Friday, April 19, 2024

A Season Sealed in an Envelope – Warrior Nun Season 2 Reads Like a Love Letter to its Fans

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This article was written by guest writer, Giselle Diaz, of Warrior Nun Fan Promo.

In the final episode of the second season of Simon Barry’s genre series Warrior Nun, we saw a shot of the main protagonist Ava Silva trying to pen a letter to Sister Beatrice before going on a self-sacrificial mission to save the world. With the frame set against a background of warm light pouring through the windows, and made more poignant by a somber score, we all saw how the halo bearer’s penmanship improved significantly from the way it was in the first season. What the audience never got to see, however, were the words Ava meant to say to her favorite nun, her best friend and protector, and, as would be revealed in the last minutes of the season, the love of her life. Sadly, we do not know whether she managed to finish her letter, or if she never made it past the salutation.

Unlike the halo bearer, if the sincere development of the relationship between Ava and Sister Beatrice, and the care written into each character, dialogue, or fight sequence is to be regarded, Simon Barry and the rest of the Warrior Nun season two production were able to deliver their love letter to the fans of the show.

Much will be written about how the series managed to give all of its characters – major or otherwise – compelling arcs in just eighteen episodes, how the visual effects rival that of major movie house productions, or how simply the second season is like season one on steroids. This missive is not about any of those aspects that a professional critic may scrutinize in a sophomore outing. Rather, this is a treatise on the elements unseen on the screen, at least to the naked eye. 

The second season of Warrior Nun feels written like a love letter to the fans, who lovingly refer to themselves as the Halo Bearers. It reads like a much-awaited reply that arrived two-and-a-half years later, each word carefully strung, enveloped, and sealed with masterful execution. Unburdened by the trappings of instant gratification, this letter is a school in patience, an ode to those who first found the series right smack in the middle of the pandemic, believed in all its possibilities, and are now reaping the rewards for their faith.

To pull off an extremely satisfying follow-up season is a feat not many showrunners can do. It is easy to fall flat on expectations when the audience is already armed with a bit of the lore, and already familiar with the characters. This endeavor is doubly difficult for the creators of Warrior Nun because of the overlong hiatus, and because the demographic of its audience is mostly composed of queer women.

The extended hiatus in between season one and season two of Warrior Nun meant that the characters and the lore have stayed longer with its audience and have steeped in the minds of its fans outside the confines of canon. This long period of time gave the audience the chance to understand each Sister Warrior better and make them navigate worlds outside the text for far longer. For two-and-a-half years, the audience’s vision of the characters and the mythos are not that of the creators, but their own. This was how the Tarask that dragged Lilith into the unknown in season one, episode five came to be called Carl, how the fandom is in agreement that there is not a single heterosexual character in the show, or how we decided that the halo is sentient.

Secondly, a huge chunk of Warrior Nun’s audience, at least those vocal about the show online, identifies as female or non-binary, and queer. Historically, out of necessity, this demographic has learned to thrive along the margins of mainstream media representation. Unlike a cis-heterosexual person, queer people have a long list of imagined lives for themselves in lieu of lives that they do not have access to in this cis-heteronormative world. Queer people, particularly queer women, consume media much the same way. We embrace what is said but more so what is not said, we fill in the blanks, we read between the lines. For queer women, subtext builds entire worlds, often better than the source material.

Thus, for many showrunners faced with either scenario, it is easier to disappoint the audience than not. 

But not many showrunners are like Simon Barry.

Simon Barry, a Canadian screenwriter, producer, director, and show-runner, is known for the science fiction series Continuum. Speaking at FreakCon 2019, Barry said that he had not intended to pitch the story of Warrior Nun the day he met with Netflix executives to present his ideas for a series. He had four stories in his pocket, all of which were rejected by the studio. Warrior Nun, which was at that point being developed as a feature-length film, was the last weapon in his arsenal. It was also the one that hit the target. What happened next is a two-season odyssey inquiring into the concept of consent, science and religion, the patriarchy of the Catholic Church, finding power in and with fellow women, the female and queer gaze, and found family.

The Netflix Original is a loose adaptation of Warrior Nun Areala, a manga-style comic book series created by Ben Dunn and published in the nineties. While the comic book lends its title and mythology to the series, Barry’s Warrior Nun deviates largely from its source material. One glaring difference was how the characters of this female-centric show were represented. Gone were the barely-there nun habits of the comic books that were obviously created for the male gaze, instead replaced by battle regalia more practically suited to the fighting skills of each Sister Warrior. The show also offers a refreshing take on the chosen-one trope. Ava, a character absent in the comics, reacts to the obligation of saving the world, a task literally shoved into her without her consent, like any teenager who just came back from the dead would: she flees from the responsibility and tries to live her life in the first half of season one. When she finally accepts the weight of the obligation on her shoulders, it is her own choice, in her own time, and on her own terms.

Barry once said in another interview that Warrior Nun is not for the small-brained. And although the man might be a good writer, the terms “lip service” and “patronizing” are not in his vocabulary. While other writers’ rooms scramble to change the endings of their own shows whenever the fans discover a plot twist that the writers themselves have set up, it is not Warrior Nun’s intention to outdo its audience, nor to hold their hands.

The production’s high regard for the cognitive capacity of its audience is exhibited in the way they interact with the fandom. The creators are often excited whenever the viewers spot the bits of easter eggs they have scattered so generously throughout the eighteen episodes so far. In July 2020, a Twitter user posted about their discovery that the saint after which Sister Beatrice possibly named herself when she took her vows is called St. Beatrice of Silva, and how this detail most probably points to a planned endgame for the most popular ship of the show, Avatrice. Simon Barry replied to the tweet with a gif of the baby Grogu from Star Wars drinking tea. Just a few days after season two dropped, a Tumblr user made an in-depth analysis of the symbols and colors employed in the last frame before the end credits of the season — a forlorn Sister Beatrice sitting in front of the arc, having just let go of the love of her life. Barry once again responded, this time with the wide eyes emoji.

In Warrior Nun, not a single pixel on each of the aesthetically shot frames is wasted. The writers delight at every opportunity to cram Christian symbolisms on the beautiful Spanish sets, or to display character interactions even when those characters are out of the lens’ focus. They respect their audience enough and trust them to figure these elements out, sooner or later. This is why, after two and a half years, the fans are still finding some new parallel or foreshadowing from the first season, despite having watched the same 10 episodes for a minimum of 10 times. 

The fan environment cultivated by Barry that encouraged thinking and respected critical analysis is the reason why the plot twists pulled by the writers in the second season remained satisfying even though, for example, half the fandom knew that the new character Miguel would be an older version of Jillian Salvius’ son, Michael, the second actor Jack Mullarkey was cast. It was not a gotcha moment for the fans. The reward for paying attention to the plot and details is being right.

Warrior Nun writers are also not in the business of explaining the different dimensions of queerness, as is often the case when queer characters are written for a cis-heterosexual and/or white audience. Much like Miguel’s description of Reya and the divine being, in Warrior Nun, queerness just is what is. It is not a plot point nor a device. It is simply a part of the intersectional complexities and multitudes of human life. No fuss was made about the character Chanel’s transness, and we all knew what Shannon meant to Shotgun Mary. This is why Sister Beatrice’s coming out scene in season one, episode eight is more significant, contextual, and nuanced than if she had outright declared that she is a lesbian. These characters were written for those who simply would know because they have led similar lives. The scenes were shot for those who would understand because they have been in similar situations. Sister Beatrice came out in ways said but more notably, in ways unsaid. The writers afforded the imagination of the audience the same weight and respect as canon. 

Several aspects of the development of the romantic relationship between Ava and Sister Beatrice did not need an explanation. We saw Sister Beatrice with dyed hair in the beginning of season two, as opposed to her pristine, raven locks at the end of the first season. We know it is not a continuity error. It is obvious how Ava would have been the one to dye the nun’s hair a shade lighter, like it is plain to see how Sister Beatrice would have cut Ava’s hair in return. We saw how there was only one bed in their little Swiss apartment (a detail later confirmed by director Sarah Walker in response to a tweet). We all know which side Sister Beatrice slept on because of a brief shot of Ava gently caressing a part of the bed in her room back in Jillian Salvius’ manor. When Ava’s penmanship visibly improved from the way it was in the first season, the audience knew that it was not an oversight of the writers. Rather, it is a natural part of Ava’s characterization with respect to her relationship with Sister Beatrice. Of course, the nun would have helped the halo-bearer with her writing skills in the two short months they spent together. It just is what is.

Avatrice finally confessed their love for one another after only eight short episodes, in the middle of all the world-building and plot pushing that the writers had to do, and amidst all the other character arcs that had to be developed. Yet the relationship did not feel rushed even for a second. At the heart of the show is a believable and satisfying slow-burn romance between the lead protagonist and the main supporting character, two women who were strangers that became the best of friends with a shared mission, and then more. After a decades-old history of shipping women on the internet, Avatrice, within a short two seasons, has been repeatedly pronounced on Twitter and Tumblr as one of the best sapphic ships of all time. These bold declarations were met with little to no opposition. The Warrior Nun writers were able to achieve this feat within a few episodes not only because the relationship was exceptionally written and was actually integral to the plot, or because Alba Baptista and Kristina Tonteri-Young have a once-in-a-lifetime chemistry. It was also because the audience was encouraged to fill in the blanks, to read between the lines, and to consume the plot the way they do best. Instead of being mocked, the fans are invited to read more into scenes and dialogue. We were made part of the story-telling. The writers respected the audience enough to know that we would understand, and this understanding was one of the formidable threads that wove the tale together. 

The bittersweet conclusion of Avatrice for this season may seem a mammoth risk. This is especially for a ship that was anticipated for more than two years. Worse, Avatrice was accused of being queerbait as recently as a day before it went canon by naysayers burned by the treatment of sapphic ships that either went down the queerbait or bury-your-gays trope. Alas, no other showrunner would have gotten away with a season-ender that separates the couple. However, there is a thin line between fanservice and bringing a story arc to a satisfying but believable conclusion. Thankfully, it is a line that Simon Barry expertly knows how to tread. The risk paid off, and it paid off well. Warrior Nun season two is unanimously celebrated by a fandom that is currently trying to juggle all five stages of grief and the feelings of gratification all at once.

This is the unique pull of the series to its dedicated queer fanbase of two years, a core group that managed to grow exponentially in the course of a week. More than the handsome Andalusian sceneries, the complicated fight sequences, or the dialogue expertly delivered by a talented cast, it is the remarkable opportunity presented to the audience to take ownership of the story. Warrior Nun is not just a glass display case for representation, but rather, a true mirror of the lives seldom reflected on the surface of the mainstream. The second season is an invitation to the now larger queer audience migrating from all over to see how things could and should be, and a challenge to never let ourselves be treated with less respect by another production. It is truly a love letter — each word carefully chosen with full understanding of the recipient, the spaces in between the lines left blank for us to fill, and the after-credits postscript brimming with every realm of possibility.

Warrior Nun seasons one and two are available to stream now on Netflix.

Image courtesy of Netflix

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