“The Witcher’s” debut on Netflix at the end of 2019 was a somewhat surprising hit, considering the middling reviews from critics and the complexity of the material. But it was also the proof producers had been looking for that, despite how “Game of Thrones” ended, that the fantasy genre was alive and well. Netflix is now doubling down on that bet with a second high-fantasy concept series, “Cursed.” Based on the illustrated novel of the same name by Thomas Wheeler and Frank Miller, this re-imagining of the storied Arthurian legend can seem at times to be aimed at a younger crowd. But there’s enough buried in here that even the nerdiest medievalist will likely find something to enjoy.
There’s enough buried in here that even the nerdiest medievalist will likely find something to enjoy.
The King Arthur myth dates back to the 5th century, with folklore tales of a great king who led Britain against the Saxon invasions of the period. Over time, the stories became more about Christianity’s takeover of the Anglo-Saxon people, a righteous victory over pagans and magical witchcraft. This shift in the retelling is most obviously symbolized by the story of the Holy Grail, a direct relic of the Last Supper, which King Arthur’s knights famously attempted to recover after he became king.
But the King Arthur myths are also decidedly masculine, written by white men in a time of deep patriarchal retrenchment in Western civilization. The “Cursed” conceit is to flip all that on its head. It turns the story into one where instead of choosing a king, the great Sword of Power (you know, the one from the stone) has chosen a queen instead, fighting against the rise of Christianity in defense of the magical peoples and creatures of the forests, known collectively as “the Fey people.” The woman the sword chooses is Nimue, best known in mythology as “The Lady of the Lake.” But “Cursed,” for all its teen angst, is a surprisingly delightful show that expertly plays with Arthurian lore in a way that feels knowledgeable, as well as creative.
The Lady of the Lake is a mythical figure in her own right, an enchantress of great power. But modern retellings, especially films like “Excalibur,” have reduced her to an angelic image floating in water, presenting the sword to the worthy Arthur. Perhaps most recently, a version of her turned up in the ABC series “Once Upon A Time,” but most know her from the “Monty Python” joke that argues strange women lying in ponds distributing swords should not be the basis for systems of governance. Nimue’s story ages her down a little bit, but by the time she takes up her magical weapon, there’s no doubt that it is she, and not Arthur, who should be leading the charge.
Unlike “The Witcher,” which brought in A-list actor Henry Cavill, known primarily for his big screen work, “Cursed” casts a little closer to home. Nimue is played by Katherine Langford, known best for her turn as Hannah, the character who dies by suicide at the beginning of the “13 Reasons Why” franchise and yet somehow still stars in it for two full seasons. She’s joined by Devon Terrell, another Netflix face from the 2016 movie “Barry,” where he played college-aged Barack Obama. But the lack of high-profile actors should not be a turnoff. (The biggest name is Gustaf Skarsgård, of the startlingly prolific Skarsgård clan of actors, best known for his turn as Floki in the History drama “Vikings.”) The cast is terrific, and the characters are nuanced enough that they feel like fresh versions of the well-known names and tropes they stand for.
Nimue, for instance, is no unexceptional heroine, though she easily could have become one. She’s an angry young lady, and a rebel with an exceptionally good cause; namely that her village has been burned to the ground by Christian creeps. She doesn’t shy away from her rage – in fact, it’s how she accesses her magical abilities most of the time. “Cursed” is a rare show that allows a woman to experience anger in this way, and even cheer for it.
Arthur, as her romantic counterpart, seems at first to be the bad boy. (He even goes so far as to steal the sword at one point.) But though he’s not perfect, within a few episodes he starts spending a great deal of time modeling stereotypical “romantic interest” behavior. There are entire scenes in which he and other men do nothing but discuss our heroine in a bizarre reverse failure of the Bechdel test. And it seems like every time he turns around, Nimue has to save him again. In one of my favorite episodes, he spends nearly the entire hour helplessly chasing after her. It’s an unexpected gender reversal, and it’s surprisingly great how much it works.
But the show’s real weapons are its hilarious takes on the best-known characters in Arthurian lore. I won’t give away how, but some of the most famous Arthurian faces turn up over the course of the series. Morgana, Lancelot, Guinevere, Percival, and Gawain all have their turns, some in very unexpected fashions. Only Merlin and Uther Pendragon are mostly played straight, though considering the wide swath of Merlins who have graced popular culture over the decades, it’s hard to come up with something new.
“Cursed” was originally supposed to premiere the weekend “Tenet” hit theaters, in a pre-pandemic timeline, where it likely would have been buried. But with streaming still reigning supreme and little else arriving this weekend, “Cursed” has the playing field to itself, and a message of girl power worthy of one of the longest surviving fantasy myths of our age. Strange women lying in ponds don't sound so bad after all.