Legends. They exist to inspire us through harsh times, to stir the imagination, to remind us of old and sometimes better ways when the path ahead becomes unclear.
Oh, but mostly they seem to be there for folks in the popular entertainment business to draw inspiration from, while putting their “own unique spin” on things.
Which, typically, involves chucking everything in a blender and waiting to see if anyone will drink the end product... and successfully keep it down.
Cursed is one such spin on a legend – the beloved lore of King Arthur and the sword Excalibur – except that it is a prelude of sorts to the actual tale.
Its focus is on Nimue (Katherine Langford, 13 Reasons Why), known in Arthurian lore as the Lady of the Lake, she who presented the Once and Future King with the sword.
While the Lady’s role and alignment have varied in different versions of the legend, her story here is told in a manner quite unlike any we’ve seen or read before.
The series is based on a young adult (dead giveaway there) novel by Tom Wheeler and illustrated by comics veteran Frank Miller (The Dark Knight Returns, 300).
Both Wheeler and Miller also play key creative roles in the series, which focuses more on Nimue than Arthur.
Nimue is a member of the Fey, or fairy-folk. There is a wide and diverse range of Fey tribes, and as usual, human beings are trying to wipe them out.
Here, these wipers-out of all things different are represented by the Red Paladins, a religious order (here we go with the church-bashing again, sigh) led by the cold-eyed Father Carden (Peter Mullan, Ozark, Top Of The Lake) and his lethal enforcer the Weeping Monk (Daniel Sharman, Fear The Walking Dead).
When her own village is put to the torch, Nimue is sent on a dangerous mission to deliver the ancient Sword of Power (that’s “Excalibur” to you) to the wizard Merlin (Gustaf Skarsgard, Vikings).
Forget everything you know about Arthurian legend, whether you gleaned it from the classics like Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur or T.H. White’s The Once And Future King, or films like John Boorman’s joyously eccentric Excalibur, the musical Camelot or even (especially?) Monty Python And The Holy Grail.
More than thrusting diversity and inclusiveness upon the viewer, Cursed seems mainly intent on turning everything about Arthurian legend inside out to weave its own (lore-fully, historically, and hysterically incongruous) little fantasy world populated with characters and concepts that just happen to resemble bits of beloved mythology.
So it is that this Merlin is (currently) powerless and a deceiver of both human and Feykind. That Arthur (Devon Terrell) is a thieving sell-sword (i.e. mercenary) from a dishonoured family. That King Uther Pendragon (Sebastian Armesto) is an indecisive, weak-willed pretender content to sit back and read the omens while Carden and his Red Paladins burn villages and seize the King’s lands.
In the course of its 10 episodes, Cursed mostly takes its time setting up these chess pieces on its board, this facsimile of England from an uncertain era.
It hides some familiar characters from Arthurian lore under assumed names, saving the big reveals for key points in its first season.
Yet, by the time the final revelation is made, you realise that nothing fits any longer.
This is not laying the groundwork for the more familiar parts of Arthur’s tale to come, because so much has been altered that nothing short of totally resetting the timeline can bring it back to what is familiar to us.
This is not necessarily bad, because it allows Cursed to develop into its own thing – should subsequent seasons be made.
It is also not entirely good, because the series also has its problems. Its frequent, generally unnecessary detours from the main storyline of Nimue’s quest; and the wishy-washy, inconsistent treatment of its central characters waste the generally fine and watchable cast.
Langford is terrific when she is living up to her billing among the human as the dreaded “Wolf-Blood Witch”, not so much when she is acting all doe-eyed around Arthur.
And I don’t know about the romance that Cursed sets up between Nimue and Arthur, when he suddenly seems to forget the love of his life during a pitched battle and subsequent encounter with a beautiful Viking warrior-maiden (no prizes for guessing the character’s real name).
It also suffers from a case of having too many villains for any particular one to be especially memorable.
The treatment of Uther, the Queen Mother, the bloodthirsty claimants to the throne, Carden, his higher-ups, the Weeping Monk, a mass-murdering nun (!) – it’s all so superficially handled that these potential-laden characters come across as one-dimensional.
Yet, to the credit of the writers and directors who brought this season to the screen, it is also very craftily constructed and paced so that we can’t help but click on “Next Episode” again and again until there’s nothing left... for the moment.
Verdict: Cursed tries to rewrite mythology with mixed but watchable results. Hey Netflix, you want to adapt DC Comics’ Camelot 3000 next? We’ll love you 3000 if you do.
All 10 episodes of Cursed are available on Netflix.
It’s just a flesh wound.