Merlin Season 4 Steps It Up At Last!
By Kristin Battestella
It’s taken awhile for the BBC series Merlin to grow into its own mythology, but with this fourth season, it has finally stepped up to what it should be.
One year has passed since Morgana (Katie McGrath) fled Camelot and the broken King Uther (Anthony Head). Though his Uncle Agravaine (Nathaniel Parker) would seem to help Prince Arthur (Bradley James) rule, he secretly supports the exiled Morgana’s intentions against Camelot. Servant Merlin (Colin Morgan) and Court Physician Gaius (Richard Wilson) have their suspicions about Agravaine, but little can be done without proof. Maid Guinevere (Angel Colby) cares for the ailing Uther and becomes a strong supporter of Arthur at court- much to Agravaine and Morgana’s chagrin. The illegitimate sorceress is determined to never see her former maid upon her throne as Queen of Camelot.
The drama’s been kicked up this season, and we have new credits, too! It peeves me when everyone isn’t listed in the opening, but finally we also have a fine supporting court cast as there always should have been. With positive players like the Knights of the Round Table against the meddling forces of Nathaniel Parker as Agravaine, this year builds nicely towards the Arthurian myths we know, love, and have long expected to see. Old Merlin has a few appearances, the fully villainous Morgana and would be Queen Gwen face their destinies, and Arthur at last rises to the occasion. The fast paced, grown up strides of Series 4 makes an audience wonder why they wasted the first 2 seasons on humor and stupid creatures of the week! Alice Troughton wonderfully directs the opening two-parter “The Darkest Hour,” a great suspenseful Samhain plot, as well as the third episode “The Wicked Day” and the “Sword in the Stone” two hour finale. Though the intercutting and deaths are a little heavy in the first episode, it’s bemusing to see all the badass knights cowering and afraid of wispy phantoms. Several scenes throughout the season do erroneously demote the knights towards comedy and overused misuses or further stupidity. However, oft writer Howard Overman also builds on King Uther’s anti-magic stance and finally creates resolutions that take Merlin toward the getting good point of no return in episode 5 “His Father’s Son” and the subsequent “A Servant of Two Masters.” Arthur’s budding kingship and Merlin versus Morgana turntables take the forefront while the quality humor, humility, and family friendly style remains well balanced amid the increasing perils.
Of course, those perils are depicted with way too much slow motion! And yet, the heavies come too quickly at times as well- resolved haphazardly or afterwards easily forgotten. “The Secret Sharer” and “Lamia” almost resort to slapstick and creature feature stylings while “Aithusia” provides another quest for quest’s sake with conveniently knocked out knights allowing magic to happen sight unseen. It’s also odd to again have so many one off episodes when the heavy ongoing storylines could continue. Why must major material go on hold for the rehashed plot of the week? “A Herald of a New Age” has some great scares and gives Elyan something to do; but it also retreads earlier wet ghost plots, and the major arc change for his sister Gwen in the previous episode “Lancelot du Lac” is hardly mentioned. Despite serious reflective time for Arthur and maturity for Morgana, “The Hunter’s Heart” also rehashes arranged marriages and new princesses. The improvements on Merlin are great, but it is too easy for the writers to fall into seemingly safer, juvenile trappings. The otherwise fine finale feels slightly rushed, too, with a wasted Tristan and Isolde opportunity. We finally have all the legends we love happening all at once and they’re sped up for presumed audiences with short attention spans. Fortunately, great suspense, action, and relationship turns force our players to, you know, act like adults. Excalibur makes its presence known and Merlin at last goes past the point of no return in approaching Series 5.
Although Merlin still uses magic in public too much and no one ever notices, Colin Morgan is perfect at saying all that can’t be said. He also has some fun as the Old Merlin incarnation, mixing the snarky with a serious and wise reflection. It’s nice to see Merlin take on medical duties in “Lamia,” and there’s even an Evil Merlin in “The Servant of Two Masters.” As these young men mature, Merlin’s relationship with Arthur also improves greatly. The humor and camaraderie are still there, but as Bradley James rises Arthur to new leadership and strengths, critical events and a lovely begrudging respect replace the crude and previously so often retconned jerky Arthur. There are some nods to the slash subtext built in this season- a little more emotion and bromance per episode for fans. However, I could do without the weird near butt shots and ab-fest imagery unnecessarily toeing the line of excessiveness. By contrast, Arthur seems to cry quite a bit this season, and that isn’t a bad thing. His burdens increase wonderfully through Year 4, creating quality drama in Camelot and much need adult angst on Merlin.
Audiences are finally treated to Katie McGrath’s full on magical and notched up Morgana, too. Her style would seem a little too Potter Bellatrix-black lace, crazy hair, cheap Halloween costume spider web designs- but she does look great! Green eye shadow has replaced that so obviously evil black eyeliner, and Morgana’s little witchy hut is a spooky, elemental place- even if it seems way too close to Camelot to never be found! McGrath tones down the smirky as well, but she still fronts more evil backtalk dialogue then she successfully does thanks to repeated evil exposition. Episode 7 “The Secret Sharer” fortunately shows Morgana’s increasing magical connections building heavy towards the finale. Her hooded, dark menace ways grow throughout the season, and Morgana’s ongoing threats to Camelot amplify the tension and create divisions all around. I still hold hope we may have more of the even juicier Emilia Fox as Morgana’s disfigured sister Morgause, too.
Angel Colby also looks much nicer this season, and Gwen is at last receiving some just Arthurian grace. This is how she should have been styled all along. Why did they waste all that time on a bumbling servant girl? Where did those boobs come from?! It is unusual that Gwen would nurse Uther after all he did to her and her late father- like causing him to be late. However, her intelligence, maturity, and compassion lead to a strong standing at Camelot’s court and define the Guinevere we’ve long expected. Her relationship with Arthur has finally gotten realistic, even it if is handled innocently for the family audiences. Some of the retread with Santiago Cabrera as Lancelot is a waste of his appearances, but his guest episodes fortunately can’t revolve around some stupid puppy love anymore. Serious consequences and meatier bits happen for all the knights on Merlin this series- and it’s so nice to have court players on Merlin all the time! Yes, Eoin Macken as Gwaine is especially resorted to mostly comic relief instead of snappy guest spotlights. Despite being a creature of the week enchantment and subterfuge, “Lamia” does give Gwaine, Leon (Rupert Young), Elyan (Adetomiwa Edun), and Percival (Tom Hopper) a chance to shine. The writers still don’t seem to fully utilize all their wonderful players, but the knights’ moments per episode increase the camaraderie and peril throughout the season.
The great strides for Merlin this year do deserve praise, but Richard Wilson’s fatherly Gaius finds himself accused of sorcery yet again in “The Secret Sharer.” Everything is much more serious and the individual tests work because Wilson is so good, but our darling and classy Court Physician is still needed onscreen- even as our younger cast grows up. Anthony Head also raises the bar as the sickly and humbled Uther in “The Wicked Day.” Strange as it may sound, it’s great to see the anti-magic, mean King broken after such prior nasties! New regular Nathaniel Parker (Inspector Lynley Mysteries) as Lord Agravaine is equally love to hate worthy as the embittered uncle slithering into Camelot. Again, his kind of subterfuge should have been part of Merlin all along. Although I’m sorry but I must say it, for there are some potentially dirty vibes coming from Agravaine in scenes with the pretty young ladies! He’s always sneaking off for a secret or suspicious rendezvous with Morgana or trying to trap Gwen into uncomfortable one on one meetings. Youth enjoying Merlin probably won’t notice, but older audiences and adults will see his disturbingly fine brand of creepy!
Though I wish they had extended appearances, mature guest stars Gemma Jones and Miranda Raison (MI-5), Melanie Hill (Stardust), Lindsay Duncan (Rome), Ben Daniels (Law & Order: UK), and the too, too brief Michael Cronin as Geoffrey of Monmouth are perfection. I would rather have actors acting instead of mock battles with thin air and monsters of the week any day. But alas, such action has almost always been the definition of fantasy media, I suppose. Precious time on Merlin is still wasted on creature features, and the Massive CGI effects are somewhat low in quality if compared to big cinema today. Fortunately, the set dressings, forestry and castle locations, and fun costumes invoke superior medieval mood and fantasy atmosphere. Great candelabras, court finery, and spooky ruins do wonders indeed! Sure, it’s colorful and not high end 5th century brooding, but the fanciful for young and old has always been a fine aspect on Merlin. John Heard and his Great Dragon avatar are also smartly used as needed in poignant, touching moments- especially in the fourth episode spotlight, “Aithusa,” and hopefully the dragon hints and motifs will blossom to the forefront in the upcoming Series 5.
Merlin can still fall victim to weaker juvenile formulas, I grant you. Thankfully, Year 4 has stepped up the pace and maturity immensely, and casual reset buttons can no longer be pressed. Older audiences or Camelot connoisseurs who may have put off the series for its growing pains beginnings can now tune in anew. After jumping in with this season on the SyFy (still hate that!) Channel’s recent airings, my teen nieces are now addicted! All lovers of fantasy fun can enjoy Merlin’s strengthened storytelling and approaching Arthurian wonders. Bring on Year 5!