The Beauty “In Just Being, In Just Saying It”: An Interpretation of Destiel as Canon
by: Kaela Joseph, PhD
On November 5th, 2020, amid a global pandemic, the rumored resignation of controversial president of Russia, Vladamir Putin, and perhaps the most pivotal election in US history, Destiel, the once purely subtextual ship of the human character Dean Winchester and the angel Castiel on the CW series Supernatural, was, somehow, trending on Twitter. I had delayed watching that night’s episode, titled “Despair,” because the aforementioned cluster of global uncertainty was causing, well, a great deal of despair, and I was not ready to add the near ending of my favorite show to the list of things that were causing me existential dread on that particular evening. When my phone started buzzing with “#DestielisCanon,” I reluctantly pulled up the CW app, not really believing it was real, until there it was! The “I love you” heard around the virtual world, a gay love that had pierced the veil of death to save the day, words that gripped tight my little bisexual heart and raised it from perdition- I was elated! The fandom’s reaction was…mixed.
While many celebrated as I did, many others expressed concern, and even hurt, that this declaration came right before Castiel exited the show completely in a final, sacrificial act, with his love never verbally reciprocated by Dean. Some held out hope that the final two episodes of the show would see the two reunited, but that did not come to pass. From this, two questions emerged: 1) is Destiel really canon if only one character verbally said “I loved you,” and 2) did the show banish the ship via the trope of “bury your gays?”
What follows is my interpretation, and only my interpretation of the answers to those questions. I want to be clear that if you are reading this and you feel personally harmed by the treatment of these characters, by anyone involved with how they were portrayed, I hear that and your feelings are valid, as all feelings are. These are just my own answers to questions that are important to me as a bisexual fan and someone who desperately wants to see more queer stories in television, as well as someone likes to spend her free time using her social science degrees to analyze popular culture representations of queer identities. My answers do not have to be yours.
First, while there is part of me that would have relished an “I love you too” from Dean, I personally didn’t need it to confirm Dean’s feelings. I saw all the confirmation I needed in the final scene of that episode, which sees Dean ignoring his brother’s phone call in the middle of a literal apocalypse, the person he arguably cares for more than any other being in the universe, to bury his head in his hands and sob over the loss of Cas. I saw it again in the next episode when Lucifer, a being who typically appeals to people by imitating a lost romantic love, took on the voice of Cas to trick Dean. I saw it in Dean demanding God/Chuck bring back Cas even at the expense of his and his brother’s lives, and then in Dean defeating God/Chuck by declaring that he was the loving man Cas saw him to be, and not his heavenly father’s “blunt instrument.”
I saw it in these small but not insignificant moments because Dean has always expressed love in these ways. In a show that ran 15 seasons, Dean, a character who Cas describes as fundamentally driven by love, utters the phrase “I love you” so rarely that I could probably count it on one hand (assuming I had time to go through and catalogue every instance, which sadly I do not). Dean has been conditioned through trauma and masculine gender norms not to express his love outright. He tells his own little brother things like “I’m proud of us” in place of “I love you,” and we don’t question what he really means because that is simply how Dean expresses love- through proximal, less vulnerable statements and through sacrifice. When I really think about it, as much as I’ve often longed to hear it, an “I love you too” from Dean would have felt disingenuous and out of character. Further, when Cas declares his love to Dean, there is little time to respond. Dean is processing A LOT of information, and when he attempts to address Cas, he is pushed out of the way with a final “goodbye Dean.”
So, what about the “bury your gays” trope? Misha Collins, who plays Castiel, himself acknowledged the trope in interviews immediately following his final episode, but later recanted this after the season finale aired due to one crucial detail- in order to bury your gays, your gay has to die, and technically, we learn that Cas did fully not die in his final episode. Instead, he is released from an eternity in the celestian Empty by the surrogate son he raised with Dean, and goes on to co-create Dean’s eventual Heaven. We do not see what becomes of him (possibly due to filming restrictions caused by COVID-19), but we are led to believe that he has resumed his place as a celestial being, one that no longer meddles in the affairs of humans as a return to the natural order was established in the depowering of God/Chuck and the ascension of surrogate son Jack to the seat that God once held.
Several other factors typical of the trope are not present. The trope is not simply that gay characters die, but that they are expendable, typically dying disproportionately to their straight counterparts with their arcs unfulfilled, or die in some way as a result of their being gay . Even when we believe Cas to be dead, his death is not disproportionate to other characters on the show. The main characters of the show have died multiple times by this point in the series, with Cas having previously died five other times. In fact, he is a character who, by all accounts, was only supposed to be in a few episodes, but lasted 12 seasons due to fan reception of his character. In other words, he was treated as far from expendable. He is also not the only character to die this episode. Literally every living person, celestial being, and even animals are snuffed out by the episode’s end except for Dean, Sam, Jack, the Archangels Michael and Lucifer, God/Chuck, and technically the Darkness/Amara who is alive within God/Chuck. It’s hard to just bury your gays when you effectively bury not one, but multiple entire universes in the span of a few episodes.
Cas also does not die because he is gay. Rather, he dies because his arc, which has always revolved around saving Dean and restoring the balance of good and evil, is fulfilled. His clock has been ticking ever since he first made a deal with the Empty to save their surrogate son Jack, and he sees that his final sacrifice is the only way for Dean to ultimately defeat God/Chuck and bring about Jack’s destiny. His moment of true happiness in his declaration of love is the key to unleashing the Empty to kill Death, but the lock to that eventual door he was going to have to walk through was created an entire season prior and had absolutely nothing to do with Dean or Castiel’s love for Dean.
You might be asking, how can Cas be truly fulfilled in his arc if Dean doesn’t say “I love you” back? Cas says it himself, “Happiness isn’t in the having. It’s in just being. It’s in just saying it.” Many have interpreted Cas’ initial statement that his true happiness was something he “[knows] he can’t have” to mean that he knows his love for Dean was unrequited, because he believes Dean to be straight, so his happiness can only be in his declaration of love, not in the having of Dean’s love in return. This, in my opinion, runs counter to everything he says after that initial statement. His entire speech to Dean is about how Dean embodies love, does everything for love, and has changed Cas through love. Cas is effectively saying “your love changed me and before I go I need you to know that I love you for who you really are, not how you see yourself.”
The reason I think Cas believes he cannot have Dean’s love is because Cas is a celestial being, and Dean is not. The entire series has been about two human brothers against seemingly insurmountable celestial forces, driven by a cruel and capricious God who wants to write their stories to satisfy his own agenda. The series ends with balance restored- no more meddling from God, kings or queens of Hell, demons, angels, etc. — just two brothers fighting monsters, the family business. For Cas to ride off into the sunset with Dean would be to upset that eventual return to order that Cas foresaw in his premonitions of Jack’s destiny. That leaves only one conclusion for Cas, to leave the series the way he entered it, saving Dean, the human man he was never supposed to fall in love with, but did anyway because the love he saw in Dean was undeniable.
Now, I am fully aware that all of this may just be wishful thinking, the same way Destiel, in any form, was once wishful thinking. At the end of the day though, I agree with Cas that “happiness is not in the having,” in this case. Happiness on that November 5th, for me, was not in the having of Destiel, it was in seeing the droves of others like myself coming together to essentially bomb the internet with celebrations of queer love at a time when the lives of queer people like myself felt threatened by the political climate and the diproportionate impact of COVID-19 in our communities. It was seeing queerness on a show that didn’t have to undo over a decade of queerbaiting, seeing at least an attempt to do right by it’s fans, who had been extremely vocal throughout the show’s run- a show that first aired only two years after the US supreme court ruled that laws prohibiting the private sex lives of queer men were unconstitutional, six years before the ban prohibiting openly gay people serving in the US military was lifted, ten years before the US supreme court made same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states, then ended the same year that the US supreme court ruled that it was unconstitutional to fire someone for identifying as LGBTQ. Happiness was in seeing a show progress with the times through fan engagement, and as imperfect as it may have been, simply being in that moment, with so many other fans around the world, was beautiful.