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The weaker half of series 4
on 23 January 2012
This boxed set contains episodes 7-13 of series 4 of Merlin. The series started out brilliantly, with some of the most surprising, well-written episodes ever (The Wicked Day, Aithusa, His Father's Son among my favorites.) The characterizations were spot-on, and the two young male leads, Bradley James and Colin Morgan in particular, have upped their game to incredible, amazing proportions. The degree to which they've matured and come into their own this season is commendable.
What's more, the entire season is being shot in 35mm film, which means it is absolutely gorgeous visually. Shine (Merlin's production company) has taken advantage of the beautiful scenery of Cardiff, Wales and surrounding areas, utilizing locations frequently and it truly makes a positive and impressive difference.
Episodes 1-6 (featured in volume 1) also feature some wonderful, hilarious banter between their characters, Arthur and Merlin. Their bromance is now legendary, and their chemistry is undeniable. We've seen Arthur mature from spoiled, bratty prince to regent and now to a strong, well-meaning king. We've seen the addition of Agravaine, Arthur's traitorous uncle, (marvelously played by Nathaniel Parker), and the loss of King Uther, Arthur's father. Gwen has now surpassed all human perfection and has taken on the role of saintly martyr, never once displaying a fault or flaw, never disagreeing with Arthur, as well as apparently having been granted new Wonder-bras to enhance her array of designer-servant gowns. (Even her unfaithfulness with Lancelot isn't her fault, magic made them do it.) Gaius is still around to advise caution and offer sage advice as well as raise that ever-expressive eyebrow. And Morgana....she of the overdone green eyeshadow, the trills, the preens, the poses, the smirks, the hair tossing...well. Someone really should tell the poor thing that real villains don't need to flounce quite that much, (she acts like she's in a French perfume commercial all the time), but she makes up for it with all her mustache-twirling, over-the-top, cartoony, scenery-chewing malevolence.
Volume 2 of series 4 starts out with a very good episode called The Secret Sharer, in which Gaius is kidnapped by Agravaine and Morgana to extract information about the mysterious Emrys, and Agravaine sets it up to look like Gaius has fled. He plants magic books to cast further suspicions on Gaius, and fake-sympathizes with Arthur about how Gaius has always seemed like such a loyal advisor. There is another one of those scenes between Arthur and Merlin that reminds even the adults in the viewing audience why we tune in each week, with the inimitable Colin Morgan teary-eyed and lip-trembling, and Bradley James' character Arthur at once declaring his friendship for him and shutting him down. (And I have to be honest, after that scene I was wholly convinced there would be a magic reveal this season. Alas, t'wasn't to be...)
After episode seven, however, it was as if all the skilled and talented people involved in the show went on holiday, only to be replaced by pre-pubescent and illiterate girls. Episode 8, Lamia, featured Merlin getting bullied and threatened by the knights due to an enchanted creature in the guise of a girl. Episode 9, called Lancelot du Lac, had to be the worst hour of telly ever produced and was perhaps the biggest and most disappointing cop out of the show. Episode 10 was a filler episode up that had me almost falling asleep until the last ten minutes, when Bradley James totally took over and kicked some serious butt. (And again, another tease regarding Arthur's accepting magic sooner rather than later.)Episode 11, The Hunter's Heart, featured Janet Montgomery as Princess Mithian, Arthur's new betrothed, who was absolutely stellar and had more chemistry with him in one ep than Gwen has with him after four years. This was also the episode where Merlin meddled and nagged Arthur inappropriately, and Arthur threatened to banish Merlin, not once but twice (and meant it). So much for their bond of the first half of the season. The season's finale was a 2-parter, Sword in the Stone parts 1 & 2, and unfortunately, it was a redux of last season's finale: Morgana and her merry band of evils take over Camelot, Merlin and Arthur flee, Arthur is sad, Merlin peps him up, they re-take Camelot, Gwen and Arthur kiss amdist sunbeams and violins. The only variations this time were that Arthur was wearing a funny costume and was under Merlin's mind control, unbeknownst to him. That was another brilliant performance by Mr. James, ranging between achingly vulnerable and hilariously humorous. As the title suggests, a piece of the famous legends is revisited with a new take. Oh, and there is also a rather wasted glimpse of two more characters of legend, Tristan and Isolde, although the only thing these characters have in common with the legend are their names. And in what has to be another WTF moment for this show, the new white baby dragon revives a mortally wounded Morgana--apparently, he isn't going to be someone who bodes well "for the future of Albion Arthur & Merlin will build", as Kilgarrah claimed back in episode 4.
Overall, it's an amazingly flat and senseless end to a series that started off astoundingly rich and enjoyable. I wish the show runners would understand a bit more that being a family show does not necessarily mean that those watching have the mentality of 3 year olds, and stop talking down to their audience. There are plot holes big enough to drive tanks through, and while some characterizations (like Arthur & Merlin) are vividly drawn, with believable moral ambiguity--- others, like the women of the show, are shallow and one dimensional. (Let's face it--Gwen is without fault and flaw, a selfless martyr, 100% good, while Morgana finds great glee in hurting innocents--"Burn the crops, starve the kids!". There's no in-between for either of them.) The both of them are sadly laughable. And now that Gwen is queen, (with no hint of any depth between her and Arthur, no signs of them trying to work out their trust issues), I am worried about Merlin's place as adviser and friend in series 5. At the least, those delightful domestic scenes in Arthur's chambers will most likely not be happening, now that Arthur shares his space with a woman.
Further, I'm terribly disappointed that the much-hyped new knights never appear as more than background (with the possible exception of Sir Elyan, Gwen's brother). I had hoped that their status as low-born knights of the new order might be explored at least a little, but I guess that might have taken time away for more scenes of Arthur and Gwen kissing while being back-lit.
Of all the characters, Merlin--the title character, the one the show should be about, has the least amount of character growth and development, which really, is seriously wrong. The season lacked consistency (and at times, coherence) and was not always on its toes when it came to continuity.
This dvd collection also includes 3 commentaries by the actors and directors, an outtake reel (very funny), and deleted scenes. It is worth it just for those extras.
Okay. I'm prepared to be bashed now by fanatical Merlin-show lovers and Gwen and Morgana sympathizers.