The penultimate episode of the Starz television series deals with events that come out of Arthur’s sister Morgan (Eva Green), stealing the identity of Arthur’s mother Igraine (Claire Forlani) in the previous episode. Morgan imprisoned Igraine at Castle Pendragon and used magic powers to appear at Camelot in the guise of Igraine. At the end of that episode the real Igraine appears at Camelot in the dawn, but does not interrupt Morgan’s plan. Morgan returns to Pendragon while Igraine sees Merlin (Joseph Feinnes). This leads to Merlin’s realisation that he had spend a night in bed with Morgan rather than Igraine. He explains the situation to Igraine and persuades her to keep everything secret from the others at Camelot.
The fall out from Morgan’s manipulation carries on when Leontes (Philip Winchester) realises that his wife Guinevere (Tamsin Egerton) spent the night before their wedding with King Arthur (Jamie Campbell Bower). Merlin takes on the role of the real leader of Camelot, which he always has when not engaged in secret enterprises or shut away in moods of introspection. He, and others, persuade Leontes to stay at Camelot and contribute to the forthcoming struggles. He finds Arthur and knocks him to the floor, insisting on his authority over the king, and questioning Arthur’s fitness for kingship.
Two main story lines emerge from this crisis. Arthur and the knights ride to a village under attack from Morgan’s forces, as she hopes they will. Merlin and Igraine go to Pendragon, apparently with the intention of arresting Morgan. At the village, the knights all realise that Arthur has hurt Leontes through his night with Guinevere, and are not happy with him. Merlin persuades Gawain (Clive Standen) to make sure that no harm comes to Arthur as a result of this break down his personal status. When Arthur’s older brother Kay (Peter Mooney) realises what happened he attacks Arthur as a person, a brother and a king. It appears that Arthur’s previous liaisons include girlfriends of Kay. Completely stricken with guilt Guinevere rides after the knights to bring Leontes’ prayerbook which he had forgotten. Leontes is partly defined as the most religious of the Camelot band, particularly in contrast with the irreligious Merlin.
The fight with Morgan’s forces at the village goes well against superior forces, due to the training and cunning of the knights. In a predictable, but nevertheless well executed development, cooperation in the fight and Arthur’s self-sacrificing bravery bring the knights together again, though how much is not clear at this point. The struggles within Camelot is in contrast with the grotesque love Morgan’s agent at the village has for her. We met him earlier as a Pendragon knight spying on her in the bath, who then undertakes to lead undercover acts of violence and provocation on her behalf. He won’t withdraw the defeated forces from the village because of his fantasy that he can still win the fight, and become Morgan’s lover rather than her instrument. This emotionally dysfunctional behaviour which prevents prudent military leadership parallels the struggles in the Camelot camp. We could see this as a way of putting the Camelot community in a better light, none of the knights are spying on Guinevere while naked, but we could also see it as a way of bringing out the darker and more sordid aspect of the emotional confusion at Camelot. The first option predominates, but we should not ignore the second one.
At Castle Pendragon, Merlin appears to behave naively and self-destructively, but is always in control. The fruits of that will become apparent in the next episode. Together with Igraine (who does not appear to know what his strategy is) he makes an absurd attempt to arrest Morgan amongst her knights and followers. Predictably she has them locked up in a dungeon after Igraine is unable to find evidence of her earlier imprisonment, and almost reveals her killing of a soldier during her escape. Morgan condemns Merlin as a sorcerer and Igraine as a mad woman and has them tied to a cart in march to Camelot. Morgan hopes to take real power from Arthur by persuading the population that their sufferings, which are in reality at least partly due to the provocations of Morgan’s agents, are the fault of Arthur’s inner circle.
Evidently Merlin had foreseen these events as the consequence of his acting out of an attempted arrest of Morgan. He appears to be expecting Morgan, and maybe Morgan’s mentor the Nun (Sinéad Cusack) who appears to have taught her magic in an Irish convent, to reveal their own use of supernatural forces and strategies of covert subversion and provocation. After a night with Morgan as Igraine, he is now tied with her to the same cart, in an adventure which he has planned but not explained to her. The devotion of Merlin to the cause over any personal feeling seems very dominant here, as we know he does have a strong attachment to Igraine. At this point, Merlin looks like someone who can be trusted to act for the good of the community, but not someone who can be trusted in personal relations. He has knocked down his surrogate son Arthur, and manipulated Arthur’s real mother, who evidently loves Merlin. The yoking together with Igraine hints at a future love, even marriage, but I suspect that the outcome will be much more tormented than that.
There is no simple struggle between good and evil here. Whatever good comes out of Camelot rests on Merlin’s extreme ruthlessness with himself and with others, a discipline Arthur appears to be beginning to learn. Morgan betrays her brother but has good reason to feel betrayed by her father. Her provocations and manipulations expose deep failings in the Camelot regime. She has a mixture of love and hatred for the Nun, paralleled in the tensions within the Camelot community. Camelot and Penbragon together make up one community of love and betrayal.
I feel it is unavoidable that I should deal with some journalistic comments on Camelot. However, they are so obnoxious, and such obvious examples of traffic tarting I am not going to link with them or even identify them. Anyway, my comments will merge with comments on the more general reaction to Camelot.
One criticism is that the TV series does not stand comparison with the Jphn Boorman film, Excalibur. This is certainly a very good film and I have seen it many times. However, I am sure the people making spiteful comments about Camelot would make very similar comments about the film if it was a new production. There are an endless number of precedents for a new story about Camelot, Merlin and Arthur in many media over many centuries. It is a story that invites retelling and reinvention and to condemn Camelot for referring to this previously told story is particularly ignorant. That does not excuse a bad TV series, but all the claims this is a bad series are feebly argued. One reason offered is that it has sex and violence in it, well that is true of a lot of TV now, and more so with subscription channels like Starz that are less constrained than free to air channels in showing ‘adult’ content at any time of the day. Oddly some people who criticise Camelot on these grounds compare it unfavourably with Game of Thrones, which is indeed a very good series, but also has a lot more sex and violence than Camelot.
Another criticism is that the Arthur character is not as well drawn or acted as Merlin or Morgan. That is to some degree true, but misses a couple of points. Firstly, there is nothing wrong or unprecedented with Merlin overshadowing other characters. Secondly, this is very much a tale of Merlin forming a very young man into a king, in the telling of which there is clearly an element of Merlin as director or senior actor forming a raw actor. Sometimes it is not clear if Bower is acting Arthur badly, or successfully playing Arthur as a rather raw unformed youth. Either way it serves the same dramatic purpose well.
Another popular criticism is that Camelot is like soap opera. It is impossible to have a serial drama which does not have similarities with soap opera. Soap is a populist version serial drama and inevitably uses all the same devices. The difference is that soap opera is more reliant on shock, sudden plot turns, and cliff hanging episode ends, which substitute for depth of story telling and character interaction.
Though some criticism of Camelot compares it unfavourably with other TV series, the main line of attack is to dismiss a number of recent or current TV series with historical or fantasy-historical settings. A lot of this seems to rest on nothing more than a tiresome mix of snobbery and intellectual laziness according to which no such series could be any more than a degenerate product of popular culture. Strangely these criticisms are being voiced by the worse kind of attack critics, incorporating some of the more vulgar aspect of current culture, in their assumed snobbery. I have not seen all these series, but I will list the ones I know.
Rome which was the starting point, and deals with the end of the Roman Republic. Spartacus which is something of a prequel to Rome, as it deals with a slightly earlier period of Roman republican history. Both series contained many historical anachronisms and inaccuracies, but all for dramatic purpose. Both series employed expert advisers, and deviated from that advice where a dramatic purpose was served and were right to do so. Rome is now finished, a second series of Spartacus is in production after a first series and a prequel miniseries. Both are mocked for supposed vulgarity by the vulgar in spirit but have brought knowledge of ancient history, culture and politics to a broad audience in beautifully crafted dramas.
The other current series I know are The Borgias, Game of Thrones, and Camelot. Borgias is highly fictionalised history. Game of Thrones is based on a fantasy history series by George R.R. Martin, which refers to a country roughly like Medieval England. Camelot itself refers to the middle ground between the history of England and Wales in the early middle ages and the sequence of stories about Merlin and Arthur which go back to Welsh legends at the very beginning of that period. There is nothing wrong or vulgar about fantasy or fictionalisation of history, but there certainly is about people who sneer at them in knee jerk manner. The boundaries of sex and violence in mainstream television has expanded greatly in a few decades. This in no way brings about bad television, though I’ve had a few moments in some of these series where I thought it interrupted the drama rather than enhancing it. There is no such thing as flawless drama, or art in general. Those who understand that good TV is more than yet another polite tasteful adaptation of a literary classic will probably enjoy these series. If nothing else they have great production values. Lots of good camera work, sets, outdoor scenery, and costumes. Those are secondary issues but certainly help make a great series. There are lots of respected actors in these series and it is nonsense to say that are all dumbing down; and in addition the relative new comers have mostly done well. The story lines have all been great in integrating a variety of characters and situations; personal relations and power struggles; individual issues and political and social themes. This is great television.