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May 25

Alternate Universe Models & Possible Futures: Authorial Intent in “The End”

Originally published January 26 2014 on Tumblr

This is primarily lengthy excerpts from the 5×04 commentary, as well as an excerpt from an interview with Edlund–which I’ve posted before–on time travel in “The End.” Plus some commentary of my own about what was said. Longish post shorter: Edlund’s detailed explanation in an interview of how time travel and possible futures worked in “The End” tells us much more about authorial intent than his brief and (in full context) ambiguous remark in the commentary about an alternate universe model.

This first excerpt from the commentary explains how the time-travel concept for the episode grew out of an earlier (and more alternate-reality, though they don’t suggest this themselves) clone idea. From 2:20 – 3:23:

Kripke: I seem to remember the first impulse for this episode had nothing to do with Dean travelling into the future. When we originally sat down with you, this was—

Singer: Give away the episode why don’t you.

Kripke: These people have already seen it.

Edlund: If they watch with the commentary on—

Kripke: –they’re losers. But, uh, the first conversation we had about it had nothing to do with travelling into the future. It was about Sam and Dean meeting their clones.

Edlund: Oh my God yes.

Kripke: Remember that?

Edlund: Yeeaaah…

Kripke: And it was going to be—we were calling it “Clone Wars.”

Edlund: “Clone Wars”, yeah.

Kripke: And someone created Sam and Dean clones–

Edlund: Holy crap, that’s right. That conceit was hard to–

Kripke: –and we couldn’t figure out how to break that story. Probably because of its overwhelming stupidity.

Edlund: It might’ve been the stupidity.

Kripke: And then we started talking—I don’t know—and then somehow we made this jump of—somehow we made this jump of clones but if Dean was talking to himself from a different time that could be cool.

Edlund: Yes.

Kripke: and I think that was the, uh—

Edlund: I think that was a large part of the kernel. I mean–

Kripke: That was an acorn from which a mighty oak has grown.

Edlund: (laughs) And, um, it came out great.

I did not transcribe every instance in which they refer to this episode as taking place in “the future”, but they consistently refer to it as such, and never even a hint at it as a false reality or a Trickster-type creation of Zachariah. (With one exception, which we’ll get to next.) Everything in the commentary is placed concretely in the context of it being actual time travel into the future. Had that been their intention, they could easily have brought up Trickster/ Gabriel, or implied that this was Zach’s make-believe world. They don’t–it’s all time travel, future, and so on.

Next we have the details about some of the abandoned time travel concepts. This is the key portion of the commentary. I have bolded a statement from Kripke about abandoning that particular approach and a statement from Edlund about an “alternate universe” model. From 24:29 – 26:39:

Kripke: This might be useful for commentary, but—

Edlund: Sure.

Kripke: –we ended up pulling it at the last minute. There was this whack-a-doodle notion that Ben and I came up with that Future Dean had already gone through—

Edlund: Oh my God!

Kripke: Remember that?! Future Dean had already gone through the experience of Past Dean.

Edlund: Bob brought us back to sanity on this one.

Kripke: –where Future Dean was like, “I know why you’re here, because five years ago I went through the same experience–“

Kripke: “–and time is a loop, and here’s a scar on my chest that that little girl gave me and—“

Edlund: “–and I’ve been manipulating you so that you would do what the writers wanted you to do.”

Kripke: “And every line you’re about to say I already said it. And time is cyclical…”

Edlund: (groans)

Kripke: And we went through it, and we were congratulating ourselves for being so smart—

Edlund: (groans)

Kripke: –Future Dean was lying and manipulating him and we showed it to Bob—and this is, by the way, a perfect uh, model, or—

Edlund: We had crawled up our own asses, we had lit a campfire, and we were having s’mores.

Kripke: –a perfect picture of why Bob Singer is so invaluable toSupernatural. Which is, like, we show him the draft and he reads it and goes, like, “What the hell is this?!” And we’re like, “It’s cyclical! Time is cyclical!” And he’s just like, “What? What’s wrong with you? I don’t even understand what the hell any of this is! Just shut up!”

Edlund: And remember, we would come into his office and draw pictures of it—

Kripke: Yeah, yeah, we literally—

Edlund: “No, no, Bob, look! It’s a circle with a line through it and these two dashes!”

Kripke: We were drawing him a diagram of the nature of time travel in Bob’s office and he looks—he just gives us this wonderful dry look like “You’ll be drawing that for the audience?”

Edlund: Yeah, I know, right. (laughs)

Kripke: That look is called the Quiet Stop It. And then we like, “All right”, and we just knew. And it was very late, we were, like, already in prep.

Edlund: Yeah.

Kripke: We pulled that whole notion. And that was like a big through-line. That was probably like six or seven pages of the script, which when you’re that late in the game is a lot.

Edlund: Yes. But though–

Kripke: –to pull and rethink. And by the way, so mu—glad we did it.

Edlund: Much better, yeah. And it really just moved to an alternate universe model, much better. And also, there were like two pages of dialogue of Dean just going—

Kripke: Explaining it.

Edlund: “Let me again try and” –not explaining, reiterating with different metaphors to try and create a picture.

Kripke: “Time is a bus. I got off the bus. Then I got back on.”

Edlund: (laughs)

Kripke: So, yeah, that’s the process.

There are a couple of elements here that would seem to support the theory that this was not intended to be actual time travel. FIrst, they describe an approach to explaining time travel–Future Dean had already been through it all–and state that it was changed at the last minute. But note that pulling this particular approach does not mean they abandoned time travel. They abandoned the model in which Future Dean knows everything and is manipulating Past Dean. That does not mean they abandoned time travel as a whole.

But then Edlund says they moved to an “alternate universe model.” Well, that’s pretty damning, right? So much for time travel. Except…not really. First of all, it would still be ambiguous, not definitive fact, because we don’t know that “alternate universe” means “fake world created by Zach”, and we still have to weigh that against the rest of the commentary where it is referred to as the future. And if that statement was the whole of what we knew about Edlund’s position, I’d say the evidence was against time travel. If it was Kripke who referred to the alternate universe model, for example, I’d wouldn’t have much of an argument, because I don’t know of any place where he’d talked in more detail about this episode or its conceit and I’d have to take that comment at face value.

But it’s not Kripke–it’s Edlund. And for him, we don’t just have that short remark on the commentary about alternate universe models, but a detailed explanation of how time travel in “The End” brought Dean to a real possible future that at the same time was not a necessary future:

Another big picture aspect that comes into question with Edlund’s episode The End is whether angels can really travel into the future, or whether Zachariah was just messing with Dean’s head, Gabriel-style. “Yes, they can, but that’s a four-hour answer,” Edlund declares. “I don’t have the math to support it, either. But in my mind—and that’s all we’re dealing with right now—I think that the future is not predetermined, it’s non-constant, and the angels can travel to any number of possible futures. Predetermining something is a state of mind; it is not the law of the universe, so if you believe anything about the future, it will most likely become a self-fulfilling prophecy. That is true in human nature. If I think I’m going to lose the game, I’ll lose the game. If I think I’m going to win, there’s a good chance that I’ll win.

“Free will is like a viral experiment that God left on the desk and then he left, and the angels are like, ‘What the hell is this?’ It’s messing stuff up. Satan got too close to it and he’s got a free will issue. It’s a weird thing, so when Zach took Dean into the future, I believe they just went intoone possible future. The future will roughly happen this way if Dean self-prophesizes this future, because it’s hinged on his choice. Zach had no impact when he went into that future, which is a pretty important detail about the underlying physics of it—he can witness a potential future, but he can’t change it or live there. It’s not a home for the people from the past; it’s a projection of what might happen. You can take a human like Dean, put him there, have him experience all this crap, get a punch in the face and get rolled down a hill, and then get brought back to the present, but that future will never be because Dean has been changed by the trip. We’re just talking about possible futures.”

(“Inside the Mind of Ben Edlund”, Supernatural Magazine #19, Sept 2010, pp 56-57.) I’m not sure when that interview was conducted, but it quite probably was after the commentary was recorded. This gives a lot more detail about Edlund’s intent than the commentary. It is clear that by “alternate universe model” Edlund was not so much referring to Zach’s Fake World as the fact that this was one possible future–among many potential futures. It’s an alternate future, perhaps, in the sense that that Future!Dean had not had the experience of being brought into the future by Zach. It’s more of an alternate-timelines than constructed-reality situation. In any case, it’s very, very clear here that Edlund considered “The End” to be time travel to a potential future. He appears to reject the suggestion that it was a “Gabriel-like” trick, given that his answer here goes straight to how the time-travel worked.

So at least for Edlund, we have definite evidence that he regarded “The End” as time travel. Kripke does not make any comments on the commentary that actively support the constructed-reality explanation, and he generally refers to it as the “future.” I’d place his position as unknown or ambiguous. (Again, pulling the time-is-cyclical, future-Dean-went-through-this-already model of time travel does not mean they abandoned time travel as a concept; it just means they went to a different model of time travel.) I don’t know if there are other interviews where he has talked more about this episode. I also do not have the season 5 companion book, so I don’t know if there’s more detail there.

In sum, we have a brief remark on the commentary from Edlund about moving from a very complex time-travel idea to an “alternate universe model.” We also have a very detailed explanation from Edlund about how time travel and the “possible future” in the episode worked. This explanation places the “alternate universe model” statement in the context of a possible-future model, rejecting the constructed-reality model. More importantly, it also shows clearly and unambiguously that Edlund regarded “The End” as time travel to an actual future.

(And yes, I did know before listening to the commentary this time that Edlund referred to an alternate universe model, though for some reason I had remembered it as “alternate reality concept.” But I read that interview before I’d ever listened to the commentary, so I always understood his commentary remarks within that context. It never occurred to me before now that they were taken as absolute proof of the constructed reality model.)

Edited to add: As always, I want to point out that none of this means that time travel is the canon explanation. Authorial intent is not the same as canon. Both time travel and constructed reality theories are equally valid interpretations of this episode.

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