Renegade Nell Back

Renegade Nell’s 8-episode season struggles to balance comedy, tragedy, action, history, and fantasy in its storylines and world, but its whip-fast colloquialisms, period-specific exposition, stunning fight choreography, and core cast make for an enjoyable watch. It does not have “all the hallmarks of a fairytale,” as John Arthur’s Godolphin suggests[i], but its invocation of English folklore, rapidly increasing stakes, and the titular character’s unwavering understanding of what is right makes for a fascinating ballad. More on that later.

At the heart of Nell is Sally Wainright. Wainright, creator of Gentleman Jack (2019-2022), is no stranger to costume drama focused on an “unnatural woman” whose perception of what is right is oft at odds with hegemonic norms. Her characteristic approach works magic here. We open with the capable, quick-witted Nell Jackson (Louisa Harland) journeying back to her family’s tavern in Tottenham (where she is presumed dead) after being widowed at the Battle of Blenheim. She alights upon Isambard Tulley (Frank Dillane)—secretly the foppish but broke Charles Devereux—and his gang robbing a carriage. When Tulley attempts to dispossess Nell of her wedding band, she tells him: “Little word of warning. You don’t want to mess with me”, before launching into the first of her fey-powered, energetic, action sequences in the series.

Nell’s return from the dead and newfound supernatural strength, dexterity, and agility—thanks to her partnership with Billy Blind (Nick Mohammed), a folkloric sprite in several Child ballads[ii]—places her family in jeopardy when she resists their denigration by local, upper-class, sadist, Thomas Blancheford (Jake Dunn). Renegade Nell resists the notion that its lower-class characters need to act in the manner that their oppressors—dark magic-wielding members of the English aristocracy—expect. While its approach to race is unfortunately uncritical, the show does a fair job showcasing structural inequalities in eighteenth-century law and justice and considers how these are exacerbated by popular print.

Nell determines that such institutions only benefit the upper classes because they are “made by the toffs, for the toffs.” Harland shines as she brawls, shoots, and plays with classed and gendered dress, accents, and affectations whenever necessary. In typical ballad fashion, her connection to Billy Blind Magic is accepted without explanation. He serves as her advisor and his magic provides Nell with the transformative social and political power to defy Blancheford, his mentor—the Palpatine-esque Earl of Poynton (Adrian Lester)—, his widowed sister, Sofia Wilmot (Alice Kremelberg), and retinue of supernatural baddies[iii] as she seeks justice for her father’s murder.

Like Nell, the largely female ensemble rub against the period-specific expectations of gender and class, to varying degrees of success. Nell’s sisters, Roxy (Bo Bragason) and George (Florence Keen), join her on the run after she is framed for (a different) murder. The latter receives substantial storylines in episodes 3, 6 and 7 before forming a comedic duo with Tulley. Roxy, unfortunately, gets less fleshed out story-beats. In episode 4, she is magically granted literacy and heals George, who was wounded during a carriage-chase in episode 3. Neither her magical connection nor burgeoning relationship with Rasselas (the affable Enyi Okoronkwo) receive the necessary time to develop.

Bit characters, Polly Honeycombe (Ashna Rabheru) and Lady Eularia Moggerhanger (Joely Richardson), get far more to do in their limited appearances. Episode 6, marks the return of Polly—who Nell robs in episode 2—with a “tale of passion and woe.” Rabheru comedically evokes the naiveté and dedication of Gay’s Polly as she spouts epistolary romance at Nell. Eularia, a newspaper magnate, is the crux of Nell’s infamy. Engaged to Devereux, she must free him from Newgate (and get him down the aisle) to attain the gentry’s respect by securing a title. Eularia and Polly are used expertly in the penultimate episode, which starts strong with a bawler hawking “A New delightful Ballad, Called, Devil Nell” and culminates in a standout printing press brawl.

Sofia Wilmot (Alice Kremelberg) is the most complex of these characters: where Blancheford is driven by greed, her ambition, grief, and desire to protect her family fuels her use of the dark arts. She would make a fascinating Gothic heroine elsewhere. The siblings are excellent foes for Nell: their manipulation of classed power sees them “feed off of misery and make more of it” whereas Nell’s magical strength inspires hope. However, Sophia and Blancheford’s storyline with Lester’s Poynton feels largely disconnected from the rest of the action. Lester is enjoyable, but Wainwright’s insistence that Poynton—a Black aristocrat, Jacobite, and sorcerer— “corrupts” Blancheford and Wilmot and is the root of all magical, social, and political evil in the series feels problematically unreflective.

Like Netflix’s Bridgerton universe, Nell aligns its non-exclusionary approach with alternate history (steeped in magical realism) but fails to consider the broader systemic implications at the intersection of historical racism and classism. Poynton’s use of the dark arts at once draws on and obfuscates the colonial villainization and suppression of voodoo and Black spiritualism in the period. Although Rasselas, as an IBPOC man, briefly notes the danger of “being sent to the colonies”, Nell gestures towards but does not tackle race, colonialism, or enslavement in the period in any greater depth. Nell’s non-exclusionary casting—which includes a number of disabled and mobility aid users—is admirable, even if its understanding of race reminds us that silences and erasures of historic racism reflect the nature of corporate studios[iv].

We might justify Renegade Nell’s rapid pace and occasional lack of depth by reading it as a sensationalized ballad. Pieces of Nell’s story—the particulars of her relationship with Captain Jackson, survival at Blenheim, connection to Billy, etc.— are less important than the ballad’s insistence upon its didactic notions of morality, family, and community. It is in these human, rather than supernatural, aspects that Nell finds the strength to protect her loved ones, resist oppression, and fight for what she knows is right. Renegade Nell may not be a memorable enough ballad to bear repeating, but it is certainly a ballad worth hearing.



[i] Godolphin appears sporadically in the series and says this line in episode 3, “A Private Joke with the Queen,” Renegade Nell (29 March, 2024).

[ii] These include “Gil Brenton” (no. 5c), “Willie’s Lady” (no. 6), “Young Bekie” (no. 53C), and “The Knight and the Shepherd’s Daughter(no. 110). In these ballads, Billy Blind advises the characters to help them through adversity.

[iii] Sadly, the majority of these are undefined, shadowy, creatures. Herne the Hunter, however, makes a memorable appearance in episodes 2, “Tracks Less Well Trod,” and 3, “A Private Joke with the Queen,” Renegade Nell (29 March, 2024).

[iv] Kafantaris, Mira Assaf, Ambereen Dadabhoy, Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall, Jessica Parr, and Kerry Sinanan. “Unsilencing the Past in Bridgerton 2020: A Roundtable,” retrieved from: