TV REVIEW Arthur is haunted by his late father’s ambitions – literally
Merlin 5.03 “The Death Song Of Uther Pendragon” [REVIEW]
5.03 “The Death Song Of Uther Pendragon”
Writer: Howard Overman
Director: Justin Molotnikov
THE ONE WHERE The cruel spirit of Uther, summoned from the afterlife, haunts Camelot and forces Arthur to confront his feelings about his father and about kingship.
VERDICT This is an episode that thrives on its character and atmosphere. It’s all about Arthur and Merlin – there are no new guest stars (Anthony Head’s Uther dominates on that score) and there’s no sign of Morgana; it’s understated and thoughtfully paced and mostly confined to the corridors of Camelot. The result is a darn creepy 45 minutes that deepens our understanding of Arthur’s relationship with Merlin and with his kingdom. Head always did bring out the best in his young co-stars so it’s wonderful to have him back, even temporarily, and while it does very little for the series’ over-arching plot, it delivers some wonderfully tense and moving scenes.
The story, penned by Misfits genius Howard Overman, embraces classic haunted house tropes with gusto. There are minutes of not much happening on screen except sighing draughts and clanking shutters, and the rising music adds to the tense ambience too. The tension builds slowly, but it works; when the axe strikes Percival or the throne room doors fly open, it’s a genuine fright. When Merlin throatily whispers, “I heard something behind the door…” it’s a simple but sublimely edgy moment; then when Gwen is dragged along the floor by an unseen force it’s as shocking as anything you’ll see in the likes of Poltergeist . The spirit of Uther is cruel: knocking Gwen out and setting fire to the room is a pretty nasty thing to happen in a family show TV on Saturday evening. The jump scares are even used a couple of times for comic effect (the one time it turns out to be just Gaius standing there is genuinely funny) without lessening the impact of the ghost scenes. Perhaps horror fans will find much of it clichéd, but it feels fresh in Merlin .
It’s wonderful to see Anthony Head again. He lets rip here, playing Uther as the bad guy we always suspected at heart: cruel, manipulative, dangerous . Arthur attempting to see his father in the afterlife just one more time could have been pure cheese, but Head portrays Uther as a total shit. And Bradley James as Arthur reacts so well to him. The quietly moving, wordless scene in which he visits Uther’s tomb shows the depth of the character’s emotion and there are tears in his eyes later as he listens to his father’s admonishments. When they finally confront each other in the great hall it brings to mind their previous clashes and it’s good to see Arthur accepting the kind of king he’s going to be. When Arthur falls, the fight becomes Merlin’s and his battle with Uther’s ghost is like Skywalker vs Vader with furniture thrown around by the Force. Merlin’s defiance is what marks this meeting: he’s prepared to gleefully tell Uther the truth: “Even while you were alive there was magic at the heart of Camelot!” Merlin hasn’t been using his magic much this series, but he rolls it out at the end of this episode to great effect. And Uther almost gives Merlin away! I almost wish he had, because it seems crazy that the only person who doesn’t know about Merlin’s magic is his best mate Arthur.
But there’s a lot in this episode which suggests Arthur’s opinion on magic is evolving anyway – he won’t let the witch be burned unfairly; he uses the druidic horn to speak with the spirits; he accepts Gaius’s potion to enable him to see Uther’s ghost; he specifically rejected his father’s dogmatism and preached justice and fairness for all. This was the perfect time for Merlin to explain his powers to Arthur, the new king was at his most receptive!
Ah yes, Arthur and Merlin. The warmth of their relationship was clear from every quiet scene they spent together. The script gave them plenty of sensitive scenes together and the two actors rose to the occasion. A couple of slapstick “horseplay” scenes brought to mind Manuel from Fawlty Towers (Arthur apparently thwacking him with a spoon, for instance) but their quiet understanding of each other, their banter and mutual respect was clear. Merlin might only be a servant that Arthur feels justified in giving a clip over the ear, but he lets his friend give him advice about being the king he should be.
NITPICK Was that old witch woman at the beginning really doing all that screaming? Arthur and Merlin were alerted by the noise but when we see her she’s weak, slumped and silent. When questioned later she says she “does not fear the journey to the next world.” So where was all that terrified shrieking coming from?
THE OLD RELIGION Gaius explains that the magic horn was used at druid ceremonies taking place at Beltane. Beltane – a genuine fertility celebration held at the end of April or in May to mark the coming of summer – seems an unlikely festival for journeying to the afterlife (you’d assume that would happen at the more Halloween-like Samhain or something). The henge-like stone circle visited by Arthur and Merlin is apparently called The Stones Of Nemeton. A nemeton is a sacred pagan grove, usually a clearing amid trees rather than a structure, ultimately derived from the European Celtic goddess Nemetona. The word survives in some place names, like Nantwich in Cheshire.
DRAGON-FREE EPISODE No sign of the Great Dragon or Aithusa.
REFERENCES I detected a slight whiff of Ghostbusters in the way they split up and wandered the corridors to find the spook.
SLASH BAIT No shirtless knights this week, but plenty for fans of Merlin/Arthur because the whole episode is really about them. Right from the start their bickering makes them sound like an old married couple (“You’re still angry with me aren’t you?”) but we get to the good stuff when the two of them are alone in the castle later. Friendly slaps and horseplay, eh? I’m not even going to think about what he’ll do with that tight leather glove on. My favourite bit, though, is the two of them skulking around like guilty lovers and lying to Sir Leon that they’re just reading poetry together:
“What did you expect me to say?”
“Something that didn’t make me look like a love-struck girl!”
THE TITLE The episode name echoes the season three opener, which was “The Tears of Uther Pendragon.”
DUMB HORROR MOVIE BEHAVIOUR May I make a suggestion? If you suspect there’s a murderous telekinetic ghost around, maybe don’t walk alone into a room full of loosely stacked weapons.
THE LEGEND The Horn of Cathbad is apparently named after the chief druid from Irish mythology; Cathbad appears in the Ulster Cycle where hero Cuchulain (Cú Chulainn) can also be found.
Uther: “This is my kingdom. You think you can drive me from it? You’re nothing but a serving boy…”
Merlin: “I am much more than that.”
Merlin airs on Saturday nights on BBC One in the UK.