One of the real points of interest in Merlin is watching the way the show takes medieval/legendary events and tweaks them to fit into the high-school-drama format. Sometimes this involves a total shift in their meaning (when Arthur disguises himself not to hear what his people feel about him, but to prove that he is objectively the best and should definitely be in charge even if he wasn’t prince) and sometimes just a quiet realignment. So this episode begins with Morgana making a pilgrimage to her father’s grave. No, her father wasn’t a saint. Yes, I know that means it’s not a pilgrimage. But for this version of Arthurian legend, it has the same atmosphere of a private devotion.
Not private for long, though, as her party is set upon by masked men with maiden-napping intent. Gwen and Morgana are captured and the roster of Camelot guards suffers yet another serious depletion. How Morgana escapes is one for the tedious-stuff-we’ve-seen-before-oh-actually-the-twist-improved-it file. She demands to bathe, knowing that the mercenary captain will imagine she’s hoping for privacy for sneak off, whereas in fact she knows he will be sufficiently distracted by not giving her privacy for Gwen to filch his sword. The twist is that we’re not in “ripped blouse and covering you with a Luger” territory here – the possession of a sword doesn’t instantly render the bearer invincible, so we get to see Morgana demonstrate her formidable skills with a blade before they leg it (the wrist roll at the end seemed a little…Italianiate and unnecessary, but maybe I’m just a purist.)
Morgana escapes, but Gwen is left in the clutches of the masks and mailcoats brigade. (Sprained ankle. Always the ankle. Why no-one invented some sort of ankle-guard for wearing when escaping from brigands, I shall never know. There’s an armour patent just waiting to be filed.) When Morgana gets back to civilization (well, Camelot…) she’s appalled at the attitude of the court, which veers towards the cheerful that the noblewoman got away and they’re only a servant down. Class politics are happening in the forest as well, when the head of the Morgana-napping expedition realizes that his paymaster has never actually seen the aristocrat in question, and wouldn’t actually know they hadn’t managed to bring him Morgana… (Say what you like about the decline of the Liberal Arts education, but Mark Twain isn’t on the curriculum of Camelot Community College for nothing.)
Arthur, however, is still on his program of Being A Better Prince, I Mean Person, It Doesn’t Matter That I’m A Prince, You Should Just Try To Forget I Am One, I’m Just Prince Arthur, a Regular Guy, and has decided that he will lead a secret mission to rescue Gwen. So he and Merlin set out, thus constituting the least intimidating extraction team that has ever been sent on a special operation. I mean, they could probably extract the essence from vanilla, but that’s about it.
Meanwhile, back at the villain’s lair (and I’m sorry to make like a stuck record, but I’m looking at one bandit chieftain and two sidekicks and I’m nearly blinded by all the glare off their bald bonces. Follow the hair, people) Gwen is still pretending to be Morgana. Whilst they wait for the ransom note to be answered the assembled banditti stage a traditional Mad Max Tunderdome/ Hunger Games/ UFC cagefight, during which Lancelot appears, having been gripped by existential despair which he expresses by lopping the limbs off other men. And by whining on about it to Gwen, for that matter.
Talking about feelings is also taking place between Arthur and Merlin. Their feelings for women. Obviously. They celebrate not having been eaten by a truly massive rat (I told you the Princess Bride imagery from last week would come back to bite us), by Arthur explaining why he can’t admit his feelings. Which feeling would those be, Arthur? Master of the classical occupatio, he elaborates upon the emotions which it would be too painful for him to discuss. Sound work.
These emotional intervals over, everyone converges on the baldy barbarian headquarters (snigger, “headquarters”, snigger) and the episode swells to a crescendo of giant rats, self-sacrifice, shouting, sword-play, love triangles, more self-sacrifice, and unkempt facial hair. In fact there’s so much self-sacrifice swilling around this one that I’m not entirely sure how the body count was kept as low as it was, as several characters seemed intent to flinging themselves lemmingly at their own mortality in a competitive wave of oblivion. But, minions, guards and other professionally nameless persons aside, they all get out safely. Lancelot then cunningly manages to leave Gwen again in a welter of pathos, thus getting a serious one over on Arthur, who is fatally compromised in the romance stakes by the fact that he is actually present when Gwen thinks about him. We cannot consider this to be hopeful circumstance for him. I mean, have you met the lad?
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Dr. Jem Bloomfield studied at the universities of Oxford and Exeter and is currently an Associate Lecturer in Drama at Oxford Brookes. His research covers the performance of Early Modern drama and the various ways it has been adapted and co-opted throughout the centuries. His own plays include “Bewick Gaudy”, which won the Cameron Mackintosh Award for New Writing, and he is working on a version of Oliver Goldsmith’s comedy “She Stoops To Conquer”. His writing on arts, culture, and politics have appeared in “California Literary Review”, “Strand Magazine” and “Liberal Conspiracy”. He blogs at “Quite Irregular” and can be found on Twitter @jembloomfield