I admit it: I watch more television than I should. I’m on a series kick right now; first it was Gilmore Girls, then Friends and Sherlock, and now it’s Merlin. While I am watching for enjoyment, I also use this time as an exercise in character watching. Characters on a screen are just like characters in a book, and can be analyzed as such.
I like Merlin a lot. I’m just starting season four. It’s got action, drama, suspense, magic, politics, a dragon, jousting, sword fights, poison, and characters that are easy to care about–even Anthony Stewart Head’s King Uther, who is hard- and hot-headed, and suspicious of magic, is redeemed by the love he has for his son and his ward. But there’s one character that’s a real problem for me. Her name is Morgana.
Morgana (played by Irish actress Katie McGrath, known to Jurassic World fans as Zara, the corporate-assistant-turned-nanny) is introduced as Uther’s ward, a kind of adoptive daughter. Her father died in the war against magic, and Uther promised the dying man that he would take care of Morgana. So it comes to pass that Morgana has been raised in the palace next to Prince Arthur, with all the luxuries of royalty. She suffers from vivid nightmares, for which Gaius, the court physician, has treated her since childhood. But Uther has been keeping secrets, and Morgana’s initially sweet disposition turns toward revenge.
In the beginning, I liked Morgana. She’s kind, she cares deeply for others, and I think she could have made a great queen. Her character development isn’t a problem; I like a dynamic lady, and the changes she goes through make sense. The problem is the apparently lazy way that the writers treat her.
Let’s get this out of the way right now: this is not a feminist manifesto. I am not complaining about damsels in distress or female characters who need men to save them. Given the setting, these hazards are unavoidable. (There’s only so many times that Arthur can save Camelot before I start longing for a little romance.) The women of medieval fairytales–like the legends of King Arthur–are rarely depicted as trained fighters, able to protect themselves. If women are able to challenge the men to a joust or a duel, honor and propriety are thrown into confusion–like the episode in which they introduce Morgause, for example. It is excusable, then, that certain non-magical female characters must rely on men for protection. This is the case with Guinevere and Lancelot in the cave. Guinevere is brave, and she knows how to use a sword, but she’s unarmed and Lancelot wants her to escape.
But Morgana is not like Guinevere. There are at least two occasions in Merlin‘s first three seasons where Morgana boasts about beating Arthur with a sword. Arthur. The best warrior in all of Camelot. If Morgana’s claim is true, as we are led to assume, that means something.
And yet Morgana is constantly seen crumbling in the face of danger. She has opportunity and means of protecting herself, but instead she trembles and weeps, waiting for Arthur or Merlin to deliver her. I don’t understand. Is she a trained fighter or isn’t she? Is she really brave, or is that a plot device that the writers employed to save Merlin’s hometown easier? Or to get Guinevere alone with the bandits?
Perhaps later seasons will help explain the apparent inconsistency of her character. Perhaps they’ll make it worse. As it is, I cannot forgive it. Either she relies on her training like Buffy, or she needs someone else to save her like early-seasons Willow. There’s no room for this flip-flopping nonsense.