Series Three is the best series of Merlin yet for several reasons. One of the reasons is due to the fact that we see far less of the dragon in this series. Because he can't rely on the dragon anywhere near as much as he used to, Merlin is forced to make his own decisions more and for the most part he makes the right ones. I think a great example of this more independent Merlin is in the episode Queen of Hearts. Merlin's method of saving Gwen is brilliant and somehow I doubt he would have come up with it if the dragon had still been around. Also, when the dragon is used in this series it actually feels necessary and critical to the plot. In the earliest episodes of Merlin it sometimes felt as if the dragon was just there for a nifty special effect. OK, the CGI dragon was never all that nifty but I'm sure the writers/producers had intentions of niftyness!
Another big factor in series three of Merlin being the best yet is that there are far fewer standalone baddie-of-the-week episodes. The majority of the episodes are concerned with Morgause and Morgana's various attempts to take over Camelot so there's much more of a central story arc than the previous series of the show. This is quite refreshing! Of the thirteen episodes in this series there are only four of which I'd say are of the baddie-of-the-week format of old. These are Goblin's Gold, Gwaine, The Changeling and Love in The Time of Dragons. Gwaine and Love in The Time of Dragons are great episodes but Goblin's Gold is a very unfunny episode and, along with Valiant in series one (that episode featured a Hollyoaks actor), is possibly the worst episode of Merlin so far. Goblin's Gold is about a goblin (funnily enough) who takes possession of Gaius...and makes people fart. Oh dear! Did they not realise that no-one over the age of 9 finds fart jokes funny?! This was a very bad move! Maybe they thought they needed to throw in a silly episode to keep the kids happy after the dark two-parter episode The Tears of Uther Pendragon that came before? A big mistake! In fairness I did find the scene where Possessed Gaius goes off to the tavern, and the look on Merlin's face when he did, quite funny. The Changeling isn't really a bad episode as such. Miriam Margoyles is in it and she was funny, and we get to see Merlin kicking some ass with his staff again and that's always fun. But it's still one of the weaker episodes in this series. If these two episodes had been in series one and two they would have still stood out as being weak episodes but because the overall quality of series three is generally very high, and higher than series one and two, they seem even more so.
As for the old characters in this series, Gwen's character is strengthened quite a bit. Despite the fact that she was clearly a nice, kind and sweet girl in series one, her character was just so dull that I felt complete apathy towards her. In series two I started to warm to her a bit more and now I actually like her. Her character gets given more to do in this series and she gets a bit more backstory. Her brother Elyan is introduced and her love for Arthur starts to become more serious. I have to admit I'm still not all that keen on Arthur and Gwen as a couple. I really like Arthur. I quite like Gwen now. But I don't really like them together all that much. I still much prefer the idea of Gwen and Lancelot together. Maybe I'll come around to the idea of Gwen and Arthur as a couple though? Gaius fares well in this series of Merlin as well since there are two episodes that are pretty much focused on his character: Goblin's Gold and Love in The Time of Dragons. I think I've already made my feelings on Goblin's Gold quite clear but Love in The Time of Dragons is a great episode. Gaius actually gets a love-interest in it because he's reunited with his ex-fiancée Alice (played by Pauline Collins). It's quite a moving episode.
Lancelot makes an appearance in The Coming of Arthur as well. I always love it whenever Lancelot shows up. It's always nice to see Santiago Cabrera and Lancelot is the only character in the show, apart from Gaius and the dragon, who knows about Merlin's powers. And finally, it would be remiss of me to do a Merlin review without mentioning either Arthur or Merlin. In this series we continue to see their characters (and their bromance) develop. Arthur might still act like an arrogant prat at times but we still see plenty of moments that show he'll be a better King and man than his father will ever be. He also gets to take charge (temporarily) in The Tears of Uther Pendragon and seems much more comfortable with taking on a greater leadership role. And as for Merlin, well, what can I say? I love him. Love, love, love him. He's such a likeable and adorable character and is played to perfection by Colin Morgan. I love Colin Morgan too. I love his acting. I love his cheekbones and smile and blue eyes. OK, I'll stop now because I'm even embarrassing myself but I have to show this scene where Merlin uses a spell to disguise himself as his 80-year-old-self in order to save Gwen in Queen of Hearts. It was the highlight of the series for me and had me laughing out loud. Even now I still get a huge grin on my face when I watch it. Comedy Gold!
Old Merlin is awesome! I also love the look on Gaius's face when Old Merlin is giving Arthur a telling-off. He's like "Yes, Merlin. I know you're having fun but you should really give it a rest now". The make-up is incredible too.
Now those who are fans of the show and of the traditional Arthurian legends should be especially happy with this series too because we see the show starting to include more of the key elements of the legends. Of course we don't get rape, incest and adultery. This is still a family show after all. Nevertheless, we do get an episode that features the Fisher King (The Eye of the Phoenix). And in the final episode The Coming of Arthur we see a fair bit of traditional Arthurian elements. We get Excalibur being taken from the Lady of the Lake. We get Arthur forming the Knights of the Round Table. We even get the Quest for the Holy Grail! (Well, sort of) The show also deserves credit for having Morgana and Morgause as separate characters. Most modern authors of Arthurian fiction tend to combine their characters together. I'm particularly happy about the formation of the Knights of the Round Table (they dance whenever they're able, they do routines and chorus scenes...sorry). Now whenever Arthur goes off on a dangerous quest, instead of taking Merlin and a few nameless Red Cloaks (who die just to show how dangerous the situation is), he can have his mates with actual personalities go with him instead. Yay! I'm very much looking forward to seeing this in series 4 : )
Merlin is a show that just keeps getting better and better and it pains me to criticise this series. Nevertheless I still have one major gripe with this series, and it wasn't even Goblin's Gold either. It's how Morgana's character was handled. I still loved the series and my issue with her character wasn't enough to stop me enjoying the show. I do realise that I'm probably just nitpicking but I'd still like to explain why I wasn't happy with the way her character was written.
It is great that Morgana finally gets quite a bit of screentime and it must be said that Katie McGrath does a fabulous job playing the character (she acts the role with relish and is clearly having the time of her life). However, I still think that the writers have made her character too black and white and one-dimensional as a villain. Back in series one and two Morgana was an extremely likeable character. She was sweet, passionate, brave, feisty, sympathetic and she genuinely cared about her friends. I just find it hard to believe that Morgana could have turned this evil so soon. It would have been really nice if we'd gotten a couple of scenes where we see the character questioning her motives and expressing doubt and unease with her evil plans. She shows no hesitation or remorse whatsoever when she attempts to have Gwen and her half-brother Arthur killed. She even takes pleasure out of it! Now I can understand why Morgana wants Uther dead. Heck, the first time she tried to kill him was in To Kill the King back in series one and that was when she still had good intentions! I can even understand why Morgana hates Merlin and wants him dead as much as I love him. He did poison her after all (even though he only did it in order to save Camelot). What I don't understand is why Morgana hates Arthur and Gwen so much. What have they ever done to her?! And why is she so willing to kill innocent people?! OK, I know that Morgana is usually depicted as evil in the traditional Arthurian tales and I am actually glad that the show is starting to move closer to the traditional legends - but I still think that Morgana's turning to the dark side could have been much better handled. In hindsight the writers should have either made Morgana's character evil right from the start of series 1 or made her descent into evil more gradual in this series. I'm assuming that if Morgana did have any hesitation and doubt about becoming evil that it would have happened in the one-year gap between series two and three only we never got to see it.
The best episodes in this series are probably the opening and closing episodes, both of which are two-parters. These are The Tears of Uther Pendragon and The Coming of Arthur. These episodes are practically cinematic in terms of the storytelling, visual effects and emotional power. They're epic! I loved Gwaine, The Castle of Fyrien, The Eye of the Phoenix, Love in the Time of Dragons and Queen of Hearts as well. Bring on series four!