Sunday, 25 December 2011

MERLIN, 4.13 – "The Sword In The Stone: Part Two"

Sunday, 25 December 2011

Essentially a season 3 finale redux, only with less magic, "The Sword In The Stone: Part Two" was at least a better redo, if tarnished by a feeling of déjà vu. Thankfully, I no longer expect Merlin do something totally original, as the show's been recycling its own ideas for the past few years, albeit with more eagerness to push forward with the Arthurian myth it's re-imagining.

This conclusion was a strong episode that contained enough effective beats and mythology progression to leave me feeling satisfied, although closer analysis brings some its failures into sharper focus. It was a wonderful moment when Agravaine (Nathaniel Parker) got a first-hand taste of Merlin's (Colin Morgan) magic, and the chance to marvel at a superior court infiltrator, but to be killed with one of Merlin's tedious "air pushes" made for a sorely disappointing demise. It put the blood of a main character on Merlin's hands, but the effects of that was wasn't actually explored to any extent afterwards. Did Arthur even know his uncle had been killed? Considering Agravaine was arguably a more important villain than Morgana (Katie McGrath) this year, and certainly more prevalent, I think we deserved a scene where Arthur and Agravaine came face-to-face and put across their opposing views. I'm still not entirely sure why Agravaine would prefer someone like Morgana on the throne over Arthur, anyway, as he would have exactly the same role to play regardless of who's the reigning monarch.

Most of the story was a case of moving us to some obvious goals, and there was only one scene that stood out from the crowd before Camelot was retaken by force: Merlin boosting Arthur's flagging self-confidence by telling him a false "Sword In The Stone" legend, then getting him to extract Excalibur from a rock he'd embedded it in last year, while watched by many subjects in a woodland clearing. It made for a genuinely spine-tingling moment, mainly because of its significance in the legend, although I was a little concerned it was ultimately a trick by Merlin—who allowed Arthur to withdraw the sword using magic. In some ways that deflated the scene, as it would have been preferable if Merlin had simply cast a spell on the rock to only give up its prize to a wielder was of pure heart.

I also have no idea why Merlin had to transform into his "old man" disguise to place an enchanted straw crucifix under Morgana's bed, other than because series 4 had setup the idea that Morgana is terrified of "Emeris" and the finale had to play into her nightmare. It just didn't feel like a worthwhile continuation of that little idea, however, although the series obviously leaves things open for future Morgana vs Emeris antagonism. The notable thing about the finale was the state it's set for series 5; Gwen (Angel Coulby) and Arthur reconciled and married, while the fleeing Morgana will presumably have a magical ally in the White Dragon "Aithusa" that was born awhile back. No doubt we're headed towards a symbolic dragon-et-dragon aerial battle next year (ready your flame-throwers, crew), although the prospect of Morgana taking interminable advice from another anthropomorphic beast isn't one I'm looking forward to. I had my fill in series 1 and 2. I'd have preferred the return of a teenage Mordred, to be honest—played by a different actor than Asa Butterfield, who's fast-becoming a Hollywood star thanks to Martin Scorsese's Hugo.

Overall, this wasn't a scintillating end to series 4, but it was an enjoyable one that has me intrigued to see where series 5 takes things. Despite some misgivings here and there, this year was an improvement over series 3 in many ways, and certainly gave us the show's best hours in terms of production quality. The 35mm film stock, cleaner-looking CGI, extra location shooting, and better lighting really gave the show a cinematic look it's never come close to before. So on a visual level, Merlin was a lovely treat this year. And considering where we started in the premiere, enough big things happened to leave me happy with the direction the show's taking (from King Uther's death to Arthur's marriage). I think the problem is how Merlin feels somewhat condemned to retell this myth in broad strokes, so it's largely very predictable and few of its unique wrinkles are better than the traditional legend. It's done a fairly poor job with the Lady Of The Lake and Mordred, if you ask me, and the approach taken with the Lancelot/Gwen/Arthur love-triangle didn't work too well either. The Sword In The Stone setup and pay-off has felt much better, perhaps because it's notably closer to the traditional story.

Still, Merlin will definitely return next year (most likely September) and I'm not against that fact.


  • Merlin has another magical power: the ability to find a handy dragon-sized clearing wherever he goes.
  • I don't often commend the directing on Merlin, but I really loved the transitional cut Alice Troughton did going from the straw crucifix under Morgana's bed to Arthur snapping his fingers in front of Merlin's face the next morning. The way the ominous music was cut by the quick finger snap worked really nicely.
  • It's Gwen vs Morgana! In a sword fight to the death using the choreography of a primary school Peter Pan production.
  • I told you Tristan and Isolde wouldn't amount to much, beyond vocalise how wonderful Arthur is for a king, and inspire the reunion of Arthur and Gwen in a tragic way, while presenting a bountiful amount of cleavage in Miranda Raison's case.
  • I'm getting very fed up with Arthur refusing to admit Merlin's his best friend. That's one aspect of the show it's been a real puzzle to understand. On the one hand it wants to develop, but it very rarely has Arthur interacting with Merlin the way he really should be after four years together. Why is it so hard for the writers to start writing them as more of an obvious double-act who really get on. The squabbling brothers vibe was cute, but it's getting stale now.
written by Julian Jones / directed by Alice Troughton / 24 December 2011 / BBC One