Tonight’s episode of Merlin looked for all the world like it was about to become a bizarre racist storyline: putting Gwen’s brother Elyan at the centre of the episode, we saw him first being taunted by the other knights when he asked for a drink of water and then repeatedly being punched in the face as a way to subdue him when he became possessed by the spirit of a massacred child bent on revenge.
But of course, this is the BBC, so we’ll trust that none of that was intentional and move along with the review. Just an observation, okay?
The thrust of the episode was the knights of Camelot discovering a druid shrine in the woods near the castle. I know, completely undiscovered…until now. How convenient! Without knowing the full dangers of this shrine, Elyan takes a swig of water from the well but is instantly possessed by a watery spirit (literally, the boy was dripping water) that wants the King dead.
It’s an episode that’s fairly conventional at the beginning. Elyan is possessed. He makes a few futile assassination attempts on Arthur, but Merlin and Gaius figure out there’s a magical reason behind Elyan’s behaviour. So far, so “another week in the life of Merlin”.
A Herald Of A New Age is already darker than your average Merlin episode. The shrine is clearly the site of a catastrophe of some kind. Where things really heat up is when Merlin encounters Arthur at the shrine at night. Although we’ve assumed that the spirit is mistakenly targeting the King thinking that it’s Uther, Arthur admits that he was responsible for the massacre at the shrine. And he’s come to the place to solemnly apologise and face his fate. So, just as we discover that one of our heroes is responsible for an attrocity, we hear his very human explanation to the spirit and his heartfelt apology.
It’s a moment of mixed emotions for fans of Arthur, but Bradley James deserves full credit for painting a darker, more brooding picture of the character. He’s been living with this on his conscience for years, and you can feel the weight of the crown on Arthur now. He’s just exiled his lover because of her treasonous affair, and now her brother is coming after him, possessed by a vengeful ghost. The scene ends predictably enough, with King Arthur gaining forgiveness, and vowing to give equal treatment to the druids to atone for his and his fathers’ actions.
On a personal note, I’m blown away by how well Colin Morgan and Bradley James are carrying this series at the moment. I haven’t missed Anthony Head as Uther at all, and I think his departure has spurred on the character development we’ve been begging for for at least two seasons. I think Colin Morgan’s high point in this episode was hearing the voices of the dead at the shrine and weeping for them. Such a poignant moment for Merlin, it showed how far Morgan has come as an actor, because I believed every bit of those scenes. Likewise Bradley James as Arthur, fully preparing to have his head hacked off by a murderous, possessed Elyan.
This year, Merlin has become a far more mature show, both in the quality of the performances and in the darkness of the storylines. It’s not quite dark enough to alienate the kiddie audience, but it’s infinitely more satisfying to watch than it was last year!