This review contains spoilers.
The destiny of a kingdom still rests on the shoulders of a young man as we enter the final stretch of series four of Merlin. So, what can Merlin get up to this week?
Well, here’s what happened. John heads out to investigate a scream in Longstead village, torch in hand. It doesn’t strike him as odd that he’s the only person who has responded to the cry for help and this can only be a bad thing. He discovers a terrified villager and is sure he sees something stalking the perimeter of the village.
John’s wife, Mary (Melanie Hill), heads over to visit Gwen. It turns out that Mary, John and Gwen are old friends who don’t visit much, but she felt now would be ideal opportunity to drop by Camelot as she has terrible news. She recounts her story to Arthur, telling him that there a sickness blighting her village and the King is more than happy to offer his help.
Gaius is nervous about leaving Camelot as there’s been an outbreak of the sweating sickness disease. He is, however, happy to send Merlin to do the work, despite Arthur’s reluctance. It seems that Gaius is intent on letting Merlin grow as a man and visiting a village full of sick people is probably a good way to do that.
So, Merlin’s off to the village of the damned alone. Well, alone, aside Gwen, some knights and Mary. John is not convinced that Merlin can do this, but everyone else seems confident. It doesn’t help Merlin’s sense of worth when he discovers his magic doesn’t work. With little else to do, he plans to return to Camelot and speak to Gaius; he’s convinced that there’s something else at work and John confirms this suspicion.
Riding through the forest, the knights come across a group of bandits and make quick work of them in a rather impressive act of swordplay. They rescue a shoddily dressed girl who seems to have been their prisoner. She seems to be reluctant to let Merlin touch her, shrieking and sharply evading his touch, whilst turning Percival (Tom Hopper) into a jealous man mountain. Her influence quickly spreads to the rest of the knights as they declare they must return her home, abandoning their quest to help the people of the village and putting Merlin and Gwen in their places.
Over in Camelot, Arthur is naturally worried as he’s now without four of his knights. Setting out with Gaius and Agravaine, they discover a camp and the now dead inhabitants. There’s something suspicious about the attack and the recovery of a single survivor sheds light on the mystery. Arriving in Longstead, Gaius confirms Merlin’s belief that sorcery was at work. The surviving slave trader reveals that something happened, there was quarreling and then death, all because of a girl. The girl, it seems, is a dangerous creature called a Lamia, borne of evil and able to transform into a hideous monster.
With the knights fighting amongst themselves, Merlin isn’t too impressed with their behaviour. His protestations fall upon deaf ears, though Gwen agrees that there’s something odd going on with the knights (except for Percival it seems), with their quarrelling getting in the way of their knightliness. Her concern reaches new levels when Elyan is the first to fall victim to Lamia’s dangerous embrace.
Discovering him unconscious, the knights once again ignore Merlin’s advice, choosing to go to the castle of which Lamia speaks. Gwen is particularly distraught as we’re reminded that Elyan is Gwen’s brother. With little choice but to follow the knights, Merlin and Gwen decide that they need to leave clues to their destination for Arthur to discover.
As they head into the castle, it becomes clear that something isn’t right. Skeletons lay in the dank, dark corridors, though the knights are more interested in discovering what happened to the now missing Lamia who is back home and loving it. As the knights search the corridors, falling victim to Lamia, Merlin sets out to prevents more death. She’s manages to make light work of the knights, though her attempts to dispose of Merlin require something more powerful as she transforms into… well… it’s an odd looking thing considering she’s borne of a snake. Thankfully, Gwen storms to the rescue in the nick of time, moments before Arthur arrives, earning the King’s praise and Merlin some much needed ribbing.
The focus on the knights gives the four actors something to do after many, many episodes of being in the background. There’s another first with Tom Hopper’s Sir Percival getting more to do than stand around, looking tall and swinging his sword. The deterioration of the nobility of the knights is dealt with in a rather efficient way, with the normally jovial fellows quickly reduced to jealous bullies, belittling Merlin and Gwen, intimidating the wizard and generally being a group of big lads picking on the little guy.
Jake Michie’s script builds up Merlin through Gaius, then destroys his position in the eyes of the knights. It’s a wonderfully effective tool, with Merlin out of his depths primarily due to his feeble stature compared to the far more imposing, and vicious, knights.
Colin Morgan continues to demonstrate some fine acting skill as he turns from a rather confident individual to a browbeaten victim without overplaying the role. Tom Hopper gets a few good moments where he gets to intimidate and looks convincing doing so. The other knights also get to do more than deliver the odd funny line or act as slap-stick comic relief.
Bradley James’ Arthur goes back to being in the background as he hunts for his missing knights, servant and girlfriend. Along with Richard Wilson’s Gaius and Nathaniel Parker’s Agravaine, they’re not given much to do on screen, but do manage to turn in confident performances. Let’s face it, with an expanded cast, it’s not going to be possible to get everyone in every story, so we don’t see or hear mention of Morgana this episode.
At its heart, Lamia is a story that has been seen many times before, however Michie turns in a tense script that is low on humour and sees our hero threatened not by magic but by a far more tangible foe – jealousy. Until the last few minutes, magic doesn’t play much of a part in this story. Even the Lamia doesn’t fall foul to a quick spell and shiny eyes.
The story is possibly the darkest that we’ve had this series and doesn’t stray into comedy during the bulk of the tale. If the series is being broadcast at a later time for some reason other than Strictly Come Dancing, it’s seems, through stories like this, that the producers are using the later timeslot to tackle stories that are a bit less traditionally family-friendly. Is this a good thing? It seems to be on this evidence…