After five years of joyously silly – and increasingly dark – entertainment, Merlin is sadly drawing to an end. No more of Gaius’ raised eyebrow as he over-annunciates the word “sorcery”. No more Nipple Escape Watch on Gwen’s impressively heaving cleavage. No more rampant homoeroticism between Merlin and Arthur.
So it’s time to bid the show a fond farewell, with this countdown of the 15 best episodes. Hopefully the finale will be good enough to reshuffle this list, but for now here are our 15 favourites.
15. The Coming of Arthur – Series 3
In this series three finale, Morgana has gained control of Camelot and captured King Uther, while Merlin and Arthur find themselves on the road, amassing a team capable of bringing her and her army down.
This episode marked a tide change for Merlin. Morgana finally went openly evil after a series of constant smirking, the team of Knights was assembled and the Round Table was first introduced. It was the first episode we saw genuine kingship qualities in Arthur, and it also revealed to Arthur that Morgana is his sister (a fact which, sadly, was never explored as far as it could have been). It also, of course, marked the beginning of the end for Uther, but more on that later…
14. Arthur’s Bane – Series 5
Despite the gorgeous snowy landscapes, Morgana’s wolf sledge and wanton shirtlessness on an unprecedented level, this series five opener really owes its place entirely to one scene: Mordred stabs Morgana in the back. Literally. It blind-sided the audience more than perhaps any other moment in the entire show.
Arthur’s Bane re-introduces a key figure in Arthurian myth: Mordred, now in the grown-up form of Alexander Vlahos. This two-parter treads the same tightrope as all of series five does: Is Mordred being sincere when he proclaims loyalty to Arthur, or is he plotting? This episode also boasts a rather fabulous scene between Mordred and Morgana, in which we see her irredeemable madness through his shocked eyes. Finally, there’s the powerful nutcase of legend.
13. Le Mort d’Arthur – Series 1
Going all the way back to the first series, this episode saw the demise of series one villain Nimueh, played by Michelle Ryan. After a full series of wacky hijinks, Merlin finally faces the really nasty side of magic when a desperate deal to save Arthur’s life ends with his mother’s – and later Gaius’ – life being taken instead.
This episode is the first to look at the lengths Merlin will go to save Arthur, an issue which raises it’s head throughout the show as Merlin is forced to make increasingly murky decisions to keep the Once and Future King alive. But mostly it’s the episode where Merlin kills Nimueh with lightning while grief-crazy. Sadly the show has shied away from showing Merlin using anything like that level of magic ever since – presumably (hopefully) holding out for a pretty spectacular showing in the last ever episode…
12. The Darkest Hour – Series 4
In this series four opener, Merlin, Arthur and his knights set out to close a veil to the Other Side that Morgana carelessly left open, knowing that only a human sacrifice can close it. Both Arthur and Merlin intend on being that sacrifice, but Santiago Cabrera’s Lancelot beats them to it.
Aside from boasting Lancelot’s tear-jerking death (he gets another one later on, but we’ll get to that later…), this episode also shows Arthur stepping up to the plate during his father’s mental illness, some genuinely creepy ghosts in the shape of the Dorocha, and some very moving stuff from Merlin and Arthur, neither of whom intend to return home alive. This episode set the tone for a deeper and murkier series four, killing off a regular (not to mention Morgause in the opening scenes) and creating an unsettling, moody atmosphere. It was a very impressive opener.
11. The Sins of the Father – Series 2
This one is probably the key episode about the relationship between Arthur and Uther. The audience had known for some time that Uther had inadvertently caused the death of Arthur’s mother by dabbling in magic to make sure he had a son, but this was the episode where Arthur found out.
It also marked the introduction of the wonderful Emilia Fox as Morgause, the series’ chief villain before Morgana stepped up to the plate. In this episode, though, Morgause’s behaviour seems really quite reasonable. Okay, she challenges Arthur to a fight to the death, but she lets him live and in the end she only wants to tell him some truths about his mother’s death. Of course, those truths lead to Arthur trying to kill his father, but she can hardly be blamed for that, right?! Arthur and Uther’s emotionally charged sword fight is one of the best of the series, beautifully choreographed and packed with excellent character beats along the way. And the ending, where Merlin lies to Arthur in order to save the life of the man whose outlawed magic is wonderfully complex.
10. The Moment of Truth – Series 1
This series one episode was a rare chance to get all four leading characters out of Camelot and on a joint mission – in this case saving Merlin’s village from bandits.
This episode had a lovely sense of camaraderie, and gave us a chance to see Merlin and Arthur’s relationship evolve outside of the servant/master roles they occupy in Camelot – largely via the medium of Arthur prodding Merlin in the face with his feet. But this being a British show, that genuinely is how we show fondness. The episode also boasted slow, but important, development in the Arthur/Gwen relationship, and gave Morgana a rare chance to be a hero. Also, as any Skins/The Fades/Game of Thrones fan can tell you, a Joe Dempsie guest appearance is always a good thing. This was a fun episode that leaves a real lump in the throat at the end.
9. The Once and Future Queen – Series 2
Back to the Arthur/Gwen relationship here, as this episode marks their (surprisingly early) first kiss. Arthur stays at her house while entering a joust incognito, unaware that an assassin (played by Adrian Lester) is on his tail.
This was a big, romantic episode, topped off by a beautifully-shot first kiss between the two lovers of legend. It served to give Arthur more humility (even if only temporarily) and it was nice to see Gwen shape him into the King he becomes. In an episode that focused heavily on knightly chivalry and downtrodden fair maidens, this episode appropriately centred around an impressively realised jousting tournament, not looking any more low-budget that those seen on the big screen. It also boasted an inexplicably hilarious guest appearance from Alex Price (also excellent in Being Human and Doctor Who) as William, the peasant pretending to be the unknown knight Arthur is ‘playing’ in the joust.
8. Goblin’s Gold – Series 3
In a rare opportunity for Richard Wilson to flex his formidable comedic muscles, Gaius is possessed by a goblin with a taste for gold and practical jokes.
Wilson is brilliant as the possessed Gaius, balancing slapstick and wit with ease, letting Colin Morgan fall into step as the straight man opposite him. In another writer’s hands, silly fart jokes and Arthur growing donkey ears would have been cringe-worthy, but in Howard ‘Misfits’ Overman’s hands, it’s 45 minutes of sublime comedy. The pissed-off expression on Bradley James’ face as Arthur realises he can only communicate via donkey brays was pretty damn good, but the piece de résistance was undoubtedly Gaius repeatedly slapping Uther across his bald head. It might not sound like much, but if you weren’t crying with laughter then there’s something wrong with you.
7. The Fires of Idirsholas – Series 2
The dye is cast on Morgana’s fate in this episode, as she unwittingly becomes the focus of Morgause’s curse to make everyone in Camelot fall asleep, making them helpless victims of the Knights of Medhir. The only solution, Merlin gradually realises, is to kill the focus of the curse.
The sleeping Camelot makes for an eerie sight, and the show manages some comedy (transporting the sleeping Uther around) and some quality sleepy sword fighting from Arthur before getting down to the serious business. Series two was predominantly a light-hearted, fun series, so the end of this episode was a real shocker. Merlin actually does it. He poisons Morgana. It was a real jaw-dropper, and the sight of Merlin soothing Morgana as she realises what he’s done and chokes to death is unsettling even on a rewatch. No wonder the poor woman goes evil. In the end, Morgana is saved by chance by Morgause’s intervention – Merlin would really have killed her. It’s a brave move, to have your leading man try to kill one of the leading women.
Oh, and the Great Dragon punks Merlin by pretending to be asleep at one point for lols. And did I mention that Merlin frees said dragon in the closing seconds of the episode? Yeah, it was a pretty good instalment of Merlin.
6. Lancelot du Lac - Series 4
This was the second of two ground shaking myth-heavy episodes in series four, as Morgana resurrected Lancelot and sent him to seduce Gwen, with the help of an enchanted bracelet.
Without that enchanted bracelet, this episode would have been higher on the list. It seems like a bit of a cop-out to have the most famous affair in myth reduced to the actions of a couple of puppets dangling on Morgana’s strings, but at the same time I know that it’s a kids show, and kids can’t be expected to understand the complexity of loving two people at the same time. But that nitpick aside, what an episode. Sword fighting, (off-screen) suicide, a heart-breaking (and maturely handled) break-up, Lancelot’s true death, and no reset button in sight. Angel Coulby gives her performance of the series in this episode, and is absolutely devastating as the woman who realises too late that she’s thrown her entire life away. It’s a beautifully-written episode by Lucy Watkins (who, to my mind, was never given enough episodes of Merlin, despite writing some of the best), and to this day it remains the most grown-up episode the show ever put out. It’s almost like it’s wandered in from another show.
5. Beauty and the Beast – Series 2
From one of the most mature episodes to one of the silliest, as Uther falls in love with a troll. Yes, that actually happened. Gotta love Merlin.
Too often, Anthony Head wasn’t given enough to do as Uther – usually just sitting on a throne and pronouncing death sentences. But in this episode, Head gets to play to his rarely-seen comedic talents as a man head-over-heels in love with a troll. The first part of this two-parter plays it (comparatively) straight, with the troll disguised in the lovely form of Sarah Parish (who does a magnificent job in the role), but it’s the second part, where she’s reverted to troll form and Uther’s still smitten which is gloriously ridiculous. Just look at Gaius and Sir Leon trying to ascertain if Uther has realised that his wife is a troll, or the look on Arthur’s face as he realised just what Merlin’s mad ‘troll’ claims meant. But that seduction scene, with Uther lowering the troll onto the bed as romantic background music swells was in a league of its own. Absolutely hilarious.
4. Sweet Dreams – Series 2
You may wonder why a simple ‘Arthur falls under a love spell’ episode would be so high on my list, and perhaps I could sum up my reason with a few simple words: “It’s destiny, my love! Destiny and chicken!”
Okay, so I might need to explain myself more than that. Sweet Dreams was a simple, linear and predictable episode, but it was beautifully constructed and acted, from Gwen’s quiet heartbreak at watching Arthur fall in love with someone else to Georgia Moffett’s infectious loved-up princess. But this episode belonged to Bradley James, who firmly established himself as an extremely talented comedic actor in this episode. Previously he’d not done much beyond get in sword fights and insult Merlin, but here he wheels out some pratfalling genius, proving that he is at his best when undermining his heroic leading-man status, pulling ‘oops’ faces at Lady Vivian while her father beats the crap out of him. It’s a pure fairytale of an episode, even down to True Love’s Kiss saving the day at the end. And sometimes, when you’re settling down to watch a family show on a Saturday evening, a fairytale is all you want.
3. The Last Dragonlord – Series 2
Following on from Merlin’s actions in The Fires of Idirsholas, the Great Dragon is laying spectacular waste to Camelot. Only a Dragonlord can save them – luckily, Gaius knows the last one. And he just happens to be the father Merlin never knew.
You put a dragon under a castle at the beginning of a series, you better hope you can do a pretty damn good dragon attack when it eventually gets out. It’s the fantasy TV version of Chekhov’s gun rule. Luckily, Merlin pulls it off with spectacular special effects. This episode is the best of (many) Camelot siege episodes, and the dragon has never looked better. But the best content of this series two finale comes when Arthur and Merlin leave Camelot in search of Balinor, the last Dragonlord. Merlin has an initially difficult reunion with his apparently stubborn, spiteful father (played by John Lynch), but things turn heart-warming just in time for Balinor to get a sword in the gut and die in his son’s arms. Colin Morgan plays a blinder, choking down sobs as he hides his grief from Arthur, and carrying that sorrow with him for the rest of the episode, even when he’s out of focus in the background. All that, and we get Merlin saving Arthur from a brave last stand against the dragon, releasing his Dragonlord powers for the first time. Badass, and emotionally affecting.
2. The Wicked Day – Series 4
The biggie, and perhaps you might be surprised not to see this in the number one slot. After all, this is the episode where Uther died, and Arthur became King.
In another Overman-penned episode, the audience are completely wrong-footed by Uther being killed off in only episode three of series four. We savvy TV viewers are used to the big deaths happening in the finale. It’s an effective shock twist, and one which left most viewers staring at the telly in stunned surprise for some minutes after it ended. We were sad to see Anthony Head go, but at least he got an excellent goodbye, heroically coming out of his depressed stupor long enough to save his son’s life, getting mortally wounded in the process. Merlin sees his opportunity to prove the good of magic by saving Uther (in his guise as Emrys) but it all backfires, killing Uther rather than saving him and leaving Arthur more set against magic than ever. The entire show was turned upside down in just one episode, and beautiful performances were given throughout, from Katie McGrath’s conflicted twinge when she feels that Uther has died to Bradley James’ incredibly moving grief, which he has to push aside too soon in order to become King.
But strangely enough, the image that always sticks in the mind from this episode, is the final close-up of Merlin, breaking into a huge smile and yelling “long live the king!” with all his heart. The feel-good moment of the series.
1. A Servant of Two Masters – Series 4
And the best ever episode of Merlin (in this humble reviewer’s opinion)? The one in which Morgana captures and enchants Merlin, turning him into the most ineffectual assassin in history.
It doesn’t sound like much. No deaths. No major action set-pieces (aside from a long-awaited Merlin-as-Emrys vs. Morgana showdown). But it’s a perfectly-crafted episode, expertly moving through the story and across tones, making it essentially three episodes in one. First we get Merlin sacrificing himself for Arthur, leaving him strung up from Morgana’s ceiling (and Katie McGrath has never been better than in this episode, pouring out all her bitterness in Merlin’s direction). Next we get the pure comedy of the enchanted Merlin spectacularly failing to kill Arthur, despite his enthusiastic attempts, and finally the cured Merlin taking on Morgana in disguise – and kicking her arse.
So why is it the best episode? In two words: Colin Morgan. He’s been the heart of the show for five years and has never been less than excellent. He’s almost single-handedly responsible for the charm of the show (well, him and his flawless chemistry with Bradley James), and A Servant of Two Masters is the best showcase of his talents. His Evil Merlin is cheerfully amoral, with even his speech patterns setting him apart from Real Merlin. His Emrys is, as always, a surprisingly confident and assured performance. And as for the scenes between him and Morgana: How do you make your chief villain even more dangerous? Have her threaten Colin Morgan and let him sell the rest. It’s a brilliant episode, scary, funny and exciting by turns (it’s that Lucy Watkins on writing duty again), all held together by one of the best (and perhaps least-likely) leading men on TV.
Ah, Merlin, we’ll miss you.