Renegade Nell’s Sofia Wilmot Is the Morgana Pendragon Successor We’ve Been Waiting For

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Renegade Nell’s Sofia Wilmot Is the Morgana Pendragon Successor We’ve Been Waiting For

In 2012, during the final episode of BBC’s Merlin, Morgana Pendragon (Katie McGrath) took her final shuddering breath after being stabbed by her once-friend Merlin (Colin Morgan), ran through with a dragon-kissed sword. But prior to her untimely demise, Morgana represented the very best of female corruption and villainy on screen. Seduced by the call of dark magic, radicalized by a mentor figure, and ultimately shunned and abandoned by those closest to her in her quest for equality and liberation, Morgana remains one of TV’s greatest bad witches. And now, over a decade later, Disney+’s Renegade Nell finally gives fans of this iconic character a worthy successor: Alice Kremelberg’s Sofia Wilmot. 

Introduced as the quiet and subservient widowed daughter to the imposing Lord Blanchford (Pip Torrens), Sofia’s journey towards becoming a villain begins the moment her brother Thomas (Jake Dunn) shoots their father. With a single bullet, her shaky position as the tentative woman of this household has fallen into the hands of her idiot brother and his childish impulses. The anxiety and desperation this shakes loose from her is palpable, especially once Thomas swiftly transforms from a drunken menace into a spooked, haunted mess seemingly overnight. So when the charming and mysterious Lord Poynton (Adrian Lester) alludes to a possible solution to their seemingly supernatural problem, the offer is simply too good to refuse. Shaken by the possibility of losing everything she’s ever known if the truth were to surface, she’s willing to do anything to perpetuate the lie that Nell Jackson (Louisa Harland) killed her father—even if this means tracking down this renegade and killing her. She trains under Poynton, who fosters the powerful magic that was already living within her, and rolls her into his dastardly plot to overthrow the Queen. 

Her downward spiral is swift and drastic, shifting from the once-quiet woman who seemed conflicted at her brother’s cruel actions in the first episode to a ragingly powerful witch bent on murdering Nell. The series’ most shining achievement with its central villainess is the depth she’s given and the layers that are so skillfully injected into her every scene. On the surface, Sofia’s obsession with Nell stems, of course, from the fear of losing everything. Under her father, Sofia was a passive voice within the home, but at the very least, she had a roof over her head and some modicum of respect; under Thomas, who’s beginning to mentally deteriorate from the toll of his actions, she sees a future where her freedom is completely dependent on whoever might inherit Broadwater next assuming he can’t keep it together. The solution is simple: kill Nell Jackson so no one ever finds out Thomas killed their father, and she maintains her status and lavish home. But from a series this well-crafted and outstandingly performed, nothing is ever just simple

Sofia is molded through a lethal combination of jealousy, intellect, and pride that sends her down her season-long arc, all heightened by the 1700s setting. In a society that holds so little value for women and actively scoffs at those with both intelligence and the confidence to share it, Sofia keens at any kind of praise and respect, especially from Poynton. Truthfully, Sofia couldn’t care less about actually overthrowing the Queen (she’s scandalized by Poynton’s admission that he is a Jacobite and clearly doesn’t share the same feelings at first). Yes, her involvement in this plot hinges on the potential power that position may provide, but she is equally motivated, if not more so, by the respect that Poynton offers her. The fact that someone recognized her intelligence and potential is enough to push her down any path, and it ultimately becomes a large part of her undoing as Poynton easily and cruelly betrays her in the season’s final episode. 

Similarly, while she’s obsessed with Nell because she’s the loose thread that could potentially unravel her fragile position, a violent undercurrent of jealousy elevates this almost one-sided feud to even greater heights. Nell is a highwaywoman who wanders around in trousers and beats the daylights out of men because she is powerful and she can. She has no concern for polite society, toff order, and a woman’s “place,” and she represents everything that Sofia, at first, refuses to become. Ultimately, she doesn’t really hate Nell; she hates the social order that cast her aside once she was widowed, she hates the Lords who refuse to acknowledge her intelligence, and she hates the ways in which she’s had to twist and shape herself into something more brutal and cold in an effort to simply survive.

By stepping into the dark arts, Sofia follows in Nell’s footsteps, but in a distinctly opposing way. Nell’s power thrives out of respect and love; Billy (Nick Mohammed) imbues her with her abilities in order to give her the strength to challenge and change the world for the better, all while protecting her family along the way. Sofia’s power blossoms out of desperation and jealousy, imposing her will upon others in order to command those with less power in the same way men within this society do. So when the two finally come face to face again during Episode 8 (multiple magical brawls later and an outsized amount of shared history for two people who haven’t been in the same room for five episodes), it’s clear that Sofia believes they use similar methods, that Nell also gains and maintains her power to bring others down.

For Sofia, power is a type of theft, a heeled boot pushing a face into the mud. When she reluctantly chokes out a plea for Nell to speak to the Queen on her and Thomas’ behalf in order to spare their lives, she bites out: “that’s what you want to hear, isn’t it?” That simple exchange highlights her belief that power is a weapon to be used against others, a tool to make those inferior grovel at your feet because that’s how it’s been wielded towards her for presumably her entire life. To be a woman in 1705 is to be at the whims of men, and Sofia utilizes the power she gains in the only way she knows how. Nell, on the other hand, is motivated by love and a heroic righteousness, ultimately surprising her enemy when she lets her and her brother go, even with the laundry list of horrible deeds they’ve enacted upon her. 

It’s those elements (jealousy, pride, intelligence, and power) that tie Sofia to Morgana, both witches following very similar arcs in their quests for freedom and power in a society that wants them to have neither. Like Morgana before her, it’s incredible to watch as Sofia slowly unlocks her magic and confidence to become something so much more than the passive and quiet women we met in the series’ first outing. Both of these characters staunchly refuse to wait around for the slow tick of change at the whims of men who hold more worth in the opinion of their horses than the woman standing next to them. Their powers manifest in a moment of need, becoming a physical representation of the lengths they’re willing to go to make tangible change happen. And even though the methods they use place them on the darker side of the morality spectrum, they are still undeniably sympathetic and compelling. In performance alone, both Kremelberg and McGrath expertly bring a complexity to these characters, always with a tear in their eye and a tangible humanity underneath the anger and magic.

More than anything, it’s refreshing and delightful to see this kind of female character grace our screens again, with all of her complex villainy, delicious deviousness, and magical prowess—and the sympathetic humanity underneath it all. It’s undeniably special and unfortunately rare to see this type of magical villainess done well, where it’s easy to root against them, sure, but even easier to understand their motivations and the ways in which a sexist and misogynistic society has clearly failed them. And especially from all-ages, family-oriented networks and streamers like the BBC and Disney+, bringing these complicated women into the living rooms of so many families is a triumph in its own right. For five seasons, Morgana devilishly forged a seldom-walked path, and I can only hope that Sofia will continue to follow in her complicated footsteps in future seasons of this delightful series. 

Renegade Nell is now streaming on Disney+.

Anna Govert is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For any and all thoughts about TV, film, and her unshakable love of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, you can follow her @annagovert.

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.

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