Review by C.J. Bunce
One of the criticisms so far into the third trilogy of Star Wars movies (the third and finale episode, The Rise of Skywalker, is due out this December) is not making the most of the original cast. This seems to go double with fan expectations for Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker. This is not some fault of fandom, it’s how Lucasfilm prepped its fans with great futures for Skywalker and his family, delivered via Timothy Zahn’s original sequel trilogy and then decades of brilliant stories via Dark Horse Comics. There you’d find Luke Skywalker, grown into the role of Jedi Master, was everything you’d want from the hero we met in the movies. Now fans can see that future in a History channel series streaming on Netflix, if they only bring along a little imagination. That series is Knightfall.
The series follows a re-imagined history of the Knights Templar at the dawn of the 14th century. If you ignore the historicity, good or bad, and see the film as a fantasy tale of knights in conflict and knights in training, you can see why the Jedi Knights were derived from these historic figures. The Star Wars influence comes full circle as Mark Hamill himself joins the cast as a master knight named Talus in Season 2. Here is that very same Luke Skywalker as you might have imagined him from Zahn and Dark Horse’s storytelling, war-weary and battle hardened, as he storms his way into the tale, leading and training knights, sometimes Mr. Miyagi style, sometimes with swords, sometimes with surprising methods. Tilt your head a bit, cover one eye–do what you need to do–but some of Luke Skywalker’s best scenes as a Jedi Knight are in this series. The very best is Talus’s final scene. Mark Hamill, and Luke Skywalker, never were cooler than in his final conflict on the series.
Fantasy emphasis over history aside, for those students of the Middle Ages you’ll find a mix of truth and cinema twisted for story purposes, but overall this is that series about knights and swords, the Pope and the twisted King (they’re all twisted, always) and the beautiful Queen that you’re looking for. The story follows hero Tom Cullen (The Five, Downton Abbey) as Landry, a wise but conflicted Knight Templar, whose band of trusted brothers botch protecting the Holy Grail, the same biblical cup so many medieval tales are based upon, but more of a McGuffin for this version of the tale. Landry’s band of knights, Pádraic Delaney (The Tudors) as Gawain, and Simon Merrells (DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, Ashes to Ashes) as one of the best knights you’ve seen onscreen as Tancrede lead viewers from enough intrigue to keep them coming back for more. Olivia Ross (War & Peace) is particularly engaging as Queen Joan, one of the only women characters in the series, and Jim Carter (Downton Abbey) is great fun to watch as the regal yet conniving Pope Boniface VIII. Of the bad guys, you’ll love to hate Ed Stoppard (Zen, The Frankenstein Chronicles) as King Philip (again, all kings are bad), and Julian Ovenden (Downton Abbey, Charmed) as his on-again, off-again confidante and henchman. As Cullen’s Landry and the Queen of France fall in love, how both the knight order and the King handle the aftermath is the conflict that plays out over 18 episodes, with the backdrop of a coming battle between France and England beckoning.
But get ready for some angst along the way. The good guys really take some punishment, to the point where you may be screaming at the writers to give them a break once in awhile. It will be worth it, as this is a solid revenge tale, with all the hoped-for satisfaction, but the success of the production is surprising viewers with which good guys live and die and which bad guys live and die, in each season. It’s a mix that leaves plenty of room for a possible third season. You’ll also see swapping of loyalties that may make your head start spinning. Some great actors and forces of good in the storyline get gut-wrenchingly sliced from the story along the way–everyone is at risk. But it’s all about knights in those classic robes and armor, muddy and bloody battles on the field, and political scheming in the king’s castle and knights’ temple. The sets are superb–you’ll feel right there with medieval weaponry, costumes, and props, mostly incorporated with at least a minimum of accuracy (historical costumers will need to just look away and enjoy the swordplay regardless).
This isn’t the History channel’s most detailed and more well-researched series, i.e. Vikings. The story of Knightfall has problems, sometimes many. Sometimes you might feel you’re watching a scene that was included as filler to get to a full episode, especially in the second season finale with two characters reconciling, then they hate each other with no transition, for no apparent reason except to buy some time to get the final combat, and betrayals, just right. The season changed showrunners for the second season, and swapped out actresses for Princess Isabella. The seasons are very different in theme and style, so if you don’t like the first season stick with it for the second–you’re bound to like something here.
And what a fun ride. Fans of Mark Hamill, Star Wars, knights, and swordplay won’t want to miss this. It’s also a good supplement for your Renaissance Faire season fix. Watch both seasons of Knightfall now on Netflix, with Season 1 now on Blu-ray and DVD, and both seasons streaming via Amazon here.