Merlin: Series 2

Merlin‘s second series is a sort of melting pot of the extremely good and the somewhat bad, a somewhat inconsistent conglomerate. There’s a feeling that -and here I paraphrase Bradley James – the plot is stagnating somewhat. But nonetheless, most of the episodes are enjoyable as usual and at least I can have a snarky word or two about the ones which weren’t so let’s move on.

Arthur looking like a non-prat. (source: brolin-truelove.tumblr.com)

The most glaringly uncomfortable thing about this series was the romantic subplots, without a doubt. Gwen and Arthur “fall in love” in the second episode, but it’s quite unexpectedly quick, with little indication in previous episodes that this will happen. Arthur is extremely out-of-character and actually doesn’t look like a prat when he kisses her, but then again, maybe that’s just character development. Then in Episode 4, Lancelot shows up and Gwen kisses him and professes her eternal love for him before he disappears again. Then the next thing we know, Arthur and Gwen are in love again and Gwen says some stuff about “always knowing” that he was a great man (despite telling Merlin that he’s a bully in Series 1 Episode 1) and then shit happens and they can’t be together because of Uther and end up shooting pining looks at each other across the set.

Basically, it’s a bit hamfisted and not very well done.

You could just say I’m biased because I ship Arthur and Merlin, but first, we need to think about why I ship them. The reason why is because a) it’s Platonic, b) they have chemistry, c) very clearly care about each other as they hare off to sacrifice themselves in place of the other at the first inkling of danger and d) because Bradley and Colin are boyfriends. Gwen and Arthur don’t really get the same treatment. Moreover, instead of expanding Gwen’s character to try and accommodate for this, her character becomes largely relational to Arthur’s (and not in a cool destiny way but slightly sexist women-only-care-about-men way) except in the Lancelot episode and her very humorous response to catching Merlin stealing Morgana’s dresses. Honestly, I really did not like that moment in the final episode when Gaius asks her if she misses Morgana and she gives a vague answer and then asks after Arthur; considering the friendship between Morgana and Gwen built up during the first and second series, I think she would care a lot about Morgana too. But besides the A+ Telling Arthur Off for Being a Bit of a Shit scene of Series 2, Gwen’s Arthur-related scenes are just…lacking in character. Come on, BBC! We like awkward-heart-of-gold Gwen! We want more of that! I, at least, am certainly not alone in finding more reason to ship her with Lancelot instead as Bradley also agrees with me on this (he has pretty much said that Gwen only chooses Arthur because Lancelot’s not around – but then he’s biased because he ships himself with Colin).

Gwen/Lance >> Gwen/Arthur

Having dealt sufficiently with the rocky start to Arthur/Gwen, I must now express my displeasure with Merlin/Freya because what the hell was that about. Manifesting itself in approximately one (1) episode, I think I am yet again not alone in feeling relief that Freya died at the end of it because of how badly done that romantic subplot was. I get that it was meant to be Merlin finding some sort of companionship in being with someone who was also magic, but it was simply way too quick and not developed well. Especially when he wanted to elope with her. It’s totally uncharacteristic for him to give up Camelot (read: Arthur) for a girl he’d only just met, considering all the destiny and bond and sacrificing-himself-to-save-Arthur.

There were a couple of romantic subplots which were done better and solely because they were comedic and the people involved were under enchantments. Really, at this rate I think we only resort to the homoerotic reading because male writers can’t characterise female love interests well enough.

The humour and banter was still on point though, a prime example being the tongue-in-cheek two-parter Beauty and the Beast in which Uther has sex with marries a troll. My amusement at the fart jokes in that one certainly indicated that my mental age was approximately 7.4 years old.

ME: why did the writers think it was ok to make uther pendragon have sex with a troll. LILI: because british tv is fucking crazy

Also, can we just appreciate the fact that Bradley James can basically become the next Rowan Atkinson? Every single face he makes in Merlin is actual comedic gold.

There were, however, seemingly more moments of tragedy in this series. I am starting to think that Colin has cried more during the filming of Merlin than I have in my entire life. I have good reasons to think this, considering that I’m only 19 and have not cried very much, not even as an infant, whereas he did Merlin for five years, was basically constantly in tears in Series 2, and would probably have done multiple takes of crying. It’s actually very pitiful when Merlin cries (I may or may not start going ‘aww don’t cry’ and stroking my screen). He does it even when he’s happy…which is just sad. At least Colin’s a rather attractive dignified crier.

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Unlike Tobey Maguire.

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The series did two things particularly well, however. The Morgana arc was compelling as her compassion and discovery of her magical abilities led her into a spiral of darkness. Katie McGrath was so nuanced in her performance; on one hand she detests Uther’s injustice and is willing to kill for it, but on the other hand she loves Gwen and Arthur, is becoming quite good friends with Merlin, adores Mordred. There’s this brilliant tension between the good and evil and even though she chooses evil, we don’t hate her for it. We don’t want to hate her. We understand, in some ways. It’s almost a shame when she defects to Morgause because you want her to stick around and become magical BFFs with Merlin and be brilliant and incredible and magic??? It was actually painful when Merlin had to poison her (even though they did the effects of hemlock wrong, just saying) and then she disappeared with Morgause and it was Goodbye, dearest Good!Morgana.
*contemplates homicide*

The other thing was the last episode, The Last Dragonlord. It is a true cinematic (television-atic?) triumph from which I am still reeling. And apparently it’s Colin’s favourite episode which means he has good taste.

The Last Dragonlord has everything we love about Merlin: Merlin and Arthur going off on a quest together and being besotted, it has Merlin Backstory, it has Colin Morgan crying incessantly (I’m not kidding. He spends the whole episode sporting glittering eyes and not in an Ancient Mariner way), it has Highly Emotional Scenes, and some serious Merlin and Arthur bonding moments. But there’s also happiness and smiles, there’s banter, there’s heartwarming stuff, there’s triumph at the end of a long and painful journey. This range really shows off Colin’s acting in particular, culminating in that epic speech to Kilgarrah.

This is literally one of the best scenes I’ve ever seen in my life I am nojoking. Colin is fucking incredible, especially when he’s going ‘Go! Leave!… If you ever attack Camelot again, I will kill you,’ and his voice is breaking and it’s like phwoarrrr so many emotions. Also, the roaring-in-ancient-Greek is like, mildly attractive. He makes what is basically gibberish to us sound meaningful, almost poetic when his voice flows into the hissing cadences of the language. And in the dark moonlight, Kilgarrah almost doesn’t look that badly-CGIed to pull off the scene without it looking totally ridiculous. There’s this delicious juxtaposition between Merlin’s verge-of-tears authority and draconic acquiescence delivered in John Hurt’s reedy tones. It is such a good scene. Such a damn good episode.

Thus, having finished Series 2 on this brilliant high, I will ford on to Series 3.

Time for me to go make up some more interesting things to say about this show.

Best things: Charles Dance vomiting a toad, “It is destiny, my love. Destiny and chicken.”

Worst things: Uther Pendragon has sex with a troll, Merlin’s dad dies 2 minutes after meeting him.

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Merlin: Series 1

Enticed by the prospect of homoerotic subtext, shitty BBC CGI, and Colin Morgan’s cheekbones, I have finally committed myself to watching BBC Merlin properly. And in these respects I was thoroughly nourished by, at the very least, Series 1.

Merlin retells the Arthurian legends with a focus on the style inspiration of Gandalf and Dumbledore, Merlin (except he looks more like the style inspiration of the Beatles here). After moving to Camelot, which incidentally seems to be the only kingdom in the realm to actively persecute sorcerers, Merlin somewhat accidentally becomes the prattish Prince Arthur’s manservant and discovers that their destinies are entwined. Oh joy.

*insert good shit meme here*

Merlin thus far has certainly endeared itself greatly to me, with its engaging (if not slightly ridiculous) plots, witty script, quality filming (ignoring the signature shitty BBC CGI), loveable cast/characters, and truly superb acting. It’s not perfect, of course, with its at-times cringe-worthy tokenism and Arthur’s Misguided Medieval Sexism (but to be fair, this could be part of his Series 1 Dickness and may change), but it does try, which is more than I can say for a lot of media texts.

It’s actually quite interesting watching a show which retells the Arthurian legends in light of my English class this semester. I’m doing a unit called Narratives of Romance and Adventure which requires me to read a whole heap of stuff from the Odyssey through to Robinson Crusoe – that is, a lot of old-timey legends. Excluding, in fact, the Arthurian legends. Nonetheless, what I’ve learnt so far about Old English and old-timey legends and romance has helped me understand Merlin more. For instance, it’s interesting to think of this show as not so much an adaptation of the “original” legends, but a continuation of the history of reinterpretation. The legends themselves started out separate before being drawn together, after all, and have been retold again and again through traditions oral and written – and now visual. With young characters and Merlin usurping Arthur as hero of the story, the tale turns away from focusing on the unchallenged glory of manly men and engages with the characters and their often less-than-perfect personalities and motivations.

The weirdest thing is probably that they’re using Old English for spells, even though they probably would have spoken Old English at the time, so technically Merlin would just be yelling the equivalent of “gimme a light” when conjuring fire. It’s a wonder weird shit doesn’t happen around him more if the language of spellwork is his own everyday language. If they’re going to establish the Druids as the Old Religion, they should technically be doing the spells in Gaelic or something.

I do like how the showrunners also use Merlin as a vehicle for exploring class inequalities. For example, the injustice of how Merlin, as a servant, is considered an unreliable witness against the word of a knight is criticised in Episode 2. Episode 5 also features Lancelot, who is barred from knighthood due to his common birth. Although, in disguise, he manages to meritocratically prove himself worthy, he takes his leave when his deception is discovered despite Arthur’s attempts to advocate for him.

Lancelot, fresh from the forest – like an attractive root vegetable awaiting judgement at the Sydney Royal Easter Show.

The characters on Merlin are particularly fascinating, with hidden depths dredged out in each episode; it will certainly be interesting to see where these personalities go in the following series. Merlin himself comes off initially as a “sweet summer child”, strolling into Camelot with a spring in his step and a smiley crinkle in his eye. He’s personable (to everyone but Arthur), humorous, a bit endearingly slow, and seemingly only owns three shirts. He cries in practically every episode. He is also possibly the realm’s shittiest manservant, spending most of his time vanquishing monsters, strolling around the castle, or falling over with the clumsiness of a Mary Sue as opposed to doing Actual Manservant Things. Yet he is loyal to a fault, ruthlessly killing anyone who lays even a malevolent eye on those he loves without second thought. He’s reckless, thinking only in the short-term and often endangering those around him. In this tension, we are made aware of his magical power – a raging tempest with the façade of innocence.

Arthur, who more or less acts as Merlin’s corresponding Platonic half, is accordingly a very different man altogether. Outwardly an arrogant prat of gigantic proportions, displaying very odd manifestations of “chivalry” and “honour”, we come to understand Arthur’s insecurities and qualities as the episodes unfold. Arthur Pendragon is possibly the dictionary definition of emotional constipation, likely the result of his oddly Freudian, fucked-up relationship with his father Uther (he’s also motherless, so go forth and psychoanalyse, dear reader). In spite of his prickly exterior, he truly does cares for people, as evident when he defies his father to support Lancelot’s participation in the knighthood and when he hares off in search of a cure for poison ingested by Merlin despite the consequences the furious Uther makes him face. The potential here for character growth, spurred on especially by Merlin’s presence in his life, has been set on its trajectory.

The relationship between the two is the show’s focus as they fall into an easy camaraderie after a slightly rocky start. They also quite quickly develop very strong feelings for each other, risking their lives to save the other’s so early on in the show; it’s no wonder that the homoerotic reading of this show is so widely-accepted (I mean, they basically shoot blowjob metaphors at each other when they first meet). Magic can even be read as a gay metaphor, with the stigma surrounding it in Camelot, Merlin basically being a closeted sorcerer, and Morgana’s fear when she discovers her powers.

Sexual Tension^TM

Something else I’ve been really liking about Series 1 is how each episode has a bit more of a focus on the other main characters. I’m particularly looking forward to how Gwen and Morgana will be developed later in the series, actually. We only catch glimpses of Gwen, but she’s immediately likeable as she welcomes Merlin, cares for her father and Morgana, and when she rebukes Arthur’s prattishness. I adore how they didn’t get a white actress for her (Karen Gillan actually auditioned for her role. I literally cannot imagine anyone but Angel Coulby being Gwen) because of how significant she is in the legends. Although, it’ll be interesting to see how they’ll try to make us ship her and Arthur, since it currently seems that her relationship with Lancelot and Arthur’s relationship with Merlin are stronger than the relationship between the two.

Morgana, on the other hand, is developed a bit more as the headstrong and compassionate ward of Uther. Like Merlin, she has the ability to be extremely lovely to everyone except Arthur, and though both she and Arthur find Uther’s rule prejudiced and unjust, she is a lot more active in defying him than Arthur. In the latter, we see the emergence of the great nemesis Morgan le Fay – but uniquely, not because of inherent evil, but a desire for justice.

So I guess, overall, Series 1 has been a treat and I’m pretty pumped for the next one! Bring it on, I say.

The Questing Beast fangs you for reading my ramblings.

Best things about Series 1: the Questing Beast, Merlin’s feather-duster hat.

Worst things: Nimueh’s excessive smirking.