A great deal of current premium cable original programming has a similar problem on its hands: its adherence (or lack thereof) to an established canon in the mind of its audience. For something like The Borgias, this isn’t a huge problem, in that it’s an infamous, though not exactly famous, part of history. Game of Thrones isn’t historical, but its fanbase will nevertheless have keen eyes scanning the screen for any hint of derivation from the original books. Camelot is probably the best known of these three source materials. That being said, much of the knowledge is connotative rather than factual. This means that while the major players are known, there’s plenty of room within this established historical myth to create some space for original interpretation.
It’s sad, then, to see tonight’s third hour of the series fall back into tired tropes so early in the proceedings. Last week’s two-hour premiere honestly could have been the show’s first season, in terms of overall narrative. It’s played as a feature film (albeit a low-budget one) that takes Arthur from a combination of Prince Hal/Harry Potter into a king who lost both parents but also gained a tentative hold on an empire. There were some not-so-small missteps along the way, but the speed at which the story progressed was simultaneously disarming yet impressive: Surely, if they were chugging along at this speed, then Camelot had a much bigger story to tell, yes?
If “Guinevere” is any indication, my optimistic assumption was wrong. The initial hours had a great deal to say about the power of myth, both in terms of the story of Camelot but also within storytelling itself. Merlin is less a wizard and more a PR person at this point. He’s like Eli Gold from The Good Wife dropped into medieval England. He persuaded not only the people to believe in Arthur but also Arthur to believe in himself. The transformation wasn’t complete, but this story’s iteration of the Sword in the Stone yielded an Arthur that wasn’t the king he will be in the future but one at least able to competently sit upon the throne. Not a bad feat so soon after learning his calling.
Rather than build upon those modest but not unsubstantial gains, tonight’s hour sends Arthur back about four steps, regressing his character into a petulant, lovesick boy who wants to have sexcapades on the beach and more than slightly inappropriate interactions with his half-sister, Morgan. If Camelot thinks that the Arthur/Guinevere/Leontes triangle is where this show is buttered, then this is going to be some bad-tasting bread for the near future. Jamie Campbell Bower handles several aspects of the boy-king well, but neither he nor Tamsin Egerton are served well by dialogue that would be laughable in the Twilight movies for which Bower is perhaps known best.
Much more effective were the scenes involving Merlin/Morgan, which weren’t scenes between enemies so much as they were scenes of a former addict seeing familiar signs in a burgeoning junkie. (The Wire fans: Think of him as the Walon to her Bubbles, if Walon always looked like he just bit down hard on a lemon.) Merlin had a sense upon touching Morgan’s arm last week that something was up with her but didn’t truly understand how deep she was into her mystical, hungry-like-the-wolf paganism until this week. Through their scene in which she clipped toenails in between delivering exposition, two things became clear: 1.) There’s an affection between the two that’s clearly been strained but is still present in both directions, and 2.) Merlin has done some truly evil shit in his day, shit for which he’s essentially still paying penance.
It’s always tricky to decide the perspective through which one tells a tale, and not enough pieces of visual pop culture decide to go slightly off the beaten path when reexamining familiar ground. Tom Stoppard did this in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, and Kurt Busiek did this with his four-issue comic series Marvels. Camelot chose Arthur as the primary vehicle through which to tell this story, but I can’t help but wonder how this series would be had it gone the same route (perspective-wise, if not in execution) as Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon. Avalon made Morgan a distinctively more heroic figure than Camelot does, but there’s an argument to be made that this iteration of Morgan could have, and perhaps should have, been the entry point for the series.
The show’s conflation of paganism and proto-feminism could be potentially problematic, but it recognizes that the mix of the two is a sociological product, not something to be admired or emulated. Morgan’s time in a nunnery, away from Uther, fostered a desire to both connect with and overcome her father’s place on the throne. Her instincts for equality are meant to be admired, though her methods by which to take those philosophical underpinnings and turn them into practical power are just a touch off-base. But I would have been fine with an hour of her cleaning house (literally and figuratively) and establishing a more balanced power within it. Instead, all we got was a brief scene with her new right-hand Vivian, so the show could show Arthur and Guinevere’s Beach Blanket Boinkage.
The third storyline tonight didn’t take up much space but told what it needed to in an economical manner. In order to shore up the weakened forces of Camelot in the wake of King Lot’s attack, Kay and Leontes ride out to recruit Gawain to help train the remaining men. Kay earns his place in Arthur’s court by succeeding where Leontes originally failed. Whereas Leontes tried to secure Gawain’s support through fighting, Kay uses the swordman’s desire for knowledge as a bargaining chip to serve under Arthur. Gawain’s entry into the story should lead to an appearance to a Kermit-colored knight in the near future, should Camelot choose to milk that legend as part of Morgan’s ongoing pagan power plays within Camelot.
- Following up on the gendered nature of power I mentioned earlier, I wonder if Merlin also saw a wolf during his dabbles with the dark side. Does the personification change based upon the person gazing? More to the point: What does this force want, and why does it need help to escape?
- Eva Green is often asked to glower in this show, but moments of play such as faking her own poisoning during dinner are a welcome respite from the angst that hangs over so much of the show so far.
- The size of the stag killed by Uther suggests that, not so long ago, the world was filled with things more fantastical than it does at the present moment in the story. That thing is HUGE.
- I didn’t have the wildest bachelor party of all time, but it was a helluva lot better than Leontes’, who apparently had his sponsored by Abercrombie & Fitch.
- Morgan essentially spent a few days concocting an elaborate plan to cast a spell… that essentially turned her into a Peeping Tom during the wedding. I respect that magic has both its limits and costs in this world so far, but I was expecting/hoping that she was trying to get Arthur to Hulk up during the ceremony and wreck the joint.
- Guinevere’s MacGyver-esque move in obtaining blood from a dead deer on the way back from her deflowering wasn’t as unintentionally funny as Morgan’s re-enactment of the Three Wolf Moon t-shirt, but it was close.
- "I have to get ready for my wedding." Man, if I had a nickel for every time I've heard THAT little chestnut…
- “If I can’t unite my own family, how am I going to unite the country?”
- “It needed a woman’s touch.”
- “I don’t perform tricks, because I am strong enough to choose not to.”