The Romance Arc (Destiel)
So, I know we always say it, but the other day I was finally fed up enough - or weird enough - to decide I’d make a list. And, guys, this is going to be a long-ass post, so if you haven’t got time, here is the tl;dr version: if we look at the love tropes most commonly used to build an onscreen relationship, Dean and Cas score an eye-watering 61/91 - that’s a 67% total.
Now, to put that in perspective - in order to build a romance arc, you’ve got five obligatory stages (meeting each other, falling in love, becoming a couple, a period of conflict, a resolution) and each of these stages will include at least one common trope, more or less hidden according to the kind of media and the author’s intent and sophistication. tvtropes lists a total of 91 tropes, but no love story will ever use them all. That would be ridiculous - either a parody or complete insanity. Think of a story where our lovers were destined to be together and also promised to each other as children and also the reincarnation of past lovers; where they meet by spilling coffee on each other and then she goes on to lose her handkerchief and he picks it up and runs after her to give it back but - whoa - now she’s been attacked by pirates and the hero wants to save her but his king is ordering him not to and oh no, what will he do? That sounds like overkill, right? And it totally is: a story with too many tropes is a ridiculous, unrealistic, unwatchable mess. To give you a better idea of what I mean, if look at those 91 tropes tvtropes lists as possible steps to build a romance arc, Dirty Dancing, one of the most romantic movies ever made, only scores 19 points; 10 Things I Hate about You, another big favourite of mine and an absolute ALL the love, ALL the feels story, scores 16 points. And Jane the Virgin, an actual soap-opera parody on the CW complete with sudden rain and snow to highlight special kisses, scores even lower: 13 points.
Meanwhile, normal friendships between men like Sam and Frodo’s in the Lord of the Rings trilogy or Ted and Marshall’s in How I Met Your Mother score a grand total of zero points - so, yes, it’s perfectly possible to write a non-romantic male friendship even when that friendship is a dramatic I’ll walk with you to the very edge of the Earth and then carry you up the slopes of a dangerous volcano and finally die with you sort of thing. Because, funnily enough, you can be friends with somebody and be ready to die for them without actually having a sexual interest in them.
(Johnlock scores 29 points.)
Something you could be wondering at this point is, why tropes though? Why are tropes a thing, and why does it matter how many tropes Supernatural chooses to use between Dean and Cas? And, look, I’m sure someone else could say it better, but essentially tropes are the bones of a story. Every single story you see out there, from the Odyssey to Torchwood/Gossip Girl crossovers to coffeshop AUs is built out of the same building blocks. There are, like, seven possible plots and about two dozen kinds of characters and maybe two hundred common tropes - and that’s it. Try tagging any classic novel with AO3 tags and you’ll see what I mean.
[This story is Jules Verne’s fanfiction of an Edgar Allan Poe novel, and, yeah.]
Now, since it’s only possible to build a story in a limited number of ways, the problem all authors face is to find an original way to make it work. Some will use tropes religiously, either because they can’t think of anything different or because they hope a tried-and-tested formula will appeal to readers (see every romance novel under the sun; also most thrillers). Others will make fun of tradition by throwing the tropes back in your face (one of my favourite takes of this is Diana Wynne Jones’ Howl’s Moving Castle). And others will manage to bullshit you so thoroughly and completely you won’t notice the tropes are there until it’s too late - those are the stories where you’re truly surprised and shocked by events and you sit up in bed like a fool gasping out loud and you only stop reading because you need to tell someone asap, You won’t believe what just happened. A good example of this is the ending of the first season of Game of Thrones - we were all so convinced Ned Stark was the hero, filming people who hadn’t read the books as they watched him die became something of a hobby; and many became convinced George RR Martin was this all-powerful deity without any rules (not true: he’s a good writer, however, and he managed to convince most of us Ned was the hero when in reality he was the ‘Dumbledore’ figure - and therefore his death makes perfect sense).
And if we’re talking about Destiel - as I explained in the very first meta I wrote for this fandom (though at the time I hadn’t even realized I was part of a fandom, and didn’t know what a meta even was), I didn’t start to ‘ship’ Dean and Cas out of nefarious reasons, or tedium, or a desire to write smutty fanfiction. In fact, I still don’t consider myself a shipper in any way. I am not particularly interested in romance, and I never go out of my way to see who may be suited for whom. And I’m not saying there’s anything wrong in doing that - just that it’s something I don’t do. If I started to see Destiel and to write about it, it’s because to me (and, apparently, to a lot of other people), it was clear that there was something there; that that was how the story was built. And if I started to look at it more closely, it was simply because my expectations as a viewer were disappointed, and the relationship of trust between author and reader was - for me - crumbling into nothingness.
And, look, I won’t lie: I was angry and upset by the implications - that there was something wrong with me - that I was trying to force a sexual relationship on two friends just because. That, as a woman, I couldn’t enjoy a story without making it all about the romance. No, I am a huge book nerd, and I like writing stories, and I mostly analyse stuff for a living and I also sort of have eyes? - so, to me, it was clear I was being lied to, and at that moment, I was left in an uncomfortably ambiguous position which will sound familiar to many of you - I was furious at the show, but at the same time I was still in love with the characters (so very much in love). This was a frustrating feeling which presented me with two equally unappealing options - to keep watching and not expect anything, or to walk away. In the end, I tried a third way, which I suspect many of you have chosen as well: I was too invested in these characters to abandon them, but I also wanted this story to be an honest story, so I started complementing it with ‘viewing supports’. I started to read (and write) fanfiction. I looked for fanvideos, fanart and gifs. And, most of all, I fell into the habit of reading (and writing) metas after every episode to make sure what I was seeing was actually there. Because, well, for me - that’s why I write metas about Supernatural when I don’t write metas of other shows I enjoy much more: because most of the time Supernatural is more focused on not telling a story than it is in telling one, which means what we are left with what is a half story where our characters have their own secret life offscreen and many lines of dialogue could mean anything. Ironically enough, Supernatural has become like its hero and POV character, Dean Winchester: a con and a liar and a charmer who tries to be liked by everyone.
(And let’s not forget the swings both ways thing).
As for the other question - are we crazy? - I’m hoping this post will help clearing things up: no, we are not crazy. The reason we see a romance unfolding is because the relationship between Dean and Cas is written to fit a romance arc - and does fit a romance arc by 67%.
[Longer analysis under the cut.]