Nearly a year after it originally aired, today I finished watching season 1 of Wynonna Earp, the television show based on the comic book series of which I had never heard. One of my favourite things about the show is that it is not pretentious or smugly confident about its own quality. I had been watching Riverdale, a show that is so completely convinced of its own cleverness that even the prettiness of Cole Sprouse can’t save it; although I associate this smugness more with Doctor Who and Sherlock and it is precisely what led me to give up on those shows. Wynonna Earp seems to have accurately approximated how good it is – a bit silly, low budget, but fun and with a solid story – and to have embraced that level of quality to allow it to have both a sense of humour while taking its ridiculous core concepts seriously. It’s a balance that I haven’t felt a genre show has got quite right since Buffy the Vampire Slayer (with the possible exception of Hannibal, if you consider it to be a genre show). It’s not the only comparison one can make between Wynonna Earp and Buffy, and part of the reason I like Wynonna Earp so much is because it comes out of these comparisons surprisingly well.
This post contains spoilers for Buffy the Vampire Slayer (primarily season 7); I don’t think anything I say about Wynonna Earp could be considered a spoiler.
The standout feature of Wynonna Earp for me is Wynonna’s little sister Waverly. Waverly could almost intentionally be the most successful answer to the question “but what if the writers of Buffy had actually cared about the character of Dawn Summers after season 5?” Now, it’s essential to realise here that I have felt that Dawn was the most underused character in Buffy for ages – it is particularly acute in season 7, where we are first given a glimpse at possible development for Dawn’s story in “Lessons” (S7 Ep1) in which she briefly learns to fight and makes some friends, before being side-lined except for a brief crush on a boy (“Him”, S7 Ep6) and being told by her own dead mother that she’s not going to play much of a role from now on (“Conversations with Dead People”, S7 Ep7). But it began in season 6, where her kleptomania storyline essentially just fizzles out, and continues in spin-off media where she is either given ridiculous nonsense storylines or completely erased, as if fake memories of her had never been inserted into Buffy and friends’ heads. The exception that proves the rule is “Potential” (S7 Ep12), in which Dawn is (incorrectly) identified as one of the Slayers-in-waiting around whom that the season revolves, ending with the message that she doesn’t have to be special to be extraordinary. She spends the rest of the series largely in the background, researching, referring to herself in the finale as “Watcher junior,” referring to the group that researches demons and supernatural events to provide support to the Slayers (“Chosen” S7 Ep22).
Waverly Earp is the youngest of the three Earp sisters. In the world of Wynonna Earp, Wyatt Earp had children, but he and his descendants were cursed: whenever the heir to the Earp name turns twenty-seven, the seventy-seven people Wyatt Earp put to death resurrect as demon-like creatures called Revenants that only the heir can kill – and only with Wyatt’s gun, Peacemaker. Waverly’s oldest sister, Willa, is supposed to be the Earp heir, but is killed by Revenants aged twelve; the middle sister, the eponymous Wynonna, thus becomes the heir when she turns twenty-seven and returns to Purgatory, the Midwestern town to which the Revenants are restricted. In the intervening fifteen years, Waverly has researched the crap out of the Earp curse, studied ancient languages, including Latin (is est totaliter stupet balls), by correspondence, and generally been the more responsible of the Earp sisters, choosing to remain in Purgatory and face their responsibilities. But she isn’t the heir and she knows it. As much as she tries not to resent Wynonna for being the heir – especially given how reluctant Wynonna is about it – Waverly can’t help but feel like she’s put in all the work only to play a supporting role. It’s as if the creator of Wynonna Earp watched “Potential” and thought, “but what if that were only the beginning?”
Where Wynonna Earp succeeds over Buffy in this respect is that while Waverly isn’t exactly the starring role, she’s a standout character with her own storylines and development rather than being restricted to background support. Waverly’s frustration with having only a supporting role despite her talents is taken seriously, recognised by her sister and by Wynonna’s government-sponsored boss, Marshall Xavier Dolls, and allows her to develop as part of the demon-fighting team. I think that this resonates with me because over the fourteen years since Buffy came to an end I have both reflected on how little was done with the character of Dawn after she was a major plot device in season 5 of Buffy, and how subsequent spin-off comics have failed to do anything much with her, even though she spells it out for them by describing herself as ‘Watcher junior’ in “Chosen”. It feels like the frustrations that bubbled under the surface of Dawn’s character that were usually dismissed as those of a child are taken seriously when expressed by Waverly, allowing her to be the fully-developed version of Dawn.
Perhaps the best thing about Waverly, though, is that while the frustration of being an overlooked younger sibling forms a significant part of her identity and was one of the initial reasons I started to love the show, it’s not the only – or even the best – thing about her. The season 1 finale came with several gut-punches with regard to Waverly and so it will be interesting to see if she’s just as amazeballs in season 2.