The Winter King Premiere Review


In fifth century Britain at the dawn of the Dark Ages, a vicious and temperamental monarch exiles his bastard son after a tragic loss in battle. The Winter King, adapted from The Warlord Chronicles by Bernard Cornwell, is a bold and bloody retelling of the Arthurian legends. A written prologue sets the stage as warring tribes of Christians and Pagans struggle to unite against formidable Saxon invaders. The premiere of this new MGM+ series gets down to savage business early with a brutal opening scene. You’re hooked from the start as the protagonist’s journey begins on a truly harsh note.

A despondent Arthur (Iain De Caestecker) weeps over a body at the Battle of White Horse Hill. Owain (Daniel Ings), his best friend and brother in arms, begs for them to retreat. The Saxon ambush could be regrouping. Arthur leads a solemn caravan of dead and wounded to the fortress castle of Caer Cadarn, the capital of Dumnonia. He will personally present the corpse of Prince Mordred to his father. Owain warns that’s a bad idea, but Arthur accepts responsibility for his half-brother’s death.

High King Uther Pendragon (the underrated Eddie Marsan) stares at the body of his son and heir with boiling anger. The gathered lords and tribal kings remain silent as Arthur stands in judgment. Everyone gasps as Uther punches Arthur in the face. He falls to the ground with blood dripping from his nose. Uther berates Arthur as a worthless bastard and “son of a who*e.” He rains further blows on Arthur before asking for his sword. Owain tries to speak up but is quickly rebuked. Arthur presents his sword to Uther and kneels. Morgan (Valene Kane), Arthur’s half-sister and another Uther bastard, trembles in fear.

Eddie Marsan as High King Uther Pendragon

Eddie Arsan in The Winter King on MGM

A lone voice halts the execution. Merlin (Nathaniel Martello-White), a Pagan mystic, leader of Avalon, and Uther’s trusted advisor, has a less severe punishment — exile Arthur from Dumnonia. Uther’s already lost one son. The Gods would be displeased if he sacrificed another.

Uther pauses before dropping the sword and beating Arthur to near unconsciousness. He orders the bastard tossed outside the castle gate. Arthur’s dragged unceremoniously away with a saddened Owain. Arthur begs for a last moment with his friend. He points to a map of divided Britain. Owain must get through to his father and rally the surrounding tribes. They are doomed against the Saxons otherwise. But back in the throne room, Uther venomously admonishes the other shocked kings as cowards.

The graphic first act establishes Arthur’s fealty to his father and Uther’s merciless nature. The premiere follows with further critical exposition by introducing key supporting characters over several time jumps. Arthur rescues an injured Saxon slave boy struggling to live after a Silurian raid. He brings him to Merlin at Avalon before vanishing. Derfel (Jordan Dark) is cared for by Merlin’s gifted apprentice, Nimue (Lily Williams). We then see Derfel (Stuart Campbell) and Nimue (Ellie James) eight years later as young adults in love. The plot starts to take shape as these characters grapple with the aftermath of Arthur’s long absence.

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The Winter King hints at supernatural elements without diving full-fledged into the fantasy realm. This isn’t a world of dragons à la Game of Thrones. Merlin can see glimpses of the future through touch. Nimue, a new take on the Lady of the Lake, is a nascent Druid priestess who can communicate with the Gods. She and Merlin have visions that point them in the right direction and illuminate the intentions of those they encounter.

The forbidden romance between Derfel and Nimue seems to be an early key source of tension in the storyline. Merlin warns she must remain chaste or her incredible powers will be lost. It’s a sentiment echoed by Morgan, who tells Derfel to stay within his station. Class divisions are rigid and must be strictly followed.

Arthur and Merlin’s Reunion

The Winter King with Merlin

The Winter King has a racially diverse cast. It follows in the footsteps of Bridgerton by reimagining famous English period characters. A Black Merlin who doesn’t have a wand, pointy hat, or long white beard is a welcome new interpretation of the famed wizard. Martello-White portrays Merlin as a politically astute player and shaman whose range of abilities haven’t been defined. I have a feeling the premiere gives just a taste of what Merlin can actually do.

Related: 21 Shows to Watch When You’re Missing Merlin

Arthur’s gone for a majority of the hour-long first episode. Every character except for Uther (with his blind arrogance) realizes Arthur is their best hope against the Saxons. There was some difficulty understanding names outside of Arthur, Uther, Merlin, and Morgan. I had to wait for the credits to dictate Derfel, Owain, and Nimue. The accents are strong, but you’re never confused about who’s playing what character.

The Winter King doesn’t overload with gratuitous carnage, sex, or nudity. Impaled bodies look disturbing but aren’t gushing entrails. Primary director Otto Bathurst (Robin Hood, Peaky Blinders) depicts the time period with a relatively straightforward approach. There’s nothing exaggerated about the production design, settings, and costumes. Arthur won’t be pulling Excalibur from a stone here.

A standout aspect was the focus on emergent Christianity challenging Pagan beliefs. Merlin accurately sees this new religion as a threat to older beliefs. Uther’s principles are more fluid as the primary antagonist is revealed, the groundwork for intrigue and deception laid bare by “keeping enemies close.” The Winter King has a solid premiere that bodes well for the 10-episode first season. Marsan steals the initial show with a terrific performance.

The Winter King is a production of Bad Wolf, One Big Picture, and Sony Pictures Television. New episodes premiere Sunday nights exclusively on MGM+.

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