Prepare to be scared - Camelot is haunted by the past
4.10 "A Herald of the New Age"
Writer: Howard Overman
Director: Jeremy Webb
THE ONE WHERE Sir Elyan disturbs a druid shrine and becomes haunted by a dead child - the spirit drives him to attack Arthur in revenge for past crimes.
VERDICT Anybody else hope Elyan was going to find Gwen's bracelet down in the dungeon? Alas, despite last week's turmoil , the king's romantic tragedy was barely mentioned, Gwen's departure only an unspoken weight on Arthur's mind for most of the story. No quick resolution to the broken love triangle here, although with Arthur realising the value of regret and absolution at the hands of Gwen's brother Elyan, perhaps he'll be emotionally capable of welcoming her back in one of the three remaining episodes this series...
So instead of picking up immediately after "Lancelot du Lac", the show delivers a seemingly standalone thriller that revels in Merlin 's new-found murkier tone. Spiritual possession, the slaughter of innocents and the need for redemption are the themes but above that there's also a claustrophobic atmosphere, a sense of bitterness following Gwen's departure perhaps. The joy has gone out of Arthur's life and our heroes' banter seems more spiteful. I don't think I've seen so much physical violence between the knights before - sure, they're always jousting or sparring, but this week Elyan is punched unconscious by his supposed friends at least twice. Has Merlin 's trademark slapstick turned sour? Elyan's crossbow attack hints back to " A Servant Of Two Masters " but when an enthralled Merlin wanted to kill Arthur it was played for laughs - this has a bleaker quality altogether. With its creepy music and atmosphere of mistrust, even the exchanges between Merlin and Arthur have a sharper edge to them. Everybody in Camelot is going to have cracked skulls at this rate; few characters get away without a beating (or the threat of one).
The jump-scare child ghost appearances feel like cliché but those moments do provide genuine frights and it's refreshing to have an episode focussing on one of the knights. A classic horror story structure is played out: despite warnings, an unthinking person commits an act which releases an evil, and then the rest of the story is spent trying to close that particular door again. Nonetheless Adetomiwa Edun acts brilliantly. It's terrifying when he sees the boy in the pool of water and again later when the ghost appears in the knight's bed chamber. Edun sells us on Elyan's exasperation and fear, his murderous vengefulness and then his forgiveness.
Harking back to the terrible purges of Uther's reign, it's an unexpected but welcome twist when it turns out that Arthur was the one who led the raid on the druid camp - it adds some depth to Arthur's past. And his salvation comes with his promise to treat the druid people with the respect they deserve in the future. This is a powerful change in the politics of the kingdom and, presumably, marks the start of the New Age of the episode's title.
NOT THEMSELVES It's not a terrible dramatic manoeuvre and there's a long tradition of it in SF and fantasy but this series has seen an overuse of the plot device where somebody is forced by magic to behave against their character. Gwen and Lancelot's betrayal, Merlin's attack on the King, the knights under the Lamia's influence , and now Sir Elyan. At least Arthur's confession is actually from the heart.
LMAO Arguably the funniest line of dialogue in the story:
Sir Leon: "How would you feel if your sister was banished from Camelot?"
Gwaine: "Well my sister's an evil old toad so I'd be eternally grateful."
SLASH BAIT Either Merlin offering to stay the night, or later pleading for a hug.
CAST LITE Adding to the claustrophobic atmosphere, the main players appear in reduced numbers this episode. There's no Gwen (of course), no Morgana and no Great Dragon. Even Agravaine only has a brief part. Speaking of which...
NITPICK Why was Agravaine was so quick to denounce Elyan? You think he'd be pleased about a knight on the loose looking to harass the king.
INFLUENCES The apparition of a soggy ghost child seems right out of Asian horror, but the effect of water draining off a person also brings to mind the " Waters Of Mars " episode of Doctor Who . (However, what is the significance of the water here exactly? Arthur says they put the druid settlement to the sword during a raid. Did they drown everybody?)
Gaius: "You were right to be wary. The druids built shrines to bring rest to tormented souls - souls that were so badly wronged they could find no peace in the other world."
Merlin airs on Saturday nights on BBC One in the UK.
Read our all-new interview with the showrunners
Previous Merlin series four reviews:
Merlin "The Darkest Hour" TV Review
Merlin "The Darkest Hour (Part 2)" TV Review
Merlin "The Wicked Day" TV Review
Merlin "Aithusa" TV Review
Merlin "His Father’s Son" TV Review
Merlin "A Servant Of Two Masters" TV Review
Merlin "The Secret Sharer" TV Review
Merlin "Lamia" TV Review
Merlin "Lancelot du Lac" TV Review