Very late to this party, but my daughter requested to watch this series. She’d seen an episode of it at a friend’s house once, had immediately pinpointed Merlin and Arthur as a couple, and had been curious ever since. So we started watching it as part of our regular girl time.
For those unfamiliar: Merlin is a BBC television series consisting of five 13-episode seasons that ran from 2008 to 2012. It stars Colin Morgan as the titular Merlin, though rather than being the bearded old man of legend, we see him as a teen (or maybe early 20s?) as he arrives in Camelot to become both an apprentice to the court physician Gaius (Richard Wilson) and, more importantly, manservant to Prince Arthur (Bradley James). Merlin must hide his magical abilities because King Uther Pendragon has outlawed sorcery and has anyone with magic executed. Rounding out the core cast are Katie McGrath as Uther’s ward Morgana and Angel Coulby as Morgana’s handmaiden Gwen.
The show has the production values one might expect for the time and target audience, but it is still fun to watch. There are definitely moments when I can see how and why viewers might ship Merlin and Arthur (the ship name is, my daughter has told me, “Merthur”), but after two seasons, I have to say the show seems to be actively fighting that interpretation. In particular, the second season—possibly in response to the audience support of Merthur?—works hard to “no homo” the pair by forcing the Arthur/Gwen romance and giving Merlin a girl to crush on pretty strongly in at least one episode. Honestly, there is much better chemistry between Gwen and Lancelot (maybe that’s the point), or even Gwen and Morgana, than there is between Gwen and Arthur.
In short, thus far the show isn’t as gay as I’d like it to be. Even if one takes into account “magic” = “homosexuality” in this world… While the underlying statement that homosexuality is (a) a genetic trait, not something one chooses, and (b) not in and of itself good or evil, there are no actual homosexual relationships on display here. The show goes to great lengths to make that clear. In fact, the only strongly queer-coded characters I can think of (from the episode “Sweet Dreams”) were absolute villains. So there is something of a mixed message there.
That said, there is a lot to like about the show. I wasn’t sold on the first few episodes, but I am glad I stuck with it. As with many shows, it takes the cast (and the writers) a while to find the characters and settle in, but once they do, it’s largely fun and still also manages to have a strong emotional core.