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Netflix’s Cursed Breaks Merlin in Order to Remake Him
Hannah Collins
2021-07-06T10:28:06
Cursed Merlin
Cursed Merlin
WARNING: The following contains spoilers for Season 1 of Cursed, now streaming on Netflix.
Merlin has come to be known as an eccentric but broadly heroic figure in modern Arthurian retellings; usually, a grandfatherly mentor to Arthur, as seen in Disney's Sword in the Stone, or a stoic warrior ala Sam Neil in the 1998 Merlin miniseries and 2006 sequel film. Compared to these standardized iterations in pop culture, Netflix's Cursed offers a significant departure, but one that those familiar with the original legends will have a greater appreciation for.
The start of Tom Wheeler and Frank Miller's series finds the iconic mage a broken drunk of a man. Played by Gustaf Skarsgård, Merlin, whose magic has long since left him, is living a lie: feigning a continued connection with the prophetic arts to keep hold of his position in King Uther Pendragon's (Sebastian Armesto) court. Uther, insecure in his reign, relies on Merlin as one of his most trusted advisors -- a tradition that goes back hundreds of years. To keep the needy monarch in the dark about his downgrade, Merlin spends most of his time avoiding the latest king of men he's sworn to serve -- jumping out of windows and scurrying behind locked doors of Uther's castle when the king comes knocking.
Netflix Gustaf Skarsgard stars as Merlin in "Cursed," now streaming on Netflix.
Netflix Gustaf Skarsgard stars as Merlin in "Cursed," now streaming on Netflix.
However, when his estranged, half-Fey daughter Nimue (Katherine Langford) is given the Sword of Power by her mother and instructed to bring it to Merlin, the wizard feels a stir in the elements. Rather than take the sword from Nimue for a new owner, however, he pledges that he will instead destroy it in the Fey fire it was forged in. Upon realizing his unknown familial connection to Nimue, though, Merlin suddenly finds himself caught between completing his mission and following his newfound fatherly instinct to protect his child, for whom the sword is the only bargaining chip her race has to ensure their survival. Uther's army, Viking invaders and the Fey-hunting Red Paladins are all circling the Fey and the sword, thirsty for its coronating power and the Wolf Blood Witch's head.
Seeing Merlin as a fraudulent shadow of his former self is an interesting departure from the norm. He's initially slippery, prickly and self-serving, fulfilling more of a trickster role than anything else in the series. As neither villain nor hero, and an outcast of both human and Fey society, Merlin is used to represent the in-between greyness of Cursed's world.
"He's been great fun to play because archetypically he’s so many things," Skarsgård says about his role. "He’s the joker, the hero, the anti-hero, the old wise man, the lover. Merlin is such a rich character. I thought, ‘Yeah, I really want to play this. I want to manipulate kings and go into the Underworld and play these beautiful scenes with Nimue.’ As an actor, you’re just drawn to that."
Much of his darker side comes out through his connection to the sword. Though he was the one to bind it to its king-making destiny, we learn, through him allowing Nimue into his memories, that the weapon might be the more dominant force in their relationship. In Nimue's hands, the Sword of Power amps up her inherent connection to The Hidden in small spurts; the most dramatic of which is the mini-tornado she uses to rescue Gawain and Arthur from the Weeping Monk's siege at the windmill. But it also has a corrupting influence, demonstrated in her increasingly brute-force administering of justice when she takes command of her people. After slicing the hands off of a Tusk folk who attacks a human civilian, Arthur ponders whether or not Nimue or the Sword is in control.
Cursed Merlin Nimue
Cursed Merlin Nimue
In Merlin's past, we glimpse what could be Nimue's future should she keep wielding the legendary blade. In a Roman city, a horrified Nimue sees a memory of her father cutting his way through a temple of people. Rather than holding the sword, the weapon looks like its demonically fused to his arm, indicating that it has a parasitical nature. At some point, the sword ends up inside of Merlin. When its extricated from him by Nimue's mother -- a Fey healer -- it takes his magic with it, leaving him with a large, sword-shaped scar on his side. He desperately searches for it, but she claims she's disposed of it owing to its evil essence.
Though de-powered, magic is only one of Merlin's many skills in Cursed. With centuries behind him already, Merlin is canny and shrewd enough to talk his way in and out of trouble, and knowledgable enough to seek out allies to manipulate in both mortal and mystical realms -- a characterization that actually harkens back to his roots.
Before Arthurian legend became heavily influenced by Christianity, Merlin was quite a nebulous figure. His connection to witchcraft in various early versions was far more pronounced; some even made him the half-human son of a demon, a circumstance that Cursed sort of grafts onto his daughter's "cursed" origin. The trickster persona the series gives him likely comes from his penchant for shapeshifting in older stories. Even his voracious sexual history -- including, apparently, bumping uglies with the legendary Boudicea -- is well-established in his literary one.
Cursed Merlin
Cursed Merlin
By the end of the Cursed, with Nimue's life hanging (literally) in the balance, Merlin finds himself with no choice but to take the Sword of Power up again and defend both of them. The ensuing scene, highly reminiscent of Marvel's Thor using Mjolnir to command thunder and lightning, marks his return to form. The climactic display of power is hardly a celebratory one, however; knowing that through his restoration, Merlin may have sent himself down a path to ruin, once more.
Based on the novel of the same name by Frank Miller and Tom Wheeler, Cursed stars Katherine Langford, Devon Terrell, Gustaf Skarsgård, Peter Mullan, Shalom Brune-Franklin, Daniel Sharman, Sebastian Armesto, Ella Prebble, Scarlett Rock and Daniella Gad. The series is available for streaming on Netflix now.
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