Merlin Season 2 Still Full of Potential
By Kristin Battestella
I had to reread my commentary on Season 1 of the magical BBC hit Merlin so I wouldn’t repeat myself. Like its predecessor, Season 2 has a few steps back at the start. Thankfully, the lovely performances and potential in this series continues to impress.
Young warlock and manservant Merlin (Colin Morgan) continues to hide his magical talents from his would be friend but master Prince Arthur (Bradley James). Camelot court physician Gaius (Richard Wilson) supports Merlin’s dual lifestyle while also trying to help the ruthless King Uther Pendragon’s (Anthony Head) ward Morgana (Katie McGrath). Thanks to the mysterious appearance of sorceress Morgause (Emilia Fox), Morgana is discovering her own dark and uncontrollable magic powers. Her maid Guinevere (Angel Colby), however, has other things on her mind-namely the adventurous and dashing Lancelot (Santiago Cabrera) and the noble, but untouchable Arthur.
I enjoy Merlin very much, but creators Julian Jones (The Bill), Julian Murphy (Sugar Rush), Jake Michie (Hex), and Johnny Capps (Demons) have yet to give the series its proper stride. The writing is there, the performances are ready-each episode is on the cusp of something great. At 13, 45-minute episodes, it seems there simply isn’t enough time for Merlin to get deep and dark where it’s at its best. Every episode seems like it could be at least a two-piece tale, and some single episode plots would be fascinating if their drama ran all season long. Merlin’s first two-part episode ‘Beauty and the Beast’ could have been a serious, dark storyline- imagine if guest star Sarah Parish (Peak Practice, Cutting It) and her evil troll Queen Catrina was battling magics with Merlin all season long while he was hiding his first love Freya (Laura Donnelly, Hex) from Episode 9 ‘The Lady of the Lake’. Now then, let’s throw the long awaited action with the Great Dragon (voiced by John Hurt) into all that along with the wonderful concluding mystery of the ‘The Last Dragonlord’ John Lynch (Black Death). Let the Arthur, Gwen, and Lancelot love triangle be around more than just once a season, and then show Morgana’s dark temptations in every outing. Whew, that’s some heavy stuff brooding in Camelot! Unfortunately, these gems were each touched upon for one measly episode!
Yes, Merlin is for a youthful audience, but it can have its lovely wit, relationships, and humor while still giving Camelot the fantastical court angst and drama it needs for these characters to grow and mature. With concurrent issues running all season long, Merlin would grow past this ‘just like Smallville!’ American plug and finally get deep like Buffy. Instead, the producers felt the need to reboot some of the characters’ growth established in the fine end of Season 1. Why do they think they need to force humor and relationships in a vain effort to grab audiences when they should just tell the tale they wish to tell? This hurts the earlier episodes in Season 2 and actually detracts audiences from sticking around for the on form second half of the series. The concluding concurrent storylines and overarching plots make Merlin grow; we should have more people with more issues, both good and bad, all the time.
Though the fandom online isn’t super huge for Merlin yet, it is already divided between several distinct groups-namely the girlies drooling over Bradley James and Colin Morgan and those who adore the series for its gay subtext and homoerotic innuendo. Yes, you can find some kitschy if you’re looking for it, but the brotherly relationship between the leads and the paternal devotions for both are at the heart of the series. We don’t need a creature feature every week when we can have these lovely performances. Colin Morgan (Doctor Who, Island) is wonderful as the loyal, yet conflicted Merlin. He puts his life on the line by doing his forbidden magic to save Camelot countless times, but his reverie over saving the day is often short-lived. As delightful as Morgan is with the fun and fantastic, his strength is in his subdued sadness and internal conflicts as a young man who must deny who he really is. Similar but different and yet equally up to the task is Bradley James (Portobello 196) as Arthur. His arrogance and often hysterical but ill treatment of Merlin is part of the show’s charm. However, it’s even more delightful when James shows us the strong and compassionate side that will make Arthur the great king he is supposed to be.
Once again, the onscreen adults also add a touch of class in support of the young stars. Anthony Head (Buffy) is love to hate worthy as the unyielding King Uther. He’s cruel, yes, but we also get some funny from him this season. We learn a little more about Uther in Series 2, and he gets a bit of comeuppance, too. Yet through it all, we don’t doubt that he is trying to do what’s best for his son and ward. Episode 8 ‘Sins of the Father’ sets up plenty of family angst that hopefully will be at the forefront of season three. Likewise, Richard Wilson (One Foot in the Grave) lends a wonderful father figure devotion to Gaius and his relationship with Merlin. The two don’t always get along in how to best use or not use sorcery to save the day, but the consequences and lessons learned make for fine drama and character growth.
Merlin’s strength is its well-developed characters and solid performances. Katie McGrath’s (The Tudors) Morgana is a delight as the soon to be Arthurian bad girl of lore-but her reduction this season is a miss. After wonderful, dark strides in the third episode ‘The Nightmare Begins’, we don’t return to the meat of Morgana’s storyline until the excellent third and second to last episodes, ‘The Witch’s Quickening’ and ‘The Fires of Idirsholas’. We don’t need less recurring characters- we need more. Again, guest stars like Charles Dance (Bleak House, Trinity) as the corrupt Witchfinder and Asa Butterfield (The Wolfman) as the youthful but deadly Mordred should appear more for and against Morgana. Santiago Cabrera’s (Heroes) Lancelot should have been around much longer to strengthen Guinevere, and Rupert Young (Dirty Filthy Love) as levelheaded knight Sir Leon should remain in Camelot’s court as well. Emilia Fox (Silent Witness, Henry VIII) has been utterly juicy as Morgause, and I sincerely hope we get to the most of her bads next season.
Some fans online were not pleased at the pushed promotion of Angel Colby (As If) as Guinevere, but Arthur’s future queen had to get the spotlight sometime. Stereotypically, it seems as if the male writers don’t know how to write women and have mishandled the ladies on Merlin. Did you have to reduce Morgana’s screen time and storyline to establish the Gwen romance? It doesn’t look right when you’ve almost chosen one lady over the other for the audience. There’s enough juiciness at Camelot for both girls to have their share. Likewise, John Hurt’s (Harry Potter, The Elephant Man) delightful vocalization of The Great Dragon was used both too much and not enough-just like Season 1. The wise and ambiguous nature of the Dragon was used far too many times for the novelty, and the exceptional final episode ‘The Last Dragonlord’ finally shows him in all his glory. It only makes me want more. More! I wish Merlin could open or close each season with an additional two-part or at least ninety-minute movie episode. It’s not as if I’m asking for an upgrade to 16 episode seasons-though that would be heavenly!
Now, I do have a few nitpicks about the SyFy Channel’s (I hate that name change) presentation of Merlin. Not only is the series dubbed The Adventures of Merlin- something that’s really no big deal; but SyFy is also calling the British born show an ‘Original Series’. Yeah right! Merlin is a quick 45 minutes, but it seems like SyFy shaves time off the commercial entrance and exits. Normally the show has a sword slice effect that definitively ends a scene, but SyFy merely fades out on a rather flat note. The channel’s timing also seems to be off, so a DVR setting on the hour tends to cut off the first or last minute of the show. The channel’s website in support of the show is also riddled with errors and misinformation-real professional, folks! While I am glad that Merlin has found an American home where it can reach its most likely audience-unlike Season 1’s summer NBC death slot- I’m still looking forward to the Season 2 Region 1 DVD sets chock full of the extras and no American tampering. Netflix and other online options like Hulu are available as well.
Merlin: The Complete Second Season is a delightful family friendly program complete with magic, fun for the kiddies, and serious drama for older folks. Though Season 2 has yet to reach the full potential that this series has to offer, fans of the cast and fantasy film can enjoy the intelligent writing, lovely guest stars, and fine performances all around. Arthurian experts may not like some of the liberties Merlin takes in revitalizing the Camelot mythos, but it’s also great to see the promise Merlin’s premise has to offer. Now kick it up a notch next season already!