Sunday 21 October 2012

Review: Merlin 5.03 The Death Song of Uther Pendragon

 Season five has really seen Merlin grow up as a series and the more 'mature' storytelling continues with The Death Song of Uther Pendragon, an episode that skillfully contrasts Arthur's reign to that of his father, Uther.

After last week's snow-based epic, we're back in good old Camelot where the kingdom is celebrating Arthur's coronation while the king himself mourns the loss of his father. The stark contrast between festive merriment and mourning culminates in a moving scene where Bradley James displays his versatile acting chops as he grieves over Uther's tomb, all the while a somber, regal score plays to great effect.

Arthur and Merlin, back to trading cheeky verbal blows, come across a witch hunt while out in the wilderness, which the gallant king stops and takes the old woman accused of sorcery to safety where, in her dying breath, hands Arthur a horn that can call upon spirits. Last season Arthur's stance on magic was much like his father's, especially after Uther's death, but here we see an important clarification on his views. He openly helps the sorcerer and accepts the magical talisman, which clearly indicates that his views have changed significantly over the past few years.

Of course, in his grieving state Arthur calls upon Uther and meets him in the spirit world where the deceased king, instead of greeting his son with happiness, brutally berates him for destroying his legacy of fear and oppression. It's here that we see how far from the tree the apple has fallen, with Arthur chokingly rebutting Uther's sinister words, and it's the first time in a while that we have seen the celebrated king in a weak and vulnerable state. Again, Cooper shows off some class acting, but it's Anthony Head that steals every shot he's in with his powerful presence.

Once Arthur returns from the spirit world, things in Camelot start going awry as Uther's newly released spirit attempts to exact vengeance on everyone he sees as a blot on Camelot, including Gwen and Percival, a knight of common blood. It's a classic ghost story; very apt for the Halloween season that, while not particularly scary, would possibly disturb some younger viewers, especially seeing Gwen get dragged across the hall floor by the invisible assailant, knocked out and left in a room to burn.

It's an episode that doesn't move the story along, but it does serve to provide a contrast between Arthur and Uther's reigns and it's a plot that's driven by character rather than just being a 'monster of the week' piece. There is a particularly good scene involving Merlin confronting Uther which also shows how far Merlin has come in his own development.

As stated previously, there are some stand out performances here, especially with Head who just commands the screen effortlessly. The episode is punctuated with some genuinely funny moments (one of them involving a spoon) as well as some moving scenes that have been relatively rare in the series so far. It's annoying to see Gwen become the 'female victim' again, especially as the last couple of episodes have strayed in the opposite direction to that, and we have another classic 'Arthur gets knocked out so Merlin can use magic' scene, which is beyond old hat by now. That said, this is a solid episode and a great example of the more adult storytelling the series is going for.


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