By Grace Crawford

Images courtesy of Shine Television and FremantleMedia

If you were following my Twitter or Facebook or peeking in through my bedroom window, you know that I had a pretty nasty case of the flu for a solid week. I have recovered (thanks for not asking, jerk), though I’ve now got laryngitis, so my life is just fabulous at the moment. At any rate, that was a seven-day stretch spent in bed, and because it wasn’t the fun kind of seven-days-in-bed, that meant I had to find some way to entertain myself. My sister suggested I watch Sherlock, so I did, and once that was over—too soon, I might add—I carried on with the BBC’s marvelous programming and started watching the first season of Merlin. Now stop whining about how Sherlock is such a better show and why am I reviewing Merlin instead when it’s not nearly as good, because shut up, that’s why. I’ll get to it when I get to it, so stop nagging me, woman.

I’ve always liked legends. I used to be really into Greek and Norse mythology when I was a kid. I would read about all the crazy mishaps people got up to, and the gods just looked at them like the people were their own personal playthings. The abuse of power was staggeringly awful, and I loved it. If I had supreme power over the lives of mortals, elements, or even just a dash of plain old magic, what sorts of shenanigans would I get up to? I’d like to think I’d be responsible about it, but I’d be more likely to set people’s heads on fire when they steal my favourite seat on the bus. I will never be the stuff of legends, and I’m okay with that. And maybe that’s why I love the old stories, the times long ago when people set forth to have adventures and make their mark on the world.

Everyone knows about King Arthur. He was the ruler of Camelot, the kingdom that embodied peace and the height of ideals. There was a sword, there was a stone, and there was a wizard named Merlin who helped him become king. It’s an old story—ancient, actually. I don’t remember all the particulars. I would like to tell you that it’s all right, that this show answers all your questions and more, that it tells you everything you ever wanted to know about King Arthur and Merlin. But I can’t. It’s not completely legend-accurate, though I admit the story would greatly be hindered by such restrictions. What I can tell you, however, is that this is a pretty good show nonetheless.

This guy is maddeningly unhelpful. You have no idea.

Magic has been outlawed in Camelot for the last twenty years, a restriction rigidly enforced by King Uther Pendragon. So when a young warlock named Merlin arrives in Camelot and becomes the court physician’s assistant, he finds it necessary to keep his magic a secret—especially since he quickly becomes servant to the king’s son, Arthur, and discovers that the king’s ward, Morgana, also possesses magic. A great dragon, imprisoned beneath the city, informs Merlin that it is his destiny to help Arthur become king so that people can be free to use magic again. A friendship of sorts develops between the two boys as they find themselves in peril after peril, finally confronting the sorceress Nimueh at the end of Season One. And that’s as far as I’m going to take you, because I haven’t finished Season Two yet, because I’m writing this review for you instead, because you’re welcome.

There really isn’t an overarching plot, like in Once Upon A Time. There’s the basic backstory—Merlin is Arthur’s servant, has to hide his magic, and has to keep him alive—but even though there are a few characters who show up for multiple episodes, like Mordred, the episodes are one-shots. This can be somewhat annoying and even implausible at times. I don’t care how important Arthur is supposed to be to the kingdom; nobody has that many attempts on their life in such a short space of time. Plus it gets sort of ridiculous, character-wise. Uther is grimly dramatic every single time a plot develops that contains magic in some capacity. He’s like, “I eradicated magic once and for all, and yet here it strikes again.” Dude. If it’s still striking twenty years later, you’re fighting a losing battle.

And nobody seems to connect the dots where Merlin is concerned, either. A single isolated incident might go unnoticed, but he’s always around when something magical is going down. You’d think someone would add it up and think, “Hey, that skinny bloke with the astonishingly protuberant Adam’s apple is hanging around again. Plus that spear just threw itself at that soldier. I wonder if he’s got anything to do with it?” But no, nobody thinks that, because Camelot’s wardrobe department made the knights wear red, and they bite it more often than the redshirts that actually created the trope in the first place. If anybody’s suspicious, they don’t live long enough to tell anyone (which is a bit disturbing, actually, and makes me wonder if Merlin has secretly been behind it).

With these two, I just can’t. I have lost the ability to even.

I honestly don’t know how true the show is to the storyline laid out in legend. I knew that Guinevere and Arthur were married, that Arthur and his half-sister Morgana totally banged and made Mordred (gross), and that Guinevere also got it on with Lancelot. Yeah, it’s all Game of Thrones up in here. So far, Guinevere (Gwen) and Arthur are just kind of secretly making out all over the place (and the first time was so flawless that I don’t mind telling you that I rewound that scene like ten times so I could watch it repeatedly), because they can’t be together: in Merlin, Gwen is Morgana’s servant. This is new, as far as I know. As far as Arthur and Morgana go, I may have gone online and found out that they’re related here, too. But Mordred isn’t their child; he’s already come and gone (incidentally, I love that kid and want five of him for myself). I’m also fairly certain they’re never going to have the sexytimes, which I’m pretty okay with, despite the fact that I welcome basically any opportunity to see Bradley James without a shirt on. Finally, Lancelot has already shown up (and he’s a bit sentimental, but completely decadent, so I’ll let it slide), and he and Gwen seem to have formed a bit of an attachment. It’ll be interesting to see where that goes.

That’s two actors now that I’ve made inappropriate sexual comments about. That seems like a natural enough segue into character and casting discussion.

I’ll start with Merlin. He is awkward, careless, and clumsy, but also imaginative, passionate, and quick-witted. Colin Morgan, the actor portraying him, is tall, skinny, and quietly magnificent, with an endearing grin and a country accent you can’t help but love. He is nothing like the wise, ancient Merlin we know and admire, but he is Merlin even so. This is the teenage Merlin who hasn’t yet become the person he’s meant to be, but you can get a glimpse of who that person is even now. Morgan was a brilliant choice, and I adore him.

This picture is probably not even here any more because it is so impossible to find a non-sexual picture of Arthur and Merlin. You have no idea.

As for the young Arthur, I am going to completely avoid physical description, because on the off chance Bradley James ever reads this, I’d kind of like for him not to think that I’m a slobbering idiot. (But seriously. Ermagerd.) He brings spirit and nobility to the character, and I’m certain that no one else could ever play Arthur. He has an undeniable presence, and though I think the characters make far too much fuss over Arthur being really good with a sword and being an even better potential king, Arthur is still human. He’s not perfect; he makes mistakes, he hurts people, and not everything works out for him. But he tries, and he does it for the people of Camelot. He really does make a good future king.

Anthony Head is utterly disconcerting as King Uther. I last saw him in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and now he’s all up in magic’s business, even though he was totally fine with Willow using it before. Make up your mind, Giles. I have also decided that Katie McGrath is stunning in both character and appearance. She’s got that ivory-skinned beauty that initially makes you dismiss her as a typical noblewoman, but she’s also got depth and hella attitude.

I also feel like I have to mention Angel Coulby. At first I wasn’t happy with the idea of her playing Guinevere. I had always thought that the legendary lady should be played by a gorgeous, statuesque blonde princess. But that’s not on Angel; that’s my expectation, and she didn’t need to fulfill it. Then I realized something important: nobody seems to agree on what kind of person Guinevere was. She is at times vindictive or virtuous, greedy or gracious, adulterous or angelic. Her looks don’t enter into it at all. There are many different stories about her, all contradicting each other. Merlin created its own Guinevere, one that Arthur would fall in love with. It only makes sense that her greatest value would be in her strength and her loving heart, not necessarily her beauty. Don’t get me wrong; I think Coulby is absolutely lovely. She wouldn’t have been my first choice, and I still can’t say I’m completely on board with it, but she makes a sympathetic character out of one who is often vilified for her actions. And that’s a very hard thing to do. So I’m watching optimistically and waiting to see where Guinevere goes.

I’m pretty sure Jon Snow did this exact pose already.

Well, I say watching… I’ve run into a bit of a snag. I’ve been back at school for a week now, but instead of doing my homework, catching up on chores, spending time with my family, or writing reviews more than an hour before I’m supposed to upload them (ahem), I have been watching Merlin. And the worst part is… I don’t even care. Because despite the fact that this show is nowhere near the best TV show I’ve ever seen, there’s something about it that keeps me coming back even when I’ve got a million other things I should be doing. So I guess it’s a good thing there were only five seasons, because once I’ve wrapped it up, I’ll be able to move on to all the other things I need to do, like catch up on Doctor Wh—aww, crap.

Final Grade: B

Final Thoughts

  • I was once informed that Sherlock was the gayest show on television, but I must respectfully disagree. I keep expecting Arthur and Merlin to start tongue wrestling.
  • At least once an episode, someone says, “You can’t do that, it’s too dangerous.” You guys live in Camelot. There are witches and warlocks literally everywhere. You can’t leave the house without provoking one, so just… just stop, okay?
  • Bradley James takes off his shirt a lot. Like, a lot. He’s like, “Does this scene require me to have a shirt on? The script doesn’t specify, so I’m force to assume I can just take it off.” I’m not complaining. I’m just saying. That is all.