TV REVIEW: Merlin - The Dark Tower & A Lesson In Vengeance

First of all, I must apologise for my lack of review last week, but unfortunately iPlayer ceased to work at all on my computer (and I missed it when it was on as I was watching Skyfall). However, I am now fully caught up and ready to comment, discuss and generally marvel at some of the worst and best we've seen of Merlin so far.

Yes, The Dark Tower held so much promise and looked like it was going to be an excellent episode that harked by to the really quite wonderful Death Song of Uther Pendragon. After an encounter with snakes conjured up by returning Morgana (Katie McGrath), Sir Leon (Rupert Young) and Sir Percival (Tom Hopper) are left poisoned by some weird magical affliction. But never fear! After a few minutes and some conveniently allotted exposition time, both knights are up, about and on yet another quest for this time, it is Gwen (Angel Coulby) who has been captured. Despite Merlin (Colin Morgan) warning him that this is an obvious trap, Arthur (Bradley James) is hellbent on rescuing his lady love, joining forces with her brother, Sir Elyan (Adetomiwa Edun - who quite honestly, I had forgotten both that he existed and that he was Gwen's brother). 

There are many things wrong with this episode which is quite possibly the most infuriating so far of the current run. First and foremost, the sudden focus on Sir Elyan means that his demise at the end of the episode might as well have been flashed up in a gigantic neon sign. I've commented before that the knights are given little to do but ride gallantly and occasionally fight in slow motion and I was wondering whether it would be long before one of them found themselves stuck with the pointy end of a weapon. Sir Elyan has probably suffered most for this as a character, thus giving his death scene absolutely no emotional impact. Bye Elyan, we barely knew ye.

That's just one of many silly things in this episode though that I won't go into individually because I'd be here all day, but the main one had to be the twist ending with Gwen seemingly allying herself with Morgana. Really? REALLY? Had we had a brief scene in which it became apparent that Morgana had enchanted Gwen, then fine, that would make sense. A scene in which Morgana somehow manages to persuade Gwen completely that Arthur is a bad guy? A bit implausible given the characters' history but still would have made the twist work. Having it come out of the blue was just stupid, like the writers just ran out of ideas and decided to throw an M. Night Shyamalan. The optimist in me wants to assume that this is how they'll eventually cover Gwen's betrayal of Arthur, leading to his downfall. In the myths, that's caused by an affair with Lancelot whilst Arthur's away questing, but since they sort of killed off the character, this could be a way for the writers to re-appropriate that particular plot. We shall see.

As ever, the episode was redeemed by the performances, particularly Coulby as the terrified and helpless Gwen and her scenes with Katie McGrath were highlights. Likewise, Colin Morgan and Bradley James continue to excel in their respective roles, adding weight to an otherwise messy and slightly silly episode.

Thankfully, A Lesson in Vengeance was somewhat of an improvement, thankfully not involving a quest but a plot to kill the king. After a nasty tumble of his horse, Arthur discovers that his saddle has been tampered with ad suspicion falls on poor stable hand Tyr (John Bradley of Games of Thrones fame). Arthur is forced to sentence the boy to death as the evidence appears conclusive but Merlin has his own thoughts on the matter and suspects Gwen, Morgana's brand new puppet, to be involved. 

While the performances of all concerned are usually excellent, this week's were absolutely outstanding. Colin Morgan doesn't often get singled out for praise as he is often so good as the strong centre of the episode that you tend to forget just how good he is. This week, he completely stole the show with a welcome return from Old Merlin, who gets some of the best lines as he takes on the cook, and a heartfelt attempt to save Arthur's life. We have been shown often of the bond between Merlin and Arthur but rarely do we see what would happen should one of them cease to be. When he believed Arthur to be dead, Merlin's grief was completely overwhelming, both for the character and the audience. It was the first time he seemed at all powerless and Morgan played the moment well.

Elsewhere, we get another good performance from Angel Coulby, channeling Evil Gwen to produce something quite sinister and thankfully lacking in Morgana-style evil smirks. Because Gwen has always been so benevolent, the scene in which she murders Tyr to cover her own back was shocking and disturbing, showing how far Gwen had fallen. The plot did let her down somewhat though as it was something we have seen many times before. Someone we're supposed to trust tries to kill the King, Merlin figures it all out but gets the blame and then saves the day anyway. Granted, having Gwen as the perpetrator definitely skewed things a little but the formula has been used many times before.

I am glad that they didn't solve the Gwen mystery just yet though as it gives us something to look out for and watch progress over the next episode at least. If they do tie it into the original myth, I'll be very interesting to see how it is done as Guinevere's betrayal is a fundamental aspect to the Arthur legend and it would be disappointing if they didn't cover it in some way.

Overrall, A Lesson in Vengeance was a decent episode, not as good as The Death Song of Uther Pendragon (which remains my favourite episode of Merlin this series, possibly ever) but it moved the narrative along nicely and showcased the talents of this ever-improving cast. 

But seriously, where is Mordred?

- Becky

You can read Becky's review of The Disir here.

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