Putting a feminist spin on Arthurian legend as the fabled Lady of the Lake takes centre stage, Cursed dismantles expectations and builds a new mythos that satisfies and excites.
Nowadays it comes as no surprise to hear that media giant Netflix have commissioned yet another comic book adaptation, however this time around there is not a superhero cape in sight. There are, however, a collection of mythical figures who all come together to form a pantheon of legends. Its original source material written by Tom Wheeler and illustrated by Frank Miller is toted as a reimagining rather than an adaptation, and that assertion could not be more appropriate. Building off the skeletal framework of English mythology a new story emerges for a new generation, and unlike previous failed attempts in live-action this one has left us wanting more.
In this series we meet Nimue, the legendary Lady of the Lake. She is our protagonist and at this stage in her life she is far from the fabled figure found in dusty old books. Instead she is a young woman who is still mastering the destructive powers which are afforded to her by the Fey blood which runs through her veins.
She and her friend Pym are desperate to get away from their relatively sheltered life at home, but for Nimue it is significantly harder due to the deep-seated discrimination which is rampant throughout England. This is a result of the religious zealotry practiced by the Red Paladins who hunt and kill her kind, a group who serve as the main villains of the series. After a vicious attack on their village she is forced to flee and barely escapes with her life thanks to the formidable force that is her family’s Sword of Power, otherwise known as Excalibur by Arthurian myth aficionados.
The first episode of the series makes excellent use of its time and introduces us to a world that already feels lived in. For a non-HBO television series it boasts striking cinematography and set pieces, although the premiere itself contains the odd jarringly-different shot which can take you out of the moment. This issue does not persist throughout the rest of the series, however, and it makes up for it with fantastic use of both CGI and practical effects.
It is not long before the action revs into high gear and a collective of Arthur, Merlin, Sir Gawain and many more join the fray. Uther Pendragon and Morgana also round out the known figures of myth, with a few more hidden throughout the series that are only revealed to those with season-long patience.
In the world of Cursed the order of things is at a tipping-point. Pendragon is hoping to seize power with the aid of a washed-up Merlin, meanwhile the Red Paladins and the ferocious Weeping Monk leave devastation in their wake wherever they go. Early on in the series Nimu and Arthur join forces in a relationship which initially leaves them at odds with one another, but over time develops into one of mutual respect and compassion.
This powder keg is eventually ignited as the walls close in around Nimue’s Fey found family and she is forced to make a choice which changes the course of her life. Now the beloved Fey Queen, the appointed leader who will lead them against their oppressors, Nimue takes this appointment in her stride at first, but becomes increasingly reliant on the sword’s power which brings complications of its own.
By and large the series is a thoroughly enjoyable watch which quickly diverges from the assumed course of events that an Arthurian legend story would pursue. The premise is intriguing and its execution is on point, with a brilliant performance from Katherine Langford in the starring role carrying the show at times. The ten episode order allows the narrative to progress at a steady pace while never feeling rushed, and by the end of the series a satisfying conclusion has been reached which will leave fans clamouring for a potential second season. One major criticism is that at times the character of Nimue stagnates, leaving the viewer occasionally far more interested in the character arcs of Pym, Merlin, and Arthur, who all have much less screen time.
Performance-wise this series knocks it out of the park with everyone involved putting on a stellar show. Gustaf Skarsgård is particularly impressive as the morose Merlin, who after a long life full of tragedy and regrets is almost ready to call curtains on his role on life’s stage before crossing paths with Nimue. Devoid of his powers for the majority of the series save for the odd stunning outburst he is by far the most interesting member of the eclectic cast. The Weeping Monk comes in at a close second although ultimately it is Nimue who is developed the most, and rightly so.
By the time the credits have begun to roll in the finale the stage is set for a much more ambitious and thrill-fuelled sequel. Looking good on paper, in reality this is the television equivalent of a monkey’s paw. Yes, excitement for the future is high and everyone will be talking about those final five minutes for a long time to come. The flip side of this situation is that those final five minutes gave us a taste of what this fledgling season could have been like, and the widened scope for season two which the writers clearly have in mind makes what we have just watched feel just a little bit irrelevant. When the screen fades to black it is almost as if the viewer has just finished watching a prequel written after the fact rather than the beginning of a new series.
Nevertheless, it cannot be overstated how enjoyable the series is once you become invested in its horde of characters. With so many different subplots unfolding it can at times be difficult to keep track of things, but once events start to overlap and the gang finally forms everything starts to fall into place. From a technical standpoint the series is applause-worthy, from its cinematography to practical effects to the charming animated transitions.
In conclusion, Cursed is the YA fantasy series which Netflix needs alongside The Witcher to compete in a post-Game of Thrones world where every streaming service is trying to fill the void left in its wake. Its technical and performative achievements outweigh the occasional lull in proceedings, and with a bit of fine-tuning in the interim a prospective second season is sure to wow both fans of the series and also its initial nay-sayers.