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Wynonna Earp and the Possibilities of Interdisciplinary Connections

Author: Ann-Marie Cook

As we interact with the world around us, we constantly negotiate our relationships with other people, images, messages and the social scripts that govern our behaviour. Through this process, we encounter the knowledge, practices and perspectives of individuals from other walks of life or cultures whose experiences differ from our own. An example of the potential for these fundamentally inter-disciplinary connections to yield positive change is the cultural phenomenon generated by the Wynonna Earp television series.

Wynonna Earp first appeared over twenty years in the eponymous comics written by Beau Smith and published first by Image Comics and subsequently by IDW Publishing. As a forty-something US Marshal, and descendant of the legendary Wild West lawman Wyatt Earp, Wynonna is the last line of defence against zombies, mummies and other paranormal villains. A strong female protagonist may have been ahead of her time in the late ‘90s, but she has proven an ideal candidate for making the transition from page to the small screen. Produced by the Canadian media company SEVEN24 Films with IDW’s funding, the Wynonna Earp television series debuted in 2016 on Syfy in the United States. In Canada, the show aired on CHCH-DT until 2017, when Space took over the broadcasting rights. Outside of the US and Canada, the show is broadcast by Spike in the United Kingdom and Australia, and is available on Netflix, Amazon Video and Apple iTunes.

In just three years, the Wynonna Earp series has established itself as a cultural phenomenon on a global scale with an active social media presence and fans on nearly every continent. Not only is the show regularly featured in international fan conventions, such as San Diego Comic-Con, it has also inspired several Wynonna Earp conventions in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. Several podcasts follow the show, most notably the Tales of the Black Badge podcast hosted by Kevin Bachelder and Bonnie Ferrar. Online pop culture sites have further bolstered viewer awareness of and engagement with the show. Bridget Liszewski’s regular commentaries and Monica’s episode recaps for TV Junkies, as well as Valerie Anne’s episode recaps for Autostraddle are just some of the examples of the online coverage that sings the praises of the series and its creators. Wynonna Earp even reached the pages of the New York Times in July 2018, with Maureen Ryan’s insightful article on the cult show’s success and cultural impact in the #MeToo era. Assessments of the show frequently attribute the show’s popularity to a number of factors: the unique vision of showrunner Emily Andras and the creative team, a talented and tightly-knit cast, high levels of online and offline engagement between those who make the show and those who watch it, storylines that offer positive representation of women and LGBTQ characters, and a passionate fandom of “Earpers”.

Andras and the writers have adopted an approach that affords the freedom to tell unique stories that make Wynonna Earp feel original and contemporary despite her comic book origins. This is achieved by focussing on Wynonna’s younger years, thereby occupying a separate, but complementary, terrain from the narrative world established in Smith’s comics. Set in the town of Purgatory, somewhere in the remote, snowy frontier of the Ghost River Triangle, the series cleverly interweaves elements of the western, horror and screwball comedy genres whilst proudly wearing its feminist heart on its sleeve. Upon turning 27 years old, Wynonna Earp (Melanie Scrofano) becomes the Earp heir, a title that carries with it a family curse which obliges the bearer to kill the demonic reincarnations of the individuals Wyatt Earp killed in his lifetime, known as revenants. Every time an Earp heir dies, the revenants they killed come back to life to do battle with the next Earp heir. Despite harbouring many misgivings, Wynonna embarks on a quest to kill the revenants, led by the cunning and charismatic Bobo Del Ray (Michael Eklund), and break the Earp curse once and for all. She is supported by a ‘found family’ comprised of her younger sister Waverly (Dominique Provost-Chalkley); John Henry “Doc” Holliday (Tim Rozon), Wyatt’s best friend and bearer of a curse that has rendered him immortal; Agent Xavier Dolls (Shamier Anderson) of the Black Badge Division, a US-Canadian joint taskforce to eradicate paranormal enemies; Officer Nicole Haught (Katherine Barrell) of the Purgatory police force; and Agent Jeremy Chedri (Verun Saranga), a brainy science and technology wiz with some secrets of his own.

In parallel with the television series, Beau Smith’s Year Zero and Legends comics have also returned to Wynonna Earp’s youth, though their stories are separate and distinct from the show. Nevertheless, a symbiotic relationship exists between the two narrative platforms. For example, Waverly and Nicole Haught were originally created for the show, but Smith has included them in the comics and all of the comic characters are drawn to resemble the actors who portray them in the series. The Legends comic books took the connection even further with Rozon and Scrofano contributing as co-writers. These collaborations give the comics the ‘voice’ that viewers of the show have come to love.

Wynonna Earp’s supernatural subject matter and wickedly risqué sense of humour could be easily mistaken for signs of the show’s silliness and general lack of substance. But to do so would overlook the effectiveness of these elements as vehicles for exploring a host of deep and meaningful themes. Battling demons is both the literal plot and a metaphor for the characters’ respective battles with personal demons during their individual journeys of self-development. The narrative premise of the Earp heir returning to the Ghost River Triangle to vanquish revenants enables a sophisticated exploration of the grey areas that exist between good and evil, the age-old conflict between duty and inclination, possibilities and limits of forgiveness and redemption, the meaning of family, the power of love, the importance of persevering in the face of obstacles and the virtue of being courageous and resilient despite one’s vulnerability and flaws. The show offers affirming messages about accepting people for who they are, striving to be one’s best self, and the strength of ‘found families’ whose members love and support each other no matter the challenges that arise. While these messages correspond to universal values, they resonate most powerfully among viewers who feel like they don’t quite fit in with their peers or family. For this reason, the show has acquired a significant following by viewers who are part of the LGBTIQA+ community.

At a time when characters who buck heteronormative conventions are either absent from shows, presented in a tokenistic manner, killed off without an apparent reason, or otherwise portrayed negatively, Wynonna Earp is nothing short of radical. The show treats queer characters as perfectly normal, healthy individuals whose sexual orientation is just another aspect of their identity. It also gives these characters narrative agency and encourages viewers to identify with their points of view. The romance between Waverly Earp and Nicole Haught – or, WayHaught as the couple are known in the fandom – has been a particular highlight for many viewers because of its authenticity and the emotional integrity Provost-Chalkley and Barrell bring to their respective roles. The connection between Waverly and Nicole develops organically, and is supported by their loved ones, but both characters also occupy significant roles in the story that have nothing to do with becoming a couple. Waverly is a pivotal character with expert knowledge of Earp family lore and a steadfast determination to assist Wynonna in breaking the Earp curse. Likewise, as a respected police officer on the fast track to becoming sheriff, Nicole’s place in the story is not defined exclusively by her involvement with Waverly. The portrayal of Jeremy’s blossoming relationship with new-boy-in-town Robin is equally positive, and scenes with the two couples interacting socially are beautiful examples of the show’s sensitivity and respect for same-sex relationships.

Another aspect of the series that sets it apart from the vastly crowded field of television entertainment is the way it showcases strong women. The show’s feminist credentials contrast sharply with the general state of gender politics of the entertainment industry, and the historically male-dominated nature of the western and horror genres. Women are at the forefront of the creative team, and this translates into stories with strong, complex female characters. It is to the credit of the writers male characters are neither marginalised nor presented as weak. On the contrary, Doc, Agent Dolls and Bobo Del Ray are complex, compelling figures who occupy central roles in the show’s storylines. As a result, there is an egalitarian quality to the characters’ interactions: everyone moves between the roles of rescuer and rescuee, and there’s nary a stereotypical Alpha male or helpless damsel in distress in sight.

In keeping with the positive example set by the show, the Earper fandom has developed into a diverse, inclusive, safe space that contrasts sharply with the toxicity of so many fandoms. Earpers are characterised by kindness to each other, their offline communities, other fandoms and the people who make the show. Castmembers maintain a close relationship with the fandom through social media, participation at fan conventions, and charitable activities. For example, Earpers have rallied behind Dominique Provost-Chalkley’s ‘Start the Wave’ initiative for positive change, mindfulness and planet sustainability. Katherine Barrell champions awareness of mental health issues and actively promotes the Toronto Humane Society. Melanie Scrofano is an advocate for the ‘Erase the Hate’ charity initiative to end hate and discrimination through the promotion of positivity and inclusivity. In addition to supporting the cast’s charitable activities, Earpers routinely organise fundraisers to benefit causes such as the National Women’s Law Center (U.S), the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund (Canada), RAICES (Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services), and GLAAD (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation). Through the ‘EarpItForward’ initiative, Earpers organise get-togethers to socialise and take part in community service activities, such as cleaning up parks and volunteering at animal shelters. Despite the geographical spread of the fandom, Earpers have used social media to help each other by providing emotional support, contributing to crowd-funding campaigns for individuals in need, coordinating travel plans to fan conventions and sharing fan art and memorabilia. With its extraordinary generosity, the fandom has truly distinguished itself as a ‘found family’ that strives to translate the values of the show they love into daily practice.

On 2 July 2019, after months of uncertainty over whether Wynonna Earp would return to the screen for a fourth season, IDW confirmed that series four has been given the green light to return in 2020. Earpers had previously flexed their collective muscle to help the show win the 2018 E! People’s Choice Award for Favourite Sci-Fi/Fantasy Show and propel Dominique Provost-Chalkey to victory in the contest for the Cogeco Fund Audience Choice Award at the 2019 Canadian Screen Awards. When news spread that the show’s future was in doubt, Earpers swung into action with tireless, but respectful campaigning that made it clear just how much Wynonna Earp means to them. With their polite, no-chill attitude and commitment to be the change they want to see in the world, Earpers continue to offer a fitting testament to the social impact of the truly special series that cast and fans lovingly refer to as “our shit show”.

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