‘Merlin’ is a contender for my favourite television series of all time.
Part of that may be down to my interest in mythology and magic, dating back to when I was a child. Part of it may be my liking for Arthurian legend and the excitement of comparing numerous interpretations of it over the years, from Disney’s ‘The Sword in the Stone’, to the excellent 1998 Sam Neill ‘Merlin’ miniseries. Part of it may be my love of genre and cult TV in general (no doubt I’ll wax lyrical about that other great contender for my favourite ever TV show, ‘Smallville’, in a future post).
But the main reason, hands down, is the chemistry between Colin Morgan and Bradley James.
Some might call it queer-baiting. Some might call it an accident of casting. Some might call it wishful thinking. No doubt there are elements of all of these things there, but, for this reviewer, it doesn’t matter. Because the tension, both written and acted, between Merlin Emrys and Arthur Pendragon in this BBC interpretation of the mythos from Johnny Capps and Julian Murphy is off the scale, unashamed, and glorious. It isn’t so much subtext as text that leaps off the screen during any given episode and strikes the viewer around the face. One can’t move on the internet for legions of ‘Merthur’ appreciation pages, fanart and edited YouTube videos, the level of fervour for the pairing matched only by a select few fandoms (Dean/Castiel in ‘Supernatural’, perhaps), but even the most ardent deniers, the viewers most uncomfortable with any sort of chemistry between two male leads, would have to admit that there’s something going on. Even if just intensely platonic, the level of tension from episode to episode is palpable. Utterly so.
The fact that nothing ever overtly happens between the characters, makes it all the more perfect. With the producers having admitted in retrospect that they were approaching the relationship as a canon love story in all but name, the thoughtful viewer gets the satisfaction of watching a growing dynamic that builds and builds under the surface without ever getting the chance to spill over and, pardon the pun, break the spell. At the time, it was frustrating. In hindsight, it’s fantastic. Like the best tragic or unfulfilled romances, the lack of admission, the lack of any sort of embrace, means that the ‘What if?’ question gets to hang over the series forever. Like Merlin himself, the pairing becomes, in a sense, immortal.
But there are other, plentiful reasons to like this wonderful series. Armagh-born Morgan is a magnificent actor, having only improved in everything he’s been in since (most notably ‘The Fall’ and ‘Humans’), his flawless English accent the least of his skills here, embodying the slow-burn, tragic pathos of his character beautifully. He can do comic timing effortlessly, and several episodes make great use of this, but more often than not, he’s called upon to convey an ever-present conflict between quiet optimism and lurking dread, the world and future he wants to create always that little bit out of reach, tantalisingly dangled but never quite obtained. Factor in the unrequited love for Arthur that this reviewer and 90% of the fandom read into the series, and you have a compelling, haunting, sometimes heartbreaking performance (his despairing scream during imprisonment as he faces the prospect of all his hopes completely slipping away in the penultimate episode ‘The Diamond of the Day Part 1’ must be among the most piercing couple of seconds of acting I’ve ever watched).
Bradley James may seem, at first, to portray an unfairly harsh, frankly brattish Arthur for the first couple of seasons, all too quick to belittle or mistreat his servant from episode to episode. But eventually, a performance of quiet honour and nobility starts to emerge, fitting for a future king. The fate of his father, Uther, his ascension to the throne, and his apparent betrayal by Gwen, all in series 4, bring the character firmly into his own, and the genuine bond and warmth that grows between them, even if it goes almost entirely unacknowledged, is a joy to watch. James’ highlight of the series may very well be the loss of Uther in ‘The Wicked Day’, the death scene itself and Arthur’s reaction to now having lost both parents sending shivers down the spine. For this reviewer, James more than deserves the leading role he’s now currently enjoying in A & E’s ‘Damien’.
Katie McGrath, as Morgana, is sublime. Her transformation from vulnerable and fearful young woman to wicked aggressor is breathtaking to watch, her sense of fear over her powers being discovered in the early seasons such that we can’t help but root for her when she finally embraces them, even if it’s too late, and too much psychological damage has been done, for her to ever use them for good. Her seasonal arc from banished outcast to successful conqueror of Camelot during the course of series 4 is guiltily satisfying, her inevitably temporary victory over the heroes feeling just that little bit deserved. And the sense of danger and portentousness as she finally learns Merlin’s true identity at the conclusion of ‘The Drawing of the Dark’ leaves goosebumps on the skin. McGrath also earns some further brownie points from this reviewer for being such a gleeful and mischievous supporter of the Merthur pairing in behind-the-scenes interviews.
In theory, Angel Coulby, as Gwen, should have a tough job in not being automatically disliked by the Merthur-supporting fanbase of the show. The fact that she not only avoids this, but makes the character thoroughly likeable to this reviewer is a testament to the likeability of Coulby herself, imbuing the part with a grace and empathy that makes the character seem more than worthy of being Arthur’s queen. The showdown between Gwen and Arthur in ‘Lancelot du Lac’ is one of the best-written pieces of drama in the whole series, while her unexpected brainwashing arc, allowing her to compete with Morgana in the evil-and-loving-it stakes, is one of the best things about the show’s final season. It’s been a treat to see Coulby back in a major drama role recently as journalist Julia in BBC One’s ‘Undercover’.
Anthony Head, as Uther, could not be further away from his role of Giles in ‘Buffy’. By turns menacing and tyrannical, yet sympathetic and relatable when allowed to be, Head brings true gravitas to the series, far from essential given the talent of the younger cast, but making the show all the richer for his presence in it. Morgana’s planned assassination of him in penultimate season one episode ‘To Kill the King’, only to pull back from her plot at the last minute when he displays some regret and human remorse for his past sins, remains, for this reviewer, one of the best-constructed episodes of the whole series.
Also bringing gravitas to the show, this time on the side of the angels, is Richard Wilson as Merlin’s mentor and guardian Gaius, the antidote to Uther’s stern, domineering king, yet radiating a quiet authority of his own. In one of the series’ subtler, more understated, and consequently most interesting beats, Gaius and Uther are presented as a what-might-have-been earlier generation take on Merlin and Arthur, with the king tolerating the unspoken secret that Gaius has magic, seemingly the one exception to his blanket ban on sorcery in his kingdom. It’s refreshing as well to see Gaius survive to the end of the series, when it would surely have been all too tempting for the writers to kill him off to further Merlin’s character development.
An impressive addition to the show in its final series is Alexander Vlahos as the adult Mordred, offering a take on the legendary villain far removed from the outright antagonist that might be expected. Renouncing the path of darkness for much of his time on the show, this Mordred is a fascinating study of a man trying valiantly against the pull of destiny and fate to take the better path, while constantly suffering the suspicion of the central hero- it’s one of the few times in the series where Merlin skirts close to becoming unlikeable, so reluctant is he to give Mordred the benefit of the doubt. It lends his eventual trajectory, and the show’s alignment with traditional Arthurian myth, all the more pathos when it happens.
No summary of the key players across the show’s five series would be complete without a nod to John Hurt’s Great Dragon. Beginning as an imprisoned mentor to Merlin, full of prophecies and riddles, and offerings of wisdom, Hurt gradually lends the beast just enough of a creeping, sinister side, so that by the time he tricks the young warlock into releasing him and wreaks revenge on Camelot, it’s a well-earned, subtly dreaded turn of events. In Hurt, Wilson and Head, the show is lucky indeed to enjoy a trinity of elder actors lending the series their respective weight, and surely inspiring the younger cast to the heights they so successfully reach.
Not to be forgotten, of course, is the series’ rich array of supporting and guest stars, all of them lending the show more colour and depth by their presence. Among the highlights are Eoin Macken’s playful Gwaine, easily the most interesting of the Knights of the Round Table (Macken having since gone on to break into novel-writing with Dublin-set debut ‘Kingdom of Scars’), and Santiago Cabrera’s noble but doomed Lancelot, his quiet strength and sweet early romance with Gwen ensuring we genuinely care once darker aspects of the mythos finally come into play. John Lynch brings yet more gravitas, albeit only in a couple of appearances, as Merlin’s father and last dragonlord Balinor, while Sarah Parish has a whale of a time as Uther’s would-be queen, Lady Catrina, in series 2’s two-part ‘Beauty and the Beast’.
In the out-and-out villainy stakes, Katie McGrath is leant terrific support not just by Vlahos, but by both Emilia Fox as wicked sister Morgause, the Emperor Palpatine to Morgana’s Darth Vader, and Asa Butterfield as the quietly sinister younger Mordred. Early on, Michelle Ryan impresses as series 1 archvillain Nimueh (a far cry indeed from the haunting romance between the character and Merlin in the Sam Neill version), while there are also enjoyable guest turns from the always-excellent Charles Dance as series 2’s Witchfinder, and Maureen Carr as the truly creepy Dochraid in the show’s later seasons.
If the acting in ‘Merlin’ can scarcely be faulted, its narrative shape, on the other hand, does sometimes give pause. The tone of the later show is very different from the first couple of seasons, the shift owing more than a little to the then-rising popularity of ‘Game of Thrones’, if not quite in bleak brutality, then certainly in terms of more sombre mood, atmosphere, and a somewhat ‘slicker’ feel. The move from the more episodic early seasons to darker, more serious ‘arcs’ is largely a welcome one, though some of the sheer fun of those earlier episodes is, for this reviewer, sadly lost in the process.
And then there’s the ending. Given the extent to which the show radically reinterprets elements of Arthurian mythology early on (not least a rather genius way around the huge age discrepancy between this iteration of Merlin and more traditional takes), it seemed reasonable to assume that the series would find ways to avoid the ultimately downbeat direction of the mythos, and that the battle of Camlann wouldn’t necessarily end in predictable tragedy. Alas, GOT’s influence is keenly felt in this regard in the show’s final season. Originally airing on Christmas Eve 2012, the finale is, for this reviewer, a deeply problematic one, true enough to Arthurian legend, but in many ways so strikingly different from the tone and optimism of series 1 as to be alienating. Character and plot development are all well and good, but ‘Merlin’ simply feels like a wholly different show by the end, and not altogether for the better. For me, it was a less than satisfying conclusion to the five-year journey I’d embarked on as a viewer, and to the five years of a better world worked towards by Merlin himself.
Disappointing endings, however, can’t be the only consideration when judging a series’ overall quality, and ‘Merlin’ is most definitely greater than the sum of its parts in this respect. The talent of the cast, the impressive roster of guest stars, Rob Lane’s stirring music (check out series 4’s ‘The Bond of Sacrifice’ for my personal favourite piece) and the sheer novelty of having a genre programme besides ‘Doctor Who’ airing on primetime BBC One all eclipse any misgivings about the story’s ultimate direction, and more than make up for any minor grievances as well (for example, Morgana’s all-too-sudden descent into hatred for Uther in series 2 after being so touchingly reconciled to him at the end of series 1).
And then of course, there’s that all-important chemistry between the two leads. For all that the series technically follows the Arthur/Guinevere/Lancelot triangle of traditional Arthurian myth, the real love story, essentially admitted by the producers and speculated about by everyone from James, McGrath, Vlahos and the media (see the ‘Independent’s’ review of the complete box set), is between Arthur and Merlin. And it’s beautiful.
An initially fun, though gradually darker, and always compelling update of Arthurian mythology, ‘Merlin’ is ultimately all about one thing: the fantastic chemistry between its two leads.