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Fans & Fantasy: Shippable Shows - Supernatural

Happy Monday, everyone, and welcome to the first in a series of columns I'm calling Shippable Shows. We'll be looking at shows past and present, one by one, and seeing what it is about them that make them such fodder for shipping, what the major and minor ships are, and some of the best shippy moments. Of course I had to start with the show that has practically owned shipping for the eight years it's been on the air, and the one that brings most readers to this column -- Supernatural.

Stop looking at Dean and kill the monster, Sam.

What makes it shippable?

Bros Forever: The theme of the show is family, and it takes family to its most extreme in showing us a pair of brothers whose love for each other has literally stopped the apocalypse and changed the world. Not to mention an angel who rebelled against heaven for the sake of a human. Supernatural is all about the intensity of male-male relationships, about brothers in arms and how they're wiling to die and sell their own souls, literally and figuratively, for each other. This is the sort of bond that shippers seize on, and say, well, if they're willing to do all this for each other, what's to say that their relationship stops where society says it should? Why would a physical or romantic relationship be out of bounds, when soul-selling, killing and dying are all on the table in multiple instances? Shipping in Supernatural is about pushing those bonds to another level, and about sublimating the need and companionship into a different form.

Spoken and Unspoken Moments: The deep (some might say "profound") bond between the characters is evidenced in both words and actions, in characters saying "I need you" and "There's nothing I wouldn't do for you," in prolonged eye contact and intimate (if not explicit) touching. There's a lot of holding each other up, hands on shoulders, watching each other sleep, etc. These can all be read straightforwardly as actions of brothers and friends helping each other, but they can also be read as implicitly romantic. How they are interpreted is up to the viewer, and both readings can be considered valid. True, the show protests its shippability, but with no greater frequency than it provides moments that can be read as shippable -- and there is such a thing, as Hamlet once noted, as protesting too much. Supernatural can definitely be accused of that. Which leaves it to the fan to decide which moments carry more emotional weight and resonance -- the prolonged eye contact and "I did it, all of it, for you" lines, or the throwaway protestations.

Fandom Rivalry:: Supernatural both benefits and suffers for having two major ships that are in rivalry with one another. Ship wars aren't pretty, as we've previously discussed here, but they do have the benefit of making people very protective of their preferred pairing, and that rivalry keeps the feelings about that ship fresh and intense. That keeps people glued to each episode, eager for subtext to support their pairing, and it keeps meta -- the lifeblood of shipping -- flowing. There's never any dearth of in-depth analysis on the most recent episode or season and how it can be read as supportive of one ship or another. And the show provides fodder for both, often knowingly, which leads me to:

"What's a slash fan?" Well, Dean, it depends on who you ask.

Ship Awareness: The writers and producers of Supernatural know very well that there's a huge following of shippers -- and unlike other shows, there's direct evidence of that in the show, in the form of Sam and Dean coming across a community of "slash fans" in the episode "The Monster at the End of This Book." A fangirl who writes steamy fanfiction is actually a character on the show, so there's no doubt that the show's staff knows the extent to which shipping can go. And they play to it, in endless in-jokes and winks to the fan base, all intended in good fun. Where the knowledge may be lacking in the writers' room, however, is in understanding the depth of shipping as well as its extremes -- its ego as well as its id. Slash shipping isn't all about sex or about enjoying good-looking men, and how it's represented onscreen has importance beyond simple fan service. Unfortunately, it's hard to find a show today that truly understands that. If I had the ear of a writer of a show -- any show, not just Supernatural -- and they wanted to know how to understand shipping and slash, I would point them not to the fan fiction but to the meta, to the analyses that lay out point by point why certain pairings are not just plausible but powerful and effective ways to move the story forward. And no show needs to know this right now more than Supernatural does, if only to stop them from taking joking half-measures and expecting the fan base to be satisfied with that.

The major pairings:

As I mentioned above, there are two major pairings in this show and they come into direct conflict with each other. As a multishipper, I'm a fan of both, so don't expect me to take a side as I describe them.

Dean and Sam (Wincest): Yes, it has to be mentioned -- the first major pairing in this show is an incestuous one. The two brothers, Dean and Sam, have a sibling relationship like none other. They've died for each other, killed for each other, gone to Heaven and Hell and Purgatory multiple times for and with each other -- there's basically no rule they won't break for each other's sake, no taboo they won't trample in their desire to take care of each other. So Wincest (named after their last name, Winchester, + incest) pushes that truism toward yet another taboo and posits that the bond between the two is so strong, there would be no reason why a physical or romantic relationship would be off limits, when so many other things clearly are well within the bounds of "I'd do anything for my brother." Incestuous pairings, especially sibling pairings, are nothing new in the world of shipping, but this one has visibility like few others, and it's been expressly called out on the show itself, which gives it a special status.

Supernatural: where personal-space issues actually get addressed.

Dean and Castiel (Destiel): Castiel the angel first appeared in Season 4 as the angel that raised Dean from hell and comes to him with the message that God has work for him. But over the course of Season 4, Dean's unflinching morality and humanity changes Castiel, and at the end of the season the angel rebels against heaven, against the angels he refers to repeatedly as "brothers," and takes the humans' side in the apocalypse to come. In a show that cares about family as much as this one does, finding a reason to rebel against one's brother is a Big Deal, and Castiel's continuing sympathy and fealty to humanity -- and, most notably, to Dean -- is a strong sign of a bond that is intense and strong. Destiel fans see a romance with Castiel as a chance for the terminally unselfish Dean to mature and start taking care of himself and wanting things for himself, and Dean as a chance for Castiel to find a home and family that he can more easily justify being a part of. This pairing is significant because it could potentially (although not likely) happen in canon, and there has been a big push from the fandom to see it happen. Whether it remains subtext or becomes text, Destiel has struck a chord in the fandom so deep that it's come to rival Wincest in terms of both number and volume of supporters.

The minor pairings:

"Nice EMF there, Sam."
There's barely two characters in this show that are not shipped to some degree, and by some people. I could run a list a mile long of pairings I've seen in the fandom. But here are some highlights:

Sam and Gabriel: Gabriel was an angel who died just as he was being given half a chance. First known as the Trickster, a demigod, Gabriel was revealed as the archangel he was in Season 5, and was cut down by Lucifer just as we were starting to genuinely like and root for him. Pairing him with various other characters (most notably, Sam) is a way to get him back into the mix, and to this day, three seasons later, fans are still hoping for one last trick to be revealed and for Gabriel to return.

Dean and Jo: Brought in as a wannabe hunter in Season 2, Jo was first disliked by the fandom but quickly gained her own following. She was killed in Season , but not before she really showed her chops, and hers was a hero's death. Many saw her as a good match for Dean in terms of temperament and lust for life, and she was brought back briefly as a ghost in Season 7 to have one last moment with Dean.

Sam and Lucifer: Lucifer was masterfully played by Mark Pellegrino -- first as the genuine article, and then as a hallucination in Sam's head in Season 7. In both incarnations, he seemed to genuinely like and want Sam, and promised to reward him for allowing Lucifer to take over his body as was foretold by the prophets. It's an easy path to follow from Lucifer wanting Sam's body to Lucifer wanting Sam's body, and many shippers had no trouble going from Point A to Point B.

Meg and Castiel: They shared a kiss on screen and the last time we saw Meg she made a rather racy suggestion that Castiel seemed to appreciate.This angel/demon pairing has both fans and detractors in the fandom, but one thing can be said about it: it surely inspires strong feelings.

Castiel and Balthazar: Balthazar was introduced in Season 6 as an old ally and friend of Castiel's, as though the two were as different as could be. Much of the shipping of these two (and also of Lucifer and Michael) focused on imagining the angelic backstory of which we got far too little on the show itself. What was it like before the fall of Lucifer? How did the angels survive in the ensuing wars, and what sort of bonds did they form in their own foxholes, doing their own version of the constant battle we see Sam and Dean face on earth in every episode?

Gabriel and Crowley: One an angel, the other a demon, but both rebellious against authority, both sarcastic and intensely amusing onscreen. Though they never met in canon, that doesn't stop shippers from theorizing about how intensely entertaining they'd be together.

Like I said, there are many, many more, and I'm sure I've overlooked someone's favorite. These are the ones that leap to mind. Feel free to call out some of your favorites in comments.

What makes Supernatural a shippable show for you? What pairings do you enjoy reading and writing? Sound off in comments. Please remember this is a shipping-safe zone -- you don't have to ship to comment, but you do need to be respectful of shippers. Thank you for being considerate.

Next week I'll be out of town, but the week after that I'll be doing Shippable Shows: Teen Wolf. Don't forget to be sure that your favorite show is represented in this series. Thanks!

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