Lady Catrina lounges elegantly, brushing her hair. “You look positively foul” mutters her henchman. He’s not trying to convince her to turn this episode into a makeover show, he’s alerting us to the fact that we’re in the presence of witchcraft. “Fair is foul and foul is fair” as the witches in Macbeth chant. The only person who can save the kingdom is Merlin, armed with his own brand of magic and possibly a reliable dictionary open at the letter “F”. The last episode ended with the marriage of the troll Catrina to Uther, who is still in thrall to her, most recently via a magic amulet round his neck. I say amulet, but I think we all know a 70s medallion when we see one. The thing is clearly designed to nestle amongst chest hair to a soundtrack of funk guitar. If Uther says anything including the words “get down to business” at any point, I am turning the TV off and we can just sit here quietly and maybe play some cards until the show is over.
I wrote last week about the ambivalence I feel about this storyline. On one hand, I can see that it may be an exploration of emotional rivalries and the resentment of one generation for another. On the other, it explores those themes via a string of deeply unpleasant and misogynstic tropes about women being manipulative, greedy and physically disgusting. I got some interesting responses: one argued that it was less about fearing older women, and more about frustration with Uther’s inability to see when he was being manipulated. Another suggested that the troll is partly a symbol of the trauma of going through physical changes as a teenage girl. In other words, the centre of the narrative isn’t the scenes of Catrina wallowing in the filth of her bedroom, it’s the moments when her troll-body starts breaking through the smooth, immaculate surface of her disguise. I really like this latter suggestion, and I think it plays into a lot of anxieties around control and the dislocations of feeling that the body is rebelling against your will, and against what people expect of you. Of course, whilst these readings may resonate with the experiences of a lot of viewers, a lot of others may just see the episodes reproducing a lot of nasty clichés about women and why they’re icky.
This episode immediately leans towards the “huh, WOMEN, amirite??!!?” end of the spectrum, as we see Catrina faking unhappiness to make Uther snap into line. Then she embarks on a project to turn the King against Arthur, and perhaps worse still, breaks up the band by framing Merlin so he has to leave Arthur’s side. (Of course he doesn’t, he stays secretly in Camelot and surprises the prince by popping out from underneath his bed.) Gaius and Merlin’s inability to break the troll magic means there’s only one possible solution: Uther has to cry tears of true remorse. And the way to do this will be for Arthur to die. Not literally – they’ll take a hint from Friar Lawrence in Romeo and Juliet, and give the lad a potion which will put him into a deathlike trance and not really kill him at all unless something goes wrong with the antidote… Something does indeed go wrong, or at least wrong enough to provide sufficient suspense before Uther cries on cue, blames himself, there’s a fight with the troll and Arthur stabs her to death.
At this point I don’t think the storyline is as salvageable as it may have previously appeared. The only way for Uther to see Catrina in her true form is for Arthur to die COS THEN HE’LL BE SORRY? The desire to see how much everyone will miss you when you’re dead stretches back at least as far as Tom Sawyer, but it’s not usually endorsed as the answer to people’s problems or an effective method of getting revenge. The show seems genuinely unaware of the irony setting up this plot device as the solution to Uther being emotionally manipulated by Catrina. Or the queasy edge to the scene in which all three men are brought together so they can kill her and remove the problem that’s been keeping them apart1 . This reminded me of another response to last week’s piece, in which one reader pointed out how often episodes are structured around a potential threat to the male relationships in the show – often a romantic possibility – which is elaborated until the man in question realizes that it should be rejected and reaffirms his connection to the male society of Camelot. Gwen and Morgana are certainly positive characters, but they don’t seem to be encoded into the narrative structure of the show in the same way. This may be a difficult critique for Merlin to shake off…
1 Not before we got yet another misogynistic trope, as Catrina explained for no particular reason before the fight that she hated Uther touching her, and had only been sleeping with him for his money.