Season 1 of History’s Knightfall didn’t quite hit with the same immediate impact as, say, the network’s long-running, soon-to-be ending (and soon-to-be-spun-off) series, Vikings. The Templar Knight saga had all the right ingredients to follow in the footsteps of Michael Hirst’s violent, decades-spanning Norse family drama, but it instead steered too readily into cliches familiar to anyone who’s watched television on any network in the last 20 years or so. The story of Landry (Tom Cullen), a high-ranking Templar who also happened to be carrying on an illicit affair with Queen Joan of France (Olivia Ross) — one that produced a child and caused King Philip IV (Ed Stoppard) to wage war against the Templars — played like a rote greatest hits of TV’s most recent past. Add to that a propensity to add some unnecessary Dan Brown-like flavoring to the project, and it’s easy to see why Knightfall might be looking to start fresh come season 2.
Leave it, then, to Mark Hamill to reinvigorate the show at the start season 2, and to help the series see that not all of its baser instincts are bad, it just needs to be pickier about the ones it chooses to emphasize. On that note, Knightfall begins its second season with an episode the falls somewhere between hasty reboot and vague continuation of what had come before, and it does this while introducing Hamill’s scarred, distinctly voiced Templar warrior Talus as one of the lynchpins of the series’ new(ish) direction and its welcome embrace of bloody, soapy fun.
As a season premiere, ’God’s Executioners’ works at seemingly cross purposes, trying at once to move beyond what transpired in season 1, yet also use many of the major events that unfolded during that initial 10-episode run as the foundation on which the future of the series would be built. Somehow, the episode manages to do both and convince the viewer that everything and nothing has somehow changed. It does this by first by sliding Landry to the nadir of his existence, stripping him of rank and title, and banishing him from the Templar order, all while his daughter (who was born after Queen Joan was murdered by King Philip on the battlefield) is shunted off to who knows where because Knightfall is nothing if not an aggressively masculine show that doesn’t have time for wailing infants when there’re so many swords waiting to be plunged into the bellies of countless extras in chainmail.
Nevertheless, the premiere is nothing if not genuine in its efforts to derail the show entirely before setting it back on what amounts to a slightly altered course. That new(ish) course sees Landry’s complete banishment scaled back considerably, to the point that he’s now a lowly initiate, eager to prove his worth to a skeptical and harsh instructor in Talus. Here, Hamill will undoubtedly draw comparisons to his role as a cranky and aged Luke Skywalker in The Last Jedi, though you’d likely be hard-pressed to find anyone at History or involved with the show who would complain about such obvious parallels. After all, the marketing for the new season has Hamill front and center, sharing posters and banners with Cullen with Hamill’s name ostensibly taking top billing.
So, is Knightfall now Hamill’s show? Well, yes and no. The main narrative of the series is still very much about the fall of Landry and his efforts to once again scale the ladder that is the order of the Knights Templar, but now it’s clear he’ll be doing so with the help of someone with a considerable amount of pop cultural clout behind him. To that end, Hamill is tasked with playing Talus, yes, but really, he’s being asked to be Mark Hamill in a big beard who talks in a unique voice and occasionally draws his (non-laser) sword.
In essence, then, Hamill’s presence brings a lot to the table, not the least of which is a lightening of the series’ tone and a readiness to steer into the soap-operatic qualities the series seemed to be at odds with in season 1. It also doesn’t hurt to see Landry knocked down a peg or three, as his various non-Templar approved shenanigans last season helped define him, but not in a way that made him particularly interesting, especially when compared with so many other misbehaving men on TV. Take away all he held dear and make him repentant, and suddenly he’s a little more compelling to watch. It’s still early going and Landry’s sincerity is dubious, if nothing else, but his motivations seem centered more on getting right with his fellow Templars and God, and less on seeking revenge for his murdered lover, the queen. And the question of how all that will play out suddenly makes Knightfall a more compelling and entertaining show than it was in season 1.
The series still has a ways to go before it can become the show meant to step into Vikings’ bloody footprints, but the start of season 2 and the addition of Hamill suggest that Knightfall might at least be on the path to doing so. With a dark and Spartacus-y subplot involving Gawain (Pádraic Delaney) getting his own chance at redemption and another putting King Philip’s son, Prince Louis (Tom Forbes) on a quest on a vengeance-fueled quest of his own, there’s plenty more story to fill the next 10 episodes. So far, it’s off to a welcomely tawdry, slightly cornball, and absolutely bloody start.
Knightfall continues next Monday with ‘The Devil Inside’ @10pm on History.