With Vikings having kicked off its fifth season just last week, and Six set to begin season 2 sometime in 2018, History launches its third original scripted drama with the medieval sword-and-chainmail saga Knightfall. Centered on the Knights Templar following a brutal defeat at Acre, the site of their last stronghold in the Holy Land and where the Holy Grail is show to have been lost, the series picks up in Paris 15 years later with the knights maintaining their military presence on the face of it, but in reality they’ve become more of a financial institution than anything else, especially to King Philip IV (Ed Stoppard), who is eager to consolidate his power, particularly by marrying off his daughter, Princess Isabella (Sabrina Bartlett). Though the presence of King Philip, along with Queen Joan of Navarre (Olivia Ross), Isabella, and even Pope Boniface VIII (Downton Abbey’s Jim Carter) feels, especially in the early going, like the series is name dropping to prove its History bona fides, it soon becomes clear that Knightfall has enough of a fictionalized account in mind to keep the story going for many seasons and to keep the audience guessing what's next for quite some.
That side of the series revolves around Landry (Tom Cullen), a knight who cuts the exact sort of principled but not too morally high-minded image you’d expect from a cable television drama in 2017. A warrior monk who is devoted to the group he serves, Landry — or, really, Cullen — is too good looking to simply swing a sword and run around in chainmail for hours on end. So, naturally, he’s having an illicit affair with Queen Joan. While that little wrinkle offers the series an added degree of intrigue, like so much else in the series, it doesn’t really give the audience anything they haven’t seen before, and seemingly only adds to the contrived nature of the story that's soon to unfold.
Beginning at the aforementioned Siege of Acre, the series seeks to introduce the main players of the Templar Knights, beginning with Landry and then introducing Gawain (Pádraic Delaney), who takes an arrow to the knee for Landry and then apparently spends the next 15 years reminding everyone — Landry in particular — of the sacrifice he so gallantly made. It’s an admittedly spectacular sequence that looks impressive even in this post ‘Battle of the Bastards’ world we live in, but the fall of Acre is less intended to serve as a template for this series than it is to tie the Templar’s story, and the story of Knightfall, directly to a quest to recover the seemingly lost Holy Grail.
That sort of fictive license essentially blends history with folklore, giving Knightfall a propulsive plot for the first season, as the Templar Knight’s dealings in Paris see them shift rapidly from financiers to characters in a Dan Brown novel after Landry’s surrogate father and mentor Godfrey is struck down by “highwaymen”, resulting in the discovery of a clue pointing to the presumed whereabouts of the Holy Grail and all the possible conspiracies surrounding its location. The plot unfolds at the same time as Philip’s scheming lawyer William de Nogaret (Julian Ovenden) begins back-channeling some nation-building and engaging the Pope in a series of Littlefinger v. Varis-like confrontations that could have been made far more stimulating had the emphasis of the series been on the threat the Templars posed to those in power thanks to the size of the army and the vast sums of money they had in their possession.
To its credit, Knightfall doesn’t completely ignore those details; they are brought up in the premiere, but the series only scratches the surface of what the implications of the Templar Knights’ influence is and the part that played in the group’s eventual downfall. Instead, the series’ writers, headed up by showrunner Dominic Minghella, who created BBC’s Robin Hood, are far more interested in the stuff of legend and the Templar’s sketchy history with the cup of Christ, most of which has to do with the group’s standing in popular culture and the fascination of insisting the group is a clandestine organization with its fingers in all sorts of pies.
The emphasis on Landry’s quest for the Grail has a twofold effect, in that it not only pushes the role of the Templars and their ties to religion into the background, but it also raises the degree of difficulty for the main narrative to remain engaging as the season wears on. The latter issue isn’t entirely a bad thing, as it results in Knightfall moving at an impressive clip throughout the first episodes that were screened for critics. Viewers certainly won’t be bored by Landry’s pursuit of the Grail and the series makes the escalation of Nogaret’s villainous scheming just as energetic, even when both threaten to teeter into more outlandish territory.
In all, Knightfall makes for a likely successor to Vikings, but for mostly superficial reasons. Where as Michael Hirst’s long-running drama has been able to match brawny action sequences with political maneuverings and hallucinatory vision quests, all while attempting to anchor the most important parts of the drama in history, this Templar saga, by contrast, become less tethered to the namesake of the channel it’s on as the story delves deeper into the quest for the Grail. Still, as networks and streaming services quest for the next Game of Thrones to satisfy fans’ hunger for more, it’s hard to imagine viewers attracted to stories of (semi) virtuous knights in chainmail will be turned off by the series’ turn toward Da Vinci Code-esque plotting since it essentially guarantees swords will be swung on an hourly basis.
Knightfall continues next Wednesday @10pm on History.
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