The Lady of the Lake may be the most mysterious figure in King Arthur’s lore. Depending on the retelling, she turns up with different names — most commonly Nimue, but sometimes Vivianne or Ninianne, among others. Her level of involvement in the Arthurian story varies from version to version: sometimes she kidnaps Merlin, sometimes she marries one of the knights, sometimes she doesn’t appear past her initial role. The only constant is that she hands the magic sword Excalibur to Arthur, taking a small role in his overall story.
Cursed, based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller and Tom Wheeler (who also serve as showrunners), sets out to give the enigmatic enchantress agency and a story of her own, turning her from a one-note hero into a complicated, powerful character. Miller and Wheeler struggle a bit in building the world even in 10 hour-long episodes, and vacillate about how much Arthurian lore they want their audience to know. But with Cursed, they manage to give their heroine a satisfying arc from outcast to leader, while infusing more life into other Arthurian stock characters, like the minor knights and the enchantress Morgana.
Cursed follows the Lady of the Lake when she’s still known as Nimue. She’s a powerful young woman, but her village rejects her, fearing her connection to the magical spirits of the forest, known as the Hidden. Nimue (Katherine Langford, from 13 Reasons Why and Knives Out) is entrusted with the Sword of Power after the genocidal Red Paladins kill her mother. Sent from the Catholic Church, the Paladins seek to destroy all the Fey. Nimue’s mother tells her to get the sword to Merlin, so with the help of handsome mercenary Arthur (Devvon Terrell), she sets forth.
[Ed. note: This review contains slight spoilers for season 1 of Cursed.]
There are many more elements at work beyond Nimue’s quest: Viking hordes from the north threaten King Uther’s power, and the animosity humans feel toward the Fey continues to heighten as the Red Paladins’ power grows. Many moving narrative parts spur Nimue’s journey along, and some of them are pulled off with more finesse than others.
The lore sometimes comes with little to no explanation, often raising more questions than it answers. On the most superficial note, Nimue is one of the Fey, but in the first few episodes, none of the Fey really look different from regular humans, except Nimue herself, when she gets upset. The show later introduces more Fey, some with horns and antlers, some with snake-like skin. Certain clans look more human than others. But Miller and Wheeler don’t do much groundwork to establish who the Fey are before we learn the Red Paladins are out to slaughter them all. Offhand comments acknowledging that not all Fey boast animal-like features come too little too late.
But those are just surface-level critiques. The world-building really slogs when Merlin is off meeting with magical figures across dimensions. Mythical characters and magical elements don’t need to be explained in heavy-handed “As you know…” speeches, but when it comes to Merlin’s storyline, the creators don’t seem to understand that there’s a middle ground between overly didactic explanations and dropping Merlin in the middle of an alternate dimension that never gets a name, where he talks to a little-known mythological figure who gets no backstory. The frustrating thing is there are moments in the show that do strike that balance, such as Arthur’s sister Morgana slowly learning more about a mysterious Celtic figure.
Cursed doesn’t require an extensive knowledge of Arthurian legend, though being familiar with some of the names that crop up here will make certain revelations more satisfying. (Die-hard Arthurian purists may find the show aggravating, though.) Cursed’s creators vary on what they want their audience to know about Arthurian myth, especially considering how much they change it. The minor mythological figures mentioned either appear without much explanation of who they are or what they’re capable of, or are explained so thoroughly that even people who don’t stay up at night Wikipedia-ing folklore will still get it. Knowing that Nimue will eventually become the Lady of the Lake makes her story more tragic, especially knowing that Arthur is destined to take the sword she wields and rise without her. But knowing the stories of some of the knights and other characters might detract from their new roles, or make them more narratively frustrating.
Clunky world-building aside, the best parts of the show don’t come from epic battles, political intrigue, or powerful magic, but from its character arcs. After the first episode introduces the major players, the show tends to split between Nimue, Arthur, and Merlin. While Merlin’s screen time has more to do with the overarching political powers at play, Nimue and Arthur’s home in on their personal and emotional journeys.
At the beginning, Arthur has the more satisfying story, and he’s certainly a scene-stealer. He’s a mercenary, racked by his father’s debts, and he’s done some shady things in the past. Overall, he sticks up for his own neck. Terrell imbues his performance with roguish charm and an easy smile. It’s easy to see why Nimue is smitten upon their first meeting. But Arthur is quick to run away when things get difficult. The third episode reveals some of his backstory — as well as his most despicable behavior — but he grows from there, and by the middle of the season, he finds something to fight for. Then the series pivots to Arthur proving that a human can be a champion for the Fey, setting the scene for his eventual destiny.
Nimue is slower to grow. She starts off as the village outcast, and her primary motivation for the first half of the series is to fulfill her mother’s dying wish and get the sword to Merlin — something the audience knows is a bad idea, because we have the advantage of seeing Merlin’s point of view. Throughout the show, however, she meets more Fey and learns more about the sword and her own powers. It’s satisfying to see her grow from a timid young woman who just wants to leave her village to someone who stands up for her people, and that change comes at a believable pace. Langford plays the role of ostracized Nimue well, managing her character’s slow shift into heroism. Nimue doesn’t magically transform into a fearless rebel leader. It takes time for her to find the courage she needs, but when she does, it feels earned.
Miller and Wheeler ultimately achieve what they seem to be aiming for with Cursed. They turn the enigmatic woman of Arthurian legend into a compelling character, making her complicated and dynamic. Nimue’s role in the legend of King Arthur might just be to give him a powerful sword, but in Cursed, she’s the hero of her own story, and Arthur takes a secondary role. Her story may ultimately be tragic, but it’s still centered around her.
The first season of Cursed is currently streaming on Netflix.