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Netflix’s Cursed Gives the King Arthur Myth a New Edge

CURSED (L TO R) KATHERINE LANGFORD as NIMUE in episode 104 of CURSED Cr. Netflix © 2020

When I heard about the concept for Cursed, I was intrigued and wary. On the one hand, I love swords and sorcery and some of the best versions of King Arthur’s mythology have been ones that focused on women equally, if not more, than the men. On the other hand, however, I was a bit wary of another Game of Thrones meets D&D spectacle about Red Paladins and cursed swords, built around a nebulous minor character from Arthurian legend. It turns out both my excitement and some of my reservations were justified.

Cursed follows the trials and tribulation of Nimue (Katherine Langford), destined to be the Lady of the Lake of myth, but in this story, she is simply a young woman who has been, wait for it, cursed, for some mysterious reason. Nimue is a member of the Fey (that’s how it’s spelled in the subtitles). Who are the Fey? Um, it’s unclear. They seem to make up a group of varied races of generally magical beings and forest dwellers that the humans fear and are trying to exterminate.

But they’re not magical, except when they are? It’s confusing because while as a people they are very magical and pagan and of the earth, Nimue is an outcast because … she can do magic? Well, it’s scary magic and it has something to do with the very magical “sword of power” that Nimue is given by her mother to get to Merlin after their Fey village is destroyed by the Red Paladin. (The Red Paladins being an order of fanatical warrior monks led the extremely creepy Father Carden, played by Peter Mullen.)

CURSED (L to R) GUSTAF SKARSGÅRD as MERLIN in episode 101 of CURSED Cr. COURTESY OF NETFLIX © 2020

Merlin (Gustaf Skarsgård), by the way, is basically a Jack Sparrow type who’s stuck working for the King, Uther Pendragon. And, well, he’s got a lot going on. Uther’s a whiny, entitled jerk, Uther’s mom wants to kill him and his magic is not doing so great, so when the rumors about the sword reach Merlin, he’s intrigued and terrified, given that he has an intimate connection to the weapon. And where’s the future King in all this?

Arthur (Devon Terrell), a sellsword and a bit of a scoundrel, meets Nimue early on and tries to help her with her whole sword and being hunted by paladins things, but the most useful thing he does is introduce him to his very cool sister, played by Shalon Brune-Franklin. There are a dozen other characters, some who work and some who are meh.

CURSED (L to R) DEVON TERRELL as ARTHUR in episode 110 of CURSED Cr. COURTESY OF NETFLIX © 2020

I could get more into the plot and the many other characters, but suffice it to say that there is a lot going on in Cursed, so much so that I did at several points ask aloud “wait, who are these guys!” There are a lot of bad guys and far fewer heroes to root for, which makes for a confusing watch at some points, and a lot of confusing mysteries and mysterious people and stories that don’t always get explained.

But the heroes that we do get are pretty interesting and charismatic, especially Merlin and Arthur. Devon Terrell is my breakout favorite for the series and his version of Arthur has the perfect mix of sincerity and honor with a bit of bad-boy charm. Think Han Solo and Luke Skywalker rolled into one with, but cuter. Gustaf Skarsgård is also very fun to watch as Merlin, with a drunken, haunted mystery that works very well. I can’t say much more about Arthur’s sister, known here as Igraine but … she’s probably my favorite character and has the most interesting story.

Less successful, sadly, is Katherine Langford’s Nimue, though I don’t necessarily blame the actress. Nimue is a hard character that, sad to say, feels very very clearly written and created by men. She a very reactive character, who when she does make decisions for herself at first, they’re very bad decisions and yet she’s afraid to own her power when she finds it. This does get better, and Nimue’s arc is certainly one that’s about her coming into her own, but it’s sometimes a slog to watch and Langford isn’t always up to the task of making Nimue compelling. However, the bad guys are so bad that you definitely root for her. She reminds me in many ways of a female Jon Snow, to continue the Thrones references, and that’s mainly a good thing.

Cursed does bear a lot of comparison to Game of Thrones (which it blatantly rips off in many ways) or Netflix’s own The Witcher, but there are some considerable differences that I have to shout out and really appreciate, the most wonderful and obvious being the excellent range of representation found in the characters and cast.

CURSED (L to R) AYESHA ANTOINE as POLLY THE HEALER in episode 107 of CURSED Cr. COURTESY OF NETFLIX © 2020

Arthur is a Black man, his sister is a Black woman. There are Fey, Knights, Paladins, and Nuns of every color. There’s also at least one important queer character, though that story does touch on some tropes that we may need to talk about later along with some of the weird racial and religious implications of how Cursed deals with the Fey.

There’s one thing that’s absent, blessedly: rape and sexual assault. Please take note, every other fantasy show. You can tell stories about women in sexist times without having them sexually assaulted at every turn! The show is violent, but it’s not sexist and that’s certainly, along with its representation, something we really should laud and celebrate.

Maybe someone will quibble about “historical accuracy” but Cursed is in no way trying to be accurate to anything. Being the pedantic nerd that I am, I was annoyed by the fact that this story about Arthur, who, if he was real, lived in the fifth or sixth century, is filled with the trapping of High Medieval (aka 12th century) style and more. It annoyed me to see Tudor-era costumes on people who should be living in the dark ages but … that’s just me being weirdly obsessed with the dark ages. The production design is not really consistent with any one era or style, but it’s fine, and the makeup and effect are great, especially in episode three when we meet the grotesque “King Ragnar” and his “Court.” Overall, the locations and real castles Cursed manages to use are truly lovely, if not legitimately “Arthurian.”

But this is a story about the Arthurian legend as it should be—it’s not concerned with history or who these characters “really” are. Cursed is its own thing and it’s generally quite fun. Centering a fresh story about the Arthurian legends on a woman is a great move, and making Nimue the reluctant leader and hero rather than Arthur might alleviate a few of the pitfalls that Arthurian stories often fall into.

So, if you want to step into a fantasy world that’s exciting and casts a wide net, Cursed is probably for you. Even if it’s a little too crowded with confusing sects and villains, and maybe a few too many mysteries at the outset, it’s a fun series that reminds me a bit of the heyday of Xena: a feminist, action-y take on an era of myth and legend that oftentimes is way too male and white. Cursed takes itself way more seriously than Xena ever did, but it’s a fun watch even so, and definitely a good escape for anyone looking for some magic.

(images: Netflix)

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Jessica Mason (she/her) is a writer based in Portland, Oregon with a focus on fandom, queer representation, and amazing women in film and television. She's a trained lawyer and opera singer as well as a mom and author.