The girls sitting behind me were crying. I could hear them, sniffing self-consciously in the dark. That’s the only sound I discerned from them—or the other 400-plus in attendance—during Thursday’s sneak peek movie theatre screening of Heartland‘s Season 8 finale, “Written in Stone.”
The quiet sniffling from those die-hard fans, dressed in jeans, cowboy hats and boots and checked shirts, was a sharp contrast to half an hour earlier when the Heartland cast was introduced to the audience prior to the screening. Then, those same girls screamed “We love you Ty!” and then squealed when he—or rather Graham Wardle, the dude who plays Ty—looked their way, smiled and waved.
“Oh my God, he’s so gorgeous,” opined one.
“I’m going to die,” confessed another.
I’ve been reviewing Season 8 of Heartland for TV, eh? and have become engrossed in the characters and storylines. But I had no clue just how beloved the folks at that Alberta ranch are to faithful viewers who have been tuning in since the pilot.
“We held a charity event for the citizens of High River, Alberta, after that horrible flood [in 2013],” showrunner Heather Conkie told me hours earlier at CBC’s Toronto headquarters. “We expected 500 people to show up and 2,000 tickets were sold just like that. The event started at 11 a.m. and there were people lining up at 8. People had come from Ohio and Florida. It was stunning.” The same was true during a meet and greet on Thursday, where fans from across Canada and the U.S. trekked to Toronto for the chance to have a picture taken with Wardle and co-stars Amber Marshall, Michelle Morgan, Alisha Newton, Shaun Johnston and Chris Potter.
With that kind of adoration comes responsibility. CBC’s Sunday night stalwart—it has been renewed for Season 9—had detractors who tuned in last fall to see Amy Fleming a changed woman after spending months in Europe. She was snooty and sometimes downright snotty to her small-town family, and it rubbed some viewers the wrong way.
“We expected it,” Conkie admited. “I had faith that if fans stayed with us they would understand it was a good way to go.” Conkie travelled to Europe when she was that age and returned home “insufferable” because she knew everything and Toronto was stupid and ugly. Amy was immersed in the posh horse racing set for four months, so it made sense that she would have attitude. Conkie and her fellow executive producers were worried they’d gone too far once they took a look at online comments, but kept their fingers crossed the fans would stick around. They have; Heartland has averaged 1 million viewers per week.
It’s understandable viewers want their favourite characters to stay the same and have each episode end happily. But that’s not reality, and Heartland strives to be real. That was driven home in a season that saw Georgie (Newton) torn between her birth family and adopted family, Ty figuring out his career path, Tim (Potter) dipping his toe back into relationship water and Lou (Morgan) and Peter (Gabriel Hogan) seeing their marriage fall apart. That last storyline has been difficult to watch, but necessary.
“It has been hard to play these scenes, but a lot of Canadians have gone through this,” Morgan said after the photo op. “We think this is a situation that a lot of people can relate to. It made me sad, but families go through ups and downs.”
“The important message there is that we don’t need to be beside each other to love one another,” Johnston explained. “We can be separated for a while but we can still maintain that sense of family, and caring and sharing. It just doesn’t have to look the very same way every day.”
That word—family—was used a lot by the cast and producers on Thursday, both in reference to their co-workers and those fans. During a question and answer session following the screening, Potter took a moment to thank everyone for their continued support of Heartland, something he’d spoken of earlier in the day.
“When I read the pilot, I realized this was a show that could go on for 15 years,” he said. “And I wondered if the Canadian business model would allow that to happen. In the States they’ve lots of shows like this that have gone on for years. Touched by an Angel, 7th Heaven. I feel like, as long as there are viewers, this can just keep going.”
But getting back to those girls behind me, quietly crying during the season finale. We’re those tears of joy, or sadness? Will Ty and Amy really tie the knot after eight years of growing their relationship? Let’s just say those girls—and everyone else in the theatre—were very happy by the time the lights came up.
Heartland‘s season finale airs Sunday at 7 p.m. on CBC.