The Winter King Lost My Allegiance in a Single Scene

The MGM series has a great cast, action, and a gripping story, but one moment sunk my heart. Spoilers for UK viewers ahead.

Nimue in The Winter King
Photo: Copyright © Simon Ridgway 2022 /MGM

Warning: contains major spoilers for The Winter King episode 2 (not yet airing in the UK), and repeated reference to sexual assault.

There are endless ways to hurt a female character on screen. Just like men, they’ve got sliceable flesh and bones that break. Women can be tortured with hot irons or sharp spikes. Their loved ones can be torn from them, their wealth stolen and their homes burned to the ground. Any of the above would motivate a woman to an act of high-stakes revenge. Really it would. Just try it and see.

So… how come it’s always rape?

In The Winter King, MGM’s new Arthurian action series adapted from Bernard Cornwell’s Warlord Chronicle books, King Uther Pendragon puts his trust in the wrong man. By entrusting his new-born heir Mordred to apparently reformed enemy Gundleus, Uther lets a snake into his kingdom. When Uther dies, Gundleus makes an attempt on his throne. Instead of protecting Mordred, Gundleus stabs the baby to death, slaughters the court, and confronts Uther’s Druid priestess Nimue.

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Nimue, dressed in a scary mask and cloak, puts on a good show. Spreading a ring of fire around her, she tells Gundleus to leave, or she’ll make his soul scream for the rest of time. (Magic in The Winter King is of the visions-and-prophecies variety than the more immediately useful shoot-lightning-from-your-fingertips kind.) Gundleus and Nimue already had beef earlier in the story, and so here, he rapes her.

It happens in the book, so you might ask what the programme makers were supposed to do – just… not have Nimue raped? Let her walk around, as a woman in an historical fantasy show, un-raped? There’s such a thing as fidelity to the material, people. The responsibility of adaptation mustn’t be taken lightly.

Except that in the book, Gundleus also plucks out one of Nimue’s eyes, but that part was left out on screen. Too icky, hot on the heels of a baby murder? Prosthetics too laboursome? Whatever the reason, now it’s just the rape. Keeping it classic. The old faithful.

That’s not all that’s been changed from the book. Nimue is also no longer Merlin’s lover, presumably because the optics of the wise mage boning someone he adopted as a child are less favourable these days. The cast is also visibly more diverse and reflective of the multiple tribes, invaders and kingdoms battling in post-Roman rule Britannia. The almost-25 year culture gap between The Winter King novel being published in 1995 and the show arriving in 2023 has been shrunk successfully. But the rape has stayed in.

Maybe for reasons of realism? Rape was a sad fact of ancient life and sometimes weaponised in times of war? So were tooth decay and elephants, but neither feature here. Swap the rape for the eye-plucking and the story as a result would not change a bit. Gundleus would still be as evil – the man stabbed a baby to death, he’s already not on Santa’s nice list. Why overegg the baddie pudding?

Perhaps because to some extent here, it’s a plot point. Gundleus believes that Nimue’s priestess power is linked to her virginity (a theme in some mythology, and one that author Bernard Cornwell also used with the character of Iseult in The Saxon Stories series.) By raping Nimue, Gundleus thinks that he’s removing her mystical threat as well as dominating and humiliating her.

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Gundleus is also, generously, providing Nimue with her character arc. As inevitable as the rape itself, Nimue’s revenge on Gundleus will follow. We can be sure of that, and not just because The Warlord Chronicles book summaries are widely available to read online, but because Nimue now belongs to the tribe of screen characters whose power grows in the soil of past trauma. When her vengeance arrives, it’ll doubtless be cool to watch. She actually will make her attacker’s soul scream. Great, we’ll think. One in the eye for the him.

Except, not me. I won’t think anything, because that’s it for me and this show.

I won’t be missed as a viewer, and I’m not urging anybody else to switch off with me. If this particular storytelling fetish doesn’t make your bones ache with sadness, then I wish you joy of it. I’d bet though, that I’m not alone as a TV fan who loves a historical fantasy and would kiss the ground of the first one that can go a whole series simply dismembering women and burning them alive and yes – why not – plucking out their eyeballs, but just… Not Raping Them.

Why so touchy? (Ask Gundleus the same question, HA!)

It’s hard to express the feeling in a way that properly communicates it. By this stage, it’s more a whole-body exhaustion, drop-to-the-knees, I’m done-ness that saps your strength when, for the millionth time, a female character is brought low by this specific route of attack in a story that’s not even about rape. It’s just a rape freebie, around the edges of the real story.

This feeling sounds like a voice in your head that smirks, ‘hey girl, you do know that all this equality business is just for show? The second we want to take your so-called power, we have this easy… shortcut?’ It’s a Post-It note stuck on female power that reads ‘for now…’.

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Seeing Nimue raped was a reminder that even in the world of fantasy fiction – especially in the world of fantasy fiction – women have a vulnerability that TV and film see as all their own. Priestesses, Queen regents, Heirs to the North… rank and status can’t protect any of them from this instant-results ‘back in your box, bitch’ violence.

It happens to men – of course it does, but very rarely in fiction. If it happened to male characters on screen with anything like the regularity it happened to female characters, then its shadow would loom over every fight. When Arthur in The Winter King does battle with another warrior, do we mentally prepare ourselves for the inevitable moment when one is overpowered and deflowered? Of course the fuck not.

What you have to ask is: would the same thing have happened to Merlin? If The Winter King had presented the exact same series of events – betrayal, baby murder, slaughter – but with a priest and not a priestess inside that circle of fire, would you the viewer have sensed the rape approaching with the deadening threat of a tsunami on the horizon?

Nah. There’d have been violence, but to see a male character sexually assaulted in that scenario would have been extraordinary. Seeing a female character sexually assaulted feels like every day of my viewing life since, at age nine, I laughed through Robin Hood Prince of Thieves’ attempted rape scene along with everybody else in the cinema.

When female characters need to get hurt, they get raped. I knew it was going to happen in The Winter King the same way I know that the sun is going to come up in the morning – because it always seems to. And when it did happen, I didn’t feel tense or emotionally involved. I felt tired. We’re still doing this on screen. This is still the story being told, and it’s the very definition of not for me.

The Winter King airs weekly on MGM+ in the US. It will air on ITVX in the UK later this year.

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