It is a dark and stormy night. Gaius is wandering around like a hippy version of Brother Cadfael saying things like “He’s sleeping now” and “non credere potens sum!” A cart with a cage on the back drives up (never a good sign: see The Witchfinder earlier in the series). A bounty hunter has captured a young woman to claim the reward Uther offers for magic users. Gaius tells Merlin to stay out of it, but Merlin knows an inciting incident when he sees one. Magic cagebreak ahoy, I only told you to sorcerously blow the bloody manacles off, etc etc.
Having hidden Freya (played by Laura Donnelly) in the catacombs below the city, Merlin has to find a way of feeding her. There follows a stern parable on the distribution of limited resources and the harsh zero-sum game which constitutes the food market. That which will be given to Freya must be stolen from Arthur, and so Merlin goes all urban-Katniss. Well, he nicks a load of food in a farcical manner. Alas the redistribution of resources (sausages, chicken legs, etc) within an authoritarian neo-panoptical system (large pointy castle, etc) is inevitably discovered. And Arthur has to save Merlin from being beaten up by the bounty hunter, who suspects something.
Ungratefully, though, in order to distract Arthur from working out why his food has been going missing, Merlin uses the prince’s body image issues as leverage. Totes calls him fat. However, in order to assure us of the injustice of this charge, the camera ensures we get several shots of Arthur in bed, or outlined against the light in a doorway, or framed from below. This is intended to underline how false and harmful the constant messages about our bodies are which we receive from the media. “Look at Arthur”, the director is saying, “Look at him. He is a firm and pert young man, and yet even he is subjected to this ludicrous regime of dieting and anxiety about his figure. Look at that figure. Oh, the humanity.”
Meanwhile, people start dying in grisly beast-attack ways, and the camera invites us along for the ride. Beast-cam is a refinement on the traditional Poirot murderer-cam, in as much as at least no-one turns round and says to the viewer “Why, what are you doing here? I didn’t expect to arrrrghhhhh!” The plot being as much of a closed system as the surveillance state of Camelot, it doesn’t take too long before we twig that this slavering throat-ripper appeared in the castle at around the same time as Freya. This has not occurred to Merlin, however, and he continues on his way, unaware that his cheery whistling sounds ominously like a remix of the Arthurian R’n’B classic “I’m ‘n Luv (Wit A ‘Shifter)”. He starts pilfering clothes for Freya, in order to adhere to Camelot’s strict sumptuary laws which boil down to Girls Must Be Wearing Plenty Of Clothes, Please.
The strand of Merlin which uses magic to explore identity politics gets another work-out in this episode, and its rapidly becoming the most involving part of the show. Gaius tells Merlin that they can’t protect Freya, because she’s not their sort of different, she’s dangerous. Merlin angsts about knowing how it feels to be unhappy and conflicted about what you are. This part of the show seems happy not to tie in the idea of magic as a specific metaphor for any particular identity, but make it available for interpretation as the audience wishes. It’s not particularly radical, but it is another example of the show reframing aspects of the Arthurian narratives to explore contemporary questions.
That said, it’s a bit of a letdown when we see the beast Freya turns into. A winged panther with glistening flanks, luminous eyes and a sinuous yet deadly power. I’ve never seen The Cat People, but from what one hears we’re not far away from that territory. Once again in Merlin, it seems that angst and introspection are for boys, whilst girls get to provide the life options the boys choose between. Freya leaves the series via an emotional death scene and vaguely pagan boat funeral. Taken on its own merits, it’s an engaging episode, but looking at the series as a whole, she just turned up to burnish Merlin’s character arc a bit.