Saturday, June 17, 2017

On Wynonna Earp Season 1*

Wynonna Earp, created and written by Beau Smith, began its comic book life as a limited series from Image in 1996. The descendant of the wild west lawman Wyatt Earp, Wynonna was saddled with not only the famous name, but also the task of hunting down supernatural threats as an agent of the US Marshals' "Black Badge Division." IDW would later publish miniseries Home on the Strange in 2003 and The Yeti Wars in 2011. The comics could, most charitably, be described as somewhere between completely incompetently made and mediocre (We'll discuss those in the next post, though; don't you worry).

In 2015, Syfy acquired the project pitched to them by IDW and showrunner Emily Andras, who had previously written, produced and showrun fantasy drama Lost Girl. The 13-episode Wynonna Earp series debuted on April 1 the following year. Andras was extremely selective in what she chose to take from the comics. TV's Wynonna Earp had the vagabond title character (played by Melanie Scrofano) returning to her hometown of Purgatory on the eve of her 27th birthday in order to attend a family funeral. Having suffered a particularly traumatic event as a child (when her family home was attacked by the undead), and a particularly troubled childhood that followed (since no one believed her stories of that attack by the undead), Wynonna left town and never looked back--until the start of the series, anyway.

She soon found herself re-embroiled in the family curse when she becomes "The Heir," the only person capable of sending the town's 77 undead revenants to hell by shooting them with her great-great-grandfather's now-magical gun, "Peacemaker." The revenants, lead by the charismatic Bobo Del Rey (Michael Eklund), are seeking a means to escape The Ghost River Triangle, the geological region which the curse kept them all entrapped within the borders of.

The threat of an army of revenants caught the attention a mysterious government agent named Dolls (Shamier Anderson), who worked with a joint U.S./Canadian task force known as Black Badge Division. Together Wynonna and Dolls take on Bobo, the revenants and assorted other supernatural threats with the help of Wynonna's little sister Waverly (Dominique Provost-Chalkley), a self-taught expert on the curse and local history, and the immortal Doc Holliday (Tim Rozon), the former best friend of Wyatt. Over the course of the season, the characters unraveled mysteries about the curse and learned secrets of their own pasts, while new mysteries and secrets arose at the climax so they would have new stuff to deal with in season two.
Spoiler alert: Canonical ship WayHaught totally kiss in evening gowns, neither gets killed off
The show gathered a cult following online, particularly with LGBT fans on Tumblr, thanks in no small part to the cast's active Twitter presence. Andras and others often live-tweeted episodes as they aired, actively engaging with fans directly through social media. The show also premiered during the height of the "Bury Your Gays" epidemic last year, when lesbian characters were dying off at a pace of almost one a week. Andras, who is no stranger to courting LGBT viewers, actually took to Twitter to assure fans that neither Waverly Earp or Nicole Haught (Katherine Barrell), the show’s resident lesbian couple, would meet an untimely end. That care is one of the reasons LGBT fans are so protective of Wynonna Earp; it's one of the few times they feel a showrunner has their best interests at heart. Andras understands she is targeting a marginalized audience and, more importantly, takes great pride in the responsibility of treating fans with respect.

In preparation for season two, which began airing June 9 on SyFy, we marathoned the first season and sat down at our laptops to discuss it. Please note there will be some spoilers, so you may want to watch the first season yourself before joining us below.

Meredith: OK, since I forced you into watching Wynonna Earp, I’ll start. The best way I can describe the show is this: Emily Andras packed a car full of characters, plot, action sequences and tropes. She took the car from 0-90 and started pushing them out onto the highway. If this is not a show you can get on board with in the first 15 minutes, then you might as well get out.

Wynonna Earp isn't interested in getting bogged down in heavy internal mythology. Why does Peacemaker work the way is does? I don't know, it's a magic gun with a mind of its own. How did Doc spend 80 years in at the bottom of a well? Shrug; a witch’s curse, I guess.

If you are the kind of person who needs a show to articulate hard and fast reasoning for everything it does, then you should probably go back to watching Game of Thrones, because you're not going to find it here. And honestly, I couldn't love this show any more. I cannot remember the last time I had so much fun watching TV.

So Caleb, give me your brief gut reaction to Wynonna Earp now that we’ve watched season one.

Caleb: "Brief"...? Oh man, I hate brevity!

It took me a few episodes to really get into it honestly, precisely because I am the kind of person who nitpicks internal logic in fictive narratives, and can get hung up on little details (Doc spending a chunk of immortality in the well I can handle, but it still doesn't explain how Wynonna didn't bump into him when she climbed out of that very same well!). That said, once the major players were all introduced and were around long enough that I got to know them, I became much more engaged with the show.
I really liked the Waverly character, who is easy on the eyes, has a confoundingly weird wardrobe and was presented first as a typical, cheerful, twenty-something small-town barmaid, and then is revealed to be this secret student of history and the occult with a serial killer-like zeal for the subject matter, complete with the crazy person's wall of pinned-up photos and newspaper clippings.
And I particularly loved the Doc Holliday character. He's a handsome fellow with a sweet cookie-duster mustache, and I like his overall old timey-ness, from his manner of speech to just how out of it he is when it comes to things like cars and other, more modern inventions he missed while sitting at the bottom of a well. For the most part, they play him as if he walked across the studio lot from the sound set where they were making a cowboy show into that of this one about demon-hunting, and he decided to just stick around this set instead.

I found the crypto-Canadian-ness of it pretty hilarious too. There's something funny about setting a show full of riffs and allusions to the all-American Western myth of cowboys and gunslingers in Canada, and the show rarely commits to exactly which side of the border it's set on.

I think the show suffered a bit whenever it tried to get too fancy with the special effects, as some scenes were obviously more ambitious than the budget could afford, and the anal retentive in me felt parts of several episodes could have used another round or two of script-polishing to explain the sorts of things that it either waits until the last episodes to address or just plain never gets around to, but overall I had fun with it, and even became invested in the characters.

Meredith: One of my favorite themes to discuss is the search for identity. The trifecta of Willa (the eldest Earp sister, played by Natalie Krill, who was thought to have been murdered by revenants as a child), Wynonna, and Waverly represent "the one who was chosen, the one who was forced to choose and the one whose choice was made for them." Willa was meant to then be the heir. She was trained. Wynonna wants nothing to do with the Earp curse but had to step up because no one else could. And Waverly wanted nothing more than to be the heir herself.

I enjoyed the way Emily Andras inverted the "search," so to speak. When the show starts, our characters are thrust into these roles (heir, sister, pariah) and we get to watch as they struggle to fill this new space and navigate changing dynamics. But by the end, Willa arrives and Waverly might not even be an Earp. The identities the characters have been developing are completely torn away. They're forced to rethink everything they had once taken for granted.

Caleb: I suppose the same could be said of their relationships to one another, to their enemies and allies and to the town itself. Everyone ends up somewhere different than where they started not just personally, but as they relate to all of the other elements of the show.

Meredith: I liked that not one character had the upper hand for long. Bobo wasn't just sitting around in the trailer park watching his master plan unfold while our heroes marched toward him. I thought by shifting the power dynamics between Bobo, The Stone Witch (Rayisa Kondracki), Wynonna, Doc, Dolls and so on it gave the series a lot of sparking energy. You think Bobo has all the power until you find out about the Stone Witch. But then you realize she's lying to Bobo about having the lead and it's actually Waverly who has the skull that Bobo needs. The series is like a poker game. Everyone is keeping secrets in hopes of shifting the power back to them, while also praying that no one calls their bluff.

Caleb: What's interesting about that too is that despite how long some of these characters have had their plans in motion, none of them seem to have planned for what happens once they meet their goals. Like, Bobo is able to escape the Ghost River Triangle: Then what? In addition to his immortality and his powers, he's basically got a whole devoted cult at his beck and call where he is; is the ability to go on vacation all that important? Also, he might not know it, but if he does discover a means for escape, the government is just going to nuke the town out of existence anyway.

Similarly, Doc has spent his immortality planning on vengeance, but then what? And the peculiarities of the spell prevent him from actually taking that revenge, anyway.

And what happens to Wynonna if she's able to break the curse? Will she lose her newfound purpose in life?

I think that's part of what makes the characters so engaging. They are a lot like the real people in you know in your real life, seemingly making dumb decisions or not thinking through their actions and that you want to sit down and talk to them but you can't--because they are TV characters.

Meredith: You make a really great point about Wynonna. When we first meet her, she's a total mess. Working with Black Badge and accepting the role of the Earp heir gives her life the structure and meaning it's been sorely missing up until that point. It gives her a second chance to reconnect with her sister. It gives her purpose and direction. So you’re right, it makes you wonder what will happen when (or if) she breaks the curse.

I want to talk a bit about the morally ambiguous heroes and villains. When I realized that not all the revenants were completely evil, I knew I was going to love this show. The Stone Witch's curse was wide-reaching, so a number of revenants were just poor souls caught in the crossfire of Wyatt's gun. It puts extra weight on Wynonna, who is tasked with sending all of them back to hell, but it's not as simple as kicking demon ass. She had to come to terms with the fact that some of these cursed people are no worse than she.

Even Bobo, who is ostensibly the season's "Big Bad," is not motivated by pure evil. He's tired. He wants to leave the Ghost River Triangle. In fact, it's Black Badge that's threatening to drop an atomic bomb on Purgatory and all its human citizens. So tell me, who is really the villain here?
Caleb: Based on haircut and costuming decisions, I'm going to say Bobo. Seriously though, I think the show operates very much within the realm of the deconstructionist--or are we on post-deconstructionist at this point?-- concept of the Western, where there are no longer any white hats or black hats. The closest thing we get to an ethically pure, old-school character is that of Wyatt Earp himself, who appears only in a flashback or two, and then only to express disapproval of Doc's life choices.

Of course, something went wrong with even Wyatt's life, to the point that his descendants are suffering this curse, so maybe not even his is a traditional white hat character...

Meredith: How does it function as an adaptation of Beau Smith’s comic? Did you think it made the leap from page to screen successfully? Is there anything from the comic you would've kept? What change did you like the most?
Reminder: This is what the comic book this show is based on used to look like
Caleb: Ha ha ha ha ha ha! You're kidding, right?

Well, I think as an adaptation, in the strictest sense of the word, it's obviously pretty poor, as I think it's safe to say next-to-nothing from the comics actually makes it into the show. It's mostly just a couple of names, and the idea of a curse on the Earp line, right? But then, the comics themselves were so poorly made, that's not a strike against the show at all. As a show based on the comics, which is different than an adaptation, it's phenomenal. It's comics-to-TV alchemy, turning a base metal into gold.

One potential advantage the concept evidenced in the comics vs. that of the show was the idea that, in the comics, Wynonna as already a fully-functioning member of Black Badge, which appears to be like Mike Mignola's BPRD. Had they kept that premise, I think we would have had a show in which Wynonna, Dolls and the gang travel from place to place, fighting different sorts of supernatural threats. I would imagine something closer to The X-Files, I guess, with a different threat each episode, and maybe the occasional "mythology" episode tying into some overarching plotline. That would also allow for more and different types of monsters rather than just the revenants. In the comics, she fights werewolves, vampires, a mummy, zombies and so on, whereas the show basically has her dealing exclusively with the revenants, with the occasional witch or skinwalker.

That, of course, would have been a very different, very expensive show, and this particular premise allowed for one location with a handful of different sets. Additionally, I think the idea of Wynonna as someone protecting a single town resonates as a Western, deconstructionist or otherwise, as she's basically the heroic sheriff of Purgatory, protecting the townspeople from threats from inside and from without.

Meredith: You and I sat down and watched Tombstone as well as reading Beau Smith’s original run of Wynonna Earp comics and I think we both agreed that it was pretty obvious Emily Andras did the same exact thing before breaking season one. There were a couple of similarities between the show and Tombstone that just couldn’t have been coincidence. Overall, I’m impressed about how she was able to take this one fragment of an idea and turn it into such an entertaining television show.

Caleb: Yeah, viewed as a sort of prequel to Wynonna Earp, Tombstone is enjoyable on an entirely different level viewed separeately. I think I prefer Rozon's version of Doc to Val Kilmer's, even though Rozon seems to be basing his a bit on Kilmer's...or else they both based their performances on someone else's, or that's just the way Doc Holliday really was in real life?

Meredith: Thinking ahead, are you excited for the second season? What would you like to see?

Caleb: Well, the true identity of the mysterious roadside mechanic with superspeed and the initials J.C.--who isn't Jesus Christ, but seems to be angelic in nature--that showed up late in season one has been bothering the hell out of me, and I want to see who the hell he's supposed to be. I'm also curious about the monster that Bobo calls "the old one" that is trying to get into Purgatory, which looked like a poorly rendered mash-up of a giant snake and something Lovecraftian. And obviously there's something up with Dolls that hasn't been explained yet.

I'm also interested in seeing what happens next, now that Bobo is out of the picture, and so are all of the seemingly other most threatening of his kind. I would like to see Wynonna, Doc, Dolls, Waverly and Haught fight more and different types of monsters. Hopefully a yeti.

Meredith: My dream for season two would be the addition of more old-timey gunslingers, Calamity Jane, in particular. They’ve got Doc Holliday, why not add another one?

Caleb: Calamity Jane? Okay. But only if Alicia Witt plays her. And she gets at least one musical number, a la the Doris Day musical. Or is everyone sick of musical episodes at this point?

Meredith: I absolutely second Alicia Witt playing Calamity Jane. And musical episodes are still a thing. I bet Emily Andras could pull one off, too. The other thing I'm most looking forward to is Waverly exploring her family history. In the final episode, Bobo Del Ray suggested she might not be a full fledged Earp. If true, that could be potentially devastating for both Waverly and Wynonna.

*You guys know my pal, and so far the only person I've ever actually collaborated on writing anything with, Ms. Meredith Tomeo, right? We did the "Birdwatching" feature together for Comics Alliance. Well, we were intending to do a similar recurring feature on SyFy's Wynonna Earp series, starting with this year's second season but, alas, Comics Alliance is no more. So this piece is one we had already started working on before CA went away, and it was intended to be a sort of catch-up on the first season before we started doing the weekly synopsis pieces.  Since I do have my own comics blog, I figured I would just run our discussion on the first season here, rather than just letting all of these words about something somewhat comics related go to waste. If anyone wants to pay us to watch Wynonna Earp for them, though, we're totally interested.

1 comment:

William Burns said...

So the pairing is officially "Way Hot"? Not very subtle, but I kinda like it.