Warner Bros. Home Entertainment provided me with a free copy of the DVD I reviewed in this Blog Post. The opinions I share are my own.
Major SPOILERS ahead for all seasons!
Thanks to its early renewal for a thirteenth season, Supernatural is now slotted just above King of the Hill as the 20th longest running scripted TV show of all time, and I wouldn't doubt that it jumps a few more places before The CW finally lets poor Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles burn those hunter jackets once and for all. The show's fanbase and relatively low budget means that it can still chug along, and considering that the ratings for pretty much every show dip (even ones that don't get bounced around the schedule as much as this show has) there's no real reason to be concerned when it dips below a 1.0 in the Nielsens. Even more impressive when you consider its tiny cast; most shows that run this long have ensemble rosters that lend themselves to revolving door cast lineups, such as ER, which had not one of its original members still on call when it called it quits after 15 seasons - but Supernatural has always just had the two leads. It's safe to say that if either of them ever wanted to walk (they're not sick of each other, at least - on one of the Blu-ray special features we learn that their children are also besties), CW would not opt to force the other to go solo - it would be too big of a hole to fill.
Luckily, the show has built up a fairly decent supporting cast over the years, allowing the boys to ease some of the burden of carrying the weight of the show on their shoulders. Misha Collins has racked up over 100 episodes as Castiel, Mark Sheppard as the demon Crowley has appeared over 70 times, and then there are others like Kim Rhodes as Jody Mills and Mark Pellegrino as Lucifer who have only actually appeared in less than 30 episodes each, but have been around long enough to make their presence felt. It might always be a two-man show (save for the occasional periods where Collins or Sheppard get "starring" billing instead of "guest starring"), but it's a lived-in world with more than enough familiar faces to sustain a diversion episode, such as the brilliant "Weekend at Bobby's" from season six, which spent most of the episode from the perspective of Bobby Singer (Jim Beaver), sitting at home doing the boring stuff to help Sam and Dean on one of their traditional monster cases. In other words, I don't think the show can survive without the Winchesters - but the writers have established a deep enough bench to let the actors take a little break a couple times a season (or sometimes, as in the case of "Bobby's", to direct the episode, as Ackles did there).
Unfortunately, since Sam and Dean are "safe" (they die on occasion, but are always revived thanks to Castiel or Crowley) this means those folks have to die on occasion in order to sell the gravity of the (usually apocalyptic) situation that has consumed them for that season. And there is where it gets a bit dicey, because a number of those folks have *also* escaped death, and every time that happens, it gets harder to really feel the weight of their loss or sacrifice. At the end of this most recent season, Crowley sacrifices himself to complete a ritual, then Lucifer deals Castiel a fatal blow, and my first thought was "OK, see you next year, fellas." There was no feeling of panic that I should feel when a beloved character is offed; I think about how sad I was when Charlie died on Lost (even with a full season of knowing it was going to happen), or shock when Beverly died on Hannibal - it's been a long time since anyone's death on this show registered that kind of reaction from me. It was probably Bobby, all the way back in season 7 - that's a long time (over 100 episodes!) to go without really worrying about of the primary characters.
Turns out I was half right with my "see ya next year" reaction; Collins is coming back, but Sheppard has stressed that Crowley is dead and he (meaning, Sheppard himself) is not coming back. However - no disrespect to Sheppard - I won't believe it until the show is canceled down the road. Even when a character's death is seemingly permanent, the actor has almost always come back for flashbacks (such as Steven Williams' Rufus, who died in Season 6 but has appeared at least twice since), so the odds that this show will run for X number of additional seasons without ever once seeing Mark Sheppard again are fairly low. Given his otherworldly status as the King of Hell (I still love how he is able to get phone calls from Earth while he's in Hell) it seems that there could be any number of spells or other mumbo jumbo to revive him should they decide to, especially since Castiel's death seemed far more permanent (relative for this show) and he's coming back right off the bat. It seems the more important you are on the show, the more likely it is you'll return in some fashion.
So far, the only major exception is Jeffrey Dean Morgan as John Winchester, the boys' father. It may be hard to remember at this point, twelve years later, but the show was originally about these two guys hunting monsters while looking for their missing dad, and he made fleeting appearances throughout the show's first two seasons, dying in the second season premiere and going off to heaven in the same season's finale. He contributed a vocal cameo in season 4, but otherwise Morgan has always been too busy to return to the show (which he says he loves and would happily return to if it worked out), thus keeping John's appearances to younger versions played by different actors. At this point I'm not sure if he ever will return until the series finale for some sort of reunion, because it's been built up so much that it would feel like a cheat to shoehorn in a quick appearance that had little bearing on anything, just because they happened to have access to Morgan for a day. No, unless they wanted to book him for a season (or at least, a hefty chunk of one), I suspect it'd be impossible to get the busy actor back for anything that would be satisfying after all this time, and it's best to just let the character stay dead so that there remains some sliver of a chance someone may join him in perma-death someday.
However, the writers found a brilliant compromise of sorts for Season 12 - what if MARY Winchester came back? Actress Samantha Smith has been on the show since the pilot as the boys' mom, who died when Sam was just an infant, but the character had never been revived, limiting Smith's contributions to the show to ghostly visions or flashbacks (and kudos to Smith for sticking with this very intermittent role over the past eleven years). Season 11 ended with her resurrection as a thank you from God (long story), and at the time I figured it would go the way of most Supernatural cliffhangers, i.e. it would be resolved after three or four episodes and status quo would be restored. For example, when Dean ended the ninth season as a demon (thanks to Crowley), I thought they would run with it for a while, but nah - "Deanmon" was cured in the tenth season's third episode, denying us a season's worth of Ackles and Sheppard palling around in favor of the usual sort of stuff. The villains that are set up at the end of a season tend to last, but when it comes to someone being alive or not, the writers tend to waste little time getting everyone back in their usual groove, so I figured Mary would last a couple episodes only to be revealed as a fake of some sort, or killed off by the new villain.
But no! Mary became a huge part of the season, appearing in over half the episodes, giving Sam and Dean a new dynamic and building on their characters in ways they're usually not allowed. Sam never even knew her, but both of them are obviously happy to have their mom back in their life, and struggle with the fact that she is in a very weird place as well and can't just go back to being "Mom" again. Things get even more complicated when she resumes hunting (let's not forget, it was her that introduced John to this world, not the other way around) and they want to keep her safe so they don't lose her again, but she's their mother - they can't tell her what to do. And it's possible that sort of struggle will continue, because she was not killed off as I originally expected, but instead (spoiler, again!) the season ended with her fate in a sort of limbo. While Crowley and Castiel were killed (or, "killed", in Castiel's case), Mary just became trapped in an alternate universe with Lucifer (and another version of Bobby - see what I mean about dying not meaning much on this show?), which is the sort of thing they can have in their back pocket until some spell or divine intervention can open those doors again. In fact, if the internet is correct (...) she'll be back in the second episode of season 13 (which launches next month), and the writers teased some sort of conflict with her sons for the episodes ahead. Unless they're lying, that means that they're not just checking in on her in the other universe, but that the door to it - the one they stressed would be closed forever - must have had a window next to it.
Obviously we can't be sure how much of a part she will play in this season, but that doesn't matter - I am impressed and relieved that they didn't undo the potentially big change at the earliest convenience, which has always been their MO. In a way I get it - the show lives and dies by its fanbase, and if something isn't working they don't want to risk angering the fans by committing to a plot thread that they hate, as they'll be halfway through production on the season by the time the first few episodes air, and thus it might be too late to course correct. Mary was a safe bet - who would seriously wish she was still dead (beyond, perhaps, some resentment that once again death has proven meaningless on the show, as it's kind of like reviving Uncle Ben), as long as she wasn't evil? But other things I doubt would cause blowback - I'm sure I'm not the only one who wanted "Deanmon" to stick around for a while, and there was also a season where Sam did some spell that would cure Crowley of his demonic nature, but it didn't take - he was back to his usual antihero self not long after that. Everyone loves Crowley - who wouldn't want a whole season of him making amends and feeling guilty about the things he's done? It's not so much that they undo things, it's that they usually do them so quickly that it feels like a cheat to suggest it in the first place.
Hopefully this is a sign of things to come, where they will trust in their decisions and see where these new paths can go, rather than hitting a soft reset before the idea even has a chance. I know the show's budget informs some of the decision making (I doubt they'd still be in that Men of Letters bunker if the production allowed them to always be on the move as they used to be), but when it comes to the characters I would love to see more permanent - or at least, season long - changes in these characters. As much as I love the show and find great comfort in its continued existence, it does nag at me slightly that I'm almost never really worried about anyone's fate the way I should be for a show that frequently invokes the end of the world. Jody Mills is probably the only character who I genuinely fear losing (the episode where she faced off against a temporarily evil Mary was one of this season's highlights, as she's been their surrogate mother for quite some time now and there was a tinge of jealousy there), and she's only in a handful of episodes per season. So if death isn't much of an obstacle, the only way to keep the show fresh is to let the characters themselves explore new paths. At this point, I think it's safe to say us lifer fans will follow Sam and Dean (and Castiel) anywhere they go - even if it lasts more than a handful of episodes.