“A wise man is not cowed by knowledge, Merlin. Instead, he uses it to guide him.” So says Kilgharrah, the Great Dragon. It is the very weight of Merlin’s newfound knowledge that threatens to break the young warlock’s back.
When we re-encounter our heroes, it has been three years since Arthur took Guinevere as his queen. Those have been peaceful years, but that time is coming to an end. As Arthur brings the Round Table together, we are told that everyone’s favorite swashbuckling rogue, Sir Gwaine, has vanished along with sixty of the kingdom’s finest soldiers. Included in that mix is Sir Percival of the Prime Pectorals. As we discover, they haven’t vanished. They’ve been captured in the frigid wastelands of Ismere by dear, mildly deranged, Bellatrix Lestrange. Oh, no, wait, wrong British franchise. They’ve been captured by Morgana. She just has enough self-confidence about her security to pull off wearing all black in the middle of pristine snowfields. Of course, why should she bother trying to hide? She has an army of Saxons at her command, and these are a truly unpleasant lot.
Morgana has also gained a quest of her own. In her bloodlust to depose Arthur once and for all, she is looking for a rumored thing that will be “Arthur’s bane”. She has taken up residence in the Fortress of Ismere with her army. Legends tell that the Diamir, the key to all knowledge, is buried there. She wants it. Desperately. Ismere has become the antithesis of Camelot. It is a cold, dark, dank place, and Morgana is apparently willing to even tolerate broken stonework around her newfound frigid throne. There is no warmth in Ismere, illustrating the warmth that has obviously left the Lady Morgana’s soul. She wants knowledge, and she wants revenge. That look that’s reminiscent of Bellatrix Lestrange is a well-done visual shortcut to the viewer of that dark insanity.
Arthur, unfortunately, is still Arthur. The sometimes cabbage-headed king with bravery to his own detriment on most occasions decides to take another force out to find his men. “No matter what adversity we face, we stand for what is right.” Arthur’s reminder to Merlin of the principles and ethics of Camelot (at least, the part that doesn’t demonize sorcery), is another moment of Arthur relying on his mental crutch. A king cannot be seen as weak. A king has obligations. However, will blindly following that path lead to his own destruction? As the dying Druid seer Lochru shows Merlin, there will be battle. There will be war. And Arthur will fall.
This episode marks the welcome return of Lindsay Duncan’s Queen Annis. One of Arthur’s few allies, she is a feminine force to be reckoned with. In a program (and a time period) overrun by men, where the women are often either subservient to the men or mildly deranged villains, it’s always good to see strong, regal women leaders.
Guinevere is stepping into the exceptionally strong, regal woman role, however. She is doing it with grace and a force all her own. While Arthur is off searching for his men, Gwen has a problem in the castle. When it becomes obvious that someone told Morgana of their plans, Gwen knows she has a traitor in their midst. She quickly susses out the only possible suspect, her own maidservant, Sefa. Sefa is the daughter of Ruadan, a Druid in alliance with Morgana. Gwen had seen Sefa sneak out of the castle to visit someone, but it obviously wasn’t the someone Gwen had been led to believe. In a surprising display of authority, Gwen sentences Sefa to death for treason.
Because nothing ever seems to go smoothly for Arthur, as they awake the morning after leaving Queen Annis’s lands, they are ambushed by Morgana and the Saxons. The knights scatter. Merlin helps an injured Arthur off of the battlefield. This was not the battle Merlin was shown. He gets Arthur to safety, but at the cost of leaving Sir Leon, Sir Elyan, and the other knights behind. Merlin and Arthur are alone in the wilderness near Ismere. As hunger distorts Merlin’s perceptions, he accidentally gets them captured by the opportunist Ragnor and a name from the past: Mordred. Unfortunately, his face is one that Merlin is quite familiar with. Mordred is the one who will kill Arthur in Lochru’s dying vision.
All is not solitude and hard work for Sir Gwaine and Sir Percival, though. Gwaine is seeing things in the darkness of the cave. He sees a blue-white light in the distance. Following it, he gets his backside kicked into submission by two Saxons. Unconscious, once the Saxons leave, Gwaine is approached by the creature of light, who begins to heal him. Gwaine has found the Diamir.
There’s a bit more violence than usual for a British series that’s supposed to be accessible to all generations, but it’s also quite obvious that MERLIN is going darker this season. This is the year of Albion’s trial that we’ve been hearing about since the pilot. This is the year where the legends many of us grew up with will be translated into the MERLIN-verse. Unless they make an odd call to go against the legends, this is the year when Arthur will quite likely be taken to Avalon.
Not a bad beginning for the show’s final season, even if Arthur’s dignity is repeatedly (and usually entertainingly) bruised.