Merlin 5.06 “The Dark Tower” REVIEW

Merlin 5.06 “The Dark Tower” TV REVIEW [lots of spoilers right from the start!]

Gwen and Elyan

Queen Gwen and Sir Elyan at their father's grave.

Merlin score

5.06 “The Dark Tower”
Writer: Julian Jones
Director: Ashley Way

THE ONE WHERE Morgana kidnaps and psychologically tortures Guinevere and then – gasp – kills Elyan when the knights come to save her.

VERDICT Of all the Merlin episodes we’ve seen, this has the most fairytale-like ambience. The damsel in the tower, the impenetrable forest of thorns, the fairy guide, the enchanted sword… and at the centre of it all, Morgana, doing her pantomime witch act. Of course, like all good childhood yarns it’s properly dark in places, and Sir Elyan is on the receiving end of the series’ first big character death.

There’s a sort of fairytale justice in how he gives his life to save the sister he failed to protect, but I’m sorry to see Sir Elyan go. Actor Adetomiwa Edun felt occasionally underused but when he did lead an episode – last season’s “A Herald Of The New Age” for instance – he excelled. Sir Elyan gets arguably the best sword fight of the series so far and makes the ultimate sacrifice in order to save the Queen, a noble death and a sign – along with Gwen’s brainwashing – that this episode marks a welcome shake-up at court. Still, I’m a little disappointed that the showrunners fell into the horror story cliché of killing their only black knight.

It’s a shame that Gwen is turned to the dark side just as she was getting a meatier role to play at Camelot. She’s had an understated but important role at court this series so far, clearly growing into a position of leadership and basically running the kingdom when Arthur is absent. Her advice to Arthur over the previous few episodes has been insightful, but despite spending this episode bravely trying to resist Morgana she’s essentially become simply a pawn in the anti-Camelot game. And it’s another example of Gwen being tricked and hounded by magic into betraying her husband – remember the whole Lancelot debacle last year? Let’s hope that this new role as indoctrinated turncoat gives Angel Coulby some fun things to do. She acts fantastically well in this episode; I’m thinking of the moving scene of Elyan’s death particularly.

Although there’s no sign of Aithusa the baby dragon, Mordred, the glowing blue Gollum creature, the druids or any of the other characters we’ve come to associate with the main Morgana arc, this is an episode about her and her schemes. We learn a little more about what Morgana went through in that briefly-glimpsed pit – “at least you’re not shackled, there’s daylight, you can move” she says of Gwen’s condition, claiming that she spent two years chained to a wall. That’s enough to turn anybody bonkers. Well, that and the dragon poo that must have been up to her knees. She is resorting to increasingly elaborate, Bond villain-style attempts to try and steal Arthur’s throne, though. Why not just kidnap the king himself?

As for the relationship between Merlin and Arthur, we see it getting more and more equal all the time, with Merlin growing into the role of friend and advisor. They grip arms, shaking hands like warriors, as Merlin promises, “We’re not going to lose her, we’ll bring her home I swear.” The knights realise how much Arthur relies on Merlin’s help; there’s no argument when Merlin tells them “I’ll talk to him!” when the king needs persuading to take a break. And it’s Merlin who, on a couple of occasions, decides that the pursuit has to stop for the night. Since when did servants get to order knights to make camp? Merlin is clearly no longer just the boy who fetches their dinner.

It’s been stated often that Merlin has got darker as the characters have grown up, but I had a genuine feeling watching “The Dark Tower” that it’s the kind of episode that would have terrified me as a child. Gwen’s ghostly visions of her absent friends; the sudden, piercing screams in the tower room; the snake bites on two of the knights and their subsequent bad dreams; Morgana’s memories of being confined and tortured; a valley of corpses in the desert; the confusing, misleading forest and its malevolent, riddle-spouting fairy; a major character’s death at the hands of an invisible swordfighter – all things that make for an unsettling 43 minutes. Older viewers expecting Saturday evening fun in the Doctor Who slot should probably watch through first before deciding whether to share it with their kids.

INFLUENCES Of course the classic fairy stories play into this and anybody who’s seen Sleeping Beauty recognises the dark forest. But is there also a whiff of Indiana Jones here? The skeleton caught in a wall trap, then a room with pressure pads launching arrows from the walls?

Guinevere

Angel Coulby plays Guinevere. Horse name unknown.

NEW MAGIC Hoorah! We see a different spell this week: Merlin’s sorcerer’s eyes let him see ahead and help him navigate the forest.

LMAO Gwaine’s quite the joker this week. Twice he broke the tension with his throwaway banter. I’m loving his sleeping fantasies: “I was having a dream about eating a cheese that tasted of apple pie. Anybody else have that dream? You’re all missing out.” But then this summed up their approach to the Tower:
Gwaine: “How do we get there?”
Arthur: “Through the impenetrable forest!”
Gwaine: “But… it’s impenetrable.”

QUEEN MAB The feisty fairy is first mentioned in Shakespeare’s Romeo And Juliet (Mercutio talks about her in Act I, Scene IV):
“O, then, I see Queen Mab hath been with you.
She is the fairies’ midwife, and she comes
In shape no bigger than an agate-stone…”
After Shakespeare, she was picked up by loads of authors – Jane Austen names Willoughby’s horse after her in Sense And Sensibility, the first chapter of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is named after her. Modern fantasy authors Mike Carey and Jim Butcher have both used the character of Queen Mab and, of course, there’s a Queen Mab in season four of True Blood (played by Rebecca Wisocky). Queen Mab has a previous Arthurian connection too – in the TV mini-series Merlin (in which Sam Neill played the wizard), Mab was the main villain, the evil twin sister of the Lady of the Lake.

IT’S WOSSERNAME The fairy Queen Mab is played by young actress Kelly Wenham. She spent three years in ITV’s Where The Heart Is and you’ve seen her briefly in Life On Mars and Dead Set.

SLASH BAIT No Mordred at all, and the relationship between Arthur and Merlin felt cool but respectful – slash writers of the world can try and do something with the pair gripping arms in friendship but it felt noble and a symbol of Merlin’s growing authority rather than anything else. Instead, how about Arthur leading Elyan to the campfire with his arm around his shoulders?

Morgana

Katie McGrath plays the increasingly sinister and insane Morgana.

CHEKHOV’S GUN What was the point of Percival showing us his blister in the desert? The action paused for him to do it so you assume it’s going to have some relevance later but, nope, it was just a spurious detail. Anton Chekhov’s rule for writers: “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.”

THE LEGEND People today tend to know the title “The Dark Tower” from Stephen King’s fantasy series, but he was inspired by a poem by Robert Browning which in turn was inspired by a line from the end of Shakespeare’s King Lear, “Child Rowland to the dark tower came.” And ol’ Shakey was inspired by a traditional fairytale which comes, ultimately, from an Arthurian romance, so it’s a nice big loop back to Merlin. Stephen King actually has a character called Maerlyn in his series. In the original fairytale, princess Burd Ellen is playing ball near a church when she finds herself transported to the Dark Tower ruled by the king of Elfland. Merlin tells her brother Rowland how to fetch her back and warns him about the dangers to be faced on the way.

BEST LINE
Gwen: “I don’t want anything from you!”
Morgana: “There’s my crown…”

Dave Bradley

Merlin airs on Saturday nights on BBC One in the UK.

Read more Merlin season 5 reviews!

Visit the SFX TV Review Index