Rating: ★★★★☆

Lo and behold, the end is truly approaching. If ever there were a time for the doom-laden nature of the fifth and final season of Merlin to reach its crux, the tenth instalment- The Kindness Of Strangers- is it, and thankfully the writers of the show make good on their promises to keep things dark and foreboding. Here, we have ominous hints at what’s to come for everyone’s favourite warlock, the Once and Future King and of course the druid Knight who can by no means be trusted. Was it another ground-breaking step forward as The Disir was a few weeks back? No, but there were still a few worthwhile surprises.

One thing’s for sure- right from the off, the culmination of the ‘Puppet Queen’ arc allowed for a stronger and more cohesive narrative. We moved back to the central arc of this season, with Merlin forced to dismiss loyalties in Camelot in favour of discovering from his shady new ally Finna what dark days lay ahead. Sorcha Cusack did a fantastic job with this ambiguous woman, providing us with a host of great predictions and prophecies that, while nothing substantial in terms of addition on the rumours and hints we’ve had before, nevertheless strengthened the sense of darkness that’s beginning to truly rear its head in the show as it moves towards its climax. It was difficult not to feel pathos when Cusack’s character inevitably bit the bullet, since she was to a large extent more likeable than many of the other supporting gust stars we’ve seen this season.

Meanwhile, Morgana was busy commencing in the torture of her old adversary Alator, attempting to discover where and who her “destiny and doom” Emrys was using an all manner of dastardly methods. Quite why the High Priestess had such a sudden change of focus from her weekly plots to kill Arthur is beyond me, when she’s seen no sign of Emrys in his old and wizened state since last season’s finale, but in terms of the dramatic action of the episode it did at least aid in giving a real feel of tension to the entire endeavour. Kate McGrath remained on fine for, as did returnee Gary Lewis, even if the latter also had to die in favour of the writing team having more to deal with in the impending three-part finale than even they can handle.

In terms of the episode’s main performances beyond its guest stars, top credits must go to Colin Morgan for his portrayal of a sorcerer now facing the brink of an almighty war on the plain of Camlann, yet who remains adamant that he can change his King’s mind in time to save the druids of the Kingdom. Given what so many of us know occurs at the end of the vast majority of adaptations of the Arthurian legends, one might wonder if the moments where Merlin conveys hope and potential to Finna before her death will soon carry a level of pathos unto themselves, if the King does not make it out alive come the end of The Diamond Of The Day on Christmas Eve. What will happen in the Great Battle of Camelot remains to be seen, but it’s certainly food for thought as we await it through one final penultimate instalment of dark adventure next week.

Once again, the episode wasn’t quite one of the absolute best adventures this season, though. Directorially, Declan O’Dwyer’s work here isn’t quite on the level of Justin Molitnikov’s work in the opening three episodes, although seeing as the latter is taking over for Episodes 12 & 13 perhaps that will soon be remedied. Moreover, considering that the ‘Next Time’ trailer for The Drawing Of The Dark conveyed the sense that Mordred’s turn to the dark side is literally just around the corner, it was a real shame for Alexander Vhalos’ flawed druid hero to have such an insignificant role to play this time around. It’s becoming increasingly apparent that Mordred is taking note of the lengths to which Merlin will go to keep his magic a secret, and again this looks as if it will be addressed in the latest instalment, but that there was no such address here ensured that overall the main plot of the episode felt like something of a non-entity. Indeed, as with a good handful of this season’s offerings, the more you think about how this week’s adventure affected the overall plot arc of the season, the more you realise there’s still work to be done in the weeks to come.

However, it would be impossible to conclude a review of this episode without taking a look at one of its finest moments: the ending. After Merlin and Gaius opened the sacred container to discover an ominous prophecy that really seemed to just reiterate the feeling of Arthur’s doom, we discovered that a Knight of Camelot had been affected by a strong dose of dark magic from Morgana Pendragon. The implication? It’s time for war. Perhaps it’s her confidence that Emrys lies within the walls of the kingdom, or perhaps it’s just her being tired of the ‘evil scheme of the week’ format, but whatever the reason, it seems Morgana is ready to rally an army against her brother for the final battle. The Drawing Of The Dark will likely lead to Mordred being enlisted among the ranks for the climactic two-parter, yet here it really felt as if the battle lines were being drawn, a truly satisfying sense given all of the slow build-up we’ve had to the war this season.

The Kindness Of Strangers wasn’t the perfect episode of Merlin, then, but it was still leaps and bounds ahead of the Puppet Queen arc and gave all of the right signals to race towards the final days of Camelot. Colin Morgan’s performance as the titular lead remained a true highlight, the guest stars once again showcased the best of British talent this show can attract, and thus we received an altogether impressive new instalment. Now all fans such as myself really have to hope is that Julian Jones and the writing team behind him can give Merlin the proper send-off it deserves in its three-part finale, because boy, they will never hear the end of it if things go awry. No pressure, then…

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This article was first posted on December 10, 2012