When Vikings first debuted, it was meant to be a miniseries. But a groundswell of support saw History with an unexpected hit on its hands, one that is now in its fifth season as one of TV’s most-watched cable series. In hindsight, that success should have been clear — who among us would dare turn away from so many brawny men in pelts fighting their way across the Nordic seas? With that in mind, perhaps, History has launched another rare scripted series, Knightfall, and has traded pelts for chainmail. The new series (running for 10 episodes) follows the Knights Templar, a Catholic military order of the 14th century, as they seek the Holy Grail. But rather than serve as an on-the-road adventure series, most of Knightfall’s first season takes place in and around Paris and the King’s court. And for good measure, the Pope (a drole Jim Carter) also makes a few visits to check in on them.
Knightfall stars Tom Cullen (recently of Downton Abbey, sans-beard) as Landry, a Crusades veteran whose faith wavered after the loss of the Grail 15 years prior. Because of that, he’s taken up with a lover — one with a complicated connection to the King — but renounces that once word of Grail resurfaces and the quest is again afoot. In waiting for more clues (most of which are helpfully nearby), Landry helps protect Philip IV of France (Ed Stoppard), his wife Queen Joan (Olivia Ross), and their daughter Isabella (Sabrina Bartlett). There is plenty of courtly intrigue afoot, especially regarding Isabella’s nuptials to princes from either Catalonia or England, depending, and most are orchestrated by Philip’s very Littlefinger-esque counsellor William (Julian Ovenden).
So is this show about the Templars and the Grail, or about royal strategy? A little of both. The time period covers what is essentially the Last Days of the Templars, but the show hasn’t broached that yet. They’re still recruiting, and still favorably accepted by the people of France. There’s something about those red crosses on the white backgrounds that reminds one of Monty Python, but that’s the only connection — Knightfall is deadly serious and full of violent encounters. It also hinges on a bevy of plot twists, some of which are very fun. But it’s also a weakness, as the show focuses almost entirely on its sprawling plot rather than character development. Consequently, the early episodes lag until enough plot points have gone by that the intrigue starts to really payoff, yet it’s hard to really connect with any of the characters (Except maybe Joan, who Ross gives a great deal of depth to as the episodes wear on).
It should also be mentioned that for a holy order (in addition to knights, the Templars were also monks), there’s not much consideration of theology, nor are the knights particularly holy. The show doesn’t pause from its plotting to take the time for a very deep consideration of most matters, though (including the reason why its French-based story is stocked with English-accented characters). The history is murky enough, like with Vikings, for Knightfall to give us something familiar without needing to stick to strictly to record, but it also doesn’t do much to define itself. Compared to other courtly dramas, it’s miles ahead of the slog that was Bastard Executioner, but it’s not as sassy or jauntily-paced as Versailles. It’s less complicated than Game of Thrones, but lacks the deep character connection that The White Princess fostered.
Still, Knightfall has a certain charm to it, particularly in some of the side-plots involving the other Templars. The show takes a little while to get going after a frenzied and muddle start, but it builds its plot twists well. It may not replicate the success of Vikings, or maybe it will, but boiled down to its most basic elements: if you enjoy swordplay and a little realpolitik in the castle, it is as advertised. Not to mention the brawny men in chainmail fighting their way across Europe, of course.
Rating: ★★ Fair — Proceed with cautious optimism
Knightfall premieres Wednesday, December 6th on History.