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TV Series Review: “Supernatural”

15 Jan

My initial expectations of “Supernatural” were pretty low. After all, there’s didn’t seem to be a whole lot of deep meaning underlying the premise: two brothers travel around the U.S. to fight monsters. As the “Transformers” movies proved, mindless destruction gets old real fast. But I’ve always had an affinity for contemporary fantasy, and I’m willing to forgive quite a lot (especially where big scary creatures are concerned).

However, it soon became clear that there was much more to “Supernatural” than I’d initially assumed. Over the course of five seasons, “Supernatural” has evolved from an episodic monster-of-the-week drama into one of the most theologically weighty shows I’ve ever seen. I typically don’t review TV shows, but this one deserves some discussion. (Disclaimer: I know “Supernatural” is technically still airing – but considering that show creator Eric Kripke intended for the series to end after the fifth season, I think it’s fair to analyze the show anyway. Anything after the season five finale would feel forced and superfluous.)

(In order to analyze the implications of this show, the following sections contain full spoilers.)

The story can be summarized quickly: two estranged brothers – Sam and Dean Winchester – are reunited when their father goes missing and a “yellow-eyed demon” murders Sam’s girlfriend. Although Sam and Dean were raised as “hunters” – transient warriors going around the country fighting monsters – Sam previously gave up the family business in favor of law school. When things get personal, however, everything changes. The first and second seasons revolve around Sam and Dean’s quest to find both the yellow-eyed demon – the same creature that, more than twenty years ago, killed their mother – and their father. Along the way, they fight a myriad of creatures pulled from the pages of folklore – from ghosts to wendigos to werewolves. As the Winchester brothers get closer to their goal, more and more is revealed about their respective characters.

Elder brother Dean is the natural leader of the two. On the surface, he seems preoccupied with hedonism – drinking beer, blasting music, hitting on women, polishing his 1963 Chevy Impala, etc. However, his devil-may-care exterior belies deep insecurities. Dean idolizes (and idealizes) his hard-driving father, which leads to conflicts with his more laid-back brother. He feels responsible for Sam’s safety and the ultimate success of their endeavors. Despite his disregard for conventional morality, he adheres to an ironclad set of personal principles (fulfilling the role of an “antihero” of sorts), which plays a key role in later seasons.

Sam, on the other hand, is the rebel. After “abandoning” his family to pursue a normal career, his subsequent relationship with Dean is marked by tension. Dean, fiercely loyal to his father, cannot understand Sam’s discontent with the hunting life. Sam, naturally inquisitive and ambitious, can’t comprehend Dean’s “blind” adherence to their father’s plans. Ironically, Sam typically serves as Dean’s conscience throughout most of the early seasons…roles that are reversed later on. But there’s another side to Sam’s character as well: the night the Winchesters’ mother was killed, Sam was infected with “demon blood” which gives him a latent tendency towards the dark side. His struggle against a seemingly inevitable destiny plays a key role in his relationships with both Dean and the monsters they fight.

This would all make for a very straightforward TV show, if not for the well-planned story arc underlying the entire series. In the second season finale, Sam is killed during a fight. Desperate to get his brother back, Dean makes a deal with a “crossroads demon” – selling his own soul in exchange for Sam’s life, with the debt to be paid after one year. (I’ll discuss the obvious implications of this later on.) Sam is resurrected, and together the two kill the yellow-eyed demon. Unfortunately, the demon also succeeds in releasing many more of his kind, causing a series of disturbances across the U.S. The third season follows Sam’s vain attempts to circumvent Dean’s agreement, and concludes with Dean being dragged into hell. Season four opens abruptly – Dean is pulled out of hell by Castiel, an “angel of the Lord.” Apparently, demons around the world are trying to break the 66 seals that keep Lucifer imprisoned – and if the devil gets out, the apocalypse will begin. Castiel, Sam and Dean attempt to stop the process, but are unsuccessful. Lucifer is unleashed and begins causing chaos around the globe (although the world doesn’t realize who’s behind it).

This is where “Supernatural” starts getting into very heavy theological/philosophical territory.

I’ve read dozens of apocalypse/good-versus-evil stories. I generally don’t judge such material too harshly: while there may be undercurrents of questionable theology, I can appreciate the need to tell a good (fictional!) yarn. I’ll typically consider such works worth reading if they contain some generally positive attitudes towards God and faith, and support a traditional view of morality. (See review of “The Passage” for a good example.) However, “Supernatural” deserves a more critical look. Not only does it deal head-on with religious topics, it calls the very fabric of Judeo-Christian morality into question. While there are definitely praiseworthy elements – and some important insights – the series amounts to a very, very long apologetic for a particular non-Christian worldview.

There are three topic areas that deserve particular consideration: God, Satan, and the series finale.

GOD:

For its first three seasons, “Supernatural” neatly sidestepped issues of legitimate controversy. While there were a few passing negative references to faith (including an episode in which a “faith healer” turns out to be making deals with questionable spiritual beings), there were also affirmations of an ultimate plan, and a general respect for religion.

Season four introduced angels into the “Supernatural” mythos (in the series, demons are distinct from fallen angels – more on this later). However, most of these angels aren’t friendly – they’re scheming connivers interested only in their own power. Castiel’s “boss” angel, Zachariah, is a manipulative corporate type with an ends-justify-the-means attitude. This renders the angels almost as bad as Lucifer and his cabal. Utterly myopic, they believe that Sam and Dean must play specific roles in the apocalypse, and their fates are inevitable: Sam will become the human vessel of Lucifer, and Dean will become the human vessel of the Archangel Michael. According to Zachariah, they can do nothing to change their ultimate, foreordained destiny. (This amounts to a critique of hyper-Calvinist theology. While the show obviously exaggerates Reformed doctrine, Arminians will find some elements insightful.)

Philosophy buffs will be interested to note that Sam and Dean promote deontological ethics (doing the right thing no matter what) whereas the angels espouse utilitarian ethics (the greatest good for the greatest number). Most Christians would agree that Sam and Dean’s approach is vastly more consistent with Christianity: sin is sin, no matter whether or not it achieves a positive end. (If I kill someone and give the money to starving children…I still killed someone).

Essentially, the angels depicted by “Supernatural” are bizarrely amoral. Of course, this begs the question: where’s God Himself in all of this? According to Zachariah: “God has left the building.”

At the beginning of season five, lapsed angel Castiel decides to search for God (believing He is the only one who can stop Lucifer). Partway through the season, Sam and Dean “die” and go to heaven, where they meet the gardener angel Joshua. According to Joshua, God isn’t in heaven anymore – He is sitting somewhere on earth, watching the apocalyptic drama play out. Not only is He oblivious to human suffering, He isn’t interested in doing anything to help fight the devil. Castiel curses God and storms away in utter despair. Ironically, the trio’s attitudes toward God reflect modern sentiment: let’s call on God whenever He’s needed, but we can’t have Him directing anything else in our lives. They reject the angels’ blind authoritarianism, but complain when forced to live in a deistic universe.

The notion of a personal, theistic God – more specifically, Jesus Christ – is never once raised…and this reflects a trend in modern angels-and-demons fantasy. While God frequently plays a role – usually as a somewhat disconnected, unconcerned creator – Jesus never makes an appearance (examples: the books of Philip Pullman and Jim Butcher, and the film “Constantine”). While it’s popularly acceptable to celebrate Jesus as a “great moral teacher,” the idea that He might be God incarnate isn’t touched by authors.

Perhaps most striking of all, the God of “Supernatural” is neither omnipresent nor eternal. Angels can’t find him, and he never makes a personal appearance in the series. More striking, though is the show’s attack on God’s eternality: in the second-to-last episode of season five, Dean sits down for a conversation with Death (one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse). Death informs Dean that he, not God, is the eldest being in the universe…and someday, he will “reap” God Himself. The Nietzsche-laced implications of such a philosophy are frightening.

So why don’t the Winchesters just commit suicide and end it all, then? If the universe is godless and essentially purposeless, is there any reason for living? The answer to that question defines the show’s worldview.

SATAN:

Although he’s undeniably the prime villain of the series, Lucifer gets a much more nuanced portrayal than one might expect. Rather than adhering to the Biblical account (Satan’s pride, and his desire to be like God, caused him to be cast out from heaven), “Supernatural” employs the pop-culture interpretation of Satan’s origins. I’m not sure where this originally came from (I think it has roots in Milton or Goethe), but the story goes something like this: Lucifer loved God more than any of the other angels. When God created man, He commanded that all the angels bow down before man. Lucifer loved God so much that he refused to bow before any other being. This act of disobedience led to his expulsion from heaven. The implications of this revisionism are obvious: Satan comes off looking like a wronged hero, contributing to the overall moral ambiguity of the heaven-and-hell storyline.

The portrayal of hell in “Supernatural” is of particular interest. Souls brought to hell are tortured cruelly by demons, but offered a choice at the end of each day: if they so choose, they can get up off the rack…as long as they’re willing to torture the next batch of fresh souls. Over time, this constant moral degradation turns them from humans into demons, which can then walk freely in the world (as previously noted, “Supernatural” postulates a distinction between demons and fallen angels). One theological problem predominates: by portraying souls as “falling” in hell itself, it implies that they were somehow innocent in the first place. Christian doctrine holds that God damns no one to hell; rather, they damn themselves through sin. (This may be stepping on the toes of Reformed readers who hold to a doctrine of reprobation…no offense is intended).

SERIES FINALE:

All of these tangled story threads come together in the final episode of season five. Sam and Dean, having collected the four rings worn by the Horsemen of the Apocalypse, plan to reopen the gates to Satan’s prison. Sam will then allow Lucifer to possess him, in the hopes that he will be able to briefly regain control of his body and throw himself into the prison. The plan works as expected: through immense force of will, Sam eventually regains control of his body and jumps into the prison, heedless of the cost to his own soul. Dean chooses to give up the life of a hunter, forging his own destiny in the “real world.” (Of note: characters question whether or not God helped during the final battle – but, as before, it really doesn’t matter whether He did or not.)

In his book, “The Universe Next Door,” James W. Sire discusses two forms of existentialist thought present in modern culture: “atheistic existentialism” and “theistic existentialism.” “Supernatural” offers a third strain: what I would term “agnostic existentialism.” This worldview does not directly deny God’s existence, but it relegates Him to the back burner. Agnostic existentialism hybridizes deism and atheistic existentialism, acknowledging that there might conceivably be a creator, but He doesn’t really matter.

Throughout the course of “Supernatural,” self-assertion is held up as the supreme value, which may manifest in a variety of traditionally ethical actions: sacrifice, loyalty, doing the right thing, etc. However, these actions are NOT done because they are commanded by a Supreme Being – rather, they are trumpeted as “good” because they are confident acts of the will. Sam and Dean operate according to their own ethical code, regardless of whether or not that code conforms to an external morality. Don’t get me wrong – they typically do the “right thing” – but the problem is that they remove transcendent morality from the equation. Sam’s throwing himself into the pit is the ultimate expression of this mindset. Not only is he thwarting Satan’s plan for global dominion, he’s also defying God’s plan (to have Michael defeat Lucifer once and for all) and choosing his own path.

SUMMARY

So, the million-dollar question: is this a show you should watch?

“Supernatural” is jam-packed with traditionally objectionable content. Not only is the underlying worldview highly suspect, but there are plenty of things to concern viewers. Graphic bloody violence is a series staple (and I’m frequently horrified that such grisly material can be shown on network TV). Although the show carries a TV-14 rating, the gore alone would guarantee it a hard-R rating if it showed in theaters. There’s also a fair amount of innuendo (actual sex scenes are infrequent – I think there are four or five throughout the course of the 100+-episode series), plus a relatively steady stream of PG-13 language.

And this is saying nothing of the pervasive occult themes. In literally every episode, Sam and Dean discuss ways to kill, injure, coerce, or persuade all kinds of supernatural creatures. They frequently employ witchcraft-related tactics (using runes to trap angels and demons, engaging in astral projection, etc.) to achieve their ends. To be fair, the show is heavily fictionalized…but elements of “Supernatural” stray much, much closer to real occult practices than, say, the magic in “Harry Potter.”

That isn’t to say, however, that “Supernatural” is entirely bad. Up until now, this review has been pretty negative – but the show has plenty of positive elements as well.

For starters, the importance of family always takes center stage. Loyalty and love for one’s family are constantly extolled, and themes of forgiveness and redemption underlie the series. In an era that’s witnessing widespread fragmentation of families, such sentiments are extremely refreshing. Sam and Dean aren’t perfect, but they’re willing to die – or worse – for each other. It’s definitely reminded me how important my relationship with my own brother is. Also, I can honestly say that I’ve thought more about my faith since I started watching the show. Most importantly, I feel like I’ve personally gained a deeper appreciation for Christ’s sacrificial death and resurrection (the ultimate expression of God’s involvement in the world). “Supernatural” is a slickly packaged product designed to market a particular worldview – and it’s definitely beneficial to confront an opposing mindset’s strongest arguments.

From a purely technical standpoint, “Supernatural” is outstanding. There’s a reason it currently holds an incredible 9.0/10 rating on IMDB – it’s marvelously acted, well-paced, and emotionally resonant. While the effects are at times schlocky, they’re not the primary focus. This is a series about the journey of Sam and Dean Winchester, and on that level, it works. Although some early episodes – as well as a later handful of painfully pointless, self-parodying episodes – bordered on cheesiness, in the fourth and fifth seasons the series hit its groove. If nothing else, watching all five seasons allowed me to appreciate the immense thought behind the show. That’s not to say that the series is “literary” on the level of “Citizen Kane” or another cinematic classic, but it’s definitely a cut above most TV these days.

In the end, I feel about “Supernatural” much the same way as I feel about Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged”: excellent artistry built around a flawed worldview. Both are unbelievably long (altogether, the five seasons of “Supernatural” clock in at around 67 hours), and both are designed to communicate a particular message. Both are also full of material that puts them off-limits for anyone under 17 or 18. However, both also contain thought-provoking messages that, when viewed from the correct perspective and with eyes wide open, may prove insightful and beneficial.

Whether or not you choose to explore these themes for yourself is up to you.

VERDICT: 8/10
A provocative, spiritually complex exploration of good, evil, and everything in between.

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17 Comments

Posted by on January 15, 2011 in Fantasy

 

17 responses to “TV Series Review: “Supernatural”

  1. Rita

    April 6, 2011 at 10:27 am

    Hi,

    I’m so glad I found this excellent analysis; it pretty sums up everything I’ve been feeling about this show, with helpful points of references for the theological/philosophical aspects I couldn’t articulate. By the season 5 finale, I was bawling because the worldview presented by the show was so distressingly hopeless and wrong…and yet I am in love with the characters. I can’t stop watching. And as a result, I was in a bit of a moral twist…

    Thanks for writing this!

    Have you ever seen the TV show “Kings”? I would love to read your opinion on that…it is a modern/alt-universe retelling of the story of King David, done by the creator of Heroes. I feel that even though there were significant flaws in its portrayal of God and God’s influence, it also demonstrates the amazing potential in Biblical retellings done right…

     
  2. Deborah Kean

    June 3, 2011 at 6:38 am

    I see something else in it, it’s incredibly sexist, especially in the early seasons. Mothers, especially single mothers usually bite the dust, after proving themselves to be either evil or half-witted at best..
    I am afraid I can’t be as kind about the theology of it either…

     
    • Max

      September 14, 2011 at 12:32 pm

      Your comment leads me to believe that you have either never watched the series or are simply incredibly narrow-minded. I’ve never noticed women in particular dying. Let along evil single mom’s. Just because you disagree with the theology doesn’t mean it’s a bad show. You just need to be mature enough to understand their views along with your own.

       
    • Andrew

      December 14, 2011 at 1:38 am

      There are quite a few mothers that “bite the dust,” but I don’t agree that it makes the show sexist. Usually, they are very much portrayed as the victims. The most important mother figure of the entire show is Dean and Sam’s mother who died when Sam was a baby. She makes a brief reappearance as a spirit who willingly sacrifices herself to save Sam.

      I agree that the theology is totally messed up, but at least they got that God is the creator and is greater than the pagan gods.

       
  3. MRMESQ

    September 16, 2011 at 9:32 pm

    It’s interesting to know my wife and I are not the only Christians who enjoy the show. After watching most of the first season, then getting busy and forgetting about it, I happened to catch the season 4 premier and it hooked me back into the show. The show had matured significantly, and while the show does not reflect true Christian theology, the appearance of Castiel and the idea of God’s will being introduced in a contemporary television series was refreshing.

    Your review is appreciated, and i am pleased that you took the time to fully expound on your views. While I think many Christians would find the series offensive, I have no problem separating a fictional universe from the one in which we dwell. The series raises interesting issues in an entertaining format…I don’t recommend it for young people (or my mother) but I am quite a fan.

     
  4. josuethinks

    November 28, 2011 at 3:18 am

    I was looking for a review like this on Supernatural, growing up in a Christian home (I’m not one myself) I found this really interesting. I started watching Supernatural just for the laughs and monster of the week fun and the occasional arc here and there. When all this god stuff started, I loved it till the end. Whether I agreed with it or not it was well written, imaginative, thought provoking, and original in the way it handled the material. 8/10 is perfect and I loved how you said that you had reviewed negatively where the way I was reading it, I’d think you’d be praising it. This is how TV should be written.

     
  5. Andrew

    December 14, 2011 at 1:54 am

    Excellent review. I think you did a good job of highlighting some of the things that make the show good and enjoyable, while also expounding on the theological and philosophical problems. I really liked your analysis about the show holding to an agnostic existentialism.

    As a minor note, Death doesn’t actually know if he is older than God. He claims that he is at least as old or possibly older, but that they have both been around so long that neither of them remember which one is actually older. He does claim that at the end of time God will die and then he will reap God; however, I suppose that I take dissenting view and think that Death is just grandstanding and is a bit biased.

    I must say that I found it very interesting how Lucifer was portrayed as something of a tragic hero and that Michael was a right unpleasant angel. I did find the portrayal of Gabriel to be rather fascinating, though bizarre. Also, the idea (said several times I believe) that Lucifer’s actions were really just a giant temper tantrum was rather interesting.

     
  6. deltasierra47

    December 29, 2011 at 2:28 am

    I really appreciate this! I was trying to get a view of what kind of theology Supernatural was drawing from. It was looking Deist for a bit, then vaguely Jehovah’s Witness/Seventh-Day Adventist — but decidedly not Christian. Like, the people who write for it are working from the most convoluted passages in Revelation, a little from The Exorcist, and their distant memories of catechism when they were six years old.

    I’m so hooked on the writing and characters that I can, for the most part, put aside the fictional aspect and enjoy a good story. But I wonder if there is anyone out there actually thinking that this is what Christians believe. I certainly hope no one is basing their own personal theology on a TV show. It would be a conversation opener for a nonbeliever, though, wouldn’t it? 🙂

    Like you, I have also become more thankful since watching this show for Christ’s sacrifice and the loving, jealous, ever-present — and forgiving — God of the Bible.

    Thanks again for this very informative post! 🙂

     
    • JJtoob

      April 28, 2014 at 12:07 am

      The Seventh Day Advenstist church would not approve of the story. Pretty much the whole thing is in conflict with the Bible and many Adventist beliefs.

       
  7. Lorin Schiff

    September 14, 2012 at 10:24 pm

    really an excellent analysis…..just a little disappointed that there is no mention of the deaths and resurrections of Dean and Sam with the consequent suggestion of Jesus re adapted to be more accessible for the 21st century mind.

     
  8. Hamlet

    August 12, 2013 at 3:04 am

    But the things they say about God and everything…that’s just all right with you? Say if a show keeps saying, “F*ck God” or “kill God” every episode, that just slides as long as the show is entertaining?

     
  9. joe pereira

    September 5, 2013 at 8:33 am

    I’ve watched four-and-a-half seasons of “Supernatural.” I tuned in at first at the beginning of this summer (2013) wondering whether I was going to be settling into Tolkien-esque tale or a series of somewhat soul-less Amityville horror stories. The very first episode was gripping enough for me to make a commitment to my couch. But over the nearly three months of watching, I’ve fallen asleep several times mid-way through the show. For a tale, with enough grist and stamina to last for nine seasons, I was expecting a Tolkien, J.K. Rowling or a C.S. Lewis. But sadly, I’ve been disappointed. Shows much more engaging, such as “Breaking Bad,” “Prison Break,” and “Lost,” are a literary level or two above “Supernatural.” The subject matter of “Supernatural,”–the end of days as envisioned in gates-of-hell Apocalyptic proportions–is about as dramatic as you can get as a literary genre. But the telling of “Supernatural” has become somewhat trite, excepting of course a few episodes here and there that leave you with a wonderment about the unseen. The biggest problem I have with the show is that you could skip several episodes and still not miss anything. And there’s no further character development any more. My teen-aged son, though, enjoys the show. Thus I’ve sat through four and a half seasons. We’re poor and have only one TV in the house.

     
  10. Heather Robinson

    October 31, 2013 at 10:39 am

    This was a good review but it was a 1967 Chevy Impala that Dean drives….

     
    • Jalanopi

      September 18, 2016 at 1:08 am

      I agree. It’s when the minutiae gets “f”ed up that I decide a writer isn’t much worth paying attention to. Publishing, even on the internet, demands that you be more responsible than the average reader. That being said I read the whole thing and it’s a pretty good piece of work. If the author would revisit it and do an update that would be great.

      One thing that Supernatural does equally (intentional or not – don’t know) is that they use alternate Judeo-Christian theology along with mainstream Catholicism and more than a touch of the various Olympian and pagan religions. Their world is clearly meant as an alternative and anyone who doesn’t understand that Supernatural is JUST fiction should be stopped from watching it and see a mental health professional at once.

      The two redeeming facts of the show, ‘proven’ since Castiel was ordered to grasp Dean and raise him from perdition is that God is real AND alive. Oh, and that ultimately the forces of good will always beat evil, no matter how high the cost. That is ultimately the story in the book of Revelations.

       
  11. MRMESQ

    November 25, 2014 at 11:10 pm

    While I know this review is older, as are the comments (including on I wrote earlier), there is a theory out there that I’ve come to accept as likely: Chuck (the Prophet) is probaby meant to be seen as God. As above, I still take the position that different theological universes are acceptable in art, be literature, movies, television shows, etc. Just tossing that idea out there.

     
  12. Sharon

    February 24, 2015 at 11:04 am

    Very articulate and interesting analysis. I agree–I think a show that actually acknowledges that there is good and evil in the world, that there is a hell and a heaven–however flawed they are–that this content is good to make people think.
    And for the character development of Sam and Dean, the absence of a mother makes sense, not to mention it falls in line with the majority of fairy tales, Disney movies etc–the absence of a caring, nurturing mother figure is part of what makes them who they are in the series.

     

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