A good show just keeps getting better.
Dark days have come to Camelot. After being betrayed by his magic-using ward Morgana (Katie McGrath), King Uther (Anthony Stewart Head, Buffy the Vampire Slayer) has sealed himself away in his chambers to despair, leaving the running of the kingdom to Prince Arthur (Bradley James). Arthur’s personal servant Merlin (Colin Morgan) is also secretly a magic user, hoping to use his powers to help Camelot, not destroy it. While Morgana plots the downfall of Camelot, Guinevere (Angel Coulby) continues her romance with Arthur, and Lancelot, who still occasionally catches Gwen’s eye.
Merlin first caught viewers’ attentions by being a quirky, youth-based take on Arthurian legend, where the teen versions of Merlin and Arthur say “OK” and knights give each other a thumbs up. It was all lighthearted fun, but, as seasons progressed, the creators let the characters mature and develop over time, adding more and more “classic” Arthurian myth to enhance this “new” version. It’s in this fourth season that the two halves meet head on, in which all the foreshadowing the show has done up to this point pays off in a big way.
The big change this season is that Anthony Stewart Head leaves the show after putting in a few short appearances in the first few episodes. What this does to the story is that Prince Arthur goes the distance is actually crowned King Arthur.
Merlin pulls off a clever little trick by introducing Arthur’s uncle, Agravaine. This means Arthur can still go on heroic quests and have adventures, because Agravaine is handling the day-to-day running of Camelot while does so. Therefore, Arthur being king adds new weight to the character and the plot, but it’s not so huge a change that it doesn’t take away the sword-swinging, monster-slaying action that is the show’s bread and mutton. Agravaine’s presence isn’t just a convenience, though. He’s secretly aligned with Morgana, so there’s a ticking clock as to when the two of them will make their move on the unsuspecting Camelot.
While Arthur’s transformation to king is the big deal this season, the title character gets his share of personal growth as well. It’s never explicitly spelled out, but this season we get an indication of Merlin’s place as “the power behind the throne.” This is how Merlin is usually secretly using magic to lend Arthur a hand in battle, but the two guys have become friends, more or less, by this point, so Merlin is always on hand to lend Arthur advice as well. Several times this season, Merlin goes back to using the aging potion he used once last season, to disguise himself as an old man. This device gives actor Colin Morgan more chances to really cut loose, giving Merlin an outlet to say and do whatever he wants, and it’s great fun every time it happens.
The rest of the cast performs admirably. Court physician Gaius (Richard Wilson) continues to be kindly and wise, and Guinevere is caring and vulnerable. As Morgana, Katie McGrath has perfected her “look how evil I am” icy stare. The dragon (voiced by John Hurt) only makes a few appearances this season, but that’s fine, because it means when the dragon does show up, it’s for something important, and not just to give ambiguous advice to Merlin. In addition to the prophecy about Merlin and Arthur, Merlin has occasionally been referred to as “the last dragon lord” on this show, and in this season we finally get to learn what, exactly, that entails.
The audio and video really pop on this four-disc set, especially when the action moves outdoors, where lush green plantlife really shows off the clarity of this DVD transfer. The sound it good as well, with clear dialogue, music, clashing sword metal, and, the best sound effect of all, John Hurt’s voice. Extras include a handful of episode commentaries, a short making-of featurette, deleted scenes, outtakes and storyboard and photo galleries.
A lot of folks dismiss this show by calling it cheesy. That’s the thing—it is cheesy, but in a good way. It’s just the right amount of cheese. It’s modernizes Arthur and Merlin, but not ruinously modernized. There’s no other way to describe Merlin other than fun. It’s pure fun.