With all of the final season aired in the UK and half of it in the US, the BBC’s Merlin is almost over (at this point, I’ve seen what’s aired in the US). It’s a little sad. I can’t in good conscience call it a great show, but it’s consistently entertaining and it had aspects of greatness in it. The tone vacillates between comedic and dramatic, and it doesn’t always take itself very seriously–which is why a lot of its flaws are forgivable. And especially for anyone who knows anything about Arthurian legend, it was really fun to see it play with expectations.
The set up is that Uther Pendragon, king of Camelot, is prejudiced against magic–it is illegal in his kingdom, and practitioners are put to death. He’s brought up his son, Arthur, to feel distrust and dislike for magic as well. And into this comes Merlin, a secret wizard of about the same age as Arthur. Through a series of mishaps he ends up as Arthur’s personal servant. And thus begins the five season long tease which is Merlin.
So I’ll complain a little later; since we’re coming to the end, first let’s talk about what this show did really, really well. I’ll hint, but I won’t spoil anything important. Unless you don’t know anything about Arthurian legend, in which case maybe you might want to skip this review.
Right from season 1, one thing stood out to me as a really great decision. The character Morgana (better known to most as Morgan le Fey) begins the story as a protagonist. Anyone with any familiarity with the source material will know that Morgana is going to become an antagonist further down the line, and introducing her as this very caring if very volatile person, with strong connections to her future enemies, was really exciting. It promised a lot of good conflict further down the line.
Speaking of playing with expectations, the way that the infamous Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot love triangle was resolved was brilliantly tragic. It hurt, the way it ended, despite the fact that it was nothing like I expected. Easily one of the best moments of the series.
Another great aspect of the show was that they liked their betrayals personal. They didn’t want their characters to be in easy situations. And that’s all I’ll say there, so as not to spoil anything.
The characters and their plots are engaging, which is part of why the things that didn’t work as well for me stood out so much. There was a great set up, and a lot of potential for complexity. And some of that complexity was delivered, but not all of it. I’ve said it before, but this show is very good at teasing. Delivering on those teases, not as much. We get a lot of promises for conflict in the future due to the set up, and the set up is drawn out. Sooner or later, we do get our moments. It’s just that sometimes, those moments can be a little anticlimactic.
Morgana, for instance. We watch her start out as a genuinely good person. She becomes progressively more jaded with Uther’s perspective on magic, even before she begins suspecting she has magic of her own. We see all the reasons she’d turn against Uther and a lot of set up for her going over to the dark side. And then the final part of that, her actual transition to the antagonist she’s supposed to be, happens off screen. We never get resolution for where several of her motives came from, and it’s kind of jarring. There’s another very big tease, but I don’t want to spoil the suspense for anyone by talking about this one.
Also, I’m a little confused by the show’s perspective sometimes. The set up is very complicated and grey, and sometimes we’ll get to see that in the characters’ actions and positions. But other times, the show will forget the complexity of its own set up and pretend the conflict is more black and white than it is.
There’s this plot line later on in the show when Arthur, Merlin, and knights have to face off Morgana and put Uther in control of the area she’s conquered. The way these scenes were staged was strongly suggestive of the notion that their cause is just, and that they’re fighting against this evil tyrant who’s willing to hurt her own people. And I’m just resisting the urge to bang my head against a wall, because they’re fighting for Uther, who’s just as bad as Morgana. How is that supposed to be just? They could have at least made Merlin more unsure, because he’s fighting to put in power a man who hates Merlin’s kind (violently).
There are a few more things that I found very frustrating about the show. For instance, every instance Merlin makes a decision about Mordred, ever. It’s like he’s holding an Idiot Ball.
Overall, though, I watched this show for 5 seasons and I enjoyed it, even if it frustrated me at times. Oh, by the way, I almost forgot to mention: the acting is great in this show. Absolutely love the acting.