A Story of Unfulfilled Promise
This article contains minor spoilers for Merlin, up to and including the series finale.
Fantasy always has been, and likely always will be, my favourite genre. Everything I wrote as a kid, from magic goblets to magical lands accessed by use of a magical stone, was fantasy; most of what I read was, too. Harry Potter was my favourite series as a child, and Wheel of Time is my favourite series as an adult.
Both of these series, like many fantasy worlds, draw heavily upon the legend of Merlin. One of the conceits of the fantasy genre is that all stories are allowed to pull from the same base elements and are, in fact, celebrated if they do: coming upon a reference to a sword stuck in stone, or a farm boy who happens to be the Chosen One, or a valiant group of knights doesn’t feel repetitive; it feels like coming home.
Perhaps it’s because I love fantasy so much that I was disappointed in the BBC’s production of Merlin.
From the outset, the story was afraid to take risks. It was unwilling to walk up to the edge of a cliff and step right off, plunging the story to new depths; because each episode insisted on bringing the story back to the same starting point (primarily that Merlin must keep his identity as a warlock hidden) with no significant forward movement, the resolution of each plot event, no matter how steep the build up, was inevitably anticlimactic. And the ridiculous lengths the writers insisted on going to in order to maintain the status quo took away from the overall quality of the story.
(How many times did Arthur happen to be unconscious when Merlin used magic to save him? How often was he just facing the other way? How frequently did the credit get attributed to someone else, no matter how improbable the explanation?)
I think my main problem with the series, right from the get-go, is that fantasy—by its very nature—should be serialized, not episodic. Fantasy is the telling of a grand, sweeping, epic story; whereas Merlin—for whatever reason—was made more as a “Monster of the week” type series (except the monsters are plagues, witches, goblins, and the like). It’s no surprise that, for me at least, the strongest season of the series was the last: The first episode of the fifth season presents Merlin with a vision that shows him how Arthur will die, and he then spends the entire season trying to stop the prophecy from coming true (with each decision, tragically, dragging him closer to fulfilment of the prophecy).
That’s the kind of emotion I like to feel when watching TV. That’s the meaning of destiny: a pull towards something that one tries valiantly to resist, only to inevitably be caught up in it anyway.
It just took the show five seasons to get there.
From the beginning, the show professes the depth of the bond between Merlin and Arthur through the voice of the dragon, Kilgharrah, to whom Merlin frequently goes for advice and to learn more about his destiny. According to Kilgharrah, Merlin and Arthur are two sides of the same coin, and their destinies are tied together—soulmates, in other words (romantic or otherwise)—but after the first season, the show rarely gave this relationship the attention it deserved. How could it, when it refused to let Merlin tell Arthur that he’s a warlock? With such a fundamental part of Merlin kept hidden from Arthur until the very end (the very end!), how could the relationship possibly live up to its promised potential?
Arthur’s story, in general, was hindered by the story’s unwillingness to take chances. Arthur was my favourite character in the series (unsurprising, to people who know me) and Bradley James was brilliant in the role—so again, perhaps I’m judging harsher than I might, if only because I expected so much more.
My problem with Arthur’s story is this: he was prophesied to be the “once and future king”, the king who would unite the land, the king under whom magic would once again flourish—and yet Arthur spends less than a full season of the show as king, and dies before any of this comes to pass. (It’s under the ruling of his wife, Genevieve, that presumably these things come to be.) All of the big events upon which the legend of Merlin rests (the death of Uther, Arthur becoming king, the formation of the round table, the sword in the stone, the reveal of Merlin’s powers) were pushed back by such an extent that when they eventually did happen on screen, the only overwhelming emotion I felt was: “Finally!”
Of course, the show does have episodes of such strength that they alone make the series worth watching. The fourth and fifth seasons are where the show finally finds its footing, with Season 5, as mentioned earlier, the first time the show attempts any kind of serialized format. The season finales—particularly of the third and fourth seasons—are overall very strong (although they left some things to be desired) and the series finale had me sobbing in a ball of don’t touch me on my couch for a full hour afterwards.
The show also does some solid character work (which can be difficult in an episodic format). Morgana’s descent from ward of the king to primary villain over the course of five seasons is superb—especially in regards to her complicated relationship with the king, who loves her like a daughter but whom she hates with a passion—and is sublimely acted by Katie McGrath, while Genevieve’s rise from maid to queen is beautifully done.
There are interesting parallels to be drawn between Merlin and Morgana—both of whom harbour powers which are illegal for them to use in Uther’s Camelot—and how their individual relationships with magic lead them on different paths of destiny. And while the relationship between Arthur and Merlin didn’t live up to its full potential, it’s still one of the strongest elements of the series, and some of my favourite episodes lean fully into the bond created between the two. (“The Labyrinth of Gedref”, anyone?)
Unfortunately, the series’ strongest episodes were too often bogged down by an enormous amount of filler episodes, the content of which had no bearing on the overall story; in my opinion, the series would have done better as a single season run, in which Arthur’s kingship and Merlin’s reveal that he’s a warlock both happen much earlier on. Overall, my high expectations going into the series were disappointed anytime the show strayed too far from its legendary roots; it was when the show fully embraced those roots that it was at its best.
Or perhaps that’s just me, seeking out that feeling of homecoming.