The MGM+ series "The Winter King," adapted from a trilogy of novels penned by the English author Bernard Cornwell, draws its narrative inspiration primarily from Arthurian legend. However, in execution, the show resonates more with grounded historical fiction rather than fantastical fairy tales. In the five previewed episodes, the series diverges from the traditional Arthurian motifs—Arthur Pendragon, portrayed by Iain De Caestecker, doesn't extract a sword from a stone, nor does he engage with mythical creatures like dragons. Instead, "The Winter King" delves into pragmatic concerns like access to natural resources, national sovereignty, and the intricate political alliances required to secure them. Though supernatural elements are hinted at, such as the presence of Merlin, played by Nathaniel Martello-White, these elements are presented not as objective realities but as subjective beliefs that subtly contest the rise of Christianity.
In this regard, "The Winter King" shares more similarities with "Game of Thrones" than some of the more overtly fantastical shows that emerged after the hit HBO series. Much like George R.R. Martin, who drew from British history for his source material, "The Winter King" bases its premise on Arthur's mission to unite the warring kingdoms of Britain against the encroaching Saxons. Creators Kate Brooke and Ed Whitmore, along with lead director Otto Bathurst, tap into a similar well of inspiration. However, while the show's grounded take on King Arthur's origins might attract fans of "Thrones" and enthusiasts of historical nonfiction, it falls short in delivering the nuanced and multifaceted characters that transform dry facts into captivating fiction. The narrative of "The Winter King" commences with Arthur's banishment from the realm of Dumnonia, which corresponds roughly to present-day Devon and Cornwall in the far southwest of England. This banishment stems from his perceived failure to protect his half-brother in battle. King Uther, portrayed by Eddie Marsan, harbors resentment toward Arthur as a constant reminder of his indiscretions. Arthur rescues a wounded Saxon orphan named Derfel, played by Stuart Campbell, before departing. He takes the orphan to Merlin's Avalon, depicted here more as a haven than a mystical island. Over time, Derfel evolves into the central figure of the series. It is through his perspective that viewers witness Arthur's eventual return, years after Uther's demise, into the power vacuum left by his father. The full setup of "The Winter King" takes a few hour-long episodes to fully unfold, involving a weighty exposition. Ultimately, a dynamic emerges: Arthur, having spent years abroad, embraces progressive ideas like his opposition to human sacrifice and his vision for a unified Britain, which he plans to implement as the de facto regent for his infant half-brother Mordred. Ironically, Arthur's modern outlook is symbolized by his hairstyle, a contemporary fade that contrasts with the long, period-appropriate locks of other male characters. However, the perspective of Arthur seen through Derfel's lens obscures Arthur's inner life and confines the show within a clichéd coming-of-age narrative. Externally, Arthur emerges as an enlightened, almost messianic figure who works alongside his people in the fields and claims to abhor war despite his undefeated track record. Unfortunately, neither the script nor De Caestecker's performance delves beneath this persona's surface. Derfel, saddled with some uneven accent work by Campbell, idolizes Arthur and harbors feelings for Nimue, portrayed by Ellie James, Merlin's apprentice and a young druidess bound by a vow of celibacy. While "The Winter King" unfolds well before Arthur marries Guinevere, who is set to appear in the latter half of the season, and before Mordred becomes his older sibling's adversary, the series struggles to make its characters as authentic as its historical setting. Though it explores intriguing themes such as the erosion of paganism and the emergence of national identity, the show falls short in humanizing its protagonists to the same extent as its meticulously crafted backdrop. "The Winter King" endeavors to make the sixth century palpable, yet its characters remain ensconced in the realm of myth and legend. Catch the premiere of "The Winter King" on MGM+ at 9pm on August 20, with subsequent episodes airing weekly on Sundays. For those looking to stream "The Winter King," Fubo offers the opportunity to start a free trial today!