Writer Shelley Scarrow on How She Grounded Wynonna Earp’s Jolene in Real Life Stories

SYFY / Bell Media
SYFY / Bell Media

Demons. Everybody’s got them in some shape or form, right? While on the most recent episode of Wynonna Earp, Zoie Palmer’s Jolene turned out to be an actual demon, her story, as well as Waverly’s (Dominique Provost-Chalkley) fight against her to drown out the negative thoughts she was spewing, was one that many viewers could relate to. Jolene breezed into Purgatory under the guise of offering up all kinds of sweet baked goods to Wynonna (Melanie Scrofano) and her gang, but it turned out she was actually the demon that Mama Earp (Megan Follows) had been fighting against and trying to save Waverly from for years.

Near the end of the episode, there’s a scene between Waverly and Jolene where Jolene is saying all kinds of mean and hurtful things as she tries to get Waverly to end her life. She whispers to her how no one loves her and that everyone hates her. Even if you haven’t suffered from depression, we’re all guiltying of saying these kinds of negative thoughts to ourselves from time to time. Co-executive producer Shelley Scarrow, who wrote the episode that was directed by Paolo Barzman, drew upon her personal experiences to write “Jolene,” an episode that emotionally affected many of the show’s fans. Scarrow was gracious enough to take some time to share with The TV Junkies more about the motivations behind Jolene and how she was able to ground the demon character in real life experiences.

 

The TV Junkies: For most of the episode, Jolene is one of those people we’ve all ran across who seem really nice on the outside but you know is evil underneath. Emily mentioned that you based a lot of that character off of past run-ins you’ve had with mean girls, even as an adult. Can you expand on that at all?

Shelley Scarrow: I think the story that stuck with Emily came up in the room when we were figuring out how Jolene operated. It was about a time I was with a bunch of exhausted mothers of small kids and we were huddled over boxes of wine and trying to figure out who we were again. One of the ladies asked in a hushed voice – ‘I know this is totally taboo, but do you have a favourite, of your children?’ There were nervous giggles but slowly we all started to admit some very raw and real feelings. One of us preferred the ‘easy’ child, one of us felt more deeply for the one who’d been ill as an infant and needed her more, one of us just plain didn’t understand her son and felt she’d never really ‘like’ him… It was really terrifying to say these things aloud when ‘good’ mothers aren’t supposed to feel them.

In a rosé-soaked way, it started to feel almost empowering. But after the rest of us had confessed, I asked the questioner which of her kids she preferred. And you know what she said? ‘Mmm, I don’t really have a favourite, I love both of them completely equally. I guess it is possible.’ She shrugged and went to refill her glass. And I wanted to scream – ‘Bullshit, lady! I see your giant lie!’ But I’m not that person and she probably knew that none of us had the wherewithal to call her on it in that moment. She’d just gotten power over every one of us, made all of us feel badly, learned some of our ugliest feelings, and hadn’t given up a single card of her own. And the thing is, she wasn’t the alpha, she wasn’t a terrible person in any other way. I liked her!

But in the room, the story helped us all kind of identify – OH, THAT’S JOLENE. She figures out your own weakness, sometimes getting you to give them up yourself. Then she curves it around to aim it straight at you — but her own strings remain stubbornly invisible. She gathers up every bit of emotional strychnine she can find and squirrels it away while you think you’re just hanging out…

SYFY / Bell Media
SYFY / Bell Media

TTVJ: While “Jolene” has a lot of really fun elements to it — the weird baking, karaoke, a bar brawl — things get very dark at the end of the episode between Jolene and Waverly. There’s a lot happening in that scene but the first takeaway I had was that you present this very real way to fight depression — by remembering the people you love. Can you expand upon that angle of the scene a bit?

SS: Emily is a brave showrunner and person in terms of wanting to genuinely depict and discuss mental illness. She thinks a lot about Wynonna’s past issues with mental health and her fears of becoming Mama Earp, of going mad in some way at some time again. It felt interesting that we found this story for Waverly, though, because she’s the one who is struggling with her identity right now. Not knowing who her father is, confronting her mother’s life in the institution and Wynonna’s part in keeping that from her, being surprised by some of Nicole’s past… It’s a L-O-T.

I think when you’re overwhelmed, questioning everything, that’s when some of these hopeless and scary thoughts start to push in on you. What we were trying to say with the story was that you have to find the cornerstone of your life — and hold on to it for dear life as the storm rages. The power of the Earp Sisterhood is undeniable and at the very center of Emily’s vision. A big part of my storytelling job is remembering that. So when everything else is shaking and quaking and feels like it might fall on Waverly’s head, that’s the ‘one true thing’ she remembers to grab onto. The love she and Wynonna have is unshakable.

Then we see her build on that foundation right away, it triggers the genuine faith she has that she and Nicole have something very special, and then she’s on to recalling the power and solidarity of the team… She can see her own importance in their lives reflected back at her, her very necessity in loving them. She realizes she can fight back, and has to. It felt good to see her do that. I found her winging that shovel at Jolene extremely therapeutic!

It also feels important to say that I’m not in any way a mental health expert. What we were trying to do was tell a story about a kickass demon with a difference. I have met and fought my own Jolenes, though, so I guess I’m speaking from there. Professional help was key in helping me learn to ‘swing my shovel’ and I highly recommend that anyone who feels overwhelmed talk to someone they trust as soon as possible.

SYFY / Bell Media
SYFY / Bell Media

TTVJ: I know in the preview for this episode you mentioned drawing on post-partum depression as well for Jolene. Can you explain what you mean by that?

SS: I found it a helpful real-world framework for looking at Michelle’s journey in this script, and the season. It helped me ground her. That’s one of the things I really cherish about Emily’s show – the real-world feelings in this cuckoo-bananas world get as much story weight as the crazy, otherworldly beasts. That’s why I liked having this frame.

Michelle’s love for her child was immediately and irrevocably changed by what was born along with her baby and she had to shift her role as a mother from what she had wanted it to be to something harder. And post-partum does that. Michelle simply couldn’t parent Waverly the same way she’d parented her other daughters – because of something external, something she was helpless against. That helped me understand some of the differences in the way she treats Waverly. Trying to shield her daughter from the demon felt like the only thing she could possibly do, and she couldn’t think about the relationship consequences because the demon was so urgent.

It spoke to her secrecy about the demon too, the reluctance to admit that something had gone wrong in bringing this child into the world. She tries to shoulder it all alone. In the story she has to – because Demonology – but the post-partum version is the very real difficulty in admitting what is happening. Depression goes against beliefs society holds dear about mothers and what their ‘natural’ feelings for their children ought to be.

Jolene’s baking felt like another way of turning nurturing against the characters, and thematically tied it back to maternal expression. It can be hard to confront the reality of a mother who struggles with depression or addiction or isolation, because it is so against the perfect mommy image people cling to. So while Waverly is trying to realize and confront the reality of what’s happened to her mother and to her, the other characters are, in a way, trying to pretend everything is fine. The magical scones are helping(!) but everyone wants things to be OK. Waverly’s insistence that something is wrong won’t let them – so they end up aiming anger at her.

That the demon/illness eventually was passed on to Waverly links into the way depression can pass through families. It can ride along in your genes, or it can be a legacy of the direct behavioural effects depression can pass down through families (such as alcoholism, abuse or absentee parenting.)

SYFY / Bell Media
SYFY / Bell Media

TTVJ: On a lighter note, you mentioned in the preview that you’d share which character’s mom would’ve baked Snickerdoodles. Could you share that with us now?

SS: Nerd alert, nerd alert…

I have slowly and obsessively stuffed my home with hundreds of cookbooks. But my favourites are historical or community cookbooks and I grab them wherever I travel. It’s my form of anthropology, only it tastes better. I read them like novels.

So I was really excited to think about everybody’s favourite treats, but most especially Doc’s. I had a week to write the script and I swear I spent one whole day deep-diving on this. He loved his mother, Alice Jane McKey Holliday, deeply and spent a number of years alone with her while his father was fighting in the Civil War. I felt like whatever she made for him in this time would have been significant in his memory (like Proust’s madeleines,) especially as she died when he was just 14. German immigration was huge in this era, bringing German bakeries and recipes. The snickerdoodle is based on one of these German cookies. Though it is historically tied further north, to New England and Pennsylvania, Alice was a refined society woman so it seemed feasible she would have learned about this sugar cookie variant. Plus, it was really fun to think about Tim drawling the word ‘snickerdoodle’, and the result was a thousand times better than the picture in my mind.

I try to make life for production easy, but I have to say Emily was DELIGHTFULLY supportive when I threw tantrums about what everyone’s fave Jolene bakes HAD to be. Big thanks to the props department for not rolling their eyes at how weirdly specific I was (or at least not so loudly that I heard their eyeballs from across the country.)

What did you think of the way “Jolene” discussed mental health? Add your thoughts below!

Wynonna Earp airs Fridays at 9 p.m. ET on SYFY and Space Channel.

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