Rating: ★★★☆☆

Well, it had to happen sometime: finally, we’ve reached the culmination of the over-elongated ‘Puppet Queen’ arc which has helped Merlin tread water with solid-if-inconsistent offerings these past three weeks. With All My Heart truly feels as if it marks the beginning of the end for the show given what we know of its broadcast future, but as with Arthur’s Bane Part 2, it’s an arc-heavy episode that suffers from the weight of its various plot elements. As Merlin adventures go, it’s still a decent episode, but we’ve certainly seen far better work this season.

The first twist in the tale came with the revelation that Arthur had listened to Merlin’s suspicions of Gwen and that they were thus spying on the influenced Queen. Sure enough, Angel Coulby’s feisty monarch was seen plotting with Morgana once again, only for our dynamic duo to counter-plot a way of redeeming their loved one’s soul. First though, we had a quick side-step to the realm of the Dochraid, bringing us a scene that was undoubtedly the highlight of the episode as a whole.

Already this season, we’d had teasers of the elder Emrys incarnation of our hero returning to the show, albeit through blatant comedy scenes that did little to sate fans’ appetites  Thankfully, that wasn’t the case this week- Colin Morgan clearly loved playing a darker older version of his famed protagonist, threatening the ancient sorceress with the power of Excalibur and hinting at the dark deeds he will be prepared to perform in the weeks ahead to keep his closest ally safe for the throne. Not since the murder of Agravaine have we seen the ‘young’ warlock so dedicated to his cause, which made this early battle such a highlight for those of us who’ve followed Merlin throughout its five-year reign on BBC One.

Once that was done with, though, we moved firmly back into sub-par territory. A quest across the outer kingdoms of Camelot involved the Dochraid and Morgana manipulating the elements to stop Arthur and his servant reaching their goal, only for Mordred to save them from impending death. As you could have guessed from a mile off, this turn of events forced Morgan and Vhalos back into awkward exchanges where Merlin practically spoke out his suspicions regarding the latest Knight Of The Round Table. Even with the dramatic irony of understanding our hero’s worries about his vision back in Episode One, such predictable dialogue became tiresome for a fan like myself, really enforcing the sense that this was another ‘filler’ episode for a season that should have been cut down to ten instalments if this was to be the case.

A more pleasant surprise was that of Aithusa. Last week’s The Hollow Queen hinted at the torture of this young dragon, yet featured no such appearance from the mythical creature, so it was at least satisfying to get a few cameos in this adventure where Merlin once again showed off his Dragonborn talents. There was no sign of John Hurt’s Great Dragon here, and thus it feels safe to say that the much-anticipated flying flame-breather war will come at the battle of Camelot in the upcoming two-part finale. All the same, the special effects were fairly impressive in the Aithusa scenes, and indeed Kate McGrath’s interactions with the CGI beast were believable.

Ah, but what Ms McGrath gets and giveth, the writing team on the fantasy drama must seemingly always take away. Proof of this, you say? Whereas the Morgana we’ve seen in past weeks has been an empathetic and layered villainess who we’ve all loved to hate, now yet again the High Priestess was reduced to pantomime theatrics and an enduring Terminator-esque passion to survive that continued to highlight the non-entity status of the episode in the greater arc of the run. McGrath did at least get chance to attempt to manipulate Vhalos’ character to the dark side, yet she failed for the second time, suggesting the action of change that we know is coming will feel rather sudden and misplaced. Trust me, based on how American dramas have handled one-off storylines rather than those developed through an arc, this isn’t likely to end well.

Ultimately, Colin Morgan’s Merlin shifted into a female version of himself, testament to the tonal inconsistency of the overall episode. No matter what the impending relevance of ‘her’ message to Arthur to remember the positive deeds that magic has allowed this week, this performance was clearly played for laughs and little more, which was a real disappointment for a season so dedicated to producing quality darker moments. This brings me to the conclusion that for all its perks, With All My Heart remains merely an average Merlin episode, one that’ll never touch the ‘Best Of’ lists for 2012′s television offerings. There’s no harm done to the series’ legacy here, but Merlin needs to up the ante in the final four episodes of its run if it wants to leave us with a truly impactful closure come December 29th.

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This article was first posted on December 3, 2012