MGM+’s “The Winter King,” directed by Gary Shore, introduces us to Arthur (played by Iain De Caestecker) in a way that defies the image of the wise and noble ruler of myth. In the first glimpse, Arthur is far from composed: his eyes bulge, his jaw slack, and his forehead is smeared with blood. As the camera pans out from this close-up, we witness him clutching his brother’s lifeless body on a battlefield, his own legs unsteady beneath him due to the overwhelming shock.
However, this initial display of vulnerability soon transforms. Across the five hour-long episodes provided to critics (from a ten-episode season), Arthur embodies a character much closer to the strong and shrewd warrior that the legends portray. Despite the immense legend overshadowing him, “The Winter King” truly comes alive in moments like this opening scene — where grandeur gives way to raw, intimate, and human elements.
The scarcity of such moments is not due to a lack of effort. Kate Brooke and Ed Whitmore, creators of the series adapting Bernard Cornwell’s books, have stripped away fantastical elements and grounded the characters in a historically plausible context. In this version, Arthur is an unloved bastard son exiled from Dumnonia by his father, the High King Uther (Eddie Marsan), only to return years later to protect Uther’s new heir, his half-brother Mordred. This is just one thread of the narrative, with intersecting arcs involving characters like Nimue (Ellie James), a young druidess, and Derfel (Stuart Campbell, donning an ill-fitting blond wig), an aspiring warrior, both under Merlin’s (Nathaniel Martello-White) watchful eye in the tranquil hamlet of Avalon.
With its blend of geopolitical maneuvering, brutal violence, and sparing use of magic, “The Winter King” neatly aligns itself with the trend of Game of Thrones-inspired content (though interestingly, the source books for both series emerged around the same time). However, the attempts to replicate this formula serve to emphasize the uniqueness of the original. The new series has its merits, particularly the solid ensemble cast. Yet, a shaky start might deter potential viewers before they fully engage with the characters.
Initial episodes grapple with balancing the grand scale of inter-kingdom conflicts in the fifth century with the personal journeys of the main characters. The approach, unfortunately, involves hefty doses of expository dialogue to elucidate everything from Dumnonia’s weakening stance against the encroaching Saxon forces to the widely acknowledged intelligence of Arthur. The sprawling narrative — the premiere, under Otto Bathurst’s direction, spans eight years — forces the show to speed through plot points that could benefit from more depth. When a previously healthy character starts coughing, it’s a predictable indicator of imminent demise.
However, once the groundwork is laid, “The Winter King” settles into its own rhythm. By the third episode, thematic elements begin to take shape, such as the tension between traditional paganism and the burgeoning Christianity, or the weight of destiny. For all of Merlin’s confidence when guiding Nimue in the ways of the gods, he finds himself defying their will when his heart urges him to. The skepticism towards old customs does not deter characters from turning to ancient rituals, even human sacrifice, during crucial moments.
The characters gain clarity as well. The bond between Nimue and Derfel is a source of emotion in the first half of the season. A traumatic incident pits Nimue against Arthur, leaving Derfel torn between his closest friend and his greatest hero. While the plot’s elements might be familiar, Ellie James imbues Nimue with a visceral rage that’s hard to ignore. Arthur’s interactions with two reluctant potential allies, brutish King Gundleus (Simon Merrells) and calculating King Gorfydd (Aneirin Hughes), infuse the series with political intrigue amidst the violence and vengeance.
However, there’s a persistent lack of tension surrounding Arthur’s success. “The Winter King” portrays him as almost superhuman in his ability to make the right decisions, predict future events, and maintain a constant air of righteousness. Iain De Caestecker conveys this strength through quietude, portraying Arthur as someone confident in his abilities who favors astute observation and calculated action over impulsiveness or bluster. Nevertheless, Arthur is most captivating when he departs from the stoic hero archetype — when he showcases warmth, doubt, or even fallibility. Beyond the bloodied opening, one of the most endearing scenes involves Arthur and his spiritually gifted sister, Morgan (Valene Kane), reminiscing about their mother. The exchange reveals Arthur’s complexity beyond stoicism, unveiling the eager and uncertain boy he once was.
In conclusion, “The Winter King” sets sail with initial turbulence but eventually discovers its distinct rhythm. While it fits the mold of post-“Game of Thrones” adaptations, it thrives when delving into the raw, intimate aspects of its characters. The promise of themes, developed characters, and a growing tension signal that, despite its shaky start, “The Winter King” holds potential for a captivating journey.