I actually don’t watch a lot of television—not because I am a TV snob, I just don’t have a great deal of time—and as a result never bothered to invest in cable. Amusing consequences involved my then-six-year-old son asking me, “What is a commercial?” I was slightly happy he had to ask me this, but later I thought about the vilification of television and settled on the conclusion I’d always done: That television isn’t so bad, and in fact can be a worthy tool, but it matters how you use it. Even if for entertainment, I have found it can be used in concert with sneaky little educational insertions, and my now-ten-year-old Turtle is the one who actually led us to this particular case. His success in persuading me to sign up for a TV/movie streaming subscription found me one evening, bone tired and flipping through the choices until I saw the word “Merlin,” at which point I hastily clicked. For I am fan of Merlin since childhood and still recall dragging my mother to all the libraries in the region to collect books I’d looked up that had anything and everything to do with Merlin and King Arthur. Life having gotten a bit in the way of these pursuits, I nevertheless remembered my mother’s voice, “And yet here we are again…”
“He cannot glimpse his part in the great story that is about to unfold. Like everyone else, he must live and learn.”
So we are told as we watch the young Merlin—known to us from Arthurian legend—climb a pathway on the journey’s last leg from his home in Ealdor to Camelot, where he takes up residence with his guardian and the court physician, Gaius. Merlin’s introduction to Camelot comes in two main parts: one by witnessing an execution and next by tangling with a boisterous and perhaps bored Prince Arthur, who has him thrown into the stocks. By the first episode’s end, Arthur and his father Uther Pendragon’s opinion of the young boy—unbeknownst to them, a powerful sorcerer—settles to deep admiration and he is awarded with a position in the palace.
Watching this and subsequent episodes required me to settle into the idea of Merlin’s story being told rather differently to the way I’d always been taught. For starters, Merlin is unacquainted with Uther until this day, twenty years into the king’s reign, when he meets an Arthur already grown into his role as heir—there is to be no sword in the stone moment, at least not in the accidental discovery sort of way we know best. Moreover, Arthur’s opinion of the newcomer is rivaled only by Merlin’s view of the prince: “There must be another Arthur because this one’s an idiot.” As we later learn, Camelot itself also existed long before the prince and his father: recorded events trace back at least 300 years.
I enjoyed the show enough to be fairly delighted by it—and amazed at the accidental events that led me to it—though I did wonder how Uther, so zealously fixated on his war against magic, could at times be so gullible. He eagerly laps up stories told by strangers yet refuses to believe his own son, or Gaius, his trusted physician of twenty years. Nevertheless, Uther does argue some powerful points, such as when he consults Geoffrey of Monmouth re: a knight’s nobility papers, or the need to show strength in the brutal world in which they live.
The camera work caught my eye in a number of ways: the rapid movement combined with zoom to indicate a shift in perspective or at particular moments of acuity; transitions from scene to scene at opposing levels and, perhaps most importantly, the manner in which the camera loves the actors, utilizing their talents to capture even the most subtle elements in the repertoire of each. This was most evident in the second season, when they seemed to grow more and superbly into their roles: Colin Morgan as Merlin displays an incredibly wide range of emotive capability with the ability to shift rapidly. His eyes and facial expressions—even when there somehow weren’t such; he managed to somehow create a visible flow of energy within his countenance that transmits Merlin’s fear, wariness, despair, panic. The shows of emotion are also much more powerful than the moment that contains them: the flash of anger in his eyes or tight-lipped determination in the face of danger. In one particular scene on a staircase Bradley James as Arthur says more with a sorrowful and despairing visible plea than any words ever could have. Guinevere, who often rambles and pulls her punches, becomes more assertive, though her dialogue remains appropriate to her character’s station.
The second season also tackles issues modern audiences perhaps relate to more closely, such as “The Witchfinder,” in which an agent who works for no one, and who claims that his own “methods are infallible and findings inscrutable,” lays the burden of proof upon the defendants, interrogates them alone, and makes deals he later betrays. “The Lady of the Lake” brings us a Merlin we haven’t quite seen; his earnestness and empathy for an outsider opens a new pathway that leads him to “The Last Dragonlord,” in which he finds some answers of his past and a better idea of the greatness of his future.
References to this future periodically occur within the show’s dialogue, and as the episodes march forward, Arthur continues to mock Merlin—they have a somewhat unusual relationship, given they are master and servant—but ever so slowly seems to begin to more seriously consider his words. Merlin himself, however, still questions himself and others, unsure what his next move should be or why anything he does might matter. Given what we know of Merlin today, it is somewhat surrealistic to hear Gaius, his uncle, reference future generations—that’s us—and what we will say and believe of him, or for him to be speaking from a world in which Merlin, the greatest wizard who ever lived, does not yet exist.
Herein lies a link to the—a—beauty of it all: Whether audience members are familiar with the legends of Merlin and King Arthur or not, the non-traditional manner in which the stories are laid out in each episode ensures a freshness and vitality to draw in new and younger viewers. Those who, like me, grew up at the knee of a storyteller, get to experience it all over again, with a perspective that deconstructs and forces us to perceive events in new ways. Viewers new to Merlin in general have a great many reasons to be attracted: action, plot, history, characters we come to care about. The timeless quality of humans wanting—perhaps even needing—to be told stories, is satisfied in such a way it makes us want to tell others in a continuation of what our ancestors have been doing since the beginning of time.
Today even small children know about Merlin and, given their wont to carry the real world into play (and vice versa), it is hardly surprising that Merlin’s stories remain as alive as they do. Moreover, there is simply such an enthralling amount of history infused into their creations it is, frankly, somewhat staggering. For those who think that television has nothing of value, I offer you this, as Gaius himself counsels Merlin on magic: “It’s how you use it.”
Merlin (Colin Morgan)
Arthur Pendragon (Bradley James)
Uther Pendragon (Anthony Stewart Head)
Gaius (Richard Wilson)
Lady Morgana (Katie McGrath)
Gwen (Angel Coulby)
Kilgharrah, The Great Dragon (John Hurt)
Three of my favorite episodes from Season II; I highly recommend:
“The Witchfinder” Jeremy Webb/Jake Michie
“The Lady of the Lake” Metin Huseyin/Julian Jones
“The Last Dragonlord” Jeremy Webb/Julian Jones
(Directed by/Written by)
Note: This post was updated to add or switch images.