SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched Season 1 of “Warrior Nun,” streaming now on Netflix.
There’s a ton of mythology to unpack over the first 10 episodes of Netflix’s female-centric “Warrior Nun,” from a magical angel halo and demonic presences to a young quadriplegic woman named Ava (Alba Baptista) who is brought back from the dead. Add in religion, politics, complex friendships, and a tech-savvy enemy in the form of Jillian Salvius (Thekla Reuten), and creator Simon Barry had his work cut out for him.
“There’s this double-edge opportunity with religion when it comes to storytelling, especially with shows like this that deal with genre and supernatural elements, because religion is an amazing backstop for mythology,” Barry tells Variety. “It’s a mythology that everybody knows — I don’t have to educate the audience on the stakes of demons, and angels in heaven, and hell, and God, and the devil. So when you’re introducing a crazy new idea like warrior nuns and an idea of something like the halo, which is this crazy supernatural super power device, it is nice to have another mythology up against that that is grounded and understood and accepted. The crazy part is counterbalanced by something that’s a little bit more familiar.”
The first season, which is inspired by the comic book by Ben Dunn, traces the story of Ava after she is implanted with the halo and resuscitated from the dead in the wake of an attack, and follows her journey as she embraces being the latest “warrior nun” in a 1,000-year-old line. By season’s end she has finally accepted her sisters in arms (and vice-versa), but not before an evil angel-like figure named Adriel (William Miller), aka the real owner of the halo, returns to wreak havoc.
Here, Barry talks with Variety about that major cliffhanger ending, adapting the female-forward series and living up to fan expectations.
Did it feel like a gamble, ending the series in the middle of a battle with everyone’s fate in the air, given the show has not yet been renewed for another season?
We actually wrote a version of the ending that was a little bit more conclusive. I mean, it had a bit more meat on the bone in terms of what happened. And when we submitted that script to Netflix, they were like, “Hey, what if you cut this a little short?” We were all aghast at first. It was like, “Wow, that’s daring and a little bit dangerous.” But I think we were basically being given tacit approval by Netflix to take some risks and to walk that line. And I think it might have had something to do with their belief that you don’t want to bet against your own failure. You want to aim for success and hope that the show is good enough that you’ve earned the right to end it that way. It put us on a solid note. We were a little nervous about it, but at the end of the day I understand the strategy.
This filmed a while ago, but it’s airing during a time when people are maybe questioning the status quo and there’s cause for systemic change. Those are themes that are present through religion and the politics of these characters — do you think viewers are responding to that?
I think I share this opinion with the rest of the writers’ room: We were very happy to use the biblical components in this case, because we wanted audiences to digest something that was a little bit out there with this group of fighting nuns and the idea of the halo giving someone super powers. So I felt like it was an advantage and we didn’t really worry about spending time in terms of the religious components. We weren’t really targeting religion as an institution. We had good characters and bad characters on both sides of the aisle, if you will. We were really focused more on characterization than the politics of institutions. Although the politics of institutions do creep into this. We had them represented by individuals: Father Vincent [Tristán Ulloa], who really did represent the best in people up to a point, and Cardinal Duretti [Joaquim de Almeida], who represented what you expected from a self-serving patriarchal politician. Those were tropes that the audience would accept equally. We really wanted to make that clear as characterization, not necessarily as like some structural political statement. Naturally the Catholic church has all of these things. It’s an operatic thing to talk about the church and the institutions and the politics. It’s glorious in its own way. So from a dramatic point of view it provide lots of opportunities.
It could have potentially been easy to fall into the science versus religion of it all, but the two had a healthier relationship in this. What kinds of conversations did you have in crafting that?
When we started the journey, when we were dealing with the halo itself, we knew we were dealing with the supernatural objects that was not part of the canon of religion. And so we figured this would be the show that has its mythology rooted in thousands of years of Christianity and typical prophecy and things like that. But at the same time, it’s set in 2020 and it’s about young, modern people. And so, to deny the opportunity to have a scientific presence felt disingenuous, but we also didn’t want it to be what you just said — a story where science is in opposition to religion. So we loved the idea that in this case, science as characterized by Jillian Salvius could overlap in essence the mysteries and the supernatural elements of religion in such a way that both were elevated. Naturally those all collide on the halo at a certain point, we knew that was where we were going, but we just wanted to give it a foundational presence so it wasn’t out of the blue.
With Jillian, if you’re looking at science as something that feeds into religion or vice versa, she felt that a lot of things that are in religion may be explained in scientific terms. So the idea is like heaven and hell being alternative dimensions. We just thought that was a more interesting approach, especially because we were dealing with a show that wasn’t trying to bring down the supernatural parts of this religion. We were actively embracing the supernatural and demons and having actual demons. So we did need to lean in to both.
Why did it make sense to turn the book’s Julian Salvius into the female character of Jillian Salvius rather than create a whole new character?
We were trying to cherry pick things from the book that were not necessarily in our attempt to mimic the book or really adapt the book as accurately as possible. It was more inspired by. And so we were taking elements that we thought fans of the book would recognize and get a good chuckle out of it, but that wouldn’t actually upset the rest of the audience in any way or make them question it. So for us, the Jillian character was an extension of what was something from the books that we wanted to reinvent for our purposes. Changing the name and changing the sex was just part of that process really at the end of the day.
You’ve spoken before about how this is a very female-centric series, but you also mentioned Father Vincent and Cardinal Duretti as tropes. Were there specific rules or purposes that you applied to the male characters in this series, given that it was so female-centric?
Early on we did look at our cast and our character descriptions, and we were like, “Well, we’ve done a complete 180 from normal shows.” We’ve made the dude the sex object in JC [Emilio Sakraya]. We’ve got these two-dimensional characters representing structure as men. And then all the most interesting, fully-realized characters are women. And that wasn’t a problem by any stretch. It was really just something that became this, I guess you could call it, balancing act of building out a show like this. We didn’t want to do a disservice to any of the characters. When it comes to the real estate of the show, you end up shortchanging certain characters simply because of the amount of time you want to spend with others. And so what happens in the optics of those characters is they can be perceived in a way that is less fully realized or less nuanced or less layered.
Luckily our show is about women primarily, and it’s about sisterhood, and it’s about nuns who exists in this pre-existing dynamic that people are aware of. It’s a church run by men and nuns are in a separate category and in a separate order and they don’t have the power that men have. That wasn’t something we needed to lay on heavily. It was implicit, but it allowed us to set it up and throw it away. The audience wasn’t always being reminded of that. That gave permission for those characters to live in and exist outside of the narrow definition of what a nun is defined as, and that was just smart, I think from our perspective as television writers, because we knew that our bread and butter is the characters and the character dynamics that we are building out.
How do sexuality and sex factor into those definitions and where the characters live?
We never felt like these things didn’t exist because they were sanctified in a church setting. That for us just didn’t feel honest about the world in general. Making nuns represent a full spectrum of humanity just seemed like the right thing and the fair thing to do. It didn’t seem like we were building a group of women who were somehow different because they were nuns. That was never on our mind. Especially given the nature of the show and the stakes that these women are facing in their role. We were looking at this much more as a battalion of soldiers and not necessarily defined by the rules of the order. It was more that they were empowered by their duty to protect people and protect humanity. It was always about them being individuals and believing in their mandate and owning it and not being apologetic. And by the way, the nuns that I’ve met prior to this process were dynamic, independent women, like anyone you would meet. Being a nun never defined them.
What is your response to some of the criticisms out there that maybe the show isn’t queer enough or is missing an opportunity to tell those stories?
The show isn’t enough for some people ever, but that’s OK, I don’t mind that. There’s a limited amount of story time we have per season and per episode. We try and infuse the show with all these layers of things for all the characters so that everyone has a point of view and everyone has a story that can be told. Obviously when you write these things you’re never trying to hit a target. We’re just trying to do the show we set out to do, to tell the story we are trying to tell with the characters we’ve created. We’ve never felt like we were ever under-servicing anything, but people are going to see things they want to see.
There’s definitely something there with Ava and Beatrice [Kristina Tonteri-Young] in the sense that, Beatrice openly admits she’s gay and that’s a part of her journey and part of our story. Does that define Ava? Well, that remains to be seen. I mean, we have more seasons hopefully to tell the story and that will be an ongoing journey, not something that is easily defined in one scene with one life, you know? Um, and I don’t think we want Ava defined by a singular thing any more than we want Beatrice defined by a singular idea. In regards to a queer character or whatever, we don’t want them to be defined by that. We want them to be defined by who they are and let their sexuality and let their relationships and let their journeys be included in that. We never tried to paint any character with just one defining characteristic. By defining Ava and Beatrice too quickly or too irresponsibly, we could kill it and ruin it. And I don’t want to do that either. So for now, let’s just say we are open and exploring, much like the characters are.