You know what’s good about Merlin? (No, not that, we’re leaving that ‘til the second paragraph, eyes up here please if you don’t mind.) It’s the show’s approach to history. Which is to leave history politely alone and zoom off in the direction of MOAR SHINIES. Now I appreciate the initial value of a deeply over-determined and in all likelihood mythical hero. Who knows whether Arthur was a Welsh freedom-fighter, a Romano-British auxiliary captain, a Saxon nationalist, or something a tedious old beardy called Merlin dreamt up after one too many of the brightly-coloured mushrooms? No-one, that’s who. But basing your show on completely fictional characters who happen to share a few syllables of their name with some legend-encrusted historical figure is (mentioning no Thrones) still no guarantee that people won’t lap it up as if you’ve transcribed the personal diaries of every baron at Runnymede.1 Merlin insists boisterously on its own preposterousness. And hair. It really insists on the hair. This may be the first incarnation of the King Arthur myth to be follically determined.
And yes, since you mention it, that is the other striking thing about Merlin. I mean, I cut my critical teeth on Renaissance drama, a form partly based on the assumption that if you put pretty young men on the stage being pretty you won’t regret it when you count the box office receipts. Even so, Merlin seems unusually heavily invested in pointing out at frequent intervals that male beauty is a thing, like a younger sister who’s just discovered boy-bands. And, come to think of it, TV history suggests that putting two male characters at the centre of a show, one in charge and one with quite noticeable ears, is a popular strategy with a certain young female demographic.
This episode starts a little like an Indiana Jones movie, in fact rather more so than the last Indiana Jones movie. Perhaps the producers spotted a gap in the market. Excavations under Camelot have revealed a hazardous tomb, and Uther Pendragon (played by Anthony Head, that wily old antuiqity-botherer) orders Arthur to guard it, whilst a suspiciously bearded bloke called Cedric (Mackenzie Crook) is pouring beer into one of the “native workmen” (Welsh, but let’s not pretend he’s not lifted straight from Indiana Jones, Agatha Christie, et al). The place is locked up “tighter than the king’s coffers”, lilts the excavator, a grubby phrase in a pleasingly nonspecific way. Before the scene ends, Crook gets a reference to “fingersmiths” in. I think we may be in the presence of some sort of censorship slalom competition between the writers.
Cedric worms his way into Merlin’s place as Arthur’s servant, presumably to get his hands on the key (or the coffers) which he manages with a snuffer, and becomes possessed by the soul of a dead sorcerer. There’s something about Mackenzie Crook’s face which just says UNDEAD FTW to casting directors. (Go back and watch The Office with that in mind, it makes a lot more sense.) And then, well…you remember that bit in Buffy where Willow goes a bit overboard on the magic and acquires a rather splendid dark-side-type frogged jacket? It seems Crook has watched that episode one too many times and quite fancies giving it a go.
So gargoyles are brought to life, Guinevere (Angel Coulby) does some strategic falling over onto Arthur, and Merlin goes to see the Great Dragon underneath Camelot. A Faustian pact ensues, with Merlin trading a promise to free the dragon one day in exchange for a spell to save the place. You can tell this bit’s serious because the music suddenly lines up with what’s happening onscreen. For a lot of Merlin, Rob Lane and Rohan Stephenson’s score sort of hangs about in the background being gently snarky about the whole affair, but it falls into step here and starts gesturing towards duty and destiny. (As an aside, did I imagine the hint of Twenty-Eight Days Later about Merlin running across the courtyard in the aftermath of the battle?)
And now we get to Cedric’s real threat: he doesn’t want to destroy Camelot, he wants to break up the band. Now his hair is glossy and his beard neatly trimmed, he can offer Merlin a place in a slightly emo outfit where they sing moody yet accessible songs about being misunderstood. Think of the stadiums we could play, his feathery cloak seems to say, we could even do Glastonbury Festival for a bit of credibility if you insist. But Merlin is unmoved. “Better to serve a good man than to rule with an evil one” he declares, adding clumsy misquotation to the torments heaped upon Milton’s Satan. And he goes back to being the unappreciated genius who saves the day without getting any credit. Whilst polishing Arthur’s cuirass.
1 And not to get into that fight, because we only have a certain quota of time and my medieval social history is significantly sketchier than I’d like it to be, but I mean, really. I hold no particular brief for Laurie Penny, but when she criticized Game of Thrones’ portrayal of women, the most frequent defence of the show I heard was “but it’s historically accurate!” And they say feminists are the ones lacking a sense of the ludicrous…