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The sad thing is, if I'm still watching Merlin, it's mostly on the strength of S1. When Merlin poisoned Morgana at the end of S2, I remember thinking that if that was the price to pay for their glorious shared future, maybe it wasn't so glorious after all, and maybe I wasn't interested, and S3 has been nothing but frustrating in this respect. With Morgana suddenly gone one-dimensional evil and the end of her and Gwen's friendship the gender balance is painfully off, and it was never great to begin with.

And it's not just Morgana; Arthur's characterisation has also been extremely hit or miss after S1. Memories are admittedly a bit fuzzy, but he went through some decisive character development towards the end of S1 (The Labyrinth of Gedref, The Moment of Truth), and Bradley James sold it. Completely. You could see the legend, the promise shining through and emerging in lines like 'I cannot think of my pride, when my people go hungry.' Even in S2, although I couldn't pin it on a single moment, I remember thinking that on this a bit cheesy and often too light-weight family show he plays the part of the (future) king more convincingly than Colin Farell who stumbled through three hours of Alexander with a lack of charisma so complete it made one wonder why anyone would follow him as far as across the Bosporus, much less half way across Asia. In S3 you can see how they're slowly moving Arthur towards the position of king, but these truly shining moments are gone. Or is it just me and my general dissatisfaction with the show?

And Arthur's characterisation suffers terribly from the fact that at the beginning of the season, although in S3 less annoyingly so than in S2, they reset him to the early S1 prat prince who insults and mistreats Merlin; probably for the benefit of the new viewers, I guess?

[Parenthesis: TW actually did something similar, but much more subtly. 1.01/1.02 essentially repeated Jack's DW 'conversion' from bad guy to sort-of hero for the benefit of those unfamiliar with the character, with Gwen taking the Doctor's part. He may not be an amoral conman there, but the emotional indifference, the superficiality, even the way he plays that cat-and-mouse game with Gwen, showing off TW just like he tried to impress Rose with his spaceship, are essentially the same. And 2.01 did it once again, making Jack chose between the amoral nihilistic hedonism Captain Hart offers on one side, and duty (Torchwood) and love (Ianto, Gwen) on the other. Within the character's arc, the first episodes managed to show the scope of his character. Emphasis, however, on 'within the characters arc'.]


The Eye of the Phoenix didn't convince me at all. They were clearly trying for some sort of gravitas, but IMO they failed, except perhaps in the scene between Merlin and the Fisher King. But then, I really like Merlin's arc this seasons, growing into his power bit by bit. Arthur's part of the story, though... The mythical quest came completely out of nowhere, and while he was bravely struggling through swamps and fighting distant cousins of dragons, ultimately the story made him look stupid, especially once the quest turned out to be Merlin's, not Arthur's at all. Usually I love Merlin using his power to protect Arthur, but the trope where Arthur doesn't see/remember anything because he's been conveniently unconscious is getting very, very old and repetitive. Arthur has simply not enough agency in this episode. The quest isn't his, the price isn't his, the trident he'd almost died getting is dropped to the floor like a meaningless piece of trash, and in the end not treated very reverently by Arthur either.

Most of all, Arthur's reaction to Merlin and Gwaine essentially spoiling his quest doesn't ring true. At the beginning of the episode we're led to believe that this quest is of utmost importance to Arthur (white coat, bare feet, night vigil), and then suddenly... it isn't? That he didn't complete the task that was supposed to qualify him for kingship alone, like he was supposed to be, doesn't bother him beyond the fact that his father mustn't find out? Arthur, who his whole life had been under an enormous pressure to excel, to constantly prove himself? Never mind Uther or others knowing, Arthur himsef would probably have struggled a lot more with the knowledge that he failed in his own eyes. In The Labyrinth of Gedref Arthur over the course of the episode slowly and painfully began to rethink his values and priorities; there was absolutely nothing comparable to that in this episode.

There is a story in Arthur's realisation that he doesn't have to do it alone, that he doesn't always have to be alone like Uther, but this isn't the story this episode told. There is not a single moment where Arthur himself realises this. The viewer sees it, but Arthur doesn't. And after what the guardian of the bridge said about Arthur needing magic and strength to complete the quest, Arthur should have realised, should have suspected something when Merlin and Gwaine turned up.

When Uther tells Arthur that by completing the quest he's finally proven himself, and that he'll make a fine king... there is only one explanation why this wouldn't make Arthur torture himself questioning his worthiness to rule, and that would be if he'd already rejected his father's expectations of what a man and a king is supposed to be, and had formed his own ideas about what kind of a king he wants to be. It's a distinct possibility, and there were at least hints throughout this season's episodes that Arthur is in the process of doing that, but there are still whole chunks of characterisation missing, and considering that Arthur himself insisted on the importance of the quest at the beginning of the episode, it's hard to read it like that.

Although OTOH what Arthur really thinks about his father as a king is an interesting question. 'Careful, he is my father' addresses only the personal relationship, just like Arthur's grief in 3.09 is purely personal. If Uther dies (and I'm starting to doubt he'll survive this season), is Arthur finally going to find out the truth about everything he did, and how will he react when he finds out that he'd already looked that truth in the face once, only to be told it was a lie? Another interesting question—did Arthur really never question what Merlin told him then?



Love in the Time of Dragons I rather dreaded after the preview, but like the Goblin episode I ended up enjoying it more than I expected, although I still didn't like how Alice's story was handled (Is one single episode with a female character who has magic, but neither is, nor turns, evil really too much to ask for?) But Gaius is a fascinating (if not exactly likeable) character, and the lack of exploration of the similarities and differences between the relationships of Uther/Gaius and Arthur/Merlin is another instance of the show's wasted potential. There are some quite interesting bits of characterisation in this episode though, that made it worthwhile in the end, although they certainly don't make him any less ambiguous a character.


'I did what I could. As I know you did.' — But did he really? Gaius, as it turns out, had magic, but he gave it up. For the last 20 years, did he do what he could to help people? Or didn't he rather only do what it was safe for him to do? Especially as he must have been aware that Uther was watching him?

Uther trusts Gaius. Gaius lies to Uther. Gaius, for reasons that are not really made clear picked Uther (or the position and influence of court physician?) over the woman he loved and was engaged to be married. Never mind that Uther was planning to have this woman killed. 'But you... you stayed behind?''I was scared. I felt I had no choice. I thought I'd never see her again. But now here she is. After all these years, I feel we've been given a second chance.' It's a weak and unsatisfactory explanation, especially as in the end he doesn't take the chance. 'You could have gone with her.' — 'I could have done.' But didn't. Again.

Gaius probably could have killed Uther twenty years ago, but didn't, because he considered him a friend, because with Arthur only a baby the kingdom would have fallen apart, because... does Gaius himself even know? And stayed for the next twenty years, still not killing Uther, still waiting for Arthur to grow up. And Uther takes Gaius's medicines, trusting him not to poison him, when apparently everything else he eats or drinks is tasted. And Gaius doesn't, even if he becomes increasingly unwilling to step in when other people are trying to kill Uther. In this episode Gaius seems once again content enough to see Uther—finally—die, and if just for once he actually manages to muster some kind of enthusiasm for saving him, it's probably because he thinks this just might save Alice.

Arthur and Merlin discussing the situation over Uther's unconscious, dying body. Merlin telling Arthur the truth (a truth that actually matters, which may be a first) over Uther's dying body.

And Merlin does what Gaius did twenty years ago when he struck one single name off a list that still contained many others—sacrifice someone else to save someone he cares for. Telling Gaius, 'I had no choice.' And Gaius does, after a while, understand this similarity between their respective actions, and forgive Merlin.

'All I know is that the king is gravely ill and that your place is by Arthur's side.' — Is that how Gaius saw himself? His place is at Uther's side?

And once again, almost everyone would be better off with Uther dead. With Alice (once again) sentenced to death, by the same man, Gaius must ask himself once again why he saved this man, and supported him all this time. Friendship? For the sake of the kingdom? Merlin's actions are easier to explain; he sees Arthur's grief when he asks Alice for a cure; he probably wouldn't been able to look Arthur in the eye if he felt complicit in Uther's death. Or maybe the fact that he wants Uther dead, is waiting for him to die, is why he keeps saving him.

At the same time, while Arthur does grieve for a father, his opinion about Uther as a king really isn't very high: 'You should do what I do, just lay low until he comes to his senses. It'll soon blow over.' It may be shoddy writing, but at this point of the story, when they've had several quite serious rows over their respective ideas of kingship, such a statement carries greater weight than it would have had at the beginning, when it would have come across like the complaint of a spoiled teenager.

'Uther will never change.' — 'No' — And that's the crux of Gaius's life, really.

'And it's far better to die free, than to live as a slave.' — Does she even know what she's saying here? And yes, he abandoned her; yes, he did leave her alone. What, realistically, did he do to protect her, after he helped her escape? What stopped him from following her then, and stops him again? Alice is too kind to see it, but Gaius has enough insight to recognise his flaws, twenty years of cowardice and collaboration, and know that he has no moral high ground whatsoever.




Also, if this still were S1, I'd probably make a joke about all the lance thrusting/spear throwing with Merlin as a target, but as it is... it's really not really fun any longer.

Comments

( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
sizequeen
Nov. 11th, 2010 01:06 am (UTC)
Everything you said is absolutely true, except add some Gwen non-characterization to the badness, and it would be perfect.

Gaius is a collaborator. Period. There is no defense for what he's allowed Uther to do. Merlin is also implicated in this mess. He's living for a dream of Camelot that may or may not happen since by the end of season 2, Arthur hated magic more than ever.

I don't understand why every sorcerer is portrayed as a bad guy for wanting to kill Arthur and Uther. Uther is a genocidal maniac who has killed plenty of innocents, and Arthur seems to be going in the same direction. In fact, this is a perfectly good reason for Morgana to want to kill them both (even though she should be sad about it).

The producers want to have it both ways. They want to keep the show simple, kid-friendly with no complex plot or character arcs, but they also want to tackle a classic myth and show how these iconic characters came to be in the midst of some harsh plot points---like genocide, drowned children, people falsely executed, living under a tyrant---without realistic dealing with all of that because if Uther died, Arthur would be King, and the show would end.

They also keep recycling the same plots and characterization because they don't know when the show will end, so they aren't planning plot arcs. Maybe if they knew they only had another season or two, the show would begin to move forward.

solitary_summer
Nov. 11th, 2010 07:40 pm (UTC)
Word to everything you said.

I don't understand why every sorcerer is portrayed as a bad guy for wanting to kill Arthur and Uther. Uther is a genocidal maniac who has killed plenty of innocents, and Arthur seems to be going in the same direction. In fact, this is a perfectly good reason for Morgana to want to kill them both (even though she should be sad about it).

I don't get it either. In TSotF Arthur himself was so outraged when he learned the truth that he wanted to kill his own father, after all. It's not as if canon never acknowledges that what Uther did and does is terrible. But at the same time sorcerers somehow still are always the worse villains, never mind how much justification they have for their actions. Except of course for Merlin, who completely denied himself for Arthur's sake in TDotF, starting to compromise himself much like Gaius did. Which isn't really acknowledged either. This show makes my brain hurt.

I'm not so sure they won't kill Uther, though. I think Arthur has been slowly prepared to become king ever since he had to take over when Uther was unconscious in the first two episodes, and there has been entirely too much talk about succession throughout the season, too many people counting on Uther's death. The big question of course is, what then? How is Arthur going to react to having his whole words suddenly turned over? Not just learning that Merlin had been doing magic behind his back for years, but also learning what Uther had done, that Merlin had known and lied to him about that, that everyone lied to him about Morgana and let her deceive him... It should be epic, but somehow, with the way thing have been going recently, I don't trust the show to handle this well... If they're going there at all.
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