Anymore, there are a few predictions one can make, with relative confidence, about any new season of “Merlin”. As usual, the season begins with promise: an epic two-parter that reminds us of what the show could be if the whole season followed suit. But we’ve been down this road before. The format constraints will continue to bog down the show and restrict the inherent potential for serialized storytelling in the story arcs. And there will be plenty of other frustrating and downright odd writing choices, as well as one or two horrendously bad comedy episodes.
All this makes me sound like I dislike “Merlin”. I don’t, really. In fact, I have a special fondness for the show and its characters. There is much about the show that continues to confound and annoy me, but “Merlin” has found itself a comfortable spot in my brain. It continues to be just good enough to keep me watching, but very often fails to live up to my high hopes for it. Season 4 really ought to have been the season where “Merlin” got its act together, and there was every indication that it would be the best season yet. Unfortunately, the season only made it about halfway to living up to its potential.
So for this season, my expectations have been tempered. Season 4 did make some changes for the better, so this season may improve the show to another small degree. But I no longer expect the show to make the dramatic, rapid changes that I’ve long hoped for. With all that in mind, the season premiere is about as good as expected. Another time jump is utilized; this time a whole three years have gone by, rather than the usual single year. And there is a good reason for this, as it turns out.
The season opens much the same as the previous one did: with Morgana up to no good. I find Morgana to be a terribly underwhelming and incomprehensible villain (or villainess, if you prefer), so this aspect of the premiere bored me. But there is a new “sub-baddie” in the form of Ruadan, played by Liam Cunningham; one of my absolute favorite British actors. Here he plays a druid sorcerer, allied with Morgana, whose daughter is embedded in the royal court as Guinevere’s servant.
Together, he and Morgana are mighty keen on unearthing some sort of magical key to all knowledge, which is said to be buried beneath a large, rather forbidding-looking castle in an equally forbidding-looking, snowy landscape. The idea being that this Diamair will explain to them just what “Arthur’s Bane” is. Morgana has managed to capture Gwaine and Percival, and has put them to work (along with several other of Arthur’s men) digging below the castle. Gwaine gets a nice little sub-plot here at the castle, where an interesting reveal occurs partway through the episode. This “key” may be more than anyone expected it to be.
Meanwhile, Arthur and Merlin get themselves into trouble while out looking for Gwaine and the others. Separated from the others during a fight with Morgana’s forces, Arthur and Merlin end up on the run. The premiere wisely plays on the chemistry between Arthur and Merlin for much of the premiere, further developing their friendship without dispensing with the (often humorous) conflict between them. This storyline ends with the reveal of what Arthur’s Bane really is.
While the re-appearance of Mordred isn’t entirely surprising, given how much of the show was dedicated to his origin story as the next big super-villain, it’s a good moment and a story that any fan of Arthurian legend will appreciate. Already, I find him far more interesting than Morgana. While Morgana quickly devolved into a one-note villain, there are hints of a complexity in Mordred. If the season premiere had been solely about Morgana, I would have been disappointed, even in spite of my already lowered expectations. But the appearance of Mordered is one of its saving graces.
Another interesting element in the premiere is the introduction of a potential love interest for Merlin. At least, that’s how it looked at first, until Guinevere sentenced Sefa to death for treachery. Merlin has never really had a love interest aside from Freya, who has only made one brief re-appearance since her previous single-episode storyline. (I almost don’t even want to count her, since she was little more than an episodic love interest.) I say that it’s about time he had one, but it looks as though this romance has been snuffed out before it could even begin.
Speaking of Guinevere, I’m not terribly pleased with the direction the writers have gone with her. The old Guinevere would have shown Sefa mercy. Now she’s become kind of a cold-hearted, well… bitch. It might be nice if the writers actually went somewhere with this, and showed how Guinevere has become corrupted by power. Of course, Guinevere doesn’t exactly have the knowledge that we have: that Sefa is just a misguided young girl being manipulated by her father. But I still found Gwen’s actions to be pretty distasteful and not at all in keeping with her earlier characterization.
All in all, another strong premiere from “Merlin”, and the follow-up will likely be just as strong. It’s a shame that the majority of the season can’t be this focused, well-paced, and serious. The premiere does feel a bit overly familiar, but it’s generally representative of what tends to work best in “Merlin”. Dark forces are converging, unnerving prophecies are foretold, battles are fought, and Merlin is stuck at the center of it all, with the terrible burden or responsibility weighing down on him once again.
John Keegan is Editor-in-Chief for Critical Myth, a partner site of SciFi Vision. Gregg Wright is Critical Myth's reviewer for Merlin.