It's a chilly day in February 2005, and Supernatural stars Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles are huddled over a thick computer monitor in a Los Angeles elementary school library, appearing on set for the first time as the demon-hunting brothers Sam and Dean Winchester. Padalecki, rocking shaggy hair and a coffee-colored hoodie, and Ackles, radiating bad-boy bravado in a sharply tailored jacket, aren't fully aware of the responsibility they've taken on as leading men anchoring a fresh new genre series for The WB — the same network that housed fan-favorite shows like Charmed, Smallville, andRoswell, along with the genre-defining Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spin-off, Angel.
"Looking back at it now, it has so much meaning, but at the time, it's like, 'OK, you're doing a pilot. Don't eff it up,'" Jared Padalecki recalled in a recent interview with TV Guide.
"You're just a kid trying to do the work and not mess it up," Ackles agreed.
Ackles and Padalecki couldn't have known then that they were embarking on a journey that would span 15 seasons and more than 300 episodes.
On the heels of his short-lived WB series Tarzan, creator Eric Kripke pitched the network a new project — a road trip anthology series based on his obsession with urban myths and legends. Describing the show as "X-Files meets Route 66" and "Star Wars in truck stop America," Kripke's 2004 pitch centered on Sam Harrison, a Luke Skywalker-like figure living with his aunt and uncle after his father, Jack, supposedly killed his mother in a drunk-driving accident. As Sam prepares to start Harvard Law School, his older brother, Dean, shows up with the news that their father escaped from a mental health institution and has gone missing. The boys hop in their '64 Mustang to investigate and quickly learn that their father isn't crazy — and that demons actually killed their mom. The Supernatural that actually made it to screen the following year sticks to the same basic pattern, but the now-iconic changes make all the difference: Sam and Dean Winchester, who drive a sleek '67 Impala, were raised by their demon-hunting father, John, who goes missing while out on a hunt.
The premise caught the attention of both Padalecki and Ackles, who were already part of The WB network when they heard about Supernatural. Padalecki starred in Gilmore Girls as Rory's (Alexis Bledel) boyfriend Dean, while Ackles had been terrorizing Clark Kent (Tom Welling) as football coach-turned-kidnapper Jason Teague in Smallville. Both actors hopped on board Supernatural, though Padalecki admitted he had some reservations initially about signing on to a genre series.
"I had watched Buffy and Angel and Roswell and Charmed, and then they were talking about a new show — Supernatural — and I was like, 'You know what? That's not really the kind of show I want to be a part of if I have the choice.' I hadn't read it. I didn't know anything about it," Padalecki explained. He reversed his opinion after reading the script and realizing Supernatural was aiming for a darker tone than he expected.
Ackles, meanwhile, was already well versed in the genre space and immediately latched onto the strange-but-grounded reality Kripke envisioned. "I was first attracted to the kind of world that it was being told in, and then as I read the script and heard Kripke's take on what these characters were loosely based on, which was kind of a Luke Skywalker and a Han Solo, then I was fully in," Ackles said.
Supernatural premiered on Sept. 13, 2005, joining a crowded genre TV landscape that already included the massively popular series Lost and would soon add Heroes. And before Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram became fandom powerhouses, Supernatural had to find its audience the old-fashioned way. The show's devoted fanbase grew organically through word-of-mouth campaigning, Facebook, and online message boards, becoming a tight-knit community and an integral part of the show's aptly named SPN Family.
"It was really kind of like lightning in a bottle," Padalecki said of the fans' support. "If you're watching a show like Lost or CSI: Miami, you're not going to call your friend and be like, 'Dude, you gotta watch this show,' because you kind of assume they already know about it. But because we were kind of fringe for a while, our supporters really fought for us and really put in groundwork. They knocked on doors, proverbially, to say like, 'Hey, this show is really quality. I'm going to do you a favor and tell you to watch it.'"
Added Ackles, "Because we were a little off the radar for a lot of people, it made people get excited about something that they thought they discovered."
Supernatural's earlier seasons were rooted in urban lore, with Sam and Dean taking on classic creatures like ghosts, werewolves, and vampires. Alongside series stars Ackles and Padalecki, other key players — like the Winchesters' surrogate father, Bobby Singer (Jim Beaver), no-nonsense hunter and bar owner Ellen Harvelle (Samantha Ferris), and her feisty daughter, Jo Harvelle (Alona Tal) — rounded out the cast in supporting roles. The show found its groove in those first few seasons, dishing out enthralling installments that seamlessly blended horror with comedy, like Season 2's "Everybody Loves a Clown," in which the Winchesters rattled off funny one-liners while investigating a killer clown. However, Supernatural's tone drastically changed in Season 4 with the expansion of the show's mythology to include angels and confirm the existence of God, taking the series to a whole new level. Although the series had teased a potential turn in that direction in previous episodes — such as Season 2's "Houses of the Holy" and the Season 3 finale, "No Rest for the Wicked," which ended with Dean in Hell — Padalecki admitted that he was worried about how this new direction would affect the show.
"I think my initial concern, honestly, was that it was going to close some doors, that we were going to become kind of this religious show," he explained. "But it ended up opening so many doors, not the least of which is the fact that people can die and come back because we have help from up above and sometimes down below. So it ended up being the best move we made, and that was a critical point."
Ackles credited the show's fans for getting on board with its new direction. "We knew we were setting out onto a different path or a larger path, not just punting monsters and ghosts and creepy crawlies," he said. "Now we were dealing with Heaven and Earth and Hell and demons and angels, and so it just kind of blew it wide open. That was certainly a massive shift in just the tonality of the show. Luckily, the audience believed in us and they trusted us and they came along with us."
Audiences embraced the new mythology, including the arrival of Castiel (Misha Collins), a stone-faced angel who speaks in a monotonous tone, wears an ankle-length trench coat, and is too far removed from humanity to understand things like sarcasm and empathy. Dean and Bobby first encountered Castiel in an abandoned barn in the 2008 episode "Lazarus Rising." The jaw-dropping scene featured powerful winds ripping through the air, exploding lights, and a mysterious figure strolling through the doors, unfazed by Dean and Bobby unloading round after round in an unsuccessful attempt to stop the formidable celestial being. Collins, who was rigged with exploding packs that used real gunpowder to imitate gunshots and could feel the singe of the sparks flying around his head, said he found his initiation into the series somewhat overwhelming. "I thought, 'Gee, what have I gotten myself into with this show? It's a lot going on.'"
While audiences were dazzled by Cas' stunning debut, Ackles was confused by Collins' quirky take on the character. "Misha came in with this unique approach right off the bat, which it didn't read like that on the script," Ackles explained. "It was this weird robot voice, and I'm like, 'What is this guy doing? Has he ever acted before?' And I remember thinking like, 'Oh, well, this character's not going to last long.'"
Collins himself initially believed that his stint on the show would last only a few episodes. But Cas' instant popularity earned him a place in the remainder of the season, and Collins was upgraded to series regular status in Season 5.
That season would be the end of an era, as Kripke stepped down as showrunner when his planned five-year story arc came to an end. The Supernatural creator's final episode was a love letter to fans that could have served as a series finale: The Winchesters defeated Lucifer (Mark Pellegrino) and the Archangel Michael, Dean found happiness in a normal life, and Sam managed to escape Hell after sacrificing himself to stop the apocalypse. As a result, new showrunner Sera Gamble was tasked with essentially rebooting Supernatural when it returned for Season 6. That meant experimenting with huge creative swings like "The French Mistake," a meta hour that saw Sam and Dean transported to an alternate universe in which they were the stars of a TV show called Supernatural. Those risks paid off, and fans stuck by the series as it continued to evolve and expand well beyond its humble horror roots. Following Gamble's departure after Season 7, the show endured additional behind-the-scenes changes: Jeremy Carver took the reins for Seasons 8 through 11, and Robert Singer and Andrew Dabb helmed the series from Seasons 12 to 15.
As the seasons progressed, so did the show's ever-growing cast. New fan-favorites emerged, including the demonic overlord Crowley (Mark Sheppard), tough-as-nails sheriff Jody Mills (Kim Rhodes), and witchy villain-turned-ally Rowena (Ruth Connell). Dabb also attempted to expand the show's universe, first in 2014 with Supernatural: Bloodlines, a proposed spin-off centering on the clash between hunters and monster culture in Chicago, and then in 2018 with the backdoor pilot for Supernatural: Wayward Sisters, a female-centered series focused on sheriffs Jody Mills and Donna Hanscum (Briana Buckmaster) and their ragtag group of teenage demon hunters in South Dakota. Like Bloodlines, Wayward Sisters was never ordered to series. Although neither attempted spin-off made it to series, they proved that the world of the show was expanding.
Late in the series, the core cast of Supernatural grew from three to four main players; in Season 13, the Winchesters and Castiel took on the role of surrogate fathers with the arrival of Jack Kline (Alexander Calvert), the Nephilim son of Lucifer and human Kelly Kline (Courtney Ford). Playing a newly born human-angel hybrid who takes the form of a naive young man, Calvert spent his first day on set in, well, nothing.
"My first day on set was pretty interesting because I showed up, and I went, 'Where's my wardrobe?' And they went, 'There is none,'" Calvert recalled. "So walking on set in a robe, near naked in front of 150 new friends, was definitely a little nerve-racking."
But Calvert says he was embraced by the cast, as well as by the show's fans. "People were pretty thrilled about the character, and they were really nice about it, despite the fact that, you know, my character could be the potential end of the universe for them," he recalled. "As someone who goes from job to job, this has been much, much different in terms of how people receive you and how people care about these characters and this show. It's been very special."
That unwavering and vocal fan support is a large reason why Supernatural has become a symbol of resilience and longevity in the industry. It survived a move to The CW in Season 2 when The WB merged with UPN, and after living on the bubble of cancellation for its first few years, it became a staple of the network and eventually surpassed The X-Files as the longest-running genre show in American TV history.
"We just kind of kept our heads down and kept trucking along, and it was like a little show that could," Ackles said.
More than 300 episodes into the series, it felt like the show could go on forever. The CW President Mark Pedowitz remarked in January 2019 that the series would live on as long as Ackles and Padalecki were still on board. But two months later, stars Ackles, Collins, and Padalecki announced in an emotional video that Season 15 would be their last.
The series faced several challenges in wrapping up its final season, as the COVID-19 pandemic forced more than 100 shows, including Supernatural, to halt production. The penultimate episode and series finale had not yet been filmed when production stopped in mid-March 2020, leaving fans worried about whether or not they'd get a concrete ending to the series. However, shooting on the final episodes of Supernatural picked up in late August, and the series wrapped filming on Sept. 10.
It's been a long, life-changing road trip for Ackles and Padalecki. In their 15 years on the show, both have married and started families of their own. They've endured long shoots in the freezing Vancouver winter, laughed at themselves while delivering 23-episode seasons, watched the world change drastically through technological breakthroughs and social upheaval, developed life-long friendships with their castmates and crew, and created memories that will endure long after the show airs its final credits. Now at the end of their Supernatural journey, both actors have had nearly two years to say goodbye to their characters, but that doesn't mean it's easy for them to let go.
"I had kind of been saying goodbye to the show for a while now, probably ever since we made the video saying, 'Hey, Season 15's going to be it.' I think that was the first commitment to like, 'OK, this isn't going to be for the rest of my life,'" Padalecki explained, adding that he cried plenty of tears while quarantining.
As for Ackles, while this may be the end for Supernatural, Dean will always be with him. "I've been living with this character for so long that he is ingrained in me," he said. "I don't know that I'll ever be able to say goodbye because he's just going to be a part of everything. This is a character that's changed my life. These are characters that we have gotten to live with and the fans have gotten to live with for so long that I will happily take this with me forever. If I never get to play [Dean] again, I know he's always right there."
Though Ackles has hinted at the idea of an eventual revival, and both Calvert and Collins have told TV Guide that they believe the show can continue in some form in the future, fans will have to say goodbye to the Winchesters when the series finale airs next week. It's still too early to tell what Supernatural's legacy will be, but there's no denying it will be difficult to replicate the show's longevity, its tight-knit cast and crew, and its fans, who have wielded their support for the series as a force for good.
"The community that has coalesced around Supernatural is one of empathy, and kindness, and taking care of each other," Collins said. "I think that the Supernatural family, for the little show that we are, and the little fandom that we are, I think it leaves a pretty big footprint of positive energy in the world. I'm really grateful to be a part of that."
Supernatural's series finale airs Thursday, Nov. 19 at 9/8c on The CW. An hour-long retrospective, Supernatural: The Long Road Home, will air prior at 8/7c.
In honor of Supernatural coming to an end after 15 seasons, TV Guide presents Winchester Week, a celebration of Sam, Dean, and the entire SPN Family. Find out how the stars feel about saying goodbye, look back on the best episodes and moments, and join us in sending the Winchesters off in style.