DISCLAIMER: This review for The Winter King contains a few spoilers from the first five episodes. There are also mentions of rape and sexual violence. Proceed at your peril. 

If there’s one thing Game of Thrones has accomplished, it’s the steady stream of TV adaptations of dark fantasy/period piece novels. And if there’s one show that’s a marriage between Game of Thrones and The Last Kingdom, it’s MGM+’s The Winter King. Like The Last KingdomThe Winter King is also an adaptation of a Bernard Cornwell series (The Warlord Chronicles). But is it a solid substitute for the aforementioned, now-ended shows? Read on to find out. 

Merlin wears yellow robes while walking on the beach and looking determined in The Winter King Season 1.

THE WINTER KING Season 1. Pictured: Nathaniel Martello-White as Merlin. Photo courtesy of EPIX Press.

Here’s a brief synopsis per EPIX Press:

The Winter King is set in the fifth century, long before Britain was united, in a brutal land of warring factions and tribes, where lives were often fleeting. The series follows Arthur Pendragon as he evolves from outcast to legendary warrior and leader.” 

While the books are told from Derfel’s (Stuart Campbell) perspective, the series provides an even split between Arthur and Derfel’s stories. 

The Performances 

Let me be frank: I see a series with Iain De Caestecker (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.); I watch said series with Iain De Caestecker. He should be a household name based on his versatile, riveting work in S.H.I.E.L.D. alone. I’d go so far as to say he should have a Paul Mescal-esque career. Suffice it to say De Caestecker is an irrefutable highlight, but I’ll expound on that since this is a review. (Unless that’s enough for you to watch the show. You do you.)

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De Caestecker’s Arthur is a methodical, measured man who thinks before he speaks and acts. You can see the wheels turning in every scene. It draws you in and holds you captive. He’s a bona fide scene stealer. Arthur boasts an easygoing swagger and radiates confidence that’s the night to Fitz’s day (if you’re familiar with S.H.I.E.L.D.). De Caestecker is a dynamic performer. 

Nimue wears a white and brown dress with a gold choker while leaning against a castle wall and looking off to the side in The Winter King Season 1.

THE WINTER KING Season 1. Pictured: Ellie James as Nimue. Photo courtesy of EPIX Press.

Other standout performances include Ellie James as Nimue, whose burning rage and searing vulnerability make her an enthralling presence. Nathaniel Martello-White is a wonderfully nuanced Merlin — like Arthur; he’s a consistently compelling figure whose story deserves more exploration. (Hopefully, that’ll be the case in the last five episodes.)

Eddie Marsan is all fire and fury as High King Uther. He’s a larger-than-life, Shakespearean character that’s as intimidating as he is captivating. Really, the whole cast delivers solid work. The performances carry even when the narrative falters. 

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The Story 

Story-wise, The Winter King delivers a few gruesome and gory scenes that, while executed well, don’t live up to the precedent set with Game of Thrones and continued by The Last Kingdom. It struggles to strike a balance between the intimate, quieter, character-driven beats and the action. That said, there’s a fantastic fight sequence featuring Arthur and Owain (Daniel Ings) that’s worth the watch. However, there’s not much on the high-octane combat front when all is said and done. 

The series also teeters on the edge of magical realism but doesn’t quite go there. The pacing is uneven, and I say this as someone who’s a fan of worldbuilding. There are a few cliffhangers and plot twists; however, the writers almost take too long to develop this world. It’s tough to balance that kind of foundational building while crafting a propulsive narrative, but it is possible to do that without sacrificing one for the other. The Winter King stumbles in this regard. It’s especially frustrating when watching those glimpses of its potential — when the show does sing. 

Morgan wears a dark gray cloak with furs while riding a horse out of a castle in The Winter King Season 1.

THE WINTER KING Season 1. Pictured: Valene Kane as Morgan. Photo courtesy of EPIX Press.

If you’re a fan of gorgeous scenery, this is the series to watch. The sprawling landscapes of a pre-Britain are as FOMO-inducing as they are aesthetically pleasing. It helps immerse you in this rich world. 

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My Bone to Pick 

Listen, I understand Nimue’s story involves rape. That said, we do not need to see it onscreen. (It happens in episode two around the 32-minute mark for those wishing to skip it to avoid the trigger.) Throw the “Well, it happened in the books” or “It’s true to life!” crap at me all you want, but there’s a way of hinting at sexual violence without showing it. Plus, this series has magical elements. That’s not true to life. 

Of course, Nimue’s traumatic experience serves as a marker of “character development,” as is the case for most women in media. It’s supposed to make her stronger, right? News flash: women don’t need to overcome trauma to grow. Nimue spends at least four of these five episodes I watched in pain and abject turmoil. We don’t see any main male characters endure something similar. Again, I know it’s part of her narrative. We just don’t need to watch it. The mere fact it happens provides enough of an impact without the visuals. 

I’ll admit the scene threw me off. Perhaps it’s my history with sexual violence, although I wasn’t so much triggered as I was irritated. The women in this series possess some agency (Nimue has a moment where she somewhat regains her autonomy later in the first half of the season), but not much. Arthur’s word is law, and while he’s depicted as a man with a strong moral compass trying to subvert the status quo, it doesn’t help when he denies Nimue her revenge. Who knows what will happen when we finally meet Guinevere (Jordan Alexandra)? 

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Additionally, and this is a less significant gripe, the music sounds too similar to specific Game of Thrones tracks in a few scenes. For example, there’s one scene with Nimue and Derfel in episode three that boasts the melody of the Winterfell/House Stark theme (around the six-minute mark). It’s unmistakable. I’ve listened to the Game of Thrones score while writing on more than one occasion, so I know the music well. It’s a blessing and a curse. It almost cheapens the show because it’s ostensibly trying too hard to be like Thrones. 

Arthur Pendragon stands on the beach while wearing a blue and gray leather ensemble with a cut on his face in The Winter King Season 1.

THE WINTER KING Season 1. Pictured: Iain De Caestecker as Arthur Pendragon. Photo courtesy of EPIX Press.

The Consensus 

The Winter King is a watered-down version of its predecessors that struggles to balance intimacy and action. If the aforementioned rape and sexual violence upset you, skip it. However, Iain De Caestecker leads a stellar cast that keeps the series afloat with their effortless onscreen chemistry and intriguing dynamics. De Caestecker is a star; make no bones about it. Watch it for the in-depth character work, exquisite scenery and deft swordwork. I know I’ll keep tuning in to see if it smooths out those narrative wrinkles. 

The Winter King stars Iain De Caestecker, Nathaniel Martello-White, Ellie James, Stuart Campbell, Valene Kane (as Morgan), Daniel Ings, Simon Merrells (as Gundleus), Olumide Olorunfemi (as Lunete) and Eddie Marsan. Expect new episodes every Sunday on MGM+, with a premiere on ITVX in the UK later this year. 

This review was originally published on 8/20/23.

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Melody McCune
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