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.

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