I get this question a lot from friends and acquaintances alike, and since the fifth season is about to start up, I’d thought I’d give you the down-low on one of the BBC’s most successful family shows. Who doesn’t love a good legend retelling, right? Especially one for King Arthur. Where Merlin is his BFF instead of The Original Gandalf.
(Spoilers for all of Merlin.)
In keeping with Hollywood and television’s current bromance obsession, Merlin builds its premise on the concept that Arthur (a prince rather than a king at the start of the series) and Merlin are peers, living in a Camelot that is hostile toward any and all forms of magic. Merlin (Colin Morgan) must keep his budding powers a secret all while being Arthur’s (Bradley James) manservant – saving the future king’s royal backside and never allowed to let anyone know he’s special.
There’s a lot to recommend the series in that regard: the U.K. has always seemed to favor the brain rather than the jock in their fiction, and the show loves to poke fun at young Arthur’s macho posturing, setting Merlin up as the true hero, a character who speaks to every young geek who ever felt outcast because they were different. He may be clumsy and gawky, but he’s loyal to a fault and makes comrades quickly, even winning Arthur over by the end of the first season, despite the prince’s insistence that a member of the royal household and a servant could never possibly be friends.
Practically every British stock actor has passed through the show, and you’re bound to recognize a host of friendly faces if you have any love for U.K. television or film. (Especially if you love Doctor Who. Never mind the guest actors, the majority of the starring cast had spots on Who, from Anthony Stewart Head’s outstanding performance as Mr. Finch in “School Reunion” to Colin Morgan’s stint as the teeenaged goth angst well, Jethro, in “Midnight.”) In addition, the BBC’s policy of colorblind casting has allowed some actors who would normally never be considered for leading roles due to the time period to step up to the plate – Guinevere is played by a black actress, the elegant Angel Coulby, whose brother Elyan (Adetomiwa Edun) becomes a knight of Camelot.
In the past, women tend to come off badly in these stories, always the villains, and always leading men off their appropriate path unless they are chaste and good and lovely. While Merlin does not shy away from this pantheon of female evil-doers, their desires in this universe are much more warranted: magic users have been hunted down for years by Arthur’s father, Uther (Anthony Stewart Head), after he asked a sorceress to help Arthur’s mother conceive and lost his wife in childbirth. When Lady Morgana (Katie McGrath), first introduced as the king’s ward, begins to realize she has magic abilities, her descent into anger (and, arguably, madness) is earned because of what she knows will happen to her if Uther ever finds out. It’s a surprisingly deft persecution allegory, and if Merlin happens to be on the side of good, it could have a lot to do with the fact that being a man in his situation leaves him certain advantages that women do not have.
Of course, the real interest is in the retelling, watching how this show chooses to pick up aspects of Arthurian legend and re-spin it for a younger, more modern audience. They’ve dealt with the Lady of the Lake, Mordred, Lancelot’s love for Guinevere, the introduction of the Round Table, and the Sword in the Stone, among other things. It looks as though we might be preparing for a fight between the Red and White dragons in season 5 as well. Has the show handled all of these bits of myth with aplomb? Well… it depends. Some have been tackled in a particularly clever way, while others have failed to live up to the western world’s veritable library extolling the history of Camelot.
Part of the problem lies in the medium: family entertainment does not lend itself well to tales of adultery, married couples who can’t conceive, and complicated love triangles. It’s here were Merlin falters most. The handling of Guinevere and Lancelot’s “affair” in the 4th season is blunderous and resolved even more poorly. (In short, evil Morgana’s magic made them do it, but that’s never brought to light, which makes Arthur and Guinevere’s reconciliation horribly awkward.) Those gritty details hung over the fourth season like a cloud, putting a damper on the show’s usual lively upbeat-edness.
Merlin’s sense of humor is honestly its saving grace, and that humor counts for a lot where the show is concerned. Their willingness to make make Arthur look the fool when he’s trying to be cool, to get Merlin involved in magic he cannot control, to make sure every character gets their laugh, is part of Merlin’s enduring charm, and undoubtedly what keeps its audience returning. Okay, the cool magic and John Hurt-as-a-dragon probably help a bit too. Also the stunning fight sequences and the fact that it’s filmed in a real castle in France.
In addition, it plays with a very important lesson for children and adults alike: that true heroes evolve, rather than emerge fully formed with their ideals intact. Instead of wizened Merlin’s thoughtful lessons to young Wart, we have an Arthur who is essentially a frat boy bully, who learns humility, kindness, and integrity through friends who see more in him than just a spoiled royal brat. It gives the show enormous heart, and builds its characters into a wonderful, unlikely family.
With all of this in mind, I thought I’d do a little breakdown of the seasons for you, and let you get to watching. And if you’ve got it queued up on Netflix or some other viewing implement, I encourage you to give it a shot, if only for unapologetic fantasy fun in adorable 45 minute increments.
Stop here if you don’t want to be spoiled on the series. If you want to jump right into season 5, though, keep reading.
Season 1: Merlin journeys to Camelot to stay with his Uncle Gaius (Richard Wilson), the Court Physician, and begins to develop his magic powers in secret. He becomes Arthur’s manservant after saving his life from a sorceress’s attack. He meets the Great Dragon, imprisoned below Camelot, and finds out that he and Arthur have a great destiny to restore magic to Camelot and bring about the land of Albion. Lancelot (Santiago Cabrera) briefly becomes a knight, but is banished when it is discovered that he has no noble parentage. After Arthur is poisoned by the Questing Beast, Merlin asks Nimueh (Michelle Ryan) for a cure, then battles her after her help proves false, and destroys her.
Season 2: Morgana’s magic abilities begin to come to the forefront, frightening her with prophetic dreams. She is manipulated by the druid child Mordred (Asa Butterfield). Lancelot and Guinevere have a brief romance before Lancelot realizes Gwen’s feelings for Arthur and leaves. Merlin agrees to set the Great Dragon free after he forges Excalibur to help Arthur. The sword is misused by Uther and Merlin throws it in a lake. Morgause (Emilia Fox) makes her first appearance. Merlin eventually releases the Dragon, who proceeds to destroy Camelot. Arthur and Merlin search for the last Dragonlord (Merlin’s father, who Merlin never knew was alive), but he dies after they reach him, passing his gifts to his son. The Great Dragon and Merlin meet and form a truce and bond.
Season 3: Takes place a full year after season 2. Morgana joins with Morgause (her half sister) to try and drive Uther insane. She finds out that she is his daughter and also Arthur’s half sister, making her a potential heir to Camelot’s throne. Gwaine (Eoin Macken) is introduced, but banished. The romance between Arthur and Gwen grows, but she is convinced she cannot become queen after spending her life as a servant. Uther agrees and almost has Gwen killed when he finds out about the affair, until Arthur pretends he had been put under a spell by a sorcerer. Morgana briefly deposes Uther with the help of Morgause and King Cenred (Tom Ellis). Merlin helps Arthur rally knights and take back the kingdom. Merlin uses Excalibur once again, and then places it in a stone in the forest.
Season 4: Morgause dies. Lancelot sacrifices himself to prevent Arthur from doing so after Morgana opens the veil between the living and the dead. Agravaine, Arthur’s uncle, comes to help the prince rule Camelot now that Morgana’s betrayal has destroyed Uther. Agravaine (Nathaniel Parker) is truly working for Morgana, and Uther is murdered saving his son’s life. The Great Dragon is no longer the last one once Merlin finds a dragon egg, and names the white dragon Aithusa. Arthur and Guinevere get engaged, and Morgana revives Lancelot, casting a spell on him and Gwen to provoke an affair in order to ruin the impending marriage. Guinevere is banished and Lancelot is returned to the world of the dead, appearing to commit suicide. Morgana strikes Camelot with a mighty army and Agravaine’s betrayal comes to light. Merlin tells Arthur a “legend” of a special sword in a stone to restore the king’s confidence, and lets Arthur retrieve it and fight off Morgana. Aithusa comes to Morgana’s aid after her defeat. Guinevere and Arthur are reunited and married.
Tune in this Saturday for Merlin’s Season 5 premiere on the BBC!