5.05 “The Disir” Writer: Richard McBrien Director: Ashley Way
THE ONE WHERE The highest court of the old religion challenges Arthur to accept magic but Merlin (gasp!) advises against it because he fears Mordred’s part in Camelot’s downfall. But he may have set in motion the very chain of events he dreads.
VERDICT This is staggering. A totally unexpected course of action from young Merlin cleverly leaves the status quo of Camelot intact while emotionally ruining everything forever.
It’s a spooky, action-packed episode anyway. But that scene where Arthur is asking Merlin’s advice is powerful. Merlin has a moment where he could reveal everything, could advise Arthur to embrace magic, could bring to reality all his dreams for freedom and acceptance and come clean to his friend… and doesn’t, in order to protect him. The brilliant music swells as the two of them discuss it in the dark and Merlin pauses… Colin Morgan is brilliant in this scene, playing out an emotional battle in silence.
Then it’s a definite “I can’t believe what he’s saying!” moment. And it’s tragic because everything in this episode is done for love. Merlin makes a terrible decision because he fears for Arthur’s safety. Mordred gets close to the king because – despite what the Great Dragon prophesises – he genuinely yearns to be a good Knight of the Round Table. Gwaine and Mordred are struck down by the Disir because they are trying to protect the king they serve. Arthur approaches the Disir in humility because he wants to save Mordred. He then acts on Merlin’s advice because he trusts his opinion. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, isn’t it?
Despite all the sorcery and the druidism and the “superstition” (Arthur’s words) it’s rare for Merlin to tackle religion. Here we have the agents of the “old gods” specifically challenging Arthur’s beliefs and demanding that he convert and accept their ways. Arthur doesn’t have faith in the credibility of the Disir but clearly Gaius does and so does the show itself because apparently the Disir do have the power to affect a person’s fate. By the end, Arthur has come to at least respect their traditions and their sacred grove even if he will not allow magic into his land. In all the traditional legends Arthur and his knights are explicitly Christian but this has never come up in the TV show. Instead Arthur’s stance is that he know the ancient powers exist he just thinks they should be outlawed because they’re dangerous; and 37 minutes in Arthur makes a good point about the risks of magic – Morgana is a walking example of how sorcery can be turned against Camelot. Why should he help these people? Yet unlike his father he is willing to consider alternative perspectives, particularly if it’s for the good of his brother knights.
Merlin reveals his growing confidence once again; he tells Gaius how he’s grown up and how he realises he has a duty to Arthur. And Arthur readily accepts him in this role now, not only admitting that Merlin is right sometimes (once again couched in joke terms) but also for once demanding that Merlin offer his opinion – “but I am asking you!” he barks.
In all, this is an important episode, one driven by character and emotion; it leaves Merlin’s powers still a secret, but it puts us in a place where Merlin is responsible for Arthur’s rejection of magic, a frustrating but exhilarating twist at a time when Arthur and Merlin are both evolving. And Mordred’s influence is increasing… There’s an irony that if Mordred does turn out to face Arthur in battle, it will have been the king himself who trained him to be so good with a sword.
Befelan, Atorloppe and Niede are the Disir.
SQUARING THE CIRCLE Where’s the Round Table gone? Sir Leon sits down with the council of knights to give his report about Osgar… at a perfectly standard rectangular table.
OBJECTS OF DISIR The Disir are Valkyrie-like goddesses from Norse mythology. It literally means “ladies” but they were considered spirits or deities who influenced the fates of humans. There is still an annual February fair in Sweden called the Disting which started out in medieval times as a heathen feast day celebration in their honour. They were one influence behind Shakespeare’s Weird Sisters and you get a definite sense of those three witches in this episode of Merlin – when they’re talking among themselves and then to Osgar at the beginning, it’s like the first act of Macbeth. The Disir in Merlin are called Befelan, Atorloppe and Niede according to the BBC and they’re played by guest stars Frances Tomelty, Sian Thomas and Helen Schlesinger.
BYE BYE GWAINE? We can start speculating about how Gwaine will meet his end this series. Actor Eoin Macken has won himself a role in a US pilot and when a fan on Twitter asked him “Does this mean I should expect to be losing my favourite knight on Merlin soon?” he said simply, “Unfortunately so…”
IT’S WOSSISNAME Osgar the doomed sorcerer is played by Andrew Tiernan, who you’ll know from many screen appearances including Life On Mars and the movie 300 (he was the disfigured villain). I once shared a lift with him in Milton Keynes: fact.
INFLUENCES As well as the whiff of Macbeth (see above) there’s also a clear parallel with The Empire Strikes Back. Arthur taking his weapons into the sacred cave despite warnings from his sagacious friend is just like Luke, who ultimately has to face himself – in Darth Vader’s clothes – when he goes into the grove against Yoda’s advice.
SLASH BAIT We’re all about Merthur here at SFX Towers but could Mordred have caught the king’s eye? “I do believe you’ve grown fond of him!” chuckles Gwen to Arthur and that’s certainly borne out in the way Arthur worries about him when he’s injured – and carries him in a big hug at the end. Merlin and Arthur get some quality fireside time too, though, and the king asks him for a discussion “man to man”, which is promising; as Merlin’s concern for Arthur becomes obvious, he says nonchalantly, “You sound almost like you care…”
Alex Vlahos is Mordred.
THE LEGEND Osgar calls Arthur Pendragon “the once and future king”. This is a famous epithet for King Arthur which traces its way back to Malory, where at the end of his epic work we learn the king’s tomb has written on it: “Hic iacet Arthurus, rex quondam, rexque futurus.” (“Here lies Arthur, the once and future king.”) In this way it shadows his death – and possible resurrection in times to come. TH White’s famous 1958 novel about Camelot was called The Once And Future King based on this.
BEST LINE Arthur: “More and more I find your face resembles the back end of a cat.”