How The Winter King is failing the source material by Bernard Cornwell

Image: The Winter King/MGM+
Image: The Winter King/MGM+ /

I want to start this review of The Winter King like I start every review of The Winter King: by reminiscing about how much I love the books by Bernard Cornwell. This was the story of King Arthur as I’d never read it: gritty, down to earth, with interesting, fleshed out characters firmly situated in another place and time. Magic wasn’t real real — no one was blasting lightning bolts out their fingers or anything — but the belief in the pagan gods of ancient Britain is so pervasive that it might as well be real. The characters who claim to speak for the gods — like Merlin and Nimue — have real control over what people around them do, so what does it matter whether they’re truly communing with the divine or merely think they are? They have power, and that’s a sort of magic.

Every now and then, the books would present us with a situation that could be read as genuinely magical…or maybe it’s just that sitting too long in this world has affected our perspective. It was ambiguous, and it was fascinating.

Cut to Episode 4 of The Winter King on MGM+. There’s a scene where Merlin, terrified of portents that the infant king Mordred will grow up to become a tyrant, tries to spirit him away from Dumnonia, possibly to kill him. To reach baby Mordred, Merlin must pass by two guards. He waves his hands and the guards suddenly lower their heads, asleep where they stand, and Merlin walks past.

No ambiguity. No subtlety. No examination of the difference (or lack thereof) between believing something is real and it actually being real. Merlin literally puts two men to sleep by waving his magical hands. I’m surprised they didn’t insert little sparkles at the ends of his fingertips.

You guys, this show…I don’t know what it is, but it certainly isn’t an adaptation of The Winter King by Bernard Cornwell. And it should be, because Bernard Cornwell is great, and his Warlord Chronicles books are great, and I wish someone had adapted them. But they didn’t. They made this, and I don’t like it very much.

The unbearable blandness of being Merlin

Merlin is a great case study in how this show fails its source material. Merlin is absolutely one of the standout characters of Cornwell’s book: wily, intelligent, irascible, unpredictable, funny, and possibly insane, he leaps off the page. He’s not a villain, but he’s not really a hero, either; he does some extremely sketchy stuff, like grooming Nimue from a young age to be not only his magical protege but also his lover. He’s a challenging, difficult figure who is very hard to forget.

I think the show is doing a decent job of giving us the Nimue I remember from the books: as played by Ellie James, she’s passionate and insightful, but also vengeful and unstable. But Merlin himself…man oh man, what were the producers of this show thinking? They seem dedicated to make him as dishwater dull as possible. He’s just a standard issue mentor character with zero rough edges.

And we get so much of him. Merlin doesn’t show up until the back half of Cornwell’s book, making the kind of shock entrance readers would eventually come to expect from him. The show has put him in the spotlight starting in the first episode, giving up on the possibility of spontaneity, surprise or fun, all in exchange for…well, nothing I can see.

Merlin is played by British actor Nathaniel Martello-White, who’s doing a decent job with the swill the scripts give him. I have a theory here. When talking about casting the show, producer Julie Gardner said, “We wanted to get away from traditional ideas of Merlin or the wizard—usually he’s the white, bearded old man.” It’s true that this Merlin is different; Martello-White is not a white, bearded old man but a Black man who just turned 40. My fear is that the producers were thinking of ways to give us a Merlin we hadn’t seen before, cast a Black actor, and gave the matter no further thought.

The irony of this is that the Merlin from The Warlord Chronicles absolutely gets “away from traditional ideas of Merlin.” I would love to see Martello-White play that character. I would love for the producers to have engaged even a little in trying to bring one of the most compelling parts of Cornwell’s books to life. For reasons that are beyond me, they’ve gone another way, and that sucks.

The Winter King Episode 4 review

Other stuff happened in this episode. Derfel goes with Owain to collect taxes from a nearby kingdom, and participates in a fight scene at a tin mine. I liked the bit where they painted their shields black — something the Irish were known for at the time — so the miners would blame the Irish should it come to violence. Derfel’s education in the wicked ways of the world continues.

Back in Dumnonia, a good many British chieftains answer Arthur’s call to come and swear fealty to the infant king Mordred, or at least they’re curious enough to show up and see what Mordred’s famous protecter will do. The episode ends on kind of a weird note, right in the middle of Arthur convincing them. I think actor Iain De Caestecker is doing a decent job as Arthur, a modern man stuck in a savage time.

There are things about this show that work. But obviously they’re not what’s stuck with me. When it comes to this series, I am as far from unbiased as it is possible to get. I’ve loved the books for years and long thought they would make a great TV show. Now that I’m watching it, I can’t help but think that the producers read half of the book jacket and decided to make up the rest on the fly.

As a show, I think The Winter King is alright. It looks kinda cheap and the scenes are pretty hit-and-miss, but it’s watchable. As an adaptation, it’s awful.

I mean, for heaven’s sake, Merlin used a Jedi mind trick on those guards! That one’s gonna keep me up at night.

The Winter Bullet Points

  • The camera work on this show is…I don’t know what. The closeup shots on people’s faces are too close up, and there’s often this weird blurry effect on everything in the background. Sometimes the backgrounds look fine, so I know it’s possible, and then they’ll look blurry a shot or two later. It’s distracting.
  • I’m not entirely sure if Stuart Campbell is wearing a wig as Derfel, but it looks like he is. Valene Kane also kind of looks like she’s wearing a wig as Morgan. They’re either wearing bad wigs or the show is styling their natural hair so badly that it looks like they’re wearing bad wigs.

Episode Grade: D

Next. Arthur makes a good impression in Episode 3 of The Winter King. dark

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