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Supernatural survival skills: Inside the show's death-proof 11-year run

We asked you to pick your favorite fall show, and you voted — again, and again, and again. In their 12th season, the Winchester brothers have added yet another victory to their list of achievements. (This one comes right after stopping the apocalypse.)

(MATTHIAS CLAMER for EW)

The coroner’s van just pulled into the driveway. It’s the middle of August, and Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles are filming a scene at a farmhouse in the Vancouver countryside, which at the moment is passing for Iowa. Working a case-of-the-week, Sam and Dean Winchester have ditched their typical flannel and jeans for sweaters and slacks in order to pose as social workers. Currently, they’re doing what the brothers do best: Lying about their jobs in order to solve mysteries and kill monsters —  in other words, saving people, hunting things.

Heading into its 12th season, the longest run of any CW or WB show, Supernatural tells the story of the Winchester brothers, who fell into the family business of hunting creatures after their mother was killed by a demon. What began as their father’s journey to find revenge has evolved into countless monster slayings, near-death experiences, a few actual deaths, and even more overnight stays in questionable motel rooms.

By this point, the Winchesters have been to hell and back, killed Death himself, come face-to-face with God, and prevented the apocalypse. But perhaps more impressively, the show has survived three network presidents, four showrunners, a writers’ strike, and four different time slots. Turns out the only thing harder to kill than the Winchesters is the show itself. “It’s one of those shows that has moved a lot and yet each time, it has found that core audience and built on it,” Warner Bros. Television president Peter Roth says. “It’s been an unsung hero.”

If anyone knows about being an unsung hero, it’s Sam (Jared Padalecki) and Dean (Jensen Ackles), who’ve dedicated their lives to saving others and asked for nothing in return. Seriously, how many nights have they spent sleeping in their car? And yet, that on-the-road lifestyle has paved the way for a number of the show’s riskier episodes, which play a crucial role in keeping the audience engaged. Just last year, “Baby,” was told entirely from the perspective of their beloved 1967 Impala, and that’s not even close to the craziest thing the show’s tried.

Aside from the rules the show creates within its canon — yes, they have a historian in the writers’ room to keep them honest — not even the sky is the limit when it comes to story pitches. “[Show creator] Eric [Kripke] used to say, ‘Smoke em if you’ve got em,’ which meant: Anything crazy, don’t be afraid to run it by us,” executive producer Robert Singer says.

That motto has led to the creation of an episode that applied cartoon logic to the universe, an episode that placed the Winchesters into a number of different TV shows, including its version of Grey’s Anatomy, and most famously, season 6’s “The French Mistake,” when Sam and Dean Winchester found themselves in an alternate universe where everyone mistook them for Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles, the stars of a show called Supernatural. “Our show’s not bound by reality,” Ackles says. “We’re rooted in reality but we’re not bound by it. I think that gives us a fifth wall almost.”

No matter how meta or abstract the ideas get — God has a sister! —  one thing remains unchanged. This is a show about two brothers. “We tackle really huge mythology story lines while grounding it in this very relatable family dynamic between two brothers,” says Misha Collins, who joined the show in season 4 as Castiel, the angel who gripped Dean tight and raised him from perdition (and is now as close as one can get to being a third Winchester brother).

Aside from Ackles and Padalecki, Collins and Mark Sheppard, who joined in season 5 as Crowley, King of Hell, are the only other series regulars. “I met the boys and the crew and I got what it was that makes this a special place to go to work,” Sheppard says. “The people that work on this, in every aspect of the show, really love [it], and it shows.”

At the center of it all are Ackles and Padalecki, whose Sam and Dean are the beating heart of the show (whether theirs are beating or not). Sitting down to dinner in Vancouver, the real-life brotherhood between the two—who both live in Austin when they’re not filming—is on full display as they finish each other’s sentences and argue about how Padalecki ate the last piece of tuna. At any given moment, you expect Ackles to throw in a “bitch” so that Padalecki can follow with “jerk.”

Fans won’t be surprised by the chemistry, but what might be surprising is that 11 years later, the stars are still eager to talk about what they love about their show, even pulling up their favorite scenes on their phones to watch at the table.

Padalecki, 34, can easily name the scripts that made him cry — “Heart,” “Sacrifice,” and “Baby” all make the list. The common thread is a heartfelt moment between the brothers where they get to talk about their crazy life as if, say, having visions of Lucifer is normal. “The weird juxtaposition of what the boys are going through right next to reality is what makes the show what is it,” Padalecki says. “I feel like those situations where we treat the abstract and the fantastical as just part of life is where the show thrives.”

Ackles, 38, adds: “I think the show is at its best when it finds a way to blend scenes like that with horror and also comedy. I honestly think that it truly is at its best when it doesn’t take itself too seriously, then it does take itself seriously, then it gets scary as shit.”

Coming off a season that checked all of those boxes, new showrunner Andrew Dabb has big shoes to fill. His plan: Get back to basics. “Every time we do a big world-spanning story, we feel like we’re really stretching our show,” Dabb says. “What our show was designed to be and I think functions best as is smaller personal stories with a genre twist.”

And it’s hard not to tell a personal story when season 11 ended with the resurrection of Mary Winchester (Samantha Smith), Sam and Dean’s mother, who died in the pilot. “You’re going to see two brothers be sons,” Ackles says. “We saw that [with their dad, John], but when you’re a son to your father, it’s a different son than you are to your mother.”

Ackles and Padalecki will be appearing at EW PopFest in just a few weeks! Click the banner below for details and tickets.

With God and Amara fading to the background this year, Mary will find herself both in the bunker and on the road hunting with her sons. “[This season is] more Sam and Dean on the road. Mary is there. Cas is there. Crowley is there,” Dabb says. As Crowley is less concerned with Moose and Squirrel than with regaining control of hell, Castiel is the one encouraging the brothers to bond with Mom. “He has a shared experience of feeling like an outsider with the brothers yet feeling connected to them,” says Collins. “He is pushing them to confront the emotional bomb that is their mother showing up.”

For Sam, it’s his first real chance to meet his mom, who died when he was six months old. “I think [Sam’s] glorified mom so much in his head,” Padalecki says. “It’s almost like a blind date that Sam’s already in love with the person he hasn’t met yet. It’s been fun for me, after 240-something episodes, to have a brand new facet of Sam’s personality to play.”

Two hundred forty-one episodes to be exact, and they’re not done yet. The CW president Mark Pedowitz has made it clear that as long at the guys are happy and the ratings are relatively stable, Supernatural has a long life ahead.

For Ackles and Padalecki, their focus is on the next milestone: hitting 300 episodes (something that would take them 13 episodes in season 14). “In a marathon, I keep my sights on that next mile, wherever that might be, and 300’s a good number to work for,” Ackles says.

However, if Sam and Dean have taught them anything, it’s that Death can be lurking around every corner (and he’s usually eating pizza). “We don’t just assume it’s going to happen,” Padalecki says. “If we don’t make it to 300, I think Ackles and I will both be truly bummed. When we get to 300, I think Ackles and I will think it might be time to say bye. There’s a chance that changes, but we certainly do not take it for granted that we’re going to make it to 300.”

Ackles adds: “They’re paying us to bring that little bit of magic to what they wrote, and I still feel that magic today. The day that I don’t feel that magic will be a very sad day, and I hope that day never comes. I’d like to get to 300 before that day comes.” (The only thing that’s certain about Supernatural’s end is Baby’s fate. “He gets Baby,” Padalecki says of Ackles. “I get Baby Two.” Ackles makes one correction: “No, you’ll get Three. Two is stunt. It’s beat to s—.”)

As the sun sets on the Vancouver countryside, Sam and Dean ditch their slacks for jeans and send the coroner’s van on its way. It won’t be needed — this show has a lot of life left in it. Not that death has ever stopped it before.

A version of this story originally appeared in Entertainment Weekly issue #1431/1432.