The latest filmed adaptation of the Arthurian legend is Cursed, released earlier this month on Netflix. How good is this series, and how does it portray the Middle Ages?
Cursed is based on the graphic novel of the same name created by Frank Miller and Tom Wheeler, where the focus is not on King Arthur, but rather on the Lady of the Lake. The series itself is very much female-centric, with several female characters prominent in the story. There have been hundreds of adaptations of the Arthurian legend on film, television and other media, so it is very difficult to give a unique take on the story, and Cursed should be credited with trying something new by going with this approach.
The first season is spread over 10 episodes, with the intention of having it continue on at least one and probably several more seasons before the story is completely told. It centres on a character named Nimue, played by Katherine Langford. She is a Fey – a race of people who partly combined with plants or animals and have some magical abilities. Her people live in forest villages somewhere in medieval England, and they seemingly would be living prosperous and idyllic lives if it were not for the Red Paladins.
Dressed in red robes, they are militant Christian monks who see the Fey as creatures of evil, and are focused on wiping them out. When they attack Nimue’s village it begins a chain of events with Nimue having to go on a quest involving a magical sword and protecting her people from the evil monks. The Red Paladins are in pursuit, having deemed Nimue ‘the Wolf Blood Witch’.
As Nimue’s story unfolds we also have the more political narrative around the throne of England, and its various claimants. Uther Pendragon is the current king, but as viewers quickly realize he is mostly an indecisive and weak figure, and it’s not surprising that others plot against him.
Joining the two stories is the figure of Merlin, who has apparently been living for hundreds of years but is currently a much reduced figure – without his magic powers and spending most of his time drinking. However, he soon realizes that events are unfolding in which he must sober up and take a central role, and we soon learn more about his connection to Nimue and the sword.
Other Arthurian characters soon emerge – Arthur himself, who starts out as a low-level mercenary seeking to restore his family’s honour, and his sister Morgana, who is a nun with a secret. Gradually we get introduced to more characters, including Gawain, who in this version is also called the Greek Knight. A few more get mentioned towards the end of the season, but we won’t spoil those reveals.
The magical sword itself is called ‘Sword of Power’ – not Excalibur – and apparently who holds it can claim to be the King of England. This is why everyone seems to be after it, but it also seems to have a corrupting influence on its wielder – think of it as akin to Tolkien’s One Ring. This is unevenly played throughout the season, as sometimes it leads Nimue to act more violently, but in other scenes doesn’t impact her at all.
The first season involves a lot of events taking place very quickly – the show doesn’t offer a definitive timeline of what’s happening when, but it seemingly is set over a couple of weeks. It is enough time for some of the main characters – Arthur and Merlin, for instance, to get a transformation for the better – and for us to watch a few battle scenes and dramatic choices.
Is Cursed good to watch?
So far this Netflix series has received mixed reviews, and this one will be as well. The good are the performances of the main actors, with Katherine Langford as Nimue and Gustaf Skarsgård as Merlin leading the way.
However, there are many problems about Cursed, most of which stem from its not knowing whether its meant to be modelling itself on the more gritty medieval-eque movies and television of late, or a show aimed at younger audiences. The graphic novel that it was based on was considered Young-Adult, and we certainly get a lot of scenes and character-arcs that fall in that category. It’s hard to imagine that fans of Game of Thrones or Vikings will enjoy this.
This makes one ask, why did Cursed have other elements similar to Game of Thrones? It depicts a lot of graphic violence, with limbs cut off and blood spewing. We also get many characters that come and go, and one might want to keep notes to track all the political and court intrigues taking place. It’s hard to imagine teenagers caring too much about the Ice King’s claim to the English throne and at the same time why some of his former subjects want to fight him so badly.
Overall, most of the characters and their interactions are just too simplistic and one-dimensional. Our good people are generally all good (or good intentioned), while the villains have no redeeming qualities. This is the kind of story that one might expect to be told in 1980s or 90s, but one would think that today’s viewer will want more depth in its plot and character.
Some viewers will also dislike how time and place are so casually neglected in the show’s own internal logic. All the events are squeezed together in what just seems a couple of weeks, or perhaps less, at least when it comes to the main story involving Nimue. Meanwhile, we have armies marching around, alliances being made and broken, and the plot moving forward at a super fast pace. Merlin in particular has to be riding from place to place, and he doesn’t even have enough time to deal with mortal wounds. It is like the show writers didn’t care to make sense of what was happening as long as they could move the characters and plot from point A to B.
Cursed and the medieval
One doesn’t need to have a background in medieval history or the Arthurian legend to watch Cursed, but it is interesting to examine how the Middle Ages gets portrayed in this series. It should be noted that this is a very loose adaptation of Arthurian tales, mostly limited to recycling the names for the main characters. Nobody seems to have a character-arc that even remotely resembles anything from their medieval versions.
The series wants to give the audience the impression that this is set in medieval England, but it offers very little that is based on the real world. We get name drops of people and places – Charlemagne, Dover, the Holy Roman Emperor and Byzantium all get a single mention – but the setting of all of the events is purely fictional. Indeed, most of the action seems to take place around Beggar’s Coast with towns like Gramaire and Hawksbridge.
It’s likely that the writers simply wanted to give viewers a sense that they were setting the story in the Middle Ages, but at the same time keep it firmly placed in a fantasy realm. However, when they do make use of medieval-themes, it is almost portrayed negatively. The Christian church is (as often the case in recent film and television) depicted as the outright villains of the series, with the Red Paladins serving as stand-ins for Knights Templar or similar orders. All of them, Pope included, are portrayed as fanatical or devious, without any redeemable traits or humanity.
Somewhat more surprising for the show was its depiction of lepers. In the fourth episode we are introduced to Rugen, the Leper King, who seems to live in some kind of underworld. He and his minions, presumably also lepers, are depicted as monsters and feral beings. It seems sad that the show, which aims to be progressive and diverse, is creating stereotypes of people based on illness.
Cursed, like almost all other recent depictions of the Arthurian legend, is more of a reflection of present-day ideals and themes, with just enough name-drops that the audience will have some familiarity with the characters. What we are left with is a show that so far has some good premises and acting, but hasn’t decided what kind of audience it is aiming for.