Ironically, Renegade Nell would benefit from some rules

Renegade Nell is a puzzle. Boasting the creative pedigree of screenwriter Sally Wainwright (Gentleman Jack) and the talents of a cast of British TV stalwarts, the story of a flame-haired, 18th-century English highwaywoman with the powers of a 20th-century superhero would seem to be a shoo-in for the renfaire bitches (it’s me, I’m renfaire bitches).

But — like holding up a noble’s carriage and finding a third of his luggage conspicuously empty — Renegade Nell contains a lot and not enough at the same time. And the feeling of a gap between two fun things where something fun should have been is consistent through the season’s eight episodes.

Which is to say, there’s a lot of fun stuff in Renegade Nell. Louisa Harland is especially enjoyable to watch as the titular Nell Jackson, delivering lines with a charismatic insouciance. We find Nell traveling home from the War of the Spanish Succession after the death of the dashing captain she ran away from home for in order to reunite with her estranged family, including sisters Roxy (Bo Bragason) and George (Florence Keen).

Alas, their village is currently plagued by the local magistrate’s wastrel of a son (Jake Dunn), and matters escalate quickly. Nell is framed for the magistrate’s murder, and she and her sisters go on the run, holding up coaches to get by and finding an ally in Rasselas (Enyi Okoronkwo), a young man whom the magistrate enslaved as a boy.

Oh, and the way Nell survives all this is by the power of a pixie-winged man of changeable size, Billy Blind (Nick Mohammed), who confers the strength of 10 men upon her whenever her life is threatened.

Photo: Rekha Garton/Disney

Renegade Nell’s numerous fight scenes are brisk, fun, creatively staged, and winningly acted. The show also shows a real relish in its costuming, from primped-up nobles to disguised peasants. Thankfully for a story about literal highway robbery, the exteriors are refreshingly exterior — no empty Volume horizons here — and directors Ben Taylor, Amanda Brotchie, and MJ Delaney have great fun with it.

But almost every one of the show’s characters feels incomplete, as if an episode that established this emotional change, or followed up on that surprising revelation, was simply missing from the list. Character arcs that leap to their conclusions rather than walking are a common quality of the eight-episode television season, and Renegade Nell may be no different. And shortcuts like familiar character archetypes and classic story forms can be a strength in the kind of genre fiction where half the appeal is knowing that you’ve seen this hero’s journey before, and being excited to follow it again in a new set of clothes.

But Renegade Nell is curiously disinterested in its fantasy elements, a lack of exploration put in stark relief by the specificity of its historical grounding in the first decade of 1700, when Jacobite forces conspired — or at least attempted to conspire — to put Queen Anne’s Catholic half-brother James Francis Edward Stuart on the throne instead.

Now, criticizing a fantasy show for not explaining how the magic works has a tendency to make you sound like the most boring person alive, but I’m going to take that risk. Listen: Trailers for Renegade Nell made sure to include Nell’s supernatural abilities. There’s a little man with fairy wings who turns into a glowing ball and flies down her throat, conferring superhuman strength, agility, and the ability to turn bullets aside with her bare hands. “Why are you here?” she demands of the diminutive gentleman. “I can only assume that your life is very important,” he replies. It’s a tease — what is he? Who sent him? Are there, or have there been, others like him and Nell? How mysterious and intriguing.

Nick Mohammed as Billy Blind, a man with fairy wings in an embroidered coat in Renegade Nell. Image: Disney Plus

It’s a light spoiler, but perhaps you could consider it a helpful adjustment of expectation: Renegade Nell does not answer these questions. Nell just has a magic guy who showed up one day to give her superpowers.

Heroes with unexplained supernatural powers can make for great fun, and one should strive to appreciate a television show for what it is, not what you expected it to be. But Renegade Nell aspires to genuine depth. Wainwright’s script is a story of class conflict, of little people standing up to stick it to the toffs — a story of the ways in which society will cut the legs out from under powerful women by any means necessary — and a story about grievous misuses of both magical and mundane power. In this thematic context, questions about the apparently unique origin and nature of the magic that gives a heroine her class-upending power are directly relevant.

Metaphorically speaking, Renegade Nell is still an appealing carriage full of spoils — fun costumes, silly situations, a few standout performances. It’s a pity that it’s missing a wheel.

All episodes of Renegade Nell are now streaming on Disney Plus.

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