With Merlin pitched firmly in family viewing demographic, the pivotal act of Guinevere’s betrayal of Arthur was always going to present a challenge.
Rather than a long and drawn out romance, the writers chose to hold off this love-triangle for as long as possible and then belt through it at pace. This may have been partly due, I imagine, to Lancelot’s status as a guest star, giving them less potential screen time to play the story out.
In fact, despite appearances in each series of Merlin so far, Santiago Cabrera has notched up only six episodes. The other constraint has been that Uther’s position on the throne. Consequently, Lancelot du Lac has ended up as an episode that starts with a royal engagement and ends with a break-up.
At first, we were led to believe that Lancelot’s return would be enough. After all, he’s the dashing, noble and charismatic hero who’s returned after apparently sacrificing himself. We, the viewer, are in on the secret that he is not the man he was, but rather a resurrected ‘shade’ with no will of his own.
However, when his return is not enough to rock Gwen’s loyalty to her man, Morgana is forced to up the ante. By means of an enchanted bracelet, she induces a loss of control in Gwen until she finally gives into temptation. Her betrayal of Arthur is, of course, interrupted before it could get too physical.
What I found intriguing was that, with Lancelot under orders from Morgana, they still chose not to have Gwen fully responsible for her actions. Consequently, when crossed by Arthur, in that heartrending scene, she finds herself both unable to explain her actions and also unable to claim innocence either. The bracelet amplified what was already there; a residual affection for an old flame and that is all she was guilty of.
Though Merlin uncovers the truth of Lancelot’s nature, he fails to comprehend that Gwen too was acting ‘under the influence’. Indeed, she flings that magical bracelet into the corner of the cell she finds herself, where it lays forgotten… for the moment.
I can’t help but feel a little disappointment that both parties were magically affected. Aren’t there situations in life where people of good character are tempted and find themselves giving in, or is that too complex a situation for an adventure show?
There was potential here to make Gwen a more flawed, three-dimensional character and yet it appears to have been missed. Sadly for Lancelot, his time had already passed and this was but a slight return, making him little more than a cipher.
Engaging as I found the episode, I wonder if it’s all been structured to leave the door open for Gwen’s return too easily. Will the whole affair be written off as the meddling of that pesky sorceress Morgana and be forgotten about in three episodes time?
In its favour, as well as some stunning performances from the central character, it was wonderful to see an episode where Morgana appears to have won the day. Everyone inside the walls of Camelot is left broken by the game-changing events of Lancelot du Lac and for once, she and Agravaine have something to smirk about.
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