Supernatural stars reflect on the show's undying legacy
"We only get one shot at this." Sam and Dean Winchester are surrounded. The monster-hunting brothers are standing on the edge of a cliff. They look to Castiel, their brother in arms — or is it wings? — but even he can't help. One move in the wrong direction could ruin everything. After years of fighting demons, going toe-to- toe with Satan himself, and saving the world multiple times, they once again find themselves in a position of having to perform under pressure. But this situation is unlike anything they've ever dealt with before. All eyes are on them as they have one shot…at getting the perfect picture.
It's a dry, hot August day in Malibu — when people were still allowed to gather outside — as Supernatural stars Jensen Ackles, Jared Padalecki, and Misha Collins prepare for the last setup of their final Entertainment Weekly cover shoot. With a bottle of champagne in each of their hands, Ackles once again reminds them they get "one shot" to do this right. But if their characters can shoulder the weight of the world, surely these three can handle a photo.
The champagne soaking is meant to be a celebration of 15 years, of making television history. Supernatural, the story of two brothers destined to save the world, is the longest-running genre show in the history of American broadcast television. (So old, the first three seasons shot on this thing called film.) What started as an underdog story, living its first few years on the verge of cancellation, has become an institution, a milestone to which other shows aspire. Supernatural not only survived the move from The WB to The CW after its first season — it's now the final WB show left standing — but became the backbone of the now highly successful CW network. Over the years, the sci-fi series has aired on every weeknight, helping to launch shows including Arrow and The Vampire Diaries. The network moved it one final time, most recently, to Mondays, to help Roswell, New Mexico expand its audience. "Supernatural is a major link to many of the shows that we have successfully built to market," The CW's chairman and CEO Mark Pedowitz says. "Almost every one of our shows has had it as a lead-out or a lead-in."
And to think, it all started as a promise to bring horror to television. After Supernatural creator Eric Kripke had finished working with Warner Bros. on 2003's Tarzan series, he pitched the idea of a reporter who travels around hunting urban legends. As he puts it, it was a Kolchak: The Night Stalker rip-off. But when he realized the story would benefit from having brothers at its core, he started writing. "At the time, The Ring and The Grudge were huge hits in theaters," Kripke remembers. "We said, 'We're going to take that experience and we're going to put it on TV,' and the initial goal was to be scary." After Warner Bros. passed on his first, what he calls "uptight," draft, Kripke had to reassess the kind of show he was creating. "I canceled all my Christmas plans and wrote that second draft in three weeks," he says. "That was when the show got its sense of humor, because I was locked alone, over winter break, in my office. I couldn't do anything fun, so I started entertaining myself."
The show was still scary, but it was also funny and, over the years, would continue to evolve. Sure, you could say it's a little bit X-Files — in its early days, the show often used the line "The X-Files meets Route 66" — and there were definite Star Wars influences (Sam and Dean were originally based on Luke Skywalker and Han Solo). But no combination of pop culture is going to perfectly describe Supernatural because the show has managed to do something remarkably rare in the age of peak TV, where audiences are so overwhelmed with content that an original idea seems foreign: It's created a truly one-of- a-kind experience.
For starters, it's a show about two flannel-wearing, beer-loving, blue-collar dudes from Kansas who for a good chunk of their lives traveled from cheap motel to cheap motel, paying for gas and greasy diner food with a mix of fake credit cards and money they earned scamming people at the pool table. "Almost all television is about rich people or, at the very least, middle-class people," co-showrunner Andrew Dabb says. "The fact that we've been able to take this Midwestern blue-collar approach to this genre feels like we're breaking the mold."
But the mold-breaking didn't stop there. Supernatural might've started out as a horror show with some snarky one-liners, but it evolved into some of the boldest, most experimental (and certainly strangest) stories on the small screen. "We're a show of big swings," co-showrunner Robert Singer says. "I used to say, with every idea, 'This will be a home run or they'll cancel us,' but every year we wanted to do something really nuts." And when he says nuts, we're not just talking about the episode with the talking teddy bear or the murderer targeting imaginary friends. Those are just some standard monsters of the week. We're talking about the black-and-white episode shot like a classic Hollywood monster movie, or the episode that introduced Chuck (Rob Benedict), a prophet — who'd later reveal himself to be God — who was famous for writing a book series called Supernatural. That, of course, led to Sam and Dean attending a Supernatural fan convention as the show continued to redefine what it meant to inject a series with meta humor. And the swings never stopped. Season 13 featured a Scooby-Doo crossover as an animated Sam, Dean, and Castiel solved a case alongside the Mystery Inc. gang. And in season 14, after giving God a sister a few years prior, the show made the Big Man Himself its final villain. "I don't think any idea, barring some production concerns, has been viewed as too crazy," Dabb says. "Because we know that our fans are smart and that they'll follow these guys anywhere."
So long as each episode features Sam and Dean — and the occasional heartfelt talk on the hood of the Impala — the show can do just about anything, which is another reason Kripke had to rewrite his first draft of the pilot. Originally, Dean was the only brother who knew about monsters growing up, bringing Sam up to speed later in life. It wasn't until Kripke figured out that they needed to be in this together that the series snapped into place. Because at the end of it all, they're two brothers bonded by the loss of their mother and a life spent on the road with an absentee father. (It just so happens that their mother was killed by a demon and their father hunted them.) The familial dynamic — the irrational codependency, as the angel Zachariah (Kurt Fuller) once called it — is the most important part of the show. "The first inkling I had that we had something special was shooting the pilot," Kripke says. "It was the scene on the bridge when Sam and Dean talk about their mother. It was the first time that you really saw their chemistry and their connection as brothers on full display. Because I've always said this show begins and ends with whether you believe that sibling relationship." But Sam and Dean weren't just the center of the show. For many years, they were the show.
Supernatural has never been an ensemble drama. For the first 82 hours of the series, Ackles and Padalecki were the only long-running series regulars — Katie Cassidy and Lauren Cohan briefly joined for season 3, appearing in 12 episodes combined. But Sam and Dean weren't just in every episode; they anchored every episode. (They skipped table reads because there would've been only two actors there.) "I had many moments of not only questioning, 'Can I keep this up?' but an answer of 'I cannot keep this up,' " Padalecki, 37, who's been vocal about his struggle in the early seasons, says. "I borrowed strength from Jensen." But even Ackles, 42, admits it was a tough job. "The 23-episode seasons were nine and a half months of filming," he adds. "It was a lot of work, but I always came back to: I still enjoy it, I still like telling the story, I still like these characters and the people I work with."
Not only did the guys stick around, they built a reputation of having created one of the warmest sets in the business, with a number of crew members staying with the production all 15 seasons. It all dates back to a talk Kripke had with his stars during the filming of the series' second episode. "I said, 'The show is about your two characters, and with that comes this responsibility,' " Kripke says. Padalecki remembers the exact setting of what he calls their "Good Will Hunting moment," a bench in Stanley Park in Vancouver, where they film. It was a chat both actors took to heart. "We'd both been on other sets," Ackles says. "We knew we wanted to enjoy it, to have fun with our crew; we wanted them to like us and us to like them and to have fun doing what we do." It's an attitude Pedowitz hopes bleeds into other CW shows, an attitude that launched an annual tradition where the CW chairman/CEO takes his new casts out to dinner with the Supernatural guys, a chance for the vets to share advice. "It's always the most flattering situation," Padalecki says, recalling a moment he had a few years back with the late Luke Perry, who was a part of the Riverdale cast. "Luke was sitting next to me and he was like, 'What y'all have done and what we hear about you guys, it's really cool to be associated with y'all in some way, shape, or form,'" he recalls. "And I'm sitting there pinching myself."
It's a behind-the-scenes legacy that's perhaps just as impressive, if not more so, than the onscreen legacy. Collins, 45, who started as a guest star and the show's first angel in season 4, has become the show's third-longest-running series regular, and he still remembers walking onto set his first day. "When you're coming onto a show as a guest star, it can be a little bit nerve-racking," Collins says. "Coming to this set, it was an immediately different vibe. Thinking about working on other shows in the future, that's something that I aspire to bring with me."
A similar reputation extends to the fans as well. Not only is the #SPNFamily one of the most dedicated fandoms out there, it's also known to be a pretty nice one. (Not many fandoms can say they've helped launch a crisis support network for their fellow fans.) But their dedication isn't just about seeing what crazy twist God throws at Team Free Will next. Thanks to fan conventions and social media, the viewers are just as invested in the lives of the actors. Supernatural's not just about the words on the page, it's about the actors saying them. "When you're dealing with the public taste, there's an alchemy of great writing, a great idea, and the close-up that's required," Peter Roth, chairman of Warner Bros. Television Group, says. "You need stars who you want in your living room." And you need stars who want to be in your living room, and who, even after 15 years, care so deeply that they get emotional while taking photos in Malibu.
"It's going to be a long eight months," Ackles declares. Standing on that same ledge, an hour before the champagne shot, Ackles, Padalecki, and Collins walk away from a group hug after unexpectedly starting to tear up. It might be the setting — looking out over the ocean — or the occasion: their last-ever photo shoot. Or maybe it's the fact that they're almost a month into filming their final season.
It had been a question posed to the stars for years: How long will this show continue? How long can it continue? "Even my mom and dad were like, 'When are you going to be done with this?'" Ackles says with a laugh. It was a decision the network and studio had ultimately put into the actors' hands, and it was a conversation they'd been having for a while. Back in 2016, Padalecki told EW, "If we don't make it to [episode] 300, I think Ackles and I will both be truly bummed." But in season 14, they hit 300…and then kept going. While filming episode 307, they announced the upcoming 15th season would be the end, which will bring them to a total of 327 episodes when all is said and done. "[Jared] and I were always married to the fact that we never wanted to go out with a diet version of what we had," Ackles says. "We wanted to have enough gas left in the tank to get us racing across the finish line. We didn't want to limp across." Padalecki remembers the moment it hit him — not the decision to end it, but rather the opposite. "We had that moment where he and I both realized that we didn't want it to end," he says. "It finally got to a point, ironically, where it was like, 'I never want to leave this. I could do this until the day I die, and then if I get the choice when I'm dead, I'll re-up!' But you never want to be the last person at a party. We just knew. That's not to say there haven't been vacillations, but we all trust the decision that was made."
Starting in July 2019, the cast and crew returned to Vancouver to begin filming the final season, but in March 2020, with two episodes left to go, they were sent home. For years, fans had wondered what, if anything, could stop the Winchesters, and now it seems we have the answer: a global pandemic. As sets closed amid social-distancing measures due to the spread of COVID-19, it didn't take long for fans to start connecting the dots, sharing relevant GIFs from episodes that featured viruses, most notably Chuck telling Dean to hoard toilet paper "like it's made of gold" before the end of the world in season 5's "The End." (Did we mention that Supernatural is also kind of psychic? In a season 6 episode, Dean calls Sam "Walker, Texas Ranger," which just so happens to be the role Padalecki has lined up after this ends.)
When production paused, it all felt a little like we were living in an episode of the show, just waiting for Sam and Dean to drive up in Baby, open those creaky doors, and save us. They might not be able to do quite that, but the thing with the Winchesters is that they never stay down for long. When Supernatural is able to safely resume production, it will. And though there are only two episodes left to film, fans will enjoy a total of seven unseen hours, including the return of Charlie (Felicia Day) and a mystery woman who visits the bunker and, for some reason, gives Sam and Dean all the holidays they never got to celebrate. "She makes Christmas for them and Thanksgiving, birthday parties, and all that. It's a very good episode," Singer says, adding, "I don't know when it's going to air."
That's the thing—no one knows, not even the guys who took out Yellow Eyes, stopped Leviathans, defeated Death himself, and are supposedly destined to be the messengers of God's destruction. But Sam and Dean do know the value of a good plan B. "Obviously it's a horribly unfortunate situation we're in, but the silver lining is that it gives us an opportunity to recharge," Ackles says. "We had just finished episode 18, we shot one day of episode 19, and I was reading these two monster scripts thinking, 'It's like we're at the end of a marathon and they want us to sprint for the last two miles.' I feel like this almost gives us an opportunity to refocus and go into the last two episodes and hit them with everything we got." Because when they do return to set, shave their quarantine beards, and step back into Sam and Dean's shoes for the last time, they'll have one shot at ending this thing…and they're determined not to miss it.
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