There is both good news and bad news for the new British series The Winter King. The bad news first: It will be compared to Game of Thrones, and there is just no way around that. The storyline, the setting, and the treatment will all remind viewers of that legendary fantasy drama. The good news for The Winter King is that it is so sure of its world and its characters that it manages to stay grounded and has enough gusto to stand on its own as a semi-historical drama. The first episode lays out the primary characters and builds a solid foundation for the series to leap from.
The plotline goes something like this: In the 5th century AD, in Britain, High King Uther Pendragon is trying to stop the tribal wars and is making efforts to unite Britain. Their main adversaries are the dreaded ‘Saxons.’ Uther banishes his ‘illegitimate’ son Arthur, and eight years down the line, it is Arthur who has to return and unite Britain. Here’s a The Winter King Episode 1.
Why Was Arthur Banished?
Arthur fought hard against the Saxons. No matter what others believed, Arthur was a loyal soldier. But the Saxons were too fierce, and Arthur could not guarantee the safety of Uther’s’real’ heir, Prince Mordred. The prince died in battle, and the consequences were unjustly cruel. Arthur returned to Caer Cadarn, the capital city of King Uther’s kingdom, Dumnonia. He returned with the lifeless prince, and Uther wasn’t going to listen to Arthur’s side of the story. Arthur was born of a bawd and, hence, was treated as a stain. He was assigned the responsibility of looking after the prince, but he failed. Uther was going to kill him, but the shaman Merlin proposed his banishment instead.
How Did Derfel Become A Part Of Caer Cadarn?
On his way out to the north to serve his banishment, Arthur discovered a village that had been pillaged, probably by the Saxons. There, he found a boy barely hanging on to his life. Arthur brought him back to Caer Cadarn, and it was truly a miracle he survived. Nimue, a girl, nursed him, and not only did he survive, but eight years down the line, he grew up to be a strong man, in love with Nimue. Derfel’s story seemed to take an abrupt turn when first Nimue broke off with him, and then he finally saw the man who had massacred his family. His name was Gundleas, and he had become King of Siluria. He continued the violence and had now converted to Christianity to prove his loyalty to Uther. Uther, instead of killing him for his violent streak, was making a deal with him. Derfel would now try to get his opportunity to take revenge or perhaps perish, as Gundleas was a fierce character.
Why Couldn’t Nimue Be With Derfel?
Nimue had helped Derfel survive when he was brought to Caer Cadarn by Arthur. She had the gifts given to her by the gods, and it isn’t clear whether she knew this or not, but apparently, she couldn’t have a family of her own or even lay with someone if she was to retain her powers. This fact was drilled into her head by Merlin himself, who sensed that Nimue was forgetting her true purpose and getting too close to Derfel. Nimue had to make a choice: whether to sacrifice her gifts to be with Derfel or part ways and walk the solitary path, as guided by Merlin. She decided to choose the latter. She was definitely perturbed but managed it well. The same couldn’t be said about Derfel, though.
How Did Arthur Return?
Arthur was still banished, and no efforts had been made to bring him back until the day Uther’s wife gave birth to a male child. Merlin saw visions that the newborn would go on to become a murderous tyrant and bring down Britain. He explained to Uther that the child was born deformed and wouldn’t ever be able to run. He did so in the hope that Uther would order its execution because only Merlin knew the horrors the newborn child was going to bring. Uther didn’t pay any heed to Merlin’s advice, as it had been eight years since Norwenna, Uther’s wife, gave birth to a child. Uther was growing and had developed a crooked neck and a bit of a hunchback as well, so he knew another child was a distant possibility. He declared the child his prince and named him Mordred, after the dead prince.
When Merlin saw that Uther wasn’t going to trust his visions, he chided him for having banished Arthur. According to him, that was a mistake on Uther’s part, as Arthur’s presence maintained a balance in Dumnonia that had been lost. Now that Uther had decided to raise the future tyrant, Merlin decided to end Arthur’s banishment and bring him back, even at the risk of getting banished himself. Merlin reached Gaul, the land of King Ban, where Arthur was apparently serving his banishment. He had completely changed, and it looked like he had accepted his life as an outcast, but seeing Merlin, he grew delighted. Merlin was determined to persuade him to come back, and Arhur’s return is imminent. Perhaps he will unite Britain in a way Uther never could and later fight Mordred, who was an evil king in the making.
Episode 1 Review
As I said earlier, the show would be compared to Game of Thrones, which is an uphill battle. Take the ‘illegitimate’ son, Arthur, for instance. He may resemble another very well-known character with those same traits who survived the gauntlet in Game of Thrones. Well, to be fair, The Winter King is based on the novel of the same name by Bernard Cornwell, and surely, the intricate character details are bound to be different in the long run. Looking past these factors, The Winter King seems to have a sense of prudence about it, which is evident from the get-go. It works in its favor, and it just might be the reason why viewers get engaged with the world the series is trying to build.
Not much is known about the 5th-century politics of Britain. That, too, piques the interest of some, although there are talks of gods and actual apparitions that are visible to characters like Nimue and Merlin in the first episode itself. Merlin is even able to have visions about someone’s evil just by touching their body. So, The Winter King cannot be expected to present a historically accurate portrayal of figures like Arthur. The mythologically-oriented poetic license promises that the series can take an unexpected turn at any given point in time. Also, the little interaction between Arthur and Uther before Arthur was banished seemed inspired by Shakespeare. If, in the coming episodes, the writing and staging are as dramatic as they were in that little scene, then the series could fare quite well against other similar ones. But too much histrionics and the delicate balance between groundedness and theatricality will be lost.
The connection between Derfel and Arthur is still not clear, but it brings out the fact that Arthur’s heart has not been turned cold by the injustice. He is a protector, and maybe the fact that he couldn’t protect his brother in the battle against the Saxons brought forth a real transformation in him. Derfel, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to be bothered about where he came from. It is hinted that he wants to be a swordsman, but the love angle with Nimue has preoccupied his mind. It was only in the very end, when Nimue broke off with him, that he might have found his true purpose—revenge.
Right from the first scene of the episode, the production value seemed on par with the kind of story the series was trying to execute. It does not seem excessive, and the locations, like where Merlin finds Arthur living in banishment, paint a contrasting picture and give a sense of Britain’s vastness and cultural diversity, even in the 5th century. The performances are decent, but somewhere The Winter King loses its quality of being a period drama and becomes a bit too contemporary. For example, the cheering during the wedding. The background score leaves something to be desired as it sounds generic, and there was no real emphasis on having the characters’ theme score. Given that this is just the first episode, there is definitely a lot more in store, and people who are interested in the figure of King Arthur would definitely find this series’ heightened reality engaging. As for the others, they might enjoy the gritty cinematography and the palpable violence and like The Winter King for what it is.