written by Richard McBrien / directed by Ashley Way
There was a lot of horse-riding back-and-forth during "The Disir", mixed with the unshakable feeling we've seen it all before. Merlin has always encountered problems making every episode feel distinctive, as it leans so heavily on clichés, formulas and tradition. There's strength in those things, in subtle doses, but this show doesn't always get the mixture right. I feel like we've had the argument about sorcery for so long it's lost all meaning, and to be honest the exponents of The Old Region need to employ spin doctors—because standing around in a spooky caves, passing on condemnation of a king whose only "crime" is disagreeing with your religion, before demanding he start worshipping a Triple-Headed Goddess (or else!) isn't going to win hearts and minds...
As mentioned, King Arthur's (Bradley James) put into a tricky situation this week after being presented with a token from the druid Osgar (Andrew Tiernan); messenger for three soothsayers known as The Disir, who themselves are middle-management for a goddess who's apparently taken offence with Arthur's on-going prohibition of sorcery across Camelot. (Hard to blame the king, when a good 90% of the problems he always encounters come from people using magic for nefarious purposes, let's face it!) Merlin does worryingly little to promote the positive aspects of magic, beyond stoking our natural sympathy for Merlin (Colin Morgan) and knowledge that sorcery's often used to protect Arthur without him realising it.
The big quandary for Arthur concerned the mortally-wounded Mordred (Alexander Vlahos), who's dying after protecting his king from The Disir's attack during their first encounter—which didn't go well, to be blunt. The choice is simple: persuade The Disir to restore Mordred's health, by allowing magic to be practised across the kingdom, thus undoing his father's great legacy.... or allow Mordred to die, to secure a safe, just and secular Camelot for all. This issue was undoubtedly the best thing about the episode; it was just a shame the presentation of the issue felt rather boring—although enlivened by a few good scenes, such as the moment Merlin had to swallow his principles and advise Arthur to let Mordred die, mainly because he still believes the prophecy that Arthur's fated to die at the hand of Mordred. There was great work from Colin Morgan in that camp fire scene, communicating a great deal with conflicted expressions alone.
I guess "The Disir" solidified things that needed to be made more concrete after the two-part premiere, with Merlin now helpless as Mordred (surprisingly healed by The Disir only because he'll kill Arthur in time) grows closer to the king and becomes a valued and trusted young knight. In some ways Mordred's now fulfilling the role Morgana had in the third series, when only Merlin and Gaius (Richard Wilson) were aware of the danger she posed, but couldn't speak a word of it to the Pendragons... although, to be honest, it's been handled more believably with Mordred's story. So that's good to see.
Overall, "The Disir" had merit in its ideas and intention, but I don't think Richard McBrien's story was particularly well executed and didn't feel very fresh. Although the preview for next week's looks even worse, what with the umpteenth return of Morgana—a character who lost all power and relevance halfway through the fourth season. I dearly wish Merlin had a better grasp on how and when to move its story along in a major way, because this fifth year (as good as it is tonally) should really have been its third.