It's been a long time coming, but I'm so glad "Queen Of Hearts" marked another clear turning point for Arthur (Bradley James) and Gwen's (Angel Coulby) romance, and did so in a manner I've been predicting all series -- with them both hurrying off for an illicit liaison, helped by Merlin (Colin Morgan). But it also gave us some unexpected flourishes regarding Morgana's (Katie McGrath) deception, and as an added bonus we even got to see a more traditional Merlin as a bearded octogenarian...
Morgana's plan then took a more disturbing turn, after she put an "enchanted" poultice under Arthur's bed, thus planting the idea in Uther's head that Arthur's feelings are the result of sorcery, and that Gwen's been using magic to win his son's heart. With Gwen arrested and sent to the dungeon, to be burnt at the stake the following morning, Merlin suspects she's been framed by Morgana and decides to clear his friend's name by disguising himself as "the real culprit". After casting a spell to increase his age to that of an 80-year-old, Merlin plays the role of a bitter old wizard and gets caught red-handed trying to deposit another poultice under Arthur's bed, only to find his ageing spell's too strong to reverse...
There were a few things that delighted me about "Queen Of Hearts": obviously it was great to see the Arthur/Gwen relationship returned to more confidently, and for it to actually progress in an irreversible way (they're now both determined to keep seeing each other, with a demonstrable reason to keep their romance a secret); I also found it refreshing that the episode hinged on two plans that were both logical and quite clever (particularly Morgana's excellent frame job); it was a great idea to subvert the formulaic plotline of Merlin, by having black magic play no part in the actual story, but instead have everyone easily manipulated by their common fear of sorcery; and it was obviously a fun treat to see Merlin with his more famous look (even if Morgan's performance as an elderly man wasn't always convincing), using make-up that was certainly a triumph.
The Last Dragonlord", "The Eye Of The Phoenix"), they seem less willing to stretch the formula and approach things from fresh angles. I'm not sure why there are so few writers working on Merlin, but it definitely suffers from having a smaller talent pool to draw from, compared to its telefantasy contemporaries. Broadly speaking, there was nothing astonishingly brilliant or different about "Queen Of Hearts", but by ensuring it had a greater sense of logic, found a different angle on the well-worn formula, offered some surprises, and delivered character development that feels like it can't be ignored, it was boosted to near-greatness as a result.
It's really not so difficult, is it? There's a likeable and talented cast here, desperate to have their characters deepened and abilities stretched, with a loyal audience keen to see the overall story flourish and surprise them, so I don't see why Merlin's quality continues to zigzag so erratically. Fortunately, the quality of "Queen Of Hearts" was a clear move upwards.
- A nitpick: if Arthur's been shown clear evidence that a bearded sorcerer was responsible for leaving a "love potion" under his bed, why doesn't he doubt his own feelings for Gwen now? The wizard wasn't killed, so the spell should still hold. If not, maybe the script should have made it clearer that the spell would only last a day or two, so Arthur can be certain his feelings are genuine later?
- I'm sure it's contractual, but it's annoying to see John Hurt's name credited every week, even when the Great Dragon doesn't put in an appearance. But on the flipside, I guess that makes the Dragon's appearances less predictable.
- Now that Merlin's given us a taste of what Arthur and Gwen's marriage will be like, albeit as a prophecy that isn't set in stone, I'm guessing that means a real marriage is still a very long way off in reality.
- This episode should actually have aired before "The Eye Of The Phoenix", which is why Gwen wasn't suspicious of Morgana in this episode (until she saw her smirking), but was previously aware of her evil intentions. A continuity error that could have been avoided, as I see no reason why "Phoenix" had to be rushed forward ahead of this episode -- unless there were some post-productions issues that meant "Hearts" wasn't ready.
WRITER: Howard Overman
DIRECTOR: Ashley Way
TRANSMISSION: 13 November 2010, BBC1/HD, 7.20PM