By Kristin Battestella
It doesn’t seem like the British fantasy series Merlin has been on that long or gotten that old, yet here we are in the Fifth and final season with our youthful cast supposedly mature and unfortunately, disappointing.
Servant and secret possessor of magic Merlin (Colin Morgan) has protected Camelot, King Arthur (Bradley James), and his queen Guinevere (Angel Colby) for three years against the dark magic plots of Arthur’s half sister Morgana (Katie McGrath). When the druid Mordred (Alexander Vlahos) – foretold to kill Arthur – becomes a knight of Camelot, however, Merlin and court physician Gaius (Richard Wilson) must stop him as more of Morgana’s evil allies threaten to destroy Arthur and Albion’s future.
The two part “Arthur’s Bane” is nice to start Year 5, but it also feels as though it’s made up of knockoffs or plot borrowing that interferes and detracts from Merlin’s own mythos. There’s snowy action and wolves ala Game of Thrones and underground mining ala Lord of the Rings – but the boys are shirtless! I guess that’s all that matters now. Thankfully, there are still fine Round Table motifs, Emrys iconographies, and touches of the Great Dragon. Merlin isn’t afraid of death and there’s some solid foreshadowing of Le Morte de Arthur, but again Camelot conclusions and depth are pushed aside for more copying as Samwise Merlin cooks rabbits and gets caught in a net just like Return of the Jedi. Some poor CGI Ancient Aliens heal Gwaine, too, and the ridiculous slow motion battles and leaps reek of Spartacus. Honestly, I’m amazed the nighttime photography, dark CGI, lightning, flying thru the air knockdowns, and supposedly epic final battles are so poor. Writer Howard Overman does provide good scares, suspense, and dark themes for episode 3, “The Death Song of Uther Pendragon,” and the humor works here because it alleviates tension instead of hamming it up. Sadly, this final season is bereft of direction otherwise, as the creators, producers, and writers have run themselves into the ground with the simplest storytelling, action iffys, and plot holes ad nauseum. I thought the truncated falling apart of Julian Jones, Jake Michie, Johnny Capps, and Julian Murphy’s previous series Hex was do to other factors, but now I’m not so sure. How do these guys just keep doing the same thing over and over?
Recurring Camelot friends and enemies return for this season, but this odd tying up of loose ends somehow leaves more players and Arthurian plots hanging. The first halves of Merlin’s seasons have always been kind of ho hum, and show 7 “A Lesson in Vengeance” predictably relies on clichés already used in Merlin despite some suspenseful possibilities from director Alice Troughton. Likewise, Troughton adds tension to “The Hollow Queen” and “With All My Heart,” but again, the Gwen storyline is unbelievable thanks to the same old rehashings. Who’s under a spell, someone is knocked unconscious, and how is magic going to save the day this time? Where’s anything that makes Merlin Arthurian? Show 10 “The Kindness of Strangers” is good thematically, but nothing happens to advance anything, and Merlin does not have time to waste on all these gosh darn sorcery retreads. We finally get an Arthurian plot for the “The Diamond of the Day” two part series finale, but the less said about it, the better. All these years, I’ve been waiting for Merlin to take it to the next level, but in retrospect, it’s amazing this show didn’t go to total pot even sooner. It’s a pity; I barely finished watching this season and won’t tune in for another series from these show runners again.
Merlin moves its internal timeline up several years, but Arthur is still a little too mean to Merlin. Their bemusing banter is still one of the highlights of the show, but shouldn’t the characters have, like, you know, grown up by now? Amid the heavy and wise, there is time for a wisecracking moment or two, but Merlin’s done nothing all this time but play the fool in front of the queen? When is he going to become Arthur’s respected, trusted advisor? The repeat gags near farce and threaten to overtake all the on form groundwork by Colin Morgan. He deals with the magical and prophetic heavies wonderfully – even if Merlin is made to Deathly Hallows wannabe in the end. The way he tries to tell Arthur how he has skills unseen and has saved him many times is heartbreaking, and getting to his core of the series should have happened far, far sooner. Bradley James as Arthur also has moments of boldness and power, but shows a sympathetic and honest side for some strong speeches and sincerity in the end. Arthur has some wise words and beliefs when allowed to show them, but the Merlin writers do him so, so, so wrong! I really don’t understand why this pair is always resorted to jokes when the series’ strength has always been the seriousness and ready to play of its ensemble. Merlin and Arthur’s final scenes are where Merlin should have always been. It’s very touching, but by the end, it’s just not enough. Thankfully, there is some stepped up ominous with the too little utilized Mordred storyline. Sinister music accents Alexander Vlahos (Doctors) onscreen, but he doesn’t have to do much. We know what to expect from Mordred but his suspicious idles in obvious plots – as in the weird romance tacked on with three episodes left. Us versus them magic persecution talks between Mordred and Merlin are too few and far between, further wasting the subterfuge possibilities. Likewise, Old Merlin comes into his own, but Merlin as a drag sorceress? Seriously?
Angel Colby certainly looks queenly as Guinevere and husband and wife terms are tossed about, but there’s nothing marital about Arthur and Gwen. Gwen is respected at the round table or plays the worrywart as needed, but her rule is hit and miss thanks to spotty plot points. Despite her father’s execution, she sentences someone to death for magic conspiracy before going on a family quest in episode 6, “The Dark Tower.” Attempted evil twists in “The Hollow Queen” don’t help this all over the place character motivation. Turncoat maids also come and go this season before disappearing unresolved. Merlin never did have a proper focus on its female characters, but this season’s ill-paced changes and out of character complications are ridiculous. Katie McGrath fairs no better as Morgana. All these years have supposedly past and yet Morgana is still just a stupid evil sorcery plot of the week? So much more could have been done here. References to her being held prisoner for 2 years aren’t explained until it’s too late to care, and the Aithusa dragon element is never used to its full potential either. Morgana’s evil is all over the place – spread to thin only to be laid on thick in the end. Sigh.
Unfortunately, it seems Richard Wilson is also largely absent in this final season. His Gaius is a wonderful ear for Merlin and even does some magic when it’s needed, but no one really listens to his information or sees what he’s doing. Wilson adds great contrast and humor as required but he and John Hurt as the voice of the Great Dragon are not used consistently enough. How dare they just pfft and whim on Kilgharrah and his bittersweet final moments! The adult players on Merlin have always made for great support and raised the intensity onscreen, but guest stars such as Liam Cunningham (Game of Thrones) and King Uther star Anthony Head are sadly mishandled. Knights Eion Macken as Gwaine, Tom Hopper as Percival, Rupert Young as Leon, and Adetomiwa Edun as Elyan are equally used and abused. Gwaine has become a self-centered sarcastic ass, but apparently, he and Percival are only important as new homoerotic fodder. All the knights appear more than Morgana, but they are not elevated to main cast members – is that because they are each injured every week? All the explorations of the court at hand and possible off shoot Arthurian tales fall to the wayside this season for, well, nothing.
I feel terrible in writing so harsh a review, but this show never really knew what to do with its potential. Even after making dark, complex strides in Years 3 and 4, Merlin continued to rely on flawed writing, underdeveloped support, tiresome creatures, and bad CGI for a safe, juvenile, and immature approach. Merlin capitalized on the young adult fantasy and family friendly niche and rode the recent ideology of making everything new and youthful fast, but I sincerely don’t understand why this show didn’t allow itself to grow up like Buffy. The perpetual YA made the series a hit in its first two seasons, but it also stunted the show in its tracks before this rushed, shoehorned in Arthurian pinnacle finale. While Game of Thrones is going heavy, nasty, sexy, in your face overboard, Merlin has not aged with its audience and now feels left behind. Yes, Merlin never promised it would be anything other than an Arthurian Smallville – but ultimately, it wasn’t even that. Though the likeability of its players, quality fantasy, and fun adventure save this show, as an adult long waiting for a definitive Arthurian telling, this Fifth season has been a tremendous disappointment. Instead of the ‘Camelot, Teen Years’ focus blossoming into total television glory for this dénouement, we received a limp, bitter ending with no repeat value.
Arthurian audiences looking for something slightly more serious may need to look elsewhere, but fanciful teens or magic, youthful viewers growing out of The Sword and the Stone can have a new Camelot nutshell with Merlin. Video and streaming options of all 5 series are available on both sides of the pond for family audiences to pick and choose their favorites, but longtime Merlin fans are better off skipping Season 5 and imagining their own end.