That rabbit’s dynamite.
There’s now a permanent jaw-shaped dent on my floor, as a result of my reaction to Merlin: The Complete Third Season.
When we last saw teenage wizard-in-training Merlin (Colin Morgan) and the noble but headstrong Prince Arthur (Bradley James), Camelot was in big trouble. The king’s ward Morgana (Katie McGrath, Eden) gave in to her secret magic powers, betraying King Uther (Anthony Head, Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and siding with evil sorceress Morgause (Emilia Fox, Cashback).
As the Season Three begins, Morgana returns to Camelot, seeking forgiveness. She’s welcomed home, and only Merlin knows her secret—she’s plotting to destroy Camelot from within. Because magic is still outlawed in Camelot, Merlin can’t tell anyone Morgana’s secret without revealing his own magical secrets to everyone else.
Meanwhile, Arthur continues a forbidden romance with servant girl Guinevere (Angel Coubly, Imagine Me and You), and court physician Gaius (Richard Wilson, One Foot in the Grave) continues to be the even-handed voice of reason, amid all the ups and downs in Camelot.
Merlin has made the jump from “good show” to “awesome show.” From day one, the series has been preoccupied with destiny, these characters having great destinies to fulfill. In a way, that’s a reflection on the show itself. For the first two seasons, the series has been cheesy fun with occasional moments of greatness; amusingly watchable, but holding the potential of being so much more. I’m happy to report that Merlin’s destiny has been fulfilled—it’s become that great show we all hoped it would someday be.
The stakes have been raised, both in the plot and creatively. The whiz-bang two-part season premiere goes bigger and bolder than Merlin has ever gone. First, Camelot is under siege by an invading horde, so the whole “epic battle” thing breaks out. Then, a spell is cast for dead bodies to rise in the crypts beneath the castle. Arthur and company must fight on two fronts, barbarians attacking from without and the living dead attacking from within. While all this is happening, Merlin finds himself far from the walls of Camelot, about to be killed by giant scorpions. This is the over-the-top fantasy adventure goodness all genre fans love. The show’s creators have never gone this “big” before. Not only do they pull it off, they pull it off excellently.
After the whirlwind first two episodes, the remainder of the season settles back into somewhat of a routine. Merlin and Morgana know each other’s secrets, but can’t spill the beans without revealing themselves. This sets up a “chess match” between them, as she’s always plotting to take out Uther, and he’s working solo to stop her, while most everyone else is unaware anything is out of the ordinary. Katie Morgan is clearly having a lot of fun indulging in Morgana’s dark side, while never forgetting that Morgana’s motivation is her personal righteousness—she’s taking a stand against Uther’s anti-magic laws. Merlin, who has his own magic powers, is in a similar situation, except that he tries to do good for Camelot rather than striking out against it. They both want a better Camelot, but they have different ideas on how to accomplish that. This makes for a lot of dramatic tension between the two, even if that tension is lessened in some episodes to little more than an icy stare as they pass each other in the hall.
Though the stakes are raised, Merlin remains a lighthearted fantasy adventure, and the show hasn’t lost its sense of humor. As with earlier seasons, Arthur and Merlin’s “buddy cop” friendship remains a highlight. The banter they share on their adventures is clever and funny, and Colin Morgan and Bradley James maintain a light, breezy chemistry, so it’s like revisiting old friends whenever they team up to battle evil. Richard Wilson as Gaius also reveals his lighter side, first as a mischievous goblin possesses him, and then later as he gets to romance a lady. Not only does Wilson get to show a lot of charm during these episodes, but we get to see some new aspects of Gaius’s character as well.
Upping the stakes also means upping the Arthurian mythology. This season connects a lot of dots from the “modernized teen” version of Camelot to the “classic legend” Camelot most folks are familiar with. Sir Gwaine (Eoin Macken, Centurion) is introduced and becomes a major player. In the ambitious two-part season finale, when Camelot is (again!) in danger, there are numerous nods to Arthurian myths, and we see the characters taking big steps toward becoming the iconic figures the world knows quite well.
Performances remains solid throughout. One episode has Merlin running around in disguise, leading to a great scene in which he’s able to confront Uther and really cut loose about what he really thinks about the king. It’s a great moment for Colin Morgan, and the whole “Merlin in disguise” thing is a tour de force performance, showing his talent has layers far deeper than just “boy wizard.” Bradley James continues to balance Arthur’s moral integrity with his occasional stab-first-ask-questions-later mentality. Angel Coulby doesn’t get as much to do this season, but her character’s ongoing romance with Arthur gets some nice moments in the spotlight. Anthony Head has some great scenes too, especially in one episode where he’s distraught over Morgana’s health, believing she’s his beloved ward, and unknowing that she’s really out to get him. It’s a powerful moment, and makes us care for Morgana as he does, even as we’re the ones who know the truth.
The show’s other major player is the dragon (voiced by John Hurt, Hellboy), who is no longer imprisoned beneath Camelot, but is now flying around free. When the dragon was freed, questions were raised as to what it wants, and what it will do with its freedom. Those questions are still unanswered, as the big guy only appears when summoned by Merlin during times of crisis. Because the dragon is in Merlin’s debt, it has to do what Merlin commands. It does this reluctantly, though, with dire warnings for Merlin about how no good can come of its aid. This puts yet another spin on the dragon and Merlin’s already rocky relationship. The dragon is still used as a deus ex machina at times, but there’s still enough of a mystery about what it is and what it wants that we’re invested and curious to see what it will do next.
For as much as Merlin has improved, it still isn’t perfect. Some of the humor gets unnecessarily lowbrow. When the king and his court suffer an enchantment that gives them all loud, embarrassing flatulence, you know we’re a long way from Le Morte d’Arthur.
Picture and audio are great. Standard definition 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen with bright stunning colors, and booming Dolby 2.0 Stereo sound, especially when the rousing score kicks in. For bonus features, two episodes have lighthearted commentaries with directors and actors. The fifth disc is devoted to a series of featurettes on the making of Season Three, which again reveal the hours of hard work by a small army that goes into getting the show made. There are also deleted scenes, outtakes, a photo gallery, and—for those who really like the series—desktop wallpapers.
Merlin has become one of my favorite “comfort food” shows, exhibiting lighthearted fun from the very beginning. In this season, though, the creators have pushed themselves to make the show much more than it’s been, and it works.