Sometimes a good title is all it takes to sell a show. The mere juxtaposition of the words "Warrior" and "Nun" was enough not only to make this reviewer feel that he really had to watch 'Warrior Nun' but also to make him wonder why he had never thought of it himself. This is the art of "high concept." Whether or not the show is actually any good is of secondary importance.
As it turns out, 'Warrior Nun' is not at all bad, a lot better than it had any right to be. Like almost everything else these days, it is based, in this case very loosely, on an American "comic book" series set in a universe almost identical to our own but crucially different. That "almost identical to our own but crucially different" extends even to its theology.
This is a spoiler light overview of the first season of the television adaptation only. This starts, very wisely, by jettisoning most of the complexity of its source material, even if a lot of it sneaks back in later.
We jump right in to find that our likeable protagonist, Ava Silva, is having a pretty bad time of it: she is an orphan and quadriplegic, her "carer" is a singularly uncaring nun, and now, as if things could not get worse, Ava is dead. It is not a promising start. Then things suddenly get a lot better. Due to a mix up in a three way fight between mercenaries, a demon, and some far more agreeable nuns, a Holy Relic, allegedly an Angel's Halo, is implanted in her back. This restores her to life, heals her completely, and, as a bonus, gives her a bunch of "superpowers" - including the ability to move through walls, to see demons, and to recover quickly from almost anything.
Granted this new lease of life, Ava naturally wants to make the most of it and enjoy all the things she missed lying on her bed in an orphanage for years. She discovers night clubs, dancing, alcohol, and sex with the speed of a sailor on shore leave, and hooks up with an unlikely gang of young people wandering around Europe and enjoying the high life with no visible means of support - a fantasy element far less believable than all the superpowers and demons.
Meanwhile, the Order of the Cruciform Sword, to which the gun-toting nuns belong, is thrown into turmoil by the loss of the Halo, which is essential to their vocation of fighting demons in the most literal sense. Sister Lilith, who was next in line to get the Halo when its previous Bearer was killed, wants to recover it by all means necessary - and is not particularly concerned if removing it means Ava goes back to being tetraplegic or even dead. Tough Sister Mary, by contrast, believes Ava will make her way back to the Order in her own time if given a free choice. There is a philosophical subtext to all this, but Sister Lilith and Sister Mary also happen to be trained fighters, so their disagreements soon go beyond intellectual discussion.
Yet it seems that others in the hierarchy are, surprisingly, not really that eager to get the Halo back, because its absence gives them the opportunity to reorganise the Order to suit their own agenda. It is pretty obvious that the Cardinal supervising the Order is up to something because he is played by Joaquim de Almeida and because Cardinals, like US Senators, are always up to something in shows like this.
Ava herself is initially oblivious to all the Ecclesiastical high politics. Her previous experience with nuns has not inclined her to look favourably on them, or indeed on religion in general. She is, in any case, totally overwhelmed by her new freedom and by her abrupt transition from being totally powerless to being extremely powerful. It all goes to her head a bit.
She might have come across as a rather obnoxious character were she not played with such charm by Alba Baptista. Ava is sometimes a hip, know it all "millennial" and sometimes a naïve young girl who has spent most of her life immobilised in a Roman Catholic orphanage. She is still struggling to find out who she is and what she wants to be. Giving us access to her inner thoughts and feelings through "voice over" shows us her vulnerability and we become protective of the child beneath the glib exterior. Eventually she learns the lesson that always comes hard to modern teenagers, that everything is not all just about her. Her true character then emerges.
There is a definite Buffy the Vampire Slayer vibe about her and about the whole show. This is undoubtedly deliberate, and if the dialogue lacks the sharp edges of Joss Whedon and his elite writing team, it is not a bad aspiration to be the Buffy for a new generation. Whether Buffy could be Buffy today is another matter. We still have the same basic concept, a reluctant "Chosen One" whose modern attitudes are in conflict with the whole "Chosen One" tradition.
We also have the equivalent of Buffy's "Scooby Gang" in the form of the Sisters of the Cruciform Sword. The intellectual Sister Beatrice (Kristina Tonteri-Young) is the Willow of the group and the eager young Sister Camila (Olivia Delcan) is its Dawn. The bespectacled Father Vincent (Tristan Ulloa) seems to be their Giles, complete with hints of a disreputable past.
In addition to good characterisation and strong performances, the show benefits from a wonderful visual aesthetic. Extensive location work in Andalusia enables it to stand out in a genre which generally relies too much on CGI. It sometimes looks as if the whole thing has been put together by the Spanish tourist authorities. The historic cities and the stunning hills have never looked more vibrant. The photography is outstanding. The cameraman seems to have a particular gift for the "Golden Hour" just after sunrise, when the shadows are long and the light diffuse - and it is relatively easy to film because it is cool and there are fewer people around. The whole thing really is worth watching just for the scenery.
And nuns are fun. There is great entertainment value simply in seeing a gang of religious ladies running around like ninjas. Even the dialogue acknowledges the absurdity of it with lines about tactically trained nuns and a security team being taken down by a petite member of the clergy.
The point is that such lines are delivered straight faced. Although its dialogue is often humorous, 'Warrior Nun' never makes the mistake of trying to play its story for laughs. It treats the viewer with respect by taking the plot and the characters seriously. Ridiculous as the notion of small women knocking out several large men might seem in real life, the fight choreography is of a high standard, so that it all looks credible in the moment. The crunching duels between Sister Mary (Toya Turner, stealing the show) and Sister Lilith (Lorena Andrea) are particularly well done. They both look like girls who at least could look after themselves in a stramash on a Saturday night - and they both know how to make a power entrance.
Perhaps the notion of fighting nuns is not so ridiculous after all. Astonishing as it might sound, the "comic book" is based on the true story of a house of nuns who started studying martial arts when running a soup kitchen in a tough part of New York. Although they never had to use their martial skills to defend themselves, they continued their studies because they enjoyed them.
There is a long tradition of training for physical combat being seen as a good preparation for Spiritual struggle and vice versa. Militant monastic orders, such as the Templars, and Cromwell's Puritan troopers saw both as part of the same battle. Non-Christian cultures offer parallels such as the Shaolin monks and the great samurai kendo master Miyamoto Musashi corresponding with the Buddhist teacher Takuan Soho.
There is, however, a commercial obstacle to religiously themed shows. The irreligious tend to avoid religious themes altogether while the religious, the more obvious target market, are easily offended if a lack of orthodoxy is seen as trivialising core beliefs. For most of the first season, 'Warrior Nun' walks the line very carefully. The original "comic books" took a generally positive view of Roman Catholicism, which is hard to imagine mainstream television doing at the moment, but the show nevertheless tries to maintain a respectful attitude towards faith.
Refreshingly, the Sisters of the Cruciform Sword are portrayed neither as hypocrites nor as mindless religious fanatics. They all have different attitudes and each has made her own journey to her vocation from a different direction. A superficially silly show about fighting nuns actually has some intelligent discussions with more depth than allegedly more serious dramas.
The other side is also treated intelligently. The initial antagonist, a scientist and entrepreneur, offers more than the usual straightforward dogmatic denial. She suggests that science may develop to a point where it touches ideas currently in the realm of theology. For example, is it possible that Heaven, or at least Eternal Life, may be found in other dimensions or universes free from the time constraints of this universe but accessible from it? Physics tells us that it is indeed conceivable, even if there is no evidence at all that it is so.
It is a mistake that this more sophisticated approach to the debate between science and religion is rather thrown overboard by a huge exposition dump in the final episodes intended to set up the second season. These later episodes abandon the more reflective tone for some well mounted action scenes. Many fans preferred this approach, but something was lost, and a couple of supposedly dramatic twists were by no means unexpected, so they come off as contrived. We can expect the second season to focus more on exploring the new reality presented to us at the end of the first, but one has to wonder whether this will be at the expense of the more character driven drama that made 'Warrior Nun' superior to most similar genre fodder. If so, it may be a missed opportunity.
Review: John Winterson Richards
John Winterson Richards is the author of the 'Xenophobe's Guide to the Welsh' and the 'Bluffer's Guide to Small Business,' both of which have been reprinted more than twenty times in English and translated into several other languages. He was editor of the latest Bluffer's Guide to Management and, as a freelance writer, has had over 500 commissioned articles published.
He is also the author of ‘How to Build Your Own Pyramid: A Practical Guide to Organisational Structures' and co-author of 'The Context of Christ: the History and Politics of Rome and Judea, 100 BC - 33 AD,' as well as the author of several novels under the name Charles Cromwell, all of which can be downloaded from Amazon. John has also written over 100 reviews for Television Heaven.
John's Website can be found here: John Winterson Richards
Published on October 27th, 2021. Written by John Winterson Richards for Television Heaven.