Creators: Frank Miller, Tom Wheeler
Directors: Jon East, Daniel Nettheim, Zetna Fuentes, Sarah O’Gorman
Cast: Katherine Langford, Gustaf Skarsgård, Devon Terrell, Lily Newmark, Daniel Sharman, Sebastian Armesto, Shalom Brune-Franklin, Peter Mullan
Streaming on: Netflix
Early on in the series, a queen regent says to her son, “It will show there’s more than silk beneath those breeches,” explaining that a king by appearance is no king at all. It’s a poetic line, infused with grace and wisdom, meant to extinguish all airs of pretence, superficiality and shallowness. I could not quite place how I felt about Cursed until that unexpectedly enlightening line. As she said it, I paused and thought for a second — the irony! That sentence single-handedly defines the texture of this Netflix original show — there is very little underneath its elegant and fantastical visage.
An integral part of contemporary folklore, the Arthurian legend has been passed on from generation-to-generation in literature and pop culture. With each reiteration, Britain’s history grows more amorphous. Several shows and films, including Camelot, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Excalibur, have adopted the mythology of King Arthur in one way or another, either as a Celtic spoof or a retelling of his courtly romances. Cursed adds another chapter to his medieval feats, only this time, it’s not from his point of view. It subversively attempts to provide a female perspective to this centuries-old lore. Nimue (Katherine Langford, 13 Reasons Why), also known as the Lady of the Lake in the legend, is the protagonist around whom the series revolves.
The lack of testosterone and virility during a period known for its warfare and bloodshed is an interesting gambit. Not only does it manage to break away from the masculinity that pervades dramas within a similar context, but it also allows for the “second” sex to regain (oftentimes gain) their position in history. Notably, at the centre of Cursed, lies the story of witches that are being persecuted and mercilessly slaughtered by religious authorities. While the overarching plot is an intriguing combination of history, religion and feminism, the smaller, fantasy-driven plots, that guide the narrative, are overly simplistic and facile.
The series begins on a gruesome and ghastly note — Nimue’s village is being cleansed by the Red Paladins, a cabal of murderous monks and priests. The Paladins are pious but profane, governed by the rules and orders of the Pope. Their duty is to purge the world of Feys, a clan of supposed sorcerers and witches that aren’t considered human. Nimue is a Fey but is ostracised by her own clan. She is called the “wolf-blood witch.” Moments before she escapes the massacre, her mother hands her a sword and asks her to deliver it to Merlin (Gustaf Skarsgård, Vikings), a perpetually inebriated magician who can control the sky. He’s fundamentally a union of the divine and the devil.
The cause of Nimue being shunned by her own kin goes back to her childhood. Unlike most of her tribe, which consists of healers and nursemaids, Nimue’s powers are much wider in scope. She can make plants bloom. She can summon the roots of trees and control them. Most of the time, she uses this ability to strangle her enemies. Her power is not only of nature but of time, but this capacity to control the primordial forces of Earth never comes off as formidable or majestic. Trees and plants symbolise birth, life, death, and resurrection — the cosmic cycle of life. Instead, we see Nimue simply exercise her power whenever it suits her war strategies and never in life-threatening scenarios. You don’t really end up respecting her strength.
Another not-so-significant element of Cursed is a pre-king Arthur (Devon Terrell, Barry). He’s a sellsword who fights like a knight but behaves like a mercenary. He lacks a moral compass until he meets Nimue. Arthur helps her fight the Red Paladins and is a loyal ally to the Feys. This, in a sense, is his origin story alongside a reimagination of his romances, a commonly explored aspect of his legend. Their romantic subplot, however, is incredibly out of place. Not only do the two actors feel awkward together, but a lot of the intimate scenes between them are also devoid of any emotion. They come off as contrived, as if the story has to fill the romantic void of a show.
The show is not entirely narratively “accursed” though. Its commentary on violence is fascinating — you can only use violence to quell violence. It doesn’t simply present the dichotomy between peace and conflict. It asks — when can protection for one’s kind turn into vengeance? How long does it take for vengeance to turn into the violence they were initially fighting against? And the “Sword of Power” that several armies are eyeing uniquely represents gender disparity. Its pommel, blade, and engravings are all grand. Any untrained nobody (and women, in the myth) would shudder at the sheer size of it. Nimue, to a large extent, is that nobody. Merlin and Arthur are shown to be the few able commanders of this weapon. Cursed, despite its artificial characters, does manage to give Nimue a decent enough trajectory — from an undecided warrior to a capable, worthy wielder of the sword.
Game of Thrones, or at least its first five seasons, essentially monopolised the fantasy genre. It blended beauty and scale like no other show had. Naturally, that challenges subsequent fantasy shows to remain just as original and ingenious. Cursed struggles to be either. With its glorious castles and fortresses, chaste fields, and untamed forests that resemble the Underworld, the show, too, aims for the stars. But a few episodes in, this cosmetic treatment turns into a cheap appearance. The same panning shots and angles are used and reused to flaunt medieval palaces. And after you cross the exteriors and baileys of these towers, the architecture is no longer lofty and royal. The props are visibly shoddy. Towards the end, once you see through these structural and narrative embellishments, you may just feel bitter and deceived.