Merlin series 3 episode 1 review: The Tears of Uther Pendragon Part 1

Merlin returns for a third series run. And as Alan discovers, it's all gone a bit dark...

3.1 The Tears of Uther Pendragon Part 1 Merlin’s now returned for a third run on Saturday nights, and if this cracking season opener is anything to go by, there are going to be some dark days ahead in Camelot. For it begins as it means to go on with an eerie, ominous pre-credits sequence full of dead soldiers.

It’s been a year since Morgana was whisked away by warrior-sorceress Morgause (the sublime Emilia Fox), and Uther has used the lives of many of his soldiers and most of his resources searching for his ward. When Arthur, Merlin and Camelot’s finest are ambushed in the woods by a band of men, most of which are despatched by Merlin’s sorcery, they finally find a dishevelled and disorientated Morgana.

Merlin is understandably terrified that Morgana will reveal to Uther that it was he who poisoned her, but Morgana explains to Merlin that she understands his reasoning and forgives him. That she has witnessed “the evils of this world” and vows to support Uther in his persecution of all those who practice magic.

Uther is overjoyed by her return and holds a feast in her honour, unaware of her true motives. For Morgana’s allegiance is to her sister Morgause, and it turns out they’ve been conspiring together for a year to bring Camelot to its knees. Using magic mandrake poisoning with Uther’s tears, they induce insanity, leaving him susceptible to visions of his dead wife and children he ordered executed because they had been born into magic. 

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Let’s not beat about the bush: this is Merlin at its bleakest and best.

Morgause and King Cenred (played by a leather-clad Tom Ellis) are amassing an army while Camelot is at its weakest, and considering Ellis has such little screen time, he makes for a charismatic villain.

Emilia Fox’s portrayal of Morgause inspires less sympathy for her character, as this time she proves to be a ruthless, cold-blooded witch, hell-bent on dominating everyone and everything, and will annihilate anyone who gets in her way. Example? Leaving Merlin chained up and left to be slowly eaten alive by giant scorpions in the woods.

But it is Katie McGrath as Morgana who outshines the rest of the cast. She steals every scene she is in, and her progression from conflicted ward to full-blown villain is delightful to watch. Morgana doesn’t hesitate in stabbing a sentry who is later discovered alive, only for her then to poison him on his deathbed.

I’m speculating, but I’ve a feeling that Morgana’s storyline will be the overriding arc of this season. After all, up until now McGrath hasn’t been given nearly enough to do. Will there be a way back for the character or will the writers follow the course of Arthurian legend and make her this year’s Big Bad? It would appear so and I, for one am thrilled that the character is no longer taking a back-seat to Arthur and Merlin.

It all added up to a strong episode for the show. It wasn’t completely wonderful, but nevertheless this is the strongest season opener in the entire run of this show. It was a dark, witty, beautifully put-together instalment, though some of the darker content will make it less accessible for children.

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The only quibbles I have are the relationship between Arthur and Merlin, which hasn’t evolved beyond the boyish banter which was prevalent in the first season. Plus there’s the CGI, which, although not terrible, wasn’t wholly convincing either (with the exception of the dragon, who actually looked pretty good). Still, that isn’t necessarily that much of a flaw given that the director – Jeremy Webb- and writers are clearly focusing on narrative and character development.

And with Morgana and Morgause planning on unleashing an army of the dead, I for one can’t wait for next week.