Cursed Review (Spoiler-Free)

| July 17, 2020 |

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Photo: Netflix

This Cursed review contains NO spoilers.

Though many people watching the new Netflix series Cursed may have heard of the character Nimue, they may not be super familiar with how she connects to the story of King Arthur. 

Because, unfortunately, although most of us know the basics of this legend – heroic king, a magical sword and a powerful wizard – its women are generally treated as afterthoughts, and remarkable only in the way their lives impact the stories of the tale’s various men. The difference is usually only in whether they’re adulteresses (Guinevere), outright monsters (Morgan Le Fay), or romantic cannon fodder (Elaine of Astolat).

In most versions of the King Arthur story, the witch Nimue is significant because she entraps Merlin and steals his magic, often imprisoning him in a tree or a cave along the way. In many retellings, she’s also the Lady of the Lake, the vaguely supernatural being who entrusts Arthur with the sword Excalibur. But despite the fact that her character appears in many versions of this story, we know comparatively little about her. 

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In fact, most of the original texts can’t even agree on what her name is – what is essentially the same character across various versions of the legend is referred to as Nimue, Niniane or even Viviane, and the one thing that’s generally consistent about her is that she doesn’t possess consistent or definitive personality traits, let alone a character arc.

Cursed attempts to step into this longtime narrative gap, offering not just a complex, messy take on a young Nimue, but placing her in a world in which women drive the story rather than simply exist at its margins. And while its story is far from perfect, this dedicated shift in focus allows us to look at this legend in an entirely new way. 

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In this version of things, Nimue is a young Fey girl, the daughter of her clan’s High Priestess who’s forced to repress her powerful abilities because the other villagers think she’s full of dangerous dark magic. She dreams of a new life in a distant land – one where no one knows who she is or what she can do. (And where the tyrannical religious order known as the Red Paladins isn’t obsessively burning her kind alive.)

Fate, however, has other plans for her. And when she acquires a hidden, magical sword along with instructions to deliver it to the wizard known as Merlin, her life changes forever.

13 Reasons Why alum Katherine Langford stars as a Nimue who’s complicated, but easy to root for. She’s feisty and likable, with an undercurrent of darkness and anger that feels realistic, given the world in which she’s living. Torn among freedom, duty, and a desire to be recognized for her own power, she’s far from a perfect character. In fact, she makes plenty of decisions that can feel selfish or downright stupid at various points in the story. Yet, her continuous attempts to fight for and protect her people make it easy to see why many are motivated to follow her and to hold her up as a symbol of a better world than the one offered by the corrupt King Uther Pendragon.

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But as her use of the sword begins to bring about consequences – and to have unexpected effects on Nimue herself – she’ll have to decide what’s most important to her, and what she’s willing to risk in order to protect the things she cares about.

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Unlike many of the Arthur myths themselves, Nimue isn’t the only woman at the center of this action. Perhaps some viewers will find Cursed’s relentless girl power attitude tiresome, but I suspect female fans who’ve been waiting an awfully long time to see themselves play a meaningful role in the Arthur legend won’t have much of a problem with it. (I am 100% projecting here, just saying.) 

Nimue’s presence in the story is bolstered by at least a half dozen other significant female characters, who all have agendas and clearly defined arcs of their own. From village girls to a vengeful nun, and warrior women to old crones, these women are driving the story in a way that doesn’t happen very often in shows like this. It’s refreshing and a ton of fun to watch.

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Central figures from the Arthurian legend show up as well, including the once and future king himself, here played by Devon Terrell as an unsure young mercenary trying to figure out his place in the world.

Gustaf Skarsgård’s Merlin is also particularly great, a simultaneously timeless and world-weary mess who drinks too much and seems manipulative and mad more often than he does heroic. This version of the character sits much closer to the magician’s Welsh origins as a prophetic poet than to T.H.’s White’s more familiar wise, backward-living counselor and the story is all the better for it.

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The series also sports many hidden Easter eggs for fans of Arthurian legend, as various famous faces from the story pop throughout this series in new and unexpected places. Many of the recognizable names will belong to characters who at first seem quite far removed from the versions viewers are probably most familiar with. But for the most part, the changes are grounded in core truths about their identities, and several of these revelations are precisely the sort of twists that make the prospect of a second season so exciting to contemplate.

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At various points, Cursed can feel a bit overcrowded, plot-wise, what with all the Fey politics, violent religious persecution, hooded assassins, and multiple armies clashing for want of a crown. (The introduction of competing groups of Northern Viking warriors is particularly confusing as most of the characters – save for the Red Spear – feel relatively interchangeable.)

And for all that Cursed is a story that is driven by the hunt for a magical sword, this is an Arthurian retelling that doesn’t have a ton of actual magic in it. Nimue’s abilities are powerful but draining enough that they must be used sparingly. And though Merlin is still an important figure in this story, it’s not entirely – or even mostly – because of his magical skill.

The result of all this is that this ends up being a much more violent take on the Arthur myth than many recent attempts, one in which violent religious oppressors burn those who disagree with them and battles teem with spurting blood and hacked-off appendages.

The Sword in the Stone this isn’t, is what I’m saying. But that’s a good thing.

Arriving on Netflix so soon after the streaming service’s hit series The Witcher, viewers may be tempted to write Cursed off as a pointless attempt to ride its medieval fantasy coattails. But that would be a mistake. 

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This is a show with its own voice and its own agenda – to center female perspectives in a story that’s been lacking them for far too long. And this time, even if it should turn out that Nimue is once again destined to meet a tragic end when Cursed is finished, at least we’ll know enough about her to mourn her when she’s gone.

Rating:

4.5 out of 5

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