Merlin season 5 finale: a retrospect

While the finale to Merlin Season 5 aired in the UK a few weeks ago, I have avoided discussing it until now, partly because my review of the series overall was only posted part way into season 5, not that long ago, and partly because it has taken me a while to get my thoughts straight.

I understand the season 5 finale has not aired yet in the USA and other locations around the world, so if you have yet to see the final episode of Merlin season 5 and don’t want to know what happened, you might want to skip this post as it will be rife with spoilers. Consider this your final warning.

The BBC as well as actors Colin Morgan and Bradley James revealed before the finale’s Christmas 2012 broadcast that they’d end it with a bang. The bang they had in mind, however, wasn’t exactly what I had hoped for. That there would be a big battle was expected and delivered (you can hardly end a long running fantasy series without a big battle, now, can you?) but the shock for me was Arthur’s death at the end of it all.

Now, it wasn’t like the producers didn’t drop hints this might happen – Merlin has a vision of it early in the season, and his actions attempting to prevent this seem, for a while, to be ensuring it. But this is fantasy, and family friendly BBC viewing; one expects the hero to succeed.

Before I elaborate on Arthur’s death at the end of the episode, first allow me to address a point raised in the previous paragraph – Merlin’s vision of it and his attempts to prevent it apparently leading to its fruition. You see, this is what I expected would happen: in attempting to prevent Mordred from killing Arthur, as Merlin saw in his vision, he alienates Mordred and sends said young wizard right back to Morgana. But this isn’t quite what happened.

Yes, Merlin and Mordred’s relationship did rapidly decline, with Mordred in the end revealing to Morgana that Merlin is a sorcerer, but it wasn’t Merlin’s attempts to keep Mordred away from Arthur that sent Mordred back to Morgana, it was Arthur’s entirely justified decision to execute a magic user who tried to assassinate him, who happened to be Mordred’s girlfriend. Mordred turned on Arthur because Arthur had a would-be assassin executed who Mordred asked him to spare. Mordred’s relationship with Merlin had little to do with it. Thus all the hints in various episodes that it was Merlin’s cold treatment of Mordred that would lead to the latter switching sides were erased, trampled over even. Made pointless.

Now, back to the problem with Arthur dying. It is not merely because he’s a hero, the second main character, and the king that I have a problem with this. It’s that his death represents so much more than just the end of the series and the story. It represents failure. With Arthur’s death, Merlin has failed. He has this big destiny to protect Arthur and help him and guide him, so that Arthur in turn can fulfil his own destiny. And Arthur dying means Merlin, the show’s central character, has failed. So what was it all for?

But it means more than that. You see, Arthur didn’t fulfil his own destiny. He didn’t become the great king who could unite all of England and bring peace between not only warring warlords, but also between magic users and non-magic users, repairing the mistakes of his father. This was stated as one of the things he was destined to achieve: Merlin protects him in the ardent belief that Arthur will ultimately make it okay to be a magic user in Camelot again. But Arthur never made even one step of progress on that. He continued his father’s policies, executing magic users and even rejecting Merlin, albeit briefly, when he learns the truth.

So we’re left with magic being viewed the same as before, Merlin having to continue to hide his true self, potentially more would-be assassins going after Guinevere, and the whole question of the royal succession – while it’s true that Gwen is supported by the knights, it’s not established whether she’s carrying Arthur’s child to continue the line, or if she would have to eventually either pick a successor or marry one of the knights to continue the line. Surely that uncertainty would destabilise Camelot, making it weaker than ever and ultimately unable to unite the warring kingdoms even without Arthur. In short, not only has Arthur not fulfilled his destiny, but also his death leaves those behind unable to fulfil it for him.

But even without destinies fulfilled, Arthur never even became a great king. He was, in the grand scheme of things, no more or less than the other kings in the region. His forces might have defeated Morgana’s army in the end, but he didn’t actually become a great king. The time scales are a little hazy, but it seems that he was king for at most three or four years. In that time all he did was skirmish with a couple of neighbours and defeat Morgana.

In the end the finale was a huge let down. It showed no true victory, only defeat and loss – Merlin lost, Arthur died, and the future promises only uncertainty. But perhaps I should not be surprised. The series was stagnating. Series one showed huge promise, and series two and three were still good, if not quite true to the established elements of the legend. But really one theme stands out as having dictated the series from beginning to end: Status Quo is God. Aside from the first and last two episodes of each of series 2 through 5, you could view them in any order within the season and lose none of the sense.

The only real changes that happen throughout are when Morgana goes bad and when Uther dies, leaving Arthur as king, and to be quite honest, nothing actually changed when Arthur became king. He still did the same things, he still considered what his father was say or do, and the choices he made were no different to what they would have been had Uther remained on the scene.

The writers could have made a truly brilliant piece of TV here if they’d had the guts to present real challenges and make real changes to the way the characters interacted. Had Arthur discovered that Merlin was a sorcerer far sooner – certainly before Uther’s death – it would have given them such great opportunities to present conflict, with Arthur torn between long-held beliefs coupled with loyalty to his father, and his friendship to Merlin and the fact that Merlin keeps saving his life with magic. It would have enabled a changing dynamic between them too, with Arthur coming to understand and respect Merlin more, and Merlin coming to trust Arthur and work with him, rather than in spite of him.

So it wasn’t just the finale that I am disappointed with, but it is a major sticking point. The whole of season 5 failed to live up to the potential of the first season. The BBC has dropped the ball with this one.

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