06/01/2012

Kind of Magic

The last five episodes of season 4 of Merlin reviewed..


`Lancelot du Lac` sees the supposedly deceased knight return to stir up tensions and spoil Arthur and Gwen’s impending wedding. This sets in motion events leading to poor Gwen’s banishment and an example of an episode with an unhappy ending in which the status quo changes. Lucy Watkins writes with a good sense of the arguments though is less strong when it comes to the way people react to what has happened. Merlin’s inaction throughout is uncharacteristic and most unlikely. The fact that he still sits on the secret of Agravaine’s treachery is also starting to look silly- surely this would be the perfect moment for him to reveal it.
No complaints though about the acting; Bradley James in particular rises to the occasion so you can feel Arthur’s loss while Angel Coulby finally gets some decent screen time. You can certainly believe in the betrayal that has split the character’s relationship in two.
With a noticeably more loquacious, playful script by Howard Overman and some atmospheric direction from Jeremy Webb, `A Herald of the New Age` is a standout episode even in such an excellent season. It’s the little things like sounds of dripping water or the way the cameras move around the shrine in the forest that drench the episode in atmosphere. It may be that Webb uses some standard horror motifs (plus the impressive water effect first seen in the Doctor Who classic `The Waters of Mars`) with the ghostly boy’s sudden appearances and the creepy moment when he puts his finger to his lips but it suits the series.
Overman’s script has a simple yet very strong twist that allows the episode to conclude in a much more powerful manner than any big action showdown might. The pace is slower than usual but this suits the story line.  The other aspect that impresses is that some of the cast get to do more than usual. His work on Misfits shows how well Overman can handle group dialogue, which has remained perhaps the only weakness on Merlin- and here he shows how it can be done. Adetomiwa Edun shines when given a substantial role as Elyan is haunted and then possessed. Colin Morgan too seems to delight in bringing a more sarcastic Merlin to the fore and the interplay with Bradley James is more mature now. James handles the big scene near the end with a subtlety that makes it affecting and strong. This is one of the very best Merlin episodes yet and in this season that’s saying something.
"Can I just mention, in case you'd not guessed by now that I'm quite evil."
What comes across from `The Hunter’s Heart` is how vicious both Morgana and Agravaine can be. The show does have a tendency to sugar coat its more violent aspects- notably to the point of obvious cuts to shots of people being stabbed. Here, director Jeremy Webb is prepared to show a little more and it does help underline the threat when we see Agravaine s brutal acts. As for Morgana her turning Gwen into a deer in the middle of Arthur’s hunt is particularly cruel.

It’s a good episode for the female cast members for a change. One of the noticeable things about this season has been the fact that almost all the regularly featured characters are male while many of the villains have been women. Perhaps that’s what you get when you have four blokes show running! Now at least Gwen gets a decent part of the action, only the second episode where Angel Coulby has had much to do this season.

The sequence where Merlin realises the deer is really Gwen has a real elemental quality to it, emphasising the source of his powers. Richard McBrien’s script also has some more mature exchanges between Arthur and Merlin allowing us to see the sort of people they are becoming as they get older. 

The two part finale `The Sword in the Stone` begins with a very speedy invasion of Camelot from which Merlin, Arthur and the knights can only flee. Morgana seems to have become even darker now, yet maybe is turning into too melodramatic a villain? After such a careful build up and with a two episode spread some of the narrative seems perfunctory in place though other parts are excellent.
The spell that makes Arthur compliant somehow slows the dynamics of the first part which becomes an extended chase sequence. Guest starring Tristan and Isolde never really spark partly because Ben Daniels looks as if he’d rather be somewhere else-or at least wearing a better wig. It’s left to the lead actors to take the season to its conclusion.

The final episode has a suitably mythic feel for the actual sword in the stone scenes. However the most interesting bits are glimpses into Merlin’s darker side as he despatches Agravaine’s soldiers and then the man himself with barely concealed venom. Perhaps a darker, less controlled side to Merlin will be one of the themes of season five? Unfortunately there is again a sense of rushing things- Agravaine himself dies quickly and without a real payoff even if he does discover Merlin’s magic in the last moments of his life. A promising duel between Morgana and Gwen is cut short and we are again deprived of a showdown between the villainess and Merlin’s Emerys.

Director Alice Troughton does a sterling job of infusing the epic into a script that seems too eager to reach an easy conclusion. The ending is lovely of course as Arthur and Gwen finally tie the knot and she becomes Queen, hoping no doubt for more to do next season. Plus we have an intriguing coda suggesting a battle of dragons is in the offing as well.
This has definitely been the show’s most accomplished season despite the occasional slip up and the nagging problem of frugal dialogue in scenes where people should be talking. If the fifth season is to be, as has always been suggested, the final conclusion to the overall arc, Merlin should be prepared to take even more chances than it has laudably done this year. In the meantime we can luxuriate in a fantasy series that has worked, is constantly entertaining and very well made- plus the ratings have kept up too. Almost as secretly as the magic that Merlin himself keeps hidden the series has become one of the best on television.
Words: John Connors

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