After last week’s slow build, this episode was essentially 45 minutes of heroic escape plans. Arthur and Merlin had to escape from the slave traders before they could enact their escape plan on his men in Ismere, while Ruadan was planning on helping his daughter escape from Camelot – which, it turns out, had been Gwen’s plan all along.
This episode looks fantastic. The icy wastes are a triumph, especially considering those scenes were shot on the hottest day of the year, and Ismere is a brilliantly realised fortress, a harsh contrast to the dainty Camelot. The budget even managed to stretch to a decent baby dragon, with both Merlin and the audience appalled at the state of the poor, damaged Aithusa, distinctly un-prettied since the last series. Unfortunately, they ran out of money before they got to the Diamair, with the alien-like creature striking the episode’s biggest bum note and serving no real purpose in the story other than to be the thing that Morgana is looking for.
Luckily, the bum notes were few and far between in this episode, the only other ones being the over-use of slo-mo in the fight scenes and the regrettable death of Liam Cunningham’s Ruadan. We knew he wouldn’t be sticking around for long, but his uncompromising brutality mixed with a protective father streak made him a very interesting villain, and his bone-crunching fighting style brought a nice new flavour to the sword fighting scenes. His daughter Sefa is still out there on the run – no doubt she’ll be back in time, to exact revenge. So, Gwen’s plan to threaten Sefa with death to lure out her father worked, as far as it went. But in the long term it’ll certainly come back to bite her.
The main meat of this episode was in setting up strands that will run through the series. Alexander Vlahos gets more to do this week, and is shaping up to be a fascinating addition to the cast. A far cry from the psychotic Mordred we were expecting (given his somewhat sadistic streak the last time we saw him), Vlahos’ Mordred is calm and considered. That said, he keeps things nicely ambiguous – is he being rational, or is he biding his time? His reunion with Morgana is well played, and she smiles with genuine happiness for the first time in a series, making the subsequent dinner scene almost sad, as Mordred watches her rant and realises that she’s very different – and far crazier – than the Morgana he last met. All the same, it’s still a huge shock when he stabs her to save Arthur.
Merlin got a lot of practice at shaking up the status quo last year, with the deaths of Uther and Lancelot and the marriage of Arthur and Gwen, and this year it’s already given us Morded joining the Knights of the Round Table. For a few scenes we even thought they’d killed off Morgana, but she was back at the end, stumbling through the snow with her dragon and no doubt planning vengeance. Killing Morgana would have been a bold move, but with Katie McGrath really growing into the role it would have been a shame to see her dispatched so quickly.
The seeds of Morgana’s arc were also planted at the start of the episode in a nightmare flashback to her and Aithusa captive in a hole – a nightmare that she and the dragon seem to share. Who locked them there? Does it have something to do with why Aithusa can’t speak? And do Morgana and Aithusa have a psychic bond?
This was an episode that raised some interesting questions regarding Morgana and Mordred, and gave us a nice amount of pay-off to tide us over, including an all-too-rare confrontation between Arthur and Morgana, who have barely shared the screen since discovering they’re brother and sister.
And finally, was anyone else surprised that Arthur’s declaration of “we’d better blend in” in the mines wasn’t immediately followed by more gratuitous shirtlessness? That’s not like you at all, Merlin.