This series opener wastes no time getting back to the action, even if it is clearly setting up the pieces for bigger confrontation next week. A quiet, personal moment at the start gives way to a striking first shot of the main hall with its Round Table, but we actually spend very little time inside Camelot during the episode. Nonetheless it’s obvious things have changed in the three years since Arthur and Gwen were married, most noticeably the royal couple’s acceptance of their leadership role. Arthur is even more dedicated to his knights than before and the sense that it’s a brotherhood with attendant moral obligations is often repeated; meanwhile Gwen has become a true stateswoman who’s prepared to rule the court in Arthur’s absence, dispensing tactical counsel, friendly advice and ruthless judgement in equal measure. This growth in character is subtle but significant and gives the story a more grown-up, responsible tone.
If anything, Merlin has changed the least since we last saw him, because his personal objectives and his place in the court are unchanged. His growing confidence is shown, though, in his quick comebacks to Arthur – and it’s telling that despite Arthur’s disparaging remarks, Merlin still gets to ride a horse in his entourage while many of the royal guard have to walk. Arthur’s banter with Merlin comes from a place of friendship, but there’s little justification for Queen Annis to turn on Merlin (“giving his other failings, he must have some talents”) so it seems a bit harsh. The light-hearted sequence with Merlin’s juggling trick is an odd change of pace from the danger that’s gone before, but it is funny and the look of incredulity on Arthur’s face is priceless.
Much of this episode is spent travelling around the fantasy landscape. While this episode lacks the huge armies and CG-enhanced battles we’ve seen in the past, it still hangs on to its epic quality thanks to a wide variety of locations, the plains, valleys and rock-strewn hillsides bringing to mind everything from Game Of Thrones (the frozen north!) to Excalibur and even Indiana Jones (see below). Although we see the return of people like Queen Annis and Mordred, this story broadens the legend out, taking us to previously unseen places like Ismere and introducing new druid symbols and enemy factions.
There are a couple of character reveals that, though predictable, are deftly handled. It’s obvious that Sefa is up to no good when she sneaks out of the palace but it’s still interesting to discover that she’s Ruadan’s daughter, and the conflict within her is palpable. (It’s worth the audience remembering that Arthur knows what it’s like to have an uncompromising father. Is this a theme in Merlin?) And of course there’s Mordred, signposted midway through in the druid’s vision but nonetheless surprising when he arrives at the end, stepping into the clearing as Morgana’s lieutenant and the bandits’ leader.
As SFX already noted, there’s a feeling here that the truly impressive moments are waiting for us in next week’s episode. But there’s definitely the thrill of new characters and new conflicts being established… and more questions being asked. Just what is the mystery beneath Morgana’s tower? How will it lead to Arthur’s downfall? Can Merlin do anything to prevent Arthur’s wounding on the battlefield? What is that blue sprite Gwaine sees? Let the speculation begin in the comment thread!
Episode Review Source: http://www.sfx.co.uk/