Merlin series 5 episode 6 review: The Dark Tower

The Dark Tower was an episode with huge potential and great performances, despite feeling a little rushed. Here's Dave's review...

This review contains spoilers.

5.6 The Dark Tower

Remember how Sir Elyan and Gwen are brother and sister? I know, it’s an easy fact to forget as it’s so rarely mentioned. We’re given a quick reminder here as the pair mourn their father, returning to his grave and sharing their thoughts. 

Of course, this momentary break from Camelot gives Morgana the perfect opportunity to return and kidnap the Queen, whilst her magical snakes leave Percival and Leon poisoned by dark magic. Furious that Gwen has been kidnapped, Arthur sets out to rescue her, with Merlin and the knights at his side (including the recently recovered Percival and Leon who return to active duty with nary a thought for the dark magic-induced illness that Gaius has diagnosed). 

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Morgana, meanwhile, plans to use Gwen as bait in her trap… a trap that takes them all to The Dark Tower, an ominous-sounding place that haunts the dreams of men. It’s renowned amongst the knights of old as a dangerous place the very name of which can bring doom upon an army. This isn’t going to be a history lesson for Gwen however, as she finds herself trapped in a room encountering visions and strange noises that slowly erode her sanity. It’s all part of Morgana’s most nefarious plot yet, and she’s being as sweet as apple pie to Gwen. 

Their quest to the tower takes the knights through an overgrown forest, bringing its own challenges as they realise they’ve been travelling in a circle, robbing Arthur of his hope. Merlin, however, is confident that they will succeed and encounters Queen Mab, ruler of the forest. She provides Merlin with a way out and warns him of what is to come, giving the wizard renewed vigour as he guides the party from danger with his newly-discovered magical GPS. 

As Arthur storms to the rescue and Gwen becomes more fragile, Morgana enacts her cruellest trick – extending the hand of friendship to the Queen and robbing Arthur of one of his closest friends. 

The Dark Tower is the first episode of series five that feels a tad disappointing. It’s not a bad instalment and has strong ideas that develop Morgana and Gwen’s characters, but suffers from a rushed ending. Considering the loss of a knight and the kidnapping of Gwen, you’d think Arthur would want to confront Morgana, destroy the tower or commit some other act of masculinity – however, we get nothing of the sort; Gwen is found, a body is burned and we get a rather chilling ending. It feels like there’s something missing from this narrative. 

Allowing the cold-hearted Morgana and the helpless yet determined Gwen to share screen time gives Katie McGrath and Angel Coulby to shine. When Gwen reveals her torment, there’s a tender moment between Coulby and McGrath with a shard of emotion from the former and coldness from the latter. McGrath really does paint Morgana as a spurned would-be Queen, robbed of her rightful position whilst Coulby performs well as the damsel-in-distress, particularly shining when she gets to deliver actual dialogue instead of look fearful. 

Arthur’s singleminded dedication plays a strong part in this story, as it has in all episodes of series five so far. His love of Gwen and faith in his knights drive Bradley James’ mature performance, whilst he still maintains the petulant edge, allowing Colin Morgan’s Merlin to step forward as the voice of reason, refocusing Arthur’s mind and carrying the story forward once again. 

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The Dark Tower itself, with its winding staircase, traps, litter of skeletons and detritus of fallen knights, is like something from Hammer Horror, whilst the traps themselves will be familiar to anyone who has seen a dungeon in a film before. It’s an interesting, if somewhat unoriginal premise, that feels underdeveloped, mainly as we get to see so little of it. 

It’s a story with huge potential and some wonderful performances, though there’s not enough time to tell the tale effectively which robs it of some of its drama, especially in the final act. It does, however, change Gwen’s trajectory as Morgana’s dark magic takes hold, and – as has been the case with all the episodes of series five thus far – gives us a tantalising taste of what is to come.

Read Dave’s review of the previous episode, The Disir, here.

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