Sword fights, goth sorceress’, pointless shirtlessness and long slash-bait looks – it must be the return of Merlin! The BBC1 family favourite has come a long way since its light-hearted early days, back when it was one of the few sword ‘n’ sorcery shows around. Now, having seen off US big-budget pretender Camelot and stepping up its game to match a certain HBO fantasy show, Merlin fully deserves its slot in the fantasy hall of fame.
After the bold move of making Arthur King half way through the last series, Merlin is now up to its neck in Arthurian mythology. Gwen has become the Queen Guinevere of legend (and rather magnificently so), a round table has taken up residence in the castle, and Morgana has recruited a grown-up Mordred to her cause.
Like much of series 4, this episode centres on the Knights of Camelot off on a quest, this time to rescue Gwaine and Percival, who are splitting rocks in Morgana’s basement as she searches for a ‘key’, under the guidance of Liam Cunningham’s bad-ass Ruadan. Little time is spent in Camelot, and most of that time is dedicated to setting up Gwen in her new role, offering good advice in the privy council and sentencing treacherous maids to death (although something tells me we haven’t seen the last of Sophie Rundle’s Sefa, the conflicted daughter of Ruadan). This episode also saw the return of Lindsay Duncan as Queen Annis, stuffing the role with regal authority and pragmatism, despite relatively short screen-time.
The episode begins with a noticeably grown-up tone, with Merlin fretting over a prophecy that Arthur will die at Mordred’s hands and Arthur at his most boringly heroic. What with some frozen wastelands, a couple of nasty fight scenes (for 7.30pm on a Saturday night, anyway), pointless nudity and the presence of Liam ‘Davos Seaworth’ Cunningham, the first half of the episode felt like it was trying a bit too hard to be Game of Thrones. But the show hasn’t abandoned its daft edge, and soon found room for some immature hilarity involving a net and a chance to showcase Colin Morgan’s impressive juggling skills.
The cast, like the show itself, have matured. Angel Coulby is essentially playing a completely different character these days. Her Guinevere might still have Gwen’s natural kindness, but she’s not afraid to turn on anyone who betrays her, making her a far more interesting character now that she’s not just mooning over Arthur. Katie McGrath has filthy looks down to a fine art and warrants the fear that the knights, and even Arthur, show her. Plus, she looks fabulous in furs on a wolf-drawn sledge. Bradley James didn’t have anything challenging to do here as Arthur and Colin Morgan is mostly required to spend the entire episode looking at Arthur with watery-eyed concern, but they still generate the chemistry that made the show such a success, albeit now with a warmer, more chilled-out edge. After all, three years have passed since last year’s silly bedroom bickering – these are grown men now. More or less.
Mordred looks set to be an interesting addition to the cast now that the legend is in full swing, with Alexander Vlahos stepping into the Hollywood-bound Asa Butterfield’s shoes. His screen-time was limited in this rather slow-moving Part 1 – no doubt Part 2 will give us a better idea of what he’s going to be doing with the character.
So, all-in-all a bit of a ponderous and meandering episode, with criminally little Richard Wilson (who’s got himself a snazzy new wig), but it looked great with some gorgeous locations and excellent guest stars. All I can hope is that now that Arthur’s come into his legend, the showrunners remember that the title character is yet to come into his, and spend a little more time this year developing Merlin. Isn’t it about time someone figured out his secret?