Sunday, 7 October 2012

Merlin review: 5.01 Arthur's Bane


Merlin has managed to grow with the times over the past few years as we saw an end to the 'fart and belch' episodes that tended to plague the first couple of seasons and a move towards more adult storytelling. Season five is only going to get darker, if recent interviews with the writers are to be believed, with multiple plot strands and more mature themes. With part one of Arthur's Bane, the season five opener, it's certainly looking that way, making it the strongest start to a new season yet.

Three years have passed since Arthur took the throne of Camelot, and under his and Lady Guinevere's rule the kingdom has flourished. But, this being Merlin, this prosperity can't last for long as a new plot to usurp the throne is brewing deep in the icy northern wastes by none other than Morgana herself, along with her newly acquainted Saxon pals. While last time we saw her, the evil sorceress seemed more like a crazy lady who lived in a tree, this time she means business, sitting on her own throne and everything.

Meanwhile, a handful of knights, including Gwain and perpetually-sleeveless Percival, have left on a mission to the northern wastes where they are confronted by wolves, forcing them to flee in Monty Python-esque 'run away, run away!" terror. These guys can hold their own against decked out warriors but wolves send them reeling somehow? This feels like a lazy way to get some of our main heroes into the icy clutches of Morgana before being sent deep underground to mine for something called 'Arthur's Bane', a powerful key to do something-or-other.

Cue the blondest Pendragon to set out with a retinue of knights and a more reserved Merlin to rescue their comrades. Arthur and Merlin's relationship has famously evolved over the years from playground bullying, to mutual respect to an unadulterated bromance. Through a range of interactions in this episode, we see that they have solidified this 'brothers-in-arms' relationship, with a few japes and verbal elbowing thrown in for good measure.

Merlin's magic is kept to a minimum, only practising it to conjure a snake and pull off an egg-juggling act for Queen Annis' court, a character who makes a welcome return from the previous season as Arthur's new-found ally. Speaking of queens, Gwen has taken to the task well as both a humble and righteous ruler. Her actions towards her serving main Sefa are kind (up until a certain point in the story, when they turn very dark indeed). It's wonderful that Gwen is still her own character, looking after Camelot's affairs while the boys are out whacking things with swords and this is something that will hopefully be developed throughout the series.

This series feels huge in scope. It's Game of Thrones lite, but in the best possible way. We're treated to sweeping vistas of snow-drenched landscapes, action-packed battles that have upped the brutality-o-meter from previous seasons, and many different plot threads that are begging to be woven together. Of course, the biggest one is the return of Mordred at the end of the episode. Merlin saw him kill Arthur in a vision at the beginning of the episode, so we have to wait and see how that plays out.

Speaking of Game of Thrones, Liam Cunningham joins the Merlin cast as druid sorcerer Ruadan, who is working with Morgana to bring down Camelot. He's an adept actor and I look forward to seeing how his character develops.

Arthur's Bane has a few silly moments, such as the scared knights, but makes up for them by far with an intricate plot, character-driven motives and a new epic feel. This season promises to be something special.

*****