Monday, December 3, 2012

The Evil Uncle Isn't Fooling Anybody (Merlin)

After a deep and meaningful consideration of my sources (i.e., watching some more of Merlin season four, because I am woefully behind and preemptively mourning the show), I have come to the conclusion that the writers over there aren’t even really trying anymore. 

Sure, they put up a good front every episode. Morgana schemes, Arthur broods, Gwen is sensible and Merlin saves the day, usually while Arthur has a convenient concussion (how is his brain not pudding by now?). But when we get down to it, it’s easy to see that the writers behind Merlin are getting tired.

How can I tell? Because they added an evil uncle.

But first, to explain the show. Merlin is a cute little one hour drama that follows the lives of Merlin and Arthur, before the Arthurian legend really takes off. In this version of the story, the boys are about the same age, and played by comely BBC actors, living in a Camelot ruled by King Uther. Uther hates magic because he believes it killed his wife, and he’s trained Arthur not to like it either. Magic is completely forbidden in Camelot, and to practice it means death. Enter Merlin, who is effortlessly magic and incredibly oblivious. Hijinks ensue!

The basic setup is that Merlin accidentally saves Arthur’s life even though they can’t stand each other. Uther rewards Merlin by making him Arthur’s manservant, and for the rest of the show, we have a dynamic that keeps Merlin close to the throne so he can save the day and make sure Arthur lives long enough to become the Once and Future King, and so that he might one day make magic not illegal anymore. Also they become friends, eventually.

Gwen and Morgana are around too – Morgana starts out as Uther’s ward and Arthur’s friend, and slowly goes insane from the bitterness and a bunch of stuff that happens. She’s evil now, that’s not a spoiler. Gwen in this version is a blacksmith’s daughter who serves Lady Morgana, but slowly rises in Arthur’s esteem and becomes his paramour. She is also Merlin’s best friend, and very sweet and sensible.

Now, the inherent problem in this premise is pretty simple. Merlin has to keep his magic a secret from Arthur, because magic is illegal, and Arthur has no real reason to make it legal. The show needs the underlying tension of Merlin using his magic and not being caught to drive it forward. But, at this point, when Arthur and Merlin have died for each other over and over, it seems a little silly to think that Arthur would actually get mad at Merlin for the whole magic thing. Which is our problem.

As a result, the show has started to feel a bit stale. Oh, it’s fun and exciting still, but there’s no way around the fact that we are well past the point when Merlin could tell Arthur about his magic and have it not be weird. The show has officially been in the bathroom for too long now, and people are starting to wonder what it’s doing in there.

Weird analogy, I know.

Anyway, to liven things up for the fourth season, they decided to introduce Agravaine, Arthur’s Uncle and counselor. As Arthur deals with the pressures of ruling his kingdom, he turns for help to his beloved Uncle. Who we had literally never heard of until he showed up on screen. And we were supposed to be surprised when it was revealed that Agravaine is evil. Puh-lease.

Look, there’s a reason why the evil uncle is a common trope. It makes sense that the person who stands most to gain from the young king’s death is his uncle, next in line for the throne. That’s fine, whatever.

What I hate in Merlin, though, is that it treats us like we’re idiots. Agravaine shows up for the first time wearing all black leather and oozing around Uther’s court. Arthur refers to him as his “trusted Uncle”, even though we’ve never seen the guy before. Then, that very same episode, Agravaine goes out into the woods, and suddenly we see that he’s in league with Morgana! Gasp! Horror.

Where this version of the story falls down is in subtlety. You can’t have your evil uncle character basically walk on screen and shout, “I’m going to kill the king lalalalala you can’t catch me!” and expect your audience to fear him as a villain. And you really can’t ask us to believe that these royals, who are suspicious from birth and had good reason to be, would blindly trust the one person who has the absolute most to gain from the king’s death.

Are you all stupid or something?

From a writing standpoint, I understand the impulse to create an evil uncle character. He has the potential to be an epic villain, completely entrenched in his own selfishness, but managing to put on a good front while he leads his young ward astray. Duke Roger from the Lioness Quartet was like that. You totally understood why the prince loved his uncle, and yet he still gave you the willies. Moreover, it took a full book and a quarter before you found out that he really was evil. Before that you were just suspicious.

That’s what I mean when I say that the writers on Merlin are getting lazy. It’s not so much that they decided to have an evil uncle in there, it’s that they didn’t bother being coy about it. They didn’t trust that the audience would be able to suspect him, and in fact might enjoy suspecting him for a long time, instead of just revealing it right off. They have no respect for buildup, except when it comes to Merlin’s magical reveal, in which case they have too much respect.

In the end, it’s all about timing. Merlin suffers from bad timing, something that can be remedied, but only if the writers realize what they’re doing wrong. By rushing the wrong things and drawing out the things that should be done with, they’re making a show that’s really a bit dull to watch, and that’s a real shame when your show is Merlin and it’s got King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table and dragons in it.

Come on guys.

As a side note, Gwaine needs more screen time.


  1. If it's any consolation, Season 5 begins with a two-parter where Morgana captures Sir Gwaine and Sir Percival and steals their shirts. Best two hours of television ever.

    And later on, Mordred turns out to be all growed up and he's a real hottie too.

    1. I approve of all of these things. I mean, I'd approve more if Morgana made the shirtless thing permanent, like any shirt they ever owned spontaneous burned up before they could put it on, but it'll take it. ;)

    2. That could just about be the plot of Arrow, given how much time Oliver Queen seems to spend shirtless in that show.

      Regardless, I think we should petition the BBC to make this a reality. Shirtless Gwaine is oh so fine...

    3. My problem with Arrow is that Oliver isn't really my taste. Gwaine, on the other hand... Let's just say all he's missing is a tweed jacket and a bushier beard and he would be the picture in the dictionary next to "my type."

      What I'm saying is, I'll sign the petition.

  2. Would he happen to be wearing this tweed jacket while under the influence of Morgana's shirts-catching-on-fire spell? If so, I think you're onto something magical there.

    Though personally, I think Gwaine's beard is perfect as-is. Certainly, he manages to keep me distracted from my Loki/Joseph Gordon-Levitt fantasies whenever I see him, which I consider a win for my sanity.

    1. Shirtless plus tweed jacket plus a dogeared copy of Lord of the Rings. Perfection.

      I'm more of a Captain America / Dean Winchester kind of girl. I like them broad shouldered and snarky.