Celebrating Supernatural's humanity in its time of dying
It’s been a long ride for Sam and Dean Winchester as Supernatural’s 15-year journey comes to an end. EW’s been tagging along the whole way, from the series’ first What to Watch mention in September of 2005 — it read: “Kinda like Buffy, only with boys. And without Giles.” — to this digital cover marking the sixth time the series has graced an EW cover. Sam Highfill, who’s been on the beat for nearly seven years, shares her thoughts on what sets the series apart.
If you’ve ever seen a promo or read a description for Supernatural, you know the show is about the paranormal. Heck, it’s right there in the title. And yes, it is a series about two brothers who hunt monsters. It exists in a world where vampires are real, shapeshifters occasionally rob banks, and angels and demons walk the Earth. But the reason Supernatural is about to wrap up a record-setting 15-season run — it goes down as the longest-running genre show in the history of American broadcast television — has nothing to do with the fantastical elements of the show. At its core, Supernatural, ironically, is about humanity.
After their mother was murdered by a demon, Sam (Jared Padalecki) and Dean Winchester (Jensen Ackles) dedicated their lives to saving others from a similar fate. Like their father before them, they traveled the country in their 1967 Impala, and continued the family business of, as Dean put it in the series’ second episode, “saving people, hunting things.” In the moment when Dean says it, it’s as if it’s a simple fact. It’s just what they do. But in actuality, it’s a choice.
When Supernatural premiered on the WB in 2005, it certainly wasn’t the network’s first genre series. It walked in the footsteps of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Charmed, and Smallville, among others. You could argue that the thing that set Supernatural apart from those shows is the brother dynamic, the chemistry between stars Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki, or even the on-the-road conceit, as each episode featured the brothers driving to a new town to save someone from something they didn’t know existed. And those arguments would be correct. But what most distinctly set Supernatural apart from the series that came before was that the heroes in this incredibly complex, larger-than-life story were human.
In Charmed, the Halliwells were witches, gifted with the Power of Three. Buffy was a super-powered slayer who was quite literally destined to save the world from vampires. Clark Kent was, well, hopefully you know that one. But Sam and Dean Winchester? They’re just two Midwestern guys who love classic rock, cheap beer, and who grew up with the regrettable first-hand knowledge that evil exists and decided to fight it, with nothing but Sam’s research skills and a trunk full of weapons. Long after they avenged their mom’s murder, the brothers decided they still wanted to risk their lives to help others, to make the world just a little safer. They believe, more than anything else, that the world is worth saving. And what a message that is to put on television right now.
In the years since Supernatural premiered, the world has experienced a number of devastating blows, from natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina and the earthquake in Haiti to seemingly endless school shootings, unprecedented political division, and don’t even get me started on 2020. But for one hour every week, Supernatural fans have had somewhere to go, to watch Sam and Dean fight to save this place, no matter how troubled it might seem. Whether they were saving one person or millions, they gave it everything they had. In its final season, they fought for humanity even when its creator, God himself, thought it was worthless. As odd as it is to say about a show that’s featured multiple apocalypses, Supernatural is a story of optimism, a story of hope.
After its first season and the shuttering of the WB, Supernatural survived the move to the CW. On a network that still needed to establish its own identity, it was a question of whether the Winchester boys would fit in. As the CW picked up shows like Gossip Girl and 90210, Supernatural became, as creator Eric Kripke once put it, “the goth kid at the back of the class that no one really wanted to pay attention to.” And without the intimidating gaze of the network, the show started to test its limits. Could it get away with a time-loop episode that saw Dean die more than 100 times in an hour? Could they film an episode like a ghost-hunting reality show, complete with handheld cameras? Could they create a black-and-white episode as an homage to old horror movies? The answer was yes to all of that, in more ways than one. Sure, the network and studio would allow it. But so would the story. That time-loop episode was really about Sam’s fear of losing his brother. The reality show hour was about how love is powerful enough to pierce the veil of death. The black-and-white episode was about loneliness, and how even monsters can experience a very human emotion.
As the CW grew, it found massive success with superhero shows. In 2012, Arrow premiered — nabbing a prime time slot before Supernatural — and eight years later, the Arrowverse has expanded to include The Flash, Supergirl, Legends of Tomorrow, Black Lightning, and Batwoman. Suddenly, the Winchesters were surrounded by stories of people saving the world, so how could they stand out?
In 2016, at EW’s Popfest, the Supernatural crew took to the stage for their panel to be followed by the caped crowd from the Arrowverse. Ackles, knowing the lineup, joked that the superheroes were coming up next, but the real heroes were already here. And he wasn’t wrong. As audiences fell in love with meta humans capable of flying, super-human speed, and laser vision, Supernatural remained a show about flannel-clad bros battling superhuman forces.
Sam and Dean Winchester saved the world more than once, and they did it with nothing but determination (and the help of some friends). In the series’ penultimate episode, there’s a moment where the pair find themselves in a fist fight with God. Let that sink in. As one would expect, God is pummeling them, breaking their bones, bloodying their faces with every devastating strike. But Sam and Dean don’t lose. Why? Because they don’t quit. They don’t give up.
That’s been the message of Supernatural all along: No matter how impossible your fight seems, no matter how massive your opponent — remember when Dean killed Hitler? — you can win so long as you don’t quit. So long as you hold each other up. It’s a message that’s transcended the series, as the stars have launched charitable campaigns like Padalecki’s Always Keep Fighting, which raised money for To Write Love on Her Arms, and other charities focused on mental health and suicide prevention. During his time on the show, Misha Collins, who played the brothers’ winged ally Castiel, launched Random Acts, a nonprofit that, with the help of the Supernatural fandom has raised more than $5.3 million for various projects, including helping Syrian refugees, Rwandan farming communities, and so much more.
In ways big and small, the Supernatural fandom is actually helping to save the world. Because watching Supernatural is not about believing that Sam and Dean will literally come to the rescue. It’s about believing their message: That we, as humans, are capable of facing down evil and saving ourselves. And that we, as humans, are worth saving.
It’s also worth noting that the show’s message works, in part, because the people involved in creating it are pretty great themselves. In 2016, when Supernatural won EW’s fan-voted cover contest, I landed my first cover story. It meant traveling to Vancouver for a set visit. It meant having dinner with Jared and Jensen. It meant I was nervous. We sat down to dinner, and within 60 seconds, Jensen ordered tequila shots for the table, followed by Jared thanking me for flying up there because “this means a lot to us.” Instantly, I realized that this interview wasn’t a task that they were dreading. It was a celebration, and they were going to enjoy it. Nothing was more apparent to me during that meal than how much they love Supernatural. They’d pull up old scenes that they were proud of on their phones for all of us to watch. As Jared said to me, “Goddammit, if you’re going to do something that makes a difference then it has to mean something to you.” The other thing that became obvious as the guys talked about the show was that if you loved it too, you were family to them. Much like Sam and Dean, they see the good in people.
As the interview was winding down, and desserts were being ordered, I offered to turn off my tape recorder so that they could speak freely. (It’s something you’ll see a lot as a journalist, the way someone’s body language changes when that red light isn’t staring at them.) Jared reached out and stopped me. “We trust you,” he said. And he had no reason to. But until they see bad in someone, they expect good.
That dinner took place at the start of the show’s 12th season, and the actors talked about how much they still loved their jobs and wanting to wrap things up before that changed. Cut to September 2020, and their last day filming as Sam and Dean. After a five-month hiatus from their characters thanks to COVID-19, it was time for the show to do the one thing it’d never done: Say goodbye. “The feeling I had that day was more like pride, emotional pride,” says Ackles of the final day of filming. “Like, look at what we’ve done. Look how far we’ve come, and look at these people who helped us build this incredible piece of art that we'll get to hang our hats on for the rest of our lives.”
Padalecki recalls the emotional moment when he and Ackles crossed the border back into the United States from Vancouver, marking the reverse of the road trip they'd taken in season 1. "It was right during all the wildfires, so the sky was really weird," says Padalecki. "It felt like a Supernatural episode or something. We crossed the border together and it just felt like a pretty poignant meaningful full-circle [moment]."
Fans will see the series finale, which Padalecki has already deemed his favorite of all time, in a matter of days. With God’s conclusion spelled out in episode 19, we know the installment will feature a more intimate look at the Winchester bros. “We wanted it to, in some ways, hearken back to where the show began, which was two guys on the road saving people, hunting things,” co-showrunner Andrew Dabb says, with co-showrunner Robert Singer adding, “It's a very emotional episode. It's a personal story really about the boys.”
But more than anything, it’s the final story, which leaves us to wonder what the series’ legacy will be. If you ask me, it’s the reminder to see the good in humanity, and to fight for it. That message will transcend every clever twist, every epic stunt scene, and terrifying monster.
Supernatural began as the story of two guys who wanted to do some good, and will end as the story of two guys who did a whole lot of it. When Sam and Dean have worked their last case, ganked their last monster, and eaten their last piece of pie, they can rest easy knowing that, long after they have stopped hunting things, their message will still be saving people.
Original photography by Peggy Sirota for EW. Additional video production by Ethan Bellows and Faith Stafford.