“When we first see Arthur (played by Ian De Caestecker) in MGM+’s ‘The Winter King,’ he doesn’t appear to be the legendary wise and great ruler. In reality, he looks completely messed up: puffy eyes, loose jaw, forehead blackened with blood. As the camera zooms out from a close-up, we see him struggling to stand amidst the battlefield, holding onto his brother’s corpse, so shaken that he can barely keep himself upright.
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Unveiling the Vulnerable Side: Arthur’s Journey in ‘The Winter King’
This is the last time he will be shown so vulnerably naked in at least a five-hour-long episode (of the ten-episode season) where critics are concerned. Elsewhere, this Arthur is the strong, cunning warrior we’ve come to expect from centuries of stories and retellings. Yet, due to the immense shadow cast by the vast mythology or perhaps by its own version of the tale, ‘The Winter King’ only truly comes alive in those intimate scenes that shine a light on the raw, internal, and human aspects of the epic.
Arthur has very few of these moments in ‘The Winter King,’ not due to lack of effort. Borrowing from Bernard Cornwell’s books, creators Kate Brook and Ed Whitmore have stripped away the most fantastical elements of the stories – the lofty Excalibur becomes a battered blade, even if it’s spotlighted with a bokeh-laden lens flare – and ground their characters in more relatable historical contexts. In this rendition, Arthur is an unwanted bastard, banished from his home in Dumnonia by his father, High King Uther (Eddie Marsan), who later returns to protect his successor Mordred, Arthur’s stepbrother, years after Uther had exiled him. And Arthur’s path is just one of many.
With his band of followers, Nimue (Ailbhe Lemass), a young Druid, and Dafydd (Stuart Campbell), a ambitious warrior, both orphans, whose care is overseen by the enigmatic Merlin (Nathaniel Martello-White) in the charming village of Avalon.
Striking a Balance: Grand Conflicts and Personal Stories in ‘The Winter King’
Combining political maneuvering, brutal violence, and sparingly-used magic, ‘The Winter King’ fits comfortably within the still-firm stream of ‘Game of Thrones‘ imitators (although technically both series were based on books, they arrived within about the same time). And like many other ‘Game of Thrones’ spin-offs, including the upcoming ‘House of the Dragon,’ it confirms that the formula is worth repeating, albeit with different main players. The new series is not without its allure, chiefly in its strong leads. But a rocky start is likely to lose some potential fans before it even reaches them.
The early episodes navigate a balance between grand inter-kingdom conflicts of the fifth century and the more personal journeys of its main characters. The solution is plenty of expository dialogue that ranges from pointing out how wily Arthur is compared to the waning strength of the Saxons, to explaining the nuanced power balance between Gwendolyn’s shrinking forces and Arthur’s cunning, everything-under-control maneuvers. The hefty serving of exposition—directed by Otto Bathurst and spread over eight years—forces the series to move quickly through the narrative beats, occasionally sacrificing breath for exposition. If a major character who initially appears well has a cough, you can bet they’ll be dead in minutes.
Beyond the Legend: Humanizing Arthur in ‘The Winter King’
However, once the table-setting recedes, ‘The Winter King’ is capable of slowing down to find its own rhythm. Around the third episode, unexpected themes start emerging, such as tensions between traditional paganism and the new Christianity, or the weight of destiny. Despite Merlin’s supreme confidence, when he gives Nimue guidance about the gods’ wishes, he reluctantly steers himself away from the oracle to the cold calculations and deliberate actions that might save his kind (including human sacrifices). Despite the skepticism of all characters toward old ways, they still look to ancient rituals (including human sacrifices) for the most crucial moments.
The characters also take more focus. The bond between Nimue and Dafydd is layered with emotions in the first part of the season as a tragic event puts Nimue at odds with Arthur and leaves Dafydd stuck between his closest friend and his greatest hero. The details of the plot are familiar, but James injects Nimue with a fiery rage that feels impossible to ignore. Meanwhile, Arthur’s job managing not one, but two ornery allies, cruel King Gunthlysis (Simon Merrells) and scheming King Gorfyddyd (Aneurin Hughes), creates some prickly political intrigue that could have otherwise devolved into a cycle of violence and retaliation.
Still, the tension never quite subsides enough to guarantee Arthur’s success. ‘The Winter King’ continually illustrates his habit of staying right and just, always looking five steps ahead, by presenting it as a practical, almost mystical, trait. De Caestecker confronts this challenge through a quiet strength, demonstrating Arthur as not an infallible prophecy, but simply a man.
But Arthur is most captivating when he’s not the perfect hero, when he’s allowed warmth, uncertainty, or outright fallibility. Beyond that bloody opening, Arthur’s most damning moment comes when he and his sister, the spiritually gifted Morgan (Valene Kane), evoke memories of the mother he lost as a child. Arthur remembers her as “the most beautiful, clever, and amazing mother a boy could wish for”; Morgan recalls her as a cold woman who was never pleased with her son.
Arthur’s reserve has made him a cipher at this point, but the exchange suggests a boy who might have existed just once. It’s a rare moment where we see what ‘The Winter King’ wants to show us: not Arthur as an unerring prophecy, but Arthur simply as a man.”