Before there were the knights of the round table, there was the legend of a sword. The Sword of Power. The Devils Tooth. Who so wields it shall be proclaimed the One True King. If you know your legends, then you’ll know that Arthur was gifted a sword of immense power by the Lady of the Lake, which proclaimed him the true king of Briton.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. Nevertheless, this is the central plot of Cursed – a re-imagining of the old Arthurian Legend and centered on the woman who is destined to become the powerful (and tragic) Lady of the Lake.
Based on the young adult novel written by Tom Wheeler and illustrated by Frank Miller (who also provides transition illustrations for the show), Cursed is the story of Nimue (Katherine Langford), a young fae woman charged by her mother with delivering the Sword to the wizard Merlin (Gustaf Skarsgård).
During her quest, Nimue finds an unexpected partner in Arthur (Devon Terrell), a humble mercenary and sometimes bard. Over the course of her journey, Nimue becomes a symbol of courage and rebellion against the Red Paladins, religious nuts bent on destroying the fae and wiping out magic, and their complicit King Uther (Sebastian Armesto), the scion of Pendragon that currently holds the throne and who Merlin allegedly serves. Cue cries of “Burn the Witch!”
Cursed is billed as a coming-of-age story whose themes are familiar to our own time: the obliteration of the natural world, religious terror, senseless war, and finding the courage to lead in the face of the impossible. So, standard Young Adult fair, especially with a young female lead who has power thrust upon her.
Tonally, Cursed tends to be one note. Unlike Netflix’s other swords and sorcery epic, The Witcher, there’s little to no levity to be found here. It’s all drama, all the time, and Nimue herself is portrayed as stoic and mostly disengaged. Langford does as well as she can in the role, especially having to grapple with plenty of awkward fantasy dialogue, though it is refreshing to have a leading lady with such impressive… tracts of land. Jokes aside, representing different body types is a plus, though that doesn’t seem to extend to the rest of the cast.
Speaking of the rest of the cast, we’ve already mentioned that Nimue drags the sell-sword Arthur along for her quest. They also encounter Sister Igraine (Shalom Brune-Franklin), a nun at a Red Paladin controlled convent, who gets swept up in their mission and grapples with darkness herself.
On the opposing side, the leader of the Red Paladins is Father Carden (Peter Mullan), who controls the ruthless and mysterious Weeping Monk (Daniel Sharmon), the church’s fiercest warrior. Obviously, the Paladins seek the power of Sword in order to finish their mission of cleansing the world of the “unnatural” fae creatures, a perfect example of the violence inherent in the system.
You also have King Uther, who seeks the sword to grant him power and cement his claim over the throne. Weakened by drought and the impunity of the Red Paladins, he has a shaky grip on his self-perpetuating autocracy.
Somewhere in the middle of all this stands Merlin, the ancient and powerful sorcerer who has a personal connection to the Sword. If you’re familiar with Vikings, then seeing Skarsgård in Merlin’s role is a perfect fit. His portrayal of the young-looking but world-weary and impossibly old magician is probably my favourite part of the series.
Now that I’ve name-dropped most of the cast, you can tell that Cursed takes everything you know about Arthurian legend and scrambles it like an egg. If you’re looking for the same story that was told in Excalibur, then this is about as far away as you can get. The frustrating thing about the remix is that Cursed got stuck somewhere in the middle.
There are interesting new characters and infinitely more engaging concepts and subplots that are introduced, but either they don’t go anywhere and are abandoned by the next episode, or they’re an intentional fake-out and that cool person is really just a character with the same name as one from the legends but in a completely different role.
All of this is played over a very, very typical and predicable YA-type story, which makes Cursed seem like it’s not such a bold retelling after all. It’s an average fantasy show with some recognizable character names. And I can’t say it lives up to its 18+ age restriction either. Harking back to The Witcher, at least we had Gerald say a naughty word or two. In Cursed, ironically, there is no cursing. And no hectic, Game of Thrones level of gross-out violence either. Frank Miller may be involved, but honestly, you can’t tell. Tis but a scratch of what it could have been.
At least the show is incredibly well produced, with a fantastic budget for both practical and CGI special effects (barring some very dodgy looking wolves in one episode). High praise to the makeup teams that did the fae effects and, while the wardrobe might not be period-accurate, the distinctive designs and clan-based hairstyles are very pretty to look at. And they had the money for horses, no coconuts here!
I do acknowledge that there are elements of the show I am being harsh on, and I am sure that other people will enjoy far more than I did. Somewhere around episode six, I gave up trying to reconcile Arthurian legend that I know with what was on screen, which was when the plot kind of started to draw me in and I did want to see it to the end, if only for the sake of being a completionist.
I’m just sad they never made it to Camelot, but then again, it is a silly place.
Last Updated: July 17, 2020