some meandering bbc merlin thoughts that got too long for tags on this gifset.
normal disclaimers apply, which, given that i’m evaluating media, means that these are just my own thoughts and nobody else need agree with them; i don’t expect all of us to have the exact same impressions of tv shows. :)
now, without further ado:
i started to type a novel in the tags of that gifset, but it got too long, so i’m moving it over to an actual post. and what i wanted to say there is this: my thing about arthur isn’t that his story was badly written. it’s that it was incomplete.
it’s probably more common for folks to assign responsibility to the writing, and that’s totally fine; i definitely get it - there are places in this show where i think things could have been handled better as well. (i did write sixteen pages about how poorly executed the finale was, after all.) but for my own part, i personally don’t think most of the story was badly written. i think it was unfinished.
and what i mean by that is that i sincerely think that almost everything bbc merlin did could have been pulled together in a meaningful way after 5.11, and that if this had happened, then we would be evaluating the previous seasons differently, because things that seemed to not fit or be nonsensical or not be given enough attention would have been pursued all the way through to their natural conclusions.
i’m not sure if it’s because i watched the show so late, or because i watched it in a spoiler-phobic bubble isolated from fandom input, but my own assessment of this show seems to exist in kind of a weird limbo-place on the spectrum of fandom opinions, because i don’t like how it ended, but i also don’t dislike the writing, up to the point of the finale. are there things that could have been improved, or quibbles i have? definitely. i can list them for you. but overall? i still believed in the story at the 5.11 mark. there were things i sometimes thought ‘oh, i’m not sure about this,’ but i always gave the show the benefit of the doubt, because i truly did feel that things were going somewhere. anything the show did that gave me pause wasn’t something that couldn’t eventually have been made meaningful, if the show had actually...been finished.*
(*elyan’s death excepted. that’s one of the things on my list, and i think it might be the only thing besides the finale that doesn’t fall under the criteria i’ll discuss below. it was a bad decision, flat-out, and could not have been improved by finishing the story.)
so for example, morgana. if i were going to critique her development, yeah, i’d say that we don’t get enough of her internal conflict; she goes from the voice of moral authority to (apparently) delighting in wickedness very quickly, offscreen, and the constant smirking doesn’t show us what we know must be true - that she hasn’t become like this because she enjoys it; that she is wounded and her rage at arthur, gwen, merlin et al comes from a very real place of pain.
but, as i said above - even though her development was something i recognized as questionable while i was watching, it didn’t make me too nervous, because i really trusted that the story was eventually and slowly taking us to the place it needed to go. you could see her conflict, sometimes, in her confrontations with arthur, and that conflict finally took center stage in 5.09, when mordred confronted her and appealed to her humanity. they were getting there.
and evaluating her development solely from what we ended up getting, i agree: now the writing just looks Bad. but it wouldn’t have been bad, if it had been finished. i would have completely believed morgana closing herself off from regret/sadness/compassion/any feelings at all for her former friends; it would have been okay for her to be so smirky, cold, etc; because it wouldn’t have been the endpoint for her arc, but rather a front to protect herself from the true conflict she felt. we would have gotten more than that. the story would have taken her farther than that. but the story was incomplete, and so everything that came before it just looks like a mess that ran off a cliff.
this is how i feel about almost all of the “questionable” writing things on this show. it’s not that they were ‘bad’ decisions in and of themselves, but they look that way in the rearview mirror because they never had the chance to develop into what they were supposed to be.
take arthur, for another example. i honestly don’t have a problem with his arc in S4 and S5. i completely believe what a horrible and unadmirable mess he is for most of S4. i believe that he would absolutely revert to thinking about “what would my father do” as soon as the realities of kingship are thrust upon him. and i love how in S5 he’s moved past that and IS admirable in so many other ways, but then we start once again addressing the central conflict, which is that he’s still oppressing part of his population, and he starts to hit roadblocks again. 5.05 and 5.11 are the crisis points there, and honestly, i didn’t have a problem with how they unfolded (i mean, i did, but not in the sense of ‘this is bad writing and i hate it.’ rather in the sense of ‘this is fucking painful but i believe it’).
the problem for me was never that it took arthur too long to accept magic or that he backslid or anything like that, because quite frankly i found all of that to be believable, given the circumstances. the problem was that the show ended before he was ever allowed to progress past that. he never atoned for anything he did. he, like morgana, was never allowed to go where he was meant to go, because the show stopped before it was over. if he had, all of his previous missteps wouldn’t have felt so much like ‘bad writing,’ they would have just been natural steps on his long journey.
same thing goes for gwen. do i have a problem with her being sidelined towards the end of the show? abso-fucking-LUTELY. that’s on my list. did her relationship with morgana deserve a resolution? YES. but it still could have happened! if there had been more time, the show could have dealt with that. gwen’s enchantment by morgana could have meant something, could have prompted something bigger; gwen could have taken the reins and started pushing arthur, who has entrenched himself into old ways, to start thinking from a place of compassion, even though it’s risky and it scares her. or she could have broken with arthur’s decisions completely and made a move of her own. if they had been given the time, nothing that happened to gwen prior to 5.11 precluded her character from going somewhere important.
and merlin - merlin could have gotten what he deserved, which is a resolution to the question he’s been struggling with since literally day one: how do i justify serving a regime that oppresses me? how do i reconcile my responsibility to my people (and MYSELF) with an externally-imposed responsibility to protect arthur?
merlin never settles on an answer to that question. or rather, the answer he’s given is that he doesn’t need to be conflicted in the first place; protecting arthur was the right thing to do (even though it ultimately achieves nothing).
merlin deserved to have a chance to work out the answer to that question for himself, rather than having his core dilemma wiped aside. and, much like my opinion on everyone else’s arcs, i don’t think the writing on this show ever took merlin to a place where this problem couldn’t be addressed. i don’t find merlin’s arc questionable; i am fully convinced by the hole he’s dug for himself by 5.11. merlin’s descent into single-minded preservation of arthur’s life at the expense of his own welfare/moral compass is absolutely tragic, yet also absolutely believable, to me - merlin’s been told all along that saving arthur is the only way to save his people, and now he’s been presented with so much evidence to the contrary - and yet he doesn’t want to admit that it’s all been for nothing - it’s honestly…i honestly actually think it’s spectacularly crafted. that scene with finna in 5.10 is absolutely the most devastating thing i think i’ve ever witnessed on this show - when merlin’s on the verge of passing out and he murmurs, ‘it won’t always be like this. things will be better.’ and you can see he’s just telling himself a lie, over and over again, trying to believe. and then when he says ‘running…from arthur?’ because he knows, he knows it’s true that arthur is the real threat, arthur is the one with the sword at all their throats, but merlin has come to care about him so much -
truly, they hit a point there that was just - fucking amazing. that was the moment. that, leading into 5.11, was the axis point for merlin’s unavoidable moral crisis, and there was so much potential there and so many places for it to go, but then the show just ended. conflicts wiped away. no wrongs ever righted. merlin never comes into his own. he never finds his feet.
but he could have.
so again. what i’m saying here is that for me, for my particular experience with this show, i actually don’t dislike the writing, up until the very finale. i think the writing actually brought us to a place that was fairly exploding with possibility. but then the show just stopped, and that’s why it’s so easy to find places to critique the previous seasons, because of course it all looks poorly constructed now. it isn’t finished.
- a series with two one-shots where merlin wanders near death after the rockfall in 4.06 and aithusa finds and helps heal him while Arthur searches. After, Arthur brings a mostly healed Merlin back to Gaius and thinks about magic.
- an interesting diverge where Gwaine mildly suffers from the effects of touching aconite laced food from Merlin in 4.06 ! Featuring Gaius as court physician obviously, and Leon as big brother knight
- lighthearted, the knights chat abt Merlin having magic, which is not something Arthur or even Merlin know (or know that they know) about
- Merlin enters the room of a veteran knight, accidently triggering an aggressive ptsd reaction where he is hurt. Arthur finds him quick enough to subdue the knight and Merlin is taken to Gaius to heal
- Set after 5.09 where Merlin is a bit miffed abt Arthur leaving him (as he SHOULD BE) and so takes his time in going back to camelot, greeting a relieved Gaius and knights when he gets back and an unsure arthur
- a long single chapter. Arthur wants to teach Merlin to defend himself after he’s picked out by a visiting lord. Merlin is less than impressed and points out servants cannot defend themselves no matter the problem. Slowly, Arthur finds ways to brings peasants’ abilities up, such as speaking out and defending oneself. Merlin is impressed, but then Arthur asks if he knows of any other injustices in the land. Leading to a very good and ambiguous ending:
Merlin went still, his face impassive as he watched Arthur. "What?"
"If you ever see something like this again – if you see an injustice against people in Camelot, if you see my people suffering, and I don't even realize it – will you tell me? Please?"
Merlin turned strangely pale. [...]
"You want me to swear to tell you if I see injustices in Camelot?" he repeated. "Injustices against certain people, that you might not even realize exist?" And to Arthur's shock, Merlin's voice trembled just a bit.
"Yes," he confirmed, watching his servant closely. [...]
But Merlin's face held no amusement. It held trepidation and hope and fear, and Arthur had no idea why.
But after a minute passed in silence, Merlin nodded. "I give you my word," he said, his voice little more than a whisper. "I swear I will tell you the truth of injustices in Camelot."
Then, inexplicably, he bowed. "Excuse me," he mumbled, and he fled from the room.
To his surprise, he found Merlin outside the door. Merlin, who had never knocked before entering in his life, stood pale and shaking with a terrified look on his face.
"Can I come in?" he asked quietly. [...]
"Of course," he agreed, ushering him into the room. "What's going on? Did something happen?"
Merlin shook his head. "No, nothing like that. I just…" he paused, then rubbed a hand over his eyes.
Was he crying? Arthur half wondered if he was drunk, but he hadn't carried the scent of alcohol when he'd entered the room.
Merlin dropped his hand, then took a shuddering breath.
"I made you a promise earlier tonight. I came to keep that promise."
Hey! Loving the Merlin takes on ur blog, and I wanted to ask—what are your opinions on Morgana? Haven’t seen a lot of talk abt her. I loved her, esp in season 1, which is also my fav season cuz after that I feel like things started to make less and less sense, lmao. I understand her descent into villainy (mostly, but why does she start to hate Gwen so quickly? feel like that could’ve been handled better) but I would’ve loved to see some solidarity between her and merlin!!!!!
hi there! :D
so, i LOVE morgana. most of what i’ve said about her has been in the tags of gifsets that are now scattered haphazardly around my blog; i don’t think there are larger pieces yet besides my finale round-up (urgh lol), and most of that is just a function of time - i can’t possibly write expansive tracts of meta about every single merlin thing i love, because i love the whole show; i’d never leave my computer again. i generally sit down to write long essays about whatever grabs my mind at a particular moment, even though there are a bazillion other things out there i love just as much. XD
but with morgana, i also feel like part of the reason i haven’t written much about her is because up until three and a half weeks ago (....oh my god, was it THREE AND A HALF WEEKs??? IT FEELS LIKE A YEAR) i hadn’t even finished the series yet, and the whole time i was watching this show i was sort of...waiting to see whether they would finally tie her arc together. i didn’t feel like i could say too much about what was happening with her, because my evaluation of her arc was going to depend on where the writers finally chose to take it and whether they brought it to the place i thought it needed to go.
and...they didn’t, obviously, which is what i sort of suspected would happen, though i was trying to give them the benefit of the doubt all the way up until the end, because i don’t believe they ever wrote themselves into a corner with her. there were things they could have handled with more depth, definitely, but i do not believe that they ever dug themselves into a hole they couldn’t climb out of.
i. what happened to you, morgana
essentially my opinion (just mine; nobody else is obligated to share it) of morgana is this: that the series ended before her arc was over.
to me, season 5 was the nadir in our characters’ journeys. they had reached their lowest point, their...“darkest hour,” to quote the show itself. and in many familiar storytelling formats (the ones that have the most in common with bbc merlin, at least), we take our characters to a moment where they hit rock bottom, where everything is going wrong and things seem hopeless, and then we light a spark under their butts that starts the process where they fight their way out of it. the nadir isn’t the endpoint of the curve; it’s the point where characters start climbing their long, slow way out of the pit. it’s what they have to overcome in order to earn their eventual triumphant ending.
to me, season 5 was that nadir, for morgana and everyone else. i never would have imagined season 5 to be the final season of the show, if i hadn’t known it was beforehand. i would have read season 5 as the show’s ‘empire strikes back’ moment. the episode that ends with our team losing, but with a whole other episode remaining where they can fight to Make It Right.
i view merlin bbc as tantamount to a cancelled tv show, to be honest. i know that’s not necessarily what happened (though it does feel pretty weird that they officially announced S5 would be the final season only four weeks before the finale was about to air?? very bizarre), but regardless of the actual behind-the-scenes-whatever, the fact of the matter is that for me, the series doesn’t end. it stops. and those two things are not the same.
this is particularly relevant to morgana because, as you said, there are aspects of her character arc that weren’t handled as deftly as they could have been, but if the show had brought morgana’s arc to the place where it felt like they were going in 5.09, they could have rescued so much of what came before.
to get into more detail -
i think the biggest issue with morgana’s arc for me isn’t so much what she does, it’s what we’re not shown as she does it.
i fully believe that morgana would eventually start working to ensure uther’s downfall. (obviously. she’s been presented as the voice of moral authority on this show since episode one, and there’s no reason to believe that she wouldn’t ultimately start rebelling against the king’s oppressive policies.) i believe that she would reject arthur, eventually. and i believe that she would reject gwen, too. but i don’t believe the show illustrates enough how painful this would be for her, or how conflicted it would make her feel.
and again, as i said, there are my own personal opinions, couched in...some personal experience with certain kinds of family conflict - but i do understand where morgana’s bitterness toward arthur and gwen comes from. arthur, for all that he’s “a better man than [his] father,” never fully breaks with uther the way morgana does. he has his own little rebellions, yes, but ultimately he always falls in line. he tolerates his father’s actions even if he doesn’t necessarily agree with them, and he continues to support uther even after uther is revealed to have lied about being morgana’s illegitimate father. and because of this tacit acceptance of uther’s poor behavior, arthur reaps benefits and privileges galore. morgana is cast out with nothing, whereas arthur, who didn’t even take a stand for justice, wants for nothing. arthur is sitting pretty on the throne of camelot because he continued to bestow his honor and respect upon a man who deserved neither of those things, because he chose the villain of the series over his sister, even knowing what uther did to her. and that’s gutting, for her. he betrayed her.
(and there are things to be said on arthur’s end of this, too, of course - morgana doesn’t ever confide in him; she doesn’t come to him for help or give him a chance to even be informed about what happened to her before she jumps into invading camelot and dethroning uther - so for arthur, her sudden turnaround comes as a total shock, and HE feels betrayed, like he has no choice but to fight her - i mean, it’s just a big mess.)
but i understand why she hates him. he continues to stand with a man who did demonstrable evil, despite the harm that was specifically done to morgana herself. and by shutting up and letting atrocities be committed in front of him, arthur escapes the harm that morgana suffers for speaking up. i understand why morgana is so bitter about it.
and gwen is a very similar situation - from morgana’s point of view, gwen is playing the arthur to arthur’s uther. gwen sides with arthur over morgana, despite knowing full well that arthur’s policies harm people with magic. gwen abandons morgana for her love interest, and for morgana that’s just like - “why would you do that? i was your friend before he ever cared about you, i loved you before he ever did - don’t you see the evil he’s perpetuating? don’t you care what he does to people like me?”
that’s why morgana tells merlin, “don’t think i don’t understand loyalty just because i’ve got no one left to be loyal to.” she feels like everybody who supposedly cared for her ultimately dumped her because her situation interfered with their comfortable, morally uncomplicated lives. they weren’t willing to acknowledge what was done to her, and they stuck by the man responsible for it, and it seems incomprehensible to her, that they would make that choice, when his misdeeds are known and out in the open. i can’t blame her for wanting to raze the city to the ground.
while i believe that all these things are completely plausible, i don’t believe that the series shows us appropriately how these things would be tearing morgana apart inside, underneath the rage and the armored front of ‘you brought this on yourself, so burn in hell, i don’t care.’
there are moments where the show gets it right. when morgana wakes up after uther dies and says that she felt his pain - it’s not presented as gloating; she’s - almost confused. uncertain. like she doesn’t know what she feels. when she confronts arthur at the end of season 4 (i thought we were friends/as did i) there’s real pain under the surface there. when they confront each other at the beginning of season 5, too (what happened to you, morgana/i grew up) - you can feel the undercurrent of something deeper there, too. and that moment with mordred in 5.09, when he appeals to her humanity (i hope one day you will find the love and compassion which used to fill your heart) - that is an amazing scene. the show absolutely nails that moment. morgana hesitates. you can see the grief and the - the conflict written all over her face. it’s perfect. it’s exactly the turn i would have expected morgana’s arc to be taking, at that time in the series.
but then the show just stopped. and without taking morgana’s arc further - without following it through all the way to its conclusion - there’s never any resolution to all the ways the show dropped the ball earlier. all the moments where morgana appears to be just...evil-smirking her way through her revenge, the way she suddenly seems to have no feelings for gwen whatsoever, the utterly lost opportunity that was the “enchanted gwen” arc (which could have been such a powerful exploration of their broken relationship) - all those could have eventually made sense and fit into a narrative where morgana’s conflicted feelings finally begin to escape the stranglehold in which she has them choked, where we start to see the pain of these destroyed relationships rising to the surface.
i can understand how morgana would just - shut off her feelings about these people. she had to close her heart to them - the alternative would have been too painful. but underneath - we know it wouldn’t be that easy. we know it eats at her. and it’s just - so incredibly frustrating that the series was starting to go there - the moment with mordred in 5.09 feels like the beginning of morgana’s big crisis of faith - and then the show just Stops.
so the thing about morgana for me is that, like you said, the show does drop the ball on illustrating her quick descent into evil-villain territory, and they especially drop the ball on her break with gwen, but all of it could have been salvaged, if they had committed to following her arc all the way through to its conclusion. instead they chose to kill her (and everybody else, lol) just as her deep-rooted internal conflicts were finally starting to rise to the surface.
ii. we can find another way/there is no other way (aka the merlin problem)
i’ll say right up front that anything i say here is, as always, just my personal interpretation of things. this is not necessarily the One True Way this show is meant to be understood; it’s just my own preferred read.
i have definitely seen some things in my brief foray into internet fandom that are sort of...piling on merlin for abandoning morgana or “gaslighting” her, most of which seem to be centered around the beginning of episode 2.03, which is weird to me, because the whole point of that episode is that merlin does help morgana, in the end - he’s the one who doesn’t gaslight her. he defies gaius and takes her to the druids, specifically so they can tell her yes, she does have magic. he tries to distract the attacking knights in order to enable morgana to escape with the druids permanently, like she wants. and when the attempt fails, and they’re brought back to camelot, he comes to morgana’s chambers specifically to check on her and to assure her that he won’t reveal her secret to anyone, and she’s grateful for this - she thanks him, she’s appreciative of everything he did for her, she feels comforted to know the truth and to know that someone else knows it, too. this episode ends with their relationship at a high point - it’s overwhelmingly positive, and it doesn’t take a nosedive until 1.12, when morgana gets in way over her head and merlin thinks she’s trying to murder them all. (and even in that episode, it’s worth it to note, merlin is still covering for her magic in front of arthur, giving her chances.)
(and obviously also, of course, the end of that particular situation gets Real Bad Real Fast, which could be a whole post in and of itself, so let’s stay focused on the earlier eps, for now.)
the criticism of merlin in those earlier episodes seems to stem solely from the fact that he doesn’t out himself to morgana, which i can understand - i mean, i like the idea of a ‘merlin+morgana secret magic squad’ AU as much as anyone - but i’ll be honest and say that nowadays, i’m not quite as willing to condemn him for it as i might have been on my first viewing.
i’m not willing to condemn him for it at all, actually.
(and again - as i said, these are my own opinions! everybody else is welcome to have different opinions! we all engage with media differently, and there isn’t a right or wrong way to approach this situation, just whichever way feels best to you.)
so, for me, i’m not interested anymore in telling merlin that he should have revealed himself to anyone, at that point in the story. it would be different if he had been like - continuing to tell morgana ‘oh, no, you don’t have magic, don’t be crazy,’ or if he had been pretending to hate magic like everyone else so he could blend in, but he doesn’t do that, at the end of the episode. he sends her to the druids. he chases after her when he realizes she's in danger. he openly acknowledges her magic, he supports her in having it, he makes sure she knows she has nothing to fear from him. by the end of 2.03, he’s gone to great lengths to help her; he’s already made certain that she knows he’s on her side and that she can trust him. she clearly knows that he accepts her and that he supports her - those are his responsibilities to her as a fellow human and as a friend, and those are exactly the responsibilities he makes sure to fulfill. she knows her secret is safe with him.
now - whether or not merlin feels safe enough to out himself, after making sure morgana knows he accepts and supports her, is his own business.
i think there are a number of reasons why it wouldn’t be fair for me to criticize merlin for continuing to conceal his secret, the first of which is something i already mentioned in another piece - that a marginalized person’s first responsibility is to their own safety, when forced into hiding under oppressive social conditions. merlin isn’t obligated to reveal himself for anybody. he’s not obligated to put himself in danger out of some kind of...responsibility to the community. (not at this point, anyway. it gets more complicated later, as merlin becomes more powerful, which i also address in that other piece, but that’s all in the future for him and not relevant at this moment.)
i think it would be easy for me to forget that merlin isn’t safe, in the early seasons. we’re so used to thinking of merlin as ‘the greatest sorcerer to ever walk the earth,’ because that’s what we keep being told he’s going to become, but again, that’s all so far in the future for him. merlin in the early seasons can do some things with his abilities, but not consistently, and not to the level where we can reasonably expect him to resist the entirety of camelot’s army, if they were to come for him. merlin is in real danger, and he’s not evil for being unwilling to share a secret about himself that would ensure his death, if it somehow got back to the wrong people.
second - i don’t think it would be fair for me to discount merlin’s personal history, either. merlin’s life didn’t start in camelot, and he hasn’t even been in camelot for all that long, comparatively, by the time we get to S2. season one takes place over a few months, starting in either spring or summer and ending in the fall (after the referenced harvest in 1.10/1.11, but before winter sets in). the weather is nice by time season 2 starts, so we can probably assume that S2 takes place once winter has passed (although, it’s technically possible that S2 takes place over the same autumn as S1, I guess...but it’s not made clear to us, timeline-wise.) either way, we just really have to remember that merlin’s stay in camelot by the time we reach 2.03 is still this blip compared to the rest of his life.
it would be very easy for me to say that merlin should have told morgana, that there’s no way she would ever have given him up - and i probably would have said that very thing, after the first time i watched the show - but like - nowadays, i really think i have to step back from that certainty and be a little more gentle. we say we “know” that morgana wouldn’t have willingly betrayed merlin’s secret at that point, and sure, i agree, that’s probably true - but does merlin know that?
of course not!
i think he hopes that. i think he would dearly like to believe that. i also think merlin grew up in a situation where he couldn’t fully trust even the people he’d known all his life, with two (vital!!!) exceptions, and he has been in camelot with a bunch of brand-new people for less than a year, and he can’t be certain of them, however much he wants to be. (and that’s not even considering the possibility of accidental betrayals, or coerced ones - remember, the witchfinder shows up in S2 also, as just one example.)
remember that exchange merlin has with freya, later this season?
“you can’t always trust people.”
“i know. that’s why i left home.”
merlin is not used to showing himself to people. he has been taught all his life to NEVER, EVER show himself to anybody. everyone in camelot who finds out about his magic finds out either by accident (like gaius or lancelot), or necessity (like freya and gilli - though gilli is interesting, because i think merlin’s decisions there are motivated precisely by the choices he didn’t make with morgana - which i’ll go into more later).
in twenty-odd years, merlin has only ever told one person about his magic. and even that generous assumption requires a little bit of inferencing for us to determine, though i think it’s likely enough, if not confirmable.
(i am, in case it’s unclear, referencing 1.10, when merlin is explaining to will why hunith sent him away to camelot: “when she found out you knew - she was so angry.” that, to me, has always been a signifier that merlin told will about his magic, as opposed to will finding out by coincidence. i know there are a lot of headcanons floating around out there about various...accidental situations that may have occurred which forced merlin to reveal his magic in front of will, and those are all obviously totally fun to play with, but after hearing this particular line - i never understood that to be the case, to be honest. we’ve seen hunith enough to have a pretty solid understanding of her character. she and merlin are always easy and gentle together, she’s so kind and calm and thoughtful - i can’t imagine that she wouldn’t have understood, if there had been some kind of accident that forced merlin’s hand. she’d be just as afraid for his future safety, of course, and she would have wished he’d told her right away, but she wouldn’t have been “so angry.”
...she might, however, have been “so angry” if she’d found out that merlin had specifically undermined every sacrifice she’d ever made to keep him safe/ignored every single one of her warnings/rejected every cautious thing she’d been telling him for his entire life and TOLD somebody about his magic when it wasn’t remotely necessary. that’s the only scenario i can imagine that would prompt merlin to say “she was SO angry” in that half-awed, half-intimidated tone, with that little headshake, like it was such a singular event, like it’s still formidable for him to remember.)
so anyway, that said - it’s too easy for me to say ‘he should have told morgana/gwaine/gwen etc; they would never have turned on him,’ as if it would have been such a simple thing for him to do, as if there were no dangers associated with their knowledge even if they would never have willingly given him up, as if he was refusing to do it because he didn’t want to, or because his fears were overblown, or because he was foolish for thinking they would ever hate him for his gifts. i think that really minimizes the reality of his struggle, and the danger of his situation. without the pressure of some crisis to force his hand, merlin has only ever willingly revealed himself to one person. that person is dead. that person died specifically ensuring that merlin could stay safe and hidden from the rest of the world, morgana included - merlin’s continued secrecy is a gift that was bought at an impossibly high price, and it’s not simple for him to contemplate squandering it, especially with no guarantee that things will turn out okay.
because there IS no guarantee that things will turn out okay! a lot of the “merlin should have told morgana” online talk centers around the idea that knowing about merlin’s magic would have kept morgana from feeling alone/betrayed, thus preventing her from turning to the “evil” methods she uses later, but again, i don’t think we actually know that at all. solidarity between merlin and morgana would have been a nice thing, definitely; i’d like to see that too, but i don’t think the fact that she and merlin are both magic-users would have guaranteed harmony between them. merlin and gilli are both magic-users, too, and merlin expects this to be enough to convince gilli to “see the light,” but the fact of the matter is that merlin and gilli just have very different ideas about what it means to do the right thing. merlin thinks it means biding his time and waiting for change to come from the top (because he’s been TOLD by greater powers that this is the right course of action, of course; let’s note again that merlin’s situation is extremely complicated) whereas gilli thinks that doing things merlin’s way makes merlin complicit with an unjust regime. gilli says ‘i shouldn’t haven’t to wait for someone else to give me my rights. i’m going to take them myself.’
the fact that merlin and gilli share a bond as magic-users doesn’t protect them from an ideological divide that puts them on different sides of the same struggle. i’m not sure that merlin and morgana wouldn’t have still ended up in the same situation, eventually, if merlin had chosen to out himself to her - but doing so would certainly have made him a thousand times more vulnerable to attack.
third - it’s also important to remember that if we’re going to hold merlin to this rigid ‘he should have told morgana everything/confided in her/trusted her at the expense of possibly his own life despite the fact that she exists at the completely opposite end of a rigid social hierarchy as him and he’s known her for less than a year’ then maybe we ought to raise the bar for morgana, as well. morgana is very clearly shown to trust and appreciate merlin at the end of 2.03, but by 2.11, when alvarr and mordred show up and convince her to steal the crystal of neahtid, she doesn’t hesitate or come to merlin at all, despite the fact that we never see him do anything to lose her trust between then and now. she never asks him for help, even when she’s uncertain about alvarr’s methods, and that leaves merlin in the dark, only privy to confusing images of her sneaking around and acting suspicious. and even with that, merlin doesn’t condemn her for what she does, the same way he doesn’t blame her when she tries to kill uther in 1.12 - he helps arthur retrieve the crystal, but he doesn’t give morgana up. and he doesn’t hold any kind of grudge, either - in the next episode, merlin doesn’t even suspect her, at first - he thinks it must be her magic protecting her; he doesn’t even consider the idea that she has anything to do with the illness, not until kilgharrah tells him.
and even after that, he STILL covers for her in front of arthur, and he gives her a chance to come clean to him - but she doesn’t take it.
i’m not condemning her for that - i get why she would be afraid to admit to such a big mess - she was in way over her head and didn’t know what to do. but if we’re going to cut morgana this much slack and accept her fears as a valid enough reason to block a potential moment of connection, then we have to accept that merlin’s fears were valid, too - morgana’s descent into “villainy” was not something we can pin solely on merlin’s already overburdened shoulders. the end of season 2 was not some kind of one-way failure.
in summary: merlin and morgana were trapped in an impossible situation. they were both victims of the same oppressive regime, and both of them had very real, very dangerous obstacles to letting themselves trust in and reach out to others, and i think pitting them against each other while forgetting who the real villain was is unfair to them both.
also, a brief postscript: circling back to the first section of this piece, where i talked about how season 5 just stopped before anyone’s arc was finished - merlin and morgana could have had so much more, if we’d gotten another season. their relationship is really in the pits, by season 5, but there is this deleted scene where arthur is reflecting on what happened to morgana and blaming himself, and merlin says arthur shouldn’t take the blame, that “there were others better placed to help morgana” (implicating, of course, himself) and that was SUCH a jumping off point for their story to have continued. merlin wanted to do better by her. he blamed himself for what happened to her. and morgana, for her part, was starting to question herself, as we saw during her confrontation with mordred in 5.09.
there were places for this relationship to go. it wasn’t a lost cause. but the writers decided that it made more sense to just...eliminate everybody at the exact moment when things were poised to possibly change.
the story wasn’t over at the end of season 5. but the show was, and i am always going to regret those many lost opportunities.