Hello, everyone! A few weeks ago I finished watching Netflix’s new original series Cursed, which supposedly presents a new spin on the classic Arthurian legend. Critics gave the series lukewarm reviews, and the consensus from sites like Reddit is mixed to say the least. Many of the show’s detractors have problems with how its plot almost completely diverges from the classic legend, and how the famous characters of yore have been given new personalities. While their qualms have merit, the essence of dislike for Cursed comes from its deceptive marketing.
The trailer makes Cursed seem like it’s a hybrid of Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings. It presents the premise of the show as a vicious battle between warring peoples, with an all-powerful cursed object wielded by a woman warrior in the vein of Brienne of Tarth or Arya Stark. It also makes it seem like the series is a prequel or retelling of Arthurian legend. The truth is that Cursed is not a show like any of those mentioned before: it’s a high fantasy character coming-of-age story with only the loosest ties to Arthurian legend. It’s a show about marginalized people growing into their strengths, rising up against an oppressive government, and finally standing up to their enemies. In some ways, it’s more similar to a series like X-Men than Game of Thrones. And that’s where the problem lies. People dislike Cursed because it’s not what they thought it would be. But if you look at the series for what it is, rather than what’s it not, than the show becomes infinitely more watchable. It’s not a perfect series by any means, but it shouldn’t be disregarded because of the errors of its marketing team.
Quick Synopsis: In an alternate universe, pre-historical Britain is ruled by the weak king Uther Pendragon and The Church, who use their militaristic Red Paladins to spread terror throughout the land as they systematically murder entire Fey villages in the name of God. Nimue, a Fey girl who has been a pariah since childhood, is determined to leave the village and during her trip to town, she meets Arthur, a young and handsome cutthroat. But when a missed boat sends her back to her village, she arrives to see the Red Paladins destroying her home and murdering her neighbors. In the melee, Nimue’s mother gives her a hidden sword and begs her to return it to the famed wizard Merlin. With only her mother’s dying wish as guidance, Nimue sets out on a quest to find Merlin, and finds herself in the midst of a battle for the Fey people’s existence.
My take: Cursed is the type of show that suffers from growing pains. The first episode is chaotic and overstuffed, but as the series continues, it finds its footing and becomes an exciting high fantasy show filled with suspense and drama. By the last episode, I was glued to my computer and anxious about the fate of characters I had come to love.
Ostensibly Cursed is about the rise of King Arthur, but in the first season, the Arthur we’re introduced to is unrecognizable as the future famed king. Cursed’s Arthur is a charming cutthroat, forced to repay his murdered father’s debts as a sell-sword for a vicious gang. In the beginning of the show, he’s selfish and reckless, and his mistakes cause a world of trouble for the protagonist Nimue. Their tentative relationship has its place in Cursed, but even though the show spends time focused on Arthur, it’s really about Nimue and her journey to become the savior of her people.
Nimue is not a perfect character. She’s been a called a Mary Sue for being too adept with a sword and too powerful with her magic, and in the same breath called an unwatchable idiot because she’s not good enough with a sword and not good enough at magic. Like many female protagonists who dare to exist in genres marketed towards men, she is trapped in a net of unreachable expectations, forced to be capable and intelligent and strong, but not more capable, intelligent, or strong than the male characters around her. She is supposed to have an “arc” where she starts with nothing and learns through trial and error how to become “the Chosen One,” but even though the show does show Nimue learning how to control her powers, and clearly shows that her “Mary-Sueish” bursts of magic are linked to using the all-powerful magic sword, it’s still not enough to satisfy viewers who will never see her as anything other than a female character who dared to take precedence over the traditional male hero.
The other characters, too, are stuck trying to fulfill viewers expectations before they even have a chance to develop. Arthur isn’t a noble knight, but a young and impetuous sell-sword. Merlin isn’t an all-powerful mage, but a man who relies more on cunning than magic to get his way. Characters like Gawain, Percival, and Lancelot all make an appearance in the show, but in surprising forms, and with different motivations than their traditional counterparts. It’s easy to be upset by the changes and write off Cursed for daring to take a stab at breathing new life into ancient archetypes, but if you actually take a moment and watch the series, the characters have enough merit to warrant upsetting a few Arthurian fanboys.
The magic system in Cursed is undefined and unpredictable, which caused problems for many viewers. In some scenes, Nimue can conjure up apple trees, or strangle a Red Paladin with tree roots, but in other scenes, she can’t use magic at all. The Fey, too, are characterized as magic beings, yet they are killed in large numbers by the human Red Paladins and forced into hiding to preserve their very existence. Viewers were frustrated by this hazy world building, and rightfully so, but in my eyes, Cursed makes more sense as an allegory for the struggle of oppressed peoples than as a clearly-defined piece of high fantasy like Lord of the Rings.
Any story can be about magic, but not many stories use magic as an allegory for marginalization and othering. In the beginning of the show, the Fey are presented as a peaceful race living on the fringes of society. Their magic is not all-powerful, and not every Fey has it, but just by their association with magic, they are painted with a broad brush and widely feared by humans, enough so that not a single human lifts a finger to prevent their genocide.
Sound familiar? If you’re a fan of history, then Cursed might just remind you of a few hundred instances in our world where marginalization and othering resulted in mass genocide. Historically, the Red Paladin often emerged as the winner. But Cursed wants to tell a different story, a story where people like the Fey have someone to protect them. A story where the “others” don’t have to die because of a lack of empathy and tolerance. Sure, the story isn’t as realistic as Game of Thrones, where I’m sure Nimue would end up raped and beheaded in the 3rd episode and the Fey would be crucified and left to die outside Uther’s castle. But it’s this desire for goodness that makes Cursed into a show worth watching. Watching Nimue try again and again to protect her people, and failing every time, is heartbreaking. The violence in the show is equally as horrible. It’s only the spark of hope that lies at the core of every episode that keeps the viewer invested, hoping against all expectations that Nimue can help defeat a group like The Red Paladins without sacrificing herself and her people in the process.
Cursed has the unenviable job of trying to win-over viewers who are expecting an entirely different plot, and angrily refusing to overlook that plot in favor of the show that they’re actually watching. If you’re expecting a re-telling of Arthurian legend, you will be inevitably disappointed, but if you’re interested in watching a compelling narrative about oppression and insurgency cloaked in the guises of high fantasy, then you’ll probably end up loving Cursed. It’s all about your mindset.