Any episode written by Howard Overman (Misfits) gives me a certain level of comfort, as he's one of the few writers on Merlin who can mix the comedy and adventure with character work that feels like it matters. There's basically a feeling of satisfaction after a good Overman-penned episodes that I wish was more the norm for this show. "A Herald Of A New Age", stupid title aside, was a terrific ghost story that made good use of series 4's darker sensibility. With moments inspired by The Ring and Doctor Who villains The Flood, I can't actually think of a scarier episode of this show.
Story wise, this was perhaps disappointingly simplistic stuff, but we've seen many times before that Merlin's often at its best when it has room to let characters breathe or for various set-pieces to leave their marks. The Knights of the Round Table stumble upon an old Druid settlement, with Sir Elyan (Adetomiwa Edun) making the mistake of peering down a haunted well and making contact with the drowned ghost of a young boy (Nicholas Croucher). The spirit then proceeded to haunt Elyan after he returned to Camelot with the others, encouraging him to avenge his death by killing the king; a desire Elyan was powerless to oppose once he became possessed by the entity.
As so many episodes revolve around either Merlin (Colin Morgan) or Arthur (Bradley James) it was great to have a story that actually focused on one of the show's underused Knights, and Adetomiwa Edun certainly embraced the opportunity. It was just a shame that Edun's time in the spotlight began to dim over the hour, until Merlin and Arthur were very much the focus of the story again, but I appreciated the change while it lasted. It made me wonder why more episodes don't exist to help us understand characters like Gwaine (Eoin Macken), Leon (Rupert Young) and Percival (Tom Hopper), as this show could really do with some variety. I understand Merlin and Arthur are the beating hearts of the show, but is it too much to ask for the producers to remember they have other characters that fans may be interesting in learning more about? Even regulars like Gwen (Angel Coulby) and Gaius (Richard Wilson) have had very little thrown their way.
The way the story resolved was also mature and credible, with Arthur admitting to the possessed-Elyan that he was responsible for raiding their village when he was a much younger man trying to impress his tyrannical father, but vowing to never let such a thing happen again. James was impressive in this scene, which gave him a good opportunity to flex some acting muscle, and it frankly made a change that peace was restored via a revelatory character moment.
Overall, "A Herald Of The New Age" was one of this year's stronger episodes and had much to commend it. The only disappointment was the way the focus on Elyan started to weaken as the show progressed, and perhaps there could have been more ups and downs with the story—which was perhaps too straightforward for its own good. But with a pervasively chilling atmosphere throughout, some genuinely scary moments, some good performances, and a story that didn't rely too much on the show's usual clichés and formulas, I thought this was a nice surprise as we head for the finish line.
- Not that I miss the Dragon, but it's been weeks since we last saw it with the newborn dragon Aithusa. I'm sure we'll get back to that story soon enough, but I can't help feeling some mention of it would have been nice before now.