The Witch's Quickening / BBC1 - 5th December - 5.55pm
Two really dynamic episodes that shift several subplots forward quite significantly. And it's highly appropriate that just before The Witch's Quickening was transmitted that the BBC announced the third series for next year. Appropriate because it clearly has been a series full of improvements in 2009. Better stories for the most part that rewarded continued viewing.
The Witch's Quickening gets off to a bold start with the ruthless warlock Alvarr ambushing a party from Camelot only to reveal that little Mordred is back and probably up to no good. Alvarr and Mordred break into the castle vaults to steal a relic of the Old Religion, the Crystal of Neahtid. It's an interesting episode that forces Merlin and Morgana to finally make a decision about which side they'll be on in Uther's continuing eradication of magic from the kingdom and persecution of the minority that practice it. There are the obvious connections between Morgana and Mordred here that the episode rekindles and that it also tests to the full. Morgana chooses to turn traitor to help Mordred steal the Crystal. Naturally this finally sets her up against Uther and her confrontation with Uther at the end of the episode is something that many of us have been waiting for. And it's worth it.
Arthur and his knights search the castle but Morgana hides Mordred and Alvarr from them. However, Merlin knows that Mordred is there, having heard him telepathically giving Alvarr directions, and there's that great visual, after Merlin and Arthur argue, where the camera pans from Merlin's face, through the door to Morgana's chamber and onto Mordred's face. Alice Troughton directs this with flair and drive and she, along with Jeremy Webb, is probably one of the best directors working on the show at present.
So as Morgana steals the Crystal from the vaults, Merlin's loyalties are severely tested and he takes his suspicions to Gaius. We get to know a bit more about the days before Camelot, with the Great Purge as a time when Uther and his kind wiped out sorcery from the land. Merlin also gets the blame from Arthur for allowing someone to steal his keys to the vault but, in an indication that the writers are developing Arthur's friendship and trust in Merlin, Arthur takes the blame himself when he's later questioned by Uther. In the end, to find out the true nature of the Crystal, Merlin has to turn to the curmudgeonly dragon. The dragon is getting very restless about when he will be freed by Merlin and the episode reminds us that this little sub-plot is bubbling away in the background too. The dragon reveals that the Crystal holds the knowledge of the past, present and future to those who know how to use it. He also sets up what one would hope is one of the major sub-plots of Series 3 - Mordred and Morgana joined together and united in evil! Can't wait for that!
Katie McGrath is the star of the episode, slowly changing right in front of us from the confused king's ward to a confidently striding Scottish Widow cloak wearing turncoat. Alas, Angel Coulby is sidelined in this episode once again because I suspect that Morgana is far more interesting to write for than old 'Miss Goody Two Shoes' Gwen. Anyway, Merlin follows Morgana to her rendezvous with Alvarr and Mordred, the series doing what it does best by placing our characters within epic, fog enshrouded forests rather than confining them to the rooms of Camelot, and he overhears her conversation with Alvarr. She's troubled initially by Alvarr's determination to rid the land of Uther and all who serve him (by implication Arthur, Gwen and Merlin himself) but acknowledges that if Uther knew what she really was he'd have her killed. There's even a moment of 'kissus interruptus' between Alvarr and Morgana which is quite an eye-opener for us regular viewers, especially when it's revealed he's playing her. As she heads back to Camelot we all know in our heart of hearts that she's started down the path to her transformation into the Morgan Le Fay of the original legends.
Gaius and Merlin fess up to Uther about where the Crystal is located with an very uncomfortable, twitchy Morgana looking on. Uther despatches his knights and Morgana rushes to alert Alvarr. More slow motion Scottish Widows action from Katie on horseback. Merlin is getting more and more anxious, his loyalties now confused, obviously rather shocked that Morgana has swapped sides. The conflict between the two groups results in a rather violent and bloodthirsty battle in Alvarr's encampment. Troughton again goes for some great slow motion stuff as Merlin spots Mordred escaping and gives chase. Mordred uses his powers to stake two knights and faces off against Merlin, cursing him for all that has happened, warning him that this betrayal won't be forgotten or forgiven. Another Series 3 sub-plot I hope!
The big twist comes when Merlin is asked to guard the recovered Crystal. Like a shard of the planet Krypton calling Superman home, the Crystal reaches out to Merlin. And he sees a vision of Camelot burning...a cracking ending to a jolly good episode. But there's more! The final ten minutes sees Morgana tearing a strip off Uther after he executes Alvarr. A staggeringly brilliant scene between Katie McGrath and Anthony Head. The king and his ward are torn asunder...forever.
The Fires Of Idirsholas / BBC1 - 12th December - 6.00pm
More or less picking up the Morgana story from the last episode, this week's also sees the return of her 'sister' Morgause. When the Fires of Idirsholas burn for the first time in three hundred years, Gaius fears a sorcerer has revived the deadly Knights of Medhir. And he's right; Morgause has returned, hell-bent on ending Uther's reign.
Morgause meets with Morgana, who now admits that she hates Uther. Morgause suggests that there could be a new world, without Uther, and she tells Morgana that she can shape this future. She asks her which side she's on and whether she is prepared to bring Uther his downfall. Morgana agrees that she is. It's the culmination of Morgana's trajectory through the story since Series 1 and one now assumes she's going to become the evil Morgana from Series 3 onwards.
Morgause casts a spell over the residents of Camelot, sending them into a deep coma, and orders the reactivated Knights Of Medhir, for all the world looking like a set of Doctor Doom clones, to capture Camelot and kill Uther. Meanwhile, Arthur and Merlin have journeyed to the ruined castle of Idirsholas and do battle with the army of unstoppable knights. Impossible to kill, the only way to stop the knights temporarily is for Merlin to use his powers to bring the house down, literally. Both men turn tail and hurry back to Camelot. The cursed Camelot is vividly shown on screen as Arthur and Merlin wander through the body strewn corridors of the castle. Director Jeremy Webb makes fantastic use of the series' permanent castle locations.
Morgana is awake, and found by Arthur, and she is questioned. In the back of Merlin's mind, he's suspicious that she has something to do with the sorcery that's put everyone to sleep. As the Knights Of Medhir ride for Camelot - very Ring Wraiths from Lord Of The Rings - Arthur finds his father Uther and Merlin sets about trying to revive Gaius. A welcome injection of comedy here as Merlin tries out various spells on Gaius, inadvertently turning him into a grinning automaton. Later, this is spun out further by Arthur and Merlin chucking Uther on a sheet and dragging him around Camelot in an effort to hide him from the approaching Morgause.
Time runs out, Merlin can't revive Gaius to help, the Knights are hammering down the door, Arthur and Merlin start to succumb to the curse. And, gulp, Arthur leaves an unconscious Uther in the charge of Morgana with a sword. She could lop off his head if she felt like it! In the end Merlin has to seek the dragon's help and it gets worse. He advises that they face the end of Camelot and forces Merlin to swear on his mother's life to free the dragon only if he will help. The dragon's solution is to eradicate the source of the magic - a living vessel by the name of Morgana! It's here that the episode ramps up the tension because Merlin must kill Morgana to break the spell and must also free the dragon.
It's a gut wrenching moment for us as Morgana claims Merlin as a good friend just as he's pouring hemlock into the water he's about to offer her. Merlin is still obviously reluctant to kill her but after one of the Knights spares her he's certain that the only way to prevent the downfall of Camelot is to poison her. It's another major turning point in the overall story as Morgana chokes on the poison and dies, thus lifting the curse from Camelot. And it's beautifully played by Colin Morgan and Katie McGrath. But is she truly dead? Morgause whisks her away in a tornado and that's the last we see of her.
But that's not entirely the end of the story because writer Julian Jones has another ace up his sleeve. Merlin must now free the dragon, knowing that in doing so he might set in motion the events he saw in the Crystal - the destruction of Camelot. Another huge turning point in the story, bold and epic with some great effects from the Mill and a wonderful voice over from John Hurt, and full of dread and terror as the dragon finally flies free and straight into camera.
Another great episode that neatly leads into what promises to be a fitting finale.