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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
A provocative, spiritually complex exploration of good, evil, and everything in between.