Warning: This story contains spoilers for Episode 5 of “Willow” on Disney+.
If you ask “Willow” actors Ruby Cruz and Erin Kellyman to name one song that captures the relationship between their characters, they will name Paramore’s “The Only Exception.” One might even start singing it for you.
“It’s so weirdly accurate,” said Kellyman, who plays aspiring knight Jade Claymore in Lucasfilm’s fantasy adventure series, before explaining what lyrics in which verse correlate to which character during a recent video call.
“We would share songs with each other throughout the whole filming of ‘Willow,’ ” added Cruz, who portrays the rebellious royal Kit Tanthalos and was the first to notice the connection between their characters and their chosen anthem. “We’d find things [that conveyed], like, ‘This is how Kit is feeling right now for Jade and she wishes she could tell her this but she can’t.’”
In “Wildwood,” the series’ fifth episode (premiering Wednesday), Kit and Jade finally address how they — to quote an observation made by another “Willow” character in the series — “have totally got the hots for each other.” (Albeit without the assistance of any pop rock songs.) It’s a conversation that’s been a long time coming and a detail the actors have had to keep mum about to avoid revealing spoilers.
Developed for television by Jonathan Kasdan, “Willow” is a series-length sequel to the 1988 film of the same name, directed by Ron Howard and starring Warwick Davis as the aspiring sorcerer of the title, who steps up to protect a baby that is prophesied to save the world. Set around 20 years after the conclusion of the film, the show sees the realm in peril once again and it’s up to Willow Ufgood (Davis) and the now grown-up Elora Danan (Ellie Bamber), along with their ragtag fellowship, to save it.
“‘Willow’ has always been … sort of a youth-driven story about coming of age,” said Kasdan, who also wrote 2018’s “Solo: A Star Wars Story” with his father, veteran “Star Wars” scribe Lawrence Kasdan. As such, the young adventurers in the series grapple with figuring out who they are and how they feel just as much as the dangerous foes and magical forces thrown their way.
Among the core team that set off on this important quest are Kit and Jade, childhood best friends who both have family ties to the heroes and villains of the original film.
Kit, Kasdan explains, was partly envisioned as a successor to Madmartigan, her father and the swashbuckling mercenary portrayed by Val Kilmer in the original film. She was set up to appear as the obvious primary protagonist, only to be supplanted by the surprise reveal of Elora’s identity.
Jade was written with Kellyman in mind after she wowed Kasdan with her performance as Enfys Nest in “Solo.” She learns in “Wildwood” that everything she thought she knew about herself and her past was a lie.
While the characters themselves have tried to deny it, the romantic tension between the pair has been palpable since they were introduced mid-sword fight in the opening minutes of the series premiere. They even share a stolen kiss in Episode 1 when it seems that they may never see each other again — a kiss about which they haven’t spoken since.
“From Scene 1, Jade is looking at Kit like she’s the best thing on this planet, so I think it’s quite obvious,” said Kellyman. “You don’t spend half of the series debating whether they’re in love or not … I feel like when I’ve watched queer shows before, you spend half the time just hoping that they actually are gay.”
Cruz and Kellyman have commiserated over the constant disappointment they’ve felt when the queer story lines teased in other films and TV shows fail to materialize. That they both grew up without seeing much meaningful LGBTQ onscreen representation is one of the reasons why Kit and Jade’s relationship is precious to them.
The entire “Willow” cast has been cheering on their budding romance from the beginning. So much so that during the table read for Episode 5, everyone got really quiet as Kit and Jade started their conversation, and “lost their s—” when Jade tells Kit she’s going to kiss her, according to Kellyman.
Of course, the couple are attacked before the kiss can actually happen. But Kasdan is happy to explain why the episode had to end this way.
“One of the great pleasures of television from my childhood is the sort of crushing longing of wanting to see two people kiss,” said Kasdan, citing the slow-burn romance between the two leads of “Scarecrow and Mrs. King” that kept him watching the show’s reruns after school. “I’ve always been affected by that and believe that the longing for two characters to connect is almost more pleasurable than the moment they do.”
That’s a hint that audiences can expect to wait at least a little bit longer before Kit and Jade have a chance to revisit that almost-kiss.
For Kellyman and Cruz, it makes sense that Jade and Kit have been tip-toeing around what they mean to each other for over half the season. Not only have the pair been best friends since they were kids, Kit is a princess and Jade’s dream is to serve as a knight. Plus, Kit is technically betrothed. That it takes time for them to sort through their own feelings is just realistic. Though, crucially, none of their turmoil has to do with the fact that they are both women.
In building out a foundation for Kit and Jade’s relationship, Cruz and Kellyman spent a lot of time creating their own backstories for the characters, since much of their childhood remains untold. Kit probably snuck into Jade’s room almost every night for sleepovers growing up, which started stirring up confusing emotions as they grew older. Jade’s surrogate father, the commander of the knights that serve Kit’s mother, likely noticed his young charge’s budding crush and warned Jade to keep her relationship with the princess professional if she really wanted to become a knight. They’ve even decided that Kit and Jade’s kiss in Episode 1 was their first.
“I think for us, as queer people, it was really awesome to get the chance to explore queer friendships on screen,” said Cruz. “Those can be very confusing. For Kit, she definitely questioned a lot growing up. Do I want to be with this person, or do I want to be that person? That’s something that I feel like so many queer people go through.”
She also appreciates that as a series meant to be accessible to families and younger audiences, “Willow” has been a chance to stress the emotional bond between Kit and Jade.
“I feel like growing up, there was such a lack of lesbian representation,” said Cruz. “And usually the lesbian relationships and queer relationships are sexualized … I thought that building a really meaningful emotional connection that people can relate to and see themselves in was a really important and cool opportunity for us to have.”
“Willow” and its queer romance arrive at a time when conservative voices have been increasingly openly hostile toward the LGBTQ community, including queer and trans youth — making them targets of violent attacks and political actions. It’s something Kasdan would never have predicted when developing the series, especially since the decision to make Kit and Jade’s relationship central to the show was made while “Solo” was still in production. (“We’re talking about before ‘The Last Jedi’  had even been released,” he said.)
“If Kit and Elora’s relationship was going to be a really deep and powerful platonic friendship, it made sense to me that Jade and Kit’s relationship would be something totally different and interesting and complicated for different reasons,” said Kasdan.
But the current political climate also makes Kit and Jade’s romance particularly cathartic. They may struggle with expressing their feelings, but they don’t give a second thought about other people’s reactions, or whether things will be more difficult because they’re queer. Everybody around them accepts them and their relationship.
“They’re just in love with each other,” said Kellyman. “I think that normalized representation is really important and something I just didn’t have. I never saw that anywhere. I think if I had ‘Willow’ when I was 14, I would have felt a lot less lonely.”