The Winter King Season 1 Episode 1 Recap – Why is Arthur banished?

By Jonathon Wilson
Published: August 22, 2023 (Last updated: March 20, 2024)
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The Winter King Season 1 Episode 1 Recap - Why is Arthur banished?


The Winter King premiere gets all the pieces in place for a suitably epic historical-fantasy adventure.

This recap of The Winter King Season 1 Episode 1 contains spoilers.

The work of Bernard Cornwell has always been easily adaptable, from Sharpe on British TV to The Last Kingdom on Netflix. It ticks all the boxes – history, epic battles, handsome Saxon men, that kind of thing.

This might be truer of The Warlord Chronicles, his trilogy of novels reinventing the Arthurian legend, than any of his other work since the inclusion of fantasy elements in a grounded historical setting feels, if we’re being frank, closest to Game of Thrones. And, like it or not, that’s still the rubric for mainstream prestige fantasy shows.

This is presumably what MGM+ were thinking in adapting the first of those novels, The Winter King, into a handsome-looking ten-episode original series. And the premiere episode lives up to the idea by maneuvering all of the necessary pieces into place for what looks to be a pretty epic – or interesting, at the very least – tale of swords and a little sorcery.

The Winter King Season 1 Episode 1 Recap

Arthur (Iain De Caestecker) is, here, the illegitimate son of King Uther Pendragon (Eddie Marsan), an ill-tempered monarch who is failing miserably to unite the disparate, warring tribes of 5th-Century Britain against the invading Saxons.

This period of history was dubbed “The Dark Ages” for a reason.

Why is Arthur banished?

After a skirmish with the Saxons, Arthur returns to Caer Cardarn, the capital of Dumnonia, lugging the dead body of Prince Mordred. Uther goes mental with grief, viciously beats Arthur, and is about to lop off his head until his daughter Morgan (Valene Kane) and Merlin (Nathaniel Martello-White) come in clutch with another suggestion: Banishment.

Merlin obviously proposes this solution to save Arthur’s life, but it’s also part of a long game. Since Arthur is a bastard, he will never be accepted by Uther at court, so for him to fulfill his rich destiny, he needs to get out into the wider world and really find himself.

Arthur isn’t exactly thrilled about the idea, but he takes it in stride. After leaving the castle he stops off at a fishing village to pull a Saxon slave boy named Durfel from a death pit, whom he takes to Avalon – a kind of outcast haven that Merlin runs – for protection. Arthur leaves, and time jumps forward eight whole years.

Why can’t Derfel and Nimue be together?

In the years that have passed off-screen, lots has changed, and lots has regrettably stayed the same. Derfel is now grown and played by Stuart Campbell, and he’s in an ill-advised romantic tryst with Merlin’s priestess Nimue (Ellie James), but Uther still hasn’t managed to unite the tribes, the Saxons are gaining ground, and he’s now old and infirm in more ways that one.

Well, he’s perhaps not totally infirm, since he manages to father another heir, whom he also names Mordred, but you know what I mean.

Derfel and Nimue can’t be together because the latter is destined to become a powerful soothsaying magician – she has visions of a growling wolf when they get frisky – and the Gods are, for some reason, pretty adamant about magical powers being practiced by virgins. So, Nimue essentially has to choose between magic and Derfel, and she chooses magic.

This is at least in part what prompts Derfel to leave Avalon and remain behind at court, where Arthur’s friend Owain (Daniel Ings) will secretly train him as a warrior, perhaps to one day fight alongside his hero and rescuer, Arthur himself.

Why does Merlin want Arthur to return?

The new club-footed Prince Mordred spells bad news because he gives Merlin creepy visions of a bloody future in which he butchers his own people at the behest of the Saxons. Merlin is adamant about this, but Uther, true to form, isn’t interested. He’s certainly not keen on the idea of finding Arthur and begging his forgiveness so that he can be reinstalled as heir to unite the tribes.

So, Merlin plans to take matters into his own hands. He’s going to track Arthur down in Gaul and coax him back home for what promises to be a long and complicated battle ahead, with Mordred positioned as an eventual villain.

The Winter King Season 1 Episode 1 Ending Explained

The premiere episode ends by promising what’s to come in the short term and the long term.

For one thing, there’s a revenge plot brewing at the court of King Uther, since when Gundleus (Simon Merrells), the born-again King of Siluria, pledges allegiance to Uther, Derfel recognizes a tattoo on his chest. It was Gundleus who killed Derfel’s mother, which he’s unlikely to let slide, threatening to undermine the new alliance between rival kingdoms before it even gets going.

Luckily, Merlin is able to catch up with Arthur and invites him home.

You can stream The Winter King Season 1 Episode 1 exclusively on MGM+.

Additional reading:

MGM+, Streaming Service, TV, Weekly TV
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