This review is spoiler-free.
Arthurian legends have captivated the human imagination for centuries. They have inspired many a creative to reach into that treasure chest of stories to explore various characters, universal themes, and the like. Themes such as love, power, lust, war, etc., are areas covered within these legends that remind us of the universal human experience. No matter how much magic and fantasy are there to dress it up. Why else would these stories have such longevity? Now, with the arrival of Netflix’s new fantasy series CURSED, we get to see these Arthurian legends reimagined once more, this time with the focus being on the seldom explored Lady of the Lake. If you were in need of something to hold you over until “The Witcher” returns, showrunner/executive producer/writer Tom Wheeler and executive producer/writer Frank Miller have delivered an escapist fantasy in spades. This in spite of some pacing issues and its abrupt end of season conclusion.
By the end of the first episode, you can tell the care and importance that was placed on the world-building in the series. Wheeler’s and Miller’s writing effectively construct a world with such diversity, tension, and heart that you can’t help but sink into its depths. That and the work director Zetna Fuentes put into establishing the tone and texture in those first two episodes greatly adds to the world onscreen. Much like Amazon’s Carnival Row or HBO’s Game of Thrones, there is a clearly defined culture that makes itself known from the very start. It can be easy for a fantasy series to go astray without a solid realistic foundation for an audience member to grasp onto. This pre-established culture helps make CURSED feel rooted. From the various fae we meet to the Vikings to the Red Paladins to just the regular ol’ humans, we easily pick up on the dynamics and tensions between all groups. While at times the world-building and the various ensemble of characters can be a bit overwhelming for the regular viewer, I don’t think the learning curve is that intense. And, the world-building alone is just enough to make any curious fantasy-loving nerd convinced to keep pressing play to move onto the next episode.
It would be completely out of character for me not to discuss the costuming and makeup. Because a massive component of what helps cement the success of the world-building I mentioned earlier is due in part to the costume and makeup design in CURSED. Costume designer Marianne Agertoft outdoes herself in conceptualizing and creating the costumes for this giant ensemble cast. From creating outfits fit for Vikings, royalty, wayward druids, the Sky Folk, and more, each group’s identity can be distinguished by their attire. Then there’s the makeup. Seriously, the makeup department outdid themselves, especially with the fae makeup. While the costumes themselves were amazing, the makeup for the fae really helped to fully bring together the otherworldliness and otherness that was needed to set the fae apart from the humans. Both of these elements lend itself, overall, to the worldbuilding necessary to further immerse the audience into the world of CURSED.
While world-building helps with the audience immersion, the audience won’t stick around if the characters aren’t people they can invest in. Fortunately, this is not a problem in CURSED. As a coming of age story, we see many of the main characters undergo a transformative arc as they are thrust into adulthood in violent fashions. We see this, especially in the case of the leading character, Nimue. Played by Katherine Langford, Nimue is a heroine you end up wanting nothing but the best for. This despite the fact that most viewers will go in knowing that the Lady of the Lake has become an almost tragic symbol in Arthurian legend. Langford’s performance is subtle but convincing as the young outsider who is hunted down for what she is and what she wields – an ancient sword with too much power. Her portrayal makes it easy to follow Nimue on her journey and be in her corner, even when all the power and responsibility become too much and she makes decisions that not everyone will agree with.
While Langford’s performance shines, she is not alone. Devon Terrell‘s Arthur in CURSED introduces us to a new version of the would-be king of legend in an entirely new form. Introduced as a mercenary, Terrell infuses the character with the emotional nuances afforded to this morally grey version of Arthur. And, because of that, it makes the character all the more compelling to watch onscreen. Gustaf Skarsgård’s Merlin is multilayered, which makes sense given how we learn quickly that this Merlin has been around longer than what we’re used to. You’ll be entertained, annoyed, and sad for Skarsgård’s Merlin and that is in large part due to what he brings to the table in his performance. Daniel Sharman‘s Weeping Monk is mysterious, but carrying a great internal struggle. While it takes longer than I’d personally like to discover the true depths of the Weeping Monk, Sharman’s onscreen magnetism and energy keeps us tethered and patiently waiting until all secrets are revealed.
Shalom Brune-Franklin’s Igraine is determined and complicated in ways that I will not get into for fear of spoiler reveals. Let’s just say that Igraine is arguably a clear contender as a character you just don’t want to get on the wrong side of. Speaking of characters you don’t want to get caught on the wrong side of, there’s Emily Coates‘s Sister Iris. Coates’s portrayal will have you hate Sister Iris in ways you’d never thought possible. However, that is a testament to Coates’s ability to create a memorable performance that will have us wishing for Sister Iris’s failure. Peter Mullan’s Father Carden is another villainous character that you can’t help be completely sucked in by. You know that his intentions aren’t as pure as he states, but we all know someone like the Father. And what evils can be wrought by a man purely committed to the Lord on high. There are many more actors, especially those in supporting roles that I could talk about for days. CURSED has arguably one of the stronger fantasy series’ casts I’ve seen since “Game of Thrones” ended.
While CURSED itself starts off strong in its pacing, it loses steam a little more than halfway through. For something that is a heavy mixture of action and fantasy, maintaining momentum is key in keeping audience interest. Some of the momentum that was lost happened in, arguably, important side quests that would contribute to later developments. However, with the danger of impending Red Paladins and other various forces coming for Nimue, these side plots and diversions seemed to take away or at least create speed bumps in the story that forced us to slow our roll. These side quests also led to developments that had to be hastily wrapped up in the final episode. This led me wondering whether the series would have benefited from a shorter episode order. If only to try to amend some of the side quest and story elements introduced in the latter half of the season that could have been better explored and concluded in a second season.
Remarking further on my comment above regarding the feeling of hasty wrap-ups, the ending itself left much to be desired. While the audience itself has an idea as to how things might end, especially since doom and foreboding futures are wrapped up in Nimue’s storyline, it felt like there was little thought given into what note to end the series on. To this viewer, it became abundantly clear in the last twenty or so minutes of the final episode that were elements that still needed tending to. This made me wonder where exactly we would be left as those end credits rolled. However, by the time we reach the climax in those last 10 minutes, it became clear that the first season of CURSED was going to be a series that ended with an ending that felt rushed with no emotional, aftercare period for the viewer. This, in my opinion, was the greatest disappointment of the series.
Overall, CURSED is a fun fantasy series that takes the Arthurian legends as we know it and flips it upside its head. Focusing on Nimue, a character that hasn’t typically been the focus in Arthurian reimaginings, breathes new life into the story. This also without managing to lose sight of the threads necessary to keep the audience connected to the originating stories. While the pacing was hampered by trying to prolong the inevitable climax that the audience is all waiting for, the story and world within the realm of CURSED will keep audiences hooked. However, the last 10 minutes of the final episode may end up leaving viewers put-up as it suffers in its hastiness to wrap things up.
All ten episodes of CURSED are now available for streaming exclusively on Netflix.