THE ONE WHERE Arthur and Merlin rescue the knights from Morgana’s mines, with the completely unexpected help of Mordred.
VERDICT This is another solid slice of Merlin, which stands out mostly because of the surprises – new status quo ahoy! Glowing Gollum-lite creature Diamair (also called the Euchdag) seems to do bugger all and there’s a lot of slow-slow-quick-quick-slow fighting, but what we’ll really remember this second instalment for is the bad-guy character development. Who imprisoned Morgana and dragon Aithusa in that oubliette and how long were they there? A tantalising glimpse early on promises some dark developments. And Mordred’s suddenly an ally and part of the Round Table? Now I’m looking forward even more to what this series will deliver in the weeks ahead.
There is some great swordplay this week but once again not much magic, Merlin’s confrontation with the dragon a rare example – he holds off the dragon’s fiery breath and attempts to communicate with it in his Dragonlord voice. Yes, after I remarked on the baby dragon’s absence last week, we immediately see Aithusa in Morgana’s shocking dream, grown but ugly; then when the young dragon is confronted by Merlin in the Ismere mines we discover it can’t speak. Whatever was done to Aithusa and Morgana in the missing three years it seems this will be vitally important during the series. Morgana is, of course, the other source of magic this week, as she channels everything from Darth Vader (using the Force to hold a knife to Arthur) to The Terminator (you can try to kill her but she absolutely will not stop). That sudden WTF?! moment when Mordred stabs her is fantastic and the real reason why this episode scores so highly. No wonder Morgana is always angry – she’s continually being betrayed by people she knows. It’s an unexpected twist, having a magic-user as a knight of the Round Table; Gaius and Gwen remind us that the druids are supposedly a peaceful people but we’ve seen Mordred wield weapons and there remains a look in his eyes which suggests we’re never going to be able to trust him. Well played Alexander Vlahos!
There’s another example of Merlin’s magic earlier where he uses his staple feor! spell to crack the frozen cliff edge. But apart from that the conflicts are largely physical ones; their escape from the bandits across the ice is a superb skirmish (it seems Arthur is a crack shot with a crossbow as well as a swordsman). What’s interesting is Merlin’s desire to see Arthur shoot Mordred. He’s obviously acting from a place of concern for Arthur – after all, last week’s vision showed him Mordred will be Arthur’s nemesis – but this is another sign that Merlin is prepared to make dubious moral suggestions in order to protect Arthur.
The depth of Morgana’s obsession is that she accepts Sefa’s execution as a noble sacrifice for her cause, although Ruadan obviously has his doubts despite some cold-hearted talk. There’s a sense that the writers are trying to have their cake and eat it with Gwen – on the one hand we’re seeing her stateswoman like behaviour in the castle, prepared to dispense justice where she sees treachery… on the other hand, she has no intention of executing the girl, she’s just using her as bait to draw out a conspiracy. She’s a better judge of character than Morgana is, because of course Ruadan – apparently some kind of magic-using kung-fu ninja sword-fighting druid – comes looking for Sefa. The alarm bell that rings in Camelot is exactly the same as the alarm bell at Morgana’s base, a fact which helps press home the parallel that both sides are holding captives which their families are trying to save.
The weakest element in this story is the pointy-headed Euchdag. Also known as the Diamair, she is an odd creature, more alien than elf. The “last of my kind” shtick is kind of clichéd and beyond hiding Gwaine from the guards and dispensing some vague “Arthur is his own worst enemy” wisdom she does very little beyond be a MacGuffin to explain why Morgana is enslaving diggers.
Queen Guinevere Pendragon in her throne room.
GROSS Merlin gets rotting carrots dumped on him from Ismere’s garbage shoot. It’s especially amusing because King Arthur is less troubled by crawling through kitchen waste than his servant. It’s funny but the humour feels a little forced because the tone of the rest of the show is so far much more grown-up.
NITPICK Ruadan’s magic skills do not extend to healing sword wounds – but he does have a spell for making writing appear on a piece of paper. What a rubbish enchantment! He could have written on that square Post-It note in about 15 seconds, particularly as all it really says is “Careful, Arthur’s on his way!” Learn some more useful magic, druids!
THE DIAMAIR The glowing Euchdag is defined on the BBC website: “The Diamair is a creature that carries a great burden – the gift of all-knowledge. Shy and elusive, she has been driven underground by those desperate to seek her out.”
Sophie Rundle as Sefa.
MISSED OPPORTUNITY Do you get the feeling that in early drafts of the script Arthur and Merlin probably rode the mine car into the depths, as in Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom? Then the BBC looked at the budget and went, “Nah, let’s not show that.”
SLASH BAIT Once again, not a lot of Merlin/Arthur, but fans of Percival and Gwaine are all set this week with plenty of bare-chested action in Morgana’s mines.
LEGEND The first mention of Mordred in the legend – as Medraut – is in the tenth century Welsh chronicle Annales Cambriae under the entry for AD 537. It’s that reference to the battle of Camlann (“in which Arthur and Medraut fell”) again. The concept of Mordred being Arthur’s incestuously illegitimate son is not introduced until the later medieval cycles and the creators of Merlin have chosen to ignore that, quite wise for a Saturday teatime BBC show. Early on in literary history Mordred’s name becomes synonymous with treachery, and Dante has him confined to Hell. Later storytellers, however, reinterpret him as somebody who had been wronged. Even Malory, who portrays Mordred as a villain, claims the people of England thought that “with Arthur was none other life but war and strife, and with Sir Mordred was great joy and bliss.”
Nothing keeps King Arthur from his knights.
CLASSICAL EDUCATION Merlin says, “I feel that the die is cast, and for good or ill Albion’s great trial has begun!” As every fan of Asterix knows, “the die is cast” (referring to dice having been thrown) is from the Latin alea iacta est, said by Caesar in 49 BC to mark the point of no return as he marched against his enemies in Italy.
NEXT WEEK Next weekend’s Merlin episode is “The Death Song of Uther Pendragon” which is written by Howard “Misfits” Overman, responsible for 10 previous episodes including last season’s game-changing story “The Wicked Day“.
BEST LINE Morgana: “I am the high priestess, I have the heavens in my hands – and yet still he defies me!”
Gaius: “There are those that believe Arthur is destined to die by a druid’s hand. Perhaps Ruadan thought he was that man.” Gwen: “Then he was mistaken.”
Merlin airs on Saturday nights on BBC One in the UK.