Editor’s note: This story contains spoilers about the recent season 14 opener of Heartland.
By Eric Volmers
Roughly two years ago, Amber Marshall received a phone call from Graham Wardle, the actor she worked closely with for 14 years on the CBC show, Heartland. He had some surprising, and somewhat unsettling, news for his co-star. He was leaving the show.
“He wanted to let me know before he told anybody else,” said London native Marshall. “He and I have a very close relationship, we’ve been great friends for a number of years since the show began. And I was hurt. When he first told me, it stung a little bit. But then, as I had time to process it, I understood it. I understood the journey he was on and that nobody should stand in the way of someone who wants to pursue what their true heart’s desire is.”
So Marshall knew Wardle was leaving before producers of the long-running series did. She also knew long before writers were forced to come up with a satisfying way for Wardle’s character, Ty, to exit the series, which he did in decidedly dramatic fashion on Jan. 10. It was no easy task. After all, the relationship between Marshall’s Amy Fleming and Wardle’s Ty Borden had arguably become the true heart of Heartland over 14 seasons.
Against the idyllic backdrop of a horse ranch in the foothills of the Rockies, devotees around the world watched their relationship progress from an on-and-off teen romance, to marriage and eventual parenthood. To have the characters go through a quickie divorce or have Ty suddenly journey to Mongolia, as he had in a previous season when Wardle requested some time off, just wasn’t going to cut it.
So viewers are still reeling from the seismic shock of the 14th season opener. Within the first couple of minutes, loving husband and new father Ty collapses and dies of previously undetected complications from a gunshot wound he suffered at the end of season 13.
At the time of the interview, the episode had yet to air and reporters were sworn to secrecy. But Marshall was clearly bracing for what was sure to be a strong and emotional reaction from fans.
“This is a story that people might not want to see in the beginning,” she says. “I think there’s going to be a lot of people devastated by this. But I believe the journey through this season is so important for viewers to watch and to know that death is real. Death is something that impacts all of us at some point in our lives.
“To see this widowed mother find the strength and courage to move forward for her daughter and really think about what’s best for the family around her and to come together and be that support, I think is so important. And to know that it isn’t easy. There’s nothing easy about death and it shouldn’t be. But to honour that person and that person’s journey, and by moving forward and living each day is the best way that you can.”
The reasons for Wardle’s decision to leave have not been clearly spelled out, presumably because his departure needed to be kept a secret. Marshall did not want to speak for Wardle, but said he left to pursue passions other than acting.
Earlier this year, he launched a podcast called Time Has Come. In a trailer he posted on YouTube in May, he said it is meant to focus on “people stepping outside their comfort zone and into a world, into a life, into a vision of their future that they desire.”
“Where does the courage come from to do that?” he said. “That’s been a part of my journey for the last two years now.”
Wardle’s absence from the set this year was deeply felt by cast and crew, Marshall says. Heartland is now the longest-running drama in the history of Canadian television. On top of that, it has maintained most of its core cast for 14 years, a rarity for any television show.
Jessica Amlee, who played family friend and teen busybody Mallory for seven seasons, left the series to pursue other acting opportunities in 2013. That was the same year Alisha Newton joined Heartland as Georgie Fleming Morris. But other than that, the main cast has remained the same until now: Marshall, Wardle, Michelle Morgan as Amy’s older sister Lou, Shaun Johnston as their grandfather Jack Bartlett, and Chris Potter as their father Tim.
After the big reveal, season 14 takes place a year after Ty’s death. In episodes 1 and 2, Amy is still numb with grief and has put her life on hold.
Other members of the family are dealing with the loss in their own way and the early episodes are filled with flashbacks and grief. But Ty’s absence will be a continuing theme throughout the entire season, Marshall says.
The series has dealt with loss before. Amy and Lou arrived on the Bartlett ranch in season 1 after the death of their mother. But this particular twist is no doubt the darkest in Heartland’s history. Marshall says she prepared for her character’s grief by reaching out to the family of a friend who lost her husband a few years ago.
“It was a very similar story,” she says. “She had been with him for over a decade. It was a very tragic accident, unexpected. They were both very young. I mostly spoke with her sister about it because I didn’t want to bring up any unnecessary hurt for her. But her sister explained to me the journey she had gone on and said that the whole first year she was completely numb to it. It was like she was in this daze.
“When we look at the story of Heartland, that first episode is exactly a year after his death. I wanted the audience to know that Amy hadn’t really come to terms with it until that moment. This season, the fact that it’s a year later, is her healing.”