The end of Merlin

The final episodes of the successful series do not quite manage to do Merlin justice.
When you watch a series for years you begin to develop ideas as to how you expect it to develop. Your familiarity with the characters and concept means you are able to make informed guesses as to what could happen and often you are not that far out. Of course it is better if shows do not conform to those expectations and do something completely unexpected though sometimes you feel this is not the best that the series could achieve. Merlin does just that as it comes to a close after five seasons.
Beware- if you’ve not seen it there are spoilers past here.

The circumstances in which this has happened are as murky as many of the old legends that define the show. We can be certain for example that Merlin was not cancelled due to poor ratings; in fact each season has seemingly improved its commercial standing to the point where both last year and this it was taking viewers away from The X Factor.  When it was announced this was to be the last season it was said that a five year plan had always been the intention and that this was the natural end of the series. Watching the last six episodes, this does not seem to ring true. While it is the case that the two part finale `The Diamond of the Day` completes the story in robust, even daring, fashion it seems tacked on to a regular season. It rushes several developments that could each be savoured over an episode or two. Ironically for a series that never rushes plot developments there is a ridiculously high volume of them at the end. Few get the space they deserve.
As the lead in to the end begins, Merlin spends much of `The Hollow Queen` incapacitated and choking on some horrible black liquid after being tricked by a peasant boy Robert who leads him straight into the clutches of Morgana. Meanwhile Evil Gwen is plotting to have Arthur assassinated by a rival king. Interestingly the two evil women now exchange their plans via a primitive form of email; letters left in a tree trunk. The woods are so busy these days- we encounter a horde of bandits just passing through- that the authorities will soon be putting up signs!

The rapport between Merlin and the boy is well put over though perhaps we might expect the former to be less gullible after all that’s happened. The scenario works well, creating a tension even though you know Merlin can’t actually die. By keeping his recovery as late as possible writer Julian Jones ups the stakes though. There is some humour to lighten the mood as we discover Arthur incapable of putting a shirt on without help! Evil Gwen’s hidden frustration at this is also amusing. The denouement is a tad over staged but works well dramatically.

`With all my Heart` has Merlin take decisive action to free Gwen from the evil influence of Morgana. In a moment that takes you by surprise and which is sudden for a series that likes to coast towards its major developments, we first see the two meeting in the woods at night. Then the camera pulls back to reveal both Arthur and Merlin watching. This dramatic opening suggests something memorable is on the cards and this is seemingly confirmed by the arduous journey to the dwelling of a witch who can free them. Watching it strikes you that this would be the best episode for Arthur to find out Merlin’s big secret especially when they are attacked by Morgana and her favourite move of hurling people through the air. After all Arthur has gone against his anti-magic laws again to save the Queen. Matters bubble up too when Mordred turns up; having been suspicious of the goings on (or perhaps he just felt left out of those night time woodland trips).

Of course, the whole thing is a facade to allow Merlin himself to release Gwen if she willingly walks into a freezing cold lake and while this all seems feasible in theory when we get there the episode starts to lose its edge. The mystical – and indeed significant- ritual is given a comedic treatment with Colin Morgan dressing up as a wizened witch with a very camp voice. It proves one acting step too far for the normally sure footed actor and director Declan O’Dwyer doesn’t really give the scene enough gravitas. You can see what they are going for but it doesn’t come off and you spot why when on the journey home it becomes clear Mordred has spotted the deception. 
`The Drawing of the Dark` sees Merlin set off on a perilous mission to save a druid girl Kara from Arthur’s own men after a knight is found dead of causes almost too horrible to show so early on a Saturday evening. However it turns out that she is someone whom Mordred was in love with. There’s the waft of deceit in the episode so we are never quite sure for a while whether the woman can be trusted. Gaius hardly helps; it’s his fault that the soldiers are looking for her in the right place. This is the first episode that starts to feel as if we are nearing the end of the story; there’s a misty coldness to the woodland scenes and portents of doom keep popping up in the dialogue. Significant moments disguise the episode’s slim plot which mostly involves people running around in the woods which seem busier than the castle these days.
The announcement that the series will end at the end of season 5 means you inevitably respond differently to the remaining episodes. Perhaps for that reason the trio before the finale seem a little flat. Nothing actually wrong with them but you feel that if this is the final batch of episodes, more should be happening, they should be more dramatic and exciting. So, it takes right up till the last minute of episode 11 for this to actually happen. Mordred’s turning to evil is something we can comprehend perhaps but it is put over as rather sudden. Just as Merlin has always seemed too bound by the prophecies (how does he really know whether they will be right?) so Mordred has been so loyal that it is hard to believe this is what sends him back to the other side. The uneven script scores by having Kara un apologetic for her actions- and there is a strong sense that Arthur really does take Merlin’s advice on board. However Mordred has never shown enough doubt before, his unravelling is too sudden whereas his gradual disenchantment with Camelot might have been a better on going plot line than Gwen’s handful of episodes being evil. It would certainly play into the finale better.  Despite this Alexander Vlahos makes the most of the situation channelling such believable frustration and anger that you really can see his side of things. 

Julian Jones’ script does miss some obvious chances to delve into the history between characters- there are scenes here between Merlin and both Gaius and Arthur that are begging for more significance. The show is strong on prophecies but especially at this point neglects character history.  All the misty moodiness cannot disguise a story lacking in the drive it should have, though the final five minutes almost makes up for it. Its comes alive
when Mordred tells Morgana that Merlin is Emrys  -they do love the letter M don’t they? All of a sudden the tentative series- never at its best moving the overall plot along- becomes a rollercoaster in which we see the demise of several regular characters before the end, one of them particularly surprising. Anyone expecting a` triumph after the darkest day` scenario might be left disappointed by the resoundingly downbeat last story yet this is not the main problem. You can only watch it in the context of all the episodes leading up to it over the past five seasons and unfortunately it falls short for several reasons.

`The Diamond of the Day` is a tale of two halves- the first deals with an impending battle and has Merlin gazumped by a large slug that takes away his magic powers. He’s left trapped near the crystal cave, powerless. Colin Morgan is very good here, convincingly playing the inexperienced young man that still lurks inside the sorcerer. The scenes with his father are well written and we’re never sure how real this `vision` is. Meanwhile, with the flourish he brought to earlier episodes, director Justin Molotnikov conveys the viciousness of the battle with slow motion crunches.

The second episode develops into more of a character piece contriving a way for Merlin and Arthur to spend most of the time together once the king finally learns Merlin’s big magic secret. These scenes are very well played and for once the show’s frugal dialogue style suits the scenario. Each sentence is crucial and both actors give it everything. Surely though this is a development that needs to have occurred half way through the season- almost each line Arthur utters after he finds out is an episode’s worth of potential plot to be enjoyed
. Arthur finds out, wants to banish Merlin, Gwen speaks up for him Gaius puts himself at risk to help Merlin while all the while Mordred is becoming more disenchanted. There’s surely an episode where Merlin considers joining Mordred? All of these would have made good foundation stones for individual episodes but instead are dispensed with in a line or two.

Then there’s Morgana. As her clothes have become blacker and her hair more tangled she has endeavoured to kill Arthur by all means she can muster. Kate McGrath has done her best with this repetitive scenario and deserves the big battle with Merlin / Emrys that sort of nearly happened a couple of seasons ago. Yet all we have is Merlin killing her in a flash- no last words or anything. This seems a terrible waste of the character’s arc.

It all leads to the conclusion that the decision to end the series now was made late in the day; perhaps for financial reasons as Merlin does have a bigger budget even than Doctor Who. Perhaps key actors did not want to sign up for a sixth season? Whatever the reason it is to be hoped that this was not really the way the series’ conclusion was intended to be from the off because it simply does not justify the previous five seasons worth of stories. There are enough episodes to have developed these ideas properly if it really was planned all along.
The very end is enigmatic and suggests Arthur as a symbol –“the once and future king” and that Merlin has lived forever guarding Avalon. It’s an ending that is as unexpected as it is interesting and almost makes up for the casual way key characters have met their end earlier. Having Arthur die- as opposed to a last minute resurrection is a good thing in a way though even with this the opportunity for Gwen to make the speech of her life- a speech embodying the values Arthur brought to his kingship is not taken up either. It looks as if Merlin never returns to Camelot; is magic still outlawed? Probably. The series doesn’t so much conclude as it just stops. Leaving viewers wanting more, leaving them with unanswered questions is good but you have to earn it first.

It is difficult to remember a series that was so good and yet ended so disappointingly. True, the direction and acting is great and it looks as fantastic as always but the core of the series is missing from this finale. It’s almost as if a completely different production team were given the job of finishing it off and came up with some approximation of what they thought the series was like. Somehow at the end, Merlin managed to grab defeat from the jaws of


  1. I Absolutely Hate the Idea of Arthur's death it is so dumb and not needed! They should make another season or a movie! They cant just kill him like that!

  2. Who wouldn't agree but Arther was meant to die, it was the legend.