The noblest of knights is back! Or is he?
4.09 "Lancelot du Lac"
Writer: Lucy Watkins
Director: Justin Molotnikov
THE ONE WHERE Lancelot returns from the dead, dispatched by Morgana to come between Arthur and Guinevere on the eve of their wedding.
VERDICT Wow. This is an extraordinary episode, bold and dark and sad. It's not perfect but a five star SFX review doesn't mean "flawless". It means that this is must-watch TV, and with a script by Lucy Watkins (who already wrote the best episode of the series so far, "A Servant Of Two Masters" from 5 November) this is definitely Merlin at its most gripping.
Betrayal, battle, tears, suicide... this is not your usual Saturday teatime romp. There's an epic feel to it, with the grand outdoor locations, the excitement of the tourney and the general atmosphere of a plot properly moving forward. You sense the programme makers are trying to have their cake and eat it. It's Lancelot back! Except it isn't really our Lancelot. The classic love triangle is in place! Except Gwen isn't really acting herself. But then Merlin always twisted the legends a little bit, and I like how the traditional story is modified so that it's Morgana's scheming which puts Lancelot between Arthur and Gwen.
It's been a few episodes since we had a good tournament. The show always conducts these spectacles well and this feels particularly grand. The larger set and the 35mm film all contribute to the ambience. By comparison, the proposal scene itself is oddly short and humble, which makes it very sweet. It's good to see Gwen at the centre of the action again - she's spent a lot of this series on the sidelines - but she's still very much a servant of the plot rather than a fully fleshed out character; she (through the manipulations of others) causes things to happen around her rather than being in control of her destiny. Nonetheless, Angel Coulby belts out a passionate performance here, and we see a range and pathos in her - particularly her moving final confrontation with Arthur - that we haven't witnessed all series.
Another understated but effective performance comes from Santiago Cabrera as Lancelot. It's a nuanced delivery; his slightly vacant expression, slightly stilted way of talking, is a constant reminder that this is not the man we know. And the revelation (when Lancelot gives himself away to Merlin by not remembering he has magic) is delicious, as is the genuinely scary moment when Merlin's necromantic pattern reveals, with a Dorocha-like scream, Lancelot's true form.
There's a cracking sword fight in the great hall of the Council Chambers as Arthur attacks his betrayer; the duel brings to mind Arthur and Uther's ground-shaking clash in "The Sins Of The Father" (series two). And finally Lancelot - dying, chillingly but off-screen, by his own hand - gets the farewell he didn't have in "The Darkest Hour: Part Two" . But which spell exactly did Merlin use on the dead Lancelot? He seems to be able to reanimate him just long enough for him to say three words.
It seems like many episodes we sigh and say, "The reset button is hit once again!" At least this week that's not true. You can't help but suspect next week somebody will find the enchanted bracelet and Gwen will be absolved; but nonetheless the character dynamic, the kingdom and the legend has been transformed.
AGRAVAINE I increasingly love Nathaniel Parker's character. There's something pathetic about him, a would-be bad guy who you can tell is never going to be more than a weasely gofer. Last week he was shoved unceremoniously out of the way by Alator's henchmen, and this episode I guffawed at that slightly dubious look he gave when Morgana is enchanting the bracelet.
MUSIC The soundtrack is particularly wonderful this episode, and varied too. There's that funky/creepy music early on when Agravaine visits Morgana. Then we're treated to that thrumming, epic sound as Lancelot rises from the lake. An eerie choir sings as Morgana outlines her scheme to the resurrected Lancelot. I could go on, it's all superb.
LMAO In the opening moments when Arthur reveals his intention to marry Gwen, Merlin (who we didn't really notice before) drops what he's polishing onto the floor with a clatter.
NITPICK "In the days of your father adultery was punishable by death!" says Agravaine. I can't help pointing out that (a) all they did was kiss, whereas most definitions of adultery include sexual intercourse, and (b) this took place before the wedding, so although it was deceitful it wasn't extramarital.
SLASH BAIT Less Merlin/Arthur than usual. All we have to conjure with this week are a couple of lines of suggestive dialogue. Agravaine wheedles, "You don't need a woman for support, Sire!". Merlin later remarks on Arthur's plan for "two days of sweaty men knocking the sense out of each other!" That's your lot. Unless you want to make something out of Merlin offering Lancelot his bed.
LANCE-A-WHAT? The character of Lancelot is an invention of 12th century French author Chrétien de Troyes. The name means "servant", from Old French l'ancelot . The first poem in which he stars is actually Lancelot, The Knight Of The Cart ; the "du Lac" epithet came later following a story in which the Lady of the Lake swipes the infant Lancelot from his family, the King and Queen of Benwick.
Morgana: "We all have our secrets – and unfortunately for Guinevere I know hers. I know exactly how to destroy her."
Merlin: "Chicken is good. Nice broth. What do you know about necromancy?"
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