Merlin “The Sword In The Stone (Part 1)” TV Review

No stone and very little sword as our heroes flee an overwhelmed Camelot.

Merlin four star rating

4.12 “The Sword In The Stone (Part 1)”
Writer: Jake Michie
Director: Alice Troughton

THE ONE WHERE Camelot is attacked! Merlin smuggles Arthur out of the castle in disguise and joins a gang of rogues on their way to Ealdor.

VERDICT This is a great double-act episode. Creators Johnny Capps and Julian Murphy have said more than once that Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid is a huge influence on the show’s dynamic and this is an episode where you can see it plainly. Our two heroes have an adventure together in the woods, on the run, getting into scrapes, bouncing off each other. There is even a classic “surrounded wagon” gunfight (well, crossbow) scene about 30 minutes in. With a solid mix of drama, pathos and humour, the episode showcases some superb acting and sets the scene for the coming finale.

You can’t help but be engrossed in the action sequences this week, particularly the opening battle and its striking scene of the horde marching into the citadel, torches ablaze. Director Alice Troughton selects a stop-start combat style that juxtaposes speed-up and slow-mo moments common to the likes of 300 . Sometimes it works (Arthur tackling a corridor full of villains, for instance), sometimes it doesn’t (the unnecessary slow-mo of Merlin running).

Admit the tumultuous affairs at Camelot, we arrive at a turning point for Arthur’s character, and I’m not talking about him doing the washing up. This is the episode where he realises that Agravaine – his uncle, a man he’s trusted all year – is his enemy. There’s a stunned moment of realisation as Arthur sees Morgana and Agravaine enter the citadel. He stares; his shock turns to despair, then to anger. It’s such a shame that Morgana and even Helios act like such pantomime villains. They might as well cackle “mwahaha!” after gleefully boasting, “He’s nowhere left to run!” Agravaine, with his slightly ineffectual trickery, is by far the most interesting adversary, and you almost feel sorry for him when Morgana is reproaching him for his failure (although I am amused how he’s upstaged by Morgana’s magic when he tries to intimidate Elyan).

Although there’s lighthearted banter throughout this episode, it’s balanced by many endearing moments, such as Arthur revealing how he still looks for Gwen in the hall, Merlin’s heartfelt reunion with his mother, Arthur realising Gwen is with him in the village and an enchanted Arthur apologising to Merlin for being “a disappointment”. It’s a pleasure to see Merlin taking charge for once, demonstrating how he can come to the fore in times of crisis; when he tells the knights to barricade the doors so he can plan Arthur’s escape, nobody thinks to disobey (and again when he tells everybody how to escape the village). There’s almost too much tension with no respite between scenes (Elyan’s torture scene, the hunt through the woods, Gwaine being forced to brawl for his food) but Troughton handles it well, ensuring the pace never wearies.

It does suddenly evaporate at the end, though, an unfortunate symptom of this being part of a double episode. There’s not exactly a cliffhanger, no last-minute revelation, just Agravaine’s pursuit closing in on the woods around Ealdor. I’m assuming that next week the title, “The Sword In The Stone”, will have some relevance and that the ultimate battle will begin in earnest. We saw some dragon action in the closing trailer!

LMAO A round of applause, please, for Bradley James’s performance as the “simpleton” Arthur. His amiable behaviour is not only hilarious (“Probably should learn to think before I speak!” he calls out to Merlin) but it’s also touching. Best comedy moment of the night? Arthur randomly hugging a tree 22 minutes in.

QUICK CHANGE When Agravaine and his mercenaries ride into the village, Arthur goes from being in bed with no shirt on, to being fully dressed in his armour, in the space of time it takes Merlin to say four words.


IT’S WOSSERNAME If the beautiful and fearless Isolde seems familiar, it’s because you’ll know actress Miranda Raison as Jo Portman from five series of the marvellous Spooks .

IT’S WOSSISNAME Tristan is played by Ben Daniels, also a Spooks alumnus (he was Oleg Korsakov in one episode) but his biggest TV role of recent years is in Law & Order: UK as Senior Crown Prosecutor James Steel. (By the way, let’s not confuse his character with Tristan de Bois, the undead knight from 2008’s “Excalibur.”)

LEGEND In a move sure to annoy the Arthurian purists, mythical lovers Tristan and Isolde have been recast here as a pair of Bonnie and Clyde-style outlaws. Originally unconnected with the Arthurian stories, the love triangle between Tristan (or Tristram) and Isolde (or Iseult) and King Mark – where the accidental taking of a love potion leads to romantic betrayal – mirrors that of Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot. There are various versions of the tale, with the most famous appearing around the 12th century; an English version of Sir Tristrem was composed in about 1300 and influenced Thomas Malory . There is a famous 19th century opera, “Tristan und Isolde”, by Richard Wagner, and a historically inaccurate 2006 movie (opens in new tab) in which James Franco and Sophia Myles play the leads.

SLASH BAIT After a couple of quiet episodes, at last some decent Arthur/Merlin moments. We’re off to a good start with a trouserless Arthur in the first scene, grasping Merlin and spinning him around during their belt-loosening banter. Later on, under Merlin’s spell, Arthur says, “I’m entirely in your hands!” and then a little bit of Carry On music plays.

THE MERLIN UNIVERSE Merlin says he knows a place to seek sanctuary, Ealdor, beyond the White Mountain (apparently in Lot’s kingdom, although we know it was previously an outlying village in Cenred’s territory ). Of course this is where Merlin’s mother lives, a fact I’d forgotten until their sweet, understated reunion.


AUTHOR! AUTHOR! Screenwriter Jake Michie is one of the original creators of the show. According to a BBC interview , it was Michie and executive producer Julian Murphy who first came up with the idea of the young Merlin.

GIVING DIRECTION Alice Troughton is one of only two directors who’ve worked on every part of the new Doctor Who universe (helming Who , Torchwood and Sarah Jane episodes). She’s directed several episodes of Merlin including the recent “The Wicked Day” .

Merlin: “For all your many faults you are honest and brave and true-hearted. And one day you will be the greatest king this land has ever known.”

Dave Bradley

Merlin airs on Saturday nights on BBC One in the UK.

Read our interview with the showrunners

Previous Merlin series four reviews:
Merlin “The Darkest Hour” TV Review
Merlin “The Darkest Hour (Part 2)” TV Review
Merlin “The Wicked Day” TV Review
Merlin “Aithusa” TV Review
Merlin “His Father’s Son” TV Review
Merlin “A Servant Of Two Masters” TV Review
Merlin “The Secret Sharer” TV Review
Merlin “Lamia” TV Review
Merlin “Lancelot du Lac” TV Review
Merlin “A Herald Of The New Age” TV Review
Merlin “The Hunter’s Heart” TV Review

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