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It's the story of a mysterious dark-haired boy who ran away from home. He reveals himself to have uncommon abilities, but sometimes longs for the safety of normality. Most of his time is spent with a cavalier older warrior type boy, with whom he has a love-hate relationship filled with mutual mocking and various pranks. They even solve supernatural mysteries and fight evil together, even as the boy struggles with his own internal demons and the need to hold onto the secrets that would make him just one more supernatural target.

This is, surprisingly enough, NOT a show called Supernatural. This is Merlin and I think we can all tell a lot about why fans fall for this show even just in this brief description, right? But let's examine a bit more.

I think Merlin really has three core elements that draw in fans and keep us hooked - otherworldly mytharc and adventure, a burgeoning team dynamic with a great cast, and an archetypal pairing.

On a very surface level, fans want an intriguing new world to explore, one with elements that they don't typically find in their own mundane worlds. Whether the world is set in the past or future, on earth or in space, whether it has wild technology or systems of magic, we want someplace where unexpected things will happen and where the characters aren't constrained by the same rules that bind our own lives - whether those are man-made rules or laws if physics or nature. I'll sum this first point up with: "DUDE, THERE ARE TALKING DRAGONS!"

The second thing pulling folks in is the growth of a strong core team within the cast. It's not just about Arthur and Merlin. Gwen is growing and providing new perspectives, Morganna who began the show as a pretty badass individual already is having to confront and manage new fears and temptations. Even Gaius (Merlin's sort of father/uncle-figure) and Uther (Arthur's hardass of a dad) have changed somewhat over time, even if only in how they see the other main characters and themselves. And don't even get me started on the growing cadre of future knights of the damn sexy table or the hot, intense new villains. So, I'll sum this point up by saying: "DUDE, THERE ARE HOTTIES WITH SWORDS!"

Finally, whether you think of them as an actual slash pairing or as friends or something else like brothers, Merlin and Arthur are a true character diad. They are written and acted in ways meant to play them off of each other, revealing new pieces of their character or histories or development to the audience at least if not also to the characters themselves. They are foils of each other, both similar and distinct in profound and complementary ways, and as a set they present us with the archetypal pairing of what I call the Smart and the Strong (or the Brains and the Brawn). I'm not using that terminology to diminish the complexity that I've seen in this archetype in many fandoms. In fact, I think that's really the thing that gets and keeps us hooked. This archetypal pair shows up in fandom again and again, going all the way back to the original slash of Star Trek with Kirk and Spock. Think about it - Kirk/Spock, Jack/Daniel, Sheppard/McCay, Dean/Sam, Arthur/Merlin, maybe even the new Watson/Sherlock. And before anyone jumps on me, I'm not suggesting that the fighter in these pairings is dumb or that the thinker in these pairings is weak. I actually think that fans are drawn to these pairings because good writers, both on the show and in fandom, show not only how they play off of each others' more obvious strengths but also how multidimensional they are - like how Arthur, while at times oblivious, is actually an incredible diplomat and very skilled at navigating the politics of the royal court, or how Merlin, who's only now learning his way around a sword, defends himself quite well with the gift no ones supposed to know about.

I also think some of the tensions you see on Merlin are reflected in some of those other shows with these archetypes as well - particularly around the issue of the strongman underestimating his counterpart, often being some mix of patronizing, dismissive, and overprotective - a situation that can lead to a variety of different scenarios, most bad, until the pair can build more mutual respect. I think you can see much of the future dynamic of Arthur and Merlin in the middle seasons of Supernatural or with Kirk and Spock because there is both teasing and respect in the mix since Spock's capabilities and Sam's are known in a way that Merlin's will have to be, eventually, as well.

On a more personal reflection, I think this pair of archetypes resonates with fans for a few reasons, even beyond the fact that we're just used to seeing them. One big one is that the Strong/Smart combo tends to give us at least one person to identify with and one person to lust after. It's the ultimate wish fulfillment of many a geek who has crushed on one of the cool kids. If nothing else, our clever, awkward selves get a chance to hangout with and taste the life of folks who don't get beat up nearly as often and can get laid whenever they want. They bring a little normality into our strange lives (or in some cases a bit of weirdness into our boring lives) and we both love and hate them for it. So, we also enjoy when the character we identify with gets one over on his partner in crime. And I'll sum up this last point with: "DUDE, THE BROMANCE IS EPIC!"

P.S. For any of those who haven't seen the most recent season (Season 3), Arthur is half-naked at some point in basically every episode, so … yeah … DUDE! CATCH UP ALREADY!
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December 2016


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