[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers through the Season 1 finale of Cursed, “Sacrifice.”]
Hollywood has tried many times to get audiences to buy into new versions of Arthurian Legend. While revisionist takes on the classic literature have been all the rage in books for as long as I can remember, most cinematic takes on the material fall flat with viewers. But not Netflix’s Cursed, the new fantasy series created by Frank Miller and Tom Wheeler, which reframes the familiar myths through the perspective of Nimue, the fey girl destined to become the Lady of the Lake.
The 10-episode original series has been topping Netflix’s Top 10 charts since it debuted and for the first time in a long time, audiences are embracing the legends of King Arthur. Well, kind of, because again, this ain’t really Arthur’s show — in fact, the Arthur we meet (played by Devon Terrell) is a self-centered mercenary who’s leaps and bounds away from becoming the Once and Future King. But that’s not the only big switch. Miller and Wheeler have put their stamp on all the familiar characters; Percival is a scrappy kid who goes by “Squirrel,” Guinevere is a Viking warrior who goes by “The Red Spear,” and Lancelot was one of the first season’s main antagonists, the fey-hunting Weeping Monk.
And oh boy, did they have some fun with Morgana; the powerful sorceress who assumes the primary villain role in many of the great Arthurian texts. So naturally, the Morgana we meet isn’t just about the nicest person on the show, she’s a dedicated nun and freedom fighter who becomes one of Nimue’s best friends and allies. Played by Shalom Brune-Franklin, Morgana is first introduced as Igraine (traditionally the name of Arthur’s mother) and in quick succession, we learn that her real name is Morgana, she’s Arthur’s sister, and she’s not at all what you’re probably expecting.
Ahead of the series’ premiere, I had the opportunity to chat with Franklin about her take on the iconic character. “When I read the episodes, I thought this woman is so nice. Like she is lovely. She’s trying her best. She’s lost a lot in her life and she’s really trying to figure it out and she’s trying to just do her best. It’s a woman just really trying,” Franklin said. Which left her uncertain of how to play some scenes; should she hint to the darkness we expect in Morgana, or play it straight? But after conversations with Wheeler, she realized she needed to keep Morgana pure at the start and work from there.
“Which is really exciting because you get to watch someone’s descent rather than just see them at straightaway being bad.” Franklin continued. “And who knows, she might not even turn evil in our series. You never know. I mean, everything else has been flipped on its head, right? So she could actually end up becoming a saint.”
It’s certainly possible, but it doesn’t seem likely given what Morgana goes through in the first season. Morgana leaves her abbey to help the fey in their resistance just before Sister Iris (Emily Coates) burns it to the ground — a decision that saves her life, but leaves her plagued with guilt that she wasn’t there to protect her sisters, especially her beloved Celia (Sophie Harkness). But, of course, in the world of Cursed. “Death is not the end.”
Celia soon returns to Morgana, but as a specter who comes to her on behalf of The Cailleach, a powerful and mysterious presence from beyond the grave that gives Morgana the ability to see beyond the veil, so to speak — an ability that will be crucial in the second half of the season.
For Franklin, the devastation and confusion of losing Celia only to be reunited with her under such strange, tragic circumstances mark a pivotal turning point in Morgana’s journey. She explained to Collider that:
“I definitely think the loss of Celia is the straw that breaks the camel’s back in a way. I think we see this woman, she obviously lost her father at a young age. Her mother is never spoken about. She’s obviously in some ways lost her brother after as well. She loses Abbess Nora. She loses all these people, but I think she’s afraid to love to be honest. She’s afraid because every single time she puts the love in somebody, they end up going, they end up dying in these horrific ways. And so I definitely think the turning point for me though, as an actor, especially, was that moment in the cave with Celia, with the spider, because it’s this idea of there’s now something else at play within her.”
Whatever covenant Morgana makes with The Cailleach, it ultimately has huge ramifications for her, because when The Widow comes creeping around Nimue, Morgana can see her. The Widow warns Morgana that by making a deal with The Cailleach, she has become “cursed by dark gods” and uses her powers to put Morgana in her place when she tries to press her for answers. However, the next time they meet, Morgana is carrying the Sword of Power, and it seems to make all the difference.
We don’t know exactly what happens or how because the scene cuts to a quick animated transition of their altercation, but what’s clear is that Morgana uses the sword against The Widow, and in doing so, she becomes her. There’s also no obvious parallel to The Widow in the Arthurian texts from which we can draw clues.
Wheeler explained how The Widow represents their approach to reinventing those legends with a focus on the magical elements of the world.
“In some cases, we are going to be filling out the world of magic, which always exists in Arthurian world, but is not always defined through characters. You have Morgana, you have Merlin, but it feels like because we’re approaching this from the world of the Fey and through Arthurian eyes, we have an obligation to fill out that world. So in some cases, there are characters that are new or feel new, or will continue to be revealed over time. There’s a wealth of characters to draw from here. So we haven’t unleashed all the reveals as yet in the first 10 hours.”
“It felt like Merlin needed a friend and who better than some form of death… Just take the last few words he said, and that’s his full answer,” Miller joked. “It does seem like Merlin needed a friend and Death is a pretty good one. All of the stuff before that didn’t mean anything.”
If we can’t learn more about The Widow through the classic literature, is there more we can learn from Wheeler and Miller’s graphic novel that inspired the series? Well, a little. The Widow is a much smaller character there, appearing only a couple of times and only to Merlin. Morgana (or Morgan, as the character is called in the book) altogether has a pretty different introduction and journey that doesn’t yet include The Widow. But there is one passage of note that helps us further understand the character, and thematically ties into Morgana’s grief over losing Celia in the Netflix series:
“The Widow was forever waiting for her husband to return from sea. Her sorrow was so powerful it had kept her alive far longer than any human lifespan and had bestowed upon her the gift to bridge worlds and earn her place as the Shadow Lord of the Dying.”
We may not know exactly how, but the series makes it clear that Morgana has assumed The Widow’s role as Shadow Lord of the Dying. The next time we see Morgana, she is draped in The Widow’s veils, commanding power she does not understand. For Franklin, the confusion was the key to her portrayal of Morgana after she becomes The Widow.
” I really wanted her confusion and her fear to come across in that. And so for me, it’s kind of ironic because I wanted the least confident Morgana to be in that costume as that person, because I think she’s so strong throughout the whole series and she starts at her strongest in the beginning and I wanted it to go… And so by the time we get to the widow, it’s like, does she even know who she is anymore? What’s going on? Does she even know what she wants? So I really hope that that comes across at the end.
And everyone’s asking her all these questions and Nimue’s like, ‘What’s going on?’ And she’s just like, ‘I thought I wanted magical powers and now I’m really confused by all of this. And I finally understand how difficult it is to be in your shoes because it seems so easy from the outside to be like, just use all your powers Nimue and go kill them all. Take the sword, go outside, just put it up in the air, do what it does, make all the forest, just kill everyone. Just you be the one true queen, it’s that simple.’ But it’s really not and I think we start to see those nuances play at the end, which is really great.”
That confusion ultimately costs her the chance to save yet another of her loved ones. She’s able to wield her powers and give Nimue back the Sword of Power in time to defeat the Red Paladins. But she and Merlin alike are helpless to stop Nimue’s apparent death at the end of the finale, despite the fact that they both know it’s coming. Yet again, someone Morgana loves meets a tragic fate when Nimue is shot down by Sister Iris. Franklin explained:
“I thought so much about this in the lead up to shooting that scene because of the way that Tom had created the scene. It was kind of like she was a spectator in this moment. And as soon as she sees Iris, it’s like complete shock. It’s like her whole body is shut down and she doesn’t go to help. It’s that fight or flight moment and she completely flies somewhere else. And I think there’s an element we have to remember, there’s so much happening to this woman that is otherworldly, that is what we don’t understand just yet, that I think she’s confused at what she’s seeing. Is it even real? Is this really happening? And so there’s so much going on that it paralyzes her, quite literally.
That’s going to be really interesting to see how that’s picked up, because it’s that sense of… there’s so much guilt and shame connected to the Celia death because she’s like, ‘I wasn’t there to protect her.’ And then she was right there to protect Nimue and yet she couldn’t. And so it’s the first time we see Morgana not fight and so I find that really fascinating in terms of continuing and what would happen.”
As for what happens next, Wheeler and Miller have confirmed that they’re planning more for Cursed (though the series has not officially been renewed for Season 2 yet). On the matter of Nimue’s fate, there’s only the slightest hint in the book, which [spoiler warning] ends with Nimue awakening to be carried off by a mob of lepers, presumably leading her to the Leper King.
But what of Morgana? For Franklin’s part, she hopes that future installments will dig into the many literary precedents for the bond between Merlin and Morganna. “I think the relationship between Morgana and Merlin, that kind of partnership, I really would love to see if that comes into fruition in our series,” she said. “Just because I think there’s such an epic partnership in all the tales. And so there are so many different ways that it goes in all the different versions of the myths and legends as well.” And as the actress pointed out, the ending does tee up that possibility. “It’s pretty good that they end up together at the end.”
For Miller and Wheeler’s part, they were obviously tight-lipped about what might lay ahead for Morgana, but Wheeler left us with this tease:
“She has a long journey to go on and we’ll see that it’s not unlike Nimue’s journey in a way, and they’re close friends. People might think they know where it’s going, but we want to keep everyone on their toes as long as possible. But I see Morgana as very heroic and very justified in her feelings … They share similar motivations, but at some point, how pure to the cause are you going to remain? And she’s not a character that likes compromise, so that might get messy down the line.”
For more on Cursed, be sure to check out our interview with Arthur himself, Devon Terrell.