Well, how about that. For the past seven days, myself and countless other fans were left wondering just how the writing team on Merlin could ever possibly match the turn of Mordred in The Drawing Of The Dark. How could any writer hope to accomplish such a feat in the midst of such worthy competition? By bringing us a penultimate episode that truly delivers on so many promises of the show, that’s how. It’s hard to think of anything more we could have asked of The Diamond Of The Day Part 1, and for those whispering the words “magic reveal” in my ears, the Next Time trailer should be evidence enough that the big shocks do not end here. Writing this review becomes simple in many ways, then, because speaking to the praises of this week’s adventure is incredibly easy- what’s difficult is just knowing when to stop!
First and foremost, let’s examine the core narrative of this opening instalment to the final two-parter. Kate McGrath’s Morgana showcased her utter brutality with regards to the severity of her cause, letting loose a demonic magic-consuming slug on her former ally, then readying it for the ultimate prey: Emrys. Sure enough, Merlin finds his own birth-given powers sapped out of him faster than you can say ‘Mischief managed’, leaving him and of course Arthur vulnerable to open attack from their impending enemies. Bringing together the Round Table, the iconic monarch then established his plan to attack the Saxon armada head on at the plains of Camlann. In the build-up to the episode, I was anxious that we’d get mere hints to this momentous final location in the hope of merely whetting our anticipation, so it was a genuine and great surprise to see the grand final battle of Arthurian lore begin to play out, the bloodless violence and Game Of Thrones-riffing slow-motion sword battles well and truly intact from earlier this season.
On top of the central plotline that led us deep into the dark days of Camelot, we had Merlin’s journey to reclaim his magic in the hope of stopping his foreboding visions of what’s to come. Colin Morgan gave his best performance in the show since The Disir and last week’s adventure, bringing across in full the seemingly hopeless nature of the battle ahead and his own worries that even with his magic, he may not be able to stop what he knows lies Arthur’s way. It was brilliant to see Morgan and McGrath finally face off in the depths of the Crystal Cave too, in an encounter that reenforced the sense that the tide is changing in terms of the restraints that the series writers have placed on characters’ knowledge of the big secret.
Another neat twist for those fans who hadn’t read this week’s cast list was the return of John Lynch- although his part was essentially a cipher to drive our young warlock forward towards his true destiny (i.e. a prolonged ageing potion? We’ll have to see if Emrys reverts back to his original form on Monday), Lynch remained a compelling component of the storyline thanks to his earnest and subdued portrayal. Again, it is a performance like this from a ‘British guest star of the week’ that should go a long way to justifying the extent to which both fans and the BBC will miss Merlin on Saturday nights in the Autumn and Winter months.
In terms of the other regular stars on the show, there was a great deal of bonafida British talent brought straight into the limelight this week. Angel Coulby’s Gwen felt more layered and intricate in her portrayal and scripting, and indeed it leaves us to wonder whether if Arthur does bite the bullet in two days’ time, it will be she who takes up the mantle as Camelot’s sole monarch, perhaps with hints towards a possible lineage along the line through an unexpected pregnancy? All the same, Eoin Macken had a great time of it too, at first lured into dispensing pleasantries with Eira, a new ally in Morgana’s ever-growing ranks, then wishing everyone’s favourite sorcerer-in-disguise the best of luck on his final journey into the Crystal Cave.
Even Richard Wilson had something interesting to say as Gaius, and with the character featuring in promo images of Camelot (presumably post-Camlann) in the final episode, it’ll be nice if his character gets a few choice words to impart to his oldest friend. Top honours must go to Bradley James, though- we had hints at the gravity and depth with which he could play King Arthur last week in particular, yet it was here in his ‘last’ exchange with Merlin, his realisation at his servant’s message in his dreams and indeed in his inspiring pre-battle speech to the Knights that James truly shone in the role.
As you can imagine given the score adorning this review, there’s little of negative calibre I have to say about this episode. The direction was stunning both in the scenes preceding and indeed during the Battle Of Camlann’s commencement, the soundtrack just as effective in setting the looming mood of the moment as it’s ever been, and the cliffhanger that closed the new instalment a brilliant segueway towards what’s to come, allowing for the most exciting of pre-credits previews for what’s to come rather than warranting two days’ of utter suspense waiting for a no-doubt unsatisfactory resolution to an impossible dilemma. Yes, Alexander Vhalos wasn’t perhaps given as much screen-time as we might have expected given the focus on him last week, yet I’m sure that’ll be righted on Monday.
So, the great battle of Camelot awaits us on Monday, and with it the end of Merlin’s broadcasting for good. It’ll be a sad day for fans, but based on the oh-so-strong evidence of this week’s masterpiece of a finale opener, we’re going to be given an incredible send-off to this thrilling fantasy drama. Can Merlin truly inhabit and fulfill his destiny, or has it all been nought? Will Arthur die as per the legends, or does his salvation await him in the shadows? Is there one last bout of non-sensical sparring from the Great Dragon to come? I’ll see you on Christmas Eve…
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