Entertainment Weekly’s The Ultimate Guide to Supernatural, celebrating all 12 seasons of the show’s run and a sneak peek at what’s next for the boys in Season 13, is on sale now. Buy it here.
Jared Padalecki can still remember the exact pitch for Supernatural’s first season: “Route 66 meets X-Files, brothers on the back roads of America hunting things that go bump in the night.” That was how he and costar Jensen Ackles were told to promote the show, which, in its first year, was just that — Sam and Dean Winchester chasing urban legends from state to state.
But over time that original pitch added a few sentences. Much like with any good road trip, there have been quite a few turns — and the occasional crossroads — along the way. Although the show remains about two brothers on the back roads of America hunting things, those “things” now include everything from vengeful spirits to imaginary friends and even Lucifer himself. After all, a show doesn’t last 13 seasons without adjusting its game plan. For Supernatural that has meant an ever-expanding mythology, some shocking deaths, resurrected characters, breaking the fourth wall, and so much more.
Yet all the while, one thing has remained true: Sam and Dean Winchester will do whatever it takes to save the world and, even more so, to save each other. And they’ll do it while navigating those seemingly endless back roads in their 1967 Impala.
Finding John Winchester (portrayed by Jeffrey Dean Morgan) was the boys’ goal in season 1, though that ended up being about as difficult as getting John to stick around once he was finally discovered. The Winchester family reunion was short-lived: Season 1 closed with a car crash and the fates of all three men up in the air. And then there was that demonic deal John made with the same monster they had been hunting.
JENSEN ACKLES Everything up until that point was about finding Dad. We found Dad, we continued to fight as a unit, and then we lost Dad, and now we were two orphans.
JARED PADALECKI And I think that was the first time we ever brought back somebody from the dead, and it was you [to Ackles].
ACKLES I died in the car crash, and he traded his life with Azazel.
PADALECKI I think that was the first time we ever saw a major character die and come back. And that was a total leap of faith. So we told the story of Reapers and the veil and what happens to your soul.
ACKLES That’s when we got into afterlife.
PADALECKI That was a big title shift in what Supernatural could do…
ACKLES With the introduction of Hell and making deals with demons — which is funny, because you think about that now, and [creator] Eric [Kripke] must’ve always known because Mom made the deal with the yellow-eyed demon.
The next shift would come later in season 2, laying the groundwork for the introduction of angels far before Castiel spread his wings in that abandoned barn in season 4.
PADALECKI “Houses of the Holy” was the first time we ever talked about angels on Supernatural. [Jensen] and I both were like, “Whatever your religious beliefs, whatever ours, we’re not here to proselytize. We’re here to make a serialized television show, but we want it to be universal.” So we actually had a conference call with Eric Kripke, and we were like, “Hey, man, we don’t know how we feel about this.”
ACKLES We didn’t want to be a mouthpiece for writers’ religious views, because it wasn’t the show that we had signed up for. Our argument was: “We trust you. You’ve done good by us so far. However, this is our one concern, and we’re just bringing it to the table so that we can discuss it.”
PADALECKI And they heard us out, and I think that’s why they waited another year and a half before introducing our second and most famous angel. I think it’s the one time we’ve ever called them together with a complaint. Because I’m not a writer. I don’t want to be a writer. I enjoy my job as an actor. But that was legitimately like, “Listen, if you’re going here about religion, I don’t want to be a part of it.”
MISHA COLLINS And now amazingly, 11 years later, so much of the show has been hung on biblical lore and mythology that is actually drawn from the Bible. One interesting thing for us is that we end up talking along the way to priests and pastors and ministers, or even nuns, who love the show.
ACKLES [To Collins] You and I went to the Vatican. We went in St. Peter’s Basilica, and there was a priest there from South Carolina. He was a fan of the show, and he did a private mass for us in front of the mural of Michael slaying Lucifer. He goes, “I thought this would be appropriate for you guys.”
COLLINS That was pretty magical.
ACKLES It was amazing, but my point being that we’re in one of the most religious places on earth, and they’re catering to people from a show that deals with religiously inspired storylines.
PADALECKI But not telling the story that the Bible tells.
ACKLES That’s the out. That’s where we get a pass is that we’re not trying to tell the story of the Bible. The writers take inspiration from biblical elements and then elaborate on them. So when we got into that original discussion, Eric came back with: “We’re not here to tell the story of Jesus Christ. We’re here to take that element and use it as inspiration for the story.” I think that alleviated any concerns that he and I had. And at the same time we really trusted Eric and still do to this day.
Another leap of faith came with season 2’s “Hollywood Babylon,” which can be considered the show’s first meta episode. It opened the door for everything from season 6’s “The French Mistake” to the upcoming season 13 Scooby-Doo crossover.
ACKLES “Babylon” was the first time we took the piss out of ourselves and were poking fun at the industry.
COLLINS That has been a huge [help to know] that you can go to these absurd lengths and break conventions. Reading the script where we are doing a Scooby-Doo episode makes me feel proud. Where else can you do that?
PADALECKI What other show does that and has the fandom at large excited that they’re going to do that? Can you imagine if JAG or NCIS did a Scooby-Doo episode? People would be like, “What?” Not only do we break the fourth wall, do we go meta, but those end up being some of our best episodes.
The season 5 finale holds the No. 1 spot on EW’s episode ranking, but that hour was important for many reasons, one of which being that it was creator Kripke’s farewell.
COLLINS “Swan Song” was another milestone because that marked the culmination of Eric’s original vision for the show. He had a five-season arc in mind that tied up perfectly with a bow, and then he moved on and handed the reins over to Sera [Gamble]. That became, “Okay, guys, now let’s figure out how to start a new chapter or a new volume in a series of chapters.”
PADALECKI It’s the story that we were all born from, those of us who were introduced in the first five years. So to have the creator step away? I would argue that it was the largest shift.
Gamble served as showrunner for seasons 6 and 7, the latter containing another major show moment: the death of Bobby (Jim Beaver), Sam and Dean’s father figure.
PADALECKI Bobby was such a big part. Jeffrey Dean [Morgan] was never as much a part of the show. He was obviously a huge part of the story, but he did [ just a few] episodes, and Jim Beaver did 60 or something. And there was something about his death that we knew it was final . . . or final for Supernatural.
ACKLES Because his character said, “I’m done.” So it wasn’t like he got killed accidentally and we found a way to bring Bobby back. He was like, “I’m hanging it up, guys.” It was heavy.
PADALECKI That probably was the first big death of someone who’d been there for years…
ACKLES [Interrupting] A fan favorite…
PADALECKI Yeah, and I remember [CW president] Mark Pedowitz saying some- thing to the effect of “As a fan, I hated when Bobby died, but it was great television.” That’s how I feel.
ACKLES Like when Sam Winchester dies for good, it’s going to be good television. But when Dean Winchester lives on, it’s going to be great television. [Everyone laughs]
The season 12 finale saw the introduction of an apocalyptic alternate world in which Sam and Dean Winchester were never born and Heaven and Hell are locked in an eternal war. And with that world comes the possibility for a number of character returns. But does it feel like a turning point?
COLLINS Well, I think the rift and the fact that you can go into the apocalypse world and you can all of a sudden revisit every character in a different iteration — there could be a different version of every character — it opens up this incredible panoply.
ACKLES Why not have the same characters as something different?
PADALECKI And if an alternate universe exists, then how many alternate universes exist? It’s hard to say, because I feel like it’s impossible to identify a turning point during the turn. In hindsight it will reveal how this story will affect the show, the canon at large and the way we move for- ward. But I certainly feel like we’re opening up doors with the rift and with the son of Lucifer.
COLLINS It’s also hard because [in] the first five years there were all of these totally mind-blowing new chapters that were opened. So much stuff has been taken to such extremes that it’s hard to go to a new extreme that’s so big that it blows that whole world open again.
PADALECKI It’s almost like a paradox, but we tell these stories in a way that’s based in reality. This is not a fantastical show. This isn’t a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Part of our whole premise is that this is this world. We’re telling crazy stories, but this is in the world you live in right now. It’s neat to see our writers, who are incredibly talented, weave that in and try to fit a square peg in a round hole. It’s neat to watch and be a part of.
From Entertainment Weekly’s The Ultimate Guide to Supernatural, on sale now. Buy it here.