A sombre, almost political episode as Merlin has to choose between legalising magic and (apparently) ensuring the death of Mordred, the man destined to kill Arthur, when Arthur is judged by the soothsaying Disir.
As with Morgana and Agravaine in the two previous series’, Merlin knows something about someone at Camelot that Arthur doesn’t, and is trying to protect him. This time, cherub-faced Mordred is the danger. He might look like an earnest young knight, but this is the boy who stabbed his BFF Morgana in the back (literally) just a few episodes ago. He can’t possibly be as good-natured as he seems. Arthur, however, has conveniently forgotten that he’s a stab-happy Druid, and is willing to beg sorceress’ for Mordred’s life when he’s mortally injured. Merlin, increasingly willing to make morally dubious decisions for Arthur’s sake, plans on letting Mordred die.
But a simple life-or-death decision just isn’t dramatic enough – instead it’s wrapped up in a proviso about the Disir agreeing to help Arthur if he accepts magic in Camelot. The entire episode poses interesting questions about Arthur’s relationship with the Old Religion. He initially tramples all over a sacred place, but later returns humbled and apologises for his disrespectful behaviour. Arthur is more reverent to other beliefs than his father was, but they still aren’t his beliefs. So when the Disir orders him to follow the Triple Goddess, it seems an impossible instruction – Arthur may come to respect the Old Religion and legalise it, but it isn’t his religion, and it never will be. Over the centuries, many monarchs and governments have had to make decisions about religions that aren’t their own faith. It is still illegal to practice certain religions in many countries. Arthur is struggling with those very decisions in this episode, and it seems that he’s heading towards an important revelation about everyone being equal regardless of their beliefs.
It’s a big decision, and Arthur is willing to take Merlin’s lead (a nice sign of how far their friendship has come). The moment Arthur puts the decision in Merlin’s hand was electric, sold by a brilliant performance from Colin Morgan, silently battling with the decision between saving Arthur from Mordred, and being free to practice magic with the permission and respect of his best friend. But as Merlin said earlier in the episode, he’s learnt the meaning of duty, and of course he has to protect Arthur. Modred must die, so Arthur must disobey the Disir.
It all backfires in the end, with the Disir saving Mordred as Arthur’s punishment, and Merlin realises that he’s ruined everything. But it makes sense. After all this time you don’t want Merlin to finally ‘come out’ and for Arthur to just shrug and be totally cool with it. You want as much drama and conflict as possible in a revelation that’s taken four and a half years and counting to get to, and that won’t happen if Arthur has already legalised magic.
The big questions in this episode about the place of different religions in society were well handled, and that scene between Arthur and Merlin was a really incredible moment, but the episode still didn’t rock my world. This isn’t the first time that Merlin accidentally mucked up Arthur’s relaxing attitude to magic (seemingly killing Uther, remember?), and it’s not the first time Merlin has been forced to plot against Arthur for his own sake. After last year’s huge strides forward, series five still seems to be treading water, and turning Gwen into Arthur’s walking affirmation is just angering me (looks like she’s got more to do next week, at least). But this was a mature, thoughtful episode that brought the Mordred plot back into focus. What I’d really like to see, after all this thoughtfulness, is a fun episode. Drop the angst for an episode and let us just enjoy the company of these characters for a bit.