Friday, March 15, 2013

Magic, Morality, and the Power of Choice: The Adventures of Merlin

Recently, I've been enjoying watching The Adventures of Merlin, which is available for instant watching on Netflix.  Overall, the series is a lot of fun.  The actor who plays Merlin (Colin Morgan) has an infectious grin that makes him easy to like, and Giles! (I mean Anthony Head) plays Arthur's father, Uther Pendragon.

The show, which originally aired on BBC One from 2008-2012, is marketed as a family show, so while many of the characters in the show are the same as the traditional legends, the darker elements are downplayed (at least for now).  Morgana, who traditionally is Arthur's half-sister, is said to be "Uther's ward" in the show, which makes the flirtation and romantic tension between her and Arthur more family-friendly.  

I also really enjoyed the way the Gwen (Guinevere)/Arthur/Lancelot love triangle is set up.  For me, the most powerful portrayals of this relationship have been those that show how the three sides of the love triangle are equally strong.  For the relationship to be at its most profound, Arthur and Guinevere's love has to be equal to Arthur and Lancelot's love, which in turn, has to be equal to Lancelot and Guinevere's love.
The Adventures of Merlin lays the foundation for this kind of relationship nicely in the first season episode entitled "Lancelot."  In this episode, Lancelot comes to Camelot, wanting to be a knight.  He runs into problems, however, because he is not of noble birth--a requirement for knighthood.  Merlin uses magic to forge a seal of nobility, and Gwen helps by making him clothes that fit the part--thus getting him the chance to try out and show his skills as a fighter.

As Gwen is measuring Lancelot for his new clothes, there is clearly attraction between the two of them.  She says to him, "We need men like you."  When Lancelot looks at her with surprise, she backpedals a bit and says, "Well not me, personally, but...Camelot.  Camelot needs knights."

What is interesting--and clever--here is that we see this same language later in the episode, after Lancelot's fraud has been found out and he is in the dungeon.  Arthur comes to visit him, angrily saying, "I should have known.  How could I have been so stupid?  You don't sound like a knight; you don't even look like a knight!  Lancelot apologizes, to which Arthur responds, "I'm sorry, too.  Because Lancelot, you fight like a knight.  And I need...Camelot needs..." 

Here, we see very similar language to what Gwen used earlier--the word "need," the hesitation after claiming this need, and then the deflection of the need onto the kingdom of Camelot.  While there are only hints of the Gwen/Arthur/Lancelot love triangle in this episode, I was very impressed at the way the show used these subtleties of language to suggest relationships of equal strength and intensity between the key players.

There are, however, some concerns I have with the show.  Much as it pains me to admit it, I'm not a huge fan of Anthony Head's character, Uther Pendragon.  He forbids the use of any and all magic, refusing to think about the possibility that it might be used for good.  He frequently judges situations without knowing the facts, and in general, doesn't seem capable of recognizing nuance, subtlety, or shades of gray.  While this serves as a nice contrast against which Arthur can develop his own philosophy for ruling, it makes Uther a very unsympathetic character--I even find myself wondering how on earth he could have gotten to be king by thinking in such rigid, black and white ways.

My even bigger concern lies in the way that the show talks about personal choice.  One of the major themes of the show is the tension between destiny and free will, and while that is played out pretty well in general, the way nearly all the characters talk about various choices they have to make drives me crazy.  Almost once an episode, someone will say, "But I didn't have a choice."  But of course they had a choice--people (almost) always have a choice, even if it's a really bad one or an obvious one.  As with the characterization of Uther, the repetition of this idea makes the world of Merlin a much more simplistic one that avoids talking about some of the real challenges of leadership, morality, and personal choice.

While some might suggest that such simplicity is appropriate for a family drama, I would disagree.  What better place to explore issues of choice, right and wrong, and complicated characters than in the context of your family?  It seems that reducing complex decisions down to black and white answers or simply, "I didn't have a choice," undermines the real potential of the show and does a disservice to characters who are otherwise interesting and likeable.

That said, I'm still watching.  And I recently watched "The Beginning of the End," in which Merlin must make a choice about whether to free a young boy who is prophesied will kill Arthur--and I was impressed by the way the show actually forced him to make the choice, rather than letting him off the hook.  And while Uther is still an idiot, I am only in season 1--there are four more to go!

By Jen Miller