At the beginning of the first episode of Netflix’s six-episode The Letter for the King, a voiceover delivers a prophecy about a hero rising up against darkness. Yes, this fantasy epic has a Chosen One. Yes, it takes place in a medieval world with two nearly identical kingdoms in the north waging war against one to the south. Yes, it primarily features teens riding horses as they head out on noble quests across those kingdoms.
In that regard, The Letter for the King, based on a 1962 book by Dutch author Tonke Dragt, does little that’s new in the well-trod realm of medieval fantasy quest stories. It doesn’t need to reinvent the genre, but while it has a lot of good individual aspects — particularly when it comes to the character dynamics, which stand out against the typical Fetch Quest plot — none of those bits cohesively mesh together to create something greater.
The Letter for the King follows Tiuri (Amir Wilson), the stepson of a great knight, adopted from the southern land of Eviellan (and therefore faces prejudice, since it’s considered a less civilized land). In the midst of his knighthood qualifications, Tiuri aids a dying knight, who entrusts him with a secret letter that must be urgently delivered to the king. Bound by his own personal honor, Tiuri sets off on his quest, and in the process partners up with street-savvy Lavinia (Ruby Ashbourne Serkis), the daughter of a mayor from an impoverished town, who dreams of leaving her tiny village. On his trail are his former knighthood class, four plucky teens plus one younger brother. Neither group of young people knows that the prince of one of the two indistinguishable fantasy kingdoms (Unauwen) is massacring the Shamans of Eviellan and using their power for something greater, but the audience learns of his master plan as the show jumps back and forth between its characters.
There’s just a bit too much jumping. Tiuri is on a fetch quest (or rather a deliver quest), the group of novice knights are set to fetch him, and behind the scenes, the adults talk about politics, war, and slaughter innocent people to gain power. None of them are built out enough to form an emotional connection, so when big events happen, there’s no payoff.
There are snippets of fun group dynamics, especially with the ragtag crew of teen knights who are sent to find Tiuri. They include cocky Jussipo (Jonah Lees), chivalrous Foldo (Jack Barton), cunning Iona (Thaddea Graham), and sniveling Arman (Islam Bouakkaz), with Jussipo’s younger brother eventually tagging along. It’s the perfect setup of characters, each with their own strengths and weaknesses and distinct, clashing personalities. Jussipo won’t stop playing his lute and making up songs about his traveling party, which annoys Arman, though Foldo finds it endearing. Iona, the only one of the group who’s ever lived among peasants, snaps at her peers when they cause a ruckus in a tavern. But just when the show settles in with this group, it pivots to a different set of characters.
To their credit, noble-to-a-fault Tiuri and chaotic neutral Lavinia also have a fun dynamic, as their ideals clash. Tiuri is incredibly quick to trust and fulfill his mission, whereas Lavinia, who did initially turn him into corrupt nobles for a reward, is more cynical. When they come across a lonely monastery in the mountains run by monks, Tiuri is thankful, but Lavinia is dubious. Turns out, those monks are all reformed murderers! But they’re also kinda nice? It’s a plot twist to a plot twist and a neat setting that expands upon the world. If only that distinct world-building extended to the rest of the kingdom.
The show becomes a slog whenever it pans away from the teens and focuses on the adults. The segments built around evil Prince Viridian, his not-so-evil brother, the queen of Dagonaut, and the other adults in the show serve as world-building, setting up the overarching tension that’s supposedly driving the action. But nothing distinct separates the countries of Unauwen and Dagonaut, and the prophesied evil is literally just called “Darkness.” It’s a bland conflict full of bland players.
On top of that, Unuauwen and Dagonaut are bland medieval fantasy countries; the third land, Eviellan, ends up embodying the uncomfortable racial politics that happens when a fantasy show decides to have a designated country for its people of color. Eviellian falls into that unfortunate trope: it’s a land of magic, mystical Shamans, and tribes — all pingwords you’ll find in an intro college seminar about Orientalism. It’s no Chronicles of Narnia, where the Arabic-coded country of Calormen is seen as mostly evil, but the fact that the only Eviellians we hear of besides Tiuri, his mother, and evil Prince Viridian’s adviser Jabroot are killed off screen turn them into nameless bodies and plot devices.
Tirui’s own struggle against racism as he makes his way as a knight gives his character arc more nuance, but sits uncomfortably in the greater story. No one in Dagonaut or Unauwen is ever aware of Viridian’s genocide beside Viridian himself. Nor does anyone really care to know. What happens in Evilliean stays in Evillean. None of the main characters — even Tiuri, who left Evilliean when he was a child — cares about what Viridian is doing in Evilliean; they care about their more singular missions and fulfilling a great prophecy.
The prophecy itself, about the Chosen One and the Darkness, feels like a first draft of something that could’ve been expanded; at this point in time, audiences have seen so many Chosen Ones and nameless evils that to do that plot once more requires something new. The Letter for the King does deliver a neat subversion to the prophecy, but it happens so quickly and so late in the show that it doesn’t feel earned. Even if the subversion arrived in the last episode, most of the show panned out playing the trope straight. The same applies to so many other arcs, both big plot movements and smaller emotional moments, that culminate in the show. The last episodes has multiple moments that could’ve been huge payoffs and surprises had they been cultivated in the early going.
Netflix bills the show as a family-friendly fantasy and it does certainly avoid the bloodshed of something like Game of Thrones. The teen heroes are endearing, but the show doesn’t transcend its typical storyline and the last minute subversions don’t save it. With a little more care, the creative team could’ve pulled all the parts into something greater and transcend the common path of the fantasy quest genre. But as it stands, the factions of The Letter for the King can’t band together.
The Letter for the King is currently streaming on Netflix.