The road goes on…
A Remedy to Cure All Ills
For a show that’s all about how Uther needs to stop being a bigot because it’s causing a lot of strife, there are a heckuva lotta sorcerer villains.
In this episode, the sorcerer is gunning for Gaius’s job, and also has a disfigurement. I don’t know what to make of the disfigurement – it isn’t my lane – but will note that I can’t remember good and neutral characters with disfigurements on this show, so that sucks. The disfigurement is also part of why he’s even here to do villainy, so, that also sucks.
The Gates of Avalon
Arthur has a crush on a girl who is here to kill him. Morgana knows this is going to happen and is angsty about it. Merlin watches a guy do lake magic and sees fairies. It’s really cool; the best magic has been so far on this show.
Morgana tries to be self-sacrificing but Gaius intervenes. Merlin ends up in the pillory once again, then finds out that Morgana has the gift, possibly. And here begins Morgana’s nonsensical descent to being a villain, for reasons.
The Beginning of the End
It’s called that because this is the first appearance of Mordred.
Here’s the first real instance of this show depicting that what Uther is doing is actually bad. That said, my question is: why is it that Morgana’s tender heart – here leading her to continue to be skeptical of the way Uther treats magic and magic-doers, and to help hide an innocent child from execution – eventually leads her to the tedious character progression of “going too far” for “justice” that never even looks anything remotely like justice? Why does she have to become a villain?
Also, this doesn’t have to happen to Merlin? He just gets to be sad about Uther, and later Arthur, being bigots of varying degrees, and doesn’t ever have to become a villain?
I do think that this story, where two people are compassionate and see injustice, and then one becomes a terrorist and the other doesn’t (and does… something else? I also seem to recall Merlin doesn’t accomplish a whole lot) could be very compelling. But I don’t think this is that. I think Morgana meets a girl who sways her into villainy (and that’s also potentially compelling, but again, from what I remember, it wasn’t all that compelling) – and this just doesn’t adequately or sensitively or thoughtfully depict whatever “too far” is supposed to be, and doesn’t explain how we get there.
Currently I can’t think of a decent depiction of activism or seeking justice (actual, radical justice, not just “reluctantly stopping a killer/killer army”) that isn’t a biopic. I like biopics, but can we please have a fantasy girl whose justice isn’t written badly so that it actually turns into terrorism and genocide? Or at least, a fantasy girl who goes bad but it’s done well, is grounded in something real/historical even, and therefore makes sense and contributes to a broader cultural conversation? Bad girls need motivation, please.
Anyway, I’m trying not to watch these early episodes through the lens of “But where did they go with any of this?” So.
There are moments here that are great. This episode is more interesting and engaging than some of the others so far with just random sorcerer bad guys. There’s a part where Merlin snaps at Gaius, “Oh, so it’s wrong to harbour a young magician?” And it really works.
The problem is that, yes, Point A over here is good enough (minus the infernal destiny thing). I’m engaged. But it ends, somehow, at Point B, in which Morgana and Mordred (who is a little kid) are capital E Evil, which is capital S Stupid.
Arthur saves Mordred today. And later… Mordred kills him. So are we supposed to think they should have executed a child? That is literally what the dragon says. This whole “destiny” thing is, therefore, limiting for the entire story. Even Gwen argues in favour of letting a child be executed, and there you go. Gwen, at least as I know her, would never advocate letting a child die, but the “destiny” theme and the plot demands it. The characters are helpless, acting in ways that don’t make sense just because the plot gods demand it, like in that Joss Whedon movie with the killer unicorn and mermen.
They could have written a different ending, is all. One that doesn’t have otherwise kind people being all like “yeah, maybe we should kill baby Hitler.” And even if the law demanded that in stories we only ever do this stupid thought experiment that believes in the possibility of time travel but not in the possibility of anything else, such as going to an even earlier time to stop WWI or, like, socialization, apparently, Mordred’s not even remotely comparable to Hitler. This isn’t compelling, it’s just frustrating.
I’m still living for the animosity between Arthur and everyone else.
The Black Knight/Zombie Mountain shows up and bites his thumb at the Camelot court. It’s really unsettling to watch him them kill two boys in succession, trying to be brave and valiant knights but fighting a knight that is actually a zombie and is therefore cheating in this “combat to the death.” Because of this, this is the darkest episode so far in this show. Honestly, the very fact that they don’t put the deaths or the blood onscreen makes it worse.
Then Arthur’s upset and accepts the third challenge, so a few interesting things happen. Merlin seeks to create Lightbringer out of a Valyrian steel sword Gwen’s dad made, turning it into a weapon imbued with dragon fire, so that it can kill the dead. Then Mirri Maz Duur shows up in Uther’s chambers and tells him off for starting a whole persecution war on sorcerers just because he asked her to make his “barren” wife bear a child, which caused his wife’s death, because “Only death can pay for life.”
I know the Game of Thrones references are tedious but I’m fine with my choices.
But this version is less Mirri Maz Duur anyway, because Nimueh didn’t realize that Uther’s wife would die. And Uther blaming her, and all other sorcerers, for something he is more than complicit in? Super intriguing. Also, he says he wishes he had never done it, and she asks if that means he wishes he didn’t have a son. This is obviously not true, but Uther’s feelings about Arthur are conflicted at least.
There is a cute moment where Arthur teases his dad later, which humanizes Uther, like the rest of this episode does. Still, Uther being humanized doesn’t take away from what we know watching this unfold: dude is wrong, and lashing out for bad reasons, and causing a lot of damage. Nuance, I have well and truly missed thee.
This makes “Excalibur” my favourite episode so far, even though Merlin and Arthur don’t really snark at each other.