written by Jake Michie / directed by Alice Troughton
Following last week's "The Dark Tower", I still don't accept the transformation of Queen Gwen (Angel Coulby) into Morgana's (Katie McGrath) henchman after barely a week of "brainwashing". If it was more clearly the result of an enchantment, it would sit better with me; but if we're to believe Gwen's genuinely decided that Arthur (James Bradley) is a despicable man who doesn't deserve to sit on Camelot's throne then... well, that doesn't work on any level. Morgana's written to be clever, but nothing she did in "The Dark Tower" would have changed Gwen's attitude about her own husband and king. There was no alternative view of Arthur's rule for Morgana to impress on Gwen, making her doubt what he stands for, or anything. It's all nonsense.
Consequently, I didn't like this follow-up episode very much. The basic idea of Gwen secretly trying kill Arthur—first with a faulty horse saddle, then with poison—and blaming it on innocent bystanders, was something the show's sort of done before with Morgana and Agravaine. Merlin has a serious problem coming up with plots that are fresh, so I just didn't see the reason to mentally stick with this episode. It was giving us nothing new, and you just know Gwen's going to come to her senses at some point—so there's no real drama here. Okay, I know this is still seen as a family-friendly show aimed more at kids, but considering Merlin's been getting gradually darker since series 3 it's understandable many viewers expect the writing to mature along with it. The Harry Potter franchise went from the naive fun of The Philosopher's Stone to the frightening Death Hallows, but adapted to the changes accordingly, and Merlin must learn to do the same. Simply trotting out variations on old ideas isn't good enough.
There were a number of things that irritated me here, too. I don't see why stable boy Ty Seward (John Bradley—totally reprising his Game of Thrones character Samwell Tarly) didn't try to save his own life by telling the king he heard someone in the stable who may have tampered with his saddle, so he didn't have to mention Gwen by name. Or why the mighty sorceress Morgana has been reduced to buying poison from a knick-knack shop (can't she make stuff herself?) The staging of Ty's death also felt very strange to me, and does this mean Gwen will go down for his murder at some point—or is "being brainwashed" a good enough excuse? I have a sneaking suspicion Angel Coulby's going to leave Merlin this year because her character isn't going anywhere (the writers failing to capitalize on the idea of Arthur having a wife), so this brainwashing plot is just one final bone they've thrown her.
I'd just rather get more insight into what happened to Morgana between series 4 and 5 (it was mentioned she was stuck down a pit last week), and where's the white dragon Aithusa gone? Much of the two-part premiere's setups all feel like they've had little to now major impact on the show—from the importance of Mordred becoming a knight, to a Druid's prophecy of Arthur dying at the hands of his "bane".
Overall, "A Lesson In Vengeance" was a bit of a dud and easily Merlin's worst episode this year. It might have been better if the situation with Gwen felt realistic and earned, but it comes across as ridiculous and rushed. Oh, and they even found a way for Merlin (Colin Morgan) to transform himself into "Old Merlin" again, for some typically weak comedy antics and gurning. One thing I've grown to dislike about this show is how it's made the classic version of Merlin into a grouchy, irritating old codger. Why is that? Shouldn't it just be young Merlin in an older body? If this is an insight into the person Merlin will become, where's the wise wizard of Arthurian legend we're expecting? I just don't agree with what they've done with that "character", as Old Merlin should be treated with more respect, but is instead a bit of broad comedy for the little 'uns.