By JohnCarl McGrady, Editor in Chief
On November 5th, 2020, the most important episode of Television of the year was released. It wasn’t even close to the best episode of Television that year, but the reaction to it would uncover truths about the way we view media, how that thinking is flawed, and how to move past it.
I’m talking, of course, about Season 15, Episode 18 of Supernatural, the longest running sci-fi show ever, about a pair of brothers named Sam and Dean Winchester who travel around the United States and hunt monsters, accompanied by an angel named Castiel. You don’t need to know much about the show to understand this article, but I’ll give you a brief summary of what you do need to know.
Since Castiel’s arrival on the show in Season 4, fans have supported a romantic pairing between him and Dean, a concept known as shipping. Dean and Castiel are not in a romantic relationship, according to the canon of the show, and have no explicitly romantic interactions. However, the ardentness of Destiel shippers—Destiel being the name given to the pairing—outstrips almost all other shippers on the internet. There are endless blogs, videos, imagesets, and essay-length posts devoted to this relationship, both analyzing subtext and obscure details of shots to “prove” the ship’s validity, and creating imagined alternate versions of the show in which the relationship is recognized and explicit. It’s impossible to really capture the depth and ardour of Destiel shipping in a paragraph, but suffice it to say that people are really really really invested in this pairing.
In Season 14 of the show, Castiel makes a deal with a primordial entity known as the Empty to save his friends on the condition that if he ever finds true happiness, Castiel will be sent into the Empty’s realm—also called the Empty—forever. Back in Season 15, Sam, Dean and Castiel are trying to kill Death. Well, Dean killed Death in Season 10, but they have to kill the replacement Death now. Dean and Castiel have locked themselves in a room, but Death will break in soon, and they can’t run or fight. Faced with seemingly certain death—no pun intended—Castiel confesses that he is romantically in love with Dean. It was the moment fans had waited a decade for!
And then Dean didn’t respond, the Empty showed up and swallowed Castiel and Death, and it was over. Castiel never reappeared on the show, which ended for good with Episode 20 two weeks later.
In the wake of the episode, the shippers went mad. The Supernatural fandom had been shrinking for over a decade, but suddenly it exploded as everyone reacted to what would become known as the Confession Scene. Many shippers, who, as mentioned above, were already happy to tear apart every scene for “proof” of their ship, created elaborate theories for why Dean didn’t respond.
The Spanish dub of the episode had Dean confessing his own love for Castiel, even though no other versions did, which fueled the most prominent of the conspiracy theories: Dean was originally supposed to confess, but someone—either a writer, or a director, or one of the show’s creators, or most popularly the network that aired Supernatural, forced the scene to be cut. There’s not a lot of great evidence to back this up, but it’s not completely impossible, and some fans are still holding out hope that proof will come out.
What all of the investigative work really boiled down to, though, was looking for authorial intent. The fans wanted a definitive account from the author on what Dean was supposed to say. On what Dean felt.
In literary criticism, there’s the idea of the Death of the Author, first introduced by Roland Barthes, which posits—in its most extreme form—that what the author meant doesn’t matter. Once the art has been released into the world, it is completely detached from whatever meaning the author wanted it to have.
For example, say an author grew up in a very religious household that oppressed his self-expression, and wrote a poem about a boy breaking free of the fetters of an old rusty chain learning to fly. The author intends this to be a metaphor for breaking from the shackles of religious oppression to be creatively free, but a transgender woman sees it as breaking free of the fetters of her birth gender and transitioning. Barthes, who was born in 1915, would probably not look too kindly on transgender people, but putting that aside, he would say her interpretation was equally valid as the interpretation of someone who hit on exactly what the author meant.
A lot of people agree with this theory on an intellectual level, but on an emotional level, it just doesn’t feel right. Supernatural showed us this. These people went out of their way to concoct theories about how the authorial intent behind the scene could have supported their interpretation of the character’s relationship. Like it or not, it matters to most people what the creator of a work intends it to mean. When Niel Gaiman said that Good Omens was meant to be a love story, people were thrilled. Even people who strongly support Death of the Author were thrilled. Maybe it doesn’t matter intellectually, but it matters emotionally.
That’s a problem, though, and not because Death of the Author is flawless literary theory. Though I generally support Death of the Author, as I’ve argued before, I don’t go to the extremes of some—for example, I recognize that at least until an author is literally dead, you have to consider their beliefs before supporting their work, because you don’t want to give money or attention to someone with horrible ideas—and I don’t begrudge people who fall more into the pro-authorial intent camp. Are they wrong? Well, I certainly think so, but ultimately, I respect anyone who puts enough thought into literary criticism to have a solid perspective on the issue regardless of what that perspective is. Really, it’s a problem because traditional schools of literary criticism don’t apply to Supernatural. In fact, they don’t apply to large swaths of modern filmed media. Let me explain.
The argument around authorial intent rests on a critical supposition: there is, somewhere out there, a person who knows what the work of art was supposed to mean, referred to as the author. Whether or not that author’s knowledge is relevant is up for debate, but even the most ardent Barthesians admit that there is an author who is aware of the original intent of the art.
Looking at the artistic landscape when Barthes was writing, it’s easy to see why. Even now, the texts that dominate literary criticism, from Jane Eyre to Citizen Kane, “The Yellow Wallpaper” to Inception, all have a single, clear author. Charlotte Bronte, Orson Welles, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Christopher Nolan. If you wanted to debate authorial intent, you would know where to start.
To be clear, there are sometimes multiple creative minds behind the work of art. For example, if you are reading a translation of The Iliad, there is both Homer and the translator—and Homer may have been a group of people. However, no good translator would attempt to contradict the meaning Homer was intending, so there is still no meaningful discourse on authorial supremacy. Everyone agrees it is Homer’s intent that is the authorial one. To turn to a more recent example, the theatrical cut of Blade Runner was hugely different from the far more popular DVD director’s cuts released later, because the studio pressured director Ridley Scott to make changes. Actors in the film, as in most films, also had the creative control of interpretation, and the script was written by Hampton Fincher and David Peoples, not Scott. However, while debates about the importance and scope of authorial intent in modern culture often centre on films like Blade Runner with director’s cuts and studio pressure, it isn’t that relevant to us. People still agree, for the most part, that Scott is the ultimate author, whose vision may have been compromised by the studio, fleshed out and realized by Fincher and Peoples, and interpreted by actors, but was none-the-less his vision. If you wanted to read Blade Runner through a biographical lens, you would examine Scott’s biography.
But who is the author of Supernatural?
Well, there isn’t one, really. Supernatural was initially created by Erik Kripke, but he left the show after the Season 5 finale. The relevant episode was directed by Richard Speight, a B list actor-director who played the archangel Gabriel on the show and has directed 11 episodes. On the scale of Supernatural’s 327 episodes, though, 11 is not that many, and he’d only directed one other episode that year, so he wasn’t in control of the script or the plot arcs. The person who was in charge of the script was Robert Berens, who produced 77 episodes of Supernatural and wrote 25. So, he’s more important than Speight, but he’s also not the guy in charge of the story’s arcs or major decisions. While he may have written the proximal dialogue of the Confession Scene, the idea behind it probably came from one of the two showrunners, Andrew Dabb or Robert Singer. They control the show’s general outline, and are likely the genesis of the scene. They, however, didn’t have much immediate control over the scene, meaning someone else wrote, shot and edited the whole thing. A whole group of someones, even.
The only person involved with the scene who had been on the show from day one is Jensen Ackles, the actor who plays Dean. Misha Collins, who plays Castiel, had also been involved since Castiel’s arrival on the show, giving him seniority over most of the other names on the list. Treating them as the authors breaks with traditional concepts of film criticism, but don’t they know the characters better than anyone? Regardless, no matter what any of those people want, they don’t ultimately have the final say: the CW, the network that airs Supernatural, has final veto power. Who’s to say they didn’t force edits or changes to the show?
There are other creative minds to consider as well. Anyone who has ever written an episode of Supernatural could claim authorship of some portion of the show, as could any director.
In the wake of the episode, fans have turned to just about every single person I listed above, seeking definitive answers on what the scene was supposed to mean—and whether Dean is in love with Castiel. The problem is, those authors don’t all agree. Misha Collins is very supportive of Destiel, and a couple of writers have endorsed the ship as well, but many others are silent, as are most of the other main creative forces behind the show. Several people are also against Destiel, including—maybe—Jensen Ackles. He was very strongly against it, at least, but has since tempered his outward remarks and now falls into the neutral category.
The thing is, there is no definitive author of Supernatural. There is no one who could settle the issue with a comment. If Speight or Dabb or Berens or Singer or Kripke or Ackles came out with a strong, unequivocal public statement, it wouldn’t resolve the issue. Any way you attempt to assign authorship falls apart under scrutiny.
Dabb and Singer are probably the best bet as authors, but that argument is extremely flimsy. They control the bones of the story, and create outlines, but they don’t dictate specifics. They don’t dictate anything that influences subtext at all, really. Specific lines of dialogue, specific cuts and camera angles, specific framing and parallels—unless it’s one of the rare episodes one of them is writing or directing, they aren’t involved in it.
Supernatural isn’t even the most complicated example of this phenomena, however. Take a look at Star Wars. Since Disney bought Star Wars, the movies have essentially been made by the Walt Disney Corporation. Directors are fired multiple times in the process of filming, writers are given strict guidelines of what they can and cannot write, and every shot is vetted by the marketing department. Both Star Wars and Supernatural don’t fit within the traditional construct of arguments around authorial intent. They occupy an uncharted space in literary criticism, texts created by a vague, floating conglomerate of authors.
Imagine Supernatural like a recipe. One cook comes in and decides to make chocolate chip cookies. Another decides what quantities of ingredients need to be added, another mixes them, another watches them as they cook and removes them from the oven when they are done, and another arranges them, makes them look nice, and decides to serve them with a glass of milk.
They made the cookies together, as a group, but it’s no one’s recipe. On their own, none of them would know how to replicate the cookies. Supernatural simultaneously has no authors, and a whole host of authors. Suddenly, Death of the Author feels meaningless. Who are you going to kill?
With conglomerate art like Supernatural, there is no authorial intent to debate. There is just the text. No matter how badly you want to analyze Season 15, Episode 18 of Supernatural through a biographical lens, you can’t. No matter how desperately you want someone to confirm that Dean was in love with Castiel, nobody can. Nobody can tell you how to interpret this text, because nobody owns the interpretation of it.
And maybe that’s not so bad.
You can interpret it however you want, and there is no one to tell you you are wrong. No one to crush your theories or sweep aside your analysis. The Supernatural fans had it right all along, with their fanfiction and essay-length analyses of random shots. They don’t need to be justified. The text is theirs.
The text, of course, is always yours.
No, the author isn’t “dead.” Understanding the author’s point of view and biography can lend interesting insights and perspectives to a text. If an author is a bigot, maybe don’t give them too much attention while they’re still alive. But the author also isn’t all powerful. What shows like Supernatural reveal in striking clarity is that a text has meaning absent a definitive authorial intent—else, Supernatural means literally nothing, which isn’t possible. Dean is either subtextually in love with Castiel or not, depending on your interpretation, but he can’t be neither.
This can be generalized. All texts have meaning absent definitive authorial intent. Sometimes, that meaning comes from the readers.
Comes from you.