The Winchesters John Mary pilot

‘The Winchesters’ EPs Jensen Ackles and Robbie Thompson on maintaining the integrity of ‘Supernatural’: ‘We’re starting in the sweet spot’

The Winchesters debuts October 11 on The CW, and ahead of the premiere, the show’s EPs including star Jensen Ackles and showrunner Robbie Thompson shared details on when Supernatural fans can expect to see some cards on the table regarding the spin-off’s unusual twist.

The Supernatural series finale “Carry On,” which aired 20 November 2020, closed out the show’s historic 15 season, 327 episode run, but even at that time, Jensen Ackles was well already on his way to figuring out a way to keep the world of his beloved character Dean Winchester alive.

In October 2020, it was announced that Ackles and his wife Danneel had founded their own production company, Chaos Machine, bringing on board Renee Reiff, formerly of DC Entertainment, as Head of Development, and in June 2021 it was revealed that the company’s first project, a Supernatural prequel called The Winchesters, had been given a script commitment by The CW. A pilot order followed in February 2022 and production of the first season is now underway in New Orleans, helmed by fan-favorite showrunner Robbie Thompson, who wrote and produced on Supernatural from seasons 7 to 11. In advance of the show’s October 11 premiere, Subjectify was invited to join other outlets for a press conference with the cast and EPs of The Winchesters.

The Winchesters stars Meg Donnelly as Mary Campbell, Drake Rodger as John Winchester, Jojo Fleites as Carlos Cervantez, Nida Khurshid as Latika Desai, Demetria McKinney as Ada Monroe and Bianca Kajlich as Millie Winchester. Jensen Ackles will reprise his role of Dean Winchester, narrating the story as he chases down the truth about his parents’ meeting. Because of course, this is no simple prequel that takes us from A to B along a path we already know. The Winchesters, for the audience and for Dean himself, is a mystery, exploring a completely new take on the love story of John Winchester and Mary Campbell, Sam and Dean’s parents, from the moment of their meeting in 1972.

In Supernatural, the story of Mary and John goes something like this: John, the young marine returned from Vietnam, meets Mary, the hunter from a family of hunters, who wishes escape that life. They fall in love with John none the wiser of the world Mary comes from, elope, and have two sons. In 1983, Mary is killed in strange, demonic circumstances, and her death draws John into the secret world of the supernatural, where he becomes a ruthless hunter and raises his boys to follow in his footsteps. John is killed early on in the run of Supernatural, and he never discovers the truth about his wife’s secret life as a hunter, or the fact that her children becoming hunters was her worst nightmare.

John also never learns about his own family history — the fact that his father Henry, who left the family when he was four, did not in fact so much leave but vanish, displaced in time during his induction ritual to the Men of Letters, an elite secret society holding great arcane knowledge, with more resources than most rough and tumble hunters. Sam and Dean learn many of the truths about their Campbell hunter history and their Men of Letters legacy over the course of the show, and Mary is caught up to speed about the MoL when she returns from death in Supernatural season 12, but The Winchesters is presenting us with a completely different origin story to the one the audience has accepted as a fixed chapter of the Winchester Gospels since 2005.

When The Winchesters was announced, I published an article at my former outlet outlining some of the biggest canon details the prequel would need to navigate. Supernatural has a lot of established information pertaining to the Winchesters, and every detail matters and has huge knock on effects, from the way that John Winchester’s parenting style affected the brothers’ psychology and created the crucial dynamic between them, to the fact that John and Mary’s relationship was allegedly manufactured by Heaven in order to breed the perfect true vessels for Lucifer and Michael in Sam and Dean.

Ackles has repeatedly promised that The Winchesters knows what it’s doing in terms of all of that, so during the press conference I took the opportunity to ask the EPs about how they’d gone about handling those expectations, and when Supernatural fans might expect to get clued in on what, exactly, is afoot.

There are obviously big twists here about what’s going on. We know this isn’t the version that the brothers were told, and it feels to me, just from the pilot, like it might not even be the version that John and Mary, as we knew them, remember. We also know in the world of Supernatural, there’s a lot of capability for cosmic level trickery — the final arc of Supernatural kind of depended on the arc that Robbie’s final episode started [“Don’t Call Me Shurley,”] revealing Chuck as God, stuff like that.

We know there’s a lot of options for what could be actually going on here with The Winchesters, but we don’t really know when we might get a look at the answers, and I’m asking this in the nicest, most supportive, good faith way, ’cause, I know it matters to you guys — how long should we expect to wait in terms of clues about what the deal is? Or rather, how did you approach the job of maintaining fans’ trust regarding the twists and changes? Did you talk a lot about what the right moment would be to show some cards or what was going on with the big picture?

Robbie Thompson: It’s a great question and we’ve been talking about it literally, since I think the first conversation that I had with these two and Renee. It was crucial to us to kind of have an understanding of where we were going and why we were going. But to your point, we have a lot of options, is what we discovered, and a lot of different misdirects of where we’re going, and it’s one of the reasons why we are keeping our cards close to the vest now.

There’s some hints in the pilot and then there’s some hints in subsequent episodes and as we get into it, we have a little run at the end of this first 13 where we’ll start to turn over some more cards as well. But I promise, we’re gonna turn ’em all over in 13. That was always the design that we came up with, with our partners at the studio and network. I can tell you this, it’s very rare to get to work with partners like Warners and The CW, where they’re as invested as we are in the integrity of what came before us, and what’s to come. So I totally understand where the question is coming from. I won’t totally answer it.

Yeah, I’m super pro [the mystery,] but I know that Jensen is obviously always at conventions answering a million questions about tiny details, and there’s a lot of expectations about that kind of thing.

Robbie Thompson: Part of that was what was exciting about this, you know. For me as a writer on Supernatural, I found my comfort zone was getting out of my comfort zone. The example I always give is that we did a musical episode and I was like — they came in there like, “We’re doing a musical,” and I was like, “Oh God, that’s terrible. Can I write it?” Because it just seemed very daunting and frightening, and I’d never written songs before… It felt like we always had a thing — Kripke started it, and then great writers like Sarah Gamble, Jeremy Carver, Ben Edlund — they bent us, almost to the point of breaking. And you’re always at that point of like, “Oh, is this gonna break?” But that’s kind of our sweet spot. And when Jensen and Danneel came to me with this idea, I was like, “Oh, we’re starting in the sweet spot.” That’s really exciting to me.

And then getting a chance to create these characters with this group of extremely well-behaved, almost suspiciously well-behaved actors right now [Editor: This came after a lot of banter about cast chemistry and silliness] — it was just really, really exciting. But I totally understand where you’re coming from and, and it was literally the first question out of my mouth as well.

Jensen Ackles: This obviously this has been a topic of conversation, like you said, at conventions and, and I would love to have an answer that puts everybody at rest and say “Oh, okay, okay, we can breathe easy, but in order to do that, I would spoil half the season. And so without spoiling half the season, I will say that like Robbie said, the integrity of the mothership is certainly something that is of vital importance to us, that we do not want to tamper with. That said, we also want to make sure that this show is given its space to be what it needs to be and what we all want it to be, and doing so requires some tricky writing, and Robbie has come up with ways to facilitate that, that I think are not only acceptable, from my perspective, but exciting as a fan of this world and of this show. And so I’m excited for when we can actually talk about it and dissect it.

I closed off by commenting that it sounds like Ackles is very keen to let us in on the secret. “Absolutely,” he confirmed. “Can’t wait.”

“I’ve never liked my Mute button better,” Danneel Ackles added, flicking it on and off to cut her own mic while pretending to share spoilers. “I’m not gonna talk about this, I’m not going to talk about this…”

On a similar theme, earlier in the press event, the EPs were asked about the scope of their plans for The Winchesters, an understandable curiosity due to the fact that on paper, the story has a known endpoint. Thompson shared that the initial order is for 13 episodes — it remains to be seen whether season 1 will be given a back half, or if The CW will stick to the shorter model. But do the EPs have plans for season 2, or 3… or 15? Thompson joked that Supernatural’s 15 seasons is certainly being held up as a goal to reach.

“At the end of every playback, I’ll go, ‘Okay, that was great, guys, 326 more to go.’ We would love to see this go the distance. As writers and then as producers, we want to give ourselves flexibility so that we can be nimble as things change and adapt. […] So we wanna give ourselves the freedom to be able to pivot where we need to pivot. Someone asked about [Mary’s] pregnancy, in case we want to get to that sooner rather than later, but we do have a plan and, and I’ve heard, individually from all of these actors, where they would like to see their characters go. And I try to keep this as open a collaboration as possible.”

Citing an example of this, Thompson said “Jensen and Danneel and I talked about an ending, oh gosh, it’s been two years we’ve been working on this, almost, and then just completely organically, Drake pitched a very, very similar ending.”So it was really cool to see how we were all kind of on the same page. […] It was exciting because it’s a similar feeling that you get in the writer’s room where it’s like, “Oh, we’re all kind of headed in the same direction.” The analogy I was always given as a young writer was is this show is a road trip, and, say, you know, our destination was to go from LA to New Orleans. We may stop in Austin and spend two weeks, we may get there and say, actually, you know what, we wanna spend two years there. We always know where we want to get to, though, and I hope we get the chance to go the distance.”

The fact that Thompson revealed that he and the other EPs have already discussed what the ending of The Winchesters, when it comes, might look like, and that Rodger (the cast’s most dedicated Supernatural fan) sees a similar trajectory already, suggests that there’s a really solid story in store for The Winchesters, one that feels inevitable and makes meaningful sense. Thompson also reiterated that, despite appearances, The Winchesters is not looking to undo anything regarding Supernatural — “It was a bit like, what is the expression, ‘physician, do no harm’” — and in terms of delinitaing this show from the original, he repeated the promise that all will be revealed at the end of the first block of episodes.

“Because we are a show that deals with the supernatural and paranormal, we have a few more tricks up our sleeves that we can kind of take advantage of, And we’ll be hinting at that throughout the season, and then really pulling it all back in episode 13 really let the audience in on what we’ve done.”

This confirmation means that any future season of The Winchesters will have the freedom to play with fact that the audience, at least — no word on whether the characters themselves will find out — have awareness what sort of cosmic weirdness is occurring in the wider scope of Supernatural lore, which is a set-up ripe with potential if Thompson and co are aiming to tell a meta and subversive story that is able to rely on the pre-existing investment of the Supernatural audience in order to really feel the weight of certain moments and inclusions — things that may even enhance elements of Supernatural in interesting new ways.

Supernatural has always re-invented itself rather brilliantly with new seasons giving new context to what came before, particularly in terms of finding out the high level cosmic secrets that reframe the past. Re-watching Supernatural from the beginning — now, after the sinister reveals about God and free will in season 14 and 15 — is an unbelievably powerful experience in terms of reframing the narrative in a way that retroactively makes it even better. And for me personally, this is exactly what I hoped to get out of The Winchesters, so I loved getting confirmation of the specific episode to anticipate the big reveal, and learning that any future episodes beyond that will be “in the know,” so to speak.

But after the press conference, I’m even more confident (and I was already very confident) that there is no one more protective of Supernatural than Ackles, who, when asked what the team was looking to avoid in making The Winchesters, said “Rewriting history.”

“I think that was a big important thing. And that’s obviously something that has been a topic of discussion with fans and critics, of how we’re going to navigate what has already been established. We’re not looking to — Robbie and I use the Back to the Future reference quite a bit. We don’t want the picture of Dean and Sam to start being erased. This is not what we’ve set out to do. This is something that we’re trying to preserve everything that we possibly can on the mothership. I think Robbie and his crack team of writers have come up with the way of doing that in a way that is servicing this show just as much as it’s serviced or will be servicing Supernatural.”

‘The Winchesters’ debuts Wednesday October 11 at 8/7c on The CW. Episodes stream free the next day on The CW site.