THROWBACK THURSDAY: Merlin
By Jocelin Chan
Oh, Merlin. Five entire series of bad show planning, wasted opportunities, and awful queerbaiting. It’s peak shitty TV. My favourite damn show on this entire planet.
To say that I have mixed feelings about BBC Merlin is an understatement. I was drawn by its light-heartedness, its fun faux-Mediaeval vibe, and the stellar cast. It was one of the first British shows set in a European past to feature characters of colour, with Angel Coulby in the show’s limelight as Gwen (later Queen Guinevere). The dynamic between Merlin and Arthur spawned one of the first generations of shippers to confront the actors and showrunners about the queer subtext in the show. And despite accumulating a fairly prestigious filmography after the show’s end, Colin Morgan has never played a character with quite so much range after Merlin as Merlin himself.
I love this freaking TV show. It’s wonderful, it’s dumb. It’s clever, it’s unsatisfying. It’s a brilliant reception of the Arthurian legends, it’s a failure as a show in its own right. Once in a while, the show will cough up an actually gorgeous episode and for once move the story forward. The Last Dragonlord, the second series’ finale, unlocked a new dimension to Merlin’s power with a sweet and sensitive family reunion. Series 4’s the Wicked Day remains one of my favourites: Arthur’s coronation, belated but welcome. The controversial the Diamond of the Day, Part 2 is another beautiful episode, the best farewell they could have given Arthur if indeed they had to farewell him.
And here’s where the show failed, isn’t it? The show was pitched as an Arthurian Smallville, showing the beloved legendary characters as youths before growing up to do great deeds. By this logic, Merlin should have set the story up to end—by the end of the actors’ five-year contracts—at the cusp of Arthur leading Camelot into the Golden Age. But Merlin could never decide whether it wanted to be a pre-Arthurian story or just retell all of the legends. Series 1 to 3 never pushed the narrative too far, but by Series 4 the showrunners figured out they wanted to retell Arthur’s story in full. They crammed Arthur’s coronation into the start of Series 4, and gave him two series to rule as king before they killed him off (as all the Arthurian legends must) at the end of Series 5.
One of the greatest prophecies the show pushed from the start was that Arthur and Merlin were the “two sides of the same coin”, destined to bring about Camelot’s Golden Age and restore magic which had been outlawed under Arthur’s father Uther. But instead of ever developing this Golden Age, the show just repeatedly tells us that Arthur is a great king while Merlin is forced to hide his magical ability. That is, until the very final episode, when Arthur is pretty much too dead to restore magic to Camelot with Merlin.
But for all its flaws, Merlin is a reminder of how fans don’t just stay on board for the plot. I love the show for its characters and how they developed into serious, complex portraits by the end of the series. I love its exploration of issues surrounding social class and discrimination. I love the way it plays with Arthurian myth to address contemporary ideas.
The Arthurian legends have always ended with the death and failure of Arthur. Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur kicked off a trend that Lord Alfred Tennyson, T.H. White, Marion Zimmer Bradley, and Merlin replicated. As the story usually goes, Arthur’s death signals the end of Camelot’s Golden Age as all his good work falls to ruin. But in Merlin, the failure rests ultimately on Merlin’s own shoulders. He refused to join Morgana’s sedition against Arthur to seek justice for magic users, but he also never revealed to Arthur his abilities until it was too late. Did the showrunners fail to end the story well, or was it an indictment on Merlin’s complacency all along? I know that I, as one who perennially changes her mind on what the show means for herself, will puzzle over this for a pretty long time. But I could just chuckle over another silly episode of the damn thing.