For me, even after just 2 episodes, Starz TV’s series Camelot was certainly the best current TV drama around. I’ve saw episode 4 a few days ago and it maintains the standard. No references to Cicero or Marcus Aurelius though. I’ve got a lot to say, but here briefly are the themes, and below that a discussion of the action to explain how the themes appear.
The dangers and greatness of Merlin’s political idealism; the related issue of the invention of myth to cover violence; the value of moral purity and sacrifice of that purity; control of inner anger and power; the complex establishment of Morgan’ (Arthur’s half-sister) character and situation; Arthur’s inner tension between the aim of ideal kingship and his love for his champion’s wife.
Starting with the issues I find most compelling, round Merlin, the character I find most compelling (though Morgan comes close and might even overtake Merlin as the series proceeds). Merlin, Arthur’s sorcerer, adviser, controller, and surrogate father, decides the find a sword fit for the king, and finds Caliban, a retired warrior, casting the best swords in obscure retirement. Merlin obtains Excalibur, the greatest sword for his King, but will not allow Caliban to deliver the sword personally, because he senses the blood still on Caliban, and fears his unintentionally corrupting affect. Caliban has already provoked Merlin into showing his magical powers by producing fire. A fight takes place in which Merlin accidentally kills Caliban with fire, confirming Merlin’s own fear of his own powers, parallel to Caliban’s fear of the blood thirsty killer inside him. Caliban’s daughter, whose beauty Merlin admires, sees what happens and runs to a lake with Excalibur, and rows out into the centre. Merlin uses his powers to freeze over the lake and retrieve the sword, but he fails to get Caliban’s daughter from out of the ice. Merlin takes the sword but punishes himself by provoking two thuggish men in a tavern to beat him very badly. When he returns to Camelot, he tells a version of the familiar story of the lady of the lake who offers Excalibur. The idea that ideal romantic sounding mythology covers over a violent event is suggested here, and this is appropriate to Arthurian tales since they are in large part an idealisation of a culture of violence and robbery. We see how the myths of a nation, and its political institutions, can be concealment of violence and grotesque contingencies. Merlin himself is genuinely ideal, but we see the moral ambiguity around idealism. Merlin’s own idealism is driven by magical powers he himself fears, and should fear, and which he is not strong enough to control. The possibility is suggested here, and elsewhere, that political idealism, is dangerous as it means an attempt to impose an abstract vision on real people. Camelot also shows good things about political idealism, justice triumphing over violence, so we can see too sides of idealism, including political idealism, as we see tow sides of Merlin, self-sacrificing idealist and dangerous control freak. We also have the issue of moral purity for Merlin, the suggestion that sometimes it is right to sacrifice your own moral purity to a good cause, a dangerous idea, but not a dilemma that is easily avoided.
Morgan is still emerging as a character, constantly becoming more ambiguous. The first two episodes suggest evil, though evil that grows from betrayal by her father, and a woman’s resistance to male power. She forces King Lott into a mixture of political alliance and stormy romantic connection. However, in the end she betrays Lott because of his cruelty and saves Camelot. The third episode shows her casting aside the torture implements in her father’s dungeon, but using that dungeon as a centre of magic with power mad intentions. A black associate from an background of slavery, Vivienne is introduced, and there are strong suggestions that Morgan and Vivienne represent the attempts of the powerless, marginalised and oppressed to assert themselves. In this episode, Morgan is visited by a nun, who is from a convent over the water (presumably Ireland), where she was educated. Morgan first orders the nun out of the castle, but is afflicted with a mixture of physiological and psychological torments, which lead her to call in the nun. The consequence of Morgan’s torments and the nun’s help include assuming the shape she had when she poisoned her father, and adopting the shape of Ygraine, who her and Arthur’s father, Uther Pendragon married after disposing of Morgan’s mother. Ygraine is Athur’s mother. Adopting Ygraine’s shape appears to give Morgan insight into Arthur’s continuing adulterous desire for Guinevere which Ygraine observes. We see Ygraine explaining to Arthur that though she is the beneficiary of Uther’s contempt for another man’s marriage, she will fight Arthur doing the same, because of the deaths that came from Uther’s actions. This looks like a degree of justification for Morgan’s murder of her father. By the end of this episode, Morgan is only defined by increasing ambiguity, she allows the nun to stay in the castle but at the other end of it, and we still do not know the source of the tension between them. We are not sure about Morgan’s intentions towards Arthur and Camelot, and she does not know who she is judging by the spells of torment which undermine whatever identity she has.
Arthur is so far less compelling than Merlin or Morgan, he is a strong enough character and could develop in a very interesting way around the conflicts in him. Most obviously this conflict between the wish to be a good king who bring benefits to all his people, and his desire for Guinevere regardless of her marriage to his champion, Leontes, and her fervent protestations that she does not wish to repeat the night of intimacy she had with Arthur, the night before her wedding. Both sides of Arthur seem extremely strong, and the force of the conflict is brought out when he is leading his knights in practise fighting and he urges them to defend what they consider to belong to them. Gawain, who leads the training of the knights in fighting, has an important role as the figure who shows the knights the importance of fighting with passion and ruthlessness, even threatening to kill Arthur ti make his point. It is Leontes who defends Arthur, again drawing our intention to the duty/passion tension.