King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table is a story that many grow up learning about whether it’s from the Disney classic, The Sword in the Stone, or the numerous retellings across all forms of media. It’s the story of Arthur Pendragon’s ascension to power as the legendary leader of Britain, with the help of his mystical weapon Excalibur, his wife Guinevere, and wise old Merlin who helps guide him with counsel and magic. With so many takes on the epic tale, it’s sometimes difficult to stand out from the rest, however, MGM+ is hoping to do just that with their new series The Winter King.
Based on the book series The Warlord Chronicles by Bernard Cornwell, The Winter King takes a more grounded approach to this well-known Arthurian tale. While magic still exists, this series feels more in the vein of Game of Thrones or The Witcher, both of which have a strong sense of realism within the aspects of fantasy. The Winter King is brought to life on MGM+ by Kate Brooke and Ed Whitmore and stars Iain De Caestecker as Arthur Pendragon. Joining De Caestecker is Jordan Alexandra as Guinevere, Nathaniel Martello-White as Merlin, and Stuart Campbell as Derfel Cadarn. So is The Winter King worth your time? Continue on to find out.
[Trigger Warning: This series depicts acts of sexual assault, so viewer discretion is advised.]
[Warning: light spoilers and impressions from The Winter King are below!]
A slow start for Arthur’s tale
The tale of Arthur Pendragon (De Caestecker) in this series begins long before his time as King of England. Instead, The Winter King starts with the discovery that Arthur is not destined for ruling the kingdom of Dumnonia at all, as he’s the illegitimate son of King Uther (Eddie Marsan). The king is a ruthless man who’s more concerned for the children he’s lost and the heir he needs rather than the children he’s created. Arthur is on the receiving end of much of King Uther’s abuse, taking the blame for many situations outside of Arthur’s control, resulting in his banishment from the kingdom.
But as those familiar with the legend know, that’s not where this story ends. As the prologue ends and Arthur’s banishment begins, the series flashes forward to the main event of The Winter King, where the Dark Ages has fallen upon the kingdom. The Saxons are rampaging through Britain and the throne is poised to be left empty as the aging King Uther struggles to produce a capable heir.
With the war raging on, things aren’t looking great for the Kingdom of Britain, however, Merlin (Martello-White) has a plan. If he can find Arthur and return him from his banishment, perhaps the war can be won. It should be a simple enough accomplishment for the likes of Arthur and Merlin, although The Winter King has tons of players on the board, which could easily complicate the matter at hand. Can these two unite the kingdom and save it from the Saxons? You’ll have to watch The Winter King for yourself to see what happens in this Arthurian legend.
The good and bad of The Winter King
It’s early on in the series that it becomes apparent that The Winter King is MGM+’s answer to Game of Thrones, The Wheel of Time, Power of the Rings, or The Witcher. The series aims to be an epic medieval series with tons of action, magic, and jaw-dropping moments. All of which the legend of King Arthur is perfectly suitable for. His story is easily a slam dunk for this genre, which was what I was anticipating prior to beginning The Winter King. And yet, it wasn’t.
The Winter King begins as a slow burn which takes way too long to get moving. This left me bored and exhausted. The “good parts” of the story don’t begin until the third episode, with the first two spending way too much time going absolutely nowhere as viewers follow way too many characters.
Perhaps that seems ridiculous to say being a fan of Game of Thrones, which arguably has way too many characters to follow in every season. That being said, GoT features characters who are distinct and storylines that are interesting to follow. For me, this was almost non-existent in the first two episodes of The Winter King. I found it difficult to distinguish half the characters from each other (the unique names didn’t help with this in the slightest) and none of the stories seemed important enough nor did they push the story forward in major ways.
Sure, obviously there’s a war going on, but it felt like such a minor thing within the background of the series. There are points in which that narrative comes to the foreground, but it’s usually in relation to characters that I couldn’t care to relate to. That being said, the series finds its footing within the third episode, which feels like such a turning point in The Winter King.
The moment that Arthur decides to return to the Kingdom of Dumnonia, the narrative begins a more linear approach. Many of the characters with their independent stories begin to come together, making it easier to follow what is going on and who the audience should be rooting for. For me, this necessary change in the narrative took way too long to happen, which I fear might be a sentiment that others watching this series might experience too. I’ll be honest if I was watching this weekly instead of having five episodes to binge for this screener, I don’t know if I would have continued past those first two episodes.
That being said, The Winter King is worth continuing on, as the series truly finds itself in that third episode and beyond. The story tightens itself up and finds a stride that is on par with Game of Thrones or Rings of Power. I found myself in that third episode paying more attention, wanting to know more, and couldn’t wait to watch the next episode. So if you can make it past those first two, you’ll probably be pleasantly surprised.
Stand-out performances from Iain De Caestecker and Nathaniel Martello-White
The standout of the series is Iain De Caestecker as Arthur Pendragon, who’s a far departure from his role in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Arthur is more sure and confident of himself and his situation, something that Fitz struggled with throughout AoS. De Caestecker is fantastic in the role, which I have to say I wasn’t expecting when I heard he was cast in the role. But he eats it up and delivers a career-toping performance.
Joining him as a highlight in The Winter King is Nathaniel Martello-White as Merlin. Martello-White’s take on this classic character was such a shift from other takes, with Merlin more stoic than the off-kilter wizard we’ve come to know. He’s a defined leader, even more so than Arthur when we meet him again after the time jump. Martello-White’s Merlin is my favorite character in the series and I’m excited to see more of him as the first season closes out.
When and where to watch The Winter King
Overall, if you can make it past the slog that The Winter King begins with, the series provides an excellent Arthurian Legend with some compelling characters. I personally think it’s worth sticking it out, although perhaps it’s best to wait until the first three episodes are out, so you can quickly binge them and get to the good stuff.
The Winter King arrives on MGM+ on August 20. Will you be checking it out? Let us know on Twitter or in The Cosmic Circus Discord.