Series 4 – Merlin’s Transition to Advisor
Merlin is doing some of his advisory role already when the series opens. He’s already writing Arthur’s speeches. And Arthur is being particularly kind with Merlin’s fears, as well as open about his own fears once the Doracha are unleashed.
We once again check in with the fundamental obstacle in the friendship – the fact that Arthur can never truly know or understand Merlin as a person as long as Merlin continues to hide the fact that he’s a magical being:
Arthur: Of all the things I’ve faced... I’ve never worried about dying.
Merlin: I don’t think you should now.
Arthur: Sometimes you puzzle me.
Merlin: You’ve never fathomed me out?
No change there then. And then there’s this:
Merlin: I always thought if things had’ve been different, we would have been good friends.
Merlin: That’s if you hadn’t been such an arrogant pompous dollophead.
Arthur: *laughs* *nods*
And I can hear you say now, “I thought you said they were friends in S2 and S3! There goes your entire argument!” And to that I say, “Hey, nothing’s perfect.” And I’ll also point out the following:
A)Arthur AGREES that they would have been good friends. He never would have done that if Merlin had said the same thing to him back in S1 or even the beginning of S2.
B)Merlin doesn’t blame Arthur’s station for their supposed lack of friendship, he blames the fact that Arthur made a very bad first impression. Merlin doesn’t say “If things WERE different”, but rather “If things HAD’VE been different”, meaning that the thing that prevented them being good friends was an event in the past. So, you might be accusing me of stretching things, but I think Merlin is referring to how long it took them to become friends, rather than the idea that it is impossible for them to be friends NOW (which is the notion that Arthur operated under during S2 due to their different social status.)
I mean, it’s pretty obvious how much Arthur cares for Merlin when Arthur wants to call of the quest to save Camelot after Merlin is injured. (Also, um, Arthur still doesn’t expect that maybe Merlin is a little different when he survives something that “no mortal” has ever survived? I guess Arthur just doesn’t like questioning his miracles.)
We get further proof that the master-servant thing is now a non-issue when Merlin offers to sacrifice himself in Arthur’s place:
Merlin: What is the life of a servant compared to that of a Prince?
Arthur: Well, a good servant’s hard to come by.
Merlin: I’m not that good.
Arthur: True. One thing - Look after Guinevere....
Arthur just carries on as though Merlin hadn’t even spoken, even after acknowledging the fact that Merlin IS a horrible servant. But it’s not Merlin’s services as a servant that are important to Arthur.
Of course, we get a minor setback to everything when Uther is killed in 4x03 and Arthur takes the throne. This comes right after Merlin’s plan to change Arthur’s mind about magic backfires spectacularly, so it’s a tough time all ‘round for everyone.
I should point out though that even after Arthur unknowingly (by association) calls Merlin “pure evil,” Merlin still sits outside the great hall all night while Arthur mourns his father, and we get this exchange that reaffirms that the friendship is still there:
Arthur: Merlin. It’s a new day. You been here all night?
Merlin: I did not want you to feel that you were alone.
Arthur: You are a loyal friend, Merlin.
When Arthur takes the throne, he, like most people in a new job, thinks that he has to change to suit the job, rather than changing the job to suit him. So, he not only goes back to dismissing Merlin as only a servant, but he also tries to break up with Gwen. It doesn’t help that Agravaine is feeding into this false belief of Arthur’s that Arthur as he is, is not good enough to be king. (This comes down to the fact that Arthur is human and, for all his outward arrogance, is actually quite susceptible to low self-esteem. I’ll talk about this in an Aside later.)
Arthur stops taking Merlin’s advice and chastises him for speaking above his station (4x05):
Merlin: Arthur, you’ve always shown mercy in battle, you’ve never sought to humiliate your enemy in this way. This isn’t like you. This isn’t who you are-
Arthur: You have no idea what it is to make these decisions - Decisions that will shape the future of this land-
Arthur: -So please! Stick to what you do know.
Merlin: So you don’t regret what you did?
Arthur: My conscience is clean, Merlin, which is more than I can say for my room. So, just, do your job, will you.
Merlin: Look, I’m just saying, if there’s something bothering you, you can talk to me. You shouldn’t push your friends away, you know? Not now, not when you need them most.
Arthur: You’re wrong, Merlin. I don’t need anyone. I can’t afford that luxury. The kingdom’s my responsibility now, mine to bear alone, and you must learn to accept that.
And who can blame Arthur really? His only model for a ‘successful’ king was his widowed, paranoid, and tyrannical father, who seemingly had only one friend (Gaius) who he didn’t even trust. If Arthur thinks that he needs to be more like his father in order to be an effective king, then it’s no wonder that Agravaine’s advice sounds like the right course of action rather than listen to his own gut or Merlin.
Of course, when following Agravaine’s advice leads to unwanted war, Arthur eventually realizes the mistake he’s made. He both reassures Merlin that they are friends (“Thank you, old friend”) before he goes off to a deadly battle, and when he’s in the thick of battle and has the choice whether to end his opponents life or spare him, he looks up at Merlin before making the decision – no doubt thinking of Merlin’s earlier advice that mercy could also be a sign of strength. Then, wonder of all wonders, at the end of the episode, Arthur actually outright tells Merlin that he should have listened to Merlin in the first place.
And this brings us to 4x06, which is a great episode and shows how much closer Merlin and Arthur’s friendship has grown over the years. First, we get some great h/c when Merlin is injured in a surprise attack and Arthur attempts to get him to safety. We get a great conversation:
Arthur: I’ve seen worse...definitely seen worse.
Merlin: On a dead man?
Arthur: You’re not going to die, Merlin. Don’t be such a coward.
Merlin: If I do die, will you call me a hero?
Merlin: But whilst I’m still alive, I’m a coward?
Arthur: It’s the way these things work, I’m afraid. You get the glory when you’re not around to appreciate it.
Merlin: Unless you’re the King.
Arthur: Come on, it’s got to have some advantages.
Merlin: You have a very good servant.
Arthur: You’re right, I do. A servant who’s extremely brave, incredibly loyal, to be honest, not at all cowardly.
They are separated and Merlin goes missing, and we get to see Arthur go out of his mind with worry. When Merlin turns up after days, Arthur hugs him even though Merlin is covered head to foot in mud...which is a pretty far cry from the days of the almost-hug back in S2.
Although the rest of the episode is primarily comedic, we actually get to see a lot of the domesticity that occurs between Arthur and Merlin on a regular basis. Most importantly, we see how much Arthur confides in Merlin during any given day. We get to hear that Merlin is the only person that Arthur feels that he can trust (I’m assuming he trust Gwen as well though). We also get to hear that Arthur finds being King quite lonely, with everyone expecting him to have the answer, but he “values the guidance of others.”
Finally, we are reminded WHY Arthur keeps Merlin around:
Arthur: Two whole days in the tavern....give me one good reason why I shouldn’t get rid of you on the spot.
Merlin: Because you’d have no one to polish your armour, make you breakfast, organize your clothes-
Arthur: Ah, well, that’s where you’re wrong. George! Merlin, meet George. George is perhaps the most efficient servant I’ve ever seen. He’ll be spending the rest of the week teaching you.
Merlin: Teaching me?
Arthur: If you want to remain in my service.
George: We will start in the armoury. Lesson One is my favourite: Polishing.
*Arthur tries to hide a smile*
Merlin: If he’s so good, why don’t you just give him the job?
Arthur: He’s seriously boring. I’ve never met anyone so dull. The man makes jokes about brass.
So, we see, that this episode is really about WHY Merlin is still Arthur’s manservant, even after all these years of becoming Arthur’s friend. The position of manservant means that Merlin is with Arthur constantly to serve as his friend, confident, and (as we are beginning to see) his most trusted advisor.
Of course, it’s not all smooth sailing. Arthur won’t believe Merlin when he accuses Agravaine of framing Gaius in 4x07, or of stealing the siege tunnel plans in 4x12 – Arthur’s belief that his family wouldn’t betray him wins out over his appreciation for Merlin’s advice. We’ll have to see if Arthur ultimately learns a lesson from this in S5.
When Elyan attacks Arthur in 4x10 after Gwen’s banishment, however, Arthur treats Agravaine and Merlin as EQUALS when it comes to listening to them about the situation – much to Agravaine’s disgust. Of course, being equals with a non-trustworthy advisor isn’t something Merlin feels too pleased about either. He’d probably much prefer to be Arthur’s sole and most-trusted advisor...and I’m really hoping that’ll happen in S5.
In 4x10, Arthur also allows Merlin to see him at his most emotionally vulnerable, when he lets Merlin follow him to the druid shrine and both admits, and apologizes, for his part in the genocide that took place there. Merlin, like a true friend, makes fun of Arthur for it as soon as he can, so that Arthur knows that it doesn’t change their friendship.
Gwen’s banishment also shows us how Merlin and Arthur both fall back on the master-servant relationship when they are fighting – they emphasize it in order to piss each other off. After all, how do you give someone the silent treatment when you have to spend all day with them? Well, you call them “Sire” and only speak when spoken to or you order them about and threaten to banish them when they try to talk to you.
Agravaine gets his brief moment of triumph when Arthur threatens to exile Merlin in front of him – but of course, Arthur can’t stay away from his servant-cum-advisor for very long. Weighed down by his doubts, Arthur once again asks Merlin for his advice:
Merlin: Is there anything you need?
Arthur: How can I love someone who’s betrayed me? It doesn’t make any sense. Yet how can I make myself love another? Tell me that.
Merlin: If there is nothing else that you require, perhaps I can-
Arthur: I don’t know what to do. I have no idea what to do. What shall I do, Merlin?
Merlin: All I know my lord is that no one would sacrifice more for you and Camelot than Gwen.
Arthur: And if that were so?
Merlin: You must do what your heart tells you so.
Arthur: And if I don’t know what that is?
Merlin: I think you do....Is there anything else, Sire?
Arthur: You may go.... Thank you, Merlin.
Here, we see Merlin is still mad at first. He’s practically throwing his servant status in Arthur’s face. Even as he advises Arthur, he still slightly cold about it – which is understandable, given that this isn’t anything he hasn’t already tried to say to Arthur when Arthur was unwilling to listen to him. But, Arthur thanks him as he moves to leave, and in my experience with male friendships, that’s the equivalent of “Sorry, I was an ass.”
In 4x12, we once again see Merlin ordering around the King. When Arthur spots Agravaine in the advancing army and realizes the depth of his betrayal, it’s Merlin who forcible holds him back and basically commands him to stand-down. Just think about what any other servant would have done in that situation! Even Merlin, who has never been a typical servant, had only once before physically held Arthur back and issued commands (3x12) which was a similar situation, though Arthur was much more vocal in his protests then in this instance when he agrees and allows Merlin to lead him away.
Of course, there are limits to what Arthur will agree to, so Merlin does in fact have to take charge by removing Arthur’s will entirely and making him a momentary “Simpleton.” Now, I don’t think this enchantment changes Arthur’s fundamental personality at all – it just appears to. It stripes away everything about him that he “wills” (and obviously, his intelligence), but I think the emotions that remain and the complete trust in Merlin are things that exist in Arthur normally.
This is also the episode where Arthur realizes that Merlin knew about Agravaine betrayal before him:
Arthur: You knew. You knew Agravaine was betraying me.
Merlin: I couldn’t be sure, but I did have my suspicious.
Arthur: I feel like such a fool. I had such trust in him...
Merlin: All I know is that for your many faults, you are honest and brave and true-hearted. And once day you will be the greatest king this land has ever known.
Arthur: Good to know I have the support of my servant, at least.
Merlin: I’m not alone. Believe me.
Arthur, at this point, has fallen into a fairly dark place self-esteem wise (some of which is Merlin’s own fault). With two people he loved having betrayed him, Merlin becomes more and more the only person that Arthur feels he can trust.
Sidenote: It also means that it would be the worst possible time for Merlin to reveal that he’s secretly been a sorcerer the whole time. Even if Arthur could see that Merlin only used his magic for good, the secret and the subterfuge itself would be seen as a type of betrayal. (Merlin, of course, will have this problem no matter when he reveals his magic, but doing so when Arthur is already feeling betrayed would only compound the problem. Agravaine practically spells this out for Merlin when he suggests that he and Merlin are similar because they’ve both easily fooled Arthur.)
The weight of just how precious Merlin has become to Arthur presents itself as they flee from Ealdor and Agravaine’s approaching army in 4x13. When they are followed into the caves and Merlin volunteers to double back and create a diversion, you can see in Arthur’s face how much the thought of anything happening to Merlin pains him, even though he reluctantly let’s Merlin go.
He doesn’t let him go for long though, because Merlin meets up with him in the tunnels after dealing with Agravaine and they have this exchange:
Arthur: Merlin! Where have you been?
Merlin: Were you worried about me?
Arthur: No! I was making sure we weren’t being followed.
Merlin: You came back to look for me.
Arthur: Alright, it’s true. I came back because you’re the only friend I have and I couldn’t bear to lose you.
Arthur: Don’t be stupid.
Now, the first time I watched this scene, I interpreted “Don’t be stupid” as “No, not really – you’re an idiot servant and I’m a king and we’re not friends at all!” But, watching a second time, I realized that “Don’t be stupid” could be interpreted as “Don’t be stupid and ask me to repeat it or confirm, because we both know it’s true and this is already too mushy for me – grrr, I’m a man!” (or words to that effect.) But, no matter which way you slice it, it’s painfully obvious that Arthur is completely sincere when he tells Merlin that he’s his only friend and he couldn’t bear to lose him.
When they leave the caves, it’s once again Merlin doing the advising and Arthur following. Arthur continues to confide in Merlin too, even about his low self-esteem. Merlin, of course, solves that problem handily...and even when Arthur thinks that he’s about to make a fool of himself in front of his entire remaining kingdom trying to pull a sword from a stone, he still trusts Merlin.
Even when his self-confidence is restored and Arthur is confidently talking to the knights, Arthur still confides in Merlin about his fear of Morgana’s power. Merlin and Merlin alone (with a side-order of Gwen) has become Arthur’s confident and most trusted adviser.
And that’s where we leave off in S4. We have to wait for S5 to start before we see if Merlin’s role will be made official (I’m hoping yes) or if he’ll forever remain in the guise of a servant, so that he can stay by Arthur’s side 24/7 just as he has been doing.
Aside #4 – Lamia (4x08)
I think it’s a nice juxtaposition to give us the Lamia episode in S4, when Merlin’s servant status is really in name only. We get to see just how much Merlin isn’t usually treated like a servant; because, when the knights do start treating him like a servant, it serves as proof of their enchantment. (Sidenote: It drives me as crazy as everyone else that they never followed up with the emotional repercussions this episode would have produced.)
Aside #5 – Arthur/Merlin/Gwen – the Non-Sexual Threesome
At this point, you might be saying, “Wow, I can’t believe she just talked about the Arthur/Merlin relationship throughout four series, and she didn’t even mention the Great Dragon.” Well, I’m going to do that now, but, surprisingly, I’m not going to talk about how the Great Dragon (or the “Slash Dragon”, as fandom calls it) informs us about how Merlin and Arthur are in love and soulmates or whatever. Instead, I’m going to say that what the Great Dragon is trying to tell us is that whether they like it or not, Arthur, Merlin, and Gwen are in a threesome. Or rather, that whether they like it or not, Arthur and Merlin will ALWAYS be in “moresome” with each other and each other’s partners.
Now, as I disclaimed at the beginning, I don’t mean that they’re all having sex with each other. Arthur is having sex with Gwen (only after they are married, I’m sure ;) ), and Merlin is a non-sexual third partner in the relationship. He’s just as much a part of the relationship as Arthur and Gwen are, and the dragon tells us why.
The most famous “Slash Dragon” quotes when referring to Arthur and Merlin are:
“You are two sides of the same coin” and “A half cannot truly hate that which makes it whole.”
So, what do we notice about this? Here’s a hint: It’s not saying that Merlin and Arthur are romantic soulmates (at least not in the definition of “two souls that are destined to be together or complement each other.”) In both cases, what the dragon is saying is that Merlin and Arthur are INCOMPLETE without each other. I believe, he’s saying that Arthur and Merlin share one soul between them.
This means, of course, that if Gwen is to be with Arthur, she must also be with Merlin, because Arthur and Merlin, despite being in separate bodies, are not separate beings spiritually.
And this is why I like the way the show took time to establish a good Gwen+Merlin friendship, before they started setting up the Arthur/Gwen romance. I even like the fact that in the beginning, Gwen flirted with Merlin a little too, even though he was oblivious to it and she may have even been doing it accidentally. I like the fact that one of the first scenes of Gwen and Arthur working together was the episode in which they had to save Merlin from poison – and that Gwen kissed Merlin when he recovered and left him momentarily flustered. Gwen and Merlin’s friendship is adorably cute. It’s obvious they love each other, but their relationship never really has a sexual tone to it, even though they display a fair bit of physical affection.
When Arthur falls for Gwen, it’s Merlin who becomes her champion. He’s constantly encouraging Arthur not to give up hope, or to give it a go, or to change the laws once he’s king. Merlin knows that whoever Arthur marries, Merlin will effectively be married to them too – and Merlin already loves Gwen. He even flirts with her on behalf of Arthur:
*Arthur waiting for a quest*
Gwen: What’s he actually doing?
Merlin: You. *smiles*
Merlin has a hand in nearly all of Arthur and Gwen’s private moments. He brings the dinner that Arthur “makes” Gwen while hiding out in her house. He helped Arthur take Gwen out on a picnic in 3x10. One of my favourite moments though is when the show gives us that shot of Merlin listening outside Gwen’s window when Arthur proposes, and we see him smile at her acceptance. Gwen isn’t just agreeing to marry Arthur, she’s agreeing to marry Merlin too. Gwen must know who it was that lit all those candles!
Arthur also constantly puts Merlin in charge of Gwen’s happiness. In the first few episodes of S4, whenever Arthur believes that he’s about to die. His final instructions to Merlin are to make sure that Gwen is happy.
We also see Merlin’s investment in the relationship after the Lancelot fiasco. The tricky thing about being in a triad is that if two members of the triad break-up, well, what say does the third have (especially a non-sexual third)? Merlin should have been talking to Gwen during the episode instead of assuming that Shade!Lancelot was going to target Arthur directly. Sadly, Merlin doesn’t clue in until it’s too late.
I really like the way they wrote Merlin in these scenes, because it’s not just Arthur losing a mate, Merlin is too. Arthur has effectively decided for Merlin that his relationship with Gwen is over. Merlin doesn’t want it to be, but, as we see, his arguments to Arthur are for naught. So, yes, I like the fact that we don’t actually see what words Merlin and Gwen may or may not have exchanged before she left town – or maybe they really didn’t speak at all – but Merlin is the last person Gwen sees, and the only person to see her off...and to me that’s just as heartbreaking as Arthur and Gwen’s heartbreak.
Furthermore, in the episodes that follow, Merlin constantly advocates for Gwen. We’ve seen Gwen and Merlin act as each other’s advocates to Arthur before – when Gaius was falsely accused of treason, Gwen promised Merlin that she would try to reason with Arthur, and we see that that relationship goes both ways while Gwen is in exile. Merlin advocates for Gwen to the point that Arthur and he end up in a fight themselves. Of course, you can’t exactly break up with yourself (“a half cannot hate that which makes it whole”).
And when Merlin can’t convince Gwen to move back to Camelot in 4x11, he sends her to his mother’s house in Ealdor. To me, this is Merlin taking back control of the relationship from Arthur (and to a certain extent, from Gwen, who is like Arthur is refusing to try to work it out.)
I’m very interested to see what the Gwen/Merlin relationship will be now that Gwen is queen. Mainly because Gwen knows Merlin in a different capacity than Arthur does. Except for the beginning of the 4x08, Gwen has ALWAYS gone to Merlin whenever she’s had a problem. Even in 4x08, it’s Merlin and her vs. the enchanted knights. Gwen knows Merlin as the guy who will always somehow find a way to solve problems. Gwen valued Merlin’s wisdom far before Arthur even began to notice it.
Aside #6 – Arthur’s Lack of Confidence
Merlin: Are you alright?
Arthur: No one likes to be called fat, Merlin.
Merlin isn’t perfect. Everyone makes mistakes (*cough*notlettingMorganadie*cough*). And everyone makes mistakes in their relationships too. One of Merlin’s mistakes when dealing with Arthur is to not realize that Arthur might actually have self-esteem issues underneath all that bravado.
We find out in 2x01 that Arthur always thought he was a disappointment to his father. And then Merlin, for all his care to build up Arthur’s faith that he’ll be a good king, goes ahead and gives Arthur a body complex in 2x09. When Merlin suggests that he’s put Arthur on a diet to prevent him from getting fat, Arthur doesn’t roll his eyes and let it slide off his shoulder. He’s genuinely offended. You don’t get genuinely offended about something unless part of you believes it to be true. (If it’s not true at all, you just get confused and maybe sad about being misunderstood.)
In 4x12, when Arthur’s self-esteem and self-confidence is an issue, Merlin doesn’t realize soon enough and actually compounds the problem when Arthur is in his “simpleton” form. Now, it’s my opinion that, just because Arthur doesn’t remember this exchange doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have an effect on his emotions afterward:
Merlin: A Please and a Thank You all at the same time, that’s amazing.
Arthur: Is it?
Merlin: Well, let’s just say manners are not your strong-point.
Arthur: Really? In what way?
Merlin: Rude, thoughtless, insensitive, and that’s when you’re in a good mood.
Arthur: Sorry to hear that.
Merlin: [...] It would be nice if you could do one small thing for yourself, as a gesture, a mark of respect.
Arthur: I’m sorry to be a disappointment, Merlin. I’ll try to do better in the future.
Merlin: I look forward to that.
It just goes to show that the underlying fear of being a disappointment is always with Arthur. You can also see it in simple exchanges between him and Merlin:
Merlin: I’m serious. You are becoming a very good king.
Arthur: Thank you. You’re still the worst servant I’ve ever known.
*Merlin drags Arthur bodily out of bed*
Merlin: You’re doing very well, Arthur.
Arthur *lying on the floor*: No, I don’t think so.
Merlin: Everyone’s saying it.
Arthur: Well, I’m glad your friends at the tavern approve.
Just because Arthur is the prodigal son who is destined to be king, doesn’t mean that he automatically has the confidence to do so – even if he knows how to act the part for the sake of the court (and apparently enough to fool Merlin, who believes his arrogance to be real, rather than an act). If anything, being the prodigal son, the sole heir to a paranoid tyrant, has probably given Arthur more of a self-confidence issue than if he had grown up with siblings (siblings he knew about anyway.)
Aside #7 – The problem of the Magic Reveal S1 vs. S4
I touched on this above, but with Uther’s death, the problem of Merlin’s magic reveal changes. In S1-S3, Merlin couldn’t reveal his magic for fear of death. In S4, Merlin can’t reveal his magic because of friendship. Whether he dies or not as a result, I believe Merlin’s greatest fear is Arthur being angry with him – it’s of Arthur not loving him anymore. His fear is that Arthur will see it as a betrayal for the very fact that for the past 7-9 years, Merlin has been hiding a fundamental aspect of who he is from his best friend. Arthur has confided EVERYTHING in Merlin – his worries about the knights, his fears of not being a good enough king, his feelings about Gwen. Yet, Merlin has not and cannot reciprocate and confide in Arthur. In S1-S3, it’s because he doesn’t want to put Arthur into a place of having to choose between Merlin and his own father...and in S4, he can’t tell him because a)Arthur might be mad about the failed attempt to save Uther, and b)The longer he keeps the secret, the more painful it’s going to be when Arthur realizes how long he’s been “lied” to.
Aside #8 – The Sword in the Stone and Merlin’s magical ‘assist’ to Arthur
I talked about this before in a previous post about Merlin, so I’m just going to repeat what I said then again:
I remember people complaining that Arthur couldn't remove the sword from the stone without Merlin's help - and that somehow that undercut Arthur's strength/destiny...I think these people are missing the fact that Merlin put the sword in the stone in the first place - that he MADE UP the legend in order to give Arthur confidence. The fact that the legend of the sword in the stone wasn't actually real doesn't make Arthur's destiny any less real - Arthur is destined to be The Once and Future King because Merlin believes in him, and really for no other reason than that. Merlin making up the legend of the Sword in the Stone is Merlin making his beliefs (or the slash dragon's beliefs) into a physical construct that others can see.
When people erect statues of a famous person, the person isn't famous because they have a statue - they have a statue because they are famous....and then years later, when the memory of that person fades from public thoughts, THEN they are famous because they have a statue. Arthur pulled the sword from the stone because Merlin believes that he'll be The Once and Future King and unite all of Albion, and then later, he'll be the Once and Future King because he pulled the sword from the stone.
To Part 3