When the CW announced that the season 12 finale of Supernatural would be a two-hour event, fans knew to expect some carnage. It's a staple of Supernatural finales at this point, and the show certainly didn't disappoint in that department. The final episode featured not one or two, but six recurring character deaths (seven, if you count Dr. Hess), contributing to the show's long-standing tradition of plot-twisting and controversial conclusions in more ways than one. Supernatural's season finales are practically famous for ending on game changers and cliffhangers, and this season's ending brought them not only in the form of Cas and Crowley's deaths, but in the introduction of parallel universes and the birth of a potential friend/foe as Lucifer's child finally makes an appearance in the last shot of the final episode. What separated this episode from past finales was not simply the fact that it was separated into two parts, but that it did not fit the formulaic structure that the majority of Supernatural's other finales have relied on.
Though Supernatural finales always go big in their final moments, those moments rarely come as a complete shock. Rather, Supernatural's most common, and often best, season finales deliver exactly what the rest of the season was trying to prevent. Season 3 is set on saving Dean, so its season finale kills him. Season 4 is set on preventing Lucifer from rising, so Lucifer does exactly that in the season's final moments. Season 8 is set on completing the trials to lock the gates of Hell, so the finale never lets Sam complete them. Season 9 is, once again, set on saving Dean, so Dean dies, once again. As predictable as you'd think this would make the show, the seasons that choose not to follow this formula often lack a satisfying ending to their over-arching plotline, mainly because the image that finishes off the finale tends to have little to do with the rest of plot and offers hardly any explanation or lasting impression on what came beforehand: the goal of the season is accomplished in the finale, but at an unforeseen cost.
Season 1's final episodes deliver the boys to their father, but its finale catches them in a car crash that nearly kills Dean and ultimately kills their father. The finale of Season 7 sees Dick Roman successfully killed, but Dean and Cas are sent to Purgatory in the process. Season 10 successfully removes the Mark from Dean, but releases the Darkness with it. The only season that benefits from this structure is Season 5, mainly because this type of finale lends itself more to endings than cliffhangers and Season 5 acts as an ending to the show's initial storyline.
Season 12's finale doesn't fit neatly into either of these categories, possibly because the season created so many plotlines to be resolved. There's the British Men of Letters plotline, Lucifer's child being born, Crowley trying to regain and maintain power over Lucifer, Mary's strained relationship with her sons, and Cas' internal struggle to find a home for himself despite Billie's warning that "cosmic consequences" were coming for him, all of which needed to be tied up in the last two episodes. In order to do that, the show splits its finale into two parts and addresses its plotlines separately. In effect, the finale's first part, "Who We Are," becomes a satisfying stand-alone conclusion to the Men of Letters plot and the Winchesters' character arcs so that "All Along The Watchtower" can focus on the plotlines that will continue into the next season, thus creating a final episode in which every plotline gets its own separate version of the Supernatural finale structure.
Crowley's plotline is the second type, as he gains control over Lucifer's life only by killing himself. The Lucifer plotline is the second type, as well, since the Winchesters cage him, but lose Mary in the process. Cas' plotline is the first type, since much of his arc this season has been concerned with Dean worrying over keeping him safe, but the finale ends both of their storylines with Cas' death. The decision to give each of these stories a separate ending within the show's final episode may have been a good one, had each of these endings been given the time to take hold and have a lasting effect, but each of these plotlines is closed in the last five minutes, leading to the major issue found in "All Along The Watchtower": the season's final moments provide none of the complexity, emotion, or focus that "Who We Are" promised.
This is seen most clearly in Cas' death scene. The entire season was spent looking back to the show's glory days, so it's fitting that Dean ends his season with Cas while Sam's final shot is with Lucifer's son, a character that, despite having been born in the final moments of the episode, already parallels Sam's arc from season 4 and 5 not only in his connection to Lucifer, but in that both characters are expected by the angels to bring destruction because of that connection. However, as emotional as Cas' death should be, the scene feels sudden, strange, and unfair to Cas' character. Ending Cas' season 12 storyline with his death before Cas has been able to finally address the line he walks between Heaven and Earth, a decision that might have been addressed after his first visit to Heaven in years had he not been stolen away by Kelly and Jack, does nothing for Cas' season 12 character arc. His death stops the action of his story while he is still living with the same uncertainty as he was in the beginning, especially since his death is preceded by him barging into the alternate universe Jack opened up and attacking Lucifer with a useless weapon without any apparent rhyme or reason. His character saw more development in the first half of the season in episodes like "Lily Sunder Has Some Regrets" and "Stuck in the Middle (With You)," yet the show chooses to ignore this, continuously bringing back the question of where "home" is for Cas despite ending these episodes with a blatant, resounding answer of "with Sam and Dean."
This odd stasis that Cas' death leaves his story in combines with the rushed attempt to tie up three storylines in last minutes of the finale and makes Cas' death feel more hollow than heartbreaking. On paper, Cas' final moments sound tragic. Between his "wing shot," which fans have wondered and worried about since the ashy imprints angels leave behind in death were first introduced in Season 4, and Dean falling to his knees beside him, shut down and barely aware of Sam running back into house and potential danger, the finale might have brought on a few tears if it had taken the time to both give Cas a satisfying reason for dying and give Sam and Dean the room to properly react. Instead, Cas' death is used for shock value. I'm sure it won't continue to remain as quick and pointless as it came across, considering Jensen Ackles and Misha Collins both commented on the lasting effect his death may have on both of their characters in Season 13 at Jus in Bello Con just after the episodes aired. But for the time being, the scene has been crafted in a way that only allows for shock.
Though Jensen definitely provides some heart to the scene, Andrew Dabb's writing and Bob Singer's direction leave Cas' death feeling empty. The camera barely shows Cas after he falls until the final wing shot, which should have been a poignant image and makes sense to hold off on, but with Singer's lock on the other actor's faces (either close-ups or low-angle shots looking up from around their waists) and the way the scene is forced to move on so quickly in order to deal with Lucifer's appearance and his and Mary's disappearance, what should be the season's gripping final moments almost seem to forget Cas until Dean falls beside him, manage to completely overshadow Crowley's death, which is a low blow considering Cas will be back while Crowley definitely won't be, and leave the season without the satisfying close that "Who We Are" originally offered. The season never actually feels like it delivers.
This inability to fully deliver in season finales has been an issue for Supernatural ever since two-part seasons were introduced to the show around season 6 and became a staple of the show in season 9. Mid-season finales after the show took to this type of season structure no longer marked a turn in the action in the same plotline, but the beginning of a different plotline, thus creating season finales that needed to integrate several plotlines into their big reveals and cliffhangers rather than just one. This constant mixing of plotlines that are irrelevant to one another combined with the show's continuous attempts to match the neat build and plotline that was the first five seasons has led to larger and larger plot points, each trying to cover the many, many bases that were created to cover the last larger-than-life plot point. Abaddon is introduced in season 8, Dean takes up the Mark to defeat Abaddon and becomes a demon in season 9, Dean loses control of the Mark and kills Death and releases God's sister in an attempt to rid himself of it in season 10, Lucifer is released to contain God's sister in season 11, and an alternate dimension is created by Lucifer's son and used to contain Lucifer in season 12. The stakes continue to get higher and higher as plotlines from the first half and second half of the season converge and suddenly the season finale must create a way to combine the wall in Sam's mind and the sudden appearance of the rest of the Campbells with Eve's rebirth, the war in Heaven, Crowley and Cas' partnership and the search for Purgatory, or reconcile the fall of the angels, the war in Heaven, and Gadreel's involvement with the Mark of Cain and Abaddon's plotline, or, in this case, address the British Men of Letters, Lucifer's escape, the child Lucifer created during his first escape of the season, Castiel's apparently impenetrable ties to Heaven, and Mary's relationship with her sons. At this point, it's almost a good thing that this season did nothing in terms of character development for Sam or Dean, or else this finale might have had more on its plate to shove into its final minutes.
I will say this for the end of season 12, though. This finale is absolutely cleaner than most of the show's other recent attempts, undoubtably due to the decision to spread itself between two episodes. "Who We Are" is one of the show's best episodes in a long while. Robert Berens is able to create some incredibly touching, heart-wrenching moments, especially between Sam and Dean and Dean and Mary (I got chills from Dean's first "I hate you"), and the writing is tight and well-paced. "All Along the Watchtower" may lack some of the power it was trying to channel, but it does introduce some really intriguing plotlines for season 13, especially in the introduction of alternate universes, through which old and new characters may (re)enter the canon. In the end, though, this awkward, fast-paced almost-closure to the season rests in an odd place between the two established types of Supernatural finales (a combination that only ever truly worked ten years ago, during season 2) and leaves an after-impression that is not so much disappointing as it is void of grip or emotion, especially in the afterglow of "Who We Are," and the time it gives its most important moments and characters to breathe, and the potential it represents that Supernatural should continue to strive toward.