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Don’t stop believing: ‘Supernatural’s’ 12-year crisis of faith

Like many long-lived shows, “Supernatural” is a procedural. But the more cut-and-dried examples of said format –- say, “Law & Order” –- don’t usually come close to inciting the sort of feverish, dialed-to-eleven devotion and love displayed by the “Supernatural” fandom. There’s long-lived, and then there’s long-lived and beloved … a far rarer thing, and one “Supernatural” decidedly is.

One Internet meme cleverly described “Supernatural” as “Scooby Doo for adults,” but that can’t be the whole story: Would we really keep tuning in for over a decade just to watch those pesky, meddling Winchester boys try to thwart evil at every turn? To be both long-lived and beloved, at its heart, a show must surely be grappling with a universal theme, something that resonates on a deeper level.

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There are copious servings of eye candy and sheer entertainment value to be gleaned from it, it’s a clever horror-dramedy hybrid, but for the deep fandom, those trappings are still just superficial. Based on the failed copycats over the last decade it seems clear those offerings alone can’t do the trick.

This ongoing show about two demon-hunting brothers is also an ongoing exploration of one of the most universal, and similarly unending, struggles of all: How to maintain one’s faith in anything — religion, love, hope, brotherhood, or whatever it is that we love — while enduring an endless series of struggles, in a seemingly random and chaotic world.

The existential home to which “Supernatural” finds its way back, again and again, is how to endure and survive the bump in the road, the very bad day, the crisis of faith. (And who doesn’t want the answer to that question?)

jared padalecki

We put our faith in spouses, parents, children, siblings and friends. We put our faith in our careers or our passions or our callings. Some believe with every fiber of their being in a sports team, or a CW show. No matter who or what calls us, most people need to believe in something to find meaning in life. Because of the struggles inherent in life, our faith in anything will eventually be put to the test, usually repeatedly.

It bears mentioning that, for a show set against an apparent backdrop of God versus Satan, Heaven versus Hell, Light versus Dark, “Supernatural” has never taken the easy way out. The show doesn’t adhere to the obvious Manichaean polarity — God as the automatic champion of goodness and light, Satan (more specifically, Lucifer) as a pantomime mustache-twirling villain of darkness and evil. As in real life, things are rarely that obvious or simple.

As a result, none of the characters ever have the luxury of indulging in blind faith. The show makes a repeated point of distinguishing between hard-won faith and blind faith, never coasting on the latter. In fact it hinges, boldly, on the tenet that faith is only truly meaningful if it is tested, questioned and fought for.

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In the “Supernatural” universe, God is a deadbeat dad who, as Lucifer (Mark Pellegrino) put it last season, “Went out for a pack of smokes and never came back.” This absence of God throughout most of the seasons and storylines leaves the rest of the world reeling — and it’s not just humanity who suffers for it. Heaven is left in chaos, angels divide into factions and try to fill the power vacuum with decidedly human (imperfect) political machinations and maneuvers. And, with no God to answer to, “evil” in its various guises — like Crowley, King of Hell (Mark A. Sheppard), and Lucifer himself — is given a particularly wide berth and equipped with an often swashbuckling swagger, to boot.

mark sheppard

The key is that characters like Crowley and Lucifer become endearing over time, here, with us: We’re show their humanity in God’s absence, their realness against God’s abstraction. We see their blood, sweat, tears, struggle and desire: Though imperfect, they’re at least present, and we love them a bit (or a lot) more for it. If we subscribe to the maxim that “showing up is half the battle,” an absent God speaks volumes. The demons we know are struggling to find faith in something, even if that something is power — which, in deeper terms, is more about faith in themselves than anything else. They, too, are seeking their place in a world turned upside down.

“Supernatural’s” God is not sympathetic — at best lazy, at worst a coward, when he comes up at all — and how could he be, after leaving everyone from Sam (Jared Padalecki) and Dean (Jensen Ackles) to the angels to ponder the meaning of life in His absence? It’s a realistic, impressively poignant depiction of faith, as is the daring suggestion that nothing we place our faith in can ever be perfect.

Under these conditions, maintaining our faith in whatever it is must be a constant struggle, an ongoing evaluation of whether or not the object of our faith remains worthy, or worth it: If not, is that because it changed, or we did? Are we just having a bad day? What day is bad enough to break you? With nothing perfect to believe in, faith goes from a quality to an action, from adjective to verb: The difficult matter of deciding not only where our allegiance lies, but for how long it ought to remain there.

Against this backdrop of Heaven and Hell and the dueling factions of each, Sam and Dean repeatedly put their faith in each other, above all — a bond that is tested time and again. Not typical sibling rivals, they’ve both: Spent time in Hell and Purgatory, been possessed, died, and both have — often — conducted all kinds of unsavory deals with assorted nefarious shadow figures for the purpose of bringing each other back from the brink as a result. This duo literally goes to Hell and back, on a regular basis, to ensure the survival of the other. What rewards our faith in the show is the longevity of that bond, the depth of Sam and Dean’s faith in each other, and perhaps most meaningfully, how many tests and trials this faith has endured.

jared padalecki

In Season 11, episode 4 (“Baby”), facing their greatest challenge yet in the form of The Darkness, Dean spells it out: “No one’s gonna help us. Certainly not God. So we’ll have to figure this thing out. Like we always do.”

And in Season 11, episode 10 (“The Devil is in the Details”), Lucifer admonishes Sam for choosing Dean over the greater good (and indirectly, over God), unleashing The Darkness in the first place: “You’d do anything to save him, and he’d do anything to save you, and that is the problem,” Lucifer says. “Instead of choosing the world, you choose each other.”

Of course, we soon discover Lucifer’s agenda is to guilt Sam into helping him stage a prison break from Hell: Lucifer is as jealous as the rest of us that he’s got nobody who believes in or loves him as much as the Winchesters do each other. Who doesn’t want to be believed in, the way Sam and Dean believe in each other? Who wouldn’t put their faith in something as epic as that?

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When we finally meet Amara, God’s sister and the Darkness, the presumption is that she’s come to supplant her brother and take over Everything (with a capital E) — but like any other character that’s isn’t #TeamHeaven, she’s not relegated to easy or obvious villain. Amara is given nuance by her struggle to find meaning in her own existence, and to understand why her brother exiled her: Not even God’s own sister has the Big Guy on speed dial. She has to move heaven and Earth — in several scenes, quite literally — looking for Him, and still gets the cold shoulder for a good long while, no matter how hard (or messily) she knocks on Heaven’s Gate.

In Season 11, episode 9 (“Oh Brother Where Art Thou?”), Amara questions a priest about how to summon God directly. When the priest admits that prayer is about as close as anyone on Earth can ever get to God, with no hope of a response, the wishy-washy explanation doesn’t sit well with The Darkness.

“So only dead people get to see Him?” Amara asks the priest. “And this makes sense to billions of you?” Not one for blind faith herself, Amara continues to ask the hard questions, and not settle for any brush-offs or weak responses. In the end, her determination to demand answers about God’s motivations and actions becomes a particularly powerful take on how to resolve crisis of faith: By staring, unflinching, into the void and actively trying to make sense of it. Echoing the endless journey of Sam and Dean, it’s only by battling hard and carrying on that Amara earns her faith back.

“Supernatural” is known for its longevity, and its deep mythology. It’s known for constant crisis, hurt and comfort and damnation — and redemption. It’s the story of two wayward sons, finding their way home to each other, again and again. But only a story so long, and so focused on its mission, could ever properly represent just how far we have to go, and how many different shapes our doubts and fears may take as they challenge our faith, whatever it’s in. We come to “Supernatural” not to watch them fail, not even to watch them triumph: We love these boys because their fight to believe — in what’s most important to them — is our story, too.

“Supernatural” airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on The CW.

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