With the recent return to British TV screens of BBC’s popular fantasy show Merlin, based on the King Arthur legend, I think now is a good time for a review, not just of the three episodes so far aired of the current season but also of the previous seasons in a more general way.
Let me first say that I have watched Merlin from the very start and have always enjoyed it. But increasingly I have become frustrated with it, not quite enough to stop watching, but certainly enough to produce long conversations with my fiance. So I’ll start with the things I find frustrating and generally weak about the series.
The biggest problem with the show is how lucky title character Merlin is about keeping the secret about his magic. Basically every week usually Arthur but often another character like Gwen, Morgana in the early seasons or the various knights and other characters who pop up almost but don’t quite find out Merlin has magic. In the first episode of the current series (series 5), there is a perfect archetypal example: Arther gets knocked out, Merlin uses magic to protect him. With all of the times this has happened, it’s a miracle Arthur is still able to speak coherently. In the second episode Arthur and Merlin are being chased; they jump an icy crevice and Arthur just happens to be looking the other way, reloading a crossbow, when Merlin uses magic to break off an icy overhang, thus preventing a pursuer from making the same jump they did.
There are two problems with this: one, it happens every single week. It’s almost become a catchphrase. And that is lazy writing. Two, it’s trying to trade on using the same tension each time. Magic is outlawed, it’s a law put in place by Arthur’s dad Uther and anyone with magic will be put to death, so obviously it would be bad for people to find out that Merlin is a sorcerer. But the same threat gets old, and its reuse means it doesn’t feel like the story is moving forward even when there are other events which drastically change the dynamic between characters. It would be far more interesting if Arthur did find out about Merlin’s magic, at a point when Merlin has no choice but to use it to save his life, and realises that this has happened quite few times. Then Arthur has an internal conflict: does he turn Merlin in, because his dad says magic is evil, or does he keep quiet and develop a new respect for Merlin? Thus is introduced a new conflict, new tensions, and the potential for new storylines, not to mention a better reason for the two of them to actually start liking each other.
Frustration two is the relationship between Merlin and Arthur. I like the dynamic as it is now;it’s funny and believable. But the route to get there was so contrived. The two of them hated one another at first meeting, and as master and servant their dynamic should by rights be very one sided. That seemed to be overcome very quickly. Yes, the two of them experienced troubles together and came through them, but it seems insufficient to justify their current dynamic, even taking into account that some years have passed. A mutual respect based on Arthur knowing Merlin has saved his life a few times would justify that.
Finally, Morgana’s story arc has never felt strong to me. She went from sweet innocent loving ward of Uther to hateful and powerful witch is a very short space of time, a time full of angst, with little justification for it. The drama over Uther being her real father and his refusal to publicly recognise this feels manufactured. Firstly, why shouldn’t he? Kings throughout the middle ages had illegitimate children all the time, who became dukes and duchesses, commanders of their sister’s armies and generally very powerful people. Secondly, Morgana for some reason thinks this gives her a claim to the throne, which it does not while Arthur is alive because male heirs are a step above female heirs regardless of age, plus he’s legitimate and she is not.
In essence, Morgana turning evil seemed to be based primarily on magic – her belief that Uther will turn on her if he finds out she has it, which is justified but bear in mind Gaius is known to have previously used magic but is still valued, so there is good reason for Morgana to think Uther will be more understanding than she imagines, especially since she is his daughter and he has cared for her for a decade or more. Then there’s Morgeuse, Morgana’s magically talented half sister, who from first appearance to last manipulates Morgana and brainwashes her. Morgana doesn’t even see the manipulation, and when Morgeuse tried to use her to channel magic and kill Arthur, Merlin has to poison Morgana to stop it and Morgana blames him for everything. The fact that the half-sister she barely knows tried to user her to kill her half-brother who has always protected her is nothing to her.
Morgana’s turn to the dark side is ill paced – initially slow, then far too fast, until she becomes by seasons 4 and 5 a complete villain with no redeeming qualities, no ongoing inner conflict and sadly none of the depth the other characters have. There’s no wondering if she could be good again, no hint that she remembers the kindnesses done to her by those she now calls enemies, not even a chance she might still have sympathisers within Camelot, because she has become such an evil ball of hatred that it has become hard to believe she can find allies at all.
So those are the things I find frustrating about Merlin, and you may be asking why I still watch regardless. Mostly, I think it is because this show has an alarming amount of charm. The Merlin/Arthur dynamic, ill-founded though it may be, is lively, enjoyable to watch and often quite funny. Actors Colin Morgan and Bradley James seem to have really good on screen chemistry, a few very appropriate facial expressions. There are a lot of lighthearted moments and touching moments which make many of the relationships incredibly human.
The relationship between Arthur and his father Uther is a good one too, and particularly well explored in the latest episode, in which Uther’s ghost returns to Camelot. It is well established how high an opinion of his father Arthur has in previous episodes, but in this episode the writers explore what Uther thinks of Arthur’s reign, and the differences it has compared to his own. Arthur demonstrates that he can both respect his father, and believe his approach was wrong in some ways.
He shows he is his own person and he shows his wisdom with regards to governing: Uther was about gaining respect through fear, while Arthur sought it through understanding. In earlier seasons, the relationship as it is described in season 5 episode 3 is well established, with Arthur often going against his father’s wishes in the name of doing what is right, which has been shown to pay dividends with Mordred in episode 2 of the current series.
Overall, the series is very enjoyable. It has in places some very strong and imaginative writing, but in others lacks complexity or the willingness to take a risk and change the formula. Its saving grace, I think, is the dynamic between the lead actors, the occasionally funny or endearing moments, and the father/son relationship between Uther and Arthur. The colourful costumes and unwillingness to make it gritty, while being due to having a younger target audience – it is broadcast pre-watershed – are a breath of fresh air when compared to, for example, the far more adult adaption of the story, Camelot. The lighthearted tone makes Merlin far more watchable.
So overall I’d give it a 7/10.