"I am not my father. Now, cut her down." Arthur's proclamation to a villager as he orders the release of an elderly woman accused of sorcery may have sounded hollow to his subjects, but by the time we finish this episode, those words couldn't be more true. Arthur Pendragon is in charge of Camelot, and he is not a ruler in Uther's model.
Make no mistake, this is about as Arthur-centric an episode as we've had for a bit, and it illustrates in with unflinching clarity just how very far the apple has fallen from the tree. As Merlin and Arthur tend to the woman they freed, Arthur is faced with the continued presence of magic in his kingdom. No matter how ruthless Uther had been, no matter how far and wide the Purge had searched for its victims, magic prevails. The Old Religion will not cower at a sword's point.
One would think that Morgana's rather vehement assertions of power would be more than enough to illustrate this point, but not to our dear Arthur. Bless his heart.
The woman starts for a bit, and informs the our curiously-not-a-cabbage-head king that she doesn't fear death. She also has a gift for him. As he has shown kindness and compassion, two qualities of a true king, she bestows upon him the Horn of Cathbhadh. It is, of course, a magical item. It has the power to summon the spirits of the dead.
And, if you've paid any attention to Arthur in the last, oh, four years, you know precisely where this is leading. Yes, looking at the title of the episode will suffice as well, but this is a character piece, after all. An observant viewer doesn't need the title here.
Cue the opening credits. Oh, look, Anthony Head's name is back, putting to rest any doubt that we are going to see Uther.
Arthur takes the Horn to Gaius, who picks it up along with the mantle of exposition. With a heavy tone, he tells Arthur of the times he attended rituals (pre-Purge, of course) where the High Priestesses would use the Horn to open the doorway to the other side. "It holds powerful magic," Gaius warns.
Of course, the warning falls on Arthur's ears, so he will heed it only as it benefits him. The timing could not be worse, as the Horn of Cathbhadh has come into his possession on the anniversary of his coronation. Arthur is particularly missing his father's presence. As everyone else celebrates, a sullen king excuses himself from the festivities. Arthur walks down to a room in the Citadel that has been set aside for Uther's sarcophagus. Instead of celebrating his ascension to the throne, Arthur mourns his father's death. It also sets Arthur thinking, which worries even Merlin.
Arthur and Merlin set off on horses for the Great Stones of Nemeton, which look suspiciously like Stonehenge. Ignoring Merlin's warning, as usual, Arthur uses the powerful magic of the Horn to open the doorway. He has to take what might be his last chance to speak with his father.
When Arthur does speak with Uther, we are given a glaring example of how unlike his father Arthur has become. In its own way, it is also a quick study in the difference between a leader who is a dictator, and a leader who works to find the best solution for their people. If there was any doubt that Uther was a political animal driven by power, it should be dispelled by his tirade against Arthur's style of rule. "There are some things that are more important than love," he chastises his son, thus proving that perhaps Uther lost more than expected when Ygraine died in childbirth.
It is when Uther tells Arthur that he has failed in everything that Uther believes to be a king's duty that the difference between the two men is writ large. Perhaps it's finally written large enough for even Arthur to acknowledge.
Arthur returns to the world of the living, but not without one final look back at his father. Uther assures Arthur he will always love him, but as we've seen, that is a very tough love that doesn't show much in the way of leniency.
Arthur and Merlin's years-long bromance comes in handy that evening, as Merlin manages to get Arthur to discuss his encounter with Uther. A very telling moment comes when Merlin must remind the dejected king that it Camelot is no longer Uther's kingdom. Arthur's inherent lack of faith in himself is rearing its ugly head once again, but this time there is no convenient Excalibur in a nearby rock.
It is at the next meeting of the Round Table where our story begins to turn into a lovely little fright-fest. The heavy wooden throne room doors fly open as if a gust of wind had just blown through, interrupting a briefing by Sir Leon. When he continues his briefing, the great chandelier crashes down, damaging the Round Table. Sir Percival is attacked by a flying axe. Percival and Merlin both sense a presence that isn't physically there.
Shortly after treating Percival's injury, Gaius drops the bombshell on Merlin: if Arthur had looked back at the spirit of his father as he was leaving the other side, he would release Uther's spirit into this world. This is enough to convince Merlin that Camelot is haunted.
As Arthur and Merlin couldn't have watched any poltergeist movies to realize what they were seeing, it isn't until Guinevere is chased into a storeroom—which is subsequently set alight—that Arthur begins to believe his father might be involved. Attacking non-noble knights, trying to kill Gwen, these would be eliminating the very things Uther so derided about Arthur’s reign.
Arthur turns again to Gaius, the resident expert on the Horn of Cathbhadh and the old religion, to tell him how to dispose of Uther’s ghost. Whether it is because magic caused Arthur’s birth, or he has grown more accustomed to sorcery in his presence, we can’t be sure. However, Arthur seems to have no problems using magic once again to send Uther back across the veil to the other side. Which is a good thing, because only the person who unleashed the spirit can send it back across. Gaius concocts a draught that will allow both Merlin and Arthur to see Uther’s spirit. The duo begins to search the castle, unfortunately having to explain Arthur’s sudden love of poetry (it’s a cover story, really, said nobody in the Arthur/Merlin slashfic community ever) to Sir Leon along the way. Finally, Arthur must face off against his father in Merlin’s version of a horror movie staple, the dark and creeky throne room.
However, before Arthur can use the Horn, Uther knocks him out. Merlin stops Uther’s spirit from harming his son, but it costs him the secret of his magic. Uther rails against Merlin, while Merlin simply stands up to the former king and tells him how much better Arthur is at the job. Armed with the knowledge that there is a sorcerer at the heart of Camelot, Uther begins to stalk Merlin instead. It’s just enough to give Arthur a chance to grab the Horn and sneak up on Uther. “You’ve had your turn, now it’s mine.” As Uther tries to reveal Merlin’s secret, Arthur blows the Horn.
Uther is shuffled off across the veil. Merlin’s secret remains safe, for now. We have to wonder just how much longer Merlin can keep this one. And considering the approach Arthur took toward magic in this episode, is it even worth keeping the secret anymore? If the king himself can use powerful magic to speak to his father once again, what’s the point of outlawing it in the kingdom? And how long will it take Arthur to realize this? Only time will tell.
As we close, it is sinking in for Arthur just how different his attitude toward ruling is from his father’s. Arthur must be true to himself, even if it means disappointing his father’s spirit. In a kingdom where ‘everyone is respected, regardless of rank’, Uther’s method of ruling doesn’t work. Arthur’s, however, appear to be just the thing.
5 stars. A beautiful character piece for Arthur, holding up a mirror to himself. Will this be the end of his self-confidence issues? We can hope.
Next time, the return of Princess Mithian. Is that Morgana on her heels?