King Uther cuts a majestic and imposing figure in Camelot, ceaselessly striding the corridors of his castle to seek things he can be wrong about. Not easy being a middle-aged king, particularly in a series which so frequently sets you up as the fall guy for your younger compatriots. Not so much lonely as empty sits the head that wears the crown, in Merlin. This week Uther is entranced by the arrival of Lady Catrina, who is played by Sarah Parish. We the audience are already privy to the information that she is in fact a loathsome troll who has to take a potion to keep appearing beautiful and attractive, but Uther does not. A crown is no substitute for narratorial omniscience and access to all the camera angles, old man.
The plot follows a pretty obvious trajectory. With that set-up, we could probably have sketched it out ourselves, and if you’re reading this you probably saw the episode, so I’ll keep it concise. Catrina (along with slightly sinister sidekick) presents herself to Uther as a noblewoman whom he knew as a child, whose lands have been overrun by an invasion, and who needs his protection. And/or royal rumpy. The king falls for it hook, line and fishing boat, but Gaius is sceptical when Catrina doesn’t seem to display the symptoms of the incurable disease he treated her for years ago. Merlin has learnt enough comparative anatomy to suspect something is amiss when Catrina’s henchman appears to possess a tail. A certain amount of farce occurs since Catrina can’t eat in Uther’s presence (being a troll she needs rotten fruit and general filth to survive) and lots of not being able to speak truth to power since Uther won’t hear any criticism of her. It turns out she wants the throne of Camelot (she loves gold and power), and the episode (the first of a two-parter) ends with no-one quite managing to prevent her marriage to Uther.
The more pressing question is obviously: what the proverbial is going on here? At first glance it seems absolutely obvious what is going on here: to whit, some pretty repulsive misogyny. The potion with Catrina has to take to keep her looking beautiful has a lot in common with the centuries-old anxiety around cosmetics, a handy stand-in for the ideas that women are liars, that they spend their time trying to trap men and that there is something inherently repulsive about women’s bodies.1 If that last point seems a bit strong (or a massive sweeping generalisation, for that matter), consider what Merlin frames as the very worst aspect of Catrina in her troll-form. The show presents us with the scaly skin, the warts, the fangs, the bloated face, but the absolute ne plus ultra, the real pearl-clutching horror before which it swoons entirely, is that she farts. I mean, massive teeth which seem to have been borrowed from a warthog is one thing, but she actually has a functional digestive system. Can you imagine? Moving on from the episode’s absolute terror of alimentary tracts, we might ask why this horrible shrivelled creature, who takes off her disguise each night to wallow in filth and corruption in her bedroom2, has come to Camelot? She’s after gold. Gold and power. A troll who has an undying lust for money and control, and who deceives a man into falling in love with her so she can take over his life. I don’t think it’s complete paranoia to see this as playing into some pretty clear, and pretty unpleasant, stereotypes about women.
Except I’m not sure that’s precisely what’s going on here – or at least, it’s not everything that’s going on. I’ve written before about the feeling that Merlin is written for a predominantly teenaged, straight, female audience, and I wondered again with this episode how it might look different from that angle. Partly disassociation, of course – the hurried distancing of the viewer from all the aspects of women that society considers unacceptable, parcelling them all up into one character who can be loathed because of the anxieties she embodies.
But I wonder whether this is about age as well as about gender. Perhaps, bearing Merlin’s main audience in mind, this isn’t so much about powerful women as about older women. The last role I remember Sarah Parish in was her brilliantly underplayed performance in Mistresses, and maybe the same air of menace follows her around in this episode: it’s not her sexuality that’s so threatening, it’s her potential to disrupt the safe emotional community of Camelot. A castle-wrecker, if you like. If the realm is Gwen and Morgana’s turf (and that of any viewers who identify with them), then Catrina’s incursion is that of the wicked stepmother. That said, the show undeniably taps into some deeply misogynistic tropes to tell that story. I’m genuinely unsure about this one. What do you think?
1 I heard a telling story the other day about women applying makeup on public transport during their daily commute. It seemed to them a handy way of saving time, but it produced astonishingly hostile responses from other commuters, many of whom seemed to find it deeply unsettling to see the process of making-up taking place in public, for whatever reason.
2 Oh, and her accent changes when she’s in troll form. No surprise there.