In an era of increasingly fractured media audiences, it can be rare to find a TV show, especially a live-action fantasy, that can be watched and enjoyed by more than one generation of viewer. With such a wealth of platform and options, and often times numerous media-playing devices within one household with which to enjoy them, it is less common for TV series to court an entire family—TV production companies leave that to the movie studios and their four-quadrant blockbusters.
The Letter For the King, a six-episode Netflix series loosely adapted from Tonke Dragt’s 1962 Dutch novel De brief voor de Koning, fits into the neglected category of the live-action fantasy adventure family show nicely. However, unlike most fare in that category—e.g. Once Upon a Time, Merlin or, going back further, Xena: Warrior Princess—it has the budget to back up its derivative plot with the money for some impressive horse work, gorgeous scenery, and passable CGI, which broadens the story’s sense of scope in.
The Letter For the King is the story of a young squire named Tiuri (His Dark Materials‘ Amir Wilson), who lives as a noble with his mother and stepfather in the kingdom of Dagonaut. Like Frodo before him, Tiuri doesn’t have any ambitions of glory. He doesn’t even want to compete in the trials to become a Novice, a knight-in-training, but his stepfather is obsessed with the idea of Tiuri following in the family tradition.
When Tiuri is asked by a dying knight to deliver a letter to the king of neighboring kingdom Unauwen within 14 days, he runs in the other direction, which is both refreshing and deeply relatable. But destiny has other plans for Tiuri. He is more or less forced to accept the task, setting out on a quest that will bring him allies, enemies, and the chance to be a hero, should he choose it.
Along the way, he meets Lavinia (Ruby Ashbourne Serkis), an aspiring cartographer trying to get out of marrying for money, who is initially just along on the quest for the potential reward. Lavinia’s street smart nihilism acts as an effective foil to Tiuri’s amiable idealism, driving much of the main plot’s thematic tension.
Ardanwen the horse is there, too, and is honestly one of the best-developed characters in the entire series. (This is not a slight. There are plenty of well-articulated characters in The Letter For the King; Ardanwen the Horse—focused, brave, and good at solving problems—just happens to be a standout.)
If this all sounds like something you’ve seen before, it is—but that doesn’t mean it isn’t also a lot of fun. What Letter For the King lacks in originality, it makes up for in the earnestness of its execution.
Unlike a tonally-similar show like Merlin, which gained its narrative momentum from playing within the same “reset” episodic structure, The Letter For the King has only six episodes with which to tell its story, which means it is much more serialized than comparable shows. The fact that Tiuri has a clearly-defined quest and clearly-defined time frame in which to complete it helps move this story along, but the season simply isn’t long enough to explore the wide cast of characters or untangle some of the more complex themes or characterizations that The Letter For the King flirts with.
“You think just because you’re here, you’re a hero?” one character asks Tiuri at one point in his quest. “Take it from me: the last thing this world needs is another hero.” These are the series’ best moments: the ones that begin to interrogate the Chosen One trope, masculinity, and the glory of war. If only The Letter For the King finished the job.
That’s not to say this series doesn’t have any surprises. The Letter For the King plays on assumptions it knows media literate viewers are making about the seemingly derivative plot to zig instead of zag. There is a particularly exciting and effective twist heading into the season’s climax that turns the entire story on its head in exciting ways, even if its potential isn’t fully realized in the story’s conclusion.
For many, how you feel about Game of Thrones may dictate how you feel about Letter For the King. While Game of Thrones was overly-nihilistic for some, The Letter For the King will skew too far into the noblebright tradition for others. For many, however, including families looking to watch something together in this strange and unsettling time, there’s comfort to be found in the familiar, wrapped up in a fresh package, in the pretense that monolithic evil can be defeated if someone is simply good enough. The Letter For the King offers that, and a very good horse character too.