De Caestecker is nearly unrecognizable as Arthur, especially for those whose frame of reference for him is playing Fitz on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and not just because he spends the better part of the premiere bruised and battered and covered in blood. His screen presence feels like that of a fabled king. He commands every room he walks into, even when those rooms are looking to cast him out of Britain. He plays Arthur masterfully as both a reluctant ruler and a loyal warrior, seizing on the qualities that make him endearing to both his peers and the audience. Even though few interpretations of Arthurian lore play upon Arthur’s role as a warrior, De Caestecker makes it believable and compelling. When his banishment comes to an end, you believe that he has been battling armies out beyond Britain for years.
While Arthur is the central character of The Winter King, he is not the sole protagonist of the series. Cornwell’s novel is told as a retelling of historical events by the Saxon-born Derfel, and while the series strips away the narrative styling, it is through Derfel (Stuart Campbell) that many of the plots are explored. Derfel’s view of Arthur is entirely colored by the fact that he saved his life when he was a boy, which shapes him into an unreliable narrator. Even without Derfel putting pen to parchment to tell the tale of Arthur in The Winter King, the scripts borrow heavily from the novel down to the letter. Each character is shaped around Derfel’s opinion of them, whether it be Arthur’s prowess and battle acumen or the love and adoration Derfel feels for Nimue (Ellie James).
James’ portrayal of Nimue rivals all other interpretations of the legendary Lady of the Lake. She is unrepentantly headstrong and confident, even though the script does call for her to be punished for these attributes. Her relationship with Derfel is the heart and soul of the first half of the season, and even when they are at odds, they are still united. There are entire scenes between Derfel and Nimueh that are word-for-word what Cornwell published three decades ago, yet with James and Campbell bringing them to life they feel far more vivid and real. Where the book sometimes painted their dynamic as tenuous and one-sided, The Winter King seems keen to convince the audience that they have a genuine love for each other — and not just because that’s what Derfel is rewriting history to say.
How Does ‘The Winter King’ Series Compare to the Novel?
As with the novel that inspired the series, The Winter King is rather unforgiving with its female characters. They can be powerful and brave, but that power is quickly and brutally taken from them through rape. The Winter King is certainly not the first or last series to utilize rape as a means to build character or introduce new motives, a trend most notably used in series like Game of Thrones and Outlander. This plot device is an unfortunate side effect in many adaptations that borrow from fantasy novels that were written in a different era.
While some of this brutality is historically accurate—as invaders did pillage and plunder the kingdoms they squashed—it doesn’t have a place in media derived from fantastical works. There are other ways to strip a woman’s agency without robbing her of her god-given powers or forcing her to carry her rapist’s child because a god has seemingly decreed it. Cornwell’s novel is not particularly gratuitous in the way it describes the rape, even if Derfel is a bit aloof in the way he details it, and the series follows a similar narrative. It doesn’t treat it as something tawdry or titillating, and it is shown out of focus. While the scene is brief, there are long-lasting ramifications that are given a decent amount of attention. The series attempts to show the aftermath of the assault, though the recovery period does leave something to be desired, which is largely due to the viewpoint through which the world of The Winter King is presented.
It is a little baffling that a series co-created by a woman (Kate Brooke) and largely produced by women (Jane Tanter, Julie Gardner, and Catrin Lewis Defis) didn’t look to improve upon these issues with Cornwell’s novels, though perhaps we should credit them with aging up Nimue and removing the book’s predatory plotline between her and Merlin, in addition to transforming the female characters into actual, well-formed people, instead of reducing them to crones and hags that were just the extension of their male peers. Beyond the delicate topic of rape, The Winter King’s creatives have vastly improved upon what Cornwell penned in the 1990s.
Derfel is still very much The Winter King’s unreliable narrator, though the series has smartly veered away from the first-person styling of the novel. Rather than hearing about Arthur’s conflict with his father Uther (Eddie Marsan), the series lets it play out with far more intimate details than what Derfel heard about after the fact. Derfel may be at the center of The Winter King’s world, but he is not the sole arbiter of its existence as he is in the novel. This gives the series a lot more freedom—especially when De Caestecker’s Arthur and James’ Nimueh are the most compelling roles in the series.
‘The Winter King’s Ensemble Cast Is a Treasure
The Winter King’s ensemble cast is stacked with a real who’s who of British television. Marsan’s outing as King Uther is quite short-lived—much like Uther’s presence in the novel—but he gives a rather memorable performance. King Uther is a respected king, but he is far from being known as a respectable king, and Marsan effortlessly portrays him as such. By design, the series starts in the middle of a highly emotional moment for both the two with Marsan and De Caestecker delivering a believable dynamic that makes the betrayal of the scene that much more profound. With only the first half of the 10-part series available to review ahead of the premiere, it seems as though The Winter King is right on track to fully adapt the first book in Cornwell’s series.
Perhaps one of the more memorable plotlines at the book’s midway point is that of Owain’s and the series does an excellent job of setting it up. As with De Caestecker’s impressive transformation into the soon-to-be-king, Daniel Ings is nearly unrecognizable as Owain — especially for those who loved him in Channel 4’s Lovesick. Owain is an interesting character, though Cornwell’s book doesn’t afford him a lot of growth or nuance. The series does, fortunately. Ings is given a lot to work with, which helps to build up Owain’s character and prepare audiences for his impending plotline.
Martello-White is excellently cast as Merlin, even if he is somewhat underutilized by the story. Merlin is more of a secondary character in Cornwell’s interpretation of Arthur’s life, but The Winter King does manage to interweave him into the story more so than the novel did. He is there to establish his role in the characters’ lives, introduce the Druid magic systems, and act as a sort of omnipresent guide, by which most of the characters base their decisions. Martello-White and De Caestecker are great scene partners, though their moments are few and far between. In this, Merlin is more a father to Arthur than Uther ever was, and that bond will inevitably leave audiences wanting more.
The remaining ensemble cast is fleshed out by Simon Merrells as the terrifying and loathsome Gundleus, Tatjana Nardone as his Pagan lover Ladwyss, Valene Kane as a much-improved version of Morgan compared to the novel, Steven Elder as the mild-mannered Bedwin, and Andrew Gower as Sansum—who we have only just seen the beginnings of. Whether you have read the novel or not, The Winter King introduces each character in a way that allows you to see the direction their character might go, even if they aren’t prominent figures within Arthurian legends.
Is ‘The Winter King’ the Next Must-Watch Series?
If you enjoyed the political intrigue of House of the Dragon’s power plays for the throne, then The Winter King is the exact series you need to tide you over until Season 2. While there is magic—expressed through practical craft that is rooted in the practices of the Druids and Pagans—the rich storytelling of Cornwell’s world is not what most envision when they conjure up images of King Arthur, Merlin, or Morgan. The series is largely about the warring factions of the British Isles, complete with unscrupulous warlords trying to maneuver their way into seats of power. The battles are bloody, and the politicking is ever-present.
The Winter King is a feast for the eyes, from the costuming that perfectly captures the simplicity of the era, to the lived-in sets, and sumptuous landscapes the story has been set against. These are all attributes that are expected of a Bad Wolf-produced series having previously brought us A Discovery of Witches and His Dark Materials. The writing is impressive as it borrows quite heavily from the original source material while still managing to bring something new to the table. That sort of one-to-one adaptation is seldom seen in book-to-screen adaptations, which will surely please fans of Cornwell’s writing. Whether you are a fan of Arthurian legends or looking for the next great historical epic, The Winter King is a must-watch. If the novel is any indication — and it’s clear that it is — the back half of the series is set to deliver incredible performances and heart-pumping plots.
The Big Picture
- The Winter King is a realistic and epic adaptation of Bernard Cornwell’s Arthurian legend, emphasizing historical context over fantastical elements.
- Iain De Caestecker delivers a captivating portrayal of Arthur, a reluctant ruler and loyal warrior who successfully conveys years of battling armies.
- While the series improves upon Cornwell’s treatment of female characters, it still employs rape as a plot device, an unfortunate trend in adaptations of fantasy novels from a different era.
The Winter King will be available to stream starting August 20 on MGM+. Check out our interview with Andrew Gower from earlier in the year, where he spoke briefly about The Winter King: