Not Just Another Medieval Soap Opera: 'Camelot: The Complete First Season'

This series is unabashedly erotic, and the sexual tensions and betrayals in Arthur’s court eventually threaten the king’s moral authority.


Director: Ciaran Donnelly, Jeremy Podewsa
Cast: Joseph Fiennes, Jamie Campbell Bower, Eva Green
Distributor: Anchor Bay
Rated: Not Rated
Year: 2011
Release date: 2011-10-13

In a famous exchange between J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, the two writers discussed the nature of myth:

Lewis: Myths are lies and therefore worthless, even though lies breathed through silver.

Tolkien: No, they’re not lies… there are transcendent truths that are beyond us… about beauty, truth, and honor that man knows exist but cannot be seen. It is only through the language of myth that we can speak of these truths.

The legend of King Arthur is one of the most enduring myths, and the Starz channel has developed a compelling reinvention of Camelot. A strong cast is led by Joseph Fiennes, who plays Merlin with Machiavellian ferocity. Driven to shape England’s future, Merlin places a promising but feckless young Arthur (Jamie Campbell Bower) on the throne. “A king exists primarily as an idea,” Merlin tells Arthur.

Arthur’s half-sister Morgan, played with scorching intensity by Eva Green, is an erotic sorceress who also has a legitimate claim to the throne. Starz’s Camelot is a dark retelling of the Arthurian myth, as Morgan descends into the occult to strive against Merlin’s “boy king”.

The series inverts the standard Camelot love triangle. The highborn Guinevere is engaged to Leontes, a loyal knight in Arthur’s court. When Arthur and Guinevere betray Leontes on his wedding day, a seed is planted for future discord and strife.

Seduction is a major theme throughout Camelot. The king is tempted by the beautiful Guinevere. Morgan is seduced by power and is willing to channel dark forces to attain it. Merlin is distracted by Arthur’s mother, the widow Queen Igraine. The series is unabashedly erotic, and the sexual tensions and betrayals in Arthur’s court eventually threaten the king’s moral authority.

Yet the series aims for something higher than just another medieval soap opera. Arthur attempts to establish a rudimentary system of justice in a lawless land. Campbell gives a clever turn as the golden boy Arthur, a young king who grows in stature as the series progresses. In the first few episodes it seems that Morgan will eat Arthur alive, yet he matures before our eyes. Campbell’s performance is subtle and underplayed as he takes a backseat to the fiery theatrics of Fiennes and Green. By episode ten we sense a core of steel in Arthur that we didn’t notice before.

The first half of Season One is exceptionally strong. In one brilliant episode, “Lady of the Lake” (spoilers ahead), Merlin commissions a renowned smith to forge Excalibur. When the smith insists on delivering it personally to the king, Merlin foresees that he means to assassinate Arthur. Merlin kills the smith, but the smith’s daughter escapes with the sword.

As the girl flees in a canoe across a lake, Merlin casts a spell that slowly turns the water to ice. The girl panics and topples out of the boat. As she goes under, her sword arm is trapped in ice as she drowns beneath the frozen lake. Her frozen arm remains upright as it holds Excalibur, eerily gleaming in the sun.

When Merlin returns to Camelot, Arthur’s men ask about the origins of the sword. The guilt-stricken wizard replies:

I rode many miles, till I came to a lake. Everywhere there was a mist and I had to stop. Then from out of the gloom a woman called to me… like a siren. From within the lake she stretched out her arm, holding this sword, clutching it. I took the blade and thanked her. She smiled and slipped back into the water, saying, 'This is the sword of King Arthur…Excalibur'.

The episode is beautifully done, a masterpiece of storytelling that blends magic with gritty realism. It embraces what Tolkien meant -- that myth expresses a higher truth that cannot be conveyed in any other way.

There are a few problems with Camelot. In the season finalé, “The Battle of Bardon Pass”, Arthur’s forces meet Morgan’s rebel army in the field. What should be a major climax falls surprisingly flat. The battle scene is inexplicably small-scale, featuring a few extras dressed in medieval garb. They attack Arthur’s knights in hand-to-hand combat around a small cottage. Perhaps budgetary constraints ruled the day, but England’s future is supposedly at stake here. An epic battle scene was needed, or at least hinted at.

Starz just recently cancelled the series and it appears that funding was pulled from the Camelot season finalé and spent elsewhere. The show had the misfortune of competing against HBO’s remarkable Game of Thrones, so the sword and sorcery market was fragmented this past season.

Nevertheless, Camelot is one of the best series of the last few years and never received the attention that it deserved. The ten-episode set of Season One is beautifully shot and scored. DVD extras include behind-the-scenes footage and cast interviews.


Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.