written by Julian Jones / directed by Justin Molotnikov
After five years, Merlin finally closes the book on its formative take on the Arthurian legend. The good news is this was a conclusion that didn't entirely disappoint, although there were undoubtedly a handful of moments that flopped when they should have soared. However, a lot could be forgiven because the core relationship between Merlin (Colin Morgan) and Arthur (Bradley James) took centre stage for the majority of the hour, and both actors elevated the iffy material—which has been their recurring skill on this show. Make no mistake about it, without Morgan and James in these key roles, the finale and the entire show would have been much poorer.
Things started very promisingly, with surprising moments like the unexpectedly brief Battle of Camlann thanks to Old Merlin flinging lightning bolts into the enemy hordes from atop a cliff. Mordred (Alexander Vlahos) managed to deal Arthur his prophesied lethal blow, but paid the price almost immediately with Arthur's deadly counter-attack, and then Morgana (Katie McGrath) fled to lick her wounds as Merlin revealed his magical secret to the king... before beginning the final quest to heal Arthur at the Isle of Avalon. In this early movement of the finale, "The Diamond of the Day" was shaping up very nicely. The moment when Merlin told Arthur he's a sorcerer, and Gaius (Richard Wilson) went so far as to say Merlin's the greatest sorcerer the world's ever known, was brilliantly done. It would have been unthinkable if this moment didn't work, considering the entire show has been building towards it, and I'm so glad Morgan and James squeezed every emotion out of it. Arthur's gamut of reactions was particularly good: disbelief, scorn, anger, resentment, and then gradual acceptance once Merlin explained himself during their trek.
Unfortunately, while practically everything happening between Arthur and Merlin was as strong as I'd hoped for... some of the finale's other concerns were dealt anti-climaxes. The biggest being the way Morgana was almost effortlessly killed by Merlin, who just ran her through with a dragon-forged sword after she discovered Arthur's whereabouts. It was a strangely hurried and perfunctory end for a character who's been the show's arch-enemy for three whole years, with very little surprise or creativity. Even more of a damp squib was Gwaine (Eoin Macken) death after being tortured for information by Morgana, when more emotion could have been achieved by killing Gaius in the exact same circumstance.
When I think about it, the finale was great whenever it (a) chose to rely on Morgan and James's palpable chemistry in simple two-man scenes, and (b) decided to adhere to the established Arthurian legend. The decision to kill Arthur and have Merlin bury him at Avalon, while the Dragon (John Hurt) imparted the famous prophecy that Arthur will return when the country most needs him, was clear evidence of it. Having Merlin embrace the actual legend in this way (including Excalibur being returned to the Lady of the Lake), just felt like the perfect way to go. And you can imagine Merlin having further adventures alongside Queen Gwen (Angel Coulby), who guessed Merlin's secret and would likely make the practise of magic lawful again. That's just one's opinion, obviously, but I don't mind the show leaving some things to the imagination of its audience.
Overall, Merlin's finale wasn't perfect and it missed opportunities along the way, but I was just grateful the Arthur/Merlin situation resolved itself in a strong manner. It would have been very easy to give the fans an upbeat ending with Arthur surviving, so I'm glad it stayed true to the bittersweet ending of the legend that inspired the show. A number of amusing nitpicks were apparent (why didn't Merlin hitch a lift to Avalon with the stupid Dragon immediately, if time was of the essence because of Arthur's wound?), and I really felt like Morgana went out like a punk... but, the heart of the show was beating loudly in the repartee of Merlin/Arthur. Even that idiotic denouement with a Hobo Merlin wandering past a fake-looking Avalon in the present-day (waiting for Arthur's return?) didn't manage to spoil the mood.
So that's it. It's always sad when a show I've reviewed weekly come to a definitive end, but particularly in the case of one where I've covered every single episode. It's been a very frustrating show in many respects, because I don't think the writing was ever good enough to do the premise full justice... but the production has been exemplary since series 3 ushered in a darker tone. The last few series were especially impressive visually, and I've always enjoyed watching the talented cast perform. Merlin was never the perfect telefantasy (what is?), but its heart was in the right place and it grew in ambition and technical skill year on year. (Seriously, re-watch series 1 and marvel at how it was essentially a repetitive kid's show in comparison to series 3, 4 and 5's output.)
A better drama existed somewhere between what ended up on-screen and danced in the dreams of its fans, but Merlin should be applauded for becoming a global success for the BBC, surprising effective counter-programming to the X Factor on ITV... and for managing to tell its story to the end, on its own terms. The BBC have Saturday night gap it won't be easy to fill next year. What other great British legends/myths are left to plunder?