The Best and Worst of Merlin: Series 5

Granted Merlin is a serious that can be called the “very definition of mediocre” for a “teen flick.” I hardly disagree with this at all, because it is definitely true, but I still watched it.

Out of all the analyses about Merlin I have (very few to read, actually), I have found this to be quite throught provoking, and rather something that crossed my mind while watching the series from “Pop Between Realities, Home in Time for Tea 74: Merlin“:

As you’ll have gathered from my brief summary above, Merlin pays scant attention to Arthurian ‘canon’. It basically just uses the names and then does what it likes with them. Guinevere is Morgana’s personal maid before she gets promoted to Queen.  Stuff like that.  But that’s okay. Just about every iteration of the Arthurian legend has done this to some extent. Every version is a palimpsest. It was always that way. Geoffrey of Monmouth himself paid no attention to his own past works about Merlin every time he wrote a new one. (Geoffrey of Monmouth is a character in Merlin, by the way, cheekily implying that his books were based on memories of things he witnessed… odd, given that the events of the show bear little or no relation to Geoffery’s tales of Merlin.)

It’s probably needless to remark that the series rarely makes any effort to refer to actual feudal social and economic relations. At the best of times, TV tends to depict pre-capitalist epochs as capitalism in period costume (that relative newcomer capitalism is always claiming to be eternal and universal), and Merlin is very much at the extreme end of this, with the early Middle Ages as little more than a notional backdrop, evoked by putting the cast in vaguely old-fashioned clothes and taking away their mobiles. Indeed, it’s hardly possible to say with certainty that this version of the legend is even supposed to be set in the Middle Ages, given the number of anachronisms. The characters seem to know about the germ theory of disease, for example.  But then, our entire popular idea of ‘the Middle Ages’ is itself a massive post-facto construction, largely fabricated from anachronisms. The castle where they filmed the Camelot scenes is itself an example of this. The Château de Pierrefonds is another palimpsest, a rewritten temporal mish-mash, as are so many ‘old’ buildings.  (I live near a Cathedral that is basically a Victorian copy of itself.) Begun in the 12th century, Pierrefonds was partly demolished in the 17th century, and was left as a ruin until the 19th century, when Napoleon III (he of Eighteenth Brumaire fame) ordered it restored. They ran out of money, and the place was left partly rebuilt in the style of the 14th century. So a good portion of the look of the building consists of hamfisted 19th century attempts to ‘do’ the late Middle Ages for their own modern sensibilities. Which is precisely what the entire Merlin TV series resembles: a happily hamfisted attempt to ‘do’ the Middle Ages (i.e. to romantically and licentiously evoke the style) for modern consumption. I’m striking a disapproving tone but, in fairness, this is just how the past is constructed by the present. It is remembered into existence.  And memory is something we construct. It carries the sense of construction within it. ‘Remember’ means to put pieces back together, as though stitching arms and legs back onto a torso. You remember what was dismembered. The past is rebuilt. And when you rebuild old things, you make them in the image of your own time. (This is exacerbated by modernity, which is the age of capitalism – the ultimate assimilator.) The task is to understand what the rewriting, the remembering and the reiteration tells us about the society doing it.

In line with this, Merlin pays no attention to the actual mechanics of how social hierarchy worked in the early Middle Ages. Arthur and his servant become friends, banter with each other, exchange sitcom put-downs, etc. Arthur has a romance with Guinevere, who is a servant in this version of the legend. There is much agonizing about this, with traditionalist Uther objecting to the match and progressive young Arthur promising Guinevere that one day, when he’s king, things will be different (i.e. medieval kings will no longer care about social class distinctions, or need marital alliances with other potentates). Uther is the only character who ever, even occasionally, acts like he might be from the Middle Ages. Mainly, his adherence to a nebulous old-fashionedness translates into him being wrong about everything all the time. He vaguely resembles something faintly like a genuine medieval king; dramatically, this is represented as stubborn idiocy. People in the past were stupid, in other words, because they failed to think like we think we do.

Another issue is the fact that Guinevere is played by Angel Coulby, a woman of colour. (This is in line with the admirable convention of colour blind casting which sees black actors playing Shakespearean kings at the Globe theatre.) Most black Britons arrived from the 16th century and after (i.e. from the Early Modern Period onwards), and especially after the rise of the slave trade. But it isn’t infeasible that there might have been black Britons during the Middle Ages. We know there were people of colour and ‘mixed-race’ people in Roman Britain. In any case, the fact that Guinevere and her family are black, and nobody ever mentions it, is an issue only in so far as it demonstrates the project of depicting the past as the present with the electricity taken away… and thus, in this version, depicting the present as post-racial, or nearly so. Indeed, sometimes you watch the ructions about Arthur’s romance with Guinevere and wonder if it isn’t all in code. Is what’s really being depicted here an inter-racial romance facing objections from racists? If so, the trajectory depicted by the series represents a panglossian liberal view of how racism can be (probably already has been) overcome. Progress will work its magic. The crusty, bigoted old traditionalists will fall away, leaving the way clear for a younger generation who just don’t care about such old prejudices. Even if social status isn’t code for race, the picture remains the same. The younger generation will do away with distinctions.  Arthur is best buds with Merlin, for example. He makes Guinevere’s brother into a knight. He actually populates the Round Table almost completely from the ranks of worthy commoners. Uther is the old world, stubbornly clinging on; Arthur is the new, liberal, classless, post-racial, meritocratic utopia (i.e. now) waiting to be born.  Hooray for Arthur (i.e. us).

In Merlin, this imminent liberal utopia is called Albion. This is what Merlin exists to bring about. This is the future that the Dragon schemes to midwife into being.  This is simultaneously destined to happen all by itself and is dependant upon the actions of a few key enlightened men – most especially Merlin and Arthur. This is the ‘great man’ theory of history, but it’s also the Whiggish march of ineluctable upward progress, temporally relocated to the (notional) Middle Ages. And we know what came after the Middle Ages, don’t we? After medievalism came modernity; after feudalism came capitalism. This set of inbuilt assumptions, so implicit as to be utterly silent and unconscious, is hardly unique to Merlin. On the contrary, such assumptions are endemic. As mentioned, capitalism likes to pretend it has always existed, but it also likes to present itself as the summit of human social and moral development, the apex towards which history was always headed. Nobody ever said ideology had to be consistent.

But all of this is to ignore the dragon in the room. Because there’s one thing that Merlin is about that eclipses anything about class or race. Merlin is about gay people and homophobia. It is openly about this. It can barely even be called a subtext. It’s just the text.

Merlin himself never has a single heterosexual relationship throughout the whole five year run. Okay, he has a rather sweet little dalliance with a persecuted girl (she turns into a winged panther every now and again… hey, nobody’s perfect) but it never gets anywhere near transcending friendship before she dies. (Parenthetically, she later comes back from the dead to help Merlin out of a very sticky situation, simply because he was kind to her… which is lovely. I just love it when the hero wins because he has help that he earned via an act of selfless kindness. That sort of thing doesn’t happen often enough. It never happens to Harry Potter, for instance, who is never selfless.  Ever.) There’s no Vivien for Merlin in this version. He is sometimes thought by Arthur to have crushes on various female characters but the assumption is always wrong.  The non-magic Arthur, by contrast, is matched with a series of eligible princesses before settling down with Guinevere. Merlin himself never responds to Guinevere’s early interest in him. I’m not going to pretend that no magic person in the show ever has a heterosexual relationship, but it always seems like an afterthought. Merlin himself is clearly fixated upon Arthur to the exclusion of everyone else. They are so obviously designed to be slashable that slashing them hardly seems worth bothering with (though I daresay it’s been done). Merlin’s guardian and fellow sorcerer, Gaius, lives as a bachelor. Magic Morgana has no heterosexual relationship either, and when she turns evil it is largely under the instigation and influence of Morgause, a beautiful sorceress to whom Morgana becomes devoted and whom she calls ‘Sister’ (they are notionally related). Morgause, it should be noted, is first seen in male battle dress, and never has a heterosexual relationship, murdering her ally Cenred when he tries to claims sex with her as a reward.

But the most important marker in all this is secrecy. Morgana is closeted, fearful that Uther will discover her secret: that she’s a seer. Merlin is closeted. There is repeated talk of how he has to ‘hide his true nature’ from his best friend. He must hide it, of course, because he lives in a society that fears, persecutes and legislates against ‘his kind’. Moreover, his best friend is the son of the ruler of that society, and he props up the regime that would burn Merlin alive! This is an active threat: several times during the series, ‘goodie’ characters are threatened with execution on charges of sorcery. Arthur is conflicted over the rights and wrongs of his father’s persecution of magic, flip-flopping back and forth so that Merlin can get his hopes up before the status quo is restored ready for next week’s episode. But there’s no doubt that Arthur would react badly to the knowledge that Merlin has magic. He is furious when he finally finds out (though, of course, they make it up).

This leads me to something else, which alters the whole picture. Merlin’s project to bring about Arthur’s kingship, and thus Albion, is inherently a project to bring about a new society in which ‘magic’ is tolerated and ‘his kind’ no longer have to stay in the closet. Yet Arthur is by no means unequivocally a supporter of what we might call ‘magic rights’. On the contrary, whatever his periodic qualms, he’s an extremely effective enforcer for Uther’s regime. At one point he holds a sword to a child’s throat in order to force information out of a peaceful band of druids. Uther’s regime is, let’s not forget, openly genocidal. He has ethnically cleansed sorcerers, druids and the religiously recalcitrant out of his kingdom, and literally exterminated the stragglers. Arthur helps him. Actively. Repeatedly. Continuously. And Merlin is Arthur’s best friend. He helps Arthur. He helps Uther. He protects their regime. Actively. Repeatedly. Continuously. Merlin helps them frustrate attempts by sorcerers, witches, faeries and druids to topple their state. Merlin is a comprador. A collaborator. He’s a gay man who has allied himself with murderous persecutors of gay people. He’s a Jew voluntarily working for Eichmann. And he’s the hero. Uther’s policies, and Arthur’s complicity, are not left unchallenged by the series, but ultimately Arthur is absolved and supported. He’s a goodie, despite what he does, because he’s Arthur. His goodness is declared by fiat.

This is not only silencing of gay people who actively fight homophobia on the grounds that society as it stands is inherently homophobic. The ultimate message is that the oppressed should not try to liberate themselves, or fight their oppressors, or topple genocidal tyrants; rather they should wait for liberals from within (and at the top of) the system to eventually hand down reforms out of the goodness of their hearts. Shut up, stay at home, keep quiet, don’t fight, just wait for things to change all by themselves. At length, the system will right itself. Any attempt – and according to Merlin it really is any attempt at all– to oppose the system instantly collapses into villainy. All the magic opponents of Uther and Arthur are evil. Every last one of them.  Only the magic allies of Uther and Arthur (Merlin and Gaius) are allowed to be good people.

Look where the utter detachment from real history leads. It leads to pusillanimous guff like this. It leads to the idea that justice comes from above, a gift from the same people who rule an unjust society. It forgets that universal male suffrage in Britain could’ve waited forever if it’d depended upon Gladstone’s conscience, and that it was only when Chartists started taking over Hyde Park that the establishment caved in.  It forgets that it was the civil rights movement that brought civil rights, not benevolent Presidents acting from unpressured principle. It forgets that it was the Suffragists who made female suffrage an unignorable issue. It forgets that it was the Abolitionist movement, and the slaves who stole themselves from their masters and joined the Union armies, that brought Lincoln to the point where he started issuing proclamations. It forgets that it was Watt Tyler and John Ball, and the thousands who backed them, who helped start the decline of feudalism in England, and that it was the Levellers and Diggers and the New Model Army who pushed it further. It forgets that it was a Europe-wide surge of revolution that ended the First World War. It forgets Tahrir Square. It forgets Stonewall. It forgets that every last scintilla of real progress and justice has had to be wrenched from the clenched teeth and grasping claws of the ruling classes since the dawn of civilisation, fought for and won by the oppressed themselves, by ordinary people fighting and shouting and refusing to obey – and yes, sometimes, killing kings.

Instead, in Merlin, as in so many other products of the capitalist culture industries, the oppressed in revolt become evil and more powerful than the oppressors. The oppressors become the victims of the oppressed. The oppressed become the aggressors. They become machiavellian schemers. They become simultaneously cynical demagogues, fanatical zealots and amoral nihilists. The various villains that Arthur and Merlin face are all representatives of the groups that Uther has ruthlessly persecuted. They are engaged in antagonism because Uther has persecuted them, but they are depicted as the evil victimisers of the poor tyrant who just wants to live in peace. Their behaviour – disproportionately ruthless and destructive – justifies the structural violence of Uther’s regime. It’s perhaps unfair to hold Merlin up as a whipping boy. This is a very common and old strategy. On screen, it’s as old as Stagecoach and Birth of a Nation. And it goes back much further than moving pictures.

It’s worth remembering the origin of the word ‘villain’. It comes from villein. The villeins were pretty much the lowest of the low in feudal Europe. The scum of the earth. The serfs. Peasants, tied to the land. Effectively, the property of the landowner. And they were in the majority. Our word for ‘evil person’ or ‘antagonist’ comes from the word that described the great masses of oppressed, bullied, exploited working people in feudal Europe, the people who created all the wealth that the kings ate and wore and traded and stored and administered and fought wars with and sat their fat arses on.

As ever, in Merlin, the oppressed and persecuted are both depicted as baser and nastier than anyone else and held to a higher moral standard. They must shut up and put up, and wait forebearingly in hope for reform, or they become malignant. To resist is to become wicked, by definition. Look what happens to Morgana. She discovers that she has magical abilities; she comes to empathise with people victimised by Uther’s regime; she becomes disgusted by Uther’s cruelty; she is approached by people fighting back; she eventually goes over to their side. But, of course, the druids and sorcerers she meets are cynical and machiavellian and cruel… because revolutionaries always are. Morgause uses and manipulates Morgana. She allies herself with a vicious warlord. She slaughters the innocent. Morgana’s ethical awakening, her rejection of the system from which she has previously benefitted, and her identification with the oppressed, is specifically shown to stem from empathy and moral outrage at injustice… and yet, somehow, without any rhyme or reason, when she finally departs Camelot and openly goes over to the other side, she becomes a sadistic psychopath with no regard for the suffering of the innocent, acting from motives of thwarted ambition, petty jealousy and irrational vindictiveness. Her political awakening comes from compassion and simultaneously nullifies that compassion.  It couldn’t be clearer: political outrage, no matter how well intentioned, instantly becomes dangerous the moment it steps beyond the boundaries of the state, of the mainstream, of the legal, of reformism, of consensus political normality.

While watching the series, I thought, more or less, the same thing about these interactions. According to the NewNowNext article, “HoYay Today: More Homodomestic than Homoerotic“:

HoYay—short for “Homoeroticism, Yay!”—celebrates the sexual potential of male-male relationships. Proponents and auteurs of HoYay in contemporary television series—including such shows as Supernatural, Teen Wolf, Suits, Hawaii Five-0, Sherlock, Community, and Merlin—argue that the intimate relationships highlighted between key male protagonists both mirror and suggest male-male romantic relationships—in short, duos like Derek and Stiles and Merlin and Arthur are gay without being gay. In order to ably name these relationships, they use the term homoerotic, describing not only what is present onscreen but also what becomes present in a culture that extends beyond what is depicted—in fan fiction, slash, ‘shipping blogs, and in the imaginations of both the viewer and possibly the creator of the shows as well.

Homoeroticism has a long history. The earliest surviving fictions, the ancient Sumerian epics of Gilgamesh, feature what has been described as ahomoerotic relationship between the ancient king Gilgamesh and his closest companion, Enkidu. Likewise, the relationship between David and Jonathan in the Bible has likewise been labeled homoerotic. The idea of male-male sexuality, and its potential to inform, outrage, amuse, and intrigue audiences, is as old as fiction itself. In modern parlance, we use a wide variety of terms—bromance, BFFs, besties, husbros, blood brothers, etc.—all of which may suggest that whenever two men share a form of intimacy, be it mental, emotional, spiritual, moral, or physical, there is a potential for eroticism inherent in that relationship.

But homoeroticism is more tightly defined than simply “intimacy” connecting two individuals of the same gender. Strictly speaking, cultural critics like Robert Martin have directly connected homoeroticism to physical intimacy. The term “erotic” itself implies a physical reaction, based on a physiologic stimulation. Homoeroticism is used to describe actions that mirror homosexual behavior without the self-awareness that the actions are, in effect, gay. A useful—if unusual—example of this is the bed scene in the 1987 film Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. In the famous scene, stranded travelers John Candy and Steve Martin awake in the same hotel bed, spooning. Alarmed, Steve Martin asks John Candy where his “other” hand is, and the latter replies, “between two pillows,” as the two men simultaneously realize that John Candy’s hands are, in fact, not between two pillows. Horrified, the duo leap out of opposite sides of the bed and, in a comical scene designed to express their rigid, heterosexual masculinity, the two desperately avoid making eye contact while talking about sports.

Scholar Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has talked about homoeroticism as part of a continuum that may begin with what she terms homosociality, an environment dominated by one gender, and ends with homosexuality. For literary, film, or television characters to be accurately labeled as homosexual, the characters themselves must in some way acknowledge their own sexuality. For Sedgwick and similar scholars, this lack of acknowledgement may reduce a character’s actions into the realm of the homoerotic; the character is performing an activity that may be essentially gay, but without any form of self-acknowledgement or self-awareness, there is no way for a reader or viewer to be completely sure.

Awareness is a key concept here, because such actions are all ultimately based on the awareness of a character, an author, or a filmmaker. In a series likeMerlin, there is little doubt that Merlin and Arthur share an intimate bond. For Arthur, Merlin is a moral touchstone: an advisor, a confidante, the person who knows him better than any other. For Merlin, Arthur is his leader and, as he often asserts, his “destiny;” he would sacrifice himself for Arthur without hesitation, because of the faith he has in him. The two share a world dominated by homosociality. Despite being married to Guinevere, Arthur is usually in the company of his knights or, more commonly, alone in the woods with Merlin. The two share intimate thoughts, private jokes, and can communicate in a type of shorthand that most long-term duos share, but few others do.

Despite this intimacy, though, there is absolutely nothing erotic about their relationship. Though frequently in physical proximity, the two rarely touch, and often when they do, they do so in a violent manner, such as when Arthur uses Merlin for sword practice or smacks him on the back of the head for an impertinent remark.

Merlin and Arthur have almost never shared any moment that could be strictly labeled as erotic. The same is true for characters in other shows likeSupernatural, Hawaii Five-O, Suits and Sherlock. Even in Teen Wolf, where the male body is commonly on display and made the subject of the viewer’s gaze (oh, those frequent locker room scenes,) the characters do not often engage in behavior that can be seen as mirroring homosexual activity. When they do—such as the scene where Stiles is rendered unconscious and falls on top of Derek in a police station—the action is played somewhat for laughs, no different than in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Why, then, do we continually read these relationships as homoerotic? This is partly because of the general nature of male friendships. Anthropologists have long observed that, in modern Western cultures, male friendships tend to be formed in larger groups and not between more intimate pairs. Male friendships rely on activity to cement their bonds; talking between male friends is more commonly done to achieve some task or to pass the time than to discuss feelings or other intimate issues. However, when two males form a “dyad”—a term that describes an intensely close relationship between two individuals—they create a more intimate bond.

Traditionally, males have formed dyads only with their romantic partners. However, male “best-friendships” are becoming more commonplace, and television shows like Merlin are depicting these changing paradigms of male friendship. Yet how do they do so, when there are few examples to draw from in real life? I would argue that characters like Arthur and Merlin are modeled, in a very real way, not on male best friends, but, indeed, on gay male couples, or—to be a bit more broad about this—on married couples in general. Consider the dynamics between the two: they argue, tease, and cajole; they are each other’s compass; they spend more time with the other than anyone else; one is the breadwinner, one tends to the home. In short, they mirror traditional (and in some ways outdated) interpretations of married couples.

Such depictions between two men in popular culture have been around for a long time. Felix and Oscar in Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple had a similar relationship nearly fifty years ago. So how are Merlin and Arthur different from Oscar and Felix? It is not that these types of characters have much changed; rather, it is how the viewing culture understands the relationship that has changed. Few individuals would have seen Oscar and Felix forty years ago and imagined them as a gay male couple; yet the same pairing today would find such a reading almost inevitable. As homosexual couples have become more visible, more prevalent, and more commonplace, society’s understanding of the dynamics of their relationships likewise becomes more visible and more commonplace.

In creating and sustaining these relationships, television series creators are bypassing the potential of the homoerotic and moving directly into the potential of homosexual relationships themselves. They borrow not from an eroticized world, but something arguably far more intimate. The erotic, after all, can happen accidentally, or exist as a byproduct of happenstance, as Planes, Trains, and Automobiles demonstrates. For two characters—for two men—to elect to enter into a dyad, to enter into an intimate coupling with another, is an action far more deliberate, and meaningful, than any accidentally erotic moment could ever entail.

In some ways, such relationships may be viewed as progressive, indicating not only changing mores in the ways males act as friends and toward each other, but also showing that gay male couplings have become so common in popular culture that their underpinnings can be aped by other aspects of the culture and understood by the viewer. Merlin and Arthur’s bond is designed to be the most significant on the show—and what bond is more significant than marriage?

Nonetheless, one could also suggest that such pairings are highly regressive as well. For, indeed, instead of mirroring gay male relationships, why not actually make the duos gay? Why not bring sexual intimacy in with the other levels of intimacy that already exist in the relationship? Sadly, such pairings between two men, where sexual intimacy combines with all other forms of intimacy, remain bleakly rare on television. In asking viewers to fill in the erotic blanks, the producers and writers of these shows are also negating the potential of these characters, and such relationships in general, of existing in ways that supersede what is considered both normal and acceptable.

Nonetheless, these intimate dyads represent a real cultural sea change in television’s depictions of men. Ultimately, these characters may not be homoerotic; perhaps, then, we should label them as homodomestic instead, mirroring not sexual behavior but intimate, joined—bluntly stated, married—relations between members of the same sex. Viewers are asked to fill in the sexual blanks themselves—which they do in spades, through slash, fan-fiction, and ‘shipping—but sex here exists, perhaps, as an afterthought. In the end, Merlin and Arthur, like Derek and Stiles, and Sam and Dean, and Dean and Castiel, and Troy and Abed, and Steve and Danno, and Holmes and Watson, and so many others, may not be homoerotic; but what they are, perhaps, has the potential to be far more significant—and intimate—than sex.

One particular blogger, The Whole Annechilada, wrote this in the post, “I Am Woman – Hear Me ROAR! (Of Guys And Gals and Merlin)“:

As the daughter of a mom who was active in the 70s Women’s Movement and a proud member of N.O.W., you can say I’ve been trained from birth to think about feminism and women’s and men’s roles in society.

While a grad student in the 1990s, I took that interest and focused it on the medieval period, looking at gender roles in medieval Europe, specifically Ottonian Germany. Had I actually finished that darn dissertation, I would have been well-versed on the representations of women and power in the 10th and 11th centuries.

Oh well. I got married and had kids instead, even becoming a stay-at-home mom – something I never expected I would do. Now instead of reading up on Carolingian queens and Ottonian nuns, I think more often about gender roles in our current society. Especially where I fit (or don’t fit) into them. I’m still a feminist. Feminism means, for me, that women and men should have equal opportunities to pursue what they want in life, without judgment or discrimination, whether that be to lead a Fortune 500 company or to raise kids at home. Or both (if one could manage it; I certainly couldn’t!).

What does this have to do with the BBC series Merlin, you say? Well, the more I fell in love with the show (and believe me, I’ve fallen hard!), the more I started thinking about the portrayal of men and women in it.

We Merlinians all know of the glorious bromance between Arthur and Merlin, and the close-knit bond between the Knights. We celebrate it. We root for it. Friendship is a beautiful thing, and male friendship is certainly something I wish we saw displayed more openly in our modern society. We also watch the intricate father-son dance between Uther and Arthur, Arthur often wanting to defy his dad (and sometimes doing so) to pursue what is right, but also caving at times out of respect for his father (and his King). We love Gwaine and Percival, cheer on Eleon, laugh at Leon’s apparent immortality, and are transfixed when those little moments between Arthur and Merlin come on screen. I love it. I love it.

But what about the women?

The quadrangle at the center of the show revolves around Arthur and Merlin, Morgana and Gwen. Morgana and Gwen are each strong characters, although destined to become opposites, to become enemies, a far cry from the friendly but still servant-master relationship of season one. As Merlin and Arthur’s friendship strengthens, Gwen’s and Morgana’s falls apart.

I love Gwen. I love that she wasn’t what I was expecting physically for the role of Guinevere, and that her background, as that of a servant, a blacksmith’s daughter, certainly challenged the traditional portrayal of Gwen and added depth to her relationship with Arthur. She is NOT of high birth. She does not have magic. But she will rise, and in the end she is the strongest female character – she will rule Albion and, we all hope, she will be a fair and just queen.

While I know the well-known Arthur/Gwen/Lancelot triangle was a tricky one for this self-proclaimed family-oriented show, I appreciated how the writers chose to portray Gwen as enchanted when she cheated on Arthur, allowing her persona as the epitome of the loyal friend and wife to survive. (Although come on, why did no one ever question whether Gwen was under a spell? Why did no one ever find that silly charmed bracelet? That plot point continues to bother me – although I suppose one could argue we saw enough before that hinted at Gwen’s interest in Lancelot that maybe it wouldn’t be hard for her – and others – to think she could really betray Arthur. Except we as the audience know she couldn’t – it’s not her character!) She’s the conscience of the show, almost always the voice of reason.

Did I hate Morgana? No. Was I supposed to? Maybe. For one thing, I figured it would be taking too much creative license for the writers to turn her character into a good one. I also felt we’d been given enough insight into her past to understand her deep feelings of betrayal when her half-sister Morgause (about whom she’d never been told) was killed, and when she discovered she was not Uther’s ward, but rather his true daughter. Yes, she became twisted by the desire for power and revenge, but I still felt sorry for her more than anything. She created her own demise.

Beyond the two main characters of Gwen and Morgana, what women do we see in Merlin, and how does the show portray them? Many of them (Nimue, Morgause, Sophia) are sorcerers – or, to use the feminine version of that word, sorceresses. Morgause also acts much the part of a knight – she wears armor, commands an army – essentially doing many of the things we’d expect only men of the period to be doing.

Do we see this as a positive thing, in that here are powerful women – high priestesses – wielding great influence and, well, power? Or a negative thing, in that many of these women use magic for evil purposes? Or are those purposes only evil to the Uthers of the world? We as the audience long throughout the entire series for Merlin to be able to reveal his magic, and for Arthur to restore the practice of magic to the kingdom. That’s the driving desire of the show. That’s the hope. So we nod in assent when Merlin proclaims that magic itself is not inherently evil, it’s how people choose to use it. So true. Substitute the word power or influence for magic, and we have a statement applicable to the modern world.

I am no Arthurian scholar, but I know we read some of these tales in my undergrad and grad days, and am sure we discussed the religious symbolism in them and what that would have meant at the time – whether one thinks of Arthur as the 5th-6th century possibly historical figure, or of the full medieval renderings of the tales as told by Geoffrey of Monmouth and Thomas Malory in the Middle Ages. The stamping out of the Old Religion can be seen as connected to the Christianization of Britain, during which druidism and other native religion beliefs were, indeed, persecuted. It’s no surprise to most people that the entire Arthurian legend can be seen as Christian allegory, replete with Christian imagery. This same element remains in the TV series.

And yet interestingly enough in this BBC show, the Old Religion – namely, that of magic, of the druids, is seen as the ideal. Uther is not a sympathetic figure; he is ruthless and, well, frankly just bad. We see Arthur as the hope that magic will be allowed to return. And we root for Merlin. We know he is good. We know, as his father Balinor says, that Merlin is a son of the earth, the sea, the sky. Magic is the fabric of this world, and [Merlin was] born of that magic. [Merlin is] magic itself. All the same, it’s possible to interpret him as a Moses or a John the Baptist. Christianity and magic do not have to be incompatible.

Still, where are the women? I am not the only one who has raised this cry. Arthur gets Gwen, but I feel as if that relationship definitely takes a backseat to the bond Arthur has with Merlin (and all the shippers go “yay!”). None of the poor knights seem to have relationships with anyone. I guess that’s partly the nature of knighthood – who’s got time for romance when you’re questing and fighting and rooting out evil all the time? Gwaine finally gets a girl in season 5 and guess what? She’s evil, too. I know there’s only so much the series could do, and perhaps romantic relationships for more of the characters were just too burdensome to tackle. I’m actually O.K. with that, since I know in spite of my own passion for romance novels and happily ever afters that not everyone thinks a love connection has to be the main goal in life. I LIKE that a television show chose to focus less on that and more on the richness of friendship. I really do. We need to see more of that on TV.

There are a few characters beyond Gwen who give a more positive image of women. Hunith, Merlin’s mother, is warm and welcoming, and fiercely protective of her son. She lives simply and is humble, and intelligent. Sadly, she is the only mother of a main character we see in true relationship with that character. Where is Gwen’s mother? Morgana’s died. Arthur’s died. We see few mothers, and that breaks my heart.

We get a powerful and discerning queen in Queen Annis. Elena, a prospective bride for Arthur, seems fine, if a bit blah – and traditional. But other women don’t come off so well – Gaius’ old love Alice has an evil monster in her trunk, Vivian, another prospective bride for Arthur, is a blonde doofus. And who can forget Uther’s hilariously disgusting troll wife?

Then there’s Freya. Ah, Freya. Merlin finally gets the girl. But only for one episode, albeit a very powerful episode. Is there a Merlinian alive who wasn’t moved by the kiss those two exchanged – and especially by the tear that rolled down Merlin’s face? Didn’t we all hope that somehow, some day, Freya and Merlin could find a way to be together? Yet this girl is a cursed beast, whom everyone else except Merlin sees as an evil, terrifying monster. Was it a great device to set up the Lady of the Lake? Sure. But does the Freya plotline give us a favorable depiction of women? You tell me.

So when we ask where are the women, there are actually quite a few to be found; they’re just not as prominent as some of the male characters. I’m sure I’ve missed some – let me know if I’ve omitted a favorite.

One could make arguments on both sides as to whether or not the portrayal of women in the Merlin series is good or bad. Of the women who wield great power, most of them do so in what we the audience deem an evil way. They are motivated by the desire for power and/or revenge, motivators typically seen as negatives. The Old Religion – a religion in which women featured prominently – is decried as evil. A lot of this goes hand-in-hand with the original legends and the messages those legends seeked to impart, immersed in Christian ideals and imagery.

For me the scales tip in favor of the good. From the start Morgana and Gwen show independent spirits and make their own decisions. Yes, they are sometimes circumscribed by the circumstances and realities around them. As I’ve rewatched it recently, I’m glad to realize that Morgana was never the retiring wallflower I somehow remembered from that first season.

Gwen, too, has a great deal of freedom and spirit for the limitations of her character. I certainly wish they had done much more with her after she assumed the queenship; I’d hoped they’d show more lovey-doveyness between Arthur and her, for one (sorry, Romance Queen here). I was annoyed that she seemed to kind of melt into the background at the beginning of season 5. But I love the scenes in which we saw her ruling alongside Arthur. She offers counsel to him – in front of others, and often at odds with what he or the other men had proposed – and he would listen and usually agree. That’s a partnership. I loved that he treated her as an equal in decision making.

She IS an equal. She is powerful. Nothing conveys this more beautifully than the haunting image of Gwen in the final moments of season 5, sitting alone on the throne, regal and serene-looking as we the audience are falling apart over Arthur’s death. We know from previous scenes that she has deduced Merlin is a great wizard, the great sorcerer – and we induce from her reactions that she’s O.K. with that. The idea that magic may again be freely practiced flares up with new hope, and it is that image of hope that sustains our belief that in spite of Arthur’s death, Merlin did not fail in his destiny. Arthur WAS the greatest king Albion had ever known. And now the destiny of the kingdom rests not on Merlin’s shoulders, but on the shoulders of a powerful, just, and loyal woman.

Long Live The Queen!

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For many, many reasons, I disagree with a great deal of this. First, Guinevere is considered a Token Minority, and in the end, as the love interest and marriage to Arthur Pendragon, this is what actually makes her relevant in the series. Second, as she begins as a maidservant to Lady Morgana, this characterization still perpetuates white supremacy, including the fact that much of her role is tied to helping Merlin, her character is there to help the white people succeed.

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As for Morgana, the above post above suggests she “created her own demise,” which I also disagree with. First, we know that she was very close with King Uther Pendragon, who was quite prejudice towards those who used magic, as he himself stated in The Dragon’s call, when executing Thomas James Collins:

Let this serve as a lesson to all. This man, Thomas James Collins, is adjudged guilty of conspiring to use enchantments and magic and- pursuant to the laws of Camelot- I, Uther Pendragon, have decreed that such practices are banned on penalty of death. I pride myself as a fair and just king, but for the crime of sorcery there is but one sentence I can pass.When I came to this land, this kingdom was mired in chaos but, with the people’s help, magic was driven from the realm. So I declare a festival to celebrate twenty years since the Great Dragon was captured and Camelot freed from the evil of sorcery. Let the celebrations begin!

With this in mind, and that her father hid the truth of her birth from her, this creates the eventual atrocities of her character. Not because her being different is actually evil, but because she brought up to believe that it was as such.Again, like Gwen, her characterization is entirely made through other male characters: Uther, Arthur, and Merlin.

Morgana also is similar to many other characters, like Nancy Downs in The Craft, Miss Delphox and Madame Karabraxos in Doctor Who’s Time Heist, and the Carrionites in Doctor Who’s The Shakespeare Code: They are all ambitious. Genevieve, in contrast, is not shown to be particular ambitious. But before turning evil, Morgana wasn’t ambituous either, so this is sort of storytelling is a comment on how women should behave. That ambitious women are a threat to men and their kingdoms. This is what ties her narrative to feminism. All the actions her character carries out, like the others listed here, are tied to feminism.

Series 5 deals with the sorcerer Mordred asserting himself in Camelot who will finally kill King Arthur. Meanwhile, Morgana brings Queen Guinevere over to the dark side.

The Best:

The Dark Tower, and The Drawing of the Dark

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The Dark Tower has Gwen snatched from Camelot by Morgana, while The Drawing of the Dark has Mordred finally reveal the identity of Emrys to Morgana.

According to the DigitalSpy review of The Dark Tower:

The death of Gwen’s father – not to mention her familial bond with Elyan – is rarely addressed on Merlin, so imagine our relief when ‘The Dark Tower’ opened by highlighting both, with Angel Coulby and Adetomiwa Edun actually engaging in a meaningful dialogue.

It’s not a fleeting moment either – this episode is a fine showcase for both Coulby and Edun, with the latter arguably getting more to do than in any episode since his series three debut.

‘The Dark Tower’ begins with Morgana (Katie McGrath) ambushing Gwen, her brother and his fellow knights with some magic snakes – not her most daring plot, or the show’s best effects work, it has to be said. Thankfully it’s just a blip – elsewhere this week, the CGI is up to Merlin’s usual high standards, especially the epic exterior of the Dark Tower.

Upon learning that his lady love has been snatched, Arthur (Bradley James) leaps into action, with Merlin (Colin Morgan) providing moral support – and how great was that moment early on with their handshake? A rare moment of the King treating his servant as a true equal.

Meanwhile, evil Morgana’s busy sassing her way through her latest fiendish scheme – a trap for Arthur, with Gwen as the bait. This may all feel a little familiar, but there’s a twist to the witch’s latest dose of villainy – it involves the Dark Tower, a foreboding residence where Gwen is kept captive…

The tower is full of things that go bump in the night – you can imagine any younger viewers jumping out of their skin at certain points this week. We hear a lot about how much “darker” Merlin has become series by series, and this week it becomes clear that the show becoming more adult doesn’t just apply to emotional maturity…

Clearly those behind the show are now willing to engage in some proper psychological scares and grotesquery too! Angel Coulby’s terrific as Gwen suffers something of a nervous collapse, broken down by Morgana’s cruel trickery…

Leon and Percival’s dark dreams eventually lead Arthur and his men to the equally dark tower – which unfortunately lies beyond an impenetrable forest, called the Impenetrable Forest. No, really.

Merlin ultimately uses his magic to lead Arthur and company out of the woods – too often our hero’s great abilities are reduced to ‘the power to throw an enemy against a wall’, so our his Thundercats-esque ‘sight beyond sight’ glimpsed here is a fun and novel invention.

The episode culminates in an Indiana Jones-style incursion into the Dark Tower and, in the final scenes, the surprise death of Elyan. He was always one of Arthur’s less well-utilised knights, but writing the character out – even in such a noble fashion – is still a bold move. Credit to the Merlin writers and again to Adetomiwa Edun – it’s his best performance in the role by a mile.

It’s just a shame that Elyan’s departure was signposted – the brief appearance of flirty imp Queen Mab was a rather random addition to the episode, and imagine how much more shocking his exit would have been if we hadn’t been expecting one of Arthur’s knights to depart this mortal coil.

But we’ll forgive this episode any slip-ups for that genuinely surprising final twist – Morgana’s scheme has worked and Gwen has turned to the dark side. It’s a game-changer for sure, though whether or not she’s really lost it, or is just the subject of dark magic, remains to be seen – we’re betting the latter.

Darker than Merlin‘s ever dared to be before, ‘The Dark Tower’ provides something different than the usual derring-do – this show often comes under fire for continuing to exploit an already well-trodden formula, but this week Merlin heads out of its comfort zone a little, with terrific results.

According to the DigitalSpy review of The Drawing of the Dark:

It’s the antepenultimate instalment of Merlin – yes, that’s third-to-last in fancy talk – and things are getting serious. We all knew that Mordred (Alexander Vlahos) would play a key role in this fifth series when he was first introduced in the opening episodes, but since then the writers of Merlin have seen fit to relegate the character to a supporting role for the most part.

This week though, Morded is afforded a great deal more screen time, allowing Vlahos to showcase his range – and the 24-year-old actor does not disappoint when asked to do more than simply lurk in the shadows.

Out on a hunt, Arthur (Bradley James), Merlin (Colin Morgan) and the knights stumble across the scene of a brutal attack close to the city walls. Mordred pursues a mysterious figure lurking nearby – it’s Kara, with whom he appears to have a past connection, quite possibly a romantic one.

When Mordred allows his old friend to escape, Merlin’s suspicions about his fellow warlock are once again inflamed. But in these early scenes, we were surprised to find ourselves actually siding with Mordred – who genuinely means no harm – over Merlin, who ruthlessly pursues his quarry. Could it be that our hero’s undying suspicion and refusal to trust Mordred is what ultimately pushes him to the dark side?

Once he’s reunited with Kara in the depths of the forest, Mordred is able to be truly honest and open, revealing a good deal about his real character – he genuinely trusts Arthur and considers the king to be his friend. That’s what makes his subsequent downfall all the more tragic.

Merlin gives Mordred his word that he will keep Kara’s existence a secret, but a determined Arthur eventually uncovers her hiding place. Kara makes a mistake in attempting to strike the king – with only Merlin’s quick magical reflexes saving Arthur from serious injury – and showing no remorse, she’s locked away in a cell to rot.

Mordred won’t believe that Merlin did not betray him and swears vengeance. Refusing to listen to reason becomes a recurring theme in ‘Drawing’ – in a powerful scene well-played by guest star Alexandra Dowling and series regular Bradley James, Arthur won’t accept fault on his part when Kara lashes out over his treatment of the druids, while Kara herself won’t accept that the king is not a tyrant like his father.

As with Merlin’s suspicious pursuit of Mordred, stubbornness and single-mindedness lead to catastrophe – outed as a friend of Morgana, Kara is sentenced to death. In a desperate attempt to save her, a tearful Mordred reveals his connection to the prisoner and begs Arthur to spare her, but despite his reservations, the King refuses to change her sentence.

From this point, Mordred seems locked into his dark fate – even his nemesis Merlin buckles, asking Arthur to reconsider, but the monarch will not budge. Merlin fears that if Mordred departs Camelot, he will fall under Morgana’s influence once more and is desperate to keep him within the castle walls.

Faced with a difficult choice – allow Kara to die or allow her to live and possibly doom his friend, the king – Merlin betrays Mordred for real, but he and Arthur are too late to stop the driven druid. In these scenes, Alexander Vlahos succeeds in making the viewer feel Mordred’s torment, as he’s torn between his love for Kara and his disgust at her new-found bloodthirsty nature.

Arthur and the knights pursue the fugitives into the night and Merlin’s nightmarish vision is in danger of coming true when Mordred draws his sword on the king – but a well-timed blow from Percival (Tom Hopper) averts disaster.

Merlin’s continuing pleas for mercy fall on deaf ears as Arthur remains steadfast and the stage appears set for a final, terrible battle, with Arthur’s nature sealing his own fate. However, the king ultimately offers Kara the hand of forgiveness, only for her to slap it away – refusing to repent for her crimes and securing her place in the hangman’s noose.

Mordred has been locked in the cells – seemingly powerless, he can do little but spit vitriol at Merlin. But as the viewer knows, he’s far from powerless and unleashes his powerful magic, escaping captivity and heading straight for Morgana’s fortress. Brought before the dark queen (Katie McGrath), he reveals the information she has sought for so long – the true identity of Emrys…

‘The Drawing of the Dark’ is an epic, engaging and emotional episode of Merlin, anchored by a fantastic, series-best performance from Alexander Vlahos. With Mordred turning to the dark side and Merlin’s identity exposed to his greatest foe, the stage is set for a powerful and quite possibly heartbreaking climax.

The Worst:

The Hollow Queen

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The Hollow Queen was an episode that didn’t do much, and I felt like it lacked a certain creativity.

According to the DigitalSpy review of The Hollow Queen:

When heroic Merlin (Colin Morgan) learns that the sickly sister of young Druid boy Daegal is wasting away in the distant Valley of the Fallen Kings, he casts aside his concerns about the long trip and volunteers to help the visitor – played by impressive newcomer Alfie Stewart.

Gaius (Richard Wilson) naturally does his “It’s too dangerous, Merlin!” bit, but his words fall on deaf ears and soon the young warlock is embarking on yet another epic adventure. However, Daegal’s antsy behaviour soon arouses our hero’s suspicion, and before long the druid is revealed to be a pawn of Morgana (Katie McGrath) – that girl’s got more pawns than a chess-set…

Merlin’s subjected to some unpleasant black goo and while he doesn’t immediately succumb to its black, gooey effects, he’s in a bad way until a remorseful Daegal returns to save him.

Too often, the character of Merlin is sidelined in what is ostensibly his show, so a storyline that throws him into the centre of the action and sees him being proactive makes for a pleasant change.

It’s a shame then that he subsequently spends a good portion of the episode’s latter half flat on his back – having Merlin do nothing but palpitate and grumble is not the best use of Colin Morgan’s talents.

Back in Camelot, it’s all grand romantic gestures and public displays of affection for Arthur (Bradley James) and Gwen (Angel Coulby) – but the Queen, of course, is not her usual winsome self and is plotting her husband’s demise.

A visit from the Sarrum of Amata (John Shrapnel) provides Gwen and Morgana with another opportunity to seize the throne – the Sarrum is the man responsible for holding Morgana (Katie McGrath) under lock and key for several years and she’s determined to kill two birds with one stone…

The sinister sorceress, we learn, was trapped in a dark pit with her beloved Aithusa and dared not used her magic with the white dragon in such close proximity – her love for the creature is her only weakness.

Not only is it satisfying to finally have the plot thread of Morgana’s imprisonment resolved, but the Sarrum’s description of her fate alongside the crippled and broken Aithusa is wonderfully dark and evocative.

Morgana plans to prevent an alliance between the powerful Sarrum and Arthur – which she’s convinced will eliminate any chance she might have of seizing Camelot’s throne by force. At her partner-in-crime’s behest, Gwen does her best to sidle up to the Sarrum to disrupt the negotiations and ensure Arthur’s demise, and he’s more than happy to play along once Camelot’s throne is dangled in front of his nose…

Gwen’s also spinning a web of lies to cover up Merlin’s absence, raising the question of exactly how much longer her treachery can possibly go undiscovered when she’s openly lying in front of Gaius and Merlin. Speak up, guys, or we’ll have another never-ending Morgana / Agravaine / Mordred situation on our hands.

Merlin manages to recover from his sickness in time for the episode’s final third, and ‘The Hollow Queen’ ends on a surprisingly dark note – Arthur is of course saved, but poor Daegal pays the ultimate price, while Sarrum’s death means that Camelot is still open to attack from outsiders, chief amongst them Morgana.

Like the character of Merlin himself, ‘The Hollow Queen’ starts and ends strong but droops a little in the middle. We suspect the same is true of Merlin‘s fifth series as a whole – after a strong start, we’re now experiencing a bit of a lull, a loss of momentum.

Having said that, from the ‘Next Time’ trail, ninth instalment ‘With All My Heart’ looks action-packed, creepy and dramatic. Let’s hope it’s the beginning of an upward trend, because for the past two weeks, Merlin‘s been entertaining enough but hasn’t been firing on all cylinders.

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The next in best and worst is Series 4.

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5 thoughts on “The Best and Worst of Merlin: Series 5

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