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Photos: Michelle Faye/Wynonna Earp Productions, Inc./Syfy

Freed from the curse that started it, Wynonna Earp became a meditation on heroism

Photos: Michelle Faye/Wynonna Earp Productions, Inc./Syfy
Graphic: Natalie Peeples

When Wynonna Earp (Melanie Scrofano) returns to her hometown of Purgatory in the pilot episode of her eponymous show, it’s not a happy homecoming. No one except her sister Waverly (Dominique Provost-Chalkley) is happy to see her, and her own aunt asks her to leave town, telling her she’s “as broken as they come.”

The episode is quick to demonstrate why people think that about Wynonna. She drinks too much, she’s got a criminal record, and most importantly, she told a terrifying story about her father and older sister being dragged off by demons as a kid, thus getting herself institutionalized and forever branded as an erratic liar. But of course, she and Waverly both know that the town is haunted by a group of demons called Revenants, who are all the outlaws her ancestor Wyatt Earp killed. Every time a new Earp heir turns 27, as Wynonna does in the pilot, the Revenants are resurrected to wreak havoc on the town until they’re shot by the heir wielding Peacemaker, Wyatt’s legendary gun.

It’s a curse that hangs over the whole town, which suffers through the violent crimes committed by the Revenants, but is braided into the fabric of Wynonna’s life with a painful inevitability. Raised to think she’s unworthy, she nonetheless demonstrates an obvious heroism from the beginning of the series, and a madcap ability to take on the responsibilities of her ancestors. But paired with that from the jump is an uncomfortable sense of joy in her gory task. It becomes the one thing she knows she can do—her life may be a mess in every other way, but she’s righteous in her fury, confident in her aptitude to wield Peacemaker, and thrilled, at last, to be able to protect Waverly, who she abandoned years earlier.

Over its four-season run, which comes to a close on April 9, the show mined ample conflict from Wynonna’s efforts to tangle with various Revenants and her messy, perpetually on/off relationship with Doc Holliday (Tim Rozon), who here is both paramour and occasional antagonist. In the world of Wynonna Earp, Doc is a morally ambiguous figure, a man who’s been either cursed or blessed with long life but not the emotional intelligence to avoid making an utter hash of things. The two circle each other throughout the first three seasons, often at odds but even more often united, particularly in their fierce desire to protect Waverly, who wins Doc to her side just as capably as she does everyone else (an important life skill for a character who is in peril as often as she is).

Tim Rozon and Dominique Provost-Chalkley in Syfy's Wynonna Earp
Tim Rozon and Dominique Provost-Chalkley
Photo: Michelle Faye/Wynonna Earp Productions, Inc./Syfy

But with the end of the third season, the show embarked on a new direction: The trio defeated Bulshar, the demon responsible for the curse, thus lifting the curse and freeing Wynonna from her Earp responsibilities. It was a sharp change for the show, but not without its twists: Bulshar is the one who ultimately breaks the curse, but Waverly is able to make Wynonna the town’s chosen savior again, thus ensuring she can continue using Peacemaker to take down demons.

When Wynonna Earp returned for a fourth season following a bewildering 18-month odyssey of funding difficulties, near-cancellation, and miraculous recovery just as dramatic as anything happening onscreen, it felt like a very different beast. On some level, the series needed to grapple with some emotional distance caused by being on hiatus for so long, but the fourth season also offered a creative reset, and a chance to take the characters down new paths. No longer would Wynonna be beholden to a century-plus old curse. Instead, she’d have her abilities but no specific task to apply them to beyond her own sense of what justice needed to be done. But after she, Doc, and Waverly return home after getting temporarily trapped in a demonic Garden Of Eden, Wynonna once more found a town that wasn’t particularly glad to see her. Their mission had lasted 18 months, and in her absence, a new balance of power had emerged that didn’t include her. Another historic enemy of the Earps, the Clanton family, had taken over the town, while a collection of demons arrived to settle in to the now heir-free area. No matter: She’d rally again, and take care of the situation.

Wynonna Earp has always given its heroes and villains some degree of nuance, and this new group was no exception. The Clantons are cartoonishly evil, but they’re also suffering from their own curse, and it becomes clear that the abusive matriarch of the family, Margot (Paula Boudreau), has the younger generation terrified to disobey. But they’re in opposition to the Earp family, both historically, and because in the long absence of the Earp sisters, Waverly’s girlfriend Nicole (Katherine Barrell) has made an unsavory deal with them in order to bring Waverly back—a deal that comes due at her own peril. It’s enough for the Earps to take immediate action. Waverly murders Margot in a rage, but Doc, who’s come back from their latest misadventure with a new commitment to being a good person, talks Holt, the newest Clanton leader, down from continuing the feud, and the two of them start to walk away from the fight. Until Wynonna uses Peacemaker, slayer of countless evil demons, to kill Holt as he walks away from her. It’s an awful thing to do, and no one on the show pretends otherwise.

The act fundamentally breaks Wynonna’s relationship with Doc, even after she tries to convince him that what unites them is how broken they both are, and reveals that Margot was behind the attempted kidnapping of their baby. But it’s too late. This Doc isn’t the one who drank away his problems and made bad deals with bad people. This one has fully committed to becoming a better man, and suddenly his broken pieces don’t quite align with Wynonna’s anymore. As he tries to start a new life in Purgatory and forge a bond with the scary-looking but not-that-menacing demons who have settled there, Wynonna is freed from the moral righteousness the curse had given her. Instead, she’s just a menace with a gun, taking out whatever demonic creatures cross her path, regardless of whether they’re endangering anyone.

Katherine Barrell as Nicole Haught
Katherine Barrell
Photo: Michelle Faye/Wynonna Earp Productions, Inc./Syfy

Doc and Wynonna are held up as parallel examples of what people choose to do with their own flaws, but also as different takes on heroism. Doc proves that walking away from the fight is often the more heroic path to take, while Wynonna becomes a tragic reminder of how a sense of moral righteousness can make someone commit terrible acts. Suddenly, all the darker qualities that have haunted her throughout the show come to the fore. Her fun drunk side becomes her angry problem-drinker side. The confidence that she’s built up as a consequence of her repeated heroism turns toxic. She can fire Peacemaker; therefore, she’s acting righteously. And if Doc doesn’t love her anymore, then at least she can keep doing the thing that she’s good at, and that she knows must be the right thing to do. She was the Earp heir, after all.

The series has nodded to this possibility all along—even as Wynonna rallied the Revenants to her cause at the end of the third season, she did so by telling them “I fucking loved hunting and killing you guys.” And her effort to kill Bulshar is shaded by her need to be the hero. She drugs Nicole to prevent her from coming along on the mission, which she frames as an effort to protect her, but can quite easily be read as an effort to remain the main hero in Waverly’s life. “You don’t get to decide who matters,” Nicole tells Wynonna angrily after she’s recovered.

The final couple of episodes bear the unmistakable vibe of a show that knows it’s ending: Wynonna goes from shooting demons while blackout drunk to redemption with Doc awfully quickly, rescuing him from a new curse because she knows he’s too ethical to shoot her when her own back is turned, and admitting he was right about their showdown with the Clantons.

It’s hard not to wonder where the show would have gone with the arc had it had a fifth season to explore the concept, but as is, it’s a bold creative choice to end on, taking a swipe at its own mythologizing of Wynonna’s actions. Can anyone with that kind of power be trusted to decide how to use it? If Wynonna’s self-hatred and taste for violence made her an effective Earp heir, what was she supposed to do with those parts of herself once she was free? (Therapy, and a lot of it.) Any show with a protagonist whose darker facets are this entangled with her successes is going to have fertile ground to cover once the stakes of her battles changed, and Wynonna has the misfortune of retaining all the power she’d had prior to losing the structure and purpose of her mission—she’s never had to learn not to act. She may have wanted to break her curse, but it’s a lot harder to break free of all the messiness that accrues alongside a life lived this recklessly. Rushed though it was, the arc was still a way for the show to go out on its own terms, revealing Wynonna’s series-long self-destructive tendencies as the crutch they always were, and showing how catastrophic it can be for a powerful person to believe that power imbues right. Wynonna Earp may have had a run marred by forces beyond its control, but at least in the case of its titular heroine, she got the chance to rise above them.

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Lisa is a writer and editor based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.