"Arthur's Bane," the Merlin two-part season 5 premiere (Jan. 4, 2013 on Syfy), exists even more than previous season premieres not merely to kick off the latest run of Arthurian hijinks with a bang and a flash, but to accomplish the more important task of setting the stage for a story to be told in 13 parts that will seek to bring home a lot of what this series has been about.
In that it succeeds handily, for "Arthur's Bane," written by co-creator Julian Jones, establishes both a new normal in King Arthur's Camelot and the fact that this seemingly stable reality must be transcended in order for both Merlin and Arthur to accomplish their respective destinies. The allure of the staid perseverance in old ways is a greater threat to Albion than each moment's hostile aggressor, and the drama is the hauling of Arthur around to this point of view, breaking with the calcifying fist of Uther's day and having the courage to embrace the organic, evolving new.
A Smart Interpretation of Arthur
Bradley James, in playing Arthur, might at first seem to have a simple task: adopt a heroic pose while all the while failing to appreciate his bumbling sidekick (and, by extension, the new Camelot that Merlin believes Arthur will bring about) until that moment when the clouds part and the sunlight shines and he does, finally appreciate Merlin after all. But Merlin, and James, know better, and play a longer game. James's Arthur has not only an honest friendship with Merlin but a genuine respect for him as well, and yet he recognizes in Merlin, at some visceral level, a catalyst for his own progression beyond the rubrics of his father -- something he senses, or fears, he's not ready for.
Between the writing (and it's seldom better than under Jones) and James's sure-footed, savvy performance, the end result is that Arthur's byplay and verbal tussles with Merlin represent the need to keep the opinionated and mercurial Merlin (Colin Morgan, who's grown nicely into the role over the last four years) in his place, because the final responsibility must always be Arthur's not only in the political and military decisions of the kingdom but in regulating his own necessary but painful abandonment of the legendary past.
The Culmination of the Threat
In setting up this new story of Arthur's progress, the implacable, insane hostility of Morgana (played by Katie McGrath with a new gravitas reflecting her character's recent dark journey) and the chaos she represents is joined by a very specific threat: the Druid youth Mordred (Alexander Vlahos, managing to come across as both steely and impressionable). Before they meet again Merlin is shown a vision in which Mordred wounds Arthur in battle, and when Mordred arrives on the scene in the flesh Merlin both sees him for what he is -- an agent of climax in the fulfillment of Arthur's destiny -- and realizes with some agony that he does not know how to handle this newcomer in a way that will prevent the king's foreseen death by Mordred's sword.
This escalation of the fight between Arthur and Morgana into a war set to dominate season 5 contains the key to Arthur's problem. At a striking moment in "Arthur's Bane: Part 2," Arthur ends up face to face with Morgana and chides her for doing nothing with her great power but hate. "Uther taught me well," sneers Morgana. In this moment is the greatest signal yet to Arthur that his role as protector of Camelot is reactive, not to crush sorcery, or the latest army to mass along Camelot's borders (under Morgana's banners or not), but to release his people from the crushing, stultifying corrosion of hatred, and to allow not just a moment of change but an opening for flourishing and growth that escapes beyond the present and opens up endless futures.
The Nature of the Change
All of this is embedded in the traditional Arthurian tales, but in the original incarnation that storied transformation and opening up is framed pervasively and with stark clarity as a progression from the closed-minded, self-hobbling circularity of paganism into the light and eternal life of Christianity. This underlies, with various levels of explicitness and bittersweet, most modern retellings of Arthur's tale -- think of Excalibur (1981), in which Nicol Williamson's Merlin is sensing the ebbing of his power and influence in the world coinciding with the new religion, a thing of churches and cities, replacing the old ways literally rooted in the soil and rivers of the increasingly ordered countryside.
What's remarkable about Merlin, then, as I mentioned when I reviewed the pilot, is that any sign of Christianity has been scrupulously removed. Uther purged his kingdom of magic but replaced it with -- nothing at all! Nothing but an unexpressed secularly humanism.
The result is that the Albion Merlin seeks is one of the return of the old religion, but in a new and enlightened form, harnessed in the service of the commonweal. Morgana, like Nimweh before her and various pagan priests and witches in between, represents not merely the closed-mindedness of the old ways and the corruption and chaos that results from them, but the disruption to society caused by the isolationism of the sorcerers, a radical breakaway expression of individualism that works against the subjugation of the citizen to the community inherent in the very idea of civilization. (In this context it is revealing that, in "Arthur's Bane," Morgana seeks as the Euchdag, a source for all knowledge -- the use of which would involve commanding so much elemental power as to be inherently chaotic -- and that Merlin and Arthur do not.)
Is restoration of that insurgent individualist radicalism, i.e., the Old Religion, Camelot's future under Arthur, through Merlin's agency? Surely not. Rather this envisioned Albion is one in which magic becomes the helpmeet (at best) or handmaid (more likely) of the state and the collective community as it emerges out of the medieval into the modern. In that sense this process represents the shift from the fear of nature to the harnessing of it that accompanies the advance of civilization (and, not coincidentally, the emergence of organized religion) while leaving anthropomorphized gods quite out of it.
Magic and Swordplay
Philosophy and theology aside, Merlin puts on a good show, but it's also one that can get you thinking about what Arthur, Merlin, Morgana, and Mordred represent for Camelot, as much or as little as you like. As a two-parter it contains a few moments that seem like filler, like Merlin unexpectedly having to put on a juggling show for Queen Annis (an excellent Lindsay Duncan), who's hosting Arthur in his march north to face Morgana; but even this moment is used to wedge a bit of "Merlin has unexpected qualities" thinking into Arthur's noggin that will be a necessary part of the forthcoming upheavals in their relationship.
As for the fact that Gwaine and Percival (Eoin Macken and Tom Hopper), by far the buffest of Arthur's knights, spend the better part of both episodes stripped to the waist and sweating with a platoon of similarly gym-groomed compatriots in Morgana's mines -- while, back home, good Queen Gwen (Angel Coulby) wears a very low-cut, if lushly still regal, number as her royal gown: well, I'm sure there's philosophical implications for all that as well, if you choose to think about it hard enough.