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Merlin Meta: On Morgana, Merlin, and Class
Gwen 1
(Note: I wrote this after watching 2x11, and it may help to read my review of that episode. I've seen 2x12 since writing this, and I think it's still relevant, though the stakes are now much higher.)

I haven’t tackled class in Merlin very much so far; for me this was a deliberate decision. I don’t think an American is the best choice to analyze the class messages of a largely British show, and I have some personal family baggage related to the English class system. But since no one else (that I’ve seen) has said it so far….

Recently I’ve seen a lot of anger about the development of the Merlin/Morgana relationship on this show, which I well understand. Some have blamed Merlin for not telling her about his own magic, and thereby providing her with an ally that would presumably make her less vulnerable to manipulation by others. I’m a bit uncomfortable about some of the ways I’ve seen this stated, and I’d like to talk about why.

First, let me say I would have loved to see a Morgana-Merlin alliance on this show; I agree with many that it would have provided a nice mixture of collaboration and conflict, furthered both characters in interesting ways, and avoided some of the very problematic plotlines that have resulted from not taking this tack. But the show has also provided us with a reason for why it hasn’t happened: the class divide between Merlin and Morgana.

There are problems with Merlin’s approach to class—it’s wildly inconsistent, it uses race to do class work, it relentlessly pushes an ideal of have-nots working for the interests of the haves—but the show has explicitly and repeatedly signaled that class is important. It’s important that Merlin, Gwen, Gaius, Lancelot, Will, Tom, Freya, and other characters are commoners; it’s important that Arthur, Morgana, Uther, Leon, Morgause, Vivian, and others are noble.

We see this in the setup for the show, and just about every aspect of the Merlin-Arthur relationship. It’s also made repeatedly clear through costume choices. The contrast between those with class privilege and those without it has not historically been a major theme of the Arthurian legends, so this particular interest sets this version apart.

Moreover, the show has repeatedly linked oppression of magic-users to class oppression, by making Uther the leader of the crusade against magic and Arthur and his knights the chief enforcers; the raid on the druids in 2x03 makes this point both dramatically and visually. Their victims, like Merlin, are usually (though not always) lower-class—Forridel’s house looks a lot like Gwen’s—and S2 has made it explicit that monetary rewards have been key to recruiting commoners to the anti-magic cause.

In fact, S2 has noticeably increased the emphasis on class divides (and made them more consistent). Class has provided a major thematic or plot component in most episodes; it’s even been worked in visually in small moments, like in 2x06, when Merlin makes Arthur’s bed while Gaius explains their plan. This is Merlin & Arthur’s moment of greatest connection in that episode, but the camera highlights the fact that one of them is doing manual labor for the other, and in fact used it to create visual space between them.

Why emphasize the class divide? The writers are using it to create new and explore existing tensions in its relationships, for both drama and humor—particularly with Merlin and Arthur. Class is also the entire block to the Gwen/Arthur relationship, a divisive factor between Gwen and Morgana, and increasingly a conflict in the Uther/Gaius bond.

In fact, all the major canon relationships in the show that are not parent-child (or surrogate parent-child) are now cross-class. The near-absence of Morgana/Arthur interaction until recently seems part of this; and Merlin & Gwen’s shared scenes emphasize the alignment of their interests rather than their differences. (The 2x10 scene in which Merlin convinces Gwen to act is less Merlin v. Gwen than Gwen v. herself.)

Moreover, class has always been a key component of Merlin and Morgana’s interactions with each other, one that repeatedly divides them. Merlin’s initial slack-jawed response to her underlined the gap between them; she represented the glamorous upper-class world of the court he was encountering for the first time. His mother reacted with awe to Morgana’s status; and while 1x12 really deserves an entire discussion for its class dynamics it sees Merlin choosing between Morgana’s high-handed actions, supposedly but spuriously on behalf of Gwen, and Gwen’s own ethics. (Guess which he sides with?)

Finally, their costumes underline their respective places in society in every scene they share. Morgana has more clothing than anyone else in the series—mostly luxurious gowns made with fine material, but also fur stoles and her own set of arms and armor. Merlin has two homespun shirts, a couple of jackets, and a kerchief; it’s implied he has to borrow armor.

The show particularly highlights these differences in moments when Merlin sees the similarity between Morgana and himself. In the 1x06 scene in which Merlin realizes Morgana is magical, and therefore like him, she is standing and he is sitting, forced to look up to her. 1x12 she allies with a man who sacrificed Tom’s life and threatened Gwen’s to pursue her personal aims, and prompts Merlin to side with his fellow commoners on the question of how best to deal with Uther.

And in 2x03, in which Merlin does everything he can to help Morgana without revealing his secret, she twice betrays other magic-users who lack her social privilege, rather than using it to persuade Uther of the innocence of those he has rounded up and the druids. In fact, 2x03 ends with Arthur reminding Merlin that he should not speak to Morgana at all.

So the show repeatedly uses class to divide Merlin and Morgana, and to prevent their forming a stronger relationship. In this world, it’s possible that Morgana’s social status would afford her a degree of protection if her magic was revealed (though her tendency to actively plot against Uther complicates that); it’s certain that Merlin’s status would only make things worse for him. The machinery of state is set up to protect people like Morgana; and she has a history of allying with other magical users only to turn on them to preserve Uther’s favor and her status.

Because of this, I think it’s a bit problematic to blame Merlin for not telling Morgana about his own magic. It seems wrong to demand that one character with less social power and privilege put himself at risk to better the circumstances of one with more privilege.

Now, of course it’s more complicated than this, because Merlin also has male privilege, which counts to an enormous degree on this show. We’ve repeatedly seen Morgana disempowered within the show’s narrative structure; moreover, the choice to make Merlin a very powerful wizard and Morgana afraid of her own much weaker powers means we visually see Merlin’s power quite often.

In fact, Merlin has several times acted to protect Morgana in a paternalistic way, rather than taking actions that would empower her to protect herself. But that is also how Morgana has treated lower-class characters—particularly Gwen in 1x12.

And it’s also true that it’s easy to not see or ignore Morgana’s class privilege, despite all the attention the show places on it, if you’re used to not seeing or ignoring your own. (I speak from personal experience here.)

This conflict, for me, goes to the heart of intersectionality—or the attempt of different groups disempowered by existing structures to work together against oppression. I think we must think about such conflicts, and consider their pitfalls when they arise, even in fictional settings. The reality is that such alliances—between feminists and anti-racists, those fighting class oppression and those working for LGBT rights, disability activists and opponents of bigotry toward minority religions, and any number of other combinations—are difficult, and can easily disintegrate. This show gives us a chance to consider how and why.

I’m not saying it’s never fair to criticize Merlin’s actions toward Morgana in the show—far from it. My argument, rather, is that in talking about Merlin not building a bond with Morgana, we should openly acknowledge and discuss why. I for one think it would be hard for a character with his social status to build a cross-class relationship with Morgana without an intermediary who already has access to her, such as Gaius or Gwen. There’s a lot to be said about why those alliances don’t happen; likewise, there could be rich discussion about why Arthur, who is well-positioned to help here, doesn’t.

Similarly, when we consider the many ways Merlin upholds the patriarchal structures of his world we should also consider the ways Morgana upholds the class structures. If either character or both could be a true ally to the other, the show would be very different.

And I’d like to talk about those differences, because one of the things I love about fandom is the way it imagines new answers to the questions source poses. This shouldn’t be the end of discussion, but the beginning.

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I cannot organize the brainpower at the moment to say anything substantive, but I just wanted to tell you that I love this post.

Thanks! Feel free to come back when you are; I'll still be around in January. And good luck with the grading.

(Deleted comment)

Re: Warning, I'm not as good with meta as you and I don't know how much this makes sense

Thanks for your comment. I was actually thinking about some of the things you've written about how the magical characters on this show internalize bias and collude in their own oppression when I wrote it.

The Morgana/Gwen & Arthur/Merlin comparison is fascinating. Morgana's paternalism has gotten more problematic with time. Early on, the way she tried to act on behalf of Gwen (in 1x03), Merlin (1x04), and Gaius (1x06) made sense within plot restrictions, because in each case the lower-class characters were prevented from taking action--Gwen is in prison and Merlin nearly unconscious. But 1x12 hugely shifts that aspect of her character. She decides to ally with the man who has threatened Gwen's life!

I'd like to hear more about how you think Arthur transgresses the class divide; I'm not sure that he diminishes it so much as feels more noblesse oblige, an obligation to protect those under him. But then Arthur is one of the show's more inconsistent characters, and I don't have very many rational thoughts about this because it DRIVES ME NUTS. I do think both Gwen and Merlin do various types of emotional work for their bosses.

I find your idea that S2 Merlin has figured out the culture of Camelot & thus is pushing less deeply convincing; it also fits neatly with Merlin's character arc, which is increasingly about accepting the limitations of his world and working within accepted structures. (Not just politically; he's shifted from attacking every problem with magic to using his wits more often than spells.)

And yes, the show present an awful lot of its important information about characters visually, and I do find the way Merlin is constantly working in the background a particularly effective form of this. it often creates a distance between Merlin & Arthur when there wouldn't otherwise be one.

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Re: Warning, I'm not as good with meta as you and I don't know how much this makes sense

I think you lay out Merlin's shifts this season very neatly. And I would LOVE to see your character meta on Arthur.

Your Spike parallel is very interesting; I am hampered by not having seen any Buffy after the end of season 5, but I am going to think over this analogy.

I think a lot of Arthur's reach-out moments read to me as idealized feudalism, in which the nobility have both rights and responsibilities. Listening to Merlin about Valiant, for instance, fits that--Merlin is supposed to serve him loyally, and Arthur's supposed to trust him to do so. And whenever Arthur tries to protect Merlin...But I would agree there are moments when Arthur almost acts like an equal--laughing at Vivian with Gwen was a great example I hadn't thought of, and the scene when he sits down next to Merlin on the floor. But Arthur usually does end such scenes by backing off, or reaffirming the class markers in some way.

Relatedly, what do you think of the conversation in the woods about their missing parents? I think it's not transgressive for Arthur to confide in a trusted servant like that--Merlin is there to look after him, emotionally as well as physically--but there's also an element of explaining and justifying himself. But then there's the way Arthur doesn't seem to know how to react when Merlin tells him about his own missing father, because that does violate the rule book and presume a level of mutuality.

I do think you're right that Merlin now more often re-establishes the distance between them, usually with a heavy level of this-guy-doesn't-know-about-my-magic-how-real-can-his-friendship-be?

As for Morgana--I don't know what to make of her. She's always relied more on Gwen for emotional caretaking, but seems to have pulled back from that this season. Gwen has always been more mindful of the Camelot class divide and seen Morgana more as a boss, albeit a kind one who is increasingly less kind as time goes on. Angel does a great job playing her as a woman who for all her warmth never forgets her station.

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Re: Warning, I'm not as good with meta as you and I don't know how much this makes sense

It is interesting, now that you mention it--this season has had a bit of a role reversal for Arthur and Merlin, where Arthur is becoming more relaxed and emotionally open bit by bit, but Merlin is becoming more closed-up and harder (um, not in a good way).

I think this is really hard on fic-writers, actually, because a lot of the dynamics originally laid down last season now read as OOC in light of more recent canon.

I do love that scene in the forest, though.

These are interesting thoughts - I'm not quite sure where I stand on the whole issue, possibly because the show isn't entirely sure. I like the way you cross check class with other forms of privilege.

Merlin to some extent does stand outside the class system. In season one he's aware of the power of nobility but doesn't seem to have ever interacted with any in the flesh or be aware of how to deal with them. That actually affords him a lot of freedom in action and expression that Arthur (mainly) does not seek to supress. Season 2, as Meri_sefket says, shows Merlin adapting somewhat to Camelot norms. But Gaius can't be seen as lower class in the same way Gwen, Tom etc are. If anything he stands with Geoffrey as a kind of burgeoning middle class. Gaius works for Uther but seems to be more an advisor than a servant. He's in pretty much every council meeting we see. He also has social standing as a physician. Merlin benefits from this association as well as from being male.

Arthur works *with* all manner of people as a matter of course so has had to get used to dealing with them in more than a lordly capacity.

Gwen, too, seems to be used to dealing with different levels of society. She's slowly learning that it can be safe to speak outside of her class.

Morgana is the one most trapped by social conventions and who seems to be most rigid in her dealings. Understandably as if she does step out it's in a position of bestowing patronage as she has no real job to fulfil. She will have to learn about more things than magic when she leaves Uther's protection.

Glad you find it interesting!

I don't think Merlin stands outside the class system--the show does a lot to situate him as a commoner/servant--so much as benefits from the show making him his hero. There's a lot of "the plucky young peasant man can triumph over obstacles," in clear contrast to how the female characters are handled.

On of my frustrations with the show's attitude to class is the rampant anachronism (though because the whole show is built on anachronism it seems churlish to complain). So Arthur's class is idealized but recognizably fedual, encompassing both rights and responsibilities; but Morgana is from an entirely different century, in which female leisure was a mark of social elevation. She doesn't act at all like a medieval noblewoman, and the constrictions of her role come partly from that.

For me, the problem with Gaius is related to that, because a king's advisor and doctor certainly shouldn't be lower-class; but I think the show treats him as if he is, especially in 1x06, where he's summarily sacked and thrown out of his home. Because his relationship to Uther is always being paralleled to Merlin's with Arthur, it emphasizes Gaius's relative lack of status; so too do things like the knight's code, which Gaius is clearly outside of.

You're right that middle-class would probably be a better classification for him, but he's always linked to the social sphere of lowly characters like Hunith and the apothecary, and presented as an intermediary for servants like Gwen and Merlin. S2 has repeatedly referred to Gaius as Uther's servant, another reinforcement of his lack of power, so some of his deference has to be seen in that context (which doesn't erase his aptitude for collusion).

Uther also has an outsized and anachronistic amount of power for a medieval king, which further distorts things. I agree with your description of Gwen's arc, but in terms of Morgana learning more outside of Uther's protection, I don't think Morgause is going to open any doors in terms of class awareness.

Though there's a lot else Morgause can teacher....

Maybe Gaius has been rather demoted due to his pre-show history with Uther. Maybe part of the reason he survived the purge of sorcerers was because he was willing to accept a demotion beneath the appropriate class rank of a physician. Maybe Uther *made* him a servant, in order to keep an eye on him, since Gaius knows some of his secrets.
/end speculation

I still love this post but still have nothing substantive due to too much wine with dinner! :)

Awesome post. I've been pretty critical of Merlin not talking to Morgana, because her current predicament has always seemed so easily avoidable to me - a simple lack of communication. I also had an inflated impression of their friendship because of episodes like 1x10 (actually, I think the show sends a lot of fluctuating messages about how close the characters are to each other and how much class impacts that). But I wasn't thinking about the class dimension, which is strange because I've found it hard to ignore when it comes to Arthur/Merlin and Gwen/Morgana (Gwen is also nearly always working when she and Morgana interact). But yeah - telling Morgana about himself is an enormous risk for Merlin because of the rigid class structure, even BEFORE you add other factors like Morgana's past actions and the prophecies Merlin keeps hearing.

This bit struck me the most: The machinery of state is set up to protect people like Morgana; and she has a history of allying with other magical users only to turn on them to preserve Uther’s favor and her status.

Because of this, I think it’s a bit problematic to blame Merlin for not telling Morgana about his own magic. It seems wrong to demand that one character with less social power and privilege put himself at risk to better the circumstances of one with more privilege.

This is spot-on. From Merlin's perspective she could turn on him as well, and neither the Tauren incident nor the one with the Druids affected her status at all.

I do still very much have a problem with Merlin and Gaius making choices for Morgana (although it's not just Morgana who Merlin handles that way so it's even more complicated), and the show's overall disempowerment of her in ways that to me seem explicitly tied to gender. Merlin's need to keep his own secret shouldn't automatically mean making her decisions for her. So really, there are complications with that relationship from both sides, and it's important to think about how they intersect.

Edited at 2009-12-16 09:16 pm (UTC)

Thanks! I agree that the inconsistency in class and character relations--well, really in everything--adds a wrinkle, which is why it's striking that the show has tried to be more consistent in a "no, class really does matter" way this season. In 2x11 especially, they need it to even the score between Merlin and Morgana, because they haven't given Morgana any other power to balance it out.


And I think there was potential for more of a Merlin/Morgana connection--they are so similar--but the show backed away from it fast.

Yes, Morgana's history implies she understands that she can't be a magical third column without being something of a class traitor as well, and she shies from that until she meets Alvarr. And when she finally does leave Camelot (not that this is an act of agency on her part), it's with Morgause, our most upper-class magic-user so far.

I agree that it's still wrong for Merlin and Gaius to make choices for Morgana (A LOT of their conduct is wrong) and the genderfail is everywhere. But I do think the intersections are interesting; Arthur does a lot to cut off possible future connections when he warns Merlin not to speak to Morgana again, and yet it's clear that he's acting wholly to protect Merlin. it's hard to fault Arthur for that, but the consequences are pretty awful.

Do you think Katy's sudden Irish accent is part of the class marking structure at all?

I wish. I can't find any logic to it at all, except for showing up more in highly emotional scenes, which thinks it might be more related to the difficulty of the Irish actress maintaining a British accent. But it's a bit all over the place, and I'd be indebted to anyone else who could explain it.

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Re: here via merlin_meta; late too the party

Hey, welcome to the party--I'm always late, myself.

Your theory is interesting. The history part of my brain wants to squawk, "But Britain was the center of druidism! People from other parts of the Celtic-speaking world went there for training!"

Then I think, well, when did this show ever care about history?

Unfortunately, I don't think it cares that much about accents, either, and it's done a lot to try and erase the Celts v. Saxon baggage of the legends (for instance, including characters with clearly Anglo-Saxon names like Hengist, Halig, and Freya). If Morgause, for instance, had shown up with a similar accent to Morgana (which would have been way cool), I'd sign on to this theory.

But the show does seem to treat druids like Aglain differently from priestesses of the so-called Old Religion like Nimueh & Morgause. Morgana ended up selling the druids out, but she's allied with Morgause--and with Alvarr, who also isn't a druid, just a rogue sorceror on the make. The druids are much more favorably portrayed as innocent magic-workers, while the others are more independent, and more sinister--more clearly filling the villain roles.

I found your post to be fascinating and indeed made me realise just how much the class differences have been shown more in S2 more than S1, and perhaps the reason for this is for one, to highlight just what a rough road is ahead for Gwen and Arthur despite them having feelings for each other ( even though imo I think it is more infatuation of a different, simpler life for Arthur's part ) but also to highlight just how lonely and isolated Merlin is feeling right now at the point season two starts and where it looks to be headed.

Merlin arrived at Camelot full of hope, ideals and wanting to be friends with everyone, and that included the rather rude and crude Arthur once he got over their shock first meeting and slowly but surely grew closer together. By the end of season one it almost seemed like the class differences were nearly gone when it came to Arthur and Merlin after all they had been through and that Merlin could be truly himself around Arthur and tell him about his magic.

Now of coarse this could not happen as one of the core features of the show is Merlin keeping his magic a secret, so to put new barriers up the class system was bought back in full force in season two, but also I believe other things have to be factored in to see why we see merlin as we do now and perhaps why he lets Arthur get away with treating him so badly in S2. He has lost his best friend who was not afraid to be intimate with him physically and be seen as a friend in public AND new about his magic, he is still in the closet about his magic, the Dragon I believe had revealed that the two sided coin deal was a big lie which was a HUGE factor in him wanting to get close to Arthur in the beginning and Arthur is back to being a huge prat after Merlin heart felt plea at the end of season one to not be such a big one.

S2 I feel served the core purpose of beating Merlin down to his limit, to the point where he has his back to the wall and he feels he has no one on his side and that what he thought was true once is now up in the air and everything can fall apart at any moment. It is from here that from the later episodes that we see a darker, more manipulative Merlin who is now not afraid to even poison a former friend to make ends meet and indeed bargain with a powerful sorcerer like Morgause and use her own family against her to save Camelot and Arthur in the process. S1 Merlin would not even think of doing such things, but the broken down and trodden under foot Merlin who has put up with so much and at wits ends is now looking to fight back and actually MAKE things work for him despite his position and class even if it paints him as an unfeeling bastard as a result.

I do not feel S1 Merlin and Arthur is lost, but broken. Merlin is backed against a wall and totally alone yet Arthur in the few times he lets the mask down does indeed care deeply about Merlin and does actively want to know what is going on with him personally and wants to see him happy. But as you mentioned, this now reserved Merlin is pushing Arthur away and withdrawing more into himself and away from perhaps the one person who would understand what he is going through completely - the burden of secrets and great power at the flick of a command - and be perhaps closer than a best friend or lover even if Merlin would just screw the class divide like he did in season one and just TALK to Arthur.

The two sided coin is still there, but it is resting on its axis at the moment, waiting for either Arthur or Merlin to extend the hand of forgiveness and wanting that old closeness back. And it looks to me like Merlin will have to be the one to do it.

Fascinating! I was aware of Merlin constantly doing chores (and getting better at it) as a way of emphasizing his apparent servant status (and hiding the status of magic that would make him equal to Arthur if not higher in power). The chores were both as a way to add subtle humor as emphasize status.

I do wonder where they are going with Merlin. It has been mentioned that he's pretty much up against the wall. He's done things that have hurt him emotionally and the season finale looks to be just as emotional. I hope that Arthur and Merlin will be able to survive this with their friendship intact but it may be that Merlin will have a breakdown or crisis of faith for their future; he's come close before but Gauis has been able to bring him back somewhat. We'll see.

Great discussion.

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He could so totally pull it off. Colin is amazing as an actor, sometimes jaw-droppingly so.

I also wonder where they're going with Merlin--his character is increasingly tormented and sinister, and while I'm a little surprised that they went there, I'm more surprised that they went there this SOON. The show is (ideally) supposed to have another three seasons, after all.

I too would love to see Colin pull off a crisis of faith--I might seriously sign up to watch him watch paint dry--but I don't think they'll do it anytime soon (other than something along the lines of what we saw in 2x01). Gaius is still there to prop him up, and I can't see the show getting out of a real crisis plausibly without revealing the secret.

Would be cool if I was wrong on that, though.

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Very interesting post!

I believe I never viewed Morgana much through this specific lens, since, as you've said in the comments, the show treats class very anachronistically. I usually get stuck at elements like Arthur even contemplating regretfully that he can't marry Gwen because that usually makes me go "but he wouldn't even think of that. She's a servant. Nobles don't marry servants." The problem here is of course that I'm trying to view the show in a more realistic historical frame than its own idiosyncratic class system.

Very glad you liked it!

I also had some trouble with the anachronisms, which temporarily blinded me to the fact that the class system in Merlin is internally very consistent, and repeatedly signaled to be Very Important. But to be honest, it's more than I'm middle-class and used to not thinking about it.

In a more realistic world, of course, Gwen would have become Arthur's mistress early in S2, and we wouldn't have gotten through two series without at least talk about Morgana marrying. But the show seems to have opted for a melange of medieval, faux-medieval, and modern sensibilities here.

I do think it's fun and interesting to think about the class aspects of things, especially as they seem to be getting more and more important for Morgana and Morgause.

But to be honest, it's more than I'm middle-class and used to not thinking about it.

I'm a Social Studies major and used to have History as a minor. Not analysing class relations in some way was next to impossible.

In a more realistic world, of course, Gwen would have become Arthur's mistress early in S2, and we wouldn't have gotten through two series without at least talk about Morgana marrying. But the show seems to have opted for a melange of medieval, faux-medieval, and modern sensibilities here.

I'm not surprised they left out the mistress part, given that it might be difficult to still present Arthur as a albeit flawed hero, while at the same time letting the youthful demographic grabble with vastly different moral values. I was mostly surprised that they made it more difficult for themselves by having Guinevere be both a commoner and a servant in the first place, especially when her being a lady-in-waiting to Morgana would also have created a status imbalance between Arthur and Gwen. Of course, wanting to tackle class issues on a level more accessible to a modern (and young) audience makes that decision more palatable.

(As for the marriage aspect: I actually thought for the longest time Uther was raising Morgana to be his wife, given how much they emphasized that she was his "ward" instead of his adoptive daughter or something like that. May just have been inappropriate chemistry between the actors, though.)

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