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Kipo creator Rad Sechrist and showrunner Bill Wolkoff on loss, redemption, and K-pop narwhals

L to R: Rad Sechrist (Rad Sechrist) and Bill Wilkoff (Bill Wilkoff) 
L to R: Rad Sechrist (Rad Sechrist) and Bill Wilkoff (Bill Wilkoff) 
Graphic: The A.V. Club
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This article discusses events from season three of Kipo And The Age Of Wonderbeasts

If the reality of Kipo And The Age Of Wonderbeasts’ end still stings, then hopefully the final shot of aged-up Kipo, Wolf, and Benson thriving on the flourishing surface after taking down acerbic foe Dr. Emilia serves as the well-earned balm. As the innovative DreamWorks animated series concludes its swift three-season run, fans can now watch all 30 episodes on Netflix. The final ten episodes provided their fair share of heartache and dreamy, technicolor triumph. Thankfully, series creator Rad Sechrist and showrunner Bill Wolkoff were willing to chat with The A.V. Club about Kipo’s sprawling journey, Scarlemagne’s redemption, and the likelihood of revisiting this world in the future.

The A.V. Club: Kipo felt like a dream of a series. Part of its whirlwind nature can be attributed to the fact that all three seasons dropped in 2020. Was the plan always to have the series arrive in one year?

Rad Sechrist: We made it as if we were making one long movie, all 30 episodes at once. In terms of the day-to-day, we were just plowing through the whole thing and didn’t know how often Netflix would drop it once we handed it over. In a way, I kind of like that they did it in one year because it almost feels like a movie. On all the movies I’ve worked on, so many good scenes get cut. It’s almost like getting do a movie with all the extra scenes.

Bill Wolkoff: We knew from the beginning that we were going to do this in 30 episodes, and you don’t often get that in TV. There’s a lot of big unknowns and a great lesson that we were able to take away was that anything we wanted to save for season five or season six, we were like, “no, bring that up now.” I think it really propelled this story forward in a good way and let us really explore the big picture of what we wanted to tell in that trilogy framework.

AVC: The show involved so much worldbuilding. Which community of Wonderbeasts will you both miss the most?

RS: I think I have to go with the Newton Wolves.

BW: I will agree that we did not get to spend as much time as I would have liked to with Newton Wolves. That’s the beauty of this world: It will feel like it still exists beyond the edges of it. It’s hard to beat the Timbercats. We do get a lot of time with them in season three, and I’ve been sad since we finished writing the series. I’ve had a little bit of a Timbercat-shaped hole in my heart.

AVC: The Timbercats were my favorite until this season, when we meet the K-pop narwhals, Hyun-Soo [Raymond J. Lee] & The Narhartz. Who do we thank for that?

BW: I want to credit the entire staff for that. It came out of Kristine Songco, one of our head writers. She’s really into K-pop and introduced it to everybody in the room who hadn’t been as familiar with it before. And another one of our writers, Leore Berris, had been pushing for narwhals to be in the series since the day she came into the Kipo offices and we’d been looking for a way to do it. It was like that old ’80s Reese’s commercial where the lady walking down the street eating a jar of peanut butter crashes into some dude eating chocolate. It was like that with the K-pop and the narwhals.

AVC: Digging a little further into season three: Scarlemagne’s [Dan Stevens] evolution was a tricky one to navigate because you’re dealing with a figure who had oppressive intentions. Normally, that’s not a character you’d want to humanize. These past two seasons, however, really laid the groundwork of his traumatic origin story in a way that clearly expressed how he arrived to his feelings toward humans. How did you arrive to a trajectory that allowed his growth in a way that didn’t play down his initially dangerous nature? 

RS: It’s interesting; I don’t know that that was our original plan. Back in the very beginning when Bill and I were talking, we were heading toward a target. I feel like he was a big bad of the mutes and Emilia was a big bad of the humans and as things were written, it kind of took a life of its own in the writers room and went down that path.

BW: As Kipo evolved and was tested, that also pushed Scarlemagne into a different place. For us, I think he represents the sins of humanity and a outgrown resentments that came from that. That’s where we started with him and we push that resentment against this relentlessly positive force of Kipo, who is tested on the surface over and over again with the legacy that humans left— the mistreatment of our world and animals that Scarlemagne represents. Yet, she is this super force of positivity that still wants to see the good that’s in the world and embrace it. When we linked them up as actually being related, seasons two and three became a test of wills between Kipo and Scarlemagne’s attitudes and Kipo’s is so strong that it pulls Scarlemagne into his redemption arc without negating the very legitimate reasons for being so angry and resentful.

AVC: Kipo’s greatest superpower is arguably her ability to befriend anybody and break through to their better nature, but we don’t see that happen with Dr. Emilia, who is easily this world’s darkest villain. What made you decide that she would be where we draw the line when it comes to Kipo’s ability to save everyone? 

RS: It’s interesting because when you look at the two backstories, you feel bad for Scarlemagne. When you watch [Dr. Emilia’s] backstory, you understand she’s been raised in this world where her belief system is so strong that she thinks it’s worth it to kill somebody she loves over it. She would have to actually take a look at herself, and if she said, “My belief system is wrong,” she’d have to accept that killing her brother, who she loved, was also wrong. I feel like it would take a whole season to deal with that. You can’t just readily accept that.

BW: Thematically, the show deals with someone who finds a world that is unrecognizable and scary in season one and she’s able to see the wonder in it and embrace that change. Dr. Emilia just seemed perfectly poised to occupy the opposite side of that spectrum as somebody who wanted to fight against change at all costs. That felt like a recognizable villain, a larger force to push against. It didn’t feel as right to redeem Dr. Emilia.

AVC: How did the current political landscape play into how this story was shaped, if at all?

RS: Trump was literally just elected when we started. There was a definite divide in the country and people were talking about deporting people and there was just general racism and negativity. It was just a day-to-day thing that everybody was thinking about.

BW: Fear of progress is so baked into every part of our world. I think 2020 has been very crazy and unique in its own right, but I do think it’s an extension of what we’ve been building up to even before the last three years. When I first saw Rad’s web comic, that’s what I responded to—Kipo reacting positively to this world that is changing and scary, but still finding that it could actually be a good thing and not being afraid of that.

It was also important from the beginning to show the Los Angeles that we both know, so our casting very racially and ethnically diverse. When we were starting, it was rare to see a cast like that. It was important to us to realistically depict the world that we recognized, only frozen until 200 years later.

AVC: That approach definitely helped in building an inclusive fanbase. In particular, there’s a lot of support for Benson, who we once recognized as leading the latest wave of young queer characters. We’ve also talked to creators of other queer-centric shows, like She-Ra’s Noelle Stevenson and Steven Universe’s Rebecca Sugar, both of whom overcame serious roadblocks in order to present their characters as queer. Bill, as the writer of the season one episode “Rat Land,” did you experience any of the same resistance in regards to Benson addressing his gay identity so frankly or his relationship with Troy thereafter?

BW: Fortunately, we did not, and I want to credit creators like Rebecca Sugar, Noelle Stevenson, and I’m sure many others before them for fighting those really difficult battles before Kipo came along. I was on a show called Once Upon A Time on ABC, where this battle came up so many times. We were just at DreamWorks, going to Netflix at the right time. Benson was actually an adult in Rad’s comic and, though it wasn’t explicitly stated, he was also gay. From our first conversation, I was so excited to treat this like you would treat a cisgender, hetero relationship. We could treat it like a coming-of-age story. We knew that we had these young characters together and that romance was going to come into the picture. Episode six felt like the time when innocent teenage crushes might start to come up, so that episode was a great place to really have that come out.

I am so happy that “Rat Land” has meant so much to young gay kids, especially young Black kids. When I was writing it, I was seeing it through Kipo’s eyes, somebody who is just turning 13 and is starting to have romantic feelings for other people for the first time in her life. She [misinterprets] his friendship and he, being a little bit older, isn’t aware that taking her out on your birthday might give the wrong impression. So it was her coming-of- age story, but we were able to platform a little bit more of who Benson was and follow through with him having a gay relationship in a very significant way. And Troy went through many different versions before we landed on [the final iteration]. But we were planning from the very beginning for Benson to have a relationship that would go throughout the series.

RS: When we sold the show [to DreamWorks] and told them that there was a gay character, Peter Gal, who I think was the head of development at the time, said to us, “Your character has to say the words ‘I’m gay’ very explicitly,” which I thought was really cool.

BW: It was truly like stars aligning. We were at the right place at the right time to tell this story. And I also think part of it was that we didn’t have IP baggage. This is not a legacy show, it was a brand new property. So there wasn’t a big toy company that would also have to weigh in on that or something.

AVC: One of the things that was very distinct about the season is that there’s a lot of loss, which we didn’t encounter in the first two seasons. Here, we actually see the consequences of what a world in Emilia’s hands would look like. What made you decide to really go for it in season three? Also, why Yumyan Hammerpaw?

RS: Because he’s the most loved and wants to cause the most amount of pain. [Laughs]

BW: We never wanted the show to feel like the stakes weren’t real. And sometimes for those stakes to be real, there has to be consequences and loss. I think in the best comedies in the world, there’s also sadness because that’s kind of what life is. When I was a kid I didn’t always like it, but I really grew to appreciate it because it stuck with me and it helped me process the world around me. At heart, Kipo is comedy-forward, it’s a fun adventure, but the stakes are real. And that’s why we wanted there to be loss. And I guess I would agree with Rad. When we were thinking about it, it just broke my heart to have Yumyan be cured. But that’s part of it.

AVC: There was that really beautiful bit at the end where Kipo, Benson, and Wolf are aged up, happy, and going on adventures. What is the likelihood of a continuation of this story?

RS: We’d love to do a bunch of stuff, so Hulu, Amazon, whoever, reach out. Hit us up. Netflix doesn’t want to do it, but maybe someone else will do it. [Laughs]

BW: One of my favorite authors, Douglas Adams, originally said The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy was a trilogy and then he wrote five books. If you look at seasons one, two, and three as a trilogy, I would say right now that I would be happy to do some form of a five or ten-season trilogy.

RS: Yeah, we’d love to keep working on stuff. It’s just a fun sandbox to play in.

BW: If there is a way to continue the story after a little bit of time to think about how to bring it forward and continue telling it in a different way, 100% yes, we would like to do that.