written by Julian Jones / directed by Alice Troughton
After a brief run of relative flops, series 5 gets back on-track with "The Hollow Queen"; a very enjoyable episode that made the most of a story that perhaps wasn't quite so impressive in retrospect. But that didn't really matter, because there were some worthwhile revelations and an interesting use of Merlin (Colin Morgan) that made the hour feel rewarding enough.
This week, Merlin was called away by a druid boy called Daegal (Alfie Stewart) who wanted his help treating his sickly sister who lives many miles away. It was predictably a trap organised by Morgana (Katie McGrath), who promptly leaves Merlin for dead after poisoning him and kicking him into a ravine. Over in Camelot, King Arthur's (Bradley James) playing host to neighbouring monarch The Sarrum of Amata (John Shrapnel) in the hope of brokering a peace that will aide in the capture of Morgana, which brainwashed Queen Gwen (Angel Coulby) isn't best pleased about. To complicate matters, The Sarrum himself has his eye on snatching Camelot from under Arthur's nose, plotting to have his finest warrior assassinate the King during the treaty-signing ceremony... leaving only ex-handmaiden Gwen between him and Camelot's throne.
There were aspects of this episode we've seen before, and I still really dislike the details of how Gwen's now in league with Morgana, but otherwise I had a good time watching "The Hollow Queen". It was particularly entertaining to actually have Morgana target and only narrow fail in killing Merlin (a bigger thorn in her side than she realises), and for Merlin to be separated from Arthur for so long. The show was undoubtedly founded on the chemistry between Morgan and James in the ropier early years, but their on-screen partnership is also an unfortunate barrier because Arthur doesn't know about Merlin's magic. There are surprisingly few episodes where Merlin goes off on his own adventure, so it felt like a treat to have one here... especially when it results in scenes like the one when Merlin's able to flex his magical muscles and send a crowd of bandits fleeing for their lives. It sure beats yet another sequence with Arthur swinging Excalibur around, ignorant of the fact his manservant is deflecting most of the lethal blows with his glowing eye trick.
Arthur was actually quite oblivious throughout this episode, which in some ways is a shame for the character. His manservant's a sorcerer, his wife's feeding information to his enemy, his guest is plotting to have him killed. It's a wonder Arthur makes it through the day half the time. I sincerely hope the blinkers come off soon, because wouldn't it be far more interesting to have a king who wasn't such a dope, could actually dress himself, and saw through people's lies? Strangely, this week the lovey-dovey scenes between Arthur and Gwen were far more convincing and genuinely quite sweet—which is rather odd, given how Gwen's attempt to appear "normal" is conspicuously abnormal when you recall how absent the show was of their marital bliss before she was brainwashed.
I also appreciated more insight into Morgana's year-long torture, stuck down a well with her white dragon—something that was briefly glimpsed in flashback and mentioned in passing. I adore that visual of Morgana down the well with her mewling pet, too. It's fantastically evocative. So it transpires The Sarrum was the one who managed to detain her for awhile, but I don't recall it being mentioned how she eventually escaped. And why isn't she targeting The Sarrum now? Too late now he's been accidentally killed by his own man's arrow, of course.
Good guest stars this week, too. Shrapnel was great as the horrible neighbouring ruler with ugly morals, whom Arthur had to treat respectfully to earn his support. This also nicely continued the idea that Arthur's a statesman whose reign will be built on his fairness and tolerance for others, even if it wasn't really working on Sarrum. Alfie Stewart was also very likable as Daegal; the naïve boy who helped almost kill Merlin, only to make amends by saving both Merlin and Arthur. It's hard to make a guest star's death mean much when you've only known them an hour, but the sight of Daegal dying with a dagger in his chest was surprisingly poignant.
Overall, "The Hollow Queen" was a much better episode worthy of sitting alongside those earlier in series 5—perhaps because it felt like it greater relevance to this year's ongoing concerns, although the lack of Mordred this year has been very unfortunate post-premiere. The manner in which Gaius (Richard Wilson) had it confirmed that Gwen is working for Morgana was also very well handled, as he caught her lying about Merlin's absence by making an excuse he knew to be false. I really wish Gwen's brainwashing had been handled as well, because that's still a bone of contention for me, but hopefully things will resolve fast and we can forget about it.