Before the beginning of the season, the creators of Merlin promised more trips to the dark side, and more continuing storylines. This week, that promised was paid off in bold, almost freaky new dimensions for the normally buttoned up fantasy series, and moreover, the episode involved the criminally underused Angel Coulby, AKA: Queen Guinevere. The Queen finds herself in big trouble when Morgana hatches a new scheme, and things just might go from bad to worse by episode’s end.
But let’s kick things off on a sour note. Gwen and Elyan pay respects to their dearly departed father who was executed by Uther for conspiring with sorcerers in season one. On the way back to Camelot, Morgana strikes by enchanting a nest of snakes that scare the horses, bite Sirs Leon and Percival and cause just enough of a distraction so that Morgana can make off with the Queen before anyone’s the wiser.
Obviously, Arthur is unimpressed. Upon examining the bitten knights, Gaius and Merlin determine that there’s sorcery (and treachery) afoot, which naturally leads to suspicions of Morgana’s intervention. Arthur’s heard enough, he and the others will saddle up and ride out to save the Queen, who’s currently being dragged, on foot, by Morgana to The Dark Tower. Gwen’s being a good little POW and refusing water when offered, but Morgana’s kind of enjoying the Queen’s defiance rather than being annoyed by it.
The knights are in hot pursuit, but they’re not sure where they’re going. At night, both Leon and Percival have the same nightmare about The Dark Tower, a locale that Arthur is well aware of for bring doom to all who hear its name. Merlin senses a pattern, if Leon and Percival are having the same dream, then chances are the knights are walking into a trap at The Dark Tower. Meanwhile, in said tower, Morgana locks Gwen in a dark room filled with Mandrake roots. In case you’ve forgotten Mandrake root causes people to go crazy. Usually one is enough, but there were several roots in this dark room. How long can Gwen hold out before going mad?
Arthur and the others are stuck, going around in circles in the forests surrounding the Dark Tower, and meanwhile Morgana continues to torture Gwen. During a bizarre break, Morgana hosts Gwen to dinner. The Queen remains defiant, but when Morgana goes into details about her two years of imprisonment, Gwen finds herself feeling oddly sympathetic. The detente is short-lived though, and soon Gwen is returned to the dark room with the Mandrake roots where she suffers horrible hallucinations of her friends and family taunting her.
Back in the forest, Arthur is peeved by the knights’ lack of progress, but as night falls, the party is forced to make camp again. During the night, Merlin is awoken by a presence, a spirit called Mab, the Queen of all men fear in their hearts. She recognizes Merlin as Emrys and speaks in riddles: the way forward, she says, is also the way back, and by the way, one of them isn’t going to return to Camelot alive. Well Merlin’s not going to have any of that, and when the morning comes he leads the knights through the forest (with magical assistance), and they get closer to the tower.
But as the knights get closer, Gwen’s hallucinations intensify. She’s been suffering days of this torture and is near the breaking point. The knights finally enter the tower, and although there are some booby traps and some fightin’ skeletons to dispatch, it’s really not what one would expect from an expertly laid trap by Morgana. Elyan is able to break out ahead of the others, who are still bogged down with skeleton powers, and he enters a room at the top of the tower and finds Gwen being held by an enchanted sword, which attacks Elyan and eventually wounds him mortally. Gwen holds her brother as he dies, and it’s only then that the rest of the knights and Merlin arrive.
After a Viking funeral for Sir Elyan, things in Camelot try to slowly return to normal. But when night falls, Gwen sneaks out of her and Arthur’s bedroom and heads outside the castle where she meets…. Morgana! And before you can say “Stockholm Syndrome” Gwen’s talking about how she hated putting on a sad face for her brother’s funeral and her hatred for her husband. Morgana tells her to chillax because soon they’ll destroy Camelot together.
It was nice to see Gwen get the spotlight for a change. True it was the typical damsel-in-distress scenario (and without even a trace of post-feminist irony to boot), but it was nice to see her and portrayer Angel Coulby get to chew on something other than Gwen being worried about Arthur while on a mission, which has kind of been a theme the last couple of episodes.
Reunited! I have to admit, I’ve kind of missed the sisterhood of Gwen and Morgana these last couple of seasons, and it’s kind of nice to have it back, albeit with a twist. Speaking of twists, it struck me as kind of funny having the roles reversed: hearing Morgana call Gwen “M’Lady” in deference to title. Even Morgana, though still slightly pissed that Gwen wears “her” crown, seems to be enjoying the class shift.
Bravo to the writers in their efforts to humanize Morgana again. The dinner scene between Gwen and Morgana was really well-played in terms of underlining the former First Daughter of Camelot’s off years in a hole in the ground. I think it would be nice to see some flashback in the future to lay out the full story – why she was imprisoned, how she escaped – but for once it was nice to see Morgana on a track that had (almost) nothing to do with revenge and scheming to plot revenge. (Although she was all along, technically, plotting revenge, it was nice to see her killing with kindness as opposed to just killing.)
Of course it wasn’t all about the ladies. There was some nice broments for the fellas as well; Merlin and Arthur making a pact to bring Gwen back home, an actual reminder that Arthur and Elyan are family by marriage, something even I can’t say has been too obviously played to the camera.
Which brings us to the untimely demise of Sir Elyan. Kudos again to the writers for going there and killing off one of the main knights. Although some may cynically say that it was obvious and expected that the black knight would be killed before the others, it does add a wicked counter-punch to this brainwashed Gwen storyline that the death of her brother has bounced off her like so much rubber making Elyan’s death doubly tragic. Farewell, Adetomiwa Edun. You were a good sport through it all. I guess the producers weren’t kidding when they said this season was going darker, but…
…Did we have to go the whole “Gwen’s bewitched into betraying Arthur” angle once again? Sure, the Lancelot thing made sense in keeping with popular interpretations of the legend, but did we have to go fishing in that river again? I’m skeptical, but intrigued. Let’s see how this goes next week, when…
On the next episode of Merlin: “A Lesson in Vengeance.” That’s the name of the episode. Take of it what you will. (Subtlety ain’t the show’s strong suit.)