How Netflix’s New Fantasy Series Cursed Itself from the First Scene
Right from the get go something just didn’t work about Netflix’s latest Game of Thrones replica, Cursed. The new TV show brags an unexplored storyline from Arthurian legend, with mystical/magical elements thrown in to give the show a little sparkle, and a female protagonist to lead the way. Altogether these sound like interesting explorations worth investing the time in, and on the surface they are. However the problem, as is becoming usual with Netflix’ fantasy shows, doesn’t lie in the intrigue of any of these ideas, but in their execution. So today I’d like to look at how right from the first scene the show mishandled these ideas and why that impacted every other aspect of the crucial first episode.
Tip: Introduce the desire and threat in the prologue to give your hook context
Right from their explosive first seconds, the greatest TV shows hook you. Without realising it they reel you into the character’s lives, give you a taste of the main conflict and ultimately instil a craving inside you to know more. The main ingredients that help to create the most insatiable of hooks are: character desire, external threat and interesting situation. As I mentioned in my previous article on Stranger Things, a large reason why the second season didn’t have the impact or resonate as well as the first, was because it wasn’t obvious from the outset what the threat and goal were. This then bled down into every aspect of the show with each scene being less meaningful from here on out.
To be clear the prologue or opening scene is not the be all and end all of a series, but if you think about it, it matters a lot. After all, we judge whether or not we’re going to read a book in its first few pages. We do the exact same for film, and even more so for TV. For an example of just how impactful a prologue can be— in case you are unfamiliar with Stranger Things — we need look no further than Breaking Bad. The iconic opening scene from the highly acclaimed series sets up a uniquely interesting situation, telling us what the character is afraid of (his family finding out), what the threat to that is (the police/jail) while sprinkling hints at his goal (drug-making). From here on out, the show can take its time revealing how it got to that scene, building narrative and character slowly so that when we revisit the opening at the end, we’ve gained more context and are dying to know how it’s resolved.
With this in mind, let’s look at Cursed. The show opens with a few lines of context over a lake that establish who the story is about. Okay so it’s a slow build? Then we plunge below the water and see someone, who we assume is our protagonist, fall in. She has an arrow in her shoulder. She’s bleeding, but doesn’t appear in distress. Intriguing? She then disappears in her own blood and says, ‘where to begin, with water or with fire.’ And boom the opening credits roll, and…that’s it. The audience is left scratching their heads asking, what? What just happened, and why would fire or water help reveal her origin? Also, (and most importantly) why should we care?
While these are all reasonable questions, where they go drastically wrong is they’re born mostly of confusion rather than intrigue. And that is the central problem with the prologue of Cursed: we’re not hooked by our desire for answers to specific and interesting questions; instead we’re left mildly confused and barely stimulated by an ambiguous situation. We have to assume there is a threat (due to the arrow), but aren’t shown how or why that affects the protagonist’s life, or why she is personally more affected by it — making her story more interesting. Our character’s goals aren’t hinted at or given structure either, meaning there’s no emotional drive going into the subsequent scenes. And to be honest we’ re really only generously intrigued by the situation at this point, which leaves a heavy burden on the rest of the episode to grip us where the opening failed. And again unfortunately, it’s just not up to the task.
Specifically where Cursed went wrong here is in mistaking ambiguity for mystery. Mystery, when used wisely, in prologues can undoubtedly heighten the tension and suspense throughout the rest of the story. The trouble with mystery is that it’s a double edged sword, because, as in Cursed, if we’re not given context, meaning the question/s that should hook you going forward are left far too unspecific, then that ‘mystery’ turns sharply into ambiguity and destroys what you’re trying to create.
Let’s look at the only line of narration as an example of this: ‘where to begin, with water or with fire’. Now, leaving aside the fact it borders on generic, the problem with the sentence is it’s too unclear to truly intrigue us. In fact there’s barely another mention of fire or water as a power throughout the rest of the episode and their connection to our hero’s origin is left vague at best. When you combine this with the lack of a discernible villain or threat then the prologue ends up having a very weak hook. Now, we do meet and gain further clarity around the threat later in the episode, but by this point we’re nowhere near as emotionally invested as we should be — and even when we do meet the red monks, they make for pretty one dimensional villains. This is such a shame because this scene could have functioned a lot like the Breaking Bad opener: a future tease that is revisited with greater emotional involvement upon the conclusion of the episode.
Indeed, the greatness about the Breaking bad opening, is that it leaves us asking very specifically, what could make such a normal family guy do something like this? And from that point you’re hooked. The opening has literally earned your engagement, in order to discover how and why the protagonist gets to the end.
Conversely, Cursed’s confused and unspecific opening creates weak footing for the rest of the episode to launch the story. Similar to Stranger Things 2, the ambiguity seems to bleed down from here into every other scene so that by the end we’re asking so many questions we find ourselves in a rabbit hole of bewilderment: Why does the protagonist not want to become a summoner? What does a summoner even do anyway? Why does the village hate her powers? How did this little fairy girl escape? Doesn’t the main village have any protection? Can’t the Fey in the village use their powers as protection? If the villagers hate the protagonist why are the red monks fighting them? And on and on forever.
Now while answers are somewhat forthcoming, and I use that term loosely, throughout the rest of the episode and the next few, by that point we’ve lost the context of the immediate situation and our characters have moved on, leaving the audience with more questions than answers. Inherently, this doesn’t have to be a bad thing, but as was the case with Lost, if we are forced to ask so many questions then we’ll undoubtedly be distracted from the story.
Considering all of this, and if so much stems from the opening scene, then how could it have been done differently?
Well, for example, we could open with the protagonist in peril, running from hooded enemies. Perhaps we see her significant skill set/determination beat some of them, but we also see this overcome by an unknown force: one shrouded in mystery and against which her skills are useless. She then sees a boy and tries to sacrifice herself to protect him, but gets shot and ends up falling into the water anyway. And when she’s sinking, we see visions of her family, of her desires and of more people she cares for dying at the hands of this unstoppable force. She’s drowning, in distress, falling deeper and deeper…And then the opening credits roll.
What this begins to give us is context around what happens, who and how powerful the threat is, what our protagonist cares about while hinting at what she wants. It’s just an idea mind you, but still, it might help structure the show and create some much needed intrigue through a slightly more effective hook.
The true crime here is the show has a lot of potential, first and foremost in its diversity which breathes fresh life into a tired tale. It just doesn’t seem able to translate good ideas into a compelling story the way other shows have, a fact which is evident from the get go. Of course, not every show or film has to use the same tools to hook an audience. And in fairness, the rest of the episode does begin to reveal the threat and develop characters bonds, however it suffers from the same lack of focus and intrigue as its opener and by the end of the episode no fancy blood splashing or artistic scene transitions are able to rescue it. I guess we’ll see if the rest of the season is able to pick up the pieces or drown along with its opening prologue. Let me know if you agree or not below and as always thanks for reading!