I don’t think I’m being especially brazen to say up front that the one thing that happens in Le Morte d’Arthur (the death of Arthur), is that he dies. And that was obvious from the outset, because, as much as the writers of Merlin have enjoyed snubbing their noses at anything remotely associated with Arthurian legend, I couldn’t really see that they’d really kill him off. The title Le Morte d’Arthur is borrowed from the first Arthurian stories in print, Le Morte Darthur, assembled by Sir Thomas Malory. What this actually has to do with what happens this week isn’t obvious to me at all, but then maybe I’m looking for connections where none exist.
It starts with Merlin, Arthur and other nameless red-shirted knights hunting a creature in the woods which is actually more than a match for them. As the CGI abominations we’ve been subjected to go, this is actually one of the better ones, even if the concept of a cobra head on a giant leopard body is entirely preposterous.
Sir Johnny-run-slowly is killed, and everyone else breathes a sign of relief that it’s not them who gets to scream out of shot.
They report back to mad King Uther who rejects the concept that this creature might be magical, despite being told this with some authority. He directs Arthur to go back and kill it this time.
Meanwhile, Morgana is now having visions in her dreams again, the ones that she didn’t have last week when they would have been useful. Morgana now looks like she’s been moonlighting as Ophelia, with sunken eyes and wild stare to match.
She tries to stop Arthur going, but he ignores her. In retrospect, this is a strong theme of Merlin as it’s happened in almost every story. A tells B not to do something, usually with good reason, B does it anyway – chaos ensues. As a child nobody ever warned Arthur never to run with scissors, knowing that he immediately would.
Arthur and Merlin go to despatch the ‘Questing Beast’, and find the creature in his favourite cave, where a fight starts. And this is the point this week where, without fail, Merlin manages to annoy the heck out of me.
Arthur is stuck and mortally injured. Merlin then uses his magical powers to kill the beast with Arthur’s sword. Notice I said ‘stuck’, in reference to what happens to Arthur. But from this point onwards everyone says he was ‘bitten’. In fact even in the synopsis of the episode on Wiki it says he was ‘bitten’, Gaius examines the wound and says, “He’s been bitten.” I’ve reviewed the footage 10 times and he’s never bitten unless the Questing Beast had little jaws on the tips of its frickin’ toes!
Clearly the script said ‘bitten’, but the CGI people confronted with doing that didn’t like that idea, so ignored it. If you can’t get simple stuff right like that, what chance has the rest of this rubbish?
They drag unconscious Arthur back to Camelot, where everybody gets depressed that he’ll soon die, as there is no cure for being‘bitten’ by CGI creatures.
Merlin feels responsible; I’m not sure why. It wasn’t like Uther or Arthur actually listen to logic. He goes to see the Dragon who tells him of the Isle of the Blessed where those of the old religion might help him, for a heavy price.
He’s been warned, so he ignores that and goes anyway. When he gets there, which doesn’t seem to take long considering how far away it is supposed to be, he finds the alluring Michelle Ryan in her bluest contact lenses, going by her recent nom de plume of Nimueh. She tells him she can help but there will be a price, because magic is a balance thing, apparently. Merlin offers his own life to save Arthur, but Nimueh explains that it doesn’t quite work like that. It’s more like magical Russian roulette. She gives him water from the cup of life which he then uses to save Arthur, but not before mad Morgana has warned him this is “only the beginning”. No, please…it’s the last episode…it must end soon!
Everything seems fine until one dark night Merlin’s mum turns up dying of acne, which is a horrible way to go, I’m sure.
Merlin is very annoyed and goes to file a formal complaint with the Dragon. I’m not sure why; the Dragon did explain the rules of this game quite clearly. There’s an exchange of words after which Merlin tells the Dragon he’ll never be free and the Dragon tries to barbecue him in return. This is a relationship that might need some quality time to patch up, but on the upside, they resist the temptation to show the dragon flying upwards one more time.
Gaius decides to intervene and sacrifice himself to stop Merlin’s mum dying, and goes to Nimueh to strike a deal. Curiously, she’s entirely forgotten what she told Merlin about it not working that way and immediately makes a ‘Gaius’ life for Merlin’s mum’ agreement. As Gaius is dying, Merlin turns up and we have a sorcery battle, at last.
This one turns out to be a bit short and one-sided, but it was what the budget allowed, I guess. Merlin takes a half-hearted shot, Nimueh shows him how it’s actually done and thinks he’s dead. Merlin gets uber-annoyed and gets a giant thunderstorm to strike her with lightening. She jigs about like a marionette and then explodes with a scream. The balance of the old religion is restored. Gaius lives and presumably Merlin’s mum survives, although we don’t actually see that. What we do see is the Dragon, who is none too pleased and when he cries out it wakes Morgana. Quite what the implications of that are, I’ve no idea, but it was dramatic, I guess.
And then the words that sent chills down this reviewer’s spine appeared on the screen – Merlin will return. Oh bugger!
Over the 13 weeks I’ve said some jolly unkind things about this show, most of which I’ll stand by. It was so poor in places that it had me getting somewhat nostalgic for Robin Hood and its curiously modernistic styling. Merlin’s biggest issues always came from the lack of attention to detail that was paid at the scripting stage, making people seem more stupid or mad than was reasonable to accept on occasion. I also grew increasingly tired of the way that they played with my expectations in respect of Arthurian source material, going tantalisingly close to something recognisable only to veer away at the last second. This soon became increasingly childish as the writers tried to out Arthur each other for presenting things that people might recognise and then undermining them.
At times I also felt for the cast, presented as they were with some horribly hokey dialogue and entirely duff character development. Angel Coulby must have been really excited when she got the part of Guinevere, but the ways she’s been used, like some sort of Medieval girl-next-door, has been quite excruciating. Katie McGrath as Morgana fared better, after being almost completely ignored in the early stories. Colin Morgan is obviously a talented actor, but it must be frustrating to be continually asked to play someone who’s as stupid as Merlin has been presented at times. The same is also true to a degree for Bradley James, who must be entirely sick of playing Arthur the total pratt. This was blatantly revealed in a short scene in the final story where Merlin tells Arthur he’s a pratt, which he is. With all the will in the world, I can’t actually stomach another 13 episodes of him being that, and Merlin hiding his magical nature for budgetary reasons.
Ironically the biggest issue Merlin has is magic. If you have a TV series called Merlin, then you’re putting magic on the ingredients in that particular tin. To therefore then try to hide behind a plot device for not delivering that is exceptionally poor form, and even those that like the show have complained it’s not remotely magical enough.
Personally, I’d have been happier if the BBC had ended this experiment here, but someone in BBC commissioning likes it, apparently. So we’ll get some more, but this reviewer won’t be at the front of any queue to lambast it for another thirteen painful episodes, I can assure you.
Read Mark’s review of last week’s episode here.