This review contains spoilers.
5.3 The Death Song Of Uther Pendragon
As ever, let’s begin with a short recap of this week’s events.
After an unproductive day hunting, Arthur and Merlin find a village where a woman is about to be burnt at the stake and our heroes can rush in to risk their lives, despite the protests of the villagers who believe the woman is a witch and responsible for nefarious happenings.
Showing a remarkably non-Pendragon approach to magic, Arthur rescues the woman, though she is near death. As she passes, she gives Arthur a ‘gift’ – an ornate horn that, as it turns out, can summon the spirits of the dead… surely a bad thing on the anniversary of Uther’s death!
Setting out on another quest, Arthur and a rather reluctant Merlin head to the Great Stones of Nematon, which look remarkably like Stone Henge, in order for Arthur to use the horn to call upon the spirit of his father. Of course, as with many things in the world of Merlin, things don’t go quite to plan and the reunion isn’t everything that Arthur had really hoped.
Meeting Uther in the World of the Dead, Arthur discovers that Uther is disappointed with his son. Uther believes that Arthur is betraying his legacy and vision for Camelot, being royally disappointed with various aspects of his son’s conduct – his rule, his life and his loves – leaving the king withdrawn and pensive.
Upon returning to Camelot, strange things are afoot. Doors fly open of their own volition, a chandelier crashes into the Round Table and Percival is attacked by an axe, though declares the axe must have fallen (what with him being very manly, you see.) Unconvinced by the macho knight’s story, Gaius questions Merlin who is forced to confess what happened at the stones. Gaius is perturbed by this and suggests that Uther’s spirit has been released from the afterlife.
The strange happenings take a more serious turn when Guinevere is very nearly burned alive and Arthur is forced to confront the truth and follow Gaius’ advice that Uther’s spirit must be returned to the spirit world.
Uther, however, isn’t too keen on returning to the spirit world.
Howard Overman’s script progresses the series by seemingly making Arthur more accepting of magic and Gaius much more open about his past involvements. Set a year after Uther’s death and Arthur’s subsequent coronation, Arthur is a melancholy character, seeming lost in the sea of responsibility. Throughout the episode, we get the impression that Arthur is maintaining a strong façade for his people, though is questioning his own actions.
Bradley James’ approach to his character is wonderfully nuanced as we see a king crushed by responsibility and still living, so he feels, in the shadow of his father. His relationship with Merlin has, as to be expected, much humour, more so than in the previous two episodes and it is handled well, thanks to James’ strait-laced performance. The two characters are written with mutual respect for each other, and it shows in the comfort with which the actors perform.
The return of Anthony Head to the series reminds you how charismatic Head is as Uther. His exchanges with Arthur are a masterclass in barely contained fury. His voice restrained, his demeanour calm, his words clear, he commands the screen. Even when he raises his voice, his manner is far from the histrionics that you might expect from television drama. His hatred of Merlin when he discovers the truth is devastating, yet even this isn’t overplayed.
After two action-packed episodes, The Death Song of Uther Pendragon is a more dramatic offering, giving us a feel for the rule of Arthur, the changes he has heralded and the maturing of the king. Uther’s return is a powerful device and the last few minutes, where Uther comes close to revealing Merlin’s secret, actually had me holding my breath.
Definitely continuing the more mature approach to storytelling, this episode of Merlin is probably going to leave younger viewers scratching their heads, whilst older viewers will appreciate the break in storytelling that this emotionally driven episode is offering.
By the end of this episode, it’s clear that Arthur is respectful of his father but has an entirely different vision of Camelot under his rule. But will he feel the same if he discovers the truth about his servant?
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