(Revised, first published in The Bison student newspaper Fall 2020)
The haunting vocals, hissing flame and glowing metal halo of “Warrior Nun’s” title card promises more mystery and depth than this new ten-episode Netflix series delivers.
The show tells of Ava, a deceased orphan teen who is plucked back to life when an angelic Halo made of the mystical metal divinium is planted by accident inside her back.
Granted supernatural powers by the Halo, she must then decide what to do with her newfound Halo Bearer abilities, as varying authorities seek to control it.
On one side is the Order of the Cruciform Sword, historically tasked by the Vatican with protecting the Halo and training its bearers – representing the show’s very loose interpretation of the Catholic Church – and on the other is the scientist Jillian Salvius (Thekla Reuten).
The show is “only very loosely based” on the “Warrior NunAreala” comics by Ben Dunn, according to ScreenRant’s Hannah Shaw-Williams, and is fairly conceptually solid with an engaging story and a wide range of characters.
Yet Netflix’s version of the comic’s story of a Warrior Nun fighting demonic power, created by Simon Barry, frequently fails to trust its audience.
The show’s desire to communicate is so deep and direct that it leaves very little to nuance, from the could-not-possibly-be-more-on-the-nose TV show name to the hefty use of narration to describe protagonist Ava’s (Alba Baptista) thoughts.
Baptista’s portrayal of a confused girl battling for survival in a world that has ceased to make sense is constrained only by writing that insists on saying via voiceover what her face, vocal tone and body language is already conveying without it.
A keen wit, or a level of insight that her physical actions alone cannot communicate, might make such voiceover usage worthwhile. Without these things, “Warrior Nuns” implies that its viewers can only understand a story if it is fedto them in easy, bitesize pieces.
Even in the regular dialogue, the show sometimes falls prey to the same fault, as characters state the obvious purely to provide viewers with explanations.
This insistence on clarity – even to the point of sounding false – seems to stem from the shows sense of its themes’ importance.
And these themes are important.
Throughout much of the season, Ava is torn between her own passion for autonomy, the religious zeal of the Order of the Cruciform Sword, historically tasked by the Vatican with protecting the Halo, and the pragmatic science of Jillian Salvius (Thekla Reuten) who seeks to use the Halo as a power source.
Her persistent inclination is to ignore both the Order and Salvius’ advice and run off with her shallowly-realized delinquent youth companions, led by the archetypal teen TV show attractive guy, J.C. (Emilio Sakraya).
J.C. and his friends – Chanel(May Simón Lifschitz), Randall (Dimitri Abold) and Zori (Charlotte Vega) – suffer more from a case of one-dimensional writing than anything else.
However, the Halo’s very power attracts the attention of demons, forcing her to decide what to do with the Halo buried between her shoulder blades.
Meanwhile, the show walks a tightrope between fully endorsing either religion at the expense of science, or science at the expense of religion, and avoids a misstep by never endorsing either.
Its only real endorsement is of the belief that the two do not have to be opposed.
Reuten’s Salvius captures the dedication and drive of a scientist who has trained all her life to take the wonderful and miraculous and ask why and how those things have happened, without forgetting that they are marvelous things.
“What if God provided us with the tools to find our own way to a realm where death doesn’t exist?” Salvius asks at a press junket, daring the Church to contradict her.
She goes so far as to employ a former man of faith, Kristian Schaeffer (Peter de Jersey), whose doubts are treated with the subtle handling of de Jersey’s skilled performance.
Meanwhile, jealousy and political intrigue runs amok among the Order, showing the same problems that led Schaeffer to question the nature of the Catholic Church’s religious authority.
Dissenting factions, led by Father Vincent (Tristán Ullan) and Cardinal Duretti (Joaquim de Almeida), disagree on how to treat their new Halo Bearer, Ava.
Unlike earlier in the season, it is amid these arguments that the writing proves itself capable of nuance.
The relationships developed amongst the Order’s young nuns, their friend Shotgun Mary (Toya Turner) – who has not taken the Order’s religious vows – and the new Halo Bearer define the show’s appeal and potential for better things to come.
Under the direction of Sarah Walker, in Episode 6, “Isaiah 30:20-21,” the relationship between Shotgun Mary and Ava is allowed to take the story’s wheel for the first time.
Here, the show blossoms into a glimpse of its true potential, free from unnecessary voiceovers and driven by a trust that the actors have the skill to carry a story without extra help.
Both Turner and Baptista deliver fully.
Enter a surprise twist or two and a cliffhanger cutoff and the show has everything it needs to escape its shaky start and soar into its already greenlit second season.
If it can let go of voiceovers.