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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

Merlin-finale

“Why does everything end?!” my daughter wails as the final credits roll down our TV screen. She’s fifteen, so wailing is a daily event in our house. Great, heartfelt howls. “The show wasn’t good, but I loved the characters. And now they’re gone!”

When the BBC’s Merlin premiered in 2008, she was ten and our son seven. That’s not an easy age and gender gap to bridge for family TV time, but we’ve done our best. I don’t think we ever really recovered from the end of Buffy and then Angel back in 2004, but Merlin came pretty close. Sword play and sorcery for him, cute guys and pretty gowns for her, plenty of bromance slapstick for us all.

The only problem is those stingy Brits. Only 13 episodes per season. That beats the typical BBC season of six, or worse, in the case of Sherlock, three, but our family TV appetite can be voracious. Once during a desperate Merlin hiatus, I downloaded the first episode of the Starz series Camelot, the one with Joseph Fiennes as Merlin. There’s a reason it didn’t make it past its first season.

Also, a more responsible parent would have previewed more thoroughly.

Camelot

My son still ducks his head when characters kiss, so he really didn’t appreciate the nudity. And simulated fornication is still, thankfully, well outside my daughter’s taste range too.

She adores Merlin’s Arthur for his cheek bones, Merlin for his giant, translucent ears.

Merlin and Arthur

Which is to say the show was great for its innocent goofiness. BBC aired the final episode in December, but on our side of the pond, Syfy is only half way through the season. It’s a fun one. Here are some of the high points:

The costume designers discover Guinevere has breasts. Every episode is an adventure in cleavage. The writers, on the other hand, had absolutely no idea to do with actress Angel Coulby once they trussed up her marriage plot and parked her on the throne at the end of season four.

The writers did, however, put some worthwhile effort into Mordred, who, in classic soap opera magic, enters season five as twenty-four-year-old Alexander Vlahos, having last exited in season two as twelve-year-old Asa Butterfield. (Even with the three-year summer time lapse, you need an alchemist to make the numbers work.) But the rest of the season is dedicated to his current character arc, one played out with surprising, multi-episode skill.

Asa Butterfield MordredAlexander Vlahos Mordred

I had hoped for more bromance development though. My wife and I didn’t have kids to blame when we watched another supremely goofy show, Lois and Clark, back in the 90s. I know Merlin is closer to the Smallville template, but Arthur is essentially Lois. A dumb blonde who never figures out that bumbling Merlin is a superman in disguise.

Except that Terry Hatcher Lois did figure it out, hint by hint, until she finally yanked Clark’s glasses off herself. A few glimmers of repressed suspicion would have been nice for Arthur, though I will say (after shouting, “HERE BE SPOILERS!”), the final episode does get it right.

The writers knew to dispose of the big battle quickly and devote the final hour to our two boys. They even unmask Merlin early, so the plot is rightfully on Arthur’s progression of emotions: denial, anger, hurt, acceptance, gratitude, love.

I also give huge points to the ending implications of Queen Gwen alone on her throne. With Arthur gone, we are to understand that all the glory of Camelot comes to fruition under the rule of a working class black woman.

Now that’s what I call a revised national epic. For the American equivalent, imagine finding out Sally Hemings wrote the Declaration of Independence.

Queen Gwen

Merge Merlin and Arthur and you also get a pretty standard superhero formula. In wanders a wizard and next thing some little nobody squire is savior of the realm. The same way Shazam turns Billy Batson into a Marvel. Or Dumbledore unveils Harry Potter’s secret past and prophecy. John the Baptist performed a similar favor for a lowly carpenter, but let’s stick with comic book gods. Donald Blake was the son of Odin before he slapped that walking stick against a boulder. Stan Lee says “fate” made a radioactive spider chomp its teeth of destiny into Peter Parker. Julie Taymor says it was the Greek goddess Arachne, who in the Broadways version was watching and waiting all along. “The fates have delivered you,” she croons. “The gift you’ve been given binds you to me.”

But Merlin is more than a behind-the-scenes mentor. The fact-challenged historian Geoffrey of Monmouth sewed him together from several stray wizards wandering the early Arthurian highlands. Geoffrey christened him Merlinus because he thought his original Welsh name sounded too much like the Latin root for “shit.”He doesn’t wander into comic books till 1936, two years ahead of Superman. His descendant at Quality Comics, Merlin the Magician, had an annoying habit of talking backwards when casting spells: “RALOP RAEB, ESAHC YAWA EHT SIZAN!” Actor Colin Morgan had to paste on a white beard every few episodes, but otherwise the BBC version is way cuter.

Our whole living room was shocked at the sight of Arthur’s funeral boat floating out to sea, but the real howls of protest didn’t start till the ending shot of the now ancient Merlin in modern day Wales hoofing along a highway.

“So he’s all alone? All his friends are dead? I would hate to be immortal!”

My daughter’s incredulity morphed into existential dread by bedtime. Knowing my agnosticism, she asked me accusingly, “Do you think when I die I’ll just be dirt?”

I talked her down with some quantum mechanics dithering (“If our experience of time isn’t accurate…”), followed by a nihilistic counter punch (“The only meaning in this world is loving and being loved…”). But I think we both knew she wasn’t really mourning her death just yet. She was mourning her goofy innocence.

No more Merlin.

It’s an inevitability we all have to learn. One TV show at a time.

Arthur's death

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