Sunday, September 20, 2009

Merlin: "The Curse of Cornelius Sigan"; or, "Dry Your Eyes, Mate, Plenty More Fish in the Sea"

If Sex and the City has contributed anything to society (and I dare say there is a strong argument to the contrary), it is the distillation of a difficult but necessary duty which has fallen to friends down the centuries, without any change from the earliest times right up to today. It packaged the conversation friends have dug deep and addressed to friends since the mists of time first began to melt away into six simply understood words. “He’s just not that into you”. It is every person’s obligation to observe the string of events which will lead to this conclusion, it is their obligation to think what their friend will find unthinkable, and finally, it is their obligation to gently but firmly share their findings. I have been at both the receiving and the dispensing end of that advice, and while neither has been particularly easy or pleasant, both were absolutely, fundamentally, beyond any shadow of doubt, for the best for all concerned. But watching Merlin on Saturday, it struck me that he, having spent most of the first series in dire need of the “He’s just not that into you” conversation with someone – anyone – has stepped well beyond that stage.

I love Merlin. It is one of the few series I genuinely looked forward to the return of, and independent witnesses could confirm I actually squealed a little with excitement when I saw the trailer advertising the second series. But it is sad to say that things are a-changing in Camelot, and not necessarily in a good way. The first series rocketed through cheerily enough, but it ended on something of a sally which foreshadowed future misery. Merlin voluntarily gave up his life for Arthur. The deal wasn’t sealed in the end – obviously – but the thought was there, and that thought, once had, were always bond to inform their relationship later, despite, or maybe because, only Merlin knowing about it. And never more was this new dynamic more obvious than Saturday’s little romp whereby Cedric, a small-time thief, sometime massively scary sorcerer, deposed Merlin of his role as Arthur’s closest advisor without passing Go. He made it look easy. Indeed, it was easy, mainly because Arthur was not in the least bit bothered by whether Merlin was around or not, despite Merlin fighting off gargoyles etc etc, exhorted on his way to possible death by Gaius shrieking “do it for Arthur!” In the name of God, why?

There was a point during the first episode of the second series of Merlin when I finally clocked what the Merlin/Arthur relationship had begun reminding me of. An emotionally abusive marriage. “It doesn’t matter what he does, he loves me anyway.” “It doesn’t matter what he says, I love him anyway.” Or, as Merlin put it in a genuinely distraught scene “everything I do is for him, but just he thinks I’m an idiot.” Yes, exactly! But unfortunately, Merlin has reached that uncomfortable position where his sense of perspective is completely skew-whiff and even brief moments of clarity are not enough to lead to following the obvious course of action. The boy desperately needs an intervention. I thought Gaius, carefully washing horseshit off the aforementioned sorcerer’s face (long story), was going to finally give Merlin the long-overdue “girl, please” talking-to. But instead he fed Merlin the same tedious “your destinies lie together” bullshit peddled by the dragon. And none of Merlin’s other friends seem able to sit down with him and explain that the sun, in fact, does not shine from the royal arse and just possibly the one or two times Arthur hasn’t just stood by and let Merlin die doesn’t completely equal the eleventy-three times Merlin has saved Arthur’s life, not to mention the aforementioned memorable time he voluntarily swapped his own life for Arthur’s. “His life is worth a hundred of mine,” Merlin said then, with the burning eyes of the fanatic. Yet Gaius panders to it, Gwen is too blind in that direction herself, and Morgana is well on her way to being so thoroughly off her rocker as to have no really valid opinion on anyone else’s healthy mental state.

Perhaps the most troubling thing about the whole situation is when you recap why Merlin has devoted life and limb to Arthur. Merlin is not from Camelot himself, or even from a land under the rule of Camelot. He accepted at only a crazy, imprisoned dragon’s word that he is destined to protect Arthur from surprisingly regular and frequent attempts on his life, in order to create a Camelot where magic is allowed and, indeed, a Camelot which, via military campaign, will ‘unite’ the other pesky kingdoms on the island to create Albion, in what sounds like a sensationally ambitious and sinister adventure in imperialism. Where the dragon gets his intelligence from is not at all clear, but presumably it is from this ‘Old Religion’ everyone bangs on about without actually ever talking about the New Religion. So to recap further: Merlin is taking up arms to expand a foreign regime which persecutes magic in the name of a religion no one believes in – including, presumably, himself until he met a mad dragon kept tied up in cave for reasons Merlin doesn’t categorically know. Considering Merlin – and our – exposure to magic has, with the exception of Merlin and Gaius, been entirely negative it makes his eagerness to accept this extraordinary claim sometimes difficult to sympathise with. Nimueh, Sigan, the Sidhe, the dragon, Morgana, Mordred, the Black Knight, Knight Valiant, the Questing Beast, that chap with the unicorns – why wouldn’t Uther fear magic?! Why wouldn’t Arthur fear it, and why would Merlin naturally assume that the dragon is right and an imperial superstate where magic can run riot would be some sort of idyll? I’m not saying Uther’s violent authoritarian regime is any way acceptable, but I am saying the writers need to put in some legwork on the pro-magic front and demonstrate the ‘normal’ face of magic – presumably Camelot is full of sorcerers being oppressed from practising their perfectly peaceable and harmless arts. We just never see them. If Merlin really were fighting the good fight on their, and his own, behalf then his valiant struggle would be sympathetic and honourable. But because the magic folk we see are all utterly bonkers and because Merlin’s thoughts on the subject of freedom to practice magic are entirely based around wanting Arthur to see his magical powers, it sort of comes across as pathetic.

Merlin doesn’t really get his faith in Arthur, the dragon’s predictions of Arthur’s future wonderful reign and the trust that legalised magic wouldn’t, in fact, be a bad idea from a crazy dragon. He accepts his destiny so eagerly because he is, quite simply, obsessed with Arthur. The answer to why Merlin so quickly takes on the responsibility is not just a matter of ego – he is allowed an ego, given that he seems to be the only magician who isn’t a homicidal maniac – but because he is, quite simply, obsessed with Arthur. There is no other way to read the situation. It was even clearer in the latest episode. He is hopelessly devoted and, in the time-honoured tradition of a person in such a quandary, seems to actively seek out opportunities to be humiliated by, angry with and resentful of the object of his deluded affections.

Even as Merlin becomes ever more bonkers for the prince, Arthur becomes even crueller and less faithful, wise as he is with his royal power, he is power mad in his relationship with Merlin, because Merlin lets him and because that is generally what happens in such a set-up. In good times he teases, in bad times he drops Merlin altogether. His indifference and lack of gratitude has become so expected that his reaction to Merlin saving his skin again – ordering Merlin to perform his menial tasks without acknowledging Merlin had demonstrated more wisdom in distrusting Cedric (notwithstanding the fact it was a distrust based patently on jealousy rather than any sort of character insight) – has become a standing joke to Merlin and Gaius, albeit one Merlin clearly doesn’t see the funny side of, given his tears over the very subject earlier in the episode. It’s possible the whole surrendering his life for Arthur’s which ended the last series has finally sent Merlin completely over the edge – he’s mad enough about Arthur to do that, and Arthur ditches him the first time he falls asleep in a stable. It would make you cry, it would make you angry, and it would make you in even sorer need of the sound philosophy of Our Ladies of the West Side.

So, Merlin, since no one else seems capable and/or inclined to man up and tell you this, I shall: He’s just not that into you. Do what you have to do, but do it for yourself and your own, not for him. Get on and find some other nice sorcerers, find your ongoing cause there, at least until Arthur begins to change his tune just a little. Because, and I say this as someone who has been there, you need to stop, look and listen to what you are getting back from him and it is NOTHING.


Scarlet-Blue said...

You've really thought about this haven't you?!
I saw some of the first series and got fed up with Arthur for being so stupid and mean. I will try to catch up with it on Saturday, that's if the dragon that lives in my cellar tells me to.

Cordelia said...

Probably too much. I was highly resentful because a migraine had kept me in all Saturday, the whole world was having fun and I was sipping water in the company of Arthur who, if anything, has only become more stupid and mean. Yet I still kind of like it, in the same sado-masochistic way I like Privaleged, One Tree Hill, Smallville and all the other appalling stuff I watch. Also I am now on tenterhooks as to whether any character development may take place, at all, at any point in the series...