written by Richard McBrien / directed by Declan O'Dwyer
Not for the first time, I struggled to remember key facts behind a returning character—noble sorcerer Alatar (Gary Lewis)—so felt slightly disadvantaged for a portion of this episode. It's like Merlin's writers assume everyone has an encyclopedic knowledge of their show, but that's not really the case. I had to dig around a little afterwards to refresh my memory of Alator's role in series 4 (he was the erstwhile villain who tortured Gaius), but thankfully it didn't impinge on my enjoyment of this episode.
The storyline of "The Kindness of Strangers" was wafer thin and not particularly gripping, but it contained strong moments and succeeded in reaffirming foundations ahead of the Christmas series finale. It boiled down to a manhunt for the great warlock Emrys, whom Morgana (Katie McGrath) knows is prophesized to defeat her—although quite why she's suddenly keen to locate and kill him is anyone's guess, as she's spent most of series 5 focused in comparatively frivolous things. Still, it was a welcome reminder that Merlin (Colin Morgan) has a great destiny that's easy to grasp—unlike the hazy issue of Camelot's "new age", which is either happening or has yet to happen, depending on whose perspective you're looking from.
There wasn't much to this sketchy episode. Morgana captured Alator and tortured him in the hope he'll reveal Emrys's true identity, but found him to be unbreakable; while Merlin sought help from one of Alator's disciples, Finna (Sorcha Cusack), while once again having to juggle his day job with Arthur (Bradley James) and the knights. In terms of actual plot, I wasn't very satisfied. It felt like an episode that knew it had to achieve several things, so went about doing that in the most basic way possible. Morgana's keen to kill Emrys, Merlin has the prophecy of Arthur's death drummed into him again, Mordred (Alexander Vlahos) became seriously creepy instead of just mildly suspicious, and the ageing Dragon (John Hurt) foreshadowed its own death. (There will be much rejoicing when it happens.) It was a portentous and moody episode, if unsatisfying overall. By the end, you wondered what Merlin had actually learned. He already knows various druids and sorcerers are keen to help him fulfil his destiny, and the parchment that Gaius (Richard Wilson) read at the very end didn't deliver any new information. Merlin had a vision in the premiere of Arthur on the battlefield, about to be betrayed by Mordred, so ultimately I'm not sure what the point was here.
Still, it was best to focus on the cool stuff: Morgana has learned how to snap people's necks with magic, which is far more practical during a battle than having them hurled through the air; Alator is a complete bad-ass who deserved more episodes; Finna committed hara-kari in front of Morgana rather than be tortured into revealing who Emrys is; and war was declared on Camelot by having someone's facial orifices heal over with skin (not unlike that early episode of Fringe). Plus there was the usual array of silliness: like the awkward way you go from a very serious scene, to comedy larks with Arthur making breakfast-in-bed for Gwen (Angel Coulby), or the Dragon somehow being able to heal arrow wounds if you're unconscious.
Overall, as we push on towards Merlin's big conclusion on Christmas Eve, "The Kindness of Strangers" wasn't a total waste of time, but it wasn't anywhere close to as revelatory as I think it was intending to be. I'd have preferred Morgana actually discovering that Emrys is Merlin, as otherwise the end result of this episode was... well, Morgana's declared war on Camelot (like she's done almost every series), and Merlin's been informed that Arthur's fated to die in battle soon (which he knew already). Thinking about it, you could probably skip this episode and it wouldn't affect your understanding of the series, so maybe it was a waste of a precious episode after all.