Saturday, 29 December 2012

Merlin (Series Five)

The fifth series of Merlin begins with the two-parter episode Arthur's Bane, which takes place three years after the events of the series four finale The Sword in the Stone. Morgana hasn't been seen or heard of during this time and King Arthur, with his wife Guinevere at his side, has been reigning over Camelot. The kingdom has entered into a golden age of peace and prosperity. The characters have developed too. Merlin seems more confident and, as series five progresses, we see that he's certainly become more ruthless. Arthur may not be a perfect king but he's clearly a great one. Gwen has matured a lot too and has become a strong and confident woman and queen. She's had a badass makeover too! Now that she's no longer a maid, Gwen finally gets a wardrobe to rival Morgana's from the first three series of the show. Gwen gets some fabulous dresses in this series - which I'm sure Angel Coulby enjoyed wearing.






However, trouble is now brewing in the Frozen Lands of the North. Gwaine, Percival and several of Camelot's finest knights are on patrol there when they're captured by Saxons. Can you guess who the Saxons are working for? Yep, Morgana's back! Still looking fabulous in black, still determined to kill Arthur and reign over Camelot, and still looking for any old excuse to get Gwaine's shirt off. Morgana is a lot more mentally unhinged than she was in series four though and this seems to be because she was imprisoned and chained up in a pit for two years with only the dragon Aithusa for company. Morgana then forces the knights of Camelot to dig in the mines beneath the fortress of Ismere. This is because she's searching for a key which she believes is Arthur's "bane". When he finds out what's happened to the knights, Arthur rides out to rescue them with Merlin and a handful of remaining knights. Morgana isn't the only villain of series five though. On the way to Ismere, Merlin meets a dying druid who terrifies him with a vision of Arthur's death at the hands of Mordred. And sure enough, Merlin and Arthur encounter Mordred again. Mordred helps Arthur to defeat Morgana and is rewarded for his efforts by being knighted at Camelot. Merlin is greatly troubled by this and doesn't trust Mordred, despite Mordred's continual acts of kindness towards both himself and Arthur.

Now that I've seen every series of Merlin, series four and series five are tied as my favourites of the show's run. Series four is probably the best series overall because it's the most consistently enjoyable and there aren't really any bad episodes; whereas series five starts off brilliantly and ends brilliantly but takes a dip in quality during the middle episodes because of the "Evil Gwen" storyline.

I don't want to go into too much depth with the best episodes of the series because at least two of them, probably more, will feature in "My Top 10 Merlin Episodes" list. I have to say though that series five gets off to the best start of any of the other series of the show. As it's become tradition, the show kicks off with the epic two-parter episode Arthur's Bane and wastes no time in getting back into the action. I was hugely impressed by these episodes. The scenes in the Frozen Lands of the North looked fantastic! Usually when Arthur, Merlin and the knights go off on a quest it looks like they're just riding around in the same Welsh countryside they're always riding around in. But not this time. It really felt like the characters had gone to a different land this time and like they'd gone on a proper quest. I particularly approve of the decision to use real wolves and not CGI ones. CGI wolves never look good! I loved seeing Gwen's growth in character in these episodes as well. She's clearly the character who has developed the most in the gap between series four and five and I loved it when she worked out that Sefa was the traitor. It took Arthur the whole of series three to work out that Morgana was a traitor and then the whole of series four to work out that his shifty uncle Agravaine was up to no good. But not Gwen. It took her less than 45 minutes to work out what Sefa was up to! Gwen's crafty too. Her decision to hang Sefa was really just a means of luring Ruadon to Camelot and it paid off. There's so much that I loved about these episodes actually. Liam Cunningham was great as Ruadan. There are some nice homages: there's a scene where Arthur and Merlin are hiding from Morgana which is very reminiscent of a scene in The Fellowship of the Ring when the Hobbits hiding from the Nazgul. There's also another scene where Merlin and Arthur get caught in a trap which reminded me of a scene from Return of the Jedi. There are some hilariously gratuitous scenes of half-naked men too! It seems Morgana used the quest for Arthur's bane as an excuse to open up Albion's first strip club! Also, these episodes may hint that series five is going to have the darkest tone yet but there's still humour in them. The scene where Merlin juggles in front of Arthur is funny and the incredulous look on Arthur's face while he does so is priceless. Trivia: Colin Morgan spent four months learning how to juggle in preparation for that scene. The only really bad thing about these episodes is that the Euchdag looked awful. It looked like a cross between the blue aliens from those Argos adverts and the "alien" Mr Burns from that Simpsons/X Files crossover episode! Seriously, what the hell was that?!

After these two opening episodes we then get The Death Song of Uther Pendragon. This is an awesome episode. It has a genuinely creepy and eerie atmosphere and is all the better for not featuring Morgana. Strangely enough though this episode is probably the funniest of the series as well. There are some hilarious Merlin/Arthur scenes that still don't lessen the impact of the ghost scenes. Other quality episodes in the first half of the series include The Disir and The Dark TowerThe Disir is a frustrating but brilliant episode. In this episode Mordred risks his life for Arthur and gets badly wounded. Arthur feels guilty so he asks the Disir, the highest court of the Old Religion, to persuade them to spare Mordred's life. But the Disir say they'll only grant Arthur's request if he accepts magic in Camelot. Arthur then seeks Merlin's advice about this and Merlin advises against accepting magic because he fears Mordred's part in Arthur's downfall... and in doing so Merlin ends up setting the future events in place. The scene where Arthur asks for Merlin's advice at the campfire is really powerful. You can just see the internal conflict and tension that's going on within Merlin. Does he reveal his magical powers to Arthur, convince Arthur to embrace magic, and bring all of his dreams of freedom and acceptance to reality? Or does he protect his friend? It's a beautifully acted scene by Colin Morgan. Ultimately Merlin decides that Arthur's life is more important to him than magical liberation. This episode was quite frustrating to me when I first saw it because it pretty much killed my hopes that we'd get an early magic reveal in the series, but when I reflected about the episode afterwards I realised how good it was. It's tragic that Merlin ends up making a terrible decision out of love for his friend. The Dark Tower is an excellent episode as well. In this episode Morgana kidnaps Gwen and psychologically tortures her. Gwen's brother Elyan is then killed when the knights show up to rescue Gwen. I loved the dark, fairy tale vibe of this episode. We get a damsel in distress locked away in a tower, an impenetrable forest of thorns, a fairy guide, an enchanted sword and an evil witch. Angel Coulby is outstanding in this episode too. She gives one of her best performances in the show and really sells Gwen's anguish and emotional torment.

Series five of Merlin certainly gets off to a great start and for the first six episodes or so I was really pleased with where it was going. But then there's a drop in quality because we get the "Evil Gwen" storyline. At the end of The Dark Tower it turns out that Gwen has been enchanted by Morgana and is now helping her to overthrow Camelot. Initially I thought this storyline had great potential but I quickly got frustrated with it. The Evil Gwen episodes are by no means BAD. They're just... meh. They're essentially filler episodes and don't do enough to drive the main story arc of the series forward. The show pretty much reverted back to its series three form with these episodes. We had a "Traitor in Camelot" again and the storyline felt like a retread of Morgana and Morgause's plotting back in series three. The writers even seemed to be deliberately evoking this. This was especially frustrating because by then it had been confirmed that series five was going to be the last series of the show. You really want a show to be moving forward in its last series instead of taking two steps back. I was very disappointed with the reveal of Morgana and Aithusa's captor as well. Considering how powerful Morgana is supposed to be I wanted her captor to be more that just some random warlord. Yes, he was a very nasty and sadistic warlord and he thoroughly deserved his death but I was still disappointed. We never found out how Morgana eventually escaped from the pit either. These Evil Gwen episodes did have their moments. It was hilarious to see Colin Morgan camping it up as a sassy old woman in With All My Heart. Merlin's anguish when he thought he'd failed to save Arthur in A Lesson in Vengeance was a great bit of acting by Morgan too. But I still wanted more from the episodes themselves.


My main issue with series five in general is that Mordred is very badly underused for most of it. This is baffling when you consider how important Mordred's character is to the show's endgame! It's also frustrating that Mordred is underused because Alexander Vlahos is clearly a very talented actor. Asa Butterfield is an exceptional child actor and he gave a brilliant performance as Young Mordred in series one and two. He somehow managed to be cute and creepy at the same time. Any actor who replaced him was going to have some very big shoes to fill. Finding Alexander Vlahos was a fantastic bit of casting then. Vlahos has clearly borrowed some of Butterfield's mannerisms but he still gives his own take on the character. Vlahos doesn't quite have Butterfield's amazingly piercing blue eyes but he really does look like he could be an older version of Butterfield's Mordred. Vlahos gives a brilliant performance as Mordred too (particularly so when you consider that he hasn't really been given that much to work with). His scenes with Colin Morgan are especially great. They get progressively more tense as the series goes along. I loved Mordred's character too. I liked that they actually made him quite sympathetic for the majority of the series.

I really wish that those episodes which dealt with the Evil Gwen episodes had been used to focus on Mordred more instead. Vlahos does a brilliant job with what he's been given to work with but the character could have still done with more development. I'd have loved it if Mordred's character and his relationships with Arthur and Merlin could have been explored in more depth throughout the series. I loved Mordred's scene with Merlin in The Disir for example, the one where Mordred catches Merlin making a marked grave for the sorcerer. It's a lovely scene and I wish we'd gotten more moments like that in the show. You get the sense that Merlin and Mordred would have probably been great friends had it not been for the prophecy about Mordred killing Arthur. It would have been really cool if we'd seen Mordred using magic more too. Also, I'd have loved it if the knights had gotten more to do in the series. Their characters have been very underdeveloped throughout the whole show and we never really learnt all that much about them apart from Lancelot and Gwaine. A standalone episode that focused on the knights and fleshed them out more would have been so much fun to see. I was really hoping that the producers would decide to give their own spin on the "Gawain and the Green Knight" story in this series and that would have been a good way of giving the knights more to do. Morgana's relationship with Aithusa could have done with some more fleshing out in this series as well.

Thankfully though the Evil Gwen storyline is resolved and we get the brilliant final episodes, the two-parter episode The Diamond of the Day. I have to talk about these episodes. In the first of these two episodes, Morgana has now allied herself up with Mordred and has finally found out who Emrys is. Morgana then decides to rob Merlin of his powers so he'll be helpless to save Arthur when Morgana's allies, the Saxons, fight against Camelot at the Battle of Camlann. Morgana succeeds in stripping Merlin of his powers so Merlin goes on a quest to the Crystal Cave in the Valley of the Fallen Kings in the hope of regaining his magic. Morgana finds out what Merlin is attempting to do though, and after a tense conversation with Merlin she traps him in the cave. However, Merlin has a vision of his dead father Balinor and his magic is restored. Merlin is then able to warn Arthur about Morgana's plans through a dream and escapes from the cave in his Emrys disguise. I really enjoyed this episode. I really loved that Merlin and Gwaine finally got some time together again. Merlin and Gwaine's friendship was one of my favourite things about series three but after that we barely see them together again. Arthur's speech before the battle was great too. It's not exactly Henry V but it's still pretty rousing and was very well delivered by Bradley James. The scene where Merlin talks to Arthur in his sleep is great. Balinor's reappearance was great to see too but I wish John Lynch's name hadn't been put in the opening credits. I think the scene would have had so much more of an impact if we hadn't known that Balinor was going to appear again. Merlin and Morgana's confrontation was also a lot of fun and Merlin's anguish when he realised that there was no way out of the cave was very well acted by Colin Morgan. How stupid was Morgana though for trapping Merlin in the cave instead of trying to kill him right there and then! She's like the worst sort of Bond villain! Morgana, you've been searching for Emrys for so long and he's right there! Powerless! Don't go for the slow and agonising death! Don't trap him in the cave that he went to so he could get his powers back in the first place! OK, I'm very glad that Morgana didn't kill Merlin on the spot but still... it annoys me when characters do stupid things just because it's convenient to the plot.

The second part of The Diamond of the Day is even better though. I was not expecting Merlin to be to be a total BAMF by creating a lightning storm that stopped the battle within minutes! And I certainly wasn't expecting Arthur to get stabbed and Mordred to be killed barely six minutes in! I was literally thinking "Flipping Heck! What are they going to do now?!" It turned out though that having Arthur stabbed so quickly was a brilliant decision because it allowed the episode to be very much focused on Merlin and Arthur's relationship. Merlin takes Arthur on a quest to heal in the waters of Avalon and we get plenty of Merlin/Arthur scenes on the way, which is just what the fans would have wanted. Arthur's reaction to Merlin's magic reveal is PERFECT, absolutely perfect. He acts exactly the way you'd expect. He's disbelieving at first, then he's angry and confused, and then he slowly moves towards acceptance throughout the episode. I really loved that Arthur was obviously more angry that Merlin had been lying to him for years rather than the fact that Merlin had magic. Arthur's eventual acceptance towards Merlin's was extremely well-handled and it didn't feel rushed or forced at all. I was very much relieved by this because I was beginning to think that they'd hold the magic reveal off until the final scene! Instead it was wonderful to watch Arthur coming to terms with Merlin's powers throughout the episode. By the time it got to Arthur's final scene you could tell that if Arthur had lived that he would have been just as close to Merlin, probably more so, and that they would have had fun fooling around with Merlin's magical powers. It wasn't to be though. Arthur died : ( But as sad as it was I thought that was all for the best. There are one or two funny scenes in the final episode but I loved how dark and emotional it was on the whole. I loved how they stuck to traditional mythology by having Arthur die. Even though Merlin has taken liberties with the traditional Arthurian mythology it has incorporated the key elements. I know the finale didn't please everyone though. I browsed Tumblr and Twitter after watching the finale and there were loads of teenagers bitching and whining about it: that it was "crap" and that they didn't understand it. Well you should know your ancient legends, kids! That's how it was written! Merlin and Arthur's final scenes are deeply moving and really quite beautiful. I can't be the only one who got teary-eyed when Arthur said to Merlin "I don't want you to change. I want you to be always you". And if I'd been told beforehand that Arthur's last request to Merlin would be "just hold me" and that he'd then die in Merlin's arms I'd have found that pretty funny. But I didn't. I was actually moved. Gwaine being tortured to death off-screen by Morgana was a heartbreaking moment as well.

Speaking of Morgana, her death was the only thing I'd change about this episode. She died far too quickly and I really wish Merlin and Morgana had had a proper magical battle. I'd have liked lightning bolts raining down from the sky, Darth Vader style death choking, fireballs being thrown, daggers being thrown telekinetically, even a few non-magical punches and slaps. Instead we just get Morgana knocking Merlin backwards with magic and then Merlin getting up and stabbing her with Excalibur. I was like "Wait! What?! Is that it?!" I am really glad that the episode mostly focused on Merlin and Arthur of course but Morgana deserved a much better send off than this! I think the final episode could have really done with being 60 minutes in length rather than 45. It would have given them time for a proper magical battle between Merlin and Morgana whilst still giving us plenty of Merlin and Arthur scenes. I'm glad that Morgana didn't take Arthur to Avalon though. In most of the traditional Arthurian tales, Morgana, now feeling guilt and remorse over her evil deeds, redeems herself by taking Arthur's dead body to Avalon. I was glad that this didn't happen in Merlin. Her character was too far gone in my opinion and a moral turnaround would have been far too unbelievable. Another thing that I really liked about this episode is that Gwen had obviously worked out that Merlin had magical powers by the end. Although in fairness Gaius did give her some fairly big hints! Hey! Gaius didn't actually die in this! I was convinced that either he or Merlin's mother would die in this series. I really loved the final episode of Merlin and I believe it did the show justice. It may not be 100% flawless but it came very close. I was disappointed that we never got a Merlin-Morgana showdown and I'm still not sure how I feel about the modern-day epilogue but I loved it overall.

Merlin has come to a definitive end now but I guess there's still room for a potential follow-up spin-off with Merlin and Arthur that's set in the modern-day. I think that's unlikely though. The producers of the show have always been pretty open about the fact that they had a five-year plan for the show but there were rumours at the beginning of series five that they might do a sixth series and/or a film. Apparently this didn't happen because the actors wanted to do other things. Some newspapers reported that the show had got cancelled but that's not true. It just wasn't recommissioned. I'm glad that Merlin ended when it did too. Don't get me wrong, I love the show and there would have been enough of Arthurian lore for them to have drawn from and made a sixth series. They could have had Morgana getting killed off at the end of series five with Mordred replacing her as the main villain for series six. He could have been out to kill Arthur and avenge Morgana's death before the show ended with the finale that we got for series five. However it's far better for a show to go out on a high and leave you wanting than for it to drag out for years, get steadily worse, lose its actors, and stay past its welcome date (a la The Simpsons). I will really miss Merlin though and the BBC really need to follow it up with something great. It would be nice if it was of a similar genre and geared towards the same audience too. How about a pirate show?

Again, I really love Merlin. It really has become one of my favourite TV shows. I might have been embarrassed to admit that around series one but I'm not now. Sure Merlin was never historically accurate and was more inspired by than directly based on traditional Arthurian mythology. Sure the show had its flaws. The special effects were sometimes laughable. The storylines in series one were often formulaic and predictable. Morgana's turning to the dark side was rather poorly handled although Katie McGrath did a great job playing her. There are many things about the show that you can mock: the legendary incompetence of Camelot's guards, Morgana's evil smirks in series three, etc. But I can very easily forgive Merlin's flaws because it had just had so much going for it.  Merlin was hugely entertaining and so much fun. It had loads of humour and never took itself too seriously but it could still be very emotional when it needed to be. It had enormous heart and genuinely loveable characters. It had two beautiful settings in Chateau de Pierrefonds and the Welsh countryside. It had plenty of eye candy. The show improved with each series too. The storylines became better and started to incorporate more from the traditional legends - but the show also had the imagination to meddle with the mythology in an interesting and creative way. Having Merlin as a contemporary of Arthur who lives in a world where magic is banned is pretty darn inventive!

The show had an excellent regular cast of actors and managed to get some very impressive guest stars. We got Charles Dance, Warwick Davis, Pauline Collins, Miriam Margoyles, Gemma Jones, Liam Cunningham, Emilia Fox, Santiago Cabrera, Asa Butterfield, John Lynch, Lindsay Duncan and many more. The show was exceptionally blessed with its leading actors though. How fortunate we were that we got to see Colin Morgan and Bradley James as its leading actors! Both are excellent actors, especially Morgan. He has such a range as an actor. He can be hilariously funny but it's his acting in the dramatic, emotional scenes that really showcases just how great an actor he is. If I had my way he'd have got a BAFTA nomination. Morgan and James had an amazing chemistry between them and it was obvious that the two of them got on really well and that they genuinely loved working with each other. The show would have really struggled if that hadn't been the case because Merlin is essentially a platonic love story. The Merlin-Arthur bromance is usually the thing that fans love most about the show.

I'll be following the careers of the Merlin actors with great interest now. I'll be checking out the other things they've done and I hope they all go on to have brilliant careers. So far I've only seen Asa Butterfield's Hugo (which is brilliant BTW). I know that Eoin Macken (who played Gwaine in Merlin) has landed a role in a US pilot. Angel Coulby is going to be acting (and singing!) in a BBC2 drama called Dancing on the Edge. The new Doctor Who companion Jenna Louise Coleman and Janet Montgomery (who played Princess Mithian in Merlin) are both going to be in it as well. The trailer looks quite good: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hcqnCz5chXs. Alexander Vlahos has been in a Big Finish radio drama series called The Confessions of Dorian Gray which sounds very interesting. Bradley James was in the film Fast Girls and that got quite good reviews. And now I think I'll close my review with this lovely picture I found : )


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