Once again, the kind of episode that isn't actually anything we haven't seen before, peppered with moments good enough to prevent it being a colossal waste of time. "The Hunter's Heart" caught up with the exiled Gwen (Angel Coulby) as her village was ransacked and she was taken by warlord Helios (Terence Maynard), whom she soon discovered is the latest ne'er-do-well in cahoots with Morgana (Katie McGrath), who's hatched a foolproof plan to attack Camelot using citadel schematics stolen by Agravaine (Nathaniel Parker). Meanwhile, back at Camelot itself, Arthur (Bradley James) surprised everyone by announcing plans to wed the neighbouring Princess Mithian (Janet Montgomery) to secure peace with her kingdom over a land dispute...
It's not that I didn't enjoy this episode, but it wasn't offering much that felt new. We've had variations on almost everything presented here before (even Arthur being romanced by a princess), so it was hard to get very involved. But there were a few small things I enjoyed, like the decision to make Princess Mithian a beautiful, pleasant, funny, and fantastic match for Arthur. She even had a few qualities I prefer over Gwen, whom I don't imagine would belch loudly to put her fiancé at ease over his accidental bad manners. Janet Montgomery was a delight in this role, it has to be said. So much so I was disappointed she had to leave, but her role here was simply to make Arthur realise he cares more deeply for Gwen—despite the fact she's just a blacksmith's daughter and "betrayed" him.
Given the fact an Arthur/Gwen would be a mixed race marriage, it was interesting to see this episode offer both characters love-interests of the same ethnicity. Princess Mithian couldn't have been more white of complexion (her clothes were likewise sallow), and for a brief moment it looked like the charming Helios and Gwen were heading down a romantic path until Morgana appeared and spoiled things. In some ways it's a pity Gwen's subplot didn't echo Arthur's, as it felt like it was going to, but I'm guessing they didn't want to have Gwen make the same mistake twice in falling for someone who isn't Arthur.
For a show that struggles to be creative with its magic, one other thing that pleased me was Morgana's cruel attempt to murder Gwen: turning her into a deer, to be hunted by Arthur and his men in the forest, with only Merlin aware of the transformation and having to magically bend arrows out of harm's way. There was something oddly unsettling about this sequence, but that's fine with me. If anything series 4 has needed more scenes where the content matches its darker tone. The show has definitely matured, stylistically, but its humour remains aimed at the under-10s (knocking over bed pans and burping). It feels like an imbalance at times, but it's hard to see how they can put it right at this stage. Merlin started as a particular kind of kid-friendly tea-time show and, as much as it's evolved and darkened, it still has to cater for the younger crowd who originally made it a hit. A part of me wonders if the producers would craft a different show in hindsight.
Overall, I can't complain too much because "The Hunter's Heart" wasn't boring and it worked as a good setup for the two-part finale, but it's a shame so much felt like a reheated meal. Helios and Morgana's attempt to break into Camelot is nothing new, and Gwen's banishment didn't last long enough to really carry much weight when Arthur decided she's his ideal Queen.
- This was the debut of writer Richard McBrien (Spooks), who did well. Merlin desperately needs some new blood behind the scripts, so I'm glad there's someone new in the mix now. So much of the series has been written by the same three or four people, and it's become clear ideas are drying up.
- You may recognise Janet Montgomery from season 2 of Human Target, where she played the sassy thief Ames. But you probably don't, because she looked completely different here and got to use her natural English accent.
- I approve of Agravaine killing that young man, which gave his character a much stronger sense of darkness. Until now he's just been Morgana's lackey, but actually killing someone and lying about it was a good move.