What is the Narrative Need for Secrets? Thoughts on Merlin

For Arthur to find out about Merlin's magic, I think, again, it has to happen in a way that suggests that Arthur can think for himself. And I think, by accident, and without Merlin knowing, I think Arthur has to witness something or just have something click. So that he knows before Merlin knows that he knows. So that there's a time period where Arthur has to decide what to do.
--Bradley James (Arthur)
This is an absolutely brilliant idea! So why didn't it happen?

I only started watching Merlin, and generally, speaking, I like it. However, about the 2nd or 3rd disc of Season 1, I began to experience deja vu. So I did some research. I'm not sure that gratified is the word to use--it is terrible to be proved right when the right is so utterly disappointing:

Merlin was influenced/inspired by Smallville.

Which means that for no particularly good reason--except the inability of the writers and the mistaken belief that lack of knowledge pushes a narrative forward--the main characters will endlessly circle each other and the main issue for season after season after season.

The issue of "the characters must keep information hidden!" is similar to the problem of "the audience mustn't find out the identity of the big bad antagonist!" Both suffer from the insistence that the SECRET is of so much worth in its own right that revealing it will cause the narrative arc to fall to the ground. I suppose this is true when dealing with pedestrian writing. But it is far from the truth when the writing is strong.

Merlin using magic in Season 1 to help Arthur: how much
more interesting if Arthur guessed the source of his help,
yet decided not to confront Merlin until he understood
Merlin's intentions better. And how much more intelligent!
Revealing the secret early on can propel a narrative forward, producing interesting conflict and profound character development. Elias as a BIG BAD in Person of Interest (revealed a third of the way through Season 1) became far more interesting than anything that ever happened surrounding The Mentalist's Red John. And Sherlock's knowledge of his father's illegal acts re: getting Sherlock reinstated as a consultant to the NYPD solidifies Joan and Sherlock's knowledge of Morland's character.

There is an intelligent reason why Stoker's Dracula moved literally center-stage when the book became a play (and then a movie). In the book, he can hover in the wings, scaring the snot out of readers (Jonathan Harker's diary is some of the scariest stuff I've ever read--the rest of the book isn't so much). But in the play, he had to become the main character.

As Stephen King explains cogently in one of his non-fiction tomes, saving the scary big bad monster for the end works in novels because the audience can always imagine something darker and more troubling than what the text states. But in a movie (or television show), the monster that jumps out of the closet will inevitably be kind of ridiculous since it will never live up to the build-up. (Buffy's Season 5 episode "Fear Itself" plays cleverly on this inevitability.)

Likewise, the long-held secret becomes more and more pointless the longer it is held. In the excellent commentary for Finding Nemo, the writer explains why he removed the flashbacks. The secret of how Nemo's fin got damaged was never going to live up to the hour-long waiting period. Better to simply stick the information in the prologue.

A little tension in the friendship works well--as it does in 
Season 1 when Merlin's willingness to argue intrigues
Arthur as much as it irritates him; he was clearly bored 
out of his skull before Merlin came along.
Additionally problematic, characters who don't guess the narrative's secret become dumber and dumber for not tumbling to the obvious. How much more interesting (and smart) would it be for Arthur to have guessed Merlin's secret in Season 1. He could exercise a kind of deliberate not-knowing for another season, finally confronting Merlin with it in the 3rd. Consider how much further that would push the friendship and eventually solidify it. Consider the problems that could arise that both Merlin and Arthur would now be forced to handle separately, together, or at cross-purposes ("Why can't you . . .?" "This time you shouldn't . . ."). Consider how many Smallville-like pieces of dialog it would avoid. Consider how grateful the viewer would subsequently be.

Handling problems/secrets is always more interesting, narratively-speaking, than putting them off.

1 comment:

FreeLiveFree said...

Two comic book examples: Fables and Planetary. Both books revealed one of the major mysteries about less than halfway through their run. Planetary revealed who was running the organization Planetary in the twelfth issue. In this case, I think most people had guessed, but it wasn't really a disappointment either. After a couple of years, Fables revealed who the Big Bad was who had driven all the characters from fairy tales out of their worlds into ours. Interestingly, the writer had to change which fairy tale character it was for real world reasons.

Both series then spent the rest of their runs dealing with the ramifications of the revelation. This is a good thing, since it would take about three seconds of reading online to find spoilers. Some people have said that their interest in Fables waned after the reveal (and other story lines being wound up.) They still enjoyed the comic, but they weren't holding their breath to read the newest issue. It's probably fear of this that keeps creators from just doing the reveal, but that can be even more problematic.