Merlin: 501 “Arthur’s Bane: Part 1” Advance Review
Merlin begins its 5th series in fine style with the first of a two part story, Arthur’s Bane. The episode crams in a lot, and jumps into the action from the get-go. A party of Camelot Knights, including Gwaine and Percival, are captured by Morgana in the icy Northern wastes. Despite the risks, King Arthur is adamant that no man will be left behind and sets out on a dangerous mission to try and bring them back alive. Meanwhile, Merlin receives a shocking future vision that foretells some very dark days ahead…
This brief summary doesn’t quite do the episode justice as there are numerous other story arcs set in motion. Morgana’s quest for the titular “Arthur’s Bane” and the (brief) return of Mordred being two of the other bigger elements. Undoubtedly these will play out throughout the duration of the series, but we are given some tantalising teasing of things to come.
The guest cast includes Liam Cunningham and Lindsay Duncan, playing new sorcerer Ruadan and returning character Queen Annis, respectively. Cunningham brings a powerful presence to the proceedings as Morgana’s evil new ally. It’s nice to see Duncan reprising her role as Annis and it helps to solidify the world of Camelot. Annis doesn’t have a great deal to do in this part though.
It’s been three years since the events of the last series and a number of characters have developed in that time. Gwaine and Percival get much more screen time (along with their bare chests). Gwen is undoubtedly the best served though, free from her servant beginnings and more than a love interest for Arthur. She is now a much more powerful character, helping Arthur and making some very tough decisions. You will question whether she will really go through with something later on though… Actress Angel Coulby clearly is enjoying a bigger role here.
As for Merlin, if there is one criticism that can be leveled at the episode it’s that for the growth of the characters elsewhere, you can’t help but feel that the star of the show is still stuck in the past. Colin Morgan’s performance can’t be faulted, but the Merlin and Arthur relationship has evolved very little. For the first half of the episode Arthur ridicules Merlin and still treats him like a joke, dismissing his genuine concerns. It’s just frustrating at this point. Yes, it can be argued that their brotherly love/hate relationship has always been a part of the show, but when the episode makes strides with the other character developments you can’t help but feel it’s time to move on here as well. It’s early days though, and hopefully this will be balanced throughout the rest of the series (with a magic reveal as well, we can hope).
This episode looks absolutely wonderful. The cinematic scope, scale and CGI work have been vastly improved. The creators recently claimed that shows like Game of Thrones have encouraged them to up their own game and it certainly shows. The snowy landscapes and other locations are all gloriously shot. What’s remarkable is that Merlin is achieving this on a fraction of the budget. There’s also a superb and nicely choreographed battle scene towards the end. The show just feels bigger this year and more epic for it.
Overall, this is a very strong opener and it certainly leaves you wanting more.