In Andalusia, a secret convent of nuns trains daily to fight against the forces of evil, not through ministry and prayer, but with katanas, shotguns, and magical swords. In Warrior Nun, the new Netflix series from creator Simon Barry (Continuum), nuns from the “Order of the Cruciform Sword” (a different sort of military OCS) resemble ninjas as they battle mist-like demons who inhabit and control humans. They are led by the warrior nun, one special soldier who gains otherworldly special powers when a glowing hot halo is inserted into her back. After the current warrior nun dies during a mission gone awry, the halo “chooses” a recently deceased nineteen-year-old, Ava, to be the next bearer of the title. The problem is, Ava doesn’t want it, and the Catholic Church, a scientific laboratory, and a particularly strong demon have other plans for the halo as well.
That’s right, this series can be described as “secret organization of ninja nuns protects the world from demons.” With a story like that, this adaptation of Ben Dunn’s excellent comic book series can really only go one of two ways: over-the-top, self-referential, and humorous, perhaps like the original comic or Buffy, to which this series will inevitably be be compared, or as a more straight-forward piece, something blending a thriller like The Da Vinci Code with fantasy. Barry chooses the latter, but it is a challenge to develop a series that’s epic in scope with what seems to be a budget more akin to a romantic comedy than an action series. And so, while there are a few “big money” scenes like when the sizzling halo is placed in Ava’s back (searing away flesh in perhaps the show’s most gruesome and awesome visual effect), much of the run time is spent on a more personal and quiet journey for the new warrior nun while the other sisters, including Shotgun Mary (a callback to a popular character of the same name from the comics and played with great self-assurance by Toya Turner), begin to unravel a conspiracy within the Catholic Church, perhaps involving the Cardinal Duretti (a welcome role for the fantastic Joaquim de Almeida), who may be leveraging the OCS in a play for power.
The faithful will have issues with the show, particularly with how the church is portrayed. Although it’s nothing new to see the church shown in a negative light, it is a departure for the larger franchise. Warrior Nun Areala dealt with criticisms of nunspoilatation (thankfully avoided entirely in this series) and its subtle and critical questioning of Catholic stances, but ultimately embraced both the church and nuns, too indiscriminately for some. Those same critics won’t have issue with this series, which loves its characters, but at best seems indifferent toward the Christian religion and Catholic Church, which is shown as a powerful and magical institution, though not necessarily a holy one. In fact, It’s quite startling how small a role religion actually plays in this show, other than through superficial means (a pervasive theme regarding faith notwithstanding).
That’s not to say that Warrior Nun doesn’t try to achieve some balance: Science is presented as both working with religion and superseding it; many of the nuns are kind and faithful to their vows while some are hyper-violent and lack a Christian worldview; and one character looks particularly like Christ, though the name “Jesus” is only uttered in a most earthly context. Don’t look for anything theologically deep here—this is a show about highly-trained demon-assassinating nuns after all.
The biggest sin of Warrior Nun, then, has nothing to do with theology; it’s that the middle portion of the season is far too long and incongruous. These episodes mean to establish Ava’s personal growth as she develops from a former quadriplegic who is introduced as almost a blank slate, to a young woman given a second chance at life, and who plans to use it to discover herself. Unfortunately, and especially during this arc, Warrior Nun has the feel of a first draft, something unpolished, like the NaNoWriMo of Netflix. The shell of the story is admirable, and the mythology being developed is strong and perhaps even an improvement on the original series, but we’re several full revisions between good and great. Some ideas need to fleshed out more while others require more nuance. Ava’s journey is particularly wasteful; an unbearably long portion of the plot, her learning moments are mostly superficial and hardly seem to be the kinds that would lead her to make vital decisions later in the tale. Attempts at humor also mostly fall flat.
Ava’s character would have been better served more often in the company of the other sisters, which are at the heart of this adaptation. While little is yet known about their backstories, the actresses portraying the nuns still inhabit them with character and life. I already mentioned Turner as a standout, but so, too, is Kristina Tonteri-Young as Beatrice, a smart, virtuous sister who provide glimpses of an engaging backstory. Alba Baptista is also charming and energetic as the heroine (though internal dialogue, which disappears later in the series, comes off as superfluous). It was my first time seeing these actresses, and they all feel like absolute finds. There are some familiar faces as well, including the already mentioned de Almedia and the excellent Tristán Ulloa as Father Vincent, whose performance is as good as any you’ll see in a series this season.
When the sisters (and father) are together, and Warrior Nun moves away from church politics and an unconvincing laboratory setting, the show really clicks. Turner is a wonderful presence, but is even better in dramatically tense scenes with Ulloa, and when Tonteri-Young’s Beatrice relates a tale of a persecuted warrior nun to Baptista’s Ava, an understated scene becomes perhaps the best in the entire series, featuring remarkable acting and a strong chemistry between the actresses. And though the action is relatively lacking in this show (and scenes are even sometimes recycled—again, budget constraints it would seem), when the sisters do fight together—mostly in hand-to-hand combat—Warrior Nun reaches the early promise of adrenaline pumping content. The martial arts are well choreographed (and a welcome distraction from the mostly underwhelming, foggy special effects), including in the excellent finale of the show. Written and directed by Barry, the final episode is enthusiastic and thrilling.
And that’s perhaps what’s most compelling about Warrior Nun, that as the show nears its climax, it also hits its stride. The sins of the middle episodes are forgiven in light of the ambitious final ones, where the talent associated with this project are on full display, able to spread their wings as it were. The closing also sets the stage for a season two and the hope that, armed with stronger special effects and more careful storytelling, these nuns will continue to work through their own demons by bringing hell to those among us—of course, in a most spiritual sort of way.
Warrior Nun can be streamed on Netflix.