"This was obviously something that has been long-talked about: how to expand this world, what would that look like, how would that be done. There were two attempts prior to this one that unfortunately didn't make the cut, but here we are," said executive producer and actor Jensen Ackles during a Television Critics Association press tour panel for the new spin-off series.
Although Ackles starred on Supernatural for 15 seasons as one of the lead characters, he continues to confirm that he was never ready to put the world of the show completely to bed, only to "take a break" when it came to an end in 2020. So, when he and his wife, actor and executive producer Danneel Ackles, were in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, they "were forced to sit together and figure out how to be creative within the confines of our house," and as they were kicking around ideas, they landed on The Winchesters. After workshopping it, Ackles said he knew exactly who needed to write it and called him up to make sure he would be interested. That man is Supernatural executive producer Robbie Thompson, who now serves as showrunner on The Winchesters.
The Winchesters is a prequel to Supernatural, following Sam and Dean's parents as they meet and fall in love (and hunt monsters and demons together). Meg Donnelly stars as their mother, Mary Campbell, while Drake Rodger stars as their father, John Winchester.
"Obviously there's a version of these characters that lives very prominently in my head, and when we were going through the casting process, Drake really jumped off very quickly as something who almost seemed as a hybrid of Dean and Sam, not necessarily someone who seemed as a replica of a previous John Winchester," Jensen Ackles said. "This is pre-John turning into the person that we really knew...so there was an innocence, a youthfulness, and a thirst for life that Drake brought to this character that was really unique and refreshing, but it reminded me of somebody who could very easily be the father of those two brothers.
"And then with Meg...she's just such a pro she just knocked it out every time. There was a look and a confidence. I mean, look at her," he continued.
Danneel Ackles noted that she and her husband knew Donnelly very well because their children watched her movies for years, and especially during the pandemic.
"I could probably sing just about any song [of hers]," he said with a little laugh. "Don't test me because I'll never live it down. Meg was certainly somebody who just exuded something that we were all very interested in immediately. There was really no question. She's so strong...and there was almost a Dean-esque quality to the way she was playing Mary that I felt the role really needed, and nobody else was really bringing that. It caught all of our attention."
Set in 1972, the series begins when John gets home from Vietnam and sets off to learn more about his father after finding mysterious documentation with the Men of Letters symbol on it (although he does not know what that symbol means). Meanwhile, Mary wants to get out of the hunting life, but her father goes missing, and she has to find him before she can really move on. The show also features Jensen Ackles as Mary and John's eldest son Dean Winchester, narrating the story as he also hunts for more answers about his parents' story, something Thompson said he was excited to do simply because he wanted the opportunity to write more dialogue for Dean Winchester.
Fans of Supernatural know that Dean is born in 1979, but how Mary's pregnancy will be covered in The Winchesters is a "spoiler for season question mark," said Thompson. The first season can't get too far ahead of things as Mary and John are only beginning to orbit each other, while going on a road trip with some friends (played by Nida Khurshid, Jojo Fleites, and Demetria McKinney) to save people, hunt things, and learn more about their fathers.
Along the way, Thompson said, there will also be "some very familiar faces" in the first season of The Winchesters. After all, there are a number of characters from the flagship series who would have been around and hunting in 1970s. But they won't stop there with the Easter eggs and world expansion: "We also have plans to bring back not just familiar faces, but also younger versions of characters we maybe haven't seen yet," he confirmed.
What the show won't have just yet are genre-bending episodes, such as musicals, even though Thompson is also known for some of those on Supernatural, including the infamous 200th episode "Fan Fiction." The first season needs to establish the new world and its characters, but because he likes going big and because the cast is full of "a lot of kids who can play here and people who can sing and dance," he said, "we'll get to that down the road."
The Winchesters is not out to undo anything Supernatural already did, nor rewrite the world or its ending, Thompson said.
"It was a bit the expression, 'Physicians do no harm,'" he explained. "We can't recreate Supernatural. It's lightning in a bottle: Jensen, Jared [Padalecki], Kim Manners, [Eric] Kripke, everybody."
Instead, the show is out to "carve its own path" and only drop some clues as to where it's going and why certain things are different than Supernatural fans may remember or expect.
"There's some hints in the pilot and then there's some hints in subsequent episodes, and we have a little run at the end of this first 13 [episodes] where we start to turn over some cards. Our plan is to pull the curtain back in that 13th episode," Thompson continued. "We used Better Call Saul a lot as a creative North Star. Better Call Saul predates Breaking Bad, but it exists in its own little universe. ... I know people who haven't seen Breaking Bad [that watched Better Call Saul. But] because we are a show that deals with the supernatural and paranormal, we have a few more tricks up our sleeve."
Supernatural had a lot of ghouls, ghosts, vampires, demons, and angels to play with, but at its core, as Jensen Ackles reminded during the panel, was the relationship between the two brothers.
"If we could tell that with John and Mary, but also have this love story be the kicker, I just felt like that was really important," he said.
"Robbie and I use the Back to the Future reference quite a bit: We don't want the picture of Dean and Sam to be erased. ... We're trying to preserve everything we possibly can on the mothership," he continued.
While preserving that "integrity," they also want to "give this show its space" to be its own thing, which he admitted sometimes requires "tricky writing," the result of which you can see when The Winchesters airs Tuesdays at 8 p.m. beginning Oct. 11 on The CW. While Supernatural earned a series Metascore of 60, The Winchesters does not yet have a Metascore. Click here to read a more in-depth discussion with Drake Rodger about playing John Winchester.