hope: Art of a woman writing from tour poster (merlin - gwen red riding hood)
puddingsmith ([personal profile] hope) wrote2011-07-31 01:33 pm

*commits Merlin meta*

I should start this off by saying that while I adore the Merlin fandom, I find the show itself problematic. Really, this isn't that different from any other fandom I've been in (hello, Supernatural) and obviously I negotiate enough value from the show that I can enjoy it anyway. After all, most of the time a text *has* to have a certain amount of fail in it in order for me to want to engage and re-write what I perceive as aspects that are lacking.

But, the balance is a bit different for this fandom - whereas I used to be a horrible problem-denying person of the "don't harsh my squee" variety (cough, Supernatural, ohmygodimsosorry), I've got to a point in my fannish mentality that I can't *not* see the awful things.

Part of the reason I've managed to actually find a place in the Merlin fandom regardless is because I read enough fanfic that the fanon became the more valuable thing to me. I know this will be an unpopular opinion, but I have been so disappointed with the seasonal arcs and character 'growth' that I watch every new episode bracing myself for the next fail. So these long months of fannishness without any new canon has been great for me! It means I can re-watch episodes having already processed the stuff that upsets me, and tease out the stuff that I like, enjoying it far more than I did the first time around. And, of course, paramount: reading and writing things that dwell on and explore those tidbits that I adore.

ANYWAY. That was a big introduction. Today's ahah moment was me realising what I think is actually one of the lynch-pin problems of the show for me.

TL;DR: The show presents and perpetuates the idea that once a person experiences trauma, they are broken and unable to be redeemed or rehabilitated.

Case in point:

Uther - duh, obviously. His wife’s death turned him into a villain as opposed to someone who was just traumatised - the fundamental plot point of the show is that you cannot change who Uther ‘became’ after Ygraine’s death.

Nimueh and Morgause - the Uther-counterparts who are traumatised by the Purge, turning them into monsters who cannot be reasoned with!

Morgana - Where to start? In the first/second season, the spectre of what trauma she might experience should she find out the truth about herself looms so enormously large that Merlin and Gaius are excused for the most horrid behaviour in the name of ‘saving’ her from it. Though she seems to struggle with what path she chooses throughout S2 (again, without any kind of support that would acknowledge that people can get past bad things happening to them), the turning point is Merlin poisoning her: once she experiences the trauma of this betrayal, there is no turning back for her—she’s become a bad guy.

Arthur - See: 2.08, Sins of the Father. Arthur is so close to finding out the truth, but Merlin lies instead and his excuse is that if Arthur follows through on having a traumatic altercation with his father, this will IRREVOCABLY DAMAGE him and render him an unsuitable king.

A million episodic characters - Edwin is turned evil by the trauma of his parents’ death; Freya was abused—sorry, “cursed”—and subsequently (despite her innocence in said abuse) turns into a monster whose story can only end in death; Elena maintains selfhood etc so long as she’s kept completely in the dark and thus is ‘unaffected’ by her possession; etc etc.

Merlin himself is the most frustrating perpetuator of this status quo; the way his character is written is the most damning evidence of how much of a fucked-up proposition it is. It happens in several types of ways:

1) he experiences actual trauma and there is practically no emotional fallout from it—either immediately (in case of his blithe murdering of female magic users/beings in particular—which is sometimes even presented as comical (!)), or in the long term (there seems to be little impression made on his character beyond the episodes in question when he experiences the death of a loved one).

OR, 2) His deus ex machina swoops down and prevents the trauma from occurring (see for example: the climax of season one, where grand, life-changing events occur… and Merlin just reverses them all and everything goes back to normal, la di da.)

And to delve further into the first point, there: his lack of remorse or reflection on his treatment of Morgana seems like an enormous, poorly-written elephant in the room of the show. Even while he treats other (male) sorcerers he doesn’t even know (see: Gilli) with empathy, he never questions Gaius’ suggestion that they keep things from Morgana at all costs, even while seeing her suffer. And after he poisons her in S3, there seems to be no remorse—Merlin’s dynamic with Morgana turns into a villain/hero relationship, rather than a betrayer/betrayed one. (Because of course, Morgana is totally beyond redemption, now!)

[Addendum: Gwen seems to be the only character who is allowed to experience trauma and move on from it. This is one of the reasons I love Gwen; she has a kind of tentative amount of complexity that is, like everyone else, let down still by dodgy writing. It’ll be interesting to see where it goes, though—traditionally, Gwen commits the the unforgivable, doesn’t she?]

Anyway. To go on a tangent; at a totally rational level, it makes me read Merlin as an awful, unlikable character, where his arc (or lack thereof) basically has him committing one horrible deed after another without remorse, and digging himself into a pit of deception that takes him further away from any potential redemption once his magic is revealed. (Because if Arthur is the noblest of them all whose honour must be protected from this at all costs, what’s he going to think of all the awful things Merlin has done?)

But, my fannishness is not totally emotionally objective, of course :D So, this is one of the reasons that diverging my interest away to fandom/fanon works for me. Because traditionally—in the legend—Merlin is a figure of questionable morals and a fairly self-absorbed trickster. So, once I’ve reconciled all of the above, I find that the Merlin I’m left with—the one I find most interesting to write—is the Merlin with a god complex.

Because, seriously. I know the fanon tradition is to write a happy-go-lucky innocent Merlin, but for all his bubbly personality, I don’t see innocence and an ingrained sense of good will as his foundation.

His motivation when he arrives in Camelot isn’t to serve the kingdom and do good, it’s to discover if the great power he has has a purpose. When he discovers he’s destined for greatness, he’s satisfied. His interaction with Arthur from the beginning—his ongoing lack of subservience—lends more of a dynamic of equality to their relationship, yes, but this show is not set in the era of equality, hello. Merlin behaves as if the rules don’t apply to him, because he’s more powerful than all these suckers (hello, privilege).

It’s more interesting to read him as Machiavellian rather than naive. Not that he’s totally existential or anything—yes, he has loved ones, and a seemingly ‘selfless’ goal (seeing Arthur on the throne), but it means his morals are aligned with this personal world-view, and anything that gets in his way can be eradicated practically without remorse: god complex. (See for example: after injuring Morgana in The Crystal Cave, it’s Arthur’s grief that makes him take action to save her, not his own personal remorse.)

TL;DR for this section: yes, I know it’s probably because the show is written terribly, but man, it’s SO much more fun to have godcomplex!Merlin as my fanon.
emeraldsword: Morgana in purple (morgana in purple)

[personal profile] emeraldsword 2011-07-31 10:19 am (UTC)(link)
I thought this was a really interesting post - I don't usually read these, so forgive me if I'm saying things that have been said before, but there were a couple of points I wanted to discuss.

Arthur - See: 2.08, Sins of the Father. Arthur is so close to finding out the truth, but Merlin lies instead and his excuse is that if Arthur follows through on having a traumatic altercation with his father, this will IRREVOCABLY DAMAGE him and render him an unsuitable king. - I actually think this is true. It wouldn't be a 'traumatic altercation' - Arthur would have killed Uther. Arthur would have killed Uther in that scene if Merlin hadn't intervened, and it is that act of patricide/regicide and the fallout (both Arthur's personal emotional fallout and the political fallout) from that which would make Arthur an unsuitable king. He would have to be arrested, his right to rule would have to be questioned after he has openly and publically murdered his father, and Arthur actually loves his father. If Arthur took the throne after committing regicide, it would hardly be as the golden king who is going to unite all Albion. I think Merlin had to intervene for Arthur's sake, even though it's actually against his own interests. (ooh, what do you think about 'To Kill A King' in season 1 where Merlin decides that he can't let Morgana kill Uther and goes after her? [Morgana had already decided that she couldn't go through with it so the fact that Merlin was too late didn't matter])

Even while he treats other (male) sorcerers he doesn’t even know (see: Gilli) with empathy, he never questions Gaius’ suggestion that they keep things from Morgana at all costs, even while seeing her suffer.
The problem I have with that is that it's demonstrably not true - he suggests that they ought to tell her in 'the gates of avalon' and in 'the nightmare begins' (s2ep3) he tells Gaius that they ought to tell her, and in a later, second conversation, says that they ought to tell her because he couldn't have survived being alone with his magic without support, and Morgana has no support. Gaius just says 'it's different for you' and doesn't deal with that.
But Merlin makes the decision to send Morgana to the druids - he makes it as clear to Morgana as possible that he's on her side, disregarding the dragon's instruction not to intervene, and Gaius's instruction not to tell her. It's only when Uther is clearly going to kill everyone until he gets Morgana back that Merlin realises he's made a mistake and has to go after her. He's too afraid to tell her that he too has magic, but within that constraint he does his best to help (it's just...it's Merlin's best and Merlin has absolutely zero ability to predict the logical consequences of any of his actions).

(Discussing this with my sister, and as you've mentioned Gilli - she suggests that the problem with telling Morgana about his magic is that Morgana has Uther's ear, and if she said Merlin was a magic-user he'd be on the pyre before you could blink. If Gilli said Merlin was a magic-user...who would believe him? There might be an investigation but Merlin would very probably be able to wriggle out of it as Arthur's loyal and trusted servant, especially as some sort of magical prop would be likely to turn up in Gilli's room...)

[identity profile] ella-bane.livejournal.com 2011-07-31 05:59 pm (UTC)(link)
Merlin has a serious lack of remorse, I agree. My biggest beef is his lack of feeling any responsibility for Morgana at all.

I want a scene where Merlin just loses it all over Gauis, and blames him for the truly horrible way Gaius helped "protect" Morgana.

godcomplex!Merlin is a much more believable Merlin (especially in canon fic), but I admit to having a great fondness for happy-go-lucky Merlin in modern au's. This is why I love fan fic. We can exploit character traits any which way we like and just have fun.

This was fun to read, thanks for sharing your thoughts!

Also, sorry for spamming your LJ today!

[identity profile] andraste-oz.livejournal.com 2011-07-31 11:02 pm (UTC)(link)
I see it more as the essence of tragedy - good people making bad decisions without realising how bad they are. Ultimately the whole Camelot legend is a tragedy in the classical sense. I find it interesting that the show clearly wants us to believe Arthur’s reign equals happy ending, when in the legend it really, really doesn’t.

In Sins of the Father, it would be more than a traumatic confrontation between Arthur and Uther. It would be murder, not to mention patricide and regicide. And if Arthur murdered Uther, he really would never recover from it, because he loves his father; if he was the kind of person who *could* recover from it, he wouldn’t be the kind of king Camelot needs. And it would make him an unsuitable king, without a doubt. Most people are happy with Uther as king - he delivered the kingdom from chaos and he protects them against a multitude of threats, magical and otherwise. (The fact that half the magical threats are imaginary or of Uther’s own making is neither here nor there - most of the population won’t know). If Arthur killed Uther, people would see it as a renegade prince usurping the throne. Some of the nobles and knights may not follow him; it would destabilise the kingdom

Merlin did lie. But he was caught between a rock and a hard place and the outcome was the lesser of two evils, especially when you consider he had only a few seconds and the most urgent priority was to stop Arthur killing Uther.

I don’t think Merlin is anywhere near as culpable about Morgana as most people do. There is a class difference and massive power imbalance between Morgana and Merlin which doesn’t often get acknowledged. Morgana is a privileged noble who is beloved of the King. Merlin is a servant. He could easily be killed on just her word, and he doesn’t dare make the leap of faith needed to trust her with his own secret. When he’s certain she has actual magic he does try to help her without revealing himself; he suggests talking to her and Gaius tells him no, so he sends her off to talk to the Druids. That works; she comes to feel happier and more accepting of her magic. But when Merlin tells her that Uther is reacting to her disappearance by more killing, she decides that she wants to stay because her own happiness is more important than those lives. After that there really isn’t any hope of him trusting her.

Which again is not to say Merlin does not bear some culpability for Morgana’s choices. But just about everyone in the show bears some culpability for what leads up to Morgana making her bad decisions; Merlin, Gaius, Uther, Morgana herself, and most of all Morgause (who omits the truth as much as Merlin does, most especially in letting an unknowing and terrified Morgana become the source of an enchantment, but never seems to cop the same fandom blame)

As for the unevenness of the show’s treatment of magic users, holy crap, yes. Although with Gilli, I think the show draws very clear parallels with Merlin himself (even down to the rescuing of a servant from being bullied), and that’s why Merlin is so good to him. Much of ‘Merlin’ is all about power - how you get it, what you do with it when you have it, your motives for using it. The show presents us with a bunch of people who have power, and it’s their motives for using it that makes them “good” or “bad” in show terms. Merlin is “good” because he doesn’t use his power to get himself wealth or renown or power over others; he uses it to protect and guide Arthur. Gilli is turning to the “bad” because he wants to use his power to make himself rich and popular, but Merlin sees enough of himself there that he wants to help. Without his own introduction to Camelot, Merlin may well have gone the same way (his servitude to Arthur keeps him humble).

At the same time I do agree that there is a Machiavellian element to Merlin’s character. I don’t know that he’s actually conscious of it, though. That could make for some interesting fic.

Where the show writers and I differ most is in the “good” and “bad”. Me, I think everyone in the show is deeply flawed, fragile and ambiguous. Which is undoubtedly my way of fanwanking it all so I can enjoy it :) But it’s in those deep shades of grey that I find the most pleasure and depth.

[identity profile] kinkthatwinked.livejournal.com 2011-08-01 07:45 am (UTC)(link)
Hi. Don't know if you remember me. We met at the ORC con of '05, the one with all four hobbit actors and J.R.D.? I bought a copy of the slash paperback you were selling.

This probably wasn't the reaction you were hoping for in a Merlin post, but the main thing I picked up reading this is that a) you're a fan of Supernatural, and b) you were once so blinded by love with this show you couldn't see the flaws.

Hi. It's always nice to meet another addict, makes me feel less alone. :)

Totally agree with you that the main fun of fanfiction is filling in the canon blanks, and that there's a difference between a show having 'blanks' and going totally off the rails. The attitude you've taken with Merlin is exactly the way I, and quite a few others, are now approaching SPN. Just read the fic and let the show's badness fuel it, the fic is the good stuff.

[identity profile] earlyparade.livejournal.com 2012-08-30 07:22 pm (UTC)(link)
I know I should probably respond with my own explication or something of the like, but all I can do is sit here and keep nodding. Yes, everything about this post is great, especially the whole god complex idea. Not to mention, I've never thought about how the show deals with trauma. (Until you brought it up.)