One Hypable staff member shares their thoughts on the Merlin finale, examining the emotional conclusion of the Merlin and Arthur relationship and why BBC got it exactly right.
I feel like Merlin should have been prefaced with, “This is not a love story. This is a story about love,” 500 Days of Summer-style.
I never shipped Merthur. I fell for the Arthur/Gwen pairing the first time Arthur said “Guine-vere” in that way that he did, and I was happy to see them finally overcome the obstacles and get married. But romance was never really what Merlin was about, and I was always more keen on the medieval world, the complicated family ties, the camaraderie of the knights, and the downfall of Morgana. Merlin and Arthur’s friendship was great, but I never saw it as more than just another aspect of the show.
But then the finale happened, and I realised that I had been wrong. Because what the show’s send-off ended up being was not the epic, fast-paced battle I had anticipated, but rather a quietly personal, intimate string of scenes between the two main characters, with everyone else mainly sidelined or dispatched of without much fanfare (with the exception of Guinevere, who got a beautiful sendoff as she took the throne of Camelot) – and that was exactly how this story had to end.
Merlin was never about Arthur and Gwen, or Morgana, or the knights. It wasn’t even about Arthur. All of that was important to the story, yes, and to the legend it was based on, but as enjoyable as those elements were, they were not the core of the show. BBC’s Merlin was, above all else, a story about Merlin’s feelings for Arthur: the friendship, the loyalty, the devotion – and yes, the love.
I am not going to psychoanalyse a fictional character and speculate about what Merlin may or may not have been feeling for Arthur at any given time – and anyway, I bet there are probably a lot of fans better suited to that particular task than I am. Let’s just all agree that he was feeling for Arthur in whatever capacity, and that this, ultimately, was what shaped his path and the direction of the show.
Merlin came to Camelot, met Arthur, and despised him. Merlin met the Great Dragon and thought, damn, I have to protect the idiot who hates me. And Merlin came to slowly realise that Arthur not only didn’t hate him, but needed him in his life. He needed his magic, yes, but Arthur never knew about that. From Arthur’s point of view, he just needed Merlin. Their destiny may have been written in stone, but their tentative friendship and grudging affection for each other had to come from themselves – and we watched them build that up for five frustrating seasons.
Alexander Vlahos described the finale as a “platonic love story” between Merlin and Arthur. And that is exactly what it was. The entire show was like a classic “will-they-won’t-they,” except rather than building towards some predictable final scene with loud, swelling music and a formulaic kiss in the rain, Merlin was building towards a far more complex conclusion; one which involved both men accepting the other for nothing less or more than what they were, and acknowledging that there was no one they would rather be with, at the end of all things.
And the final episode saw the culmination of that love story, and it was everything it needed to be and more. If this truly had been a romance, it would have been like the end of Casablanca, The Notebook and Pride and Prejudice all rolled into one – but it wasn’t a romance, it was something far more permanent and all-encompassing than that.
When all else had been stripped away, we were left with Merlin and Arthur. With Arthur dying in Merlin’s arms, looking into Merlin’s eyes, telling him to, “Just hold me.” And instead of goodbye, it was “thank you.” While there was a lot left unsaid between them, and a lot of things Arthur never got to do, he died peacefully in the arms of someone who loved him.
It was Merlin who would be left alone, just as he had always been, and therein lay the true tragedy. But the dragon brought him that small, tiny speck of hope which proved once and for all that Arthur was the only thing which ever truly mattered to Merlin: “This is not the end. Arthur will rise again.”
And so, thousands of years later, Merlin is still at Avalon. He is still waiting for Arthur. “I was born to serve you,” he had told him once, and so it would always be. “Stay with me,” he had begged, but Arthur hadn’t been able to. Instead, Merlin had stayed with Arthur.
This isn’t about shipping. It isn’t about romance and whether or not you see it. And if anyone is rolling their eyes thinking, “god, get over the Merthur already,” you’ve been watching the wrong show. There’s nothing to read into here, there’s no “head canon” or other fandom conjecture. There was only the raw, honest story which the Merlin writers were brave enough to tell exactly as it should be told, and which the actors handled with commendable grace and integrity.
The legend of King Arthur is one of the greatest stories ever told. And Merlin took that story and told it in an even better way. Because it was not just a story of Merlin and Arthur’s friendship, nor of knighthood and chivalry and magic and that romanticised, longed-for golden age of Britain.
This was a story of Merlin and Arthur’s relationship coming full circle. It was a story of their joint destiny, of the fact that even death could not separate them, and of the fact that they would always find each other. And there can be no greater story than that, nor one more worth telling.
Forget Romeo and Juliet. Forget Jack and Rose. Forget Frodo and Sam. Forget Buffy and Angel. Nothing, nothing will ever be as tragically, beautifully heartbreaking as Merlin and Arthur.
“You’re not going to say goodbye,” Merlin told him. “No, no,” Arthur replied. And neither of them ever did.