Sunday, 2 December 2012

MERLIN, 5.9 – 'With All My Heart'

Sunday, 2 December 2012

written by Richard McBrien / directed by Alice Troughton

The transformation of Queen Gwen (Angel Coulby) from loyal wife to treacherous villain has been a weak spot for this final series, so while I was happy it came to a conclusion during "With All My Heart", it was handled so poorly that I think I'd advise future generations just skip the two episodes between this and "The Dark Tower". Things didn't start well, with King Arthur (Bradley James) simply being told Gwen's in league with Morgana (Katie McGrath) without any sufficient build-up to this revelation. There was simply no drama in how this was done; more a feeling that the writers couldn't think of a more interesting way for Arthur to realise his wife's been brainwashed. It must rank as one of Merlin's most disappointing pay-offs ever.

Allowing for that blunder of storytelling, the rest of this episode wasn't up to much. I was particularly irritated by the second revelation that, according to Gaius (Richard Wilson), the cause of Gwen's condition is entirely magical in origin. We were clearly led to believe during "The Dark Tower" that Gwen had been poisoned against her husband by Morgana after sustained mental torture. While this idea wasn't convincing, I thought the whole intention of Gwen's change of heart was that it came from a place of non-magic—so would hence be difficult to unravel. But no, it was magic; thus easy to reverse over the course of a humdrum hour of quest-based hokum, with Arthur and Merlin (Colin Morgan) taking Gwen to a special lake to be cleansed with the help of a female sorcerer (actually Merlin in disguise as an old crone). They even threw in Mordred (X) to join them, who's been largely absent since the premiere despite being introduced as a very important character on the show. I'm not quite sure why this has been the case this series, but it's definitely had a negative effect on the potential behind Modred as an adversary and rival for Merlin.

It was quite a clutter of odd events and uncharacteristic behaviour this week. Since when did Old Merlin become such a bad-ass? It's preferable to seeing him as a bumbling fool, but the change in attitude made little sense. And seeing Merlin wield a sword to ruthlessly kill a witch known as The Dochraid (Maureen Carr) was so against his nature I was taken aback. If the Old Merlin is a glimpse of what the character will be fifty years from now, I'm not sure I like it. And how did Merlin survive a huge fall down a cliff? Why did he land about 20 metres from the cliff edge below? Why did Arthur scramble down after him, given the obvious danger without a rope? And why did he also land so far away from the edge and manage to survive?

"With All My Heart" was one of those episodes that totally lost the focus on what was important (Arthur's struggle to restore his wife to normality), and simply allowed you to nit-pick all of the ridiculous moments. Even a climactic scene with Gwen being saved by remembering her wedding vow to Arthur was curiously unemotional and, when it was over, the sense of happy relief was negligible. Maybe this was because the story polluted any drama with the appearance of Merlin in drag, affecting a pantomime dame voice. (Although Crone Merlin was still preferable to Old Merlin, I must admit, because she at least felt more competent and didn't irritate both the viewers and Arthur.)

This episode only really existed to undo the events of "The Dark Tower", so it was ultimately a forgettable hour and the conclusion of a very unpersuasive mini-arc for Gwen's character. Why have they wasted time on that, when they could have been playing up the antagonism and mistrust between Merlin and Mordred? That's a far richer source of drama, as both men are secretly sorcerers and vying for the favouritism of Arthur. I guess the only important thing about this episode is how Crone Merlin unsubtly made Arthur consider the fact that sorcery isn't inherently evil... but evil resides in people's hearts. Undoubtedly this will come into play around the time of the finale, when Arthur has an epiphany and probably man-hugs with Merlin in the last ten minutes. Then Merlin can merrily go around telekinetically throwing peasants through the air with impunity. Or something.

If you haven't already heard, Merlin's creators have decided to call time on their own show this series. The only person who's grateful is Simon Cowell, because X Factor will perhaps inherit 3 or 4 million extra viewers next winter. I made my thoughts clear earlier this week, but I'm ultimately unsurprised the writers have realised they're narratively incapable of sustaining the show... and yet angry they haven't done a better job with the larger concerns of the show—particularly regarding Merlin's magical secret.

I'll be sad to see Merlin end, of course, but sadder if it leaves us rolling our eyes over the many wasted opportunities.

1 December 2012 / BBC1