Sunday, 21 October 2012

MERLIN, 5.3 – 'The Death Song of Uther Pendragon'

Sunday, 21 October 2012

written by Howard Overman / directed by Justin Molotnikov

Merlin's off to its best start in years, with three strong consecutive episodes. I have less to say about "The Death Song of Uther Pendragon" than the two-part premiere, but that's only because the plot this week was so simple. Don't take that as a negative, because shows like Merlin often work best when they're telling stories that feel lean and classic. Howard Overman was an early stand-out of Merlin's writers (going on to create the wonderful Misfits for E4), so I always expect great things from episodes he's written. This hour didn't disappoint—being a moody, suspenseful, chilling ghost story that actually meant something to the character of King Arthur (Bradley James).

After a somewhat perfunctory start, where an old crone Arthur and Merlin (Colin Morgan) save from being burned at the stake gifts the king a horn that can be used to summon the dead, the bulk of this episode was an engrossing and spooky affair. Arthur predictably blew the horn to be reacquainted with his late father, Uther (Anthony Head), but rather wished he hasn't when daddy told him he disapproves of Arthur's reign: what with the commoner knights, the handmaiden wife, the peace he's achieved without an iron fist to keep it everlasting, etc. This puts a downer on Arthur's day, but things become deadly serious for everyone when Uther's spirit escapes to the real world and starts wreaking havoc around Camelot. Queen Gwen's (Angel Coulby) dragged down a corridor by her ankles, the Round Table is vandalised by a falling chandelier, and Sir Percival's (Tom Hooper) attacked with a flying axe... so it's up to Merlin to help Arthur exorcise Uther before he does irrevocable harm to the people and things Arthur loves.

The most memorable aspect of "The Death Song of Uther Pendragon" was how potent and absorbing its atmosphere was. It's a shame this episode didn't air closer to Halloween, because it was genuinely unsettling at times—particularly for a show that still goes under a "family-friendly" banner. If there was any doubt Merlin's pitching to a slightly older teenage audience now, this was unequivocal evidence. The scene of Gwen being attacked by an invisible assailant, or the jump-scare when a pallid Uther brushed past Arthur in a dark corridor, were both masterful moments from director Justin Molotnikov. I was really quite taken by how well this episode kept its nerve, and gave audiences proper scares.

Quite apart from the atmosphere and some well-constructed scares, I was also delighted by how this episode used its premise to give audiences things denied to us when Uther was murdered last year. Not only did we get confirmation that he wouldn't have approved of his son's kingship, but we also had the crowd-pleasing moment of Uther finally discovering that Merlin has magic. I particularly loved how Uther was banished back to the spirit world seconds before he could spill the beans to Arthur, too

Overall, "The Death Song of Uther Pendragon" was music to my ears: a solid and suspenseful ghost story that didn't get cold feet about giving young audiences the heebie-jeebies, while being a great way to get Anthony Head back on the show for unfinished business, and resulting in Arthur knowing he's a better man than his outmoded father. Great stuff. The only real complaint was the puzzling lack of scenes between Arthur and Gwen; almost as if Overman was unsure about how to write for those characters now they're a married couple. It's an issue I hope doesn't become a continuing problem for series 5, which has yet to convince me the Pendragon's marriage is anything more than a way to give Gwen a meatier role.

20 October 2012 / BBC1