The Winter King is a show on MGM+ about King Arthur, the legendary king of the Britains. It’s based on a trilogy of books called The Warlord Chronicles by Bernard Cornwell, a trilogy that I absolutely inhaled as a young’un. I loved these books. They were gritty, magical and beautifully written, and I was very excited to see them adapted for the screen.
By and large, I was not happy with the results. The first season of The Winter King has come and gone, and my main takeaway is that while it sometimes worked as a TV show, it was pretty bad as an adaptation. I was disappointed.
Then again, I thought the first season improved as it went on. Did it improve enough to warrant a second season? That I’m less sure about. Let’s run through all 10 episodes of season 1 and see if we can clear that up.
10. The worst episode of The Winter King is Episode 4
I’ll admit I’m a very unbiased observer when it comes to The Winter King, and the fourth episode was the one that most angered me as a fan of the books. One of the things I liked about Cornwell’s novels was how it approached magic. This story is set during a time when pagan beliefs were still common in Britain, although they were slowly being displaced by Christianity. Pagans earnestly believed that figures like Merlin had arcane power (and Christians kind of believed it too, even if they wouldn’t admit it). In the books, Merlin doesn’t ever shoot lightning from his fingertips or anything, but he does know an awful lot, and he has power over the people who believe he has power. And isn’t that a kind of magic?
It’s all deliciously squishy and ambiguous in the books. So imagine my consternation when, in this episode, Merlin walks up to a couple of guards and makes them fall asleep with a wave of his hands. He cast Sleep on them. What ambiguity?
Merlin (Nathaniel Martello-White) was my biggest disappointment with this series. In the books, he’s a wily old coot too unpredictable to ever fully be trusted, despite his obvious genius. On the show, he’s interminably bland, a standard issue mentor figure. We spend a lot of aimless time with him in this episode, which loses it points.
Elsewhere, we spend a good chunk of time with young warrior Derfel as he gets an education in the often slimy practice of warfare. That storyline is more successful, but the episode as a whole is still weak. Also it doesn’t have a climax to call it own, ending with a hand wave of “Maybe something interesting will happen next time.” I’d just about given up on the show at this point. Happily, it would improve…eventually.