CONTENT WARNING: BIG SPOILERS for all 10 episodes of Cursed. Seriously, I’ll discuss uncovered secrets and characters who die in the finale. Bookmark this page now and come back once you’ve watched the show if you want to avoid spoilers.
If you are familiar with any version of the Arthurian legend, you will recognize Nimue as the name of the tragic Lady of the Lake, a godly-like character that the myth always uses as a deus ex machina rather than an actual woman. Nimue finally finds her voice in Netflix’s new original series Cursed, produced by the graphic novel creators Thomas Wheeler and Frank Miller, which premiered on July 17, 2020.
Before I proceed to point out some things I didn’t like about the show, let me tell you that, for the most part, it is an enjoyable watch and I do recommend it if you like the genre. Check it out at netflix.com/cursed!
The 10-episode show is not yet another origin story for King Arthur or his legendary knights, but rather an alternative retelling of the story in a universe that’s simultaneously far more grounded in and more removed from reality. Our cursed protagonist, Nimue (Katherine Langford) is one of the few remaining Fey, a species more ancient than humankind, and also more peaceful, closer to nature and magic. The Fey are mercilessly being hunted and exterminated by the Red Paladins in England, a group of Catholic extremists who are backed up by the pope in Rome.
Nimue is everything I would have hated in a fictional character as a teenager. Her personality traits include being reckless, stubborn and hot-headed, the triad for every YA protagonist. What’s more, she is either a passive agent who lets things happen around her or acts too rashly, without thinking (which, I should point out, is something we allow many male heroes and call bravery). She doesn’t know how to control her powers, but she gladly embraces the dark persona painted by her enemies along with her nickname, “the Wolf-Blood Witch”. Although, for someone who claims to love nature and derives her power from it, Nimue certainly has no qualms hurting animals, which I didn’t love.
Like Frodo with his Ring, Nimue gradually becomes obsessed by the Sword until it festers her personality and clouds her judgment, making her wary of even her friends. I understand her paranoia was a plot necessity, but I did not enjoy seeing her as a woman desperately clinging to her object of power and her throne.
The other main characters I think will fare better with the general audience. In this version of the story, Arthur (Devon Terrell) and Morgana (Shalom Brune-Franklin) are not of noble birth. He is just a young mercenary on a desperate quest to win back his honor, she his sister who he gave away to a convent so he wouldn’t have to provide for her when they became orphans as children because of their father’s debts. Many fans of BBC’s Merlin will be pleased to find out Morgana is a lesbian in Cursed, and also Nimue’s most trusted friend and advisor.
This Arthur is far from the legendary once and future king: he lies, he steals, he pretends to be a bard. He has a selfish moral code he abides by… you would imagine everything changed when he meets cute and falls in love with Nimue on the spot, but no. He has to steal her sword for his own gain (and lose it) before he becomes a better (selfless) man.
The Green Knight Gawain might seem shady at first, but he is the only traditional hero of the story. There is an (unnecessary) instance of a love triangle between him, Arthur and Nimue to create tension, but it is thankfully very short-lived. The stoic, silent Weeping Monk played by Daniel Sharman is the wild card that you know from the beginning has a secret and will be the ultimate twist – and he is perhaps the most tragic character of all (also, the reveal of his true name at the end? Why?).
Uther Pendragon is but a simpering spoiled brat, inept at ruling and always crying behind his mother’s skirts. Merlin, played by an amazing Gustaf Skarsgard, doesn’t have the aspect of a young boy or of an ancient sorcerer like in most adaptations. Instead, he looks like a man who’s clearly undergoing a mid-life crisis: he’s a sad drunk who’s lost his magic. He gets a bit of a redemption when he finds out that Nimue is his natural daughter (something that was very clear to me from the get-go) and he starts caring about something other than self-pity. Like Prometheus, he steals fire and angers a king who will inevitably punish him for his actions.
The confirmation that Merlin is Nimue’s father to me felt like Nimue’s power was being stripped away. Her incredible magic is not truly hers, the Sword of Power did not really choose her – her mother handed it to her and asked her, as her dying wish, to bring it to Merlin. All the things that should single Nimue out do not belong to her as a person, they just flow through her veins because of Merlin’s blood.
On the other hand, it was refreshing to see Morgana as a brave, self-righteous person and not be consumed by desire of power, even if for a brief moment I thought that was the route the show was going to take (and I thought, again?). Nimue’s childhood friend Pym is a fun character and comic relief whom I adored, but she adds next to nothing to the plot of the show.
Nimue proclaiming herself Queen of all Fey with an improvised speech was a bit cheesy and on the nose. While it is empowering to see a young woman become a symbol of the resistance and turn into a beacon of hope and courage for a rebellion against a flawed rule (Katniss, is that you???) and religious extremism, all the feminist hype around this show feels a bit like pandering. Nimue’s Joan of Arc symbolism eventually comes full circle when she inevitably falls in the end.
Doom is at every corner in Cursed, and all love stories are sweet and tragic. As I cheered for them watching, I knew they could never be. The show seems to suggest the world is too harsh for successful romances… I can’t think of one couple that made it through.
If you squint hard enough, you can glimpse an environmentalist metaphor in the show, which I appreciated, along with other, clearer references to crucial contemporary issues like racial hate, religious zealotry, genocides, refugee rights and more. Fantasy always has a way of translating real-world systemic injustice.
The show’s mistake is in taking itself too seriously as an epic: it tries to handle too many plotlines, something Game of Thrones managed successfully for seven seasons, but here the arc is a bit too dense and moves too quickly only for things to be turned over again after a couple of scenes. Cursed tries to be epic but fails with 21st-century speech and too modern concepts.
It’s poetic – but also underwhelming – that Iris, a zealot catholic girl, but really an absolute agent of chaos, is the one who succeeds in killing Nimue with two decently-placed arrows, after the protagonist survived capture by multiple armies who swore to put her to the torch time and time again.
The ending isn’t too satisfactory because, in the showrunner’s desire to keep this exclusively Nimue’s story, it leaves too many questions unanswered. We hardly see what happens after she collapses into the waterfall (and inevitably becomes the Lady of the Lake we know from myth). Where do Merlin and Morgana go? Do they destroy the sword? What happens between the mortal kings? Do Arthur and the Fey make it to the new land all right? What about the Red Spear?
Nimue is gone, the Lady of the Lake will take her place. Can Cursed have a season 2 so that our curiosity of the other characters’ fates is sated? Nimue can even guest star. Please, Netflix?
Despite some superficial flaws, Cursed is a show that will have you on the edge of your seat and would work even if it wasn’t available for binge-watching. I 10/10 recommend.