You can’t escape destiny.
“Merlin, go back to doing what you do best—nothing!”—Arthur
Teenage Merlin (Colin Morgan) lives at Camelot, where he is a servant to the headstrong yet heroic Prince Arthur (Bradley James), as well as an assistant to court physician Gaius (Richard Wilson, One Foot in the Grave). King Uther (Anthony Stuart Head, Buffy the Vampire Slayer) has outlawed all use of magic from the kingdom. This is bad news for Merlin, who must now keep his own growing magic powers a secret.
About once a week, someone or something threatens Camelot, so Arthur jumps in to save the day, sword in hand, with Merlin secretly backing him up with magic. Also along for the ride are the king’s ward Morgana (Katie McGrath, Eden), who is developing her own magical abilities, and servant girl Guinevere (Angel Coulby, Imagine Me and You), or “Gwen” for short, who is beginning a forbidden romance with Arthur.
The first season of Merlin was a pleasant surprise. Sure, it had a lot of low-budget cheese and it played fast and loose with Arthurian mythology, but the lighthearted tone and the excellent character interaction drew me in. It ended up being a fun ride, and it left me wanting more. When a second season was announced, I hoped that the creators would build on what they’d done, taking a good show and making it better. Now that I’ve seen all 12 episodes on this five-disc set, I can say that the second season is actually more of the same, but if “the same” means more rollicking fantasy adventure fun, then I don’t mind.
As before, the heart of the series is the ongoing friendship between Merlin and Arthur. The two have the whole “buddy cop movie” thing going on, and their back-and-forth exchanges during their adventures are a highlight. Merlin knows that he and Arthur are two sides of the same coin, and that the future of Camelot depends on their partnership. Arthur, on the other hand, doesn’t know this, and sees Merlin as nothing more than a dorky underling. This sets up a dynamic that is equal parts dramatic and amusing. Although Arthur berates Merlin and looks down on him, he does, in his own way, see Merlin as a trusted confidante. Similarly, Merlin is often frustrated with Arthur’s arrogance, but he can see the good in Arthur as well.
It’s a busy life in Camelot, and other relationships are tested this season. The famous romance between Arthur and Guinevere gets its first stirrings as episodes progress. They develop feelings for one another, but they can’t be together because he’s royalty and she’s a servant, so cue the hormonal teenage heartache. At one point, Lancelot (Santiago Cabrera, Heroes) returns, and his “not really a knight because he’s not of noble blood” status also catches Gwen’s eye, much to Arthur’s frustration. Arthurian fans already know that Lancelot + Guinevere = trouble, and it’s here we see the first hints of that. The downside of all this is the cute flirtations between Merlin and Gwen from the first season are nonexistent in this one.
Morgana and her relationship with her adopted father, the king, is another one in the forefront this season. As she secretly develops her magic powers, she confronts Uther about his distrust of all things sorcery. This growing divide between them leads her to confide in some new faces in her life, including a sword-swinging evil hottie Morgause (Emilie Fox, Cashback), and the mysterious Mordred (Asa Butterfield, Son of Rambow), who in this version of the legend is a quiet young boy with vast supernatural powers. Morgana’s change of heart against the king eventually places all of Camelot in danger, and this puts her into direct conflict with Merlin. He must then go to extreme lengths to save the kingdom by confronting Morgana late in the season, in a scene that is the show’s most emotionally powerful moment to date.
Let’s not forget the dragon. Deep beneath Camelot, the last of the dragons (voiced by John Hurt, Hellboy) is trapped, and offers Merlin advice in exchange for his freedom. At times during the first season, I wondered what the point of the dragon was, as his scenes felt tacked on. This time, though, the dragon subplot adds to the main storyline nicely. There’s a gradual buildup to the moment in which Merlin must decide whether to give the creature its freedom, and then face the consequences of that choice. This slow burn from episode to episode ends with a huge payoff for those who’ve been watching from day one, and it’s thrilling when it finally happens.
The characters are what make the show worth watching, but other aspects of the series are, shall we say, clunky. Still, even among its clunkier moments, you can still find some of what makes the show tick. This is best seen in a two-part episode in which Uther is seduced by a beautiful woman, not knowing she’s actually a hideous troll in disguise. The troll scenes have her turning all green and ugly, while enjoying rotten food and, uh, performing audible gaseous emissions. I thought, “Great, now I have to watch the show humiliate itself by ripping off Shrek for the next two hours.” Even though the lowbrow humor wasn’t to my liking, I still got caught up in the plot. Despite the silly setup, the stakes remain high, as the fate of Camelot is once again in jeopardy. The story’s climax also has a great Merlin versus troll henchman smackdown, where Merlin cuts loose with his powers in a big way against the baddie, bigger than we’ve seen up to this point.
As you might have guessed, this is not a show for diehard folklorists or historical sticklers. The anachronisms are everywhere, mostly in the contemporary dialogue. This is the type of show where if someone invents some sort of proto-historical skateboard so there can be a montage of the characters doing extreme jumps, I wouldn’t be surprised at all. There are far fewer CGI monsters this season than the last, and they do look a little better than they did before, but, with the arguable exception of the dragon, they still look pretty dodgy, and are rarely in the same shots as the actors. Fortunately, it’s not all clunky. The human villains-of-the-week are much more interesting and varied, and the sword fighting and jousting action is nicely staged and choreographed.
The picture and audio are solid on this five-disc set. The visuals can sometimes be overly soft, but that could be a deliberate choice by the directors. The audio is good throughout, as we all know John Hurt’s voice was meant to boom out of 5.1 Dolby. Several episodes get commentaries from the actors, with a few behind-the-scenes folks occasionally joining in. These are light, jokey commentaries, but they show how much the cast has bonded over the making of this series. That attitude continues in the three featurettes on disc five, which provide a ton of details about the unbelievable amount of hard work from a small army of people that goes into making all this. The extras are topped off with a photo gallery and desktop wallpapers.
Here’s a puzzler: What is the name of this show? The cover art has renamed it The Adventures of Merlin, but the show’s actual opening titles continue to call it just Merlin. Does adding “The Adventures of” really sell more copies?
Merlin is not the greatest show you’ll ever see, but it sure is fun. Engaging characters and a lighthearted fantasy tone will draw you in, and the next thing you know, you’ll be under it’s spell. (Oh, come on, I had to have at least one cheesy magic joke in here.)