Adrian Lester’s in this episode, continuing Merlin’s policy of dragging in the occasional grown-up now and then to keep Anthony Head company. I bet they play poker and listen to Miles Davis records between takes. (It would certainly explain Head’s faintly ill-tempered expression every time he appears onscreen. That face tells of a fine Cohiba burning itself to a stump in the ashtray just out of shot.) And I hate to be a bore about this hair thing, but the first time we see Lester his head is shaven and he’s got a beard. Clearly a wrong ‘un. (An assassin as it turns out.) Anyone who has been following the hair (the essential strategy for understanding Merlin) could have told you as soon as they clapped eyes upon that majestically topsy-turvy visage that here was a man who’d kill you for money and probably claim more crossbow bolts on his tax deductions than he’d actually fired.
In the present case he’s after Arthur. It has to do with a murder and a revenge and a dead son, but Adrian Lester’s not convinced. You can see from his ninja-like alertness as he stalks through the corridors that he believes the plot’s all going to turn itself inside out in the last ten minutes and he’ll discover the son was never killed in the first place, and Guinevere hid the combination to the safe in the chicken, because she knew Arthur would throw it to Merlin and he’d cook it for Gaius and so on. Incidentally, if you’ve never seen Adrian Lester in Hustle, my apologies. This paragraph will be making about as much sense as…well, as Hustle does. But Lester is doomed to disappointment: he doesn’t end up killing the prince, and in fact cops it himself, during a heavily-scored tournament sequence in which they end up facing each other in the jousts and Merlin has to save Arthur’s life with a little sorcerous sleight-of-physics. His body still has the vague air that it expects a denouement, any time round about now would be just fine…
Meanwhile Arthur himself is suffering from tragic royal ennui. He worries that the only reason he keeps winning at jousting is that people are letting him. (It doesn’t occur to him that the reason he keeps winning is that he’s part of a tiny group of people who possess the horses, armour and social status to even take part…) So he hatches a cunning plan to compete in disguise, thus proving his worth and gaining the love of the people. He has the love of the people already, of course. He just wants to know that they love him for himself and for non-shiny-gold-hat-related reasons. And if you can’t see why winning a semi-gladiatorial and heavily armoured combat sport is a measure of human value, then frankly I don’t think you’ve been paying enough attention to ESPN over the last few years.
To carry out this plan, he needs a stooge, and finds one in a bumbling farmer called William, played by Alex Price. (Someone else do the “fall guy” joke, I personally find jousting humour a little tiresome.) Now, carefully following the hair we can tell from the first scene Price appears in that this caper is going to come good. Admittedly William has the scruffy yokellish mop appropriate to his station in life, but in our postmodern authenticity-hungry times, this is actually a hopeful sign. How many of our balladeers aspire to similar thatch! Consider Mumford and Sons, winners of the Mrs. Joyful Prize for Unthreatening Knitted Folk-Pop, who spend much of their time attempting to give the impression that they’ve just wandered in from the fields. Or sundry country singers who have no higher aim than to convince listeners that they are not musicians at all, but rather involved in various forms of agricultural labour. When rock stars are trying to look like farmers, William’s hair is a decidedly positive signifier.
In the meantime, Arthur must hide somewhere, and Gwen’s house seems an appropriately peasanty milieu to get his anonymous on. Only, as might have been expected, he doesn’t fancy being as anonymous as all that. The prince is only keen on being a private individual in public life; in private, he’d quite like to carry on being a public figure. To Gwen, a bit of a virtuoso in self-sacrificing devotion, this must be particularly irksome. What can you do with a prince who doesn’t even realize that you’re renouncing things cheerfully for his sake? Give him a stern talking-to, it turns out. And Arthur vows to turn over a new leaf by cooking dinner, almost as if he was the servant instead of her. What an outré and amusing notion1. Unfortunately Arthur runs true to type, and pulls a Logan Huntzberger by ordering in gourmet viands from the palace kitchens. Gwen, however, knows something which never dawned on Rory Gilmore: that it doesn’t really count as a romantic gesture if all he had to do was dial up the family jet. Look at the lad: stick a glass of malt in his hand, comb him the other way and he could be Logan’s younger brother. He must at all costs be prevented from going fully Huntzberger, so whilst Anthony Head and Adrian Lester hide the cigars and sternly refuse to tell a cat what the ante is, Gwen administers another talking-to. (Our titular hero is busy working double shifts and nearly getting assassinated instead of Arthur, if anyone’s interested? Oh no, you aren’t, well that’s just fine, it’s hardly a shock to him that no-one cares, he’ll just get on with it, shall he…
Aside from the hair, textual criticism is a pretty good way to find your way around Merlin sometimes. The title of this episode, for example, “The Once and Future Queen”, is a deliberate misquotation of The Once and Future King, the 1950s Arthurian novel by T.H. White, which itself borrows the line from the inscription said to be engraved on Arthur’s tomb, as reported in the fifteenth-century romance Le Morte Darthur.2 So, “The Once and Future Queen”. In other words “Attention People Called Arthur: This Is Not All About You”. With that in mind, my view of this episode shifted slightly. I had assumed it was a rather obvious piece of sentimental education: Arthur learns to be a better bloke by a few quick lessons from a servant-girl helpfully provided for that purpose. (By the end of the episode, he lets William take the applause of the crowd rather than revealing himself dramatically as the disguised knight they’ve been cheering without knowing it.)
But that title – and the suggestion from several of the camera angles that this is a show which has the straight teenage girl’s gaze in mind (plot points which need to be zoomed in on do tend to appear somewhere just to the side of Arthur’s unclad torso, don’t they?), made me rethink. Maybe this is less an episode about being a good king-in-waiting and more about being the girl who guys sometimes kiss (Arthur and Gwen share a heavily backlit clinch in their emotional reconciliation scene) but won’t acknowledge in public. About being a girl but not quite a girlfriend. That makes it a rather different show, and rather cleverer, or at least with larger emotional ambitions. Though it’s hard to shake the feeling that Peggy Orenstein would raise an eyebrow at the fact that triumph promised Gwen by the title will still only come by someone with a shiny hat marrying her…
1 Critics of the “carnivalesque” reading of medieval festivity emphasize the way in which temporary inversion of the social hierarchy actually reinforces that system, since it makes a big point of how unusual and special the occasion is. Some critics of Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day have expressed similar thoughts, I believe.
2 For those who like to know these things: “Hic iacet Arthurus, rex quondam rexque futurus”. It rhymes and everything.