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Customer Review

63 of 75 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "He is Your Destiny, and he is Your Doom...", March 13, 2012
This review is from: Merlin: The Complete Fourth Season [Region 2] (DVD)
This is going to a rather odd review considering that season four of "Merlin" has the very best and worst that the show has to offer. On the one hand, it has some of the most sophisticated storylines, the highest production values and the strongest performances from its young cast that have thus far featured on the show. There is also far less filler (a great improvement on the last season, which seemed to be composed almost entirely of padding) and greater care taken with continuity and overarching plot-threads. On the other hand, it still suffers from the usual problems: a lack of meaningful character development, the irritating marginalization of its two female characters, and its stubborn refusal to let Merlin finally reveal his magical abilities to Arthur.

To recap this review in a nutshell: the first half of this season is the best that "Merlin" has ever been - but the second half falls apart, leading to an entirely lackluster finale. If you're not in the mood to read any further, consider that my conclusive statement on series four.

But last season ended on a high note what with Prince Arthur assembling his most trusted knights and winning back Camelot from his half-sister's control. With Morgana defeated and King Uther in a state of deep depression over his daughter's betrayal, series four opens a year later with Arthur in firm control of the kingdom. In this he's helped by a new arrival: his uncle Agravaine, who establishes himself as the young prince's closest advisor.

Obviously, things are not going to be smooth-sailing for long. Morgana is determined to take her revenge on Camelot, and having grown in magical powers and established a spy in Camelot to feed her information (as well as donning a new all-black wardrobe), she certainly feels like a more dangerous adversary than she did last year. Yet soon she becomes paranoid by a series of warnings about a figure known as Emrys, a powerful sorcerer who is destined to be her doom. As she begins her obsessive search for him, she remains unaware that he is none other than Merlin himself.

In some semblance of order, here are my thoughts on the good and bad aspects of series four: (spoilers will be marked).

ACTING: As always, the cast is top-notch, and manage to infuse some rather dodgy writing with genuine emotion and resonance. Its four young cast members in particular are given some really juicy scenes this time around, and are all exceptional at conveying heartbreak, terror, joy, relief and steely determination on command. The writers of "Merlin" are damn lucky that they've got Colin Morgan, Bradley James, Angel Coulby and Katie McGrath on board, as their charisma does wonders at plastering over some of the gaping plot-holes that the writers leave in their scripts.

Backing them up are a range of British thespians, not only Anthony Stewart Head, John Hurt, Richard Wilson and Nathanial Parker as series regulars, but a bevy of big-name stars that pop in for guest spots: Gemma Jones, James Callis, Lindsay Duncan, Gary Lewis, Terence Maynard, Ben Daniels, Miranda Raison - granted, these names may not mean much to the average viewer, but once you see their faces on-screen I guarantee that you'll be nodding your head and saying: "oh yeah...I know them..." This season also has plenty of eye-candy on display with the new knights of Camelot, all played by actors who could have quite easily pursued a career in modeling, and who enjoy walking around in various states of undress.

TOP-NOTCH PRODUCTION VALUES: With an upgrade to 35mm film and the acquisition of a huge green-screen, "Merlin" now looks good enough for the movie theatre. The sets are bigger, the camera-work is smoother, the CGI is more convincing, the makeup/costumes are as lovely as ever, and there's an altogether "bigger" feel to the scale of the show.

DARKER THEMES: "Merlin" feels a lot more grown-up this time around. Major characters die and stay dead, forcing those left behind to come to terms with their absence. Likewise, there's mercifully less pushing of the reset button: this season things change, and change for good in Camelot. Having treaded water for so many years, the writers are finally taking some significant steps toward the Golden Age that Arthur is prophesied to usher in.

I also don't recall any fart gags this time around, but though there's still plenty of lame slapstick humor, there are also some of the most dramatic scenes seen yet on the show. Colin is asked to cry practically every episode and manages to do so in a way that will break your heart each time, and Bradley and Angel share a scene that apparently ended with them getting a round of applause from the crew - you'll know it when you see it. Furthermore, Katie now portrays a much more nuanced Morgana, and the smirk that typified her performance last year has been considerably toned down.

EPISODES ONE TO SEVEN: For the first time, the "Merlin" writers move away from self-contained episodes in order to tell a story that spans several episodes, with events happening in each that directly affects what happens in the next. In a show in which the villains are responsible for driving most of the action, it was a wise decision to give Morgana a clear, singular goal (the search for Emrys) thus leaving Agravaine to stir up trouble in Camelot. The overarching story begins to rise to a climax as Morgana closes in on Merlin's secret, Agravaine tries to incriminate someone else for his role as the traitor in Camelot, Arthur and Guinevere make significant steps forward in becoming the future King and Queen, and Merlin learns more about his heritage as a Dragonlord, as well as his alter-ego 'Emrys'.

SPOILERS BELOW...

EPISODES EIGHT TO THIRTEEN: It's not that the remaining six episodes are *bad*, it's simply that they have nothing whatsoever to do with the previous seven. It's almost as though the writers abruptly changed their minds about what this season was going to be about and rewrote the ending as a muddle of unrelated stories that deal with the Arthurian Love Triangle (well acted, but badly handled), two filler episodes (concerning yet another evil villainess and a Druid-ghost), a 45-minute prologue to the finale (Agravaine and Morgana plot whilst Arthur fluffs about with a random princess) and the two-part finale itself - which really is a disappointment compared to the excitement and emotional resonance of the show's past season finales: "Le Mort d'Arthur", "The Last Dragonlord" and "The Coming of Arthur."

The ending reflects badly on the season's strong beginning, simply because it highlights all the lost opportunities and leaves so many dangling plot-threads. Morgana's search for Emrys gave her new focus and storylines - it goes nowhere after episode seven. The Arthurian Love Triangle was suitably emotional and heartbreaking - instead of resolving it, it's just sweep under the rug. The "traitor in our midst" story-arc - dropped entirely. Morgana takes over Camelot with ease and Arthur wins it back just as effortlessly - a blatant retreat of last season's finale.

A chance to see the knights as individuals, learning and growing and bonding together - they're just an interchangeable red-cloaked hoard. Guinevere's rise to power - ignored after her first confrontation with Agravaine in favor of shaming and humiliating her, and then not even bothering to exonerate her good name. Agravaine - hogs way too much screen-time and remains a cypher throughout (without relying on guess-work, can anyone explain to me where he came from, what his motivation was, or what kind of power he planned to get from Morgana that he didn't already have with Arthur?) Arthur - still completely oblivious to pretty much everything that goes on around him.

James Callis as an intriguing villain - wasted. Tristan and Isolde - pointless. Merlin and Gwaine's friendship - non-existent. That goes ditto for Guinevere and Elyan - they're meant to be siblings, but you wouldn't know it from watching any of these episodes. Lancelot - an ignoble and disappointing end for such an iconic character. Percival - we still don't know a thing about him beyond the fact that he has nice arms.

And the long-awaited magical reveal...? Not this season.

To put it briefly, this show is great at set-up, but usually disappoints when it's pay-off time. The writers often introduce new plot-points only to lose interest in them; as such it's difficult to really invest in anything when you can't be sure that it'll get resolved in any meaningful way. Furthermore, the show is so plot-heavy (racing from one "big moment" to the next) that there's no breathing room to explore the characters. When there *is* a quiet moment, it's usually repetitive or filled with exposition. Most of the time the characters exist in service to the plot and not the other way around, leading them to change dramatically from episode to episode - they are only as smart, effective and/or observant as the plot requires them to be (and when the plot *doesn't* require them to be these things, they end up looking immensely stupid).

So despite the welcome shaking up of the status-quo this year, season four of "Merlin" is a mixed bag, and there's still a long way to go in bringing the main characters to a satisfying conclusion in what is rumored to be the fifth and final season. Were I able to, I would rank this season three-and-half-stars; I went with four rather than three simply because I still enjoy this show as fluffy, relatively mindless entertainment. It's just that I'm constantly aware of just how much better it could be with sharper, braver writing that isn't afraid to explore the characters and let their stories grow organically.
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Showing 1-8 of 8 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Apr 20, 2012, 5:26:39 AM PDT
snowcat 60 says:
Nice review -- you just have to remember this started out as a "family show" and look how it has matured! I love this show and it is the first show in many years that has captured my attention to this degree. I agree that some episodes were weaker than others, but I don't mind that. I truly enjoyed the episode with Elyan, and I didn't think the Mithian ep was "fluff," as it was heartbreaking for Arthur (and myself). I agree the 2 part finale could have been expanded more -- too much happened too quickly. The four young actors are incredible, Colin can break your heart with a glance and a blink. Bradley has show such a range of emotions this season, it is hard to imagine another actor that has shown courage, humor, tenderness, sadness, leadership, all the while looking quite lovely swinging a mean sword! CAn't wait for season 5!

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 23, 2012, 3:11:58 PM PDT
R. M. Fisher says:
Thanks for the reply. In regard to episodes 10 and 11; it's not that I disliked them so much as I didn't really think they were necessary. "The Herald of a New Age" was spooky and atmospheric, but it won't mean much until Arthur extends his protection to some real live Druids, and I felt "The Hunter's Heart" would have been better served had it focused on Guinevere and Morgana's situation instead of spending so much time on a guest-starring princess that we all *knew* would be sent packing by the end of the episode. Obviously your mileage may vary (and they're good episodes in themselves), but I didn't really think they fitted in with the first half of the season, which was shaping up to be a tightly-plotted arc about Merlin's secret identity and Morgana's hunt for Emrys, both of which were abruptly dropped after episode 7.

Posted on Jun 7, 2012, 6:51:59 PM PDT
person says:
Your criticisms are spot on. This show has so much wasted potential. I say that as a huge fan. Just compare it with the sophistication of Doctor Who, another "family" show. Mostly I watch it for the pretty cast, costumes, etc. and try not to be bothered too much by its ham-handedness.

Posted on Jul 7, 2012, 10:11:40 PM PDT
Juliette says:
[Customers don't think this post adds to the discussion. Show post anyway. Show all unhelpful posts.]

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 7, 2012, 11:45:15 PM PDT
snowcat 60 says:
Gee, that was some post. I'm sure you enjoyed the series Camelot a lot more than Merlin, unfortunately for you, you are in the minority. Gwen is beautiful (you should see season 4)and especially beautiful in character. You are letting your biases influence your enjoyment of the show. Too bad.

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 8, 2012, 11:32:44 AM PDT
Juliette says:
[Customers don't think this post adds to the discussion. Show post anyway. Show all unhelpful posts.]

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 10, 2012, 12:48:06 AM PDT
R. M. Fisher says:
I suggest not watching the show any further. That way you don't have to watch Angel Coulby, and all of those who enjoy her in this role don't have to hear you complain about it. Problem solved.

Posted on Dec 14, 2012, 9:09:28 PM PST
KTFaye says:
Thank you for your review, it's pretty spot on as far as I'm concerned. I only started watching Merlin this last year and I've just caught up through season four. I've been frustrated with many of the same things that you mention.
That doesn't mean I don't enjoy the series, I do. But I'm also keenly aware that with a little more attention in the writing, it could be so much more. Just because a show is a family show or a kids show doesn't mean you have to have juvenile writing quality (See Doctor Who). Fortunately, the quality of the cast often bridges the gaps left by the writing staff and they often make the unworkable, work -- hence why I still enjoy watching. I've noticed that I like the episodes written by Julian Jones a LOT better than those written by Richard McBrien, who tends to force inappropriate for the moment "humor" into a scene or just completely drops an idea halfway through. There's a difference between dark humor, which I love, and something that just makes you go, "huh? What was that about?". (Thanks to a friend in the UK I've seen much of Season 5 and there's an episode called "With all my heart" that is an example of this.). But I enjoyed reading your reivew.
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