Contributor: Gregg Wright
In some respects, this may be the strongest episode of “Camelot” so far. I’ve been enjoying “Camelot”. But it wasn’t until now that the actual vision and intent behind this show became clear. And I’m rather impressed. So let’s look at all of the stories being juggled in this episode.
At Camelot, Arthur is still struggling to deal with both his place as a leader and his love (or lust, perhaps) of Guinevere. He refuses to give up on her, despite protestations from Guinevere and others to do so. Gawain is ordered to begin training the men, which serves as the backdrop for everything that happens at Camelot. It is through this training that some of the current conflicts are displayed.
Even in the king’s employ, Gawain is still a bit of a wild card. He seems to want to test Arthur and his men, to learn if they are worthy of his allegiance. Arthur doesn’t even yet know exactly what he believes or what kind of king he intends to be. And he isn’t sure if Gawain is worthy of training his troops. But through Gawain’s unconventional training, and the increasing pressure of what to do about his feelings for Guinevere, Arthur must develop his philosophy. This may not have been my favorite part of the episode, but I thought it worked quite well overall.
At some point, Arthur’s current sword is broken, and it is agreed that the king needs a proper sword. Gawaine suggests a man named Caliburn. By now, Merlin has figured out that Guinevere is clouding Arthur’s judgements, and gives him a stern warning to keep his feelings in check before heading off to find Caliburn.
In addition to these events, there’s also quite a bit of time spent with Morgan. I liked how this thread build on Merlin’s warning to Morgan in the previous episode. We also get to learn a bit about where Morgan learned to channel magic in the first place, and it’s an unlikely source. Morgan’s usage of magic is taking a dramatic toll on her body. This really is a Morgan in the early stages, well before she becomes a truly dangerous sorceress. Morgan is naive and reckless. She has almost no understanding of what’s happening to her. As a result, a woman arrives who Morgan seems to know quite well, and possibly even fear. It seems likely that this nun developed a mentor relationship with Morgan during her 15 years at the nunnery, and also taught her everything she knows about sorcery.
Morgan underwent an extreme character transformation during her time at the nunnery. She become a harder, more embittered person. I don’t know what exactly went on at the nunnery, but one can imagine why Morgan fears her mentor. And it seems likely that this mentor will be instrumental in further developing Morgan into the powerful sorceress and enemy of Arthur and Merlin she is yet to become. Eva Green is still impressive as Morgan. But I think more needs to be done with her to turn her into a three-dimensional, compelling villain. I’m not worried, though. I get the distinct impression that we have a lot left to learn about Morgan.
I may be in the minority on this, but I’m really liking Joseph Fiennes’ Merlin. In fact, I think he’s my favorite character on the show. I liked that we gain a significant insight into Merlin’s reluctance to use magic. Merlin avoids using magic because he knows how uncontrollable he becomes when he begins using it. We’ve seen hints of Merlin’s abilities before now, but this episode was the first time we get a sizable taste of what Merlin is really capable of, and a compelling (and tragic) reason for why Merlin refuses to use magic.
Vincent Regan was something of a scene-stealer this week as the sword-smith Caliburn. There’s a surprising amount of subtlety on display in the Excalibur storyline. There were a couple of essential elements that I missed on the first time through because I wasn’t paying close enough attention. I’m used to having the plot spoon-fed to me through expositional dialog. Caliburn’s wife was probably killed by Uther. And now Caliburn is only making the sword with the intention of using it to get close to Arthur so he can kill him with it. Merlin (with the aid of a dream/vision) figures this out and ends up in a confrontation with Caliburn. Things don’t go well from here.
I was extremely impressed, on multiple levels, by the “Lady in the Lake” storyline this week. The entire scenario was masterfully executed. The production values are nearly at film level thanks to the on-location filming in Ireland, some excellent cinematography, great writing and acting, amazing music by Jeff and Mychael Danna (I hope this gets an album release), and some good special effects. While watching, I was continually trying to pin down just how this would tie into the myth, but it didn’t really hit me until the Merlin begins recounting “his” version of how he obtained Excalibur. The whole thing was an excellent twist on our more common versions of the tale. This was where the real vision of the show became clear to me. As is stated in an official character description, Merlin “creator and custodian of the legend of Camelot”. Merlin is driving and shaping events to fit his plan.
Merlin claims a spirit of a lake gave him a sword meant for Arthur. But the reality is that he let his frustration with the situation and its interference with his bigger goals lead him to lose control and use magic, leading to the accidental deaths of Caliburn and Excalibur (Merlin’s family seems to be a soft spot, which lead to the initial accidental usage of magic). The scenario is presented in a highly believable (aside from the magic, of course), and very human fashion. I liked how much anger Merlin seems to want to punish himself for what he’s done, and ends up purposefully pissing off some random people somewhere (I’m assuming they’re peasants, but I’m not sure who they were) so they’ll give him a beating. Merlin is a deeply troubled man, at odds with his own dark nature. We haven’t really seen this side of Merlin until now, and I find it really engaging.
I’m really starting to understand what this show is trying to accomplish, and I’m finding that I like it quite a bit. Even the casting of Arthur is becoming somewhat forgivable now. Arthur isn’t intended to be the Arthur of legend. This is the real Arthur, around whom the legend was shaped (probably with a lot of help from Merlin), at least from the show’s perspective. They’re still staying fairly true to the legend, but they’re taking a bold, revisionist approach in an attempt to add believability. The show definitely has its weak points, but there’s some truly masterful stuff going on here.
BBC’s “Merlin” may have a more appealing and admirable Arthur, but to me this show feels like a much more honest (and therefore superior) approach. And it’s being done without totally dispensing with the fantasy elements, which is still a big part of the appeal of the show for me. If “Camelot” can sustain this level of quality, it’s likely to become one of the best Arthurian adaptations ever created.