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2020 Performer of The Year - Readers' Choice Most Outstanding Performer of 2020 - Katherine Barrell

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This article was written by Aimee Hicks, Donna Cromeans, and Ellys Cartin. The article was edited by Donna Cromeans (DJRiter). The open and close of the article were written by Aimee Hicks. Prepared for publishing by Aimee Hicks.

Every character has a shining moment where the audience takes notice of them, but how things evolve from that point rests solely in the hands of the performer tasked to nurture that character into existence. To take a character from being noticed to being indelibly ingrained in the very fabric of the lexicon of pop culture requires a performer of exceptional talent to accomplish. Syfy’s Wynonna Earp is a rare show that has a cast made up almost entirely of performers that fit this description. Even with that in mind, Katherine Barrell stands out even while surrounded by talented castmates. From her very first auspicious steps into Shorty’s as Nicole Haught, Barrell emitted a magnetic pull so strong that a viewer couldn’t help but shift their attention to her. From that moment on, she brought a charm and charisma to Nicole that to this day goes beyond captivating and edges into mesmerizing.

Four seasons later and Barrell’s performances are still just as captivating as they were in those early days. In fact, each season, she seems to grow and evolve as a performer. It would be easy to say that she peaked in the first half of Season 4, for which she won this title, but that clearly isn’t the case. Despite giving what was easily six episodes of her best performances to date, she still has so much left to offer Nicole Haught and the industry. The six episodes that embodied the first half of Season 4 saw Nicole challenged in a whole plethora of ways and at each step of the journey Barrell was there making sure that the audience felt everything Nicole was experiencing. Whether it be excruciating pain, heartbreaking sacrifice, or passionate love, Barrell took the audience along for it all. Her ability to captivate and entertain the audience with such unbridled talent and commitment to her craft has earned Katherine Barrell the title of SpoilerTV’s Readers’ Choice 2020 Performer of the Year.

Continue reading below to find out our thoughts regarding her performance. After reading, please leave your thoughts in the comments.

Despite Wynonna Earp being off the air for such a long time it was as if no time had passed when Barrell stepped back into Nicole’s shoes. For the character we saw in the first episode back that fact was true, very little time had passed. However, by the time we actually see Nicole again in the second episode over 18-months have passed. What were the differences you observed in how she portrayed Nicole in On the Road Again (4x1) versus in Friends in Low Places (4x2) and the continuation of the reunion in Look at Them Beans (4x3)?

Aimee: These two episodes gave Barrell a lot of material to work with. The season premiere saw Barrell have to guide the desperate Nicole through a labyrinth of challenges to try to reach Waverly (Dominique Provost-Chalkley) which all culminated in horrible injury. That character was still full of hope and belief that everything would work out because that’s how it has always happened in the past. Then came the second episode which allowed Barrell to first play the faux-Nicole also known as the evil Eve of the garden as well as a pre-separation version of Nicole all before returning to embody the real Nicole. The Nicole that the audience and Waverly were re-introduced to at the end of the second episode was broken and without hope, she was a character who had endured eighteen months of hell. The way Barrell played the reunion scene hinted that this was, for the first time since their separation, Nicole smiled or felt whole. The way she played their reunion made it appear like each touch by Waverly and each kiss was slowly knitting together things in Nicole that eighteen months of separation had shattered inside this normally rock steady character. Even though Barrell showed that the reunion did a lot to start to heal Nicole, her performance as she told Waverly how long they had been apart showed that she was still a character in flux. Things had happened in their time apart that not even Waverly’s loving touch could instantly fix. The juxtaposition between confident hopeful Nicole in the season premiere and this traumatized broken Nicole showed just a small fraction of the exceptional range Barrell has, but it was an exceptional performance.

Donna: The first three episodes of this season were a master class in acting from Barrell. She gave us her ability to play dark and evil as Eve in the Garden, she was the overwhelmed and drawn sheriff defending the homestead when Waverly returned, and then although Nicole was relieved and happy to have her love back, there was the weary and beaten down Nicole fighting her feelings of relief and resentment at being left alone to defend the city. Three very distinct takes on essentially the same character exquisitely showcasing Barrell’s considerable range as an actress.

Ellys: When Nicole is first reintroduced in at the end of the second episode, she has spent eighteen months apart from the other main characters, but details about her experience are only slowly unveiled. Yet the moment Waverly reunites with Nicole due to Barrell’s performance the audience immediately knows things are not ordinary. The fearful tension Barrell holds in her body indicates a level of uneasy watchfulness, and even the passionate tenderness with which she consumes Waverly in their love scene is fraught with desperation to seize a moment before it can be taken away. Over the next couple of episodes, Nicole tries and fails to meet her friends as if their lives together haven’t been interrupted, in a way becoming the audience’s stand-in for having to adjust to the jarring new normal.

After being separated from her friends Nicole found herself as the de facto-guardian of Rachel (Martina Ortiz-Luis). Look At Them Beans (4x3) and Afraid (4x4) were good showcases for their dynamic. How differently do you think Barrell portrays Nicole with the adult characters versus how she portrays Nicole when working opposite of Ortiz-Luis? Did you like watching Barrell fulfill a motherly protective role? Nicole’s dynamics with Nedley (Greg Lawson) also underwent a transformation after she discovered that he was the ogre that had been terrorizing the homestead. In addition, her friendship with Jeremy (Varun Saranga) also evolved to the point she trusted him to kill her in order to save her. In your opinion, how did Barrell handle each of these unique bonds for Nicole? How was her performance different with each of her fellow co-stars to bring about each unique relationship?

Aimee: Here is one of the things that I think makes Barrell such a powerhouse, she is adaptable. It is obvious that she has taken considerable time to craft a unique relationship with each of her castmates that she can then translate to the way her character interacts with each of their characters. That has been a gift that has served her well since very early on in the run of the series. Given how long she has been working with Lawson and Saranga I didn’t see much difference in how she interacted with them. She made slight adjustments to accommodate Nicole’s headspace, but still handled Nicole’s relationship with Nedley and Jeremy very much similarly to how she had in past seasons. To me the real unique bond this season came with Ortiz-Luis’s Rachel. That was an entirely new dynamic we had not seen Barrell tackle before and it was fun being reminded of how easily she can click Nicole into new dynamics. Up until now we’d only really seen Barrell have to traverse adult relationships with Nicole, so to see Nicole have to take on a parental role was really quite fascinating to watch.

It all started in the second episode when Nicole was injured and left behind as the sole person responsible for Rachel. Despite intense agony Nicole found a way to be positive and reassuring for Rachel. There was this shift while Rachel was talking where Nicole almost appeared to be giving into her injuries. Then she had a realization that Rachel needed her and through all her pain she not only managed to formulate a plan to save them but managed to save them. Barrell’s ability to show Nicole dig deep and find the strength to save them said so much about the character’s inner strength. The way Barrell played that moment so brilliantly also showed the birth of Nicole’s protective nature over Rachel. She would go on to show the evolution of that relationship as the season continued. Another great example was in Afraid where after Billy (Billy Bryk) said goodbye to Rachel, Barrell had this deep concerned look come over Nicole’s face as she watched her young charge. As soon as Rachel appeared to need comfort, Barrell softened Nicole’s look and immediately took on the role of a maternal figure there to comfort Rachel in her time of need. The other character dynamics we have seen Barrell master over the seasons, but this one, maybe it was because it was new, or maybe it’s just because it was different, stood out. Barrell took charge of this new dynamic and made it feel organic and gave it all the emotional gravitas it needed to have a real impact on Nicole and the story as a whole.

Donna: I think regardless of how close she had been to Jeremy there was still a sort of distrust lurking behind her encounters with them. She understood that he’d done what he needed to survive and ultimately came to realize that Jeremy was just that a survivor, and perhaps the only one around her strong enough to understand he had to kill her to guarantee her survival. She counted on his strength, that he would put his emotions aside, to do what needed to be done. Barrell’s chemistry with Lawson has been one of my favorite parts of the show. The gruff Nedley becomes almost teddy-bearish and extremely protective when it comes to Nicole. In Nedley, Nicole has the father figure she needs. Watching her protective nature come out when she realized the monster was Nedley was perfectly played by Barrell. The maternal side to Nicole was an interesting twist brought about by her reactions with Ortiz-Luis. At first it appeared they were going to play it more as a big sister/little sister relationship maybe even echoing Waverly and Wynonna, but then Barrell gave Nicole that more maternal streak, being firm when she needed to be, then understanding and compassionate as she tried to guide Rachel. Some of that may have to do with both being survivors of a catastrophic event that cost them a parent, whatever the reason, the bond between the two became obvious as Barrell and Ortiz-Luis played off one another so beautifully

Ellys: Barrell’s mom/big sister energy when Nicole interacts with Rachel was another charming evolution for the character. Barrell has a wonderful, easy chemistry with all her costars, one that gives each of Nicole’s friendships and her romance a glow that completely draws the viewer into her world, creating satisfying stakes and payoff.

The two-part mid-season finale consisting of Holy War Pt. 1 (4x5) and Holy War Pt. 2 (4x6) heavily centered around Nicole and the literal battle to save her life and soul. These episodes provided some of the most powerful moments Barrell has had to portray throughout the run of this series. It also allowed her to play around with all the subtle changes the character had to deal with while valiantly trying to fight the curse. From guiding Nicole through the trials and tribulations of fighting the curse to portraying her as a spirit, what were some of Barrell’s standout moments in this two-part marathon of acting prowess?

Aimee: To me, Barrell’s performance in this two-parter was the very reason the phrase tour de force was created. These episodes all held Nicole in the core of the plot and Barrell’s performance was nothing short of perfect. She captured the fear, anxiety, and strength within Nicole before, during, and after her stint as an astral projected spirit. There were a couple of moments that did standout for me.

The first was when Nicole said goodbye to Waverly at the end of Holy War Pt. 1. The way Barrell played that moment, you could see Nicole’s nervous energy as she prepared to handcuff Waverly, but you could also feel her unconditional love for the woman who is by all accounts her soulmate. Then, after Barrell has Nicole handcuff Waverly there is this slow backwards walk she does where she does not take her eyes off Waverly. There were no words spoken in that moment, but Barrell’s emotive acting said more than words could have. She showed, just with expression and her eyes, that Nicole was terrified for what was to come, but heartbroken over what she had done, and even with all of that she desperately wanted to lock in those final images of Waverly to her brain to sustain her through what was to come. That performance was so many things and full of so many different emotions and Barrell brought it to life in a profound way.

The second for me was the drowning scene. Barrell captured the anxiety Nicole had sitting in that cold ice bath waiting to be drowned. Her spoken words were shaky, but sounded as if Nicole was confident in what was happening, but what Barrell expressed through her eyes told a whole different story. Nicole was terrified out of her mind and the brave exterior she was putting on was just an act. Then came the actual drowning and while I’m sure some of it was a stunt double, the times we saw her face, Barrell captured the unparalleled fear that was raging through Nicole as her fight or flight instinct kicked in. The way she performed the drowning was both captivating to watch and terrifying at the same time.

The final standout moment for me was during Waverly’s proposal at the end of the mid-season finale. The characters had been through hell, but so had the performers. There was a time where it was very uncertain whether they would ever embody these characters again. This scene and the way it was portrayed seemed to be as emotionally meaningful to the performers as the characters. I know that Barrell was portraying a character, but the emotion and joy in her eyes seemed more the actress coming through than entirely the character, if that makes sense. The emotion was real in an existential way and that honest real emotion made the scene play even stronger than it may have otherwise. This scene was a culmination of events not just for the character but for the actress as well and she made sure that came across in her performance. The emotion of this scene went beyond what was written on a page for her to perform.

Donna: For all the intensity and emotion required from Barrell during these scenes, it was the moments she briefly became a ghost that were exceptional for me. At first there was the horror of realizing she was a spirit, then the writers wisely gave her a brief, almost “Blithe Spirit” fun-type moment where she got a kick out of what she could do as a ghost. Barrell has always been one of the show’s heavyweights when it comes to handling those extremely dramatic scenes, so watching her get to do just a brief bit of light comedy in that moment stood out for me. The rest of her performances in these episodes were some of her best dramatic work, from saying good-bye to Waverly, to convincing Jeremy and Nedley to kill her, she gave new depths to the courage, spirit, and strength of Nicole Haught.

Ellys: When Nicole’s a spirit, Barrell gets to literally play a weightless version of her character, emotionally free of any elevated level of concern, although still able to demonstrate some very funny reactions to the attempts of her friends to save her. It’s a delightful interlude between the more serious work that Barrell does in the season.

This was a big season for Nicole and Waverly, from their reunion in Friends In Low Places to their formal engagement in Holy War Pt. 2 and everything that happened in-between. This relationship is in many ways the heart of this series. What were some of your favorite performances that Barrell delivered regarding Nicole loving and protecting Waverly?

Aimee: I already discussed my thoughts on the beautiful engagement scene which was one of my favorite moments. But I think it would do this article a disservice to not mention the artistic and emotional beauty of the reunion scene in Friends in Low Places. I think their reunion was stunningly beautiful as the characters fell into each other’s arms. Barrell really played into the deep well of emotion that was unleashed the moment Nicole set eyes on Waverly. Then came that love scene which was and still is one of the best love scenes I have seen on television. The artistry of how it was filmed was stunning, but the performances really made it something special. Barrell and Provost-Chalkley put so much heart and soul into that sequence. Some just saw two characters making love, but that wasn’t the real meaning of the scene, at least in the way I interpreted it. This was a scene where two lost and broken souls, through physical touch, were trying to reconnect and begin the healing process. I loved how at the end, as they were talking on the stairs, Barrell allowed emotion to overwhelm Nicole. She constantly had Nicole wanting to touch and kiss Waverly as if as long as they were touching Waverly couldn’t be taken from her again. Barrell’s performance in that moment really showcased how that eighteen months separate broke Nicole and how much healing needed to be occur still. This was probably my top favorite emotional moment of the whole first half of Season 4.

In general, not focusing on a specific moment, I was impressed by how Barrell used each element of this relationship to show the struggle within Nicole. This was a character that experienced challenges beyond those of her friends during those eighteen months apart. Waverly is Nicole’s safe place and without that safe place to go and hide from the wild occurrences of Purgatory, Nicole was left flapping in the wind just trying to survive. Barrell used the relationship with Waverly to show the repercussions of that separation and the deep impact it had on the character.

Donna: I think the fact that Nicole literally sold her soul to the Clantons, to get Waverly back, going against her very nature should be some indication of how far she would go to protect her love. Nicole is the type of character that once you gain her love and trust it is yours forever. It doesn’t seem right to call her performances when dealing with the frogs, comedic, but there was an edge of humor there watching each event, and it was all due to Barrell’s believable delivery. The engagement scene was sweet and intimate despite it being done in a room full of people. That goes to the wonderful chemistry between Barrell and Provost-Chalkey.

Ellys: A favorite scene of mine was when Nicole, while enduring the discomfort of a hex, told Wynonna that it would take a lot for Nicole to be dissuaded from marrying into the Earp family. There’s something so matter of fact and immediate about Barrell’s response, a warmth and happiness in her voice, that speaks volumes about the love she has for Waverly. She means it when she says she’s in it for the long-haul.

Her performances throughout 2020 highlighted what everyone knew already, that Barrell has an unprecedented range. From all her performances throughout the year where do you think her range was most heavily on display?

Aimee: I watched some of her work on Hallmark’s The Good Witch and while that was a fun role it was not even remotely on par with her role as Nicole Haught on Wynonna Earp. The writers of that show didn’t seem to quite understand what they had in Barrell and her massive range. While Joy is a fun character, at this current stage of things the character doesn’t yet have the depth worthy of Barrell’s range of talent. They did seem to start to grasp what she was capable of by the end of the season, so I suspect future seasons will see the writers really play to Barrell’s powerhouse talent. For now, I have to say that without question, Barrell’s talent was best on display in her portrayal as Nicole Haught. Each of the six episodes of this first half of Season 4 showcased how talented of an actress she is and really gave her a lot of strong content to play with.

Donna: Barrell has always been my favorite performer on Wynonna Earp bringing what I believe to be the best developed character of Nicole Haught to life. Seeing her stretch herself with her brilliant work as the evil Eve was a revelation, she was magnificent in her malevolence. I was thrilled to see her join the cast of Good Witch, playing Joy, who is ironically like Nicole in that they are two women in search of a family. It’s been interesting watching her in both roles, guiding characters seeking the same goals, with equally considerable abilities. The fact you can watch her as Joy, and not see Nicole Haught at all, is just a greater testament to her talents and she has been a brilliant edition to Good Witch which already had a strong cast. Obviously, Barrell’s range was instrumental in getting her the part, as she looks to build her career beyond Wynonna Earp.

Ellys: As Eve, Barrell got to temporarily discard every brilliant way she imbues soul and fire into Nicole, replacing those traits with a chilling perfect malevolence. It’s a role that not only lets her be wickedly funny and scary, but also reinforces Barrell’s skills in bringing Nicole to life as a person who represents all the complexity that Eve could never be.

What are your final thoughts on her winning this recognition for Wynnona Earp?

Aimee: She has worked very hard throughout the years, not just as Nicole, but in other roles throughout her career, to build up and diversify her skill set which has made her a powerful acting force to be reckoned with. This was her time to shine and she played a significant part in making sure these six episodes were some of the strongest of the series. She truly deserved this recognition.

Donna: I think this is an honor long overdue for Katherine Barrell. She has long been the MVP of Wynonna Earp for me. She came close to winning this honor two years ago, so I was thrilled to see her take this title. It was especially gratifying for me who has had the honor of meeting the actress in person and talking to her in a con Zoom call and grow more impressed each time with her genuineness and the way she talks about her love of her craft. She is truly the real deal, a great person and phenomenal actress and deserves the absolute best.

Ellys: What keeps an edgy, cheesy show rootin’ tootin’ good entertainment is the commitment to its performers in delivering heartfelt, riveting characters. Barrell’s Nicole Haught isn’t just iconic; she’s legendary, an unforgettable heroine that will be a fan favorite far after the show rides off into the sunset.

This is an ensemble series, but a lot of the weight of these six episodes rested with Barrell. She not only came through for her castmates and the audience, but she came through for the series as a whole. She helped make the case for why Wynonna Earp is a series that deserves a chance to fully tell the story it has to tell. As things stand right now, baring a new home miracle, it looks like this series will end when Season 4 concludes this Spring, but Katherine Barrell is an actress that won’t soon disappear from the pantheon of pop culture. She has made an indelible mark that will ensure that long after this series ends, she will be an actress fans will faithfully follow because she has earned their respect not just because of her talent, but also because of her humanity. She is a rare breed of performer that is every bit as compassionate and kind as she is talented. That combination will take her far in the industry. Katherine Barrell is SpoilerTV’s 2020 Readers’ Choice Performer of the Year.

Please use the comments to discuss all your favorite parts of Katherine Barrell’s performance throughout 2020.

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