Merlin's fourth series began its two-part conclusion with "The Sword In The Stone: Part One", which didn't feature either "the sword" or "the stone". It did however contain a slightly odd addition with smuggling lovers Tristan (Ben Daniels) and Isolde (Miranda Raison), two characters from another medieval myth that predates and influenced the Arthurian legend. As setups go, I enjoyed this episode more than I expected to, perhaps because it got down to business quickly. Within the opening ten minutes, Agravaine (Nathaniel Parker) had facilitated the conquest of Camelot, prompting Merlin (Colin Morgan) to go on the run with Arthur (Bradley James) as Morgana (Katie McGrath) seized the throne she's long coveted. Sometimes Merlin's guilty of dragging behind the audience's own expectations, but there was some real alacrity this week—even if it did make a mockery of the castle's defences that you just need to know where an underground tunnel is.
After the spirited opening, crammed full of slow-motion sequences (one a homage to a celebrated sideways tracking shot from Oldboy?), the majority of this episode was actually more down-to-earth and humorous than I imagined a finale being. In order to get the king to safety and come up with a strategy to take back the castle, Merlin had to bewitch the injured Arthur and magically remove his free will, effectively turning him into a naïve idiot that Merlin could boss around and convince to wear peasant garments so they can slip away undetected with Tristan and Isolde's gang. Merlin's comedy is usually charming yet childish, but I thought the balance here was just right. It was a great deal of fun seeing the power dynamic between Arthur and Merlin reversed; with Arthur happy to scrub pots, clean horses, and do as people tell him without complaining. Even better was when the spell lost its power and normality was restored, but Arthur had to keep the pretence up around people who need to believe he's a "simpleton" instead of a king.
As with most Part One's, it's hard to criticize anything too heavily because the events of the as-yet-unseen Part Two may fix any problems you're having with the story, but I did wonder why Tristan and Isolde were part of this episode. They didn't offer much of a side adventure, beyond letting Arthur know there are people who hate paying taxes and disagree with Camelot's politics. Hopefully those characters will have something to do next week, but I have a suspicion they primarily exist because Arthur and Merlin need some manpower to defeat Morgana and Helios' (Terence Maynard) large army.
There isn't much more to say about this episode, but it achieved everything it wanted to in a smooth and efficient manner. I'm glad Arthur now knows Agravaine is a traitor, and feels suitably disappointed in himself for never noticing his uncle's treachery. Morgana perhaps seized the throne too easily, but I was just glad we didn't waste a full episode getting us to that point. The only concern now is that Part Two appears to have a very similar goal to series 3's finale, with Arthur and Merlin once again having to find a way to rid Camelot of Morgana and her intruders. It's a shame this show keeps covering broadly familiar ideas so often, but at least this year's production has been noticeably slicker with a much darker aesthetic. (It probably helps the atmosphere that episodes have aired after 8pm on dark winter evenings.) If only Merlin had been this sumptuous to look at back in the days when its stories didn't feel so repetitive or similar.
- It sometimes amuses me how Merlin gets around having characters just kill people. Seconds before Agravaine was going to slay Elyan (Adetomiwa Edun) in a hallway, Morgana used a totally unnecessary spell to send the knight flying backwards and knocking him out, so everyone instead just marched past him without even stabbing him in the gut.
- You may recognise guest-star Miranda Raison from Spooks, or the series 3 Doctor Who two-parter "Evolution Of The Daleks", where she played American showgirl Tallulah with the ridiculous accent.
- What is it with baddies and sitting on thrones sideways? They all do it.
- Sir Percival: a knight so tough he has no use for sleeves.