On the End of Merlin’s First Season

Tonight, NBC broadcast the two-hour finale of the first season of the BBC’s Merlin.

Like last week, where NBC showed two episodes — “The Moment of Truth” and “The Labyrinth of Gedref” back-to-back — I preferred the first hour to the second.

The first episode tonight, “To Kill the King,” was incredibly dark. I wasn’t expecting the execution of Gwen’s father. I wasn’t expecting the assassination attempt, spearheaded by Morgana no less, on Uther’s life.

It also raised some interesting questions — they acknowledge that Gorlois is Morgana’s father, so does that mean that, in Merlin‘s take on the mythos, that Igraine, Arthur’s mother, is also Morgana’s mother as is common in Arthurian myth?

The second episode, “Le Morte d’Arthur,” was interesting, but I also felt it was weak. The reason? The plot elements didn’t feel connected organically. Arthur and the Questing Beast (which first appears in the odd Grail romance, Perlesvaus) existed only to put Merlin into conflict with Nimueh. But while Nimueh served as the villain of the episode, she wasn’t actually doing anything villainous; when, near the end, she and Merlin are locked in wizardly combat, she says there’s no need for the battle. And indeed, there’s not. Nimueh, who appeared to be the season’s “big bad,” in the end wasn’t a big bad. She was just a recurring meanie.

Then the episode doesn’t really end. It just stops. For a finale, it didn’t feel final. Yes, I recognize that the series is coming back — I’ve heard the second season begins airing on the BBC in late September — but there wasn’t a sense of closure to this season. Merlin alienates the dragon. Arthur knows that Gwen thinks he’s spiffy-keen. Morgana has really bad dreams. And this is different… how? That’s just it. It’s not different. The status quo remains intact.

The first season of any show shows the writers and producers grappling what what can and cannot be done in the format. Merlin shows all the hallmarks of that sort of development. I didn’t feel a narrative drive, I didn’t feel like we ended in a fundamentally different place. That’s actually not a bad thing. Chalk it up to the learning curve.

I think Merlin works best when it steers away from the magic. “The Beginning of the End” and “The Moment of Truth,” though both had their magical elements, worked when they focused on the human drama. “The Moment of Truth,” in particular, showed Arthur at his most inspirational, and it proved to be a good character-defining episode. It’s nice to have the magic, but the show shouldn’t fall back on that as the solution to every episode. Let Merlin work out the problem and solve it with his wits, not with his magic. Magic may be easy, but it’s not always right. Let Merlin grow up a little.

What surprised me about Merlin was that it was far more brutal than I expected it to be. I assumed that since the BBC was targeting the series at the Doctor Who-esque family audience that the series would be generally inoffensive. But you have people getting beheaded, people getting run through with swords. Yes, it’s all antiseptic, but the body count in Merlin was still fairly high. When writing an outline for an original Merlin novel, after I’d seen only the first two episodes, I tried to keep it rather bloodless, only to discover as the series went on that, really, I should have amped up the blood.

If I seem harsh on Merlin, I don’t mean to be. I genuinely liked the series, and I’m looking forward to the second season, hopefully in about a month. The series got me re-energized about the Arthurian legend this summer. And I wonder how long until the DVDs are available on this side of the pond. All in all, I had fun with this series. I was entertained. And that’s all I can really ask. 🙂

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