(*note: Spoilers abound, as this review is based on the first few episodes, available on Starz on Demand*)
Odd how readily invested we are in “Game of Thrones” without even reviewing Starz’ peculiarly parallel fantasy series, “Camelot.” Or is it deserved that we’ve been pretty oblivious? How many factors have come to direct our watchful eyes? Perhaps we are too easily betrothed to the stronger bond we have with HBO, or maybe our longsword-lust has grown flaccid in the wake of a few too many poor adaptations of the Arthurian legend.
Camelot plays on much of the same elements as “Game of Thrones”; the use of sex as a weapon, a medieval setting beset by impending chaos, and resolutions that often come at the point of a stabby piece of steel. Unfortunately, the budget is not, and although “Camelot” doesn’t suffer from a cheap or even fake aesthetic, the variety of sets is just not quite up to par with its rival’s painterly compositions.
While not adhering to all of our most common of preconceived notions of the Arthurian legend, “Camelot” maintains the basic framework with small tweaks that suit a majority of the cast and talents incredibly well. This is neither the strong-palette compositions of the perfectly imperfect 1981 adaption, Excalibur, nor the “historically accurate” Romans and Celts yarn of 2004’s King Arthur with Clive Owen and Keira Knightley.
Britain is ruled by warlords, and with the poisoning of King Uther as the catalyst, Merlin (Joseph Fiennes) finds himself at the crux of British history; install the young Arthur and guide him as the king the people need, or falter and see the country lorded over by the despotic witch, Morgan (Eva Green). The city and castle of Camelot stands perched over a high seaside, but it is in ruin, an abandoned skeletal shell of empty rooms and gray menhirs that wait for the recruitment of the knights not yet arrived (Only notables are Gawain, Kay, and Ector in the first few episodes). *supernerd side note: it’s Suikoden-esque*
It is in the interpretation of both “legend” and “magic” that lay the greatest strength of the series. Magic is not used as a wand-cast decider in “Camelot”, moreso as an influence. It is subtle and rooted in deception and intuition, not the stuff of fireballs and lightning bolts for now. And it comes with a price; as Merlin warns us, he has the strength “not to use it”, and when Morgan summons the arcane powers, she is wracked with pain and brought to death’s door. It is not light vs. dark, but a twisting nether that corrupts. Witness Merlin and Morgan’s power, but be forewarned of the heavy price such power demands. It leaves them wracked with mysterious injuries, and even bouts of borderline insane behaviors.
And although “magic” helps shape the legend of Arthur, it is Merlin’s astute perception of the nature of the people’s belief that makes it possible. By the second episode, Arthur possesses two swords to justify his rule; first, the “Sword of Mars,” a newly-invented blade of Roman antiquity that must be reclaimed from a waterfall’s edge. As a country of peasants and barbarians, the only tradition that goes with the sword is that of oral passing down. How long has it really been there? Who prophesized that it belongs to the true King? Who ensured that only Arthur could pull the sword? The answer is always alluded to as Merlin, who has clearly set these events in motions for tens, if not hundreds, of years. And it is he who contracts the forging of Excalibur, though it is retrieved from a once-legendary bladesmith in a dubious and tragic nature. But again, it is Merlin’s respected and omnipresent word that creates the legend of the Lady in the Lake, and the divinity of the steel. Arthur is not a King yet, so much as he is an idea that the wizard has created, and this idea is steeped in folklore and spirituality that arises from a nation of chaos.
Arthur is born out of necessity, and it is a necessity and direction of purpose that Fiennes revels in as Merlin. He is not an Obi-Wan figure; rather he is quick-tempered and unwilling to let Arthur make all the steps on his own. Full of menace and anger, it’s a subtle shift in the character; you feel that underneath his instruction, Merlin would throw Arthur aside if he felt the boy was not up to the task. His love is for Britain, and how best to create the nation, and not the newly crowned king whose conception he engineered. Dynamically opposed is Morgan, a role that sees Eva Green chewing up and spitting out a certain blonde-haired Queen from another show. She’s damn perfect, alluring and tempting, but not entirely unsympathetic. Her resentment for Uther and the house Pendragon is absolute, but her interactions with her attendant, Vivian, and a matronly nun from across the sea reveal a new female empowerment to the male-dominated tale. Her want of the crown is unshakeable, and though she allows herself to be abused by the warlord King Lot (James Purefoy), and though she abuses her power to the point of near-death, she now leads to her goals, rather than conjuring the easiest solutions.
The most glaring flaw is the depiction of Arthur. That’s not to say he’s altogether played poorly by Jamie Campbell Bower (who I swear looks like Paul Scheer with a wig), but the change in direction from squire to playboy shakes our faith in him. While Arthur is hid, he is coddled by his adopted parents, happy to introduce himself to us in front of a naked blonde in a stolen moment of lust. He responds quickly to his necessary duties, his words his own, but is undermined by pursuing Guinevere, a girl betrothed to his life-saving friend and loyal knight, Leontes.
Cumulatively, it turns Arthur into a tweeny little lovesick whiner, and it makes his character less likeable than even the villains. His step-brother, Kay, is the one who gets him started up the climb to fetch the Sword of Mars, and it is Kay who visits the warrior Gawain and recruits him into service. It’s painful to watch him pine for another man’s bride, especially one as principled and loyal as Leontes. His failure turn away from his emotions highlights his more childish behaviors, and makes the stately speeches and battle cries less believable.
I confess I haven’t read any George R.R. Martin’s books, and my love of the classic The Sword and the Stone, and the John Boorman feature film cause me to be initially more invested in Camelot as a story. But that’s not to say you have to choose between shows; in fact, I caught up with Camelot via Starz on Demand between Sunday’s “Game of Thrones” viewings. Fewer characters allow you to focus on Merlin and Morgan’s chess-like moves, and the absence of child actors might attract you more if you’re given to referring to that other show as “Game of Groans” (to be fair, I enjoy both shows despite their flaws). It’s not nearly as pretty or grand in scale, but it presents an intriguing companionship; where Thrones may seem a bit sluggish, Camelot may be too quick to resolve conflict, particularly with King Lot (and particularly considering Purefoy was killing it, if not stealing the series’ opening episodes).
It’s not “Game of Thrones,” but that’s no reason to get all Higitus Figitus and tuck this one away just yet.