This review contains spoilers
5.5 The Disir
Three soothsayers, the Disir, declare the judgement of the Old Gods on Arthur and Camelot, despatching Osgar, a druid warrior, to deliver their message and bring a return to the old ways. If Arthur doesn’t agree to their judgement, Camelot will lay in ruins and Arthur will lose all that he holds dear.
Unaware of what is happening, the King is taking the opportunity to sharpen his sword skills. He spars with the recently knighted Mordred and is impressed with the knight’s own skills and progress as a member of the King’s retinue.
Merlin, of course, knows who Mordred is and is cautious around the avuncular young knight. The closeness between Arthur and Mordred is causing a bit of resentment and Merlin is decidedly chilly when Arthur gushingly discusses Mordred’s capabilities.
Such concerns are quickly thrown aside when new of an attack and the death of a knight reaches Camelot. Osgar, it seems, is to blame for the attack and Arthur sets out to apprehend the druid, taking his knights, including Mordred, and Merlin with him.
With Mordred in tow and manfully being teased by the other knights, Arthur and Merlin track Osgar down to the forest, only to discover that he’s a tricky fellow with skills of his own. Even when fatally wounded, Osgar manages to dispense justice, under the authority of the Disir, upon the Once and Future King, leaving Mordred wounded and close to death.
With no choice but to protect his kingdom, Arthur must confront the Disir. Refusing their offer of peace if he returns to the old ways, Arthur returns to Camelot to find Mordred alive… a punishment from the Gods.
Richard McBrien has previously contributed the script for the well-received episode The Hunter’s Heart as well as scripts for Spooks, The Bill and Wallander. He certainly knows how to tell an emotional story and there was the potential to spread this story out as a two-parter to give us time to see more of the dilemmas faced by Merlin and Arthur, along with more of an exploration of the Old Gods. Instead, what we have is a story that never feels like it is truly fulfilling its potential.
That’s the thing odd thing with this episode – it’s not a bad story, it just could have been much better. After all, for the first time in some time, we have Merlin in a moral dilemma with far reaching consequences (not just “should he tell Arthur about magic?”). Should he save the man who would kill Arthur? As Merlin says, he’s grown up and he cannot allow Arthur’s reign to be cut short. How convincing are his beliefs? Is it possible that, instead of saving Mordred, Gaius sides with Merlin and, despite his reservations, would let Mordred die? A chilling thought, indeed.
Once more, five episodes in, we get a sense of Arthur’s moral foundations being shaken by circumstances beyond his control. Despite his initial reluctance to accept the judgement of the Disir, commentary from Gaius and concerns of Merlin shake him to the core. He may have his faith disturbed, but his courage still remains the core of the character and Bradley James continues to demonstrate his range as he slips effortlessly from humour to humility, before he steps forward full of resolve.
Colin Morgan’s moment comes in the last ten minutes of the episode as he betrays his own character, declaring that magic has no place in the kingdom. He is torn apart by the guilt of his decision and the weight of his responsibility and there doesn’t seem any way out of this particular dilemma.
John Hurt returns as the voice of the Dragon with his own words of his wisdom for Merlin, whilst Katie McGrath is absent from this tale. Elsewhere, Angel Coulby and Richard Wilson gets more screen time, acting as Arthur’s counsel. All strong performances that drive forward the story and add substance to characters that are, occasionally, relegated to the background… very much like the knights who, once again, have very little to do and stand around in the background.
Talking of backgrounds, wooded areas and caves have always been a common backdrop for Merlin and this episode is no exception. The darkness of the caves, as the home of the Disir, give us a temple that is an oppressive and cold place, with the three actresses playing the Disir (Frances Tomelty, Sian Thomas and Helen Schlesinger) clothed in dark robes and looking as if they’d stepped out of MacBeth.
“There can be no place for magic in Camelot,” states Merlin. He may be expecting it to bring the end of Mordred, but the Disir have other plans for the would-be killer. With Merlin forcing Arthur’s hand, the King makes it clear that he will not allow the old times to return. How can Merlin possibly make this right?
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