Thursday, January 10, 2013

Merlin Season 2 Review

 I find myself in danger of repetition because so much of what I loved about the first season is still true in the second. We still have the beautiful scenes and use of CGI (at least to some degree). We still have some amazing characters that are nuanced with good, strong motives. We have excellent relationships where you can really believe these characters love each other, or hate, or have a truly strong friendship.

And we still have some excellent acting. I think that may be the key to why so much about this show is so good - why the characters are so real, why the relationships ring so true and why the story is carried so well.

Of course, for me the crown is the meta. The plots are well maintained, most episodes continue to advance the ongoing themes and add to the overall series. There are no wasted episodes, no junk episodes, no filler episodes. Everything adds to the development - whether of Arthur and Gwen’s love or Uther’s magic hate or Morgana’s resentment of Uther and his prejudice. There is constant growth and development that keeps the season going and stops it having the mid-season dip that so many series have.

I love the way the seeds that have been sown return - Mordred wasn’t just a one off, he returns and adds further to the plotline. Lancelot, again, wasn’t just a castaway in the first season to fit in the name. Nimue is shown to have a greater history than we knew from her defeat in the first season. Morgause is more than just a one episode villain - every episode we lay more threads.

The season also had an epic finale. I think Merlin’s meeting his father was somewhat anticlimactic, all things considered, but the end confrontation was excellent. We had the epic loss, Arthur and Gwen’s coming together in the face of utter destruction, and a really well presented sense that all of Camelot was completely at risk and helpless. It was exciting and finally solidified what the relationship between Merlin and the Dragon was going to be after 2 seasons of doubt and conflict.

We had some excellent character development this season - most stellar of all was the relationship between Gwen and Arthur. I knew it was coming since I’d heard fanchatter, but it still surprised me when the chemistry began - and it was really well done. We get to see Arthur beginning to see Gwen as a person rather than just a servant. And there’s a wonderful moment when she demands for respect from him, to be treated as a person by him and calling him out for how much he takes for granted. Seeing how Arthur worries about her and insists on helping and rescuing her - and protecting her when needed.

The only part I don’t like is the love triangle with Lancelot, but even that is only briefly referred to and is more a nod to the original Arthurian legend rather than a classic love triangle we see so often.

Arthur and Merlin’s relationship continues really well - them coming closer as friends, often hilarious with their banter but with that continuing message of class that overshadows both their friendship and the love between Arthur and Gwen. Their different social positions lead to Arthur continually under-appreciating both of them and being grossly ignorant about the different standard of living he has from them.

I also liked Gaius’s continuing development as a father for Merlin - excellently done (but, with these actors, that’s no surprise) but also his friendship with Uther, and it is a friendship. But, like with Arthur and Merlin, it’s always overshadowed by their differing position and further damaged by Uther’s prejudice - culminating finally in a wonderful scene in Episode 7 where Gaius confronts Uther on his lack of trust after such history between them. I think that’s very much not just a case of Uther’s prejudice, but also the social gap between them that lead Uther to be willing to treat Gaius as he did.

I did have trouble with some of how Morgana changed. Her hatred of Uther is reasonable and well developed and well presented. But Morgana takes this growing hatred of Uther and allows it to spill over on to everyone else. Similarly, she seems to bond with Morgause extremely quickly - and allowing it to overwhelm any friendship she had with Arthur or Gaius or Gwen. I loved her developing fear of her magic and her developing resentment of Uther for forcing her to hide. I loved how the difficulty of her keeping the secret, of confronting her own self-hatred due to Uther’s anti-magic policies was presented. It really added depth to her character and her motivations - but her singular hatred against Uther seemed to spread too far and too deep. In one season she’s moved from being unable to kill Uther, to being willing to work with Morgause, a near stranger, to curse the whole city and lead an army of immortal knights against Arthur and Merlin.

I also can’t understand Uther openly deriding Gaius for being superstitious and dismissing his (accurate) fears about a curse or the undead knights. I’m not a big lover of casual scepticism in a world with open magic anyway but for Uther, the most paranoid, unreasonable, anti-magic person in the world to so casually dismiss a curse when he normally sees Sorcery behind every curtain? Twice he dismisses a magical threat to the kingdom when he can normally be relied upon to overreact to even the slightest hint that magic is afoot.

Like in the first season, the series has avoided using the historical setting as an excuse for complete POC erasure - having POC minor parts in several episodes. Some of them are clearly meant to be “exotic” foreigners, but equally we have POC Druids and people in Camelot and, of course, Gwen. There aren’t a lot of POC but they are there.

Similarly, the women are not reduced to screaming, delicate damsels. Morgause arrives as a female knight and, beyond a few eye twitches, her challenge is treated with respect and severity. The only person who tries to present her as less able because of being a woman is Arthur - to justify why he lost to her, and that’s thoroughly challenged by Merlin clearly labelling his pathetic excuse as what it is.

What is an interesting contrast is that Morgana, the White woman, is much more physically dangerous with a sword (even rescuing herself from bandits) and a much more formidable opponent, while Gwen, the WOC, is the less physically adept fighter, who needs rescuing and protecting. A lot of our societal narrative puts White woman as delicate and in need of rescue, while WOC are more physical, more fierce and less requiring of protection and rescue. It’s interesting to see the narrative switched

Strength means more than sword play and we do see a lot of courage and will from all the female characters, and even agency despite them being pinned by their roles. Gwen calls out Arthur beautifully and, when Camelot is threatened, is willing to walk into severe danger to help the injured. Morgana attacks Uther for his hypocrisy and his cruelty before deciding her own fate free from Camelot. They’re every bit as determined individuals as Arthur or Merlin.

But I have to say I am getting tired of the queue of mystical women trying to seduce Arthur or Uther. Are they never courted by actual, human princesses or ladies? The dangerous, enchanting seductress is getting a little overdone.

Merlin continues from strength to strength - it has a formula that works, actors that are excellent and some excellent characters - all over excellent.