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Merlin: Series Finale

By Bethan Power · June 2, 2013

As a writer who hails from the green hills and fog-swathed mountains of mystical Wales, I hold Merlin closer to my heart than most. The legend itself is a fascinating tale, and the TV series has brought it to a whole new audience in a whole new way.

And now Merlin draws to a close. Five seasons of magic battles, dragon riding, and (of course) bromance culminated in this last episode. And boy, did it have a lot to live up to. Though Merlin simply draws from the legend for its narrative, there are certain key moments that are needed: Arthur (Bradley James) and Mordred (Asa Butterfield) facing each other, Merlin (Colin Morgan) revealing his magical abilities, Arthur dying and being sent out onto the lake of Avalon. Not having these would be like Frodo having one earring to rule them all, or Harry Potter getting with Hermione. It just doesn’t work. But with this 45-minute finale having to include all of that stuff, along with the stuff the audience craves like the banter and bromance, did it deliver?

My God, yes it did.

The episode begins in the throes of battle and Merlin in his Emrys form smiting evil left and right with BIG magic. No more playing with smoke and hitting people against walls. This warlock means business. It kicks the show off on a visual high and throws you into the depths of action.

Then Mordred and Arthur confront each other in a beautiful piece of acting by Bradley James, who has really shone in this season with more serious performances. In terms of the legend, this is the culmination, so for it to be placed here is an interesting choice, though it works well in context. The fight is swift. Like, blink and you’ll miss it swift. But Mordred falls, not before driving his blade into Arthur, which, having been forged in dragon’s breath is mighty powerful and pretty deadly. The comparative lack of drama in terms of soundtrack and action in general could be seen as a little too abrupt. I, however, think this is wonderfully written. The point of Arthur is that he is great because he sees himself as an equal to his knights, no special treatment needed—hence the round table. For him to be struck like this shows that even if he is the once and future king, he is still a man and can be struck down like any other. Besides, the shock factor actually makes it ten times more dramatic than if there had been trumpets and fireworks. Stunned silence says so much.

With Arthur dying and Merlin at his wits’ end trying to save him, the confession approaches, the biggest damn plot point of all five seasons. Once again, its early stage within the narrative may seem curious considering the magnitude of what is happening, but it works well as we can see Arthur’s developing response to it throughout the rest of the episode. The scene itself was intimate and superbly executed by both Colin Morgan and Bradley James, with a tearful confession followed by a range of emotions crossing Arthur’s face from shock to disbelief to confusion to anger. This was a huge scene to live up to and again had little dialogue and drama around it, but this simply highlighted the acting more and really drew you in to feel the emotion. When the words were uttered it looked like Merlin had stabbed Arthur in the heart. And I felt that pain.

With a large cast of characters to say goodbye to, the writers have ensured that everyone possible gets their limelight. The knights Gwaine (Eoin Macken), Percival (Tom Hopper) and Leon (Rupert Young) have their own adventure tracking Morgana (Katie McGrath), and from this subplot comes probably the most harrowing scene of the episode, where Gwaine is heard being tortured to death by Morgana. The smooth transition from playful banter between the men to one of them dying whilst the others helplessly listen enhances the emotion and loss, and it takes a special kind of narrative for an audience to feel almost as much for secondary characters as the leads.

Bromance is a big part of this show, and the banter between Arthur and Merlin has always been held dearly in viewers’ hearts. This episode does not skimp on it; the relationship between the king and his servant took a hit at the confession but they grow closer than ever in the scenes that follow. A particularly touching moment is when they look back to the first time they met. This is not only a lovely dialogue; it links the whole five seasons together and draws attention to the relationship development between them.

As the episode climaxes, Merlin and Arthur face Morgana. Morgana has quite a low-key exit, dying simply by being struck by Excalibur, but once again it highlights the “every man is equa”’ idea mirrored with Arthur and Mordred. Despite Morgana being vanquished, it is too late for Arthur and he meets his end. In an incredibly moving sequence, his last words to Merlin are simply “Thank you.” A very well-chosen phrase, one that sums up Arthur’s emotions (and his struggle at showing them) perfectly.

Some may hope for Arthur to be revived. But when the dragon is summoned and hope might prevail, the worst is confirmed. Arthur is not returning. This is a good thing, really; it’s an integral part of the legend and to scrap it would have been sacrilege. A mention of Arthur “rising again” in the closing scenes does give hope for a spinoff in the future, and the strange and slightly jarring image of Merlin in modern day raises many questions about where a spinoff could take us.

There are a few issues with the episode, largely to do with the convenience of plot beats and coincidences that stretch the boundaries of logic. Gwen (Angel Coulby) guessing Merlin’s secret at the exact moment Arthur finds out, for instance. Or this massive plot hole: if the dragon could pick Merlin and Arthur up at the end and carry them to their destination, why didn’t Merlin call him earlier and potentially save Arthur’s life?

There are questions. And plot issues. And I couldn’t care less. The episode was fun, dramatic, covered all the points it needed to, and was unpredictable because the writers could afford to kill off as many characters as they wanted, knowing it would not impact future seasons. Kind of like Game of Thrones, but you actually get a chance to know these characters intimately before they die in front of you. Superb writing and acting came together to make something truly wonderful. It’s been a pleasure, Merlin. Now I’m off to order the boxed sets…