Merlin: Swords and Sorcery Part II – For the Hate of Camlann!

Emrys

All’s well that..  Ends.  One year on, a closer look at the final three episodes of Merlin, where all the anachronistically tarmaced roads point to Camlann and a rather bleak finale is framed by the Mordred endgame.  Destiny is key… And everyone has a set role to play.

 A Review of the concluding Mordred Trilogy…

The Drawing of the Dark

THE START OF THE END, AS ITS TITLE SUGGESTS, DRAWING RATHER NEATLY SETS UP MORDRED’S ROLE BY INVERTING THE MERLIN FORMULA AND GIFTING IT TO THE ‘OTHER’ YOUNG WIZARD.  Here it is Mordred sneaking from the castle walls to aid an undesirable, breaking his, admittedly ruthless, friend from the brig and then conflicted over his use of magic.  Any or all of those plot facets could have been applied to Merlin in any other episode.  But her all off a sudden, in preparation for the final two-parter, we’re left in no uncertain terms that things have inverted.  It’s a bold move that shows how much faith the creators have in Merlin’s well-worn formula.  They’re right to, because it just about works, but it’s left to the sprawling plot strands to pose the problem.

The impending dark means that Merlin is as caught up in prophecies as ever, but the episodes conjures up plenty of red herrings as to whether it’s actually his actions that are making the prophecies come to pass, have done or will do.  Both Gaius and Mordred himself point out to Merlin that he would act the same if he was Modred’s armoured boots – but the young wizard is too wary of his visions of Camlann to listen.

It’s difficult to gauge true effect of Merlin’s actions in this episode.

It’s well sculpted, but after five years of acting just like Mordred, it’s a little hard to accept Merlin’s volte face and indeed that Mordred, the loyalist knight, would turn so quickly.  While there’s a real momentum to this episode, one that draws most of the characters from their comfort zone as the dark draws near there is that inherent problem: The Mordred story is handled a little too hastily.

It’s difficult to gauge true effect of Merlin’s actions in this episode.  On top of those familiar, strained loyalties, he’s wracked by the previous visions and prophecies that he‘s seen people die for.  Above all though, while the ambiguity seems dissipate to settle on Mordred’s hands being forced by Merlin’s actions, and thus Camlann as well, it’s the original prophecy laid out in the first series that remains the most important.

It’s a mean to an ends then, though one with some pelt.  There are some nice parallels.  Merlin’s counsel with Arthur is a nice mirror of Gaius’ poor choice the week before.  Such interventions are there to build up to Mordred’s final appeal to his king, and that’s a winner.  The scene’s key to the strength is Alexander Vlahos’ superb performance and he successfully captures the weight of confessional courage alongside sacrifice in what may be the most important in the whole series.

Merlin’s culpability in his own destiny is an interesting area in its own right.  But despite the mild flirtation with it at the end game. It’s not something that the show can get into too much.  Over reliance on it would only serve to drag this entertaining show down a peg like (as Poirot’s recent end-game decided on), but it would also damage the main focus of those last episodes: Arthur’s bane himself.

 Drawing has a necessarily has a bleak tone, but it’s particularly tortuous to watch Mordred’s struggle.  The parallel to Merlin makes for one of the most interesting conundrums in the whole series.  And so it should be.

Mordred achieving his knighthood is a most unexpected surprise…

Of all parts of Arthurian lore the show has touched on, sometimes blatantly, sometimes softly, Mordred remains the trickiest character.  Even ignoring the more fruity elements of lore, he’s the big bad – up there with Morgana, and the one who delivers the final blow.  He’s the ultimate bad.  And perhaps the loyalty to legend in having Mordred achieve his knighthood is the most unexpected surprise in the series.

Having established a strict code of magic suppression, one it never swayed from, Merlin was well placed to use it to frame Arthur’s bane.  From his first appearance, Mordred was presented as a chilling character.  The telepathy helps, as does the knowledge he possesses, but it’s particularly because he’s so much more in touch with his roots and so much more in control of his powers than Merlin.  When he aged, the character was inevitably diminished.  And unfortunately Knight Mordred came a season after  the wonderful pincer movement of Morgana and Agravaine de Bois that he could never match.

In propelling the story along, it’s interesting that the writers decided to take a step back.  Kara seems a throwback to Merlin’s early years.  But after years of the increasingly pantomime Morgana, at least Kara’s was an impassioned martyrdom.  After killing a ‘soldier of Camelot’ she’d never engender much sympathy, but it’s her duels with Arthur that are a highlight of the episode.  Interesting as Series Five had hardly showed Arthur as a persecutor of magic users – on one occasion he even saved a witch.  However, Morgana’s one-minded hatred, aligned with Mordred’s tortured loyalty ultimately prove compelling, even if their estrangement seemed a little rushed.

The following two episodes inevitably involve that certain Lady of the Lake…

When reunited however, the young lovers show that the stakes have never been higher.  With comedy episodes packed away, a later time slot, and a need for closure, the signs and portents were brought to the fore this series.  In Drawing, the raising of gallows are a remarkably dark moment, but then they needed to be ominous.  It wasn’t just Merlin bringing the prophecies to fruition.  While Mordred’s escape is the first of broad Star Wars strokes that build throughout the climax, it leads to the most dramatic execution.  It’s a shame that there isn’t the time to explore Mordred’s grief more fully.  With Uther and Morgana, Arthur and Guinevere, Merlin and the Lady of the Lake, the parallels were all there for the taking.  It really is a missed opportunity after the travails Merlin went through to free Freya in season two… Especially as the events of the following two episodes inevitably involve that certain Lady of the Lake…

And so by the end of Drawing, Mordred reaches his potential.  Even the loyalist of Arthurs’ knights couldn’t keep his secret safe for more than a fifth of the time that Merlin managed.

 The Diamond of the Day Part 1

War has never been far from characters’ lips since Morgana took a dislike to a Knight’s face…

And so we reach the final two-parter.  Tradition dictates that a Merlin two-part finale will be both good and tick a few more boxes of legend.  So firstly, what a disappointing title.  The Merlin crew are normally quite good at hitting on legend-friendly titles, but having already used Le Morte d’Arthur, The Lady of the Lake and The Darkest Hour, Camlann part 1 and 2 just wouldn’t cut it.

That said, this is no exception to the rule that Merlin two-parters get off to a nippy start.  That’s particularly notable here after the rather downbeat, doom-laden Drawing of the Dark.  Although war has never been far from characters’ lips since Morgana took a dislike to a Knight’s face, it now really is game on; Morgana has her final key.  Most importantly she also has a powerful and effective lieutenant.  Mordred, Arthur’s loyalist Knight, is a far cry from the failing miscreants she’s previously allied herself with.

It’s impressive how stealthily Morgana rose to become a real leader.  Just a year before she was hiding in a cave hut.  Now, to match her stronger resolve have come rudderless bands of Saxons and a hidden, impressive, keep.  The Saxons mounting role make an interesting touch; they’re the rogues who presumably inherit Albion…

But it isn’t an all out attack, first comes another one of Merlin’s tropes: a magical curse to take the main character out of play.  It’s a tried and tested device, from X-Men: The Last Stand to Superman 3.  Taking Merlin out of the action is simple; crude, but necessary.  It’s to the credit of the writers that it even feels mildly fresh here, focussing as it does on the unspoken elements of Arthur and Merlin’s relationship.  As this two parter will show, there’s still a lot to fit in before the series bows out.  First there’s the matter of the knights to tie up…

While Leon and Gwain had taken most of the slack the week before – mostly in Mordred’s absence – here it’s Percival’s turn.  He’s in the Rising Sun tavern when the rather out of place Arthur’s is rather oddly losing money, albeit magically, to Merlin.  While it seems strange the more you think about it, the scene is actually a neat reminder of how the king and his servant’s relationship has moved on.  All those year’s ridiculing Merlin for being in the ale house…

All the right tricks are being ramped up…

Percival’s also at Arthur’s hand when the Roundtable makes its reappearance.  On Arthur’s left is Guinevere of course, holding the place alongside Gaius that Merlin once took.  It’s noticeable that this is the first time in a while that Arthur refers to Morgana as his sister.  All the right tricks, from family to betrayal to war are at being ramped up to fuel the intensity of the finale.

Of all the knights, it’s Gwain who’s been worst served by the final season.  The fallible romance plot device in this episode brings the brash knight back into the fold and back to the character of lore.  It does well at highlighting Gwain’s standing as one of the greatest knights, but also the most reckless – it’s the latter trait that inevitably leads to his downfall.  It’s not an unexpected endgame for Gwain, but a shame for such an important figure in the show’s revised myth.  Not only is he one of the few who knows Merlin’s secret, but his knighthood also said a lot about the boy king’s reign.

When it comes to strategising the information that Gwain lets slip, it is all Tolkien map – quite an anachronism compared to the curtains and bedposts of the show, but a welcome one – alongside those familiar Ronin style-ambushes.  Gwain gets his true last hurrah making Merlin’s journey to the Valley of the Fallen Kings possible.  But with knowledge that is the true counterpoint to Mordred’s, his and Merlin’s relationship is underexplored.

And then, eventually, we see Morgana versus Emris.  At this point the balance in achieving a necessary build-up becomes difficult.  Considering how ruthlessly Morgana has been developed, it’s unbelievable that she doesn’t just kill him, especially with Merlin’s cockiness when faced with certain death.

The approach to someone or other’s Rubicon…

However, that unbalance actually helps the episode step up a gear.  It soon achieves a pace seldom seen in the series, even in the chase episodes.   Merlin’s entrapment leaves chance for nice interplay between Arthur, Gaius and Guinevere while on the flip-side, Mordred and Morgana laboured co-spelling reinforces their bond and strength.

Other than that it’s all CGI marching, camp building and the approach to someone or other’s Rubicon.

I found the sudden reveal of Camlann to be a jolt.  For me, always the wide, green and fog-filled plain of Excalibur – but here a rubble-filled pass; a bigger version of what has become Merlin’s own version of the Doctor Who quarry in Surrey.

Things start to get very Star Wars indeed…

Back in the cave things look bad for Merlin, but there is just a sense of real danger lacking.  In part, that’s a side effect of the malevolent Morgana stooping to merely send a rock fall his way, but it’s also a hangover from Merlin having met so many allies in caves before.  And then, faster than the Falcon, things start to get very Star Wars indeed.  There’s always been a trace of that of course.  The Star Wars shadow hangs long on adventures of this type.

While Merlin’s father is a neat character touch, a neat reference, his presence is pure Obi-dad-Kenobi.  Their discussion of magic borders on, and I’m so sorry to say it, midi-chlorians.  While Merlin’s easy route back into magic seems somewhat inexplicable, it does suggest that his magic is innate rather than something rejuvenated by the crystals.  Certainly, his reaction to the change is emphatic.  The crystals act as hyped up versions of the palantirs in The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, facilitating communication.

With the build-up to Camlann established over several series, it’s a bit of a shock to find the battle upon the knights at the end of the first part.  It’s there, the very place in which, legend and Merlin’s prophecies themselves have told us, Arthur and Mordred will destroy each other.

The battle itself is visceral, if not anything beyond what you’d expect of Merlin’s TV budget.  Mordred sulks as he skulks, looking for Arthur as Bane would Batman on Gotham Wall Street.  And then suddenly, with an explosion of magic, old Merlin (Dragoon) explains away some earlier visions that seemed a poor fit.  How could the old Merlin have walked Camlann.  I say ‘explains away’, but it actually knocks it into perspective.  We are suddenly aware that this is THE actual Camlann: the end.  Merlin and Arthurian legend is about to emphatically end and so…  It’s a fine point for a cliff-hanger.

The Diamond of the Day Part 2

When the cavalry arrives, it is less amusing and less joyous than usual.

With a whopping extended episode of a whole 47 minutes, after 65 episodes of what might be the most roomy and luxurious fantasy story on TV, this is it: the finale.  An actual extended closer would have been too out of formula and too ostentatious for Merlin.

What is a step up is the fighting.  Full and impressive, it’s something the production team had to put some thought into.  It’s another full-pelt start, with the fighting intercut with Merlin’s chase on his magically gained a horse.  Despite galloping at full speed, the timing could be a little sharper under the weight of all they are seeking to pack in.

On the field, Mordred is still stalking, Leon is really putting his back into it and then… Morgana’s poor little dragon arrives.  It may have been lightly explained, but the year of maltreatment Morgana and her adopted dragon endured added a nasty undercurrent to this final series.  It’s hard not to feel sorry for the beast that formed the previous year’s cliff-hanger.  And of course, when Merlin arrives, the little feller can be easily dispensed with but there’s still time for some mirroring.  Morgana takes on the role of Merlin, protecting Mordred in battle just as Merlin has protected his King countless times – and that’s even after the witch mimics Merlin’s action of Dragon-forging.

When the cavalry arrives, it is less amusing and less joyous than usual.  That doesn’t mean that the Star Wars aping has finished, however.  After Obi-dad of the previous episode, now we have Old Emperor Merlin hurling his force lightening.  That we know Merlin so well, or think we do, the sight of him prowling the battlefield is impressive.  Once again, the real bane here is that the time pressure is a little lacking, but with so many nice touches, that’s easy to forgive.

And even Guinevere, her brow perpetually furrowed, get s her own wonderfully staged fight to deal with on the medicine side.  It’s little moments like that, throwbacks to earlier and simpler times, that make Merlin; the show that never really seemed to go anywhere.

That simple step-over of Mordred’s body speaks volumes.

And so the real end-game.  When Arthur and Mordred do meet, it is quick, but it’s brutal.  The only words said are Mordred’s. ‘You gave me no choice’.  It harks right back to his betrayal by Arthur, right back to Uther’s magical suppression and the heart of the series.  Arthur’s response is a classical one, but not Excalibur-bloodily so.  Mordred is dead before hitting the ground and when Merlin later finds his King, that simple step-over of Mordred’s body speaks volumes.

Camlann is over and it’s the aftermath that has drawn the most criticism.  However, Merlin was always as much about the personnel as the legend.  While the Arthur and Mordred strand was an important one to follow, it’s Merlin and Arthur’s relationship that’s most important.  This is the last chance for one of those round the camp-fire scenes, and in fact, it’s one five years in the making.  Arthur’s reaction to the truth is well constructed – all the more impressive when you accept that there will always be holes.

A specific lists of question along the lines of  ‘you killed my father’ wouldn’t work, so instead we see Arthur travel through disbelief, denial, anger and then the rekindling of understanding, all administered with a light touch.  As usual, Colin Morgan and Bradley James’ excellent chemistry carries it all – and not easy when the dynamic has changed so markedly.

But it’s not just the wizard and King’s story that is ending.  Gwain must pay the price and duly does, creating an elevated role for Percival in the process.  On her way out, a broken Morgana conjures up the most explicit Star Wars reference with her burning Sith magic eyes blazing as she force chokes a Saxon.  It is a shame that narratively Gwain can’t have a noble death.  There was always that hanging, strange link between Morgana and the one she consistently called her ‘Sir Knight’.  There was more of Uther in her than she hoped.

This strand holds truer to some tellings of the legend than most but still, with Lancelot’s story long-resolved and Bedevere non-existent in Merlin, the majority of legend is pressed into the hands of the young wizard himself.  In the structure of the show, there’s nothing wrong with that.

At the end, it’s back to basics.

The final episode’s structure also allows time to explore both sides of Guinevere back in Camelot.  While reasonable when it comes to friendship and magic, she’s still gallows happy – as Eira’s death proves.  By now there’s little to no comedy left in the series.  But in distilling the aftermath from battle to horse chases through the familiar green of Albion via betrayal, knowledge and redemption, it all fits the bill rather well.  Magic had visibly diversified in the last part of season five, with fire walls and lightening replacing the classic Merlin force push.  But at the end, it’s back to basics.

Moving on from Star Wars, Arthur’s plight is pure Iron Man.  While the enchanted metal heads inevitably to his heart, it’s the same dramatic death that Merlin grants Morgana.  When the Great Dragon arrives belatedly (as he’d previously flown to Avalon) it’s too late to avoid the fate that he’d long prophesised.  The fate that Merlin had fought so hard to achieve has arrived, and it’s the one fate that he didn’t really want.

There’s always a player who sacrifices the most and in the absence of Bedevere, despite the increased role of Percival, it’s the young wizard who is left to hurl Excalibur back to its resting place.  Without Arthur’s command, or real knowledge of its power it seems a strange, but it’s a metaphor for the dwindling role of magic and of course, it’s an action that he’s performed before…  And this time his ex-girlfriend’s hand is there to catch the sword

The fate of the young dragon may be unknown, but that of dragons in general is not.  The fate of the kingdoms of Camelot is also known, and one eased by the talk of succession and the future of the name-checked “United Kingdoms”.  It then falls to the coronation of Guinevere to be the nice thematic segue to what is the most surprising cut of all…

It’s a bleak hope, but it is there.

Suddenly, we’re in present day Britain.

Where Merlin still stalks the land, awaiting the return of his friend and King.  It’s a bleak finish, no matter how you look at it.  It seems unlikely that Merlin saw Camelot again after Camlann and has been left to wander Albion for centuries, watching magic slowly fade from the world.

Ultimately, Merlin’s hope rests on the shoulder of prophecies that have previously taken everything away from him.  It’s a bleak hope, but it is there.  And somewhat miserable as it is, it’s a finale fully in the spirit of Merlin.  I think the word may be “fitting”.  It could have been fuller, but the Merlin crew achieved a lot.  Merlin went out neatly and very nearly complete.  Yes, there was room for more, but it’s hard to begrudge the confident approach and skilful misdirection they pulled off again and again.  And all that from a  series that never really seemed to go anywhere…

More Merlin? Read Swords & Sorcery Part I: An overview of Five years of Merlin in For the Love of Camelot!

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