If you’re surprised to come across this review and learn that Camelot is still on the air, don’t worry. I’m sure a lot of less-than-ardent fans are confused as well. The way STARZ has laid out this season’s episodes has been baffling, to say the least. Considering it’s a ten-episode season that aired its first two hours on the premiere night, this should have been over weeks ago. But thanks to reruns placed on both Easter weekend and Memorial Day weekend, Camelot is ending its initial run well after sweeps period. The current television landscape is fairly barren, which might help the show get some eyeballs in these final two weeks. That is, if anyone can remember that it’s still on.
All that type of analysis will come out in the ratings, which have actually been fairly strong for the show thus far. It has a larger viewership than The Borgias, Treme, Nurse Jackie, and United States of Tara. None of those shows are exactly ratings powerhouses, but seeing a second season of this show is hardly out of the question at this point. The question I have is what type of show Camelot could turn into in said second season. Right now, it’s downright schizophrenic. At times, it’s a fairly brutal, well-constructed story about a boy learning to become a man at the same time a group of disparate villages learn to become a nation. At other times, it’s Falcon Crest with better sigils. And at a third time, it’s the Joseph Fiennes Campy Hour. I quite like Parts 1 and 3 (individually), quite loathe Part 2, but vary week to week on how successfully I feel these three separate parts coalesce.
Give “The Battle of Bardon Hill” credit for at least this much: every story line centered around that crazy little thing called love. Or, more specifically: the crazy things that love makes us do. Whether it be Merlin’s blindspot for Igraine, Harwel’s wet spot for Morgan, or Leontes/Merlin’s green spots for Guinevere, at least each party’s actions were grounded in a beating heart behind the breastplate. Fighting for things like “country” and “honor” are fine and good, but often lack a visceral element that allows the audience to connect with the events onscreen. Giving a personal stake to augment the larger themes is a plus, and even if the show has cut some corners to achieve tonight’s tonal harmonies, at least the harmonies were onscreen in the penultimate hour.
That being said, there’s a huge difference between “theme” and “execution,” and it’s here that Camelot once again failed to truly deliver a solid top-to-bottom hour. I’ve rolled my eyes all season at the Arthur/Guinevere/Leontes storyline. I’ve rolled my eyes not because I’m against a love triangle at the center of this show. I’ve rolled my eyes because I’m against THIS love triangle at the center of the show. Given the amount of world-building that this show had to do–fleshing out Arthur, Morgan, Merlin, Camelot, the start of the Knights of the Round Table, the trouble with bringing a new type of government to Britain–did the show really need to push this story this fast? Laying groundwork for the inevitable would have been fine, and could have yielded a pulpy yet satisfying punch if deployed in say, a second or a third season. That could have allowed the three to develop enough rapport and history to make Arthur and Guinevere’s actions on her wedding day be an ever-increasing burden, weighing ever more, an increasingly large shadow on an increasingly bright future for England.
As it stands, the betrayal is given lip service, a few moments of “oh no he DIDN’T,” and then it’s essentially over. Too many interesting moments were either passed by or glossed over for the revelation to truly have effect. (I especially would have loved to have witnessed more Arthur/Kay stuff. It’s easy to forget the playboy we met in the series pilot. It’s equally easy to see Kay hasn’t.) Leontes hints at some darker tones post-betrayal, tones alluded to during “Three Journeys.” I started to think that he would potentially be great at Morgan’s side in his God-less new world order. Hearing him use the word “fuck” was certainly a shock, and gave a glimpse into what this man could be if not tethered to morality by his faith. But that darkness seemed to have evaporated by hour’s end, replaced by the gleaming look he gives Arthur upon leaving Bardon Pass in secret. For all of Merlin’s worry that Arthur’s secret would undo the kingdom if revealed, it all ended up little ado about nothing.
Had I my druthers (which I don’t, since I’m here reviewing the show and not writing it), I would have spent the first year just building up Arthur’s relationship to his soldiers of Camelot. Not just to Leontes, as mentioned earlier, but ALL of them. Some of the show’s strongest material this season has come from the interaction with these men. Not only is there a great deal of camaraderie/chemistry between the actors when put into groups together, but Camelot has been almost entirely successful in staging engaging, entertaining, and bloody battles throughout this season. Establishing the original sin between Arthur and Guinevere is fine, and probably necessary for the overall story. But by lingering on it all year instead of developing Kay, Brastias, and never-knew-ye Ulfius, it robbed these great fights of the extra drama that would have unfolded had we actually known the characters constantly on the verge of death.
As far as the Morgan/Merlin material: that’s entered an interesting phase now that Arthur realizes that he’s turned into the medieval, magical version of Peter Bishop from Fringe. (Paging Fauxlivia!) Morgan’s transformation from blunt instrument to subtle viper has been well done, allowing her to rally others around her rather than simply seeking to siege Camelot by herself. At this point, everything Merlin does plays into her hands, which emphasizes the genius of Sybil’s machinations. Like Merlin, I too am curious about Sybil’s ultimate prize in all of this. (Although I am more curious about what the show would be like if it was just Merlin overacting at Sybil for 50+ minutes a week. Because that shit is epic. And awesome.) But I wager a last-minute change of heart on Vivian’s part will prevent us from truly seeing what’s behind Door of Evil #1 for Sybil before the end of this season.
Letting Morgan and Merlin battle the heart of darkness in Britain while Arthur slowly formed a formidable fighting unit could have forged a successful Season 1. But to see Guinevere ride into the middle of a military détente, putting two main characters needlessly in harms way, summed up in one single image everything wrong about this first season. Maybe Camelot’s ratings are a byproduct of two separate demographics watching the show on a weekly basis: 1) those that come for a world-building narrative and 2) those that come for a romantic period piece. If that’s true, then I can’t imagine either side is ever completely happy with the end product on a weekly basis. The show courts both audiences, but only delivers satisfaction to each on an intermittent basis. Hopefully Season 2 (if indeed STARZ greenlights one) will only feature the single type of story they want to tell and simply deliver that. Maybe Camelot will lose some viewers, but they will certainly turn the ones that stay into rabid devotees. You know, the kind in which Morgan seems to specialize these days.
- I almost didn’t recognize Harwell for the first part of the hour. Then I realized what was different about him: he wasn’t masturbating.
- Nice of Castle Pendragon’s design staff to spruce up the dungeon for Merlin/Igraine’s inspection. It’s like HGTV’s Designed to Sell, only they are selling lies to the disaffected, not bungalows to suburbanites.
- Does Eva Green have something in her contract that says she need to be bathing naked in each episode? Just curious.
- “All I’ve worked for, and people get in the way again. Always people.” Interesting line there. Any wagers on how long “always” actually refers to?
- Some really, really odd editing choices in tonight’s episode. Several scenes felt unfinished, as if they ran out of time and couldn’t clean them up. (This is the first week where screeners were not available, which may or may not be related to the oddness of this week’s editing. But it definitely relates to how much later this is going up that normal.)
- “I’m your soul. Your dirty, damaged soul.”
- “Madness so often affects the weak-minded.”
- “You’re not my wife. You’re the king’s whore.”
- “Women endure what men cannot bear.”
- “You could have saved yourself a walk.”