.

Though some of them didn’t survive the season – RIP again, Gabriel – many of them did, so Team Free Will have amassed a powerful and close network of allies that are all ready to help out with whatever comes next – as well as a potential second chance with some old friends they once lost. But closer to home, right at the heart, from two to three, from three to five, we now have an unshakable, unconditional core family unit, all of whom would do anything for one another, and I hope, and pray, and truly believe, that that’s not going to change. Supernatural is no longer in the business of permanent and tragic isolation.

Two years ago, when speculation arose that episode 300 may be the show’s final curtain, I wrote about how, if that was true, then what we needed, after all this time, was a happy ending. Well, they ain’t ending on 300, but I still believe that. The show may have started life as a gothic paranormal horror, but when it became clear that Supernatural’s shelf life was going to outlive its first tragic ending, the show began to re-imagine itself as more of an adventure drama, and – although it’s still brutal, bloody and often miserable – each year, more light shines in. These days, Supernatural is about hope, and we are getting all the pieces lined up for a happily ever after.

In the finale, Dean dreams of a beach – a retirement, a break from carrying the weight of the world, with his brother and his best friend behind him. Even Sam is surprised to hear him talk so optimistically, but it’s a beautiful thing to see – the belief that this is possible, that this is earned. We see Sam’s dreams, too quite literally. An idyllic, domestic fantasy of his whole family – your average American family: three dads, one super-powered child, one extremely youthful grandma – happily sharing a meal around the Bunker’s table, is interrupted by Sam’s alarm clock, right before the season’s final mission into the Apocalypse World.

The brothers, they both want this so much. It’s what they have been fighting so hard for, and what they never thought they’d be allowed to have. It is so close to achievable, now, and nothing about the narrative being built suggests that it’ll be ripped away. Every lesson learnt, every proclamation made, every idea validated in season 13 suggests that – though the road is bumpy, and far from over – that what we’ll see at the very end is some version of that dinner table, some version of that beach. Otherwise, at the end of the day, what was the point of all of this? What was the message, after all this time, after all this slow, painstaking growth?

All year, we have explored that concept of hope and hopelessness, and we’ve seen what the Winchester brothers want, what is in their hearts. What they’re fighting for. Most of the season, there was no real focus on saving the world. It was about saving the individual. About Jack bringing Cas back from the dead, about accessing the other world to save their mother. Future world-saving is probably going to be necessary, especially with Heaven in tatters and Michael on the loose – but right up until the brothers get to Mary, their motivations are nearly entirely personal, no matter the cost. They’re fighting for themselves, for their family, for their own chance at happiness. She’s the one who’s been fighting, this season, for the greater good, and who initially rejects their rescue.

Eventually, the Winchesters are going to have to save the world . It’s what they do. But season 13 proved, again and again, that they deserve more than that. They deserve a chance to not be the guys that have to save the world. They deserve a chance to be selfish. They deserve that family dinner. They deserve that beach. And they know that they deserve it. They know that they should have it. Supernatural wants us to know that. It wants us to want that for them. There’s a light at the end of this tunnel, and it’s glowing brighter every moment.

‘Supernatural’ season 13 is now available on Netflix

We want to hear your thoughts on this topic!
Why not submit an article to Hypable?

Introducing the Hypable app

Free for iOS and Android