"That's another Finna mess you've gotten me into."
5.10 “The Kindness Of Strangers” Writer: Richard McBrien Director: Declan O’Dwyer
THE ONE WHERE As the end nears, old woman Finna brings Merlin a prophesy about Arthur’s final battle but both the knights of Camelot and Morgana’s troops are committed to hunting her down.
VERDICT Now that the Brainwashed Gwen arc is concluded, the series feels like it’s picking up momentum. This episode a minimal plot but it works tonally – it feels like is has purpose and a consistent atmosphere. The last few episodes have featured clumsy flights of comedy which, for me, have caused the pacing to stumble but this week even the lighter moments work as part of the whole – the tension has been taken up a notch (Morgana in particularly is more callous than before and there are at least three nasty deaths this week). Plus we see the great dragon… for possibly the last time? Stirring stuff.
At first, the episode feels like it’s recycling stories. We’re offered the return of Alator the Cathar Catha [see comments below] and Morgana threatens him with the Nathair serpent (she last used it on Sir Elyan in series four). They’re nice nods to previous Merlin lore but by the time Gaius has warned that it’s a trap as usual it feels – just for a moment – like this might all be way too familiar. Fortunately it soon developers a darker edge and the character dynamics are unexpected and very watchable.
The relationships and loyalties seem more sophisticated than usual. It’s interesting to see Gaius feeling guilty about revealing to Alator that Merlin is Emrys (series four) and thus betraying Finna to Arthur. Much of this episode is about the relationship between Gaius and Merlin – there are touching reminders about how Gaius is Merlin’s father-figure, instructor and confidant, as he shares words of comfort and even a hug. Merlin quite readily forgives Gaius for giving up Finna to the king because he knows it was done with the best of intentions. But it means that Merlin is forced to fight against Camelot’s knights in the forest. Later on, when he sneaks away from them in the forest, Mordred offers to lie for him. The mutual distrust between them is fascinating and we have to ask, is Mordred genuinely trying to help? Finna confirms that Mordred is dangerous to Arthur…
On the face of it, Finna does very little except to repeat warnings like that and to give Merlin the parchment that asserts the druidic prophesy about Arthur’s doom. (I notice there’s no further mention of Arthur being his own “bane”, as in the opening two-part story this year.) But her character adds to the sense of an unfolding destiny and serves to deepen the series’ mythology. We have to ask ourselves, why do magic users like Alator and Finna care so much about Arthur’s reign given that he’s an enemy of sorcery? Although her time in Merlin is brief, Finna does have a great exit, giving her life to keep Merlin from Morgana; when she asks for Merlin’s sword you assume it’s for defence but she actually commits suicide rather than give up our young hero. It’s not every Saturday evening family show that features hara-kiri is it?
It’s also sad to realise that we are bidding farewell to Kilgharrah the dragon. I almost cheered when he swoops down and saves Merlin, and there’s a glorious moment where he’s silhouetted against the moon, but then we learn that he’s old and his wing’s injured and his time is running out. We’re given very little time to feel the weight of melancholy though because in the final moments a dead knight is brought in and we’re given to understand that “Morgana has declared war.” Fingers crossed next week’s episode, the last before the two-part conclusion, continues with the portentous ambience established here.
Mordred: he plays with Gwaine's helmet this week.
NOW THAT’S MAGIC Some properly sinister magic this week! Sure, we’ve got the familiar air-punch too, but Morgana, Merlin and Finna all use fire spells for a change. There’s the return of the magic navigation spell too (the forest-path seeing-eye spell we last saw in “The Dark Tower“). Then Morgana uses a sort of Force head-snap to break Alator’s neck, which is kinda awesome as well as unpleasant… but that’s nothing to how she apparently kills the knight in the final scene, with his face disfigured and smothered.
IN THE DIRECTOR’S CHAIR This is Declan O’Dwyer’s first crack at directing a Merlin, although you’ll know him from Being Human where he made the pilot episode.
THE TITLE “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers,” is a line from Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) and since then the sentiment’s been fairly well used on screen. In our genre, it was the name of a season two Heroes episode in 2007.
The chap on the left is called Beroun.
IT’S WOSSERNAME AND ALSO WOSSISNAME Yay! It’s the return of Alator (Gary Lewis) from series four. Boo! He’s been killed. Oh well, as least we’ve got Finna… ah, boo, she’s dead too. Finna is of course played by Sorcha Cusack who’ll be very familiar to anybody who watched Casualty in the 1990s. She’s the sister of Heartbeat‘s Niamh Cusack, fact fans. Helping Morgana out this week we’ve also got bruiser Beroun who’s played by Barry Aird – he’s had small roles in lots of things including Misfits and new Survivors (he was Paddy in season two).
MORDRED’S MISSION After the knights have been teasing Gwaine (about 16 minutes in), and before they ride out to find Finna, Arthur takes Mordred to one side briefly to give him some instructions. What exactly does he get told that the other knights don’t know about? Could it be to keep an eye out for Merlin? He does seem especially watchful at the camp…
WHAT HAS PERCIVAL BEEN UP TO? Oh matron! There’s a sly gag this week as Percival appears to have received treatment for “palsy” (palsy, it seems, is a polite euphemism). Usually I’d expect this sort of innuendo from Gwaine. In fact, in many legends Sir Percival is a virgin who is able to find the Holy Grail (along with Sir Galahad) because of his purity.
Moments later the arm wrestling began in earnest.
SLASH BAIT There are more sensitive scenes between Merlin and Gaius this week than there are Merthur moments, but the easy banter and joshing between Merlin and the king does display the familiarity of their relationship.
“I think my dog can catch better than you!”
“Possibly because you treat him better!”
Once again Merlin is a gooseberry as Gwen and Arthur go riding – I know he’s Arthur’s servant but don’t they ever want privacy? He’s even skulking around their chamber during the whole “breakfast in bed” debacle. Meanwhile, do I sense some physical tension between Merlin and Mordred? Their mutual distrust might all be a cover for deeper feelings, check out the way they look at each other.
QUICK DVD COMPETITION: THE WINNER Thanks to everybody who left comments on the review last week. As promised, I have picked a winner who’ll receive the series five volume one DVD box set in the post. It was a very tough call and there are some lengthy and thoughtful posts here. But after reading them all again, I’m going to be in touch to get your postal address, Nimueh123! Congratulations and thanks again. I didn’t reveal this last week, but I have a runner-up prize too. This Gaius action figure, given to me by the folk behind the official Merlin Facebook game, is going in the post to Tao: I hope your five-year-old likes it.
An action figure of Richard Wilson - I don't believe it!
INFLUENCES The prophesy delivered by Finna about the coming battle says “let loose the hounds of war” – this is obviously influenced by the famous line in act three of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar where Anthony says, “Cry ‘havoc,’ and let slip the dogs of war!” It’s a common saying today, and turns up all over the place. With its mists and its forests, much of this episode reminds me of the classic Arthurian movie Excalibur but then when Merlin goes picking up discarded jewellery and scraps of paper in the woodland all I can think about are the Wombles. More seriously, the knight’s body in the final scene is suffering from the same affliction (skin growing across his face until he suffocates) that occurs in the ingenious Fringe.
HEALTH AND SAFETY If you ever get shot with an arrow like Merlin does this week, or indeed get stuck with anything in an accident, don’t pull it out! That only happens in movies and Merlin should know better. Finna appears not to realise that the arrow might be the only thing holding at artery together; you’re more likely to bleed to death by pulling out an object than by it going in first time. Let the paramedics deal with it.
Guinevere always knows what's going on between Arthur and Merlin.
ROUND TABLE LITE Another episode where the Round Table is absent. Arthur does his knights’ briefing in a rectangle in the throne room again.
THE LEGEND Finna talks of “the once and future king” which is exactly what Osgar called Arthur back in episode five and of course is the celebrated line from Malory. She also mentions that “the great battle nears”, a battle which is later named explicitly as Camlann on the parchment: “Let the dread fire of the last priestess rain down from angry skies … as the great horn sounds a cold dawn at Camlann … there Arthur will meet his end upon that mighty plain.” Yikes! Yep, naturally the Battle of Camlann is the king’s grand finale in the legends. The earliest known reference to it is in the Welsh histories known as Annales Cambriae, where it says that in AD 537 Arthur and Mordred both perished – although interestingly it does not state explicitly that they were on opposite sides. There is much scholarly debate about where Camlann might be in Britain. Some scholars place it in Somerset (where the river Cam flows beneath Camel Hill), at the Roman fort Camboglanna on Hadrian’s Wall, on the river Camel on the Cornish border, at Camelon near Falkirk, or on the river Camlan in Wales! Since the geography of Merlin‘s Albion does not match the real world I’m honestly not going to worry about it.
BEST LINE Finna: “It is my destiny, Emrys, to serve you until the end – I could wish for nothing more.”