Merlin series 5 episode 1 review: Arthur’s Bane (Part 1)

Merlin is back on BBC One for its fifth series, which opens with impressive two-parter Arthur's Bane. Here's Dave's review...

This review contains spoilers. Our spoiler-free episode review is here.

5.1 Arthur’s Bane (Part 1)

Three years have passed, the Round Table is fully established and peace has descended upon the kingdom of Camelot under the rule of Arthur and Guinevere. Peace cannot reign eternal however, as a darkness may be approaching.

A retinue of knights haven’t returned from their mission to Ismere, a frozen tundra in the north of Albion. It wouldn’t be so bad, except that the dashing Sir Gwaine and improbably garbed and ridiculously tall Sir Percival are amongst the missing.  It’s therefore up to Arthur to rescue his knights from the clutches of the Saxons and whatever other perils they may have encountered.

Ad – content continues below

Of course, there’s only one real peril in Merlin and, before we know what’s happening, Morgana is revealed as the true reason for the disappearances. She seeks the key to knowledge and, thankfully, has stumbled across it, with the assistance of Ruadan (Liam Cunningham). The knights, she has decided, should be put to work in the mines, giving us many scenes of Gwaine and Percival stripped to the waist and hacking away mightily at the rocks.

Viewers won’t have to put up with such displays of unbridled masculinity for long, as Arthur, accompanied by Merlin and the knights, set out to defeat Morgana once more and rescue their lost friends.

However, something dangerous is afoot, old enemies return, new allies are revealed and Arthur is at the centre of a darkness that may consume Camelot. 

Julian Jones’ script bristles with promise and casts its shadow over our characters, giving us a wonderful blend of action, danger and humour. Obviously, given he’s a series creator, he’s comfortable with the characters and knows the direction of the series, providing us with a screenplay heavy with possibilities for the future. 

All the key players have returned, with Bradley James and Colin Morgan comfortably settled in their roles of Arthur and Merlin. They don’t look much older, but there’s a certain weariness to Merlin, whilst Arthur looks more regal than in previous seasons. Together, however, they do look like young friends who are having far too much fun, interspersed with telling moments of revelation as they share their responsibilities – will Arthur ever discover the truth? 

With the return of Lindsay Duncan as Queen Annis and Katie McGrath’s Morgana, strong women are given a prominent role in this episode. Even new servant girl, Cefa, is a strong (if somewhat two-dimensional) character whose only failing is her faith. In the last few minutes of Arthur’s Bane (Part 1), we discover the strength of Guinevere as she dispenses justice; clearly, she’s neither a trophy wife nor a retiring wallflower. 

Ad – content continues below

John Hurt makes his cameo as the dragon count, but there is a sense that the character has served its purpose. Once again, Merlin receives a warning from someone about to die and it’s for the dragon to fill in the missing information – there’s a feeling that the dragon is simply there to fulfil an episodic obligation. By a similar thread, Richard Wilson’s Gaius is sadly reduced to standing by and looking concerned. Let’s hope both are given much more to do, especially as the CGI for the dragon continues to look rather impressive.

Talking of limited screen time, it’s good to see that the knights are getting more play. Sure, Gwaine and Percival spend much of their time here captured and put to work, but their interaction is interesting and Eoin Macklin and Tom Hopper manage to make a meal of their lines, with Gwaine appearing bold and adventurous even in his captive state. 

Many interviews have focused on the darker, more terrifying, more dangerous world for Merlin‘s fifth series and this episode sets up the story incredibly well with its brutal fight scene, Morgana sending Arthur and his men scattering, portents of doom and the return of Mordred. By the end of the episode, you’re bound to have been left wanting more and hopefully the darkness will weave its way through the whole run. 

This isn’t to say, of course, that the series is without its lighter side. Thankfully, the relationship between Merlin and Arthur hasn’t diminished and the humour still works as the King and servant trade barbed comments, mostly relating to Merlin’s incompetence and the King’s bullheadedness. They’re still protective of each other, though, and the friendship has effectively grown over five series into the bromance that we see today; that said, we’re robbed of any of the innuendo laden subtext that has often made the series a talking point on Twitter. Hopefully, that’ll return! 

The frozen North, wolves, and casting of Liam Cunningham bring a hint of Game Of Thrones to series five of Merlin. The combat seems more brutal, the vistas more panoramic, the special effects look far sharper; it may not have the budget or scale of Game Of Thrones, but Merlin manages to convey a world that has grown in size and scope. What we have here isn’t a pastiche of the respected HBO series, but a respectful nod to ideas of modern fantasy TV that has allowed the world of Merlin to grow. Series four gave us twilight, whilst season five seems to be leading us into the night.

Read the series 5 launch report, including Q&A with Merlin’s executive producers, here.

Ad – content continues below