The heroes are not alone: an appreciation of Supernatural’s supporting characters

Many factors go into the making of a TV show, from executive producers to writers, from actors to set designers. Details small and large come together to tell the story that winds up on our screens, and fans are also sharp-eyed, they’ll notice if something is off, and also respond to the beauty of a set or a sharp turn of phrase or how the lighting reflects the characters’ emotional states,  Likewise with the ingredients of the story, and while all shows have lead, or main characters, they are not the only ones who move the plot–or who move the audience to tears.

As a fan of The X-Files, I know how it is to attach to a central duo and how disconcerting it can be when (in the case of The X-Files, factors beyond writer control), one or both leads are absent. My attention drifted in late seasons, although that’s not any reflection on the quality of the new characters, I simply missed the Mulder and Scully team that formed the show’s main backbone. But Mulder and Scully weren’t the only reasons The X-Files grabbed my imagination so deeply. A.D. Skinner was always one of my favorites, and his relationship with the two agents under his watch. Krycek was a fun villain, and of course the mysterious presence of the Cigarette Smoking Man. Stories involving the Scully or Mulder family back-history regularly made me cry–I especially liked the relationship Scully had with her father, Scully’s mother was a series staple, and Scully’s sister also played a key role. There was Mulder’s sister, Samantha, whose disappearance effectively created Mulder into who he is and drove the show’s plot from the get-go, and once on-screen, added layers to the emotional and plot beats.

Supernatural has a similar structure to The X-Files, with two brothers, Sam and Dean Winchester, as the two leads. While Supernatural started with a smaller cast, supporting characters have always been crucial to the story. Eight seasons in, Supernatural has a broad canvas of characters the leads have connected with. In part this is due to Supernatural’s tendency to kill characters off and bring in new ones, but that’s not the only explanation. Despite the claustrophobic feel and starting point of isolation that Supernatural shares with The X-Files, the Winchester brothers reach out far more to forge connections with others than Mulder and Scully did. This is a major theme of Supernatural — that despite the horror of things that go bump in the night and the never-ending war, despite the string of terrible losses, despite having no permanent home base (at least until recently), Sam and Dean are always looking for home, for family, in one form or another, and they don’t only find it in each other.

Unlike the changes on The X-Files, heading into the ninth season of Supernatural, Sam and Dean Winchester continue to be the characters with the most screen-time, and their relationship continues to be the firm centerpiece of the show, no matter how important other characters have become, or what relationships have emerged. The relationship isn’t always happy, but they always come back together, they continue to work well as a team, and that partnership, as with Mulder and Scully on The X-Files, continues to serve as the main touchstone.

However, our leads are not alone. Just as Mulder and Scully needed Skinner and other characters,  Supernatural has many characters who add dimensions to the leads and to the story, who help drive the plot and add powerful emotional beats. Some have compelling backstories and hero arcs of their own, adding layers to our understanding of Sam and Dean while their own complexity increases. They are essential to making Supernatural what it is, and to who Sam and Dean are, and the show’s passionate fanbase not only has not only latched onto the brothers, but these supporting characters as well.

While it would take too long to get to every character (but feel free to talk about any I missed in the comments), here are a few ally characters that seem to have left a pretty deep emotional footprint on Supernatural. and on Sam and Dean. Villains have also played a significant role–even an emotional role–but for this post, I’ll focus on blood family and found family characters.

(Warning: major spoilers if you aren’t caught up through the end of season 8, casting spoilers for season 9).

In the beginning, there was John and Mary Winchester. Sam and Dean’s quest to find their missing father drove almost the entire plot of season 1. Mary’s horrific death is what kicked off the entire series as we know it. We discover later that her death was not, in fact, the very beginning, but as far as Sam and Dean’s story goes, Mary’s death, and four year-old Dean carrying Sam out of their burning house, is the starting point. John Winchester is a powerful presence in Season 1, moving in and out of the boys’ orbit until his death in the season two premiere. “In My Time of Dying” is still one of the most powerful episodes of the whole series. John’s relationship with his children, and his complexities as a character, provide a gut-wrenching story whose impact and consequences linger. Mary and John become two of the show’s most memorable recurring characters (via flashbacks and time-travel). Mary, like John, has her own story to tell, and kicked off and drove the plot possibly even more than John did. John Winchester and Mary Campbell Winchester are an epic story in themselves.

There have been mentors helping Sam and Dean along the way. Missouri Mosley was in one episode, but fans have never forgotten this character or stopped hoping she’ll return. In fact the original intention was for MIssouri to be a recurring character, but it didn’t work out due to actor availability. It was Missouri who helped pull the curtain back for John and show him the truth about what’s really out there: monsters are real. She welcomes Sam and Dean like her long-lost children. Clearly she cares about the whole Winchester family, and John trusted her.

Bobby Singer was introduced in late season 1, serving the mentor role. The very definition of “gruff,” Bobby is a bookworm in a trucker cap, fighting monsters with lore as well as guns, with a tragic history of his own. He’s another old friend of John’s, and there’s an intriguing but bitter history there–we still don’t know what argument led to Bobby driving John off his property under threat of shotgun. Despite the falling out, Bobby obviously loved John, and treats Sam and Dean like his own sons. After John’s death he takes on the role of father figure as well as mentor, and we also learn that the boys spent a certain amount of time as Bobby’s when they were kids. For seven seasons, Bobby was one of the show’s anchor points, and isn’t quite gone, even after his death. As with John and Mary, his legacy continues.

Rufus Turner arrived in season 3, and lasted for several seasons. Although having much less screen-time than Bobby, like Bobby, he proved to be a mainstay. Bobby and Rufus’ grouchy odd couple dynamic is one of the most delightful relationships on the show. Despite their constant sniping, they care about each other with a deep loyalty. As the saying goes, a real friend helps you bury the bodies. Sadly, Rufus, as with far too many of Supernatural’s wonderful characters, is killed off in later seasons, although, like Bobby, he also isn’t completely gone.

Season 2 introduced characters at Harvelle’s Roadhouse, Ellen Harvelle, her daughter Jo, and Ash, a mullet-wearing computer hacker who got kicked out of MIT. Ellen runs a bar, but her daughter wants to be a hunter like her late father, Bill. The Harvelles, like Bobby, treat Sam and Dean as family, and Ash seems to be a surrogate son and brother or cousin for them. The Harvelles, like the Winchesters and the Campbells, are a multi-generational epic about a hunting family, and Bill and John, like John and Bobby, have a history. The Roadhouse serves as a standing set throughout season 2, and we follow Jo’s quest to learn hunting. She rejects college, where she said she felt like a “freak with a knife collection,” and Jo’s story unfolds as a coming-of-age story and that of a green soldier going through the initiations of being in full combat out in the field.  Ellen plays a major role in the season 2 finale, one of our heroes fighting to close a gate to Hell and stop Azazel. Sadly, Ash dies late in season 2, demons burn down The Roadhouse, and season 3 and season 4 never mention the Harvelles, although we knew they were still alive. This decision is baffling, especially given what happens later.

In season 5, Jo and Ellen return, only to be killed off in a later episode. “Abandon All Hope,” like “In My Time of Dying,” stands among the most emotionally wrenching episodes of the series. I would have gladly watched a whole series of Jo and Ellen, mother-daughter hunting team. The power of the story is undermined by how contrived it is–after not mentioning them for two whole seasons, the heroic death of Jo and Ellen feels a little too much like a plot device. Many seasons later, I still feel it’s one of the greatest mistakes the show ever made. The Harvelles and Ash added texture to Sam and Dean’s world. As with other characters, Jo, Ellen, Ash, and even The Roadhouse haven’t completely vanished from the series.

The season 4 premiere held a pretty shocking reveal in the mytharc: angels were real, and walking among us. The introducion of Castiel, the angel pulled Dean out of Hell, is jaw-dropping, sparks literally flying, and is a stand-out not only for first appearances on Supernatural, but among characters in genre show history. The character has always had a strong role to play in the plot and mytharc, and his interaction and connection to the Winchesters, particularly Dean, has proven to be compelling. As with Bobby and the Harvelles, Castiel brings a very necessary emotional dimension to the show. We’ve watched his relationship with Dean grow from tenuous allies, to friends with a bone-deep connection that carries its share of complexities and hurt, but also affection and loyalty. Sam and Castiel relate to each other as well, and their stories echo each other’s in many respects. Both WInchesters regard him as family.

Castiel, originally intended for just a few episodes, stayed on as a recurring character in season 4. He became a regular in seasons 5 and 6, dropped out of sight for most of season 7, returned late in the season, and returned to recurring in season 8 with a deep emotional and plot foot-print. Season 9 spoiler alert: he’s a regular on the series again. The character has proven unique in several respects. One is that he’s not human, and while Supernatural has had a few gray-area supernatural beings before Castiel, he was the first non-human character to become a part of the Winchester family unit. At his emotional core, Castiel falls into the same category as characters like Bobby, Jo, and Ellen. He is like Sam and Dean in that he makes massive mistakes, suffers terrible losses, but keeps trying to do better, and keeps on going. Another unique factor is his endurance as a character. He’s been killed over and over–literally, exploded three times–and keeps coming back, not for sentimental one-shot episodes, or as a spirit or vision, but to resume his own hero journey. While he’s had significantly less screentime than Sam and Dean, since Supernatural remains a two-man bottle show at its basis, the character is a break-out, inspiring an unusually strong fanbase, and many fans have latched onto the character the way they have with Sam and Dean.

In season 7, Supernatural not only temporarily removed Castiel for most of the season, but killed off Bobby Singer. The two most enduring and prominent recurring ally/family member characters left were gone, and a certain spark left the show. Fortunately, Castiel endures, and the show has introduced several new appealing recurring characters.

Among them is Kevin Tran. College-bound student Kevin finds his life turned upside-down when he discovers he’s a prophet of the Lord, a chosen one who can translate ancient tablets. An ordinary person tossed into a world of angels, demons, monsters, and hunters, he loses his stable life and winds up on the run. He reunites with his mother, Linda Tran, who is as protective of her son as Ellen was of her daughter Jo, and Kevin and his mother call back to the Harvelle parent-child team (we’re worried about Linda Tran’s fate, but hoping to see her again). Astonished and terrified at the world he’s been pushed into, struggling with the stress of what’s on his shoulders, Kevin proves himself to be resourceful and determined, and he provides some of season 8’s most poignant moments. Like John Winchester, Kevin discovers a horrific reality he hadn’t known was there before.  Like Sam, who was at college when Dean came to get him at the series beginning, Kevin has to leave the security and stability of student life. As with Castiel, Kevin seems to be on a hero journey of his own that intersects and reflects on Sam and Dean’s, as well as being an appealing story on its own level, and Kevin has become a little brother figure to the Winchesters.

Charlie Bradbury is likewise an appealing and now familiar face on Supernatural. Like Kevin, she’s unaware of the world of the supernatural when she becomes caught up in the season 7 fight against the Leviathans, an ordinary person who stumbles into a strange new world. A computer hacker, geek girl, and lesbian, Charlie is one of the show’s more layered and grounded supporting characters, and we keep finding out more about her. Initially rattled by discovering monsters are real, and lacking in hunting skills, Charlie bravely does what has to be done, and later starts pursuing hunting on her own. She takes comfort in the fantasy world of LARPing, where, she says, she can be a hero–but Dean reassures her she’s a hero in the real world too. Charlie has also become a surrogate sibling for Dean and Sam, furthering the theme of the importance of found family. She too has a backstory about family of her own.

As these characters provide us an outsider perspective on Sam and Dean, Sam and Dean are windows into revealing these characters–that view goes both ways. We learn more about these supporting characters and about Sam and Dean as they interact.

Supernatural may be Sam and Dean’s story at its center, but the brothers are not the only engine that drives it. The show keeps its focus on the brothers, but they aren’t the only compelling journey unfolding. At its core, Supernatural is about family, the one we’re born with and the ones we form, and connections with others, what it is heroes fight for. The show’s roots lies in themes of alienation and isolation, but also in heartfelt bonds. Our heroes are most certainly not alone.


2 thoughts on “The heroes are not alone: an appreciation of Supernatural’s supporting characters

    • This makes me happy (well, I’m sorry it made you cry, but happy!) I love these characters and what they’ve brought to the show, it was fun putting together a lengthier post on just how it all weaves together and why they matter so much.

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