In the past, most stories featuring the mythical King Arthur and his sword Excalibur have focussed on either Arthur Pendragon himself, his mentor Merlin, or any of the Knights Of The Round Table. In the majority of these stories, the Lady Of The Lake (also known as Nimue) is most commonly the one who bestows King Arthur his Excalibur and Merlin his magic.
However, along comes Cursed by the combined minds of writer Tom Wheeler and legendary comic book creator Frank Miller, the latter of whom is best known for his darkness and edge, as evident in his run on Marvel’s Daredevil and the legendary The Dark Knight Returns.
Cursed is described as a re-imagining of the Arthurian legend, and from what I’ve seen so far (from the five out of ten episodes provided to me), it is definitely that. It delivers a twist on the famous myth by having the main protagonist be the Lady Of The Lake or Nimue; with the story told from her perspective. In this version of the story, she is also the one who wields Excalibur and not King Arthur, as it would traditionally be.
Essentially, what Tom Wheeler and Frank Miller seek to achieve with Cursed is to subvert our expectations of these characters from myth and legend. In that regard, I believe that they have somewhat succeeded, by breaking from the usual mould of standard King Arthur stories.
Yas Queen Nimue
Protagonist Nimue is amazingly brought to life by Katherine Langford of Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why and award-winning movie Knives Out fame. Fortunately, Langford has the advantage of making the character her own, as Nimue herself has never been given this much of a spotlight in modern pop culture (as far as I know). Langford herself is a delightful protagonist, confident and cool, but let’s talk more about who Nimue is in the context of Cursed.
In the world of Cursed (seemingly set sometime in a fictional version of an alternate medieval England), humans live alongside the Fey Kind, who are basically a race of non-human humanoids that fit the fantasy archetype of elves and the like. There are many subspecies of Fey, but Nimue is part of the Sky Folk, who weirdly don’t look any different from normal humans but are still ostracized and discriminated against.
That’s right, humans, in general, are xenophobic towards the Fey, especially the Red Paladins of the Christian Church, who act as the antagonists in the series. These religious zealots have started an inquisition of sorts against the Fey, who in their eyes, are abominations and heathens who must be ‘cleansed’ (read: kill).
Cursed isn’t exactly as R-rated like Netflix’s The Witcher adaptation or Game Of Thrones. The worse swearing I personally heard was “bitch”, there were no nudity or sex scenes besides shots of bare butts, and the violence isn’t particularly gory or gratuitous. It’s slightly jarring then, that these Red Paladin dudes not only literally commit genocide but also burn people on crosses and stakes.
While you don’t actually see anyone burnt to a crisp (like I said, the violence is relatively tame), you do get uncomfortable and disturbing scenes of people getting burned and screaming (often in the background). Still, I’m not really that surprised, considering Cursed was the partial brainchild of none other than Frank Miller, who isn’t exactly known for being subtle with dark subject matter.
That said, Cursed does have an 18+ rating on Netflix, which is why it’s weird that it’s relatively tame compared to other fantasy series with the same maturity rating. I’m not saying that this is a bad thing per se, but fans of Frank Miller should know that Cursed is tamer in comparison to his usual bloodier and edgier fare. Again, no nudity or sex scenes (other than bare butts) and gratuitous bloody violence.
I will say this if you’re a fan of Frank Miller you’ll probably notice some of his signature edginess and tendency to go unnecessarily dark to still be present in certain scenes. For example, one scene had Nimue wanting to sneak into town while the Red Paladins were looking for her. She hitched a ride on a dentist’s wagon for this purpose and for the ruse to work, the dentist had to rip one of her teeth out there and then. It will surely make you flinch, but it’s still not as ‘bloody’ as other teeth-ripping scenes from other movies or TV series.
I won’t spoil much of the story, but it begins with Nimue’s village getting raided by the Red Paladins, resulting in the death of her mother, Lenore. With her dying words, Lenore bequeathed Excalibur to Nimue, tasking her to deliver it to Merlin. It’s worth pointing out that Excalibur is never referred to as Excalibur in Cursed, but instead as several other names, including the Sword Of Power and the Sword Of The First Kings.
That’s because Cursed boasts deep lore of its own, which is fairly easy to keep up with, as the pacing of the story is thankfully linear with the occasional flashbacks and not the mess that was the first season of Netflix’s The Witcher. However, things ramp up a bit near the halfway point of Cursed‘s first season, as you’ll suddenly receive an influx of new characters and factions. Another thing I appreciate is that Cursed doesn’t seem to want to emulate Game Of Thrones, but unfortunately, does feature some tropes from other iconic works of fantasy.
You see, Nimue herself is hated by her own people as well, for surviving an attack by a Dark God when she was younger and receiving a ‘mark’ as a result of that attack. Since then, she’s been shunned and pushed away. Sound familiar? She’s kind of the opposite of Harry Potter, so she’s infamous for something that he is famous for.
I rolled my eyes when I heard Merlin say that the Sword Of Power AKA Excalibur was forged in the Fey Fires and can only be destroyed that way (The Lord Of The Ring‘s the One Ring and Mount Doom in Mordor, anyone?). Merlin also made a prophecy with the Sword Of Power that sounds suspiciously like a certain Marvel character’s hammer; “Whosoever wields the Sword Of Power shall be the one true king.” Very subtle, Frank Miller. Or are these intentional references/easter eggs? Who knows.
Knights Of The Not-So-Round Table
We have familiar characters like King Arthur and Merlin who are spelt out as such, but half the fun of Cursed is figuring out or discovering which of these characters are actually the same characters from Arthurian legend. These include Knights Of The Round Table and others (whom I can’t reveal, of course).
The MVP of Cursed and the highlight of the series for me is Merlin, portrayed by Gustaf Skarsgård. Fans of History Channel’s Vikings will know him as the eccentric and weird Floki. He brings some of that manic energy to his role in Cursed as well, giving us an atypical and fresh version of Merlin that’s not the stereotypical wise wizard like Gandalf or Dumbledore. He acts more like a charlatan who’s adept at trickery instead of a powerful magician, though that’s part of his charm.
Meanwhile, there are layers to Devon Terrell’s portrayal of Arthur too. This version of Arthur is not the chivalrous knight of legend. He’s more of a lovable rogue or scoundrel in the vein of Star Wars’ Han Solo, and it helps that he has chemistry with co-star Langford as well.
As for the other supporting characters, I can’t really say much due to the veil of secrecy attached to them. Like I previously mentioned, half the fun is discovering or realising just who they actually are in the context of Arthurian legend, though some of these may fly over the heads of those who aren’t familiar with Arthurian lore.
Fantasy TV series can look cheap if done half-heartedly, but Cursed looks anything but cheap. Netflix clearly spent a hefty sum to make Cursed look good, and it shows. It’s still nowhere near the level of Game Of Thrones, but what is? Despite the CGI looking a bit iffy at times (which is a problem plaguing other Netflix shows as well), Cursed has one thing going for it that not even Game Of Thrones or Netflix’s The Witcher has.
What’s that, you say? Well, one of the most iconic aspects of Star Wars is its fadeout transitions between scenes. In Cursed, some scenes transition into another with unique and animated transitions that look amazing in action. This was probably done by the developers of Cursed as a tribute to the source material’s graphic novel/comic book elements.
Heck, knowing Miller’s previous habits of incorporating comic book style and visuals to his movies (like Sin City and the much-maligned The Spirit, both of which he directed or co-directed), it was probably his idea to implement the animated scene transitions in Cursed in the first place. If so, it’s a brilliant move and one that makes Cursed stand out from being just another fantasy series.
Unfortunately, they don’t happen often enough or as much to my liking, though I understand that it’s unrealistic to expect every single scene transition to be animated that way in a TV series with many episodes. As for the action scenes in Cursed, they’re decent and well-shot, though not as good or dynamic as the ones in Netflix’s The Witcher.
I did notice one lengthy one-take scene (the trend sparked by the hallway scene in Netflix’s Daredevil), but this is more similar to the one in that Battle Of The Bastards episode in Game Of Thrones. Just like Jon Snow darted through the chaotic battlefield in one long take in that scene, Nimue can be seen accomplishing the same feat when she runs through the chaos of the Red Paladin’s attack on her village.
Worthy Of Excalibur?
Will Netflix’s Cursed be the next big fantasy thing like Game Of Thrones or Netflix’s The Witcher? I’ve only seen five out of the ten episodes of its first season, and I say that it certainly has the potential to be. It still has a treasure trove of unique lore left unexplored and more Arthurian legends just waiting to receive their own twists.
Cursed could be just the thing needed to inject new life into the now-tired and overused myth of King Arthur. It’s too familiar, and making it unfamiliar again will return the status of the legend of King Arthur to the enticing and exciting story it once was before it was adapted to death.
Final Score: 70/100