Saturday, 25 July 2020

Masterful Plot/Character: Warrior Nun

I have been bingeing Warrior Nun on Netflix. My partner wasn't too convinced about trying it, but after one episode he thought it was interesting, and after two episodes he suggested the next evening we should continue it. Somewhere in the middle we were fully invested.

I believe that both good and bad stories can teach us a lot about how to do our books/stories. I'd recommend Warrior Nun as a good example.

The thing I want to talk about specifically is the payoff.

Because, boy, what a payoff.

(Now, if you haven't seen the show and don't want to get spoilered, go, watch it, then come back.)

In some ways, of course it's a YA story and has quite a few cliches, but it's acted with heart and filmed well, the characters are interesting, and it's frankly refreshing to see so many women/girls on screen driving the plot. I was also really into how the debate "science versus religion" was handled, with the "rational people" not nearly fully rational (or even driven by rationality) and the religious people no crusading fanatics by any means. Excellent mix of grey here, no whites and blacks. A worse writer could have completely ruined that, but the mix was compelling.

But what really blew me away was the payoff.

We spend a lot of time in what at first felt like the "debate" beat - the "will she/won't she" moment of "will she accept her destiny or live selfishly etc". Ava has all reasons to not want to become the Warrior Nun - her experiences with religion aren't exactly positive (a nun tried to euthanise her), and quite frankly, she's a teenager and likes cute boys and partying and running along the beach (considering she's been confined to a room all of her her life). It's "faith versus fun". "Self-focus versus "team player". She has good reasons to be selfish, of course, considering she's been on her own from an early age. We also know from the start that she cares about people.

She's rebellious, she's a smart-arse, she questions authority, and very much has her own ideas. She's a tricky customer to have if you're a medieval demon-fighting order of Catholic nuns who know she's the Chosen One. Many think she was chosen by accident, and some decide that her chosen status needs to be taken away so the order can move on and fulfill its purpose. Clearly, somebody who takes her super powers and runs away with the cute boy instead of meekly serving her new purpose is a big fat problem.

Over the course of the last few episodes, we see her "accept her destiny" (though she's doing it very much on her own terms, in part inspired by "Shotgun" Mary). She marries "fun" and "faith" - clearly enjoying the company and friendship of the other nuns, as well as the "mission" to find the tomb of the angel (for reasons).

This is when the big question is answered. Ava (from her perspective) faces the choice to return the "halo" to the trapped angel (who's alive in the tomb). Her compassion for those who are trapped and betrayed (as she was) wars with her dis-belief (the person she sees down there has been alive for a thousand years while trapped in a small cave, so hard to explain that with science), and, from what she knows, he's been betrayed and the halo that gives her super powers is actually rightfully his and will restore him to full angelic power.

On the other hand, she has reason to believe that returning it will kill her or at least return her to her previous state (quadriplegic, no super powers, unable to walk or move or escape that tomb). And how smart to set this in a tomb - these choices always happen in caves, archetypically, with Luke Skywalker meeting Darth Vader in the cave on Dagobah for the first time.

This is when we realise that any other of the nuns would have given the angel the halo back. They're Christians who've been trained to follow the hierarchy, despite their personal misgivings. Any other halo bearer would have (we get to assume). But not Ava. Her rebelliousness and general mistrust of authority - as well as a well-developed ego - make her go "hang on a minute". Luckily, the halo also gives her access to visions of the actual history.

Turns out, whatever the immortal guy is, he's not an angel.

The whole scene could be taught as part of a master class in writing. The deepest structures of the main character working synergistically with the all-important question of the plot. The big decision of the story is answered in one specific way like only the heroine can. We know she'd give up the halo (at the cost of her life/health/freedom), but her ego and her strength to question what's put before her allow her to pull back from the brink and realise it's not redemption or liberation, but truly the Cave of Death.

We know she's the "Chosen One" because all other nuns would have given up the halo. And other humans simply wouldn't have gotten far enough to get asked the question in the first place, since it took the halo's powers and a super human effort to get there. Or rather - we know she's special. We also know that she appears to be the "Chosen One" to others. On a different level, she's a strong person making the best of a weird situation and retaining her agency against overwhelming odds. It's been some of the most riveting minutes of visual story telling I've seen in a long time.

(The episode then ends with a Major Character Betrayal, and just before a big fight, so it's a nasty cliffhanger, but I'd strongly recommend watching the show for the "scene in the tomb" alone. I've rarely seen it done so well.)

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