‘Cursed’ is a Feminist Arthurian Jumble

Netflix show imagines what would have happened if the Lady Of The Lake wielded Excalibur

Frank Miller, co-creator of the Netflix series Cursed, has framed his story as “a feminist retelling of the Arthurian myth,” in which Nimue, the Lady of the Lake, is the central character. And as played by the capable Katherine Langford, Nimue drives the plot along well enough. Early on, she witnesses the killing of her clan of fairy-people, the Fey, at the hands of Father Carden (Peter Mullan) and his band of zealots, the Red Paladins, sworn to exterminate the godless race. Her mother’s dying wish is that Nimue take the Sword of Power (Cursed doesn’t once mention the name “Excalibur”) to Merlin the magician, who drinks away his days making himself seem useful in the court of Uther Pendragon, the mother-dominated, would-be king of the realm.

Merlin’s reputation being somewhat low among the Fey, Nimue has her reservations about this charge, but strives to carry it out. Along her way, she encounters a handsome young squire named Arthur (Devon Terrell) and his Sapphic, cloistered sister, Igraine (Shalom Brune-Franklin), among other rag-tag characters, and slowly but surely draws them into her cause.

It gets a little muddled, though, just what that cause might be. Is it just delivering the sword to Merlin, or is it the saving of the Fey people from the Red Paladins? Hounded from their every refuge, the Fey certainly want saving. In trying to decide what’s best to do, Nimue undergoes a long struggle with herself and her confreres, and the viewer undergoes it with her.

But there’s no real tension to it all, since it’s plain from the get-go what she’s going to do. Along the way, Cursed treats us to some thrilling fights, too many lame attempts at levity, and a matricidal poisoning that almost manages dramatic purport. And over and over again, the sword-that-must-not-be-named emits a portentous glow from its ogham markings, which is always pretty much a sign that it’s made up Nimue’s mind for her and that somebody’s going to lose a hand or two.

Cursed
KATHERINE LANGFORD as NIMUE getting ready to chop in episode 104 of CURSED Cr. ROBERT VIGLASKY/Netflix © 2020

Cursed features chopped-off hands and heads, crushed skulls, branded chests, and poked-out eyes. It’s a litany of mutilations. One of the prime agents of death is a character known as the Weeping Monk (Daniel Sharman), a brooding, hooded individual with what appear to be tattooed tears streaming from his eyes. He spends most of the season putting his keen nose to ferreting out Fey settlements, and killing as many of them as he can, in service to Father Carden, who has some unholy bond over him.

The show doesn’t reveal his true name until the final episode, in what has to be the show’s cheapest grab for Arthurian authenticity. Suffice it to say that no, this isn’t the same character at all. Miller and co-creator Tom Wheeler and company are just hoping you’ll remember how you felt about the conflicted knight you admired in stories and films, and bring along your emotional residue to the story they’re telling.

One could make quite a litany of the crimes the two commit against the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table: Sir Gawain wasn’t the Green Knight, he fought the Green Knight; Lancelot wasn’t Nimue’s enemy, but was raised by her; Morgan le Fay wasn’t a nun. It’d be exhausting to list them all. It wouldn’t much matter, if Cursed succeeded on its own terms. The question, though, it just what those terms might be. It pulls in racial hatred, sexism, power politics, clericalism, and more, all in service of what ends up being a run-of-the-mill coming-of-age story. Is this gal going to take responsibility and grow up, or not?

When Nimue and Arthur finally hook up, it’s almost clear that this is her taking a step into the womanhood within which she will bring the story to its conclusion. But things don’t really conclude. Nimue gets back the sword everyone’s been fighting over, and triumphs over her enemies, and is vindicated up and down. And then the season ends not on a literal cliffhanger but close enough, with one of the main characters falling off a cliff, pierced by arrows. It’s as though the writers consulted the old Flash Gordon serials and decided melodrama was the way to go.

It’s puzzling that Miller and Wheeler decided to make use of Arthurian legend in this way. To flip the AC/DC lyric, they kept the names the same to protect the guilty—namely, Miller and Wheeler themselves. In relying on old, almost archetypal figures, they do their best to cover up the flaws in their creation, but it’s a transparent ploy. The result isn’t a total failure, but aficionados of Malory won’t find much to recognize here. It’s just a different story, and would do better to stand on its own. Cursed lacks mythic weight and any real sense of significance. Here’s some people with names we hope you’re remember, here are some things that happen to them. Enjoy.

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G.L. Ford

G. L. Ford lives and works in Victoria, Texas. He is the author of Sans, a book of poems (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2017). He edited the 6x6 poetry periodical from 2000 to 2017, and formerly wrote a column for the free paper New York Nights.

One thought on “‘Cursed’ is a Feminist Arthurian Jumble

  • August 10, 2020 at 12:34 pm
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    I’m not a fan of changing male characters into female characters. This seems lazy and contemptuous, at best. New female characters can and should be created or real-life heroines utilized instead of insulting women by making it seem like the only way they can be portrayed heroically is to change existing male characters into females. This does a disservice to women.

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