‘Renegade Nell’ Review: Sally Wainwright’s Disney+ Series Strands a Commanding Star in a Thinly Conceived World

“I’m beginning to wonder if you’re not destined for very great things, Nelly Jackson. I’m beginning to wonder if you’ve been sent to the planet for something special.” So Nell (Louisa Harland) is told midway through Disney+’s Renegade Nell, but by that point the prediction feels like a wild understatement. After all, it’s coming from Billy Blind (Nick Mohammed), the mysterious sprite who occasionally grants her otherworldly gifts of strength, speed and invulnerability. Surely the narrative gods never intended her to apply such strange talents to a humdrum life.

What that specific “something special” might be, however, proves more difficult to pin down. Nell accomplishes plenty over the adventure’s first season, such that this common nobody even gets tangled up in the struggle between Queen Anne (Jodhi May) and the Jacobite traitors who would overthrow her. But Renegade Nell never does deliver on the early promise of its concept, and eventually settles into the disappointment of unfulfilled potential.

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On the bright side, none of its shortcomings are the fault of star Louisa Harland (Derry Girls). First introduced ambling through the forest in a disheveled military uniform, a blade of straw dangling insouciantly from her lips, she commands our attention even before we realize what she’s capable of. Soon enough, it becomes clear that at least some of her casual confidence stems from her de facto invincibility. When a highwayman makes the mistake of trying to stick her up, a tiny golden spark — Billy — flies into her nose. Powered by his magic, she’s able to duck bullets in slow-motion, send men flying with a single punch, and leap dozens of feet in the air without breaking a sweat.

Once Nell arrives at her hometown, this unusual heroine starts to look more peculiar still. The locals are shocked to see her because they’d presumed her to have died alongside her army-captain husband in the War of the Spanish Succession. Nell never does offer a cogent explanation on how she survived, and neither she nor Billy seem to know how he came to be her constant companion.

Nor does Renegade Nell care much to find out — and while there is probably something to be said for eschewing the origin story to dive headfirst into action, the vagueness with which the series treats its more fanciful elements robs them of their weight. What thrill is there in seeing a hero come into an inexplicable sixth sense, or a villain toy with their newfound abilities, when it’s all presented to us as stuff that just kind of happens, with no rhyme or reason or constraint?

In fairness, questions about her own origin story very quickly become the least of Nell’s concerns. Within days of her return, Thomas (Jake Dunn), the spoiled-brat son of the local lord, murders her father (Craig Parkinson) in cold blood. When Nell confronts him about his crime, Thomas kills his own father (Pip Torrens) and frames Nell for the deed. Forced to flee with her younger sisters, 16-year-old Roxy (Bo Bragason) and 9-year-old George (Florence Keen) — along with Rasselas (Ényì Okoronkwo), Thomas’ unwilling servant — Nell refashions herself as a reluctant highwaywoman. As Thomas and his wilier sister Sofia (Alice Kremelberg) turn to dark spells to bring her to heel, word spreads through the countryside of the woman who “fights like a demon, apparently, and with the strength of 10 men,” to Nell’s great irritation.

True to its title, Renegade Nell has a rebellious spirit. At the show’s most enjoyable, creator Sally Wainwright (Happy Valley, Gentleman Jack) taps into the wish-fulfillment fantasy of watching a superhero mow down bad guys and have a blast doing it. While corrupt nobles like the Earl of Poynton (Adrian Lester) might sneer that Nelly is but “an insect in the land of giants,” Nell and her friends prove him wrong with their every move; in one of the season’s most rousing sequences, Nell liberates an entire prison after realizing how many of those behind bars were sentenced to live in darkness and disease simply for stealing “bread and blankets and things that keep body and soul together.”

The action scenes are lively (at least when they’re not too dark to see) and the oddballs Nell encounters along the way are frequently amusing — particularly Charles (Frank Dillane), a fellow highwayman so deliciously chaotic he might have been right at home in this spring’s other adventure about unconventional English outlaws.

But these bits of fun are scattered around a world too shabbily built to hold up to deeper scrutiny. As insistent as the series is about how much our scrappy young heroes matter, it’s oddly incurious about who they actually are. The characters’ personalities and motivations seem to shift with the needs of the plot, so that Nell wavers between jaded and naïve from episode to episode, or Thomas spills a deeply personal secret to Rasselas for no apparent reason.

Their relationships are likewise painted without complexity. We understand, for instance, that Nell and her sisters are utterly devoted to each other, but not what the intimate dynamics of their bonds are like — what inside jokes they share, what petty grudges they harbor, what they get about each other that no one else does. And although the forces of both good and evil seem to expand considerably over the season’s eight 40ish-minute chapters, Renegade Nell gives us precious little sense of what all this magic means, either to the people wielding it or to the universe they exist in. Most often, it seems to borrow Billy’s shrugging attitude about the entire situation. “Ours is not to reason why. Ours is just to get on with things,” he offers when Nell wonders about the larger purpose of their fateful union.

And get on with things they do; Nell and Billy and their gang are people of swashbuckling adventure, not self-indulgent navel-gazing. But Renegade Nell might have done well to spend a bit less time telling us what happened next, and a bit more showing us why we’re watching it at all.

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