Merlin Season 3 Finally Gets on the Magical Ball
By Kristin Battestella
After two entertaining but somewhat youthful and meandering seasons, Merlin Year 3 grows up, gets dark, and takes major strides towards the Camelot we’ve been expecting all along.
Prince Arthur (Bradley James) and his loyal but secretly magically inclined servant Merlin (Colin Morgan) have spent the last year searching for King Uther’s (Anthony Head) ward Morgana (Katie McGrath). When Morgana suddenly returns, she is changed for the worse- thanks to the evil magic tutelage of her half sister Morgause (Emilia Fox). Morgause and Uther’s enemy King Cenred (Tom Ellis) have united and with Morgana’s help, hope to overthrow Uther. Court Physician Gaius (Richard Wilson), Morgana’s maid Guinevere (Angel Colby), and would be knight Gwaine (Eoin Macken) join Arthur and Merlin in saving Camelot against the brewing darkness.
The Arthurian angst picks up with the serious steps taken in the two-part season opener “The Tears of Uther Pendragon.” Episode 5 “The Crystal Cave” also leans Merlin towards establishing its own magical mythos instead of relying on creature features, special effects, or other seemingly fantastic knock-offs. Episode 8 “The Eye of the Phoenix” has room for seriousness, nice guest stars, and a lovely quest, too. Wonderful coming of age events, emotional issues, and consequences that can’t be retconned add much needed maturity, depth, and growth. Again, when Merlin gets heavy, it feels right, as if it should have been this way all along. This darker material harbingers intense, over arching, multi-part tales- we can have maturity and guilt without the super duper kids stuff. Our regular players, more recurring stock, and fine guest stars all mix wonderfully, allowing the core cast to finally grow beyond their stereotypical magical conundrums. Year 3 even has ‘Previouslies’ to update viewers on the ongoing plots, and the continuing storylines progress realistically towards the expected legends and Arthurian magic. Director Alice Troughton does some fine episodes including “Love in the Time of Dragons.” “Queen of Hearts” writer Howard Overman often has solid episodes as well. At last, we have some traditional Grail hints along with Merlin’s great humor, camaraderie, and banter all around; there’s even more fun thanks to the budding Round Table additions of Gwaine, Lancelot, Percival, and Elyan. Let me also assure the traditionalists looking for how Excalibur plays its part- it is worth the wait. Yes, Merlin can seem a little too noble and preachy at times, but Arthurian tales should perhaps be so. If we’re going to have some brooding court angst at Camelot, it is still nice to have the wholesome goodness balancing out the heavy.
Thankfully, the use of the Dragon in “The Sorcerer’s Shadow” is also much better this season- he’s actually critical to the plot and has a reason for being there instead of just coming off as a neat effect. Merlin is best when it’s about its own people and establishment, not creatures and borrowed magic mythos. So why then, does it always take half a season to get to the really good stuff? Shows like “Goblin’s Gold” and “The Changeling” always resort to evil magic, CGI monsters of the week, or a humorous romantic enchantment. Merlin always seems uneven thanks to the relapses toward fart jokes, unending marriage ploys, and constant hollow threats against Camelot. Do we need creatures and flatulence week after week when there’s such dark goodness to be had? How many tournaments can there be? Even magic rings too! It’s as if the writers sometimes don’t know all they have to use and have spent the last two years with random Arthurian trial and error. Though it turned out to have serious flaws when critical players departed, I don’t wonder why creators Julian Jones and Jake Michie don’t do linear seasons and concurrent storylines as they did with Hex. I’ve been asking for ongoing heavy for two years here! Instead, we end up waiting until the two-part finale “The Coming of Arthur” for Merlin to become truly great television.
I must say, it is amusing when Arthur accuses Merlin of not being able to keep secrets! We wouldn’t like this show if we didn’t enjoy Colin Morgan, and he is solid throughout the season, particularly in the finale. Although he still uses some magical cop-outs when Arthur is conveniently unconscious and no one ever sees anything when he openly risks using magic in public; Merlin actually uses real spells this season, takes true magical dangers, and gets his wizardry to the level it should be. Guest Harry Melling (Harry Potter) as Gilli makes a fine antithesis to Merlin in “The Sorcerer’s Shadow,” too. While it’s been nice seeing Merlin grow to this point-especially for younger and family audiences- again why not do all this to start? Sometimes it’s as if Merlin simply began too soon, showing us the juvenile prologue and now we are finally at Chapter One. Of course, teen lady fans will enjoy all the shirtless action, and there is still some innocent fun when Merlin gets to ride the Dragon. That would indeed be cool. Not to be outdone, Arthur has some room to grow up against Uther this season as well, taking stands on critical issues and persons. The power hungry versus those who cede power are realistically debated, and Bradley James really does seem like he might not be a bad King Arthur after all.
But of course, the unimaginative decisions made by the writers of Merlin hamper the ladies onscreen again. Morgana goes too obviously evil too soon. Again, she should have been bad all along or the foundations for this naughty turn should have been built over the first two seasons far better. McGrath, however, is good at being a potentially evil queen- but won’t someone notice all her evil smirks? The overabundance of Smirking Morgana early on in turn weakens the barely there Gwen. Animosity between the girls and Morgana’s meddling in Arthur and Gwen’s forbidden romance again should have been ongoing since day one. I know I’ve said ‘again’ and ‘all along’ a lot, but it bears repeating. We spend so much time with Morgana and then leapfrog over her storyline for guest humor, creating a most unrealistic and uneven internal villain. Fortunately, Gwen is strengthened a bit by some more back-story, including references to her late father and the introduction of Adetomiwa Edun as her brother Elyan. Just knowing that neither Guinevere nor Uther have forgotten what has come before adds a little more dimension as Gwen takes strides towards being the future queen.
Speaking of Uther, Anthony Head still has plenty of arrogance and parental issues, and likewise Richard Wilson as Gaius stretches his hidden wizardry roots. Wilson is great fun in “Goblin’s Gold,” and it’s nice to see that some romances in Camelot aren’t forgotten and have long lasting rifts and conflicts. Despite some disliking Merlin for its family fantasy bend, there’s still plenty of room for the elder stars to shine without always resorting to humor. Sometimes we don’t see as much of the adults as I might like thanks to all the kid shenanigans and special effects; but good, mature story, parental bonding, and family approvals will always trump graphics. Michael Cronin as Geoffrey of Monmouth also supports wonderfully, and it’s great to see him and more players like Emilia Fox as Morgause. Tom Ellis (Eastenders) also adds good villainy as Cenred. Together he and Morgause make serious and credible threats against Camelot, and the recurring knights like Sir Leon (Rupert Young) are needed now more than ever. Of course, Santiago Cabrera has yet to really have his moment as Lancelot, but Eoin Macken is quite cool as Gwaine. His bar fights and ongoing appearances are wonderful and do so much more than those silly melees after tournaments after jousts. At last, significant support players are winning out against the kiddie grasp at ratings. Percival, people, Percival!
While we shouldn’t expect Oscar worthy cinematics on a small show like this, the battle and massive effects are a little less quality compared to the bigger, modern epics we are used to today. Fortunately, Merlin is stepping up to the plate and growing up nicely in all other areas at last. Although it isn’t quite fair to properly compare three episodes worth of one to three seasons worth of the other, I’d be remiss if I didn’t counter Merlin and the new Starz adaptation Camelot. As of now, I much prefer the fantastical lessons and youth of Merlin to the historical sex of Camelot. While I may end up watching all of Camelot eventually, Merlin has the better angle on how it wants to use magic in its telling, and the men here are much more likeable. Jamie Campbell Bower and Joseph Fiennes are just too bland and completely insipid. However, Camelot has much more epic music, realistically 5th century locations and sets, and better handled ladies in Eva Green and Claire Forlani. I’ve been waiting for so long for the juvenile Merlin to get real and grow up, but Camelot is a little too far off the deep and dark nudity end. It’s so strange now that there is a wealth of medieval material in film and television on both sides of the pond, and yet there still isn’t an Arthurian tale with which I am 100% happy. Merlin is a fantasy, Camelot is historical, but where is the ‘historical fantasy’ Lord of the Rings medium? Maybe somebody else will come along next year with something heavier than Merlin- but hey Camelot, lighten up.
Then again, HBO’s Game of Thrones looks to be firing on all cylinders straight out of the gate. Somehow, this new fantasy series led by Sean Bean and Mark Addy can handle not your mama’s fantasy dark whilst still being traditionally gripping. Thrones looks good, mixing designs that are realistically old with some exotic fantasy colors, and again the cast is both likeable and naughty all around. Is it just because these A Song of Ice and Fire books have been adapted carefully with author George R.R. Martin that sets Thrones off and running on the right style, tone, and production? It’s taken Merlin a long time to find where it needs to be, and Camelot is already sputtering. Kinky and nudity isn’t used to replace good storytelling in Game of Thrones, and fantasy oriented families may very well be able to handle both Merlin for the pups and Thrones once the babes are put to bed.
Unfortunately, American audiences may have to wait quite some time for Season 4 of Merlin, as there is some sort of potential scheduling hullabaloo in the UK between Merlin and Doctor Who. After making such great efforts and character turns in Year 3 that can’t be taken back, schmikey it would be a shame for audiences to forget Merlin thanks to airing technicalities. If you’ve already turned away from Merlin thanks to its prior youth and silliness, give Season 3 a fresh chance- it’s grown up look and charm this year may just surprise you.