Last time out, I suggested that Camelot might have found a way to carve its own niche in the crowded costume drama department. The possible method: eschewing realism for a magical, maniacal over-the-top style that emphasized mythmaking over historical reenactment. Turns out that style didn’t carry over through to this week’s episode, which toned down the overt magical elements in favor of down-and-dirty politicking. However, I’m happy to report that what it presented instead gives me greater hope than the previous installment. There’s no telling if this week’s thematic concerns will carry over into the next one, but as Camelot continues to move through its inaugural season, it’s good to at least see them work out the kinks in order to discover what truly works about the show.
Rather than lay out what went down in chronological order, here are five things that this week’s installment of Camelot did to improve upon earlier episodes.
1) It refocused Morgan’s attention back onto Camelot.
Whereas the first two episodes showed Morgan pairing up with Lot to overtake the throne, the past two weeks have seen that singular focus lost amidst wolves, nuns, and shapeshifting. Which hey, can take up a lot of one’s time, I know. But it’s caused a disconnect between what she’s doing and what everyone else is. This isn’t a slice-of-life show like Treme: it should have a singular focus in which all parties are bent towards the same goal. If Arthur is constantly trying to figure out how to use the throne, Morgan should be constantly trying to usurp it. Speaking of Arthur on the throne…
2) It finally started to demonstrate how Arthur will one day rule.
Arthur to this point has had plenty of time to be a son, brother, lover, and pupil. But he’s had very little time to actually rule. Occasionally, the show will feature him spontaneously breaking into speeches that David Axelrod would kill to script himself. But by and large, his position on the crown has been an afterthought. He has been king in name only, so to see him use this week’s trial as a test case for the type of government (and by extension, morality) he wants to have in Britain was refreshing.
Now, the actual legal proceedings were slight suspect. Law & Order, this ain’t. Having it proceed as a mishmash of informal precedents was fine, but for everyone but Arthur’s brother ready to hang Colfur through most of the trial bordered on the ridiculous. Still, it did lead to a united effort for Arthur and his knights, leading to the genuinely thrilling scene of the quintet storming into battle together to fight Ewan and annex Exham under the flag of Camelot. It stood in marked contrast with Morgan’s murder of the mercenary: one might have been the morally “right” way to exercise power, but the latter was flashier and much more seductive. Speaking of seductive…
3) The show put its magical aspects in the background, yet more omnipresent than ever.
The apeshit way in which magic was doled out last week was fairly pleasurable, but also paper-thin. It’s the easiest way for the show to go, but in some ways is as dangerous as magic is within the show itself. Having Morgan and Merlin both act like recovering junkies in the first part of the episode was eye-rolling, but as the episode itself rolled on, one could see the darkness embedded in the very DNA of the countryside.
First up, it seems pretty clear that The Woman in Black (Lost fans will know why I call the still unnamed nun this) taught Morgan everything she knows about magic. This means not having Morgan use magic as a crutch to bodysnatch Igraine and murder Arthur in the middle of the night. Instead, it’s about taking a more Palpatine approach to politics, using man’s innate weakness as a way to not only allow Morgan to capture the crown, but also maintain it. It’s the politics of fear versus the politics of hope, which may be a comment on current political conditions around the world or simply a convenient binary to divide the two sides.
That being said, Merlin’s acts last week make his version of Isaac Asimov’s psychohistory seem tainted as well. Given his detox after obtaining Excalibur, one can’t help but wonder how influenced Merlin’s master plan is by the darkness he once wielded. Arthur’s ascendance is just the “first phase” of an ultimate end-game for Britain. But what’s great about Merlin’s descent last week is that all of his visions for the future are now essentially tainted. That removes things in Camelot from the simple execution of fate and returns agency much more to free will.
In both cases, it means that magic is still woven into the power struggle in the country, but in a more subtle, substantial way. Maybe there’s a scene down the line that will erupt into this show’s version of The Battle of Hogwarts. But for now, it’s latent but omnipresent background to a story about the best way to win over the masses: through appealing to their inner best selves or to their worst inner demons. Speaking of those masses…
4) It finally started to contextualize life outside of the castle walls.
Most of the action in Camelot has stayed within the homes of Arthur and Morgan, with the occasional hut seemingly re-used for every single scene indicating “village.” Some people have flocked to Camelot in order to see the boy king, but the majority of the countryside has kept on living as they always have. Exham has its own curious rules about deflowering its female citizens, but there’s every indication that 1) Exham is not alone in this ritual and 2) even if not, Britain still lives in an essentially tribal culture, in which many different groups still adhere to singular traditions outside of what Arthur views as the “normal.”
Indeed, part of what made “Justice” so successful is the overwhelming nature of the task at hand for Arthur. Solving one particular trial isn’t even the tip of the iceberg, as establishing a commonality of morality without imposing pure subjugation will be a tricky endeavor going forth. Arthur wants to lead by example, not dictum. He does incorporate Exham into Camelot’s rule, but only as a last resort. He would have preferred his judgment in Camelot to stand as a beacon, but he’s also not afraid to clamp down when necessary. And finally, speaking of other ways that Arthur improved this week…
5) The show finally tampered down on the Arthur/Guinevere romance.
Easily the worst aspect of the show so far has been the overwrought scenes between these two, which played like “Nicholas Sparks in chain mail”. When Arthur told her last week that it was over between them, I didn’t believe it for a second. And Lord knows this will pop up down the line again. But that’s fine: so long as it doesn’t dominate every single episode, it can reemerge at a time organic to the story. After all, nominally we know how this story ends, right? Having it be forefront at all times is exhausting, especially with there being no way for anything to happen at this point.
And lo, Arthur treating Guinevere as a human being and not something he wants to constantly lick did as much for his character as the trial did. Not only does he allow her to help organize a chaotic Camelot (a problem that will hopefully cease to be once Arthur’s message spreads to nearby villages, making each one a version of the castle unto itself), but also enlists her to help with the trial. There’s a time and place for angst between these two, but that should be at least a few episodes away at this point. Let them breathe as individuals, and perhaps we might actually care about them as a pair later on. Watching them interact as mature adults and not petulant children is a step in the right direction for both of them.
- When that goat showed up in Guinevere’s room, I did my best Krieger impression: “Awww, goatly.”
- My Comcast episode description names the nun's character as "Sybil." Have we heard this mentioned in an episode to date? It's more than possible I just didn't hear it.
- Thanks to Sidney Lumet’s recent death, I couldn’t help but watch Arthur and Company deliberate without dubbing it “Twelve Vaguely Angry Men Around A Round Table.”
- Not sure about the tension between Igraine and Merlin, unless the payoff is eventually Morgan uses her connection to Igraine to get Merlin to dive back into the world of magic again.
- I enjoyed the way in which Arthur connected with Colfur over the topic of surrogate parenting, mostly because the show never made him say, “Because I was raised by surrogates myself!” Anytime the show can show, not tell, I’m behind it 100%.
- "He can have the steam off my shite before he can have anything!"