"The Wicked Day" opened with a familiar upbeat tone of grinning faces and whistling music, as a travelling circus arrived at Camelot to help celebrate Arthur's birthday, and you immediately expected another of Merlin's more lighthearted escapades to counteract the downbeat premiere. But once the circus's Gleeman (Whitechapel's Phil Davis) turned deadly assassin, managing to plunge a sword into the king's chest before dying, things turned darker and mostly stayed that way. As the king lay dying from internal bleeding, Arthur realized that only magic can save his father's life, so Merlin arranged for the prince to visit... himself, magically disguised as a cantankerous old wizard, living in a woodland hut. I'm not a fan of Morgan's performance as the Older Merlin, which is too broad and silly for my taste, but his gurning geriatric undoubtedly gave the episode some much-needed levity. It was particularly good fun seeing the aged sorcerer abuse his position to force Arthur into giving him a piggyback around the castle, as manservant Merlin got some sneaky payback on his demanding master.
I was surprised "The Wicked Day" was written by Howard Overman. He was one of the show's best writers in its early days, and it's nice to see he's still willing to return for the occasional episode since his career took off with Misfits, but I expected something a little better from him. The episode had some juicy things to cover, and Arthur's coronation is arguably the biggest development of Merlin since it began, but the handling didn't impress me. Why have Uther mortally wounded by a mere guest star assassin we've never met? Surely it would have been more dramatic and emotional if Morgana had been directly responsible? It was also frustrating that Uther's two death scenes (the one following his stabbing and the one after receiving Merlin's corrupted spell) didn't stir any deep emotion in me. Maybe I'm alone in that response, but for whatever reason the performances of Head and James didn't touch my heart at any point, which was a pity.
Overall, "The Wicked Way" was certainly an important and notable episode in the evolution of a series that usually struggles to move beyond its original setup--especially because Athur might actually be more intolerant of magic than his father was. It's altered the show's central relationship, which is welcome, but it remains to be seen if these changes are for the better... or if Arthur will just become a youthful echo of Uther, meaning the writers have simply merged the two Pendragon characters into one.
written by Howard Overman · directed by Alice Troughton · 15 October 2011 · BBC1