This review contains spoilers.
4.5 His Father’s Son
A rather nice opening sequence to His Father’s Son sees Merlin dressed in armour, luring some soldiers to their capture. This has been the first major incursion into Camelot’s territory since the death of Uther, and things don’t look like they’re going to get better unless Arthur takes radical action.
Agravaine, realising that they have captured a knight, convinces Arthur that he must be a strong king, ruthless against those who may threaten the Kingdom. It’s an easy enough task: all the conniving Lord has to do is tell the young King how powerful Uther was during his reign and how he was both respected and feared by the other kingdoms. This responsibility weighs heavy on Arthur’s mind, and even Merlin’s ministrations do nothing to assuage the shadow of his father.
The knight turns out to be King Carleon (Steven Hartley) and his execution doesn’t go unnoticed, with Queen Annis (Lindsay Duncan) declaring that Arthur will pay for the death of her husband and this threat to her home. She’s ready to send an army to lay siege to Camelot, and is quite happy to have help from Morgana, who has left her shack and made her way to Carleon’s kingdom.
Annis knows she is a witch and the ward of Uther, but she’s there as the daughter of Gorlois not Uther. Together they air their hatred of the Pendragons, the things that they have lost and their similarities, before Morgana announces that she wants to help Annis destroy Arthur and Camelot.
Meanwhile, Agravaine continues his slimy machinations, convincing Arthur that he cannot continue to see lowly Gwen as the people won’t accept her. Arthur fights for his right to do what he wants to do, desiring to separate his role as King from his role as a young man. But Agravaine is insistent; there is no distinction and he must be kingly at all times.
As if losing his lover isn’t enough to depress him, he spurns Merlin’s offer of a friendly ear. Whilst Arthur wallows in self pity as a lonely leader, the Lord revels in his pantomime villainy, taking over Morgana’s series three smirking trait, as he smirks his way through every evil acts that he commits.
The eve of the battle leads the new Knights, through Elyan, to reaffirm their faith in Arthur giving him the momentary lift that he needs to start questioning his own actions, taking Merlin’s offer of counsel. He believes that his actions were the wrong ones from the start and, whilst he is responsible for what he does, there has to be another way to resolve things than the heavy bloodshed of battle.
Sneaking off in the middle of the night to the enemy camp, Arthur plans an alternative to the battle, asking for trial by combat. Despite Merlin stumbling in on proceedings and nearly being executed, Annis agrees to the terms and tells Arthur to choose his champion. Clearly, she’s never met the King before otherwise she’d know Arthur’s champion would be!
The knights aren’t as enthusiastic about the Arthur’s plan, though they’re all happy to fight as the champion. The chance for one of the new guys to shine and get some quality screen time is taken away when Arthur announces that he’s going to be the knight to take on Annis’ champion.
Back over at Annis’ camp, Morgana unveils her plan to ensure that Arthur will not win, and that she deserves the crown of Camelot. With Agravaine theatrically taking the King’s sword, Morgana enchants it and has it returned to the King, who is blissfully unaware that his fate is now in the hands of the woman that hates him and everything that he holds dear.
Squaring off against Annis’ champion, a snarling giant of a man, Arthur is putting up a good fight, though the tide is turned when Morgana casts her magic. The sword now bears the ‘weight of a thousand ages’ and it’s up to Merlin to save the day once again, albeit in a rather understated way. Even without a sword, Arthur manages to beat the champion, chooses to avoid further bloodshed, and gains Annis’ respect as a result.
The weight of responsibility is at the core of this episode, with Bradley James playing the King with melancholy and humour. The moments that he shares with Colin Morgan’s Merlin continue to be where the series really shines, as the pair slip from two friends to lord-and-servant and back again seamlessly. Merlin may be a ‘simple minded fool’ and the ‘worst servant in the five kingdoms’, but Arthur is a ‘cabbage head’ and, by the end of this episode, he knows it and begins to make amends.
Katie McGrath is revelling in her role as Morgana, though she appears to be a cross between Helena Bonham Carter and the woman from the Scottish Widow Insurance company adverts of old. Having spent too long not saying much, this episode sees Morgana at her most venomous and McGrath relishes every moment. This week, she also gets the lion’s share of the magic, with a flaming sword special effect being added to the repertoire and nobody gets thrown across rooms by a wave of her hand.
Angel Coulby, as Gwen, gets something to do other than look lovingly at Arthur and mop sweaty brows. Her break-up scene with Arthur is wonderfully acted, with Arthur’s coldness and Gwen’s dignified advice to the King tempered by her emotion and very much the antithesis of Morgana.
This week sees Lindsay Duncan guest star as Queen Annis. Duncan dominates the screen in her role without going over-the-top, whether she is showing grief at the death of her husband or dressing down Morgana for her similarity to Uther. She’s a powerhouse of an actress who manages to convey so much emotion in her relatively limited screen time.
So, yet again, we have a fast paced episode that lays heavy the future for Arthur and the challenges he would face. Jake Michie’s script allows Bradley James the opportunity to really get under the skin of Arthur, showing the loneliness of power and the shadow under which he lives as his father’s son.
It is the emotionally charged moments, of which there are many, that really drive this story forward. Michie’s story could really have benefited from a second part, with more time spent exploring the first real challenge to Arthur’s kingship and more screen time given to Lindsay Duncan. It’s a great story that continues a season that seems to have been set up with the future well and truly in mind.
Read our review of episode four, here.