There’s a lot of temptation to try and lump certain shows together, applying similar logic and analysis en masse in order to try and establish a common hierarchy. Some people do this because they don’t see a real difference beyond certain set genres, some do it to establish a certain frame of reference as a shortcut to establish a perspective some do it because they’re incredibly lazy and don’t want to approach each as its own entity. Due to their premieres, plenty of people tried to draw parallels between Camelot and The Borgias, and with Game of Thrones about to drop, there’s a feverish race on to place the three in terms of the gold, silver, and bronze positions.
I’m not sure it’s doing any of these shows any favors to lump them in together due to certain aspects that seem casually related but in fact break down upon even the barest of deeper looks. It’s hard enough with the ratings system here to try and adequately explain why a “B” for one show isn’t always the same as a “B” for another show. There are a myriad of factors that go into each of these grades, and while they can be useful, it sometimes leads to an often fruitless discussion that seeks to establish an unyielding, impossibly objective measure of quality.
I bring all this up because to say I enjoyed this week’s Camelot more than last week’s long slough invites for many the chance to compare my enjoyment of this with one of this show’s supposed brethren. That I don’t compare Camelot to Game of Thrones should be as obvious as saying that I don’t compare it to something like Archer, but it’s not nearly as obvious as it should be. Things like Hulu’s recent Best in Show contest highlights how crazy it can be to pair up two shows and try and decide what’s better, but people still feel fairly comfortably arguing the relative merits of shows within a perceived (albeit often arbitrary) category.
I’ve seen more than a few people refer to Game of Thrones, The Borgias, and Camelot all as “historical fiction,” but I don’t honestly think that justice to any of them. All three are simultaneously more and less than that. In the case of Camelot, my issues haven’t been that it doesn’t measure up to its would-be competitors so much as they show didn’t know exactly the type of tone that it wanted to convey on a weekly basis. There were hints of ideas strewn about like so many pieces of confetti at the wedding of Leontes and Guinevere, but it’s almost as if the show were trying on different dresses to see how they fit. This week’s episode didn’t achieve a crystallization of purpose, but it did seem to hint at one primary path that may be its ultimate calling card: complete batshit insanity.
For a while in the post-The Office period in comedies, it was uncool to be unironic. Having a cast of characters that actually liked each other seemed anachronistic, until things got so unbearable that people chose to both produce and watch shows in which there was not simply comedy but camaraderie. I wouldn’t say the ultra-serious fantasy is a genre that’s overstayed its welcome, but there has to be a middle ground between the super severity of The Lord of the Rings and the intentional super silliness of Your Highness. In some ways, “Lady of the Lake” didn’t feature its characters acting any more light-heartedly, but put them in scenarios so operatically over-the-top that I started to enjoy things despite myself.
Now, it’s entirely possible that the show didn’t intend for any of this to come off as crack baby crazy as it did, which means I’m reading things into this episode that don’t exist. (And that my grade is a farce, something many of you probably already think.) But Merlin’s own fire and ice (reference intended) maneuvers, coupled with Morgan’s mirror-laden reenactment of Drag Me to Hell, both played as set-pieces designed and executed by people that sought not to seek a middle ground between realism and latent fantasy but instead engage in melodramatic, supernatural splendor. Most of it falls apart as quickly as the supposed relationships between the aforementioned “historical dramas” when thought about logically (Why did he leave Arthur alone? Why not find the second-best swordmaker when learning that Caliburn was insane?), but Camelot forsaking realism in order to achieve entertainment might be its smartest move.
Thematically, the Merlin, Morgan, and Arthur stories all centered around the latent evil in their hearts. Not really earth-shattering connective tissue, but enough to hang an episode upon. Whereas Arthur’s aspects of the story were still weighed down by anachronistic dialogue (Arthur asking Guinevere if Leontes was better in bed was particularly howl-worthy) and drippy romantic yearnings, it’s damn near impossible to take any scene seriously that involves a nun tending to a possessed woman inside a freakin’ satanic circle. You can either watch that and decide that being eaten alive by flaming porcupines would be a better use of your time, or you buy a ticket on the crazy train and get on board.
Furthermore, having Merlin make up the myth of the titular lady of the lake enhances the manipulative tales he’s already told in this story as well as amplify the evil that Morgan has brought into the land via her summonings. Some of you might have thought “Jesus” when watching Merlin turn the lake into ice, but I thought of Ric Ocasik, who incidentally walked on water in the video for The Car’s “Magic” in the early 1980’s. I’m not sure encasing poor Excalibur in ice nor Morgan looking at the Man in the Mirror were necessarily quality moments per se. But both were pretty damn entertaining, since they seemed to indicate a tone that the series is toying with pursuing.
And honestly, a lack in consistency of tone is often the death knell for a show, not necessarily the tone itself that a program ultimately develops and hones. Where Camelot fails to achieve top-to-bottom quality lies in the fact that its central hero is currently in a much more realistic, yet somehow much more unbelievable, world that the one inhabited by Merlin and Morgan. The latter two belong to an England in which there is an infection, one started by Merlin and perpetuated by Morgan, a world in which demonic forces prey upon the weak and produce devastating results, a world in which hammed-up acting is rewarded instead of punished. Arthur lives in a world in which he trains an army to ensure he can cock block his romantic rival. Which of those sounds like a more interesting show at this point?
None of this is to suggest that the show has gone, nor should go, camp. That’s not what I’m suggesting, and that’s not what I’m currently seeing. I’m seeing a show that for large portions of this week’s episode didn’t shy away from the more fantastical aspects of its premise. If last week was all about suppressing those aspects, this week was about bringing them to the surface to play for a bit. The results may not have been uniformly excellent, but they did afford Camelot something that it hasn’t quite had yet: something to distinguish it from the other shows to which so many people are desperately trying to compare it.
- New drinking game: every time Leontes and Guinevere call each other “husband” and “wife,” you drink. Even if you don’t like the episodes all that much, you’ll be too drunk to care.
- Morgan transforming into Igraine means we’ve got a shapeshifter on our hands. Great. From Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s final season through the god-awful Sylar shapeshifting plot on Heroes, this usually doesn’t end well. But it’s a lot better than Morgan using magic to act like a Peeping Tom through someone else’s eyes.
- Anyone else wait for a twist in which Vivian and Sister Never Got a Name were revealed to be teaming up for Team Wolf against Morgan? Just me?
- As ineffectual as the Arthur storyline itself has been, it was fairly cool to watch his closest allies circle around Gawain during training. A subtle moment in a not-so-subtle arc.
- How many names did Excalibur’s father go through before naming her? Or did he just mishear his wife saying “Elizabeth” in her dying breath?
- Speaking of Caliburn, I can’t tell if we’re supposed to just roll with him building the best sword ever in one afternoon or if we’re supposed to assume Merlin added a little sorcerer’s touch to the proceedings. Thoughts?
- "I don't mind volatile."
- "You better leave, before I slit you from asshole to cakehole."