Wynonna Earp Reimagines the Old, Male West

white woman wearing a leather jacket with fringe has a concerned look on her face while standing outside and pointing a gun

Melanie Scrofano as Wynonna Earp (Photo credit: Michelle Faye / Wynonna Earp Productions, Inc. / SYFY)

Cover of Bitch's Wild issue cover: women dressed in white dancing in a circle in a river with greenery in the background
This article was published in Wild Issue #92 | Fall/Winter 2021

I found Wynonna Earp during the early days of the pandemic when it seemed as if I’d watched everything worth watching and still needed an escape from our confusing reality. I’d been raised on Westerns, but Wynonna Earp was different: Instead of celebrating hypermasculine cowboys who terrorize Indigenous people and abuse women, Emily Andras’s genre dramedy made a complicated woman the “chosen one,” the unlikely hero tasked with saving her town from the evil that’s descended upon it. Wynonna (Melanie Scrofano) and her sister, Waverly (Dominique Provost-Chalkley), are the great-great-granddaughters of Wild West icon Wyatt Earp—and the inheritors of his curse. Whenever an heir—in this case, Wynonna—turns 27, all the people Wyatt killed return to Earth to terrorize the Ghost River Triangle, which includes Purgatory, a fictional town in the Canadian Rockies that the Earps call home.

Though Wynonna left Purgatory after demons called revenants killed her father and kidnapped her older sister, Willa, she returns at the dawn of her 27th birthday to bury her uncle, send all the revenants back to hell with Wyatt’s special gun, Peacemaker, and end her family’s curse once and for all. Along the way, Wynonna encounters Wyatt’s old friend, Doc Holliday (Tim Rozon), who reluctantly joins her mission, and reconnects with Waverly, who she left behind. Wynonna realizes that she may be complicated—she has a lengthy juvenile arrest record, and she’s perceived as a screw up—but she’s the best chance Purgatory has to keep from being overrun by revenants.

I was immediately hooked. There are healthy queer relationships, complicated women unconcerned with being liked, and a monster-of-the-week procedural element that keeps many fans invested, myself included. Now, after four seasons on Syfy, Wynonna Earp has been canceled, but its devoted fanbase, who call themselves Earpers, isn’t letting the show end without a fight. Their #SaveWynonna campaign is one of the best social media has ever seen, according to Andras, the show’s creator, and she’s hopeful about the show’s future. Bitch spoke with Andras about creating a once-in-a-lifetime show that has endeared itself to so many of us.

What was the initial inspiration for Wynonna Earp? What was the journey from idea to screen?

I have been lucky enough to be a woman working in genre, which is unusual in itself. I [worked] on a fantasy show called Lost Girl, which was very sex positive. It had a bisexual lead and became a cult hit. So I was definitely looking for what was next, and IDW, a comic book company, and Circle of Confusion, a management company, sent me this comic book called Wynonna Earp by this lovely man named Beau Smith. It had been published in the ’90s, and it was very anachronistic and dated. She had giant breasts and [wore] a teeny, tiny bikini. And I was like, If she’s going to fight a demon, she’s going to fall right over. This isn’t gonna work at all. But when I opened up the comic, I was struck by how feminist it was. [Wyonna Earp] was reimagining the iconic American hero Wyatt Earp. She’s his descendent, and she’s this badass feminist demon hunter. I was really struck by how much potential [the comic had]. I honestly got goosebumps. 

2 women staring close together grinning and looking in the same direction. The woman in front has a brown updo and the woman behind her red curled hair and a red velvet jacket

 Katherine Barrell as Officer Nicole Haught, Dominique Provost-Chalkley as Waverly Earp (Photo credit: Michelle Faye / Wynonna Earp Productions, Inc. / SYFY)

It was a chance to reinvent the Western with characters who were always on the margin—women, people of color, the LGBTQ community. Who gets to be the hero in Westerns? It’s always white dudes riding around, conquering things, and saving people. I was delighted [by] the possibility of subverting that and telling some stories from the perspective of people who never get to be front and center. I grew up in Calgary, Alberta, which is kind of like Canada’s Montana. The idea of being able to bring the show home, work with a film crew out there, and showcase the landscape really appealed to me. Often when you’re given properties to develop, you have to come up with a pitch, and it’s always good to be bold because you have nothing to lose. I was really struck by the romance in Disney’s Frozen between the two sisters, so I wanted Wynonna to be about sisterhood. I pitched it to the network as Frozen meets Justified, which was so bananas that SyFy basically said, “If you can pull that off, we definitely haven’t seen that before.” So that’s what we tried to do.

Purgatory is such a unique place—and not just because it’s inhabited by revenants. Though it’s in the Canadian Rockies, it has a Wild West feel. How did you envision Purgatory? What were the town’s essential elements?

I really wanted to [lean] on that Western trope of a small town that had been abandoned [and left in the hands of] society’s worst elements. I was picturing it as a small Western town with one main street and tumbleweeds blowing through. It’s the Wild West insofar as it’s lawless, and any good and moral citizen is easily snuffed out. I also really wanted it to feel modern, so that’s the reason we replaced horses with motorbikes. It’s funny seeing where America has gone [since Wynonna Earp debuted]. It seemed to be a good time to talk about these places that feel like they’ve been left behind. It’s hard not to talk about places where people sometimes feel bitter or misunderstood. I thought [having that conversation] was really important for a lot of people I know who come from places like this. It’s very hard for us, particularly women, to escape who we’ve been told we are and who we’ve been told we’re supposed to be by the places that raised us. 

It’s hard to be brave, shake off the way that people see us, and fight to be who we want to be. I really wanted Purgatory to be this yoke around Wynonna’s neck. They saw her as this crazy juvenile delinquent who shot her dad and said demons killed him. How do you escape that? How do you ever come home? So much of the journey of Wynonna Earp was [about] reclaiming her home as a hero, instead of a villain. But the sense of place is really important with Purgatory. It really felt like this lived in, gritty, town with so much history, so much heartache, and so much beauty around the edges.

Wynonna is the “chosen one,” meaning she’s tasked with using Peacemaker to return revenants to hell and end her family’s curse. But she’s also a complicated character with a lot of trauma. What was your approach to crafting Wynonna? Why was she the ideal protagonist for this specific story?

You’ve really hit on something so interesting. We have all seen the “chosen one” story told time and time again because it’s such a powerful story. From Jesus Christ and King Arthur to Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter, it’s all the same story: an orphan thinks they’re insignificant, [but] it turns out they’re the most special person in the universe, and they’re the only person who can save us. So I was very conscious of the fact that I was going to tell that story again, but I wanted to turn it on its head. Early on, I fought for Wynonna to be messy in a way we don’t often let our female characters be onscreen. I thought it was important that she had a past. She hadn’t always been a nice person. She was a juvenile delinquent and a criminal. She’s a borderline alcoholic, and she’s promiscuous without apology. We say heroes write history, but dig into any American hero, and they’re a mess. The things they do to win aren’t always things we would consider heroic or moral. I wanted that front and center with Wynonna. 

It was definitely a challenge to push for that. People still get nervous about messy, complicated, and sometimes unlikeable women onscreen. It’s still a fight to make female characters as nuanced as our male characters. Obviously, what happened, which was so serendipitous, was casting. Casting was critical for Wynonna. We saw more than 350 young actors and then we found the perfect Wynonna in Melanie Scrofano. I don’t know if I’ve ever met an actor who was more born to play a role than her. She elevated the character beyond my wildest dreams. She was so vulnerable and funny and tough and kind. She brought so much nuance to the role, and because she was so good at the craft, it made us lazy writers because we knew she could do anything. She could veer between six different emotions in a scene. [Casting Scrofano] was really a marriage of luck and circumstance. I feel like that with Wynonna casting across the board. They were so incredible. They inhabited their characters so absolutely, and because they were so eager to embrace the material, it really allowed us to push the storytelling because we knew they could handle it. The show has always felt like magical alchemy. I just don’t know if I’ll ever have that again in my professional life. 

Like so many others who have dived into the show during COVID-19 lockdowns, I began watching it after the second season hit Netflix. What makes Wynonna Earp perfect pandemic viewing? 

It’s such a fun escape. I’m biased, but a lot of genre [television] is very serious and solemn. A lot of sci-fi is very claustrophobic. We were so delighted to subvert that. There’s danger in having so much landscape and nature. You can’t see what’s coming because there’s woods and mountains and it’s freezing cold, so if you’re chasing demons and break your leg, you can die from frostbite. It’s this added element of danger, but it’s also fun—not enough genre is fun. If I had to live in a town where vampires showed up on a sexy party bus, I hope I would have a sense of humor about it. 

P2W_Culture_WWW_EmilyAndras_spot1.jpg

white woman with medium brown hair and gold hoop earrings looks upward at the camera smiling

Show creator Emily Andras (Photo credit: Christina Gapic)

Wynonna Earp aired at a time when the Bury Your Gays trope was running rampant in several other series. Waverly and Nicole (Katherine Barrell) defied that idea, even getting married in the finale. Were you conscious of how you wanted to develop this queer storyline over the seasons? If so, what felt important to highlight about Waverly and Nicole’s relationship?

I was extremely conscious, but I also was open-minded. I always say to writers, you have to have a plan so you don’t go crazy, but you have to also remain open to the gift the universe is giving you. If the cast is giving you different chemistry or a different vibe or different strengths and weaknesses than you thought your character could have, you’d be a fool not to capitalize on that. I’ve been very involved with the LGBTQ community, particularly in media. Lost Girl was extremely progressive, as I said, so I knew there was a huge LGBTQ contingent of genre fans who feel underserved. There was such a lack of representation for so long that people really were looking for it and hungry for it. 

I was extremely conscious of how we were going to portray Waverly and Nicole, and a couple things were important to me: Wynonna had a benefit of having so many female characters, or characters who identify as female, and characters who identified as queer that I knew that one queer character didn’t have to represent all queer people. Nicole and Waverly are very different people. Nicole identifies as a lesbian, and she’s very authoritative and organized, and it was really important to me that Waverley came out later in life. She didn’t figure out she was bisexual at 11; she figured it out when she was 21, and she met this remarkable person with whom she fell in love, which I thought was great. I have friends who went through that storyline. Not everyone gets to come out when they’re a teenager, so I wanted to tell a different story.

I always knew we wouldn’t follow the Bury Your Gays trope, but unfortunately, the year we premiered was one of the worst years for Bury Your Gays on television. I don’t have the specifics in front of me, but so many lesbian characters died that year on a variety of shows. There’s a famous scene at the end of Season 1 where Nicole is shot, but it turns out she was wearing a bulletproof vest, which was a direct fuck you to the Bury Your Gays trope. It was a very conscious decision not to kill off the lesbian character. I was very conscious of the responsibility, but kudos again to Dominique Provost-Chalkley and Kat Barrell, who play Waverly and Nicole, respectively, and have so much natural chemistry.  

They’re fully fleshed-out characters. They’re flawed, they make mistakes, and they have misunderstandings, but it just works. I’m so grateful that the fandom has embraced them so wholeheartedly. There are still fans fighting for another season of the show but if Season 4 does end up being the final season, then we end with Waverly and Nicole’s wedding. It was a happy ending for two queer characters, which has been really rare on television. I hope things are changing, and I hope we are one of the first instead of the last. 

Wynonna Earp has been called a “feminist show” repeatedly because of the way it develops its women characters. What does it even mean for a show to be feminist in 2021? Is that designation stifling in terms of storytelling?

I don’t find it stifling because I refuse to let it feel like that. I would define [a feminist show] as any show where any character, regardless of how they identify via gender or sexuality, can be a hero or a villain. I don’t feel we’re there quite yet. I would relish a world where we could have a queer Hannibal Lecter character, but we’re not there yet. I am constantly trying to push the agenda insofar as I want all my characters to be flawed and interesting. I’m very interested in filling my shows with more female characters because traditionally there have been fewer [of them] at the forefront of genre. I also want my male characters to be interesting and heroic and villainous in equal measure. 

I don’t find it stifling from a storytelling perspective. It’s the same problem we sometimes have when any novel written by a woman is labeled “chick lit.” That makes me bristle. I don’t want a show, my show, being called “feminist” to make you think it’s not for some old guy who loves Westerns. Good storytelling is good storytelling, and I would prefer to write art that is life. The only thing I really care about is not writing racist or bigots.

There are so many moving parts to the show that could’ve been explored in subsequent seasons. Were there any particular storylines you were interested in developing more in Season 5 or even spinning off into their own universe?

Oh, a billion. People are concentrating on a Season 5, but there’s so much potential for a spinoff, a reboot, or a movie. I have ideas for days. You really hedge your bet every time you’re writing a TV show. You want to make sure there are enough [ideas] left over to entice the network to greenlight [another season]. At the same time, given the [television] landscape, I knew it was important to give the fans a satisfying ending, versus 5,000 cliffhangers. Just off the top of my head, we never picked up on the Eve (Natalie Krill) storyline. She was the villain in the garden. At the beginning of Season 4, we thought she could shapeshift and take on the appearance of anyone. That kind of villain is so insidious and delicious because you can’t trust anyone around you, even the people you love the most, because they may be Eve wearing a mask. 

I would very much like to see what Doc Holliday and Wynonna’s road trip looks like and what it looks like when they find their daughter Alice. I’d even love to see how Waverly and Nicole handle Purgatory in Wynonna’s absence. How do they negotiate this new reality without the Earp heir? I’ve always joked with the fans that I intend to Earp the rest of my life or as long as they’ll have me. So I’m hopeful and certain there’s a way to continue telling Earp stories in one medium or another. I’m not giving up if the [fans] don’t.

After Syfy canceled the show, you told The Hollywood Reporter that it was never a ratings hit, but it had a devoted fan base. How should television executives measure the success of a show outside of Nielsen? Is it time to consider different metrics for a show’s ultimate success?

I don’t want to tank my career, so put a big asterisk on this. This is just my opinion: The days of having five networks are gone. There are hundreds of channels, dozens of streamers, and last I checked, there are almost 500 scripted television shows every year. The audience is going to be fragmented. Gone are the days of a show getting 80 million views or whatever the M*A*S*H* finale received. So yeah, there should be different metrics for judging a show’s success. Obviously, a million [other] things have to come into play. Wynonna was never a particularly expensive show to make, but it was critically acclaimed. It got two People’s Choice Awards, and it consistently blew social media metrics out of the water. For a station like Syfy, it’s no secret that our social media presence was off the charts. 

We can’t pretend that television isn’t a business. It comes down to making money. If I’m paying money to make the show, I need to get paid. But it’s hard that so much of traditional television still depends on advertising when fewer people are watching live television and can fast-forward through ads. How do we then judge success? How do we reap benefits? It’s a moving target. 

Wynonna Earp was such a weird and wild and unique show. There are times when I think it never should have been allowed to be on TV. I can’t be bitter that I had four years of [creating] something joyful that people adored. If Wynonna continues to be a cult hit for years to come and more and more people find it and love it, then that’s the ultimate success. Wynonna was such an underdog, but we did the best we could. We marketed the hell out of it. We live-tweeted all the time. We left it all on the floor, so there are no regrets [about] how we tried to sell and showcase it. My bubble is still full of Earpers, and I’m like, look at all these people around the world who just want more of what we want to serve. The Earper fandom has brought so many people together. I officiated an Earp wedding at a comic convention, which is so great. I don’t want disappointment to take away from the joy that this thing existed and was loved. I’m so proud of it and so thrilled to have had the chance to work with this cast in particular. 

What comes next for you? Are you interested in remaining in genre television? 

I really love genre. I really love the opportunity to talk about what it is to be human because the world is inhuman. You can tackle really big philosophical questions that are gross and scary and hilarious in genre television in a way that might seem pretentious if you were doing it on a straight-up family drama. I love the big swing; I love crazy things happening. I love writing a show where someone gets possessed by a tentacle—that stuff makes me laugh. I really love that comic book legacy and the kind of storytelling that comes with cliffhangers. That’s really rare. I really love people having to wait a week and screaming at us about what’s going to happen next.

I’ve got a bunch of stuff cooking. I definitely would love to stay in genre. I would really love to tackle something ambitious in space. I keep joking that I would like to make gay lady Star Wars, but I’m working on it. There are a lot of types of characters that I would like to elevate. I still would like to put some fat women on TV. Fat culture is still maligned in American society, so it would be really interesting to put some fat superheroes on TV. If I can reboot the Golden Girls in genre, then I’m ready to do it. I just want to tell stories from the perspective of people who maybe haven’t had their stories told, whether that’s in genre, a more straight-up drama situation, or just gross-out comedy. I’m up for everything. I just want it to speak to me and feel real.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

 

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by Evette Dionne
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Evette Dionne is Bitch Media’s editor-in-chief. She’s all about Beyoncé, Black women, and dope TV shows and books. You can follow her on Twitter.