Arthur may have been King of Camelot for three years, but he’s still living in the (very literal) ghost of his father when he accidentally sets Uther’s spirit free.
Anthony Head’s Uther Pendragon was a huge presence in the first four series’ of Merlin and it’s nice to see that he’s still a towering presence in the show, even before he comes back as a ghost. One of the biggest themes of the earlier series’ was Arthur learning that he’s not the man Uther wants him to be, and that’s probably a good thing. The point is illustrated nicely at the start of the episode when Arthur saves a witch from being burnt at the stake – something magic-hating Uther would not have approved of. As a reward for saving her from a fiery death, the witch gives him a horn that will raise the dead (an odd choice of thank-you present, but that’s witches for you).
Arthur may have been hoping for a joyous family reunion, but this being a Howard Overman episode, and Uther being a bastard, Arthur instead gets a disappointed speech and a pesky poltergeist trying to kill his common-born Knights and his ex-servant Queen. What follows is a slow-burning ghost story ticking off all the jump-scares and false alarms you’d expect. It’ll seem tame to a horror-savvy audience, but to kids it’ll be a real hide-behind-the-sofa episode. Overman throws in a hefty dose of Merlin/Arthur humour and “horseplay” to diffuse the tension and stop the episode from being too scary for the little ‘uns. Some of these diversions are a little irritating to an older audience who wants to be scared, but many of the gags are genuinely funny, including Arthur and Merlin mistaking a very pissed-off looking Gaius for a ghost. (And just what Arthur plans to do to Merlin with that ominously creaking leather glove is anyone’s guess...)
Uther, unfortunately, was demoted to cartoon baddie just to fit his purpose in the episode. He was always positioned to be the King that Arthur had to rise above, so he was never a good guy, but he was always more of a conflicted, fearful man that an out-and-out villain, and in life he certainly never would have sacrificed his son for Camelot. He might not have been the world’s best King, but he at least did his best to be a good Dad. Here, the script called for an evil ghost and Anthony Head delivered with a great performance, but I felt it cheapened the character of Uther, and his rather redemptive death scene in the previous series.
But where the episode excelled was in the emotional drama. After the adventuring of the last two episodes, both Bradley James and Colin Morgan got excellent material to work with here. James takes Arthur from devastation and doubt over his father’s critical words to finally standing up to his him and finding new confidence in his leadership. One of the problems this series is going to have to deal with is that now that he’s married, Arthur is surely going to be more likely to confide in Gwen than in Merlin. But of course that would damage the show’s central relationship, so here Gwen is conveniently injured, leaving Merlin to be the one to reassure Arthur over his method of ruling.
The real surprise of the episode was that the most triumphant moment wasn’t Arthur standing up to his father – it was Merlin showing Uther that he has magic. It’s a brilliantly cathartic moment for Merlin, and a reminder that under Uther’s rule he watched countless magic users and creatures die, and he lived in fear of the same thing happening to him. It was nice to see him finally get that out of his system, and Morgan played it just as well as you’d expect.
This episode didn’t reach the heights of some of Overman’s previous Merlin episodes (The Wicked Day is a tough one to beat) but it built up some great atmosphere and the emotional pay-offs for Arthur and Merlin in the last 10 minutes were very satisfying. It also temporarily quenched the audience’s thirst for someone – anyone – to find out about Merlin’s magic.