The MGM+ series “The Winter King,” adapted from a trilogy of novels by English author Bernard Cornwell, derives much of its plot from Arthurian myth. But in practice, the drama acts more like earthbound historical fiction than fairy tale or fantasy. This Arthur Pendragon (Iain De Caestecker) doesn’t pull a sword from a stone in the five episodes provided in advance, nor does he encounter any dragons. Instead, “The Winter King” deals in more pragmatic concerns: natural resources, national sovereignty and the political alliances required to attain them. There are hints of the supernatural in figures like Merlin (Nathaniel Martello-White), though their abilities are presented not as objective reality but subjective belief that’s in quiet competition with ascendant Christianity.
In this respect, “The Winter King” bears a stronger resemblance to “Game of Thrones” than some of the bigger-budget, more overtly fantastical shows built in the hit HBO series’ image. After all, writer George R.R. Martin took inspiration from British history in crafting the source material for “Game of Thrones”; by hinging “The Winter King” on Arthur’s quest to unite the infighting kingdoms of Britain against the invading Saxons, creators Kate Brooke and Ed Whitmore, along with lead director Otto Bathurst, are drawing from the same well. But while its more grounded take on King Arthur’s origins could appeal to fans of “Thrones” and dadcore nonfiction tomes alike, “The Winter King” is also missing the complex, nuanced characters who turn dry facts into compelling fiction.
“The Winter King” begins with Arthur’s exile from the realm of Dumnonia, which roughly overlaps with present-day Devon and Cornwall in England’s far southwest, because he’d failed to protect his half-brother in battle. King Uther (Eddie Marsan) already resents Arthur, his bastard son and a living reminder of his indiscretion; it doesn’t take much for him to channel grief for his heir apparent into rage. But before Arthur leaves, he rescues Derfel (Stuart Campbell), a wounded Saxon orphan, and takes him to Merlin’s Avalon — here more of a sanctuary than a mystical isle. Derfel then matures into the series’ protagonist. It’s from his perspective that we experience Arthur’s return, years later, after Uther’s death and into the power vacuum his father left behind.
The setup of “The Winter King” is only fully in place after a couple of hourlong episodes, a lengthy preamble weighed down with exposition. Eventually, a dynamic emerges: From his years abroad, Arthur has acquired progressive ideas, like his opposition to human sacrifice and a plan for a united Britain that he intends to implement as de facto regent for his newborn half-brother Mordred. Comically, Arthur’s modern bent is conveyed through his hairstyle: Most of the other male characters wear long, period-appropriate locks, while Arthur sports a close-cut, contemporary fade.
Depicting Arthur from Derfel’s point of view both obscures Arthur’s inner life and traps the show in a clichéd coming-of-age story. Seen from the outside, Arthur is an enlightened, almost messianic figure, working the fields side by side with his people and swearing he hates war even though he’s never lost a battle. Neither the script nor De Caesteck- er’s performance illuminates any depth beneath the persona. Derfel, saddled with some awkward accent work by Campbell, idolizes Arthur and pines for Nimue (Ellie James), Merlin’s protégé and a young druidess sworn to celibacy.
“The Winter King” takes place long before Arthur marries Guinevere, who’s set to appear in the back half of the season, and before Mordred matures into his older sibling’s nemesis. But for all its intriguing ideas about the decline of paganism or the birth of a national identity, the series fails to make its protagonists as realistic as its setting. “The Winter King” wants to make the sixth century feel real, yet its heroes are still the stuff of fable.
“The Winter King” premieres on MGM+ at 9pm on Aug. 20, with new episodes airing weekly on Sundays.