Simon Merrells, Tom Cullen (Image: History)

There’s a lot of early burdens falling on the chainmail-adorned shoulders of Knightfall, History’s latest entry into the scripted drama playing field. It has to find a way to tell a new story about the search for the Holy Grail, the most famous and revisited treasure hunt in the history of Western civilization. It has to distinguish itself as a medieval epic series at a time when medieval epics are all over television, from Game Of Thrones to Outlander to The White Princess. And it has to live in the shadow of an early success story from this genre in Vikings, which in four-plus has set deep footsteps that History clearly expects its successive offerings to follow.

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And to its credit, Knightfall’s pilot episode “You’d Know What To Do” doesn’t shy away from any of those challenges. There’s plenty of armored men swinging swords into—and in one case completely through—the faces of other armored men. There’s royal intrigue, advisors going behind the backs of kings only to be flanked by their queens. There’s tragedy intruding on the bucolic life of a farmer, who dared to do the right thing and lost everything in return. And there’s a knight’s sword with a secret compartment in the pommel, leading to a treasure of unimaginable importance. It’s got enough elements to succeed, but the introduction of said elements is generically executed and spread too thin.

Knightfall centers around the Knights Templar, the infamous knightly order that went from distinguishing itself in the Crusades to near-mythical resonance in modern times. In Knightfall’s time of 1306 however, their reputation is now that of well-armed monks and landlords, ever since their tronghold of Acre sacked and their surviving members taking refuge in Paris. It’s an interesting era to tell a story about the history of the Templars, eschewing their glory days or rise to power in favor of showing how said influence is dimming. Proud warriors forced to adapt to a new setting, having their martial upbringing clash with pragmatism, could be a pressure cooker that produces compelling drama.

Unfortunately in the early goings, those interesting ideas are skimmed over in favor of the journey of Landry (Tom Cullen), whose story plays like a checklist of traditional protagonist traits. His past is riddled with guilt from the fall of Acre, he has a complicated father/son relationship with his mentor Godfrey (Sam Hazeldine) and a complicated friendship with uneasy Templar ally King Philip IV (Ed Stoppard), and he can’t help himself from breaking his vow of chastity to have an affair with Queen Joan (Olivia Ross). “You’d Know What To Do” also sets him on a wholly predictable track when his mentor is killed, he’s placed in the role of acting Templar master, and immediately bucks caution in favor of bringing his soldiers out in force. It’s the hero’s journey we’ve seen many times before, with no objections beyond some half-hearted urges to tread a safer path.

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Bringing said soldiers out does provide some life to Knightfall, which is aware that a steady stream of sword fights might be all it needs to attract an audience. “You’d Know What To Do” delivers on those in a mixed bag of battles. The original siege of Acre shows the strain of delivering a massive siege battle without a Game Of Thrones-level budget, to the point that the action has to cut to “helmet-cam” in high-stress scenes—a viewpoint that inexplicably watches the side of the knight’s face instead of any of the bloody action. Smaller battles have a more competent execution, such as Godfrey dueling with highwaymen or Landry rising to defend Jewish refugees, and are not afraid to deploy the brutal finishing move. While he’s a bit too fond of the sudden slow-mo shot, director Douglas Mackinnon is well aware of how easily pristine Templar vestments register sanguine stains, and he manages to make the Knights simultaneously potent warriors but also capable of being readily taken down.

The associated problem is that there’s not much reason to care about whether these characters fall. While drawing comparisons to Vikings may be unfair, it’s worth remembering that even when that show struggled in its early days, there was an intensity to its main cast that kept it worth watching as it developed. And while no one here is overtly bad, you never get a sense of what motivates them beyond the scripts they’re reading. Cullen is sturdy enough but ultimately a blank slate of a character, relying on his smoldering eyes rather than any real demonstration of charisma. None of the other Knights Templar (Simon Merrells, Pádraic Delaney) stand out beyond being long-haired warriors in identical vestments. Stoppard’s King Philip comes across as more petulant than potent, while his aide Guillaume de Nogaret (Julian Ovendon) is your typical scheming royal advisor offering long looks and callous statements. Ross is the only female character of note all episode, and her material is limited to being in the right place at the right time and sharing some truly dismal romantic dialogue with Landry.

The major thing that Knightfall potentially has working in its favor is its take in the search for the Holy Grail. This is a treasure hunt that’s been done by everyone from everyone from Indiana Jones to Monty Python, but Knightfall’s time period setting gives it an advantage over other searches. The Grail was lost so recently that it’s not a legend to chase, but a real and tangible loss to their order’s morale. Landry and his brother knights can still feel the weight of the chalice in their hands, and the pilot’s most tangible emotional moments come when they have to look back on the sacrifice they made and find themselves wanting.

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But like the struggles of the Knights Templar, “You’d Know What To Do” opts for the safe route and sets the show up on a mystical treasure hunting route. A secret compartment in a sword hilt leads to a missing lamp gem, a gem that projects a vague image that must mean that the Grail exists and that it’s somewhere in France. (They also save most of the original reveals for a nameless support character rather than Landry or his brothers-in-arms, a baffling choice that gets away from some of the specialness of the hunt.) The search feels too mysterious and portent-laden in the early goings, getting away from any of the ideas that could take it to a better place.

While Knightfall is full of missteps in the early going, most of those missteps can be chalked up to the old pilot pitfall of doing too much at once. There’s enough rich source material for Knightfall to pull itself together relatively quickly, particularly if it manages to add some shades to Landry and find a way to make the quest for the Grail more than just a simple fetch quest. At the outset though, Knightfall is a battered sword. It may be sturdy enough and able to split a skull if you turned it in the right direction, but there’s too few gleams to make you pick it up instead of a dozen sharper weapons.

Stray observations

  • We’re considering adding Knightfall to the weekly rotation. If you’d be willing to embark on such a crusade with us, please let us know your thoughts in the comments.
  • Jeremy Renner is listed as an executive producer for the series, which makes the inclusion of crossbow-bolt-cam more disappointing. You’d expect the Avenger whose only superpower is archery to veto that.
  • “Vows of chastity, remember those?” “Looking, not touching.”

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