The Witchfinder / BBC1 - 7th November - 5.40pm
It's clear from the overnight ratings that plonking a family drama on before 6pm in the evenings will do you no favours. This episode pulled in the series' lowest viewing figures so far this year. A real shame because it's actually a good episode, full of tension and drama. In fact, the consequences of Merlin keeping his magical talents secret is very much the background to both this and the following episode.
Here the consequences are brutal. A peasant witnesses Merlin performing the equivalent of magical doodles and, although she didn't see him, her story is enough for Uther to get all grim and announce he's sending for the Witchfinder to root out all the evil magic afflicting Camelot. This is enough to put the wind up Merlin and Morgana, both of whom are wary about revealing their true powers. Even Gaius attempts to sway Uther from this decision and when he fails to do so he suitably chastises Merlin for being a bit of a berk.
In rides the Witchfinder, Aredian. And Charles Dance is playing him and he utterly dominates the episode with a fantastic performance full of steely determination and not an ounce of compassion. He's scary and turns up at the castle, like the Childcatcher, driving a caged wagon and wearing a big black hat. Cue lots of booming choral music as he rides into town. He can sniff out magic, allegedly, at thirty paces. 'Do you smell it?' he asks Arthur and Uther both of whom are probably worried he's referring to a potent bodily emission rather than sorcery.
It's clear he's gunning for Gaius despite his tortuous interviews with Merlin and Morgana. The episode twists into a battle of wits between him and Gaius and takes on a very dark tone that could be seen as a parallel to the supposed torture of the inmates of Guantanamo Bay. Just as the prisoners there are kept as suspects in the war on terror based on, shall we say, dubious evidence we discover that Aredian has been busy setting up the court of Camelot by manipulating the local populace into giving false evidence. When he accuses Merlin of sorcery and gets him thrown into the cells and plants evidence to back this up in the form of an amulet, Gaius claims the amulet is his, is clapped in irons after Merlin is then released. The episode then becomes a battle of wills between Gaius and Aredian whilst Merlin and Arthur attempt to show Aredian is nothing more than a charlatan himself.
Central to the success of this drama are two fantastic performances from Dance and Richard Wilson. Wilson shows why he's such an asset to the series with an eloquent and heart rending portrayal of Gaius as he's prepared to give his life in order to protect Merlin. Anthony Head is also excellent as the especially pig-headed Uther, all too ready to accept Aredian's findings and prepared to sacrifice his long friendship with Gaius to rid Camelot of sorcery.
The dragon continues to be utterly useless in this situation after Merlin consults the beast for advice and he is left to try and protect Morgana and find a way of discrediting Aredian. It's a taut and tense script from Jake Michie and Jeremy Webb directs with great economy, focusing on the strong performances to drive the narrative. After Gaius is forced to confess to prevent Merlin and Morgana joining him in the flames, Merlin turns to Arthur and Gwen for help. And for a moment Michie pretty much convinces the audience that Gaius will go to the flames until Merlin provides a spectacularly good comeuppance for Aredian. Gwen and he discover Aredian's scam using eyedrops supplied to the witnesses to provide the necessary visions of sorcery.
Meanwhile, Gwen gets to tear a strip off Arthur for not standing up for Gaius, allowing Angel Coulby a brief but passionate moment in the episode. The episode shows Arthur beginning to trust both Merlin and Gwen, supporting them in their ordeal. It ends with a search of Aredian's quarters with Merlin adding a spell to the mix which ends up causing Aredian to cough up a toad in front of Uther and to horde magical amulets in his room. Once Aredian conveniently falls back through a castle window, the episode delivers it coup de grace with Uther suitably contrite for the way he treated Gaius at the hands of Aredian. Wilson's control in this scene is spot on and Head conveys Uther's guilt very well. And Gaius' attack on Uther's obsession with sorcery is powefully delivered, very welcome and long overdue.
Another cracking episode.
The Sins Of The Father / BBC1 - 14th November - 6.05pm
And Uther's in the hot spot yet again for a second week running. The season has certainly aimed to undermine his authority this year and as Morgana's secret powers wait in the wings to be revealed to him, this week his own son starts to question his integrity.
A woman warrior, Morgause, arrives in the court just as Uther is creating new knights. She challenges Arthur to a duel and there is much puzzlement over who this woman is. Morgana however feels she has met this Morgause before and the similar names are not just a coincidence. Arthur, despite trying to be a gentleman about the duel and its rules, finally goes into combat with her. The first quarter of an hour of this episode goes by culminating in a fairly ferocious sword fight and Arthur pinned to the ground by Morgause. It's a slow burn and just as you're wondering if the story is actually going to get started...well, it does. Morgause spares Arthur on a promise that he'll come to see her three days after the duel.
Morgause is clearly going to figure prominently as she also has a discussion with Morgana before she leaves Camelot, providing her with an amulet to help her sleep properly. The amulet is enchanted and whilst Morgana does have a good night's sleep for once there is a lingering thought that this sub-plot will be picked up towards the end of the season. Gaius has already spotted the amulet and has his suspicions confirmed. Morgause plants her final seed by telling Arthur that she knew his mother Ygraine.
Arthur and Merlin decide to go on a trek to find Morgause and to fulfill her challenge. Arthur mentions that she knew his mother to Uther who immediately claims she knows nothing and she's an enchantress. After being forbidden to go on the trek, there's some lovely comedy bits as Merlin helps him get out of Camelot through a window with a very short rope. As Arthur and Merlin deal with an ambush Gaius airs his concerns to Uther about Morgause and her bracelet. It's intriguingly revealed that Morgause is Morgana's half sister and that Gaius covered up her birth.
The final half of the episode is the culmination of the trek as Arthur and Merlin pass beneath a waterfall and arrive at Morgause's castle. There they meet her again and she challenges him to place his head upon a block as she handily wields a huge axe! But the real meat of the episode is beyond this simple act of trust. She conjures up the ghost of Ygraine and Arthur learns that he was born of magic from the sorceress Nimueh. Arthur's attitude to magic also seems to be somewhat more flexible than his father's and again he questions Uther's judgement. Naturally, this revelation and the fact that Ygraine had to give her life in exchange for Nimueh's magic to allow Arthur's birth does rather change his opinion of his father too.
Arthur fights Uther in a fierce battle that viewers have long anticipated but Merlin intercedes and claims Morgause is an enchantress lying to Arthur and that it would be stupid for Arthur to kill his only remaining parent. Behind this is Uther's blatant lie about using Nimueh's magic to help Ygraine give birth and that the forfeit was her life. It's obvious the truth is that he did seek Nimueh's hep as Gaius himself confirms it as much. Arthur spares Uther and his reconsideration of sorcery as a potential force for good is squashed and he declares all users of magic as evil. And ironically it's Merlin's efforts that have brought this about and Uther's thanks for protecting Camelot from the likes of Morgause.
A slow burner definitely but the final half if this was excellent and I think we'll be seeing more of Morgause as she obviously has more planned for Arthur and Morgana.