Since this episode was basically all about Gwen, her intelligence and determination, her relationships with Merlin and Morgana, and medieval literature, I loved it.
And in the interest of actually getting these write-ups out (before the next series) with my current schedule, I’m going to confine this discussion to points I haven’t seen other people make.
Chase and capture. The opening sequence—beyond letting Angel Coulby demonstrate how much she can convey without a word—foreshadows her encounter with Morgana later in the episode.
In each instance, Gwen responds to danger by hiding and fleeing, and is cornered while running and thrown to the ground. Moreover, once captured, she is required to change her appearance; Helios dressing her in the harem girl outfit foreshadows Morgana reclothing her in the body of a deer.
Each costume change, so to speak, highlights and increases her vulnerability. And each of her captors strips her of a link to the past—Helios makes her shed the red dress from her early days in Camelot, while Morgana forcibly tears Arthur’s ring from her neck. In each case, the momento Gwen loses is recognized by another character, which furthers the plot.
As Helios is preparing Gwen for seduction and Morgana for slaughter, these parallels implicitly connect sex and death, a link already present in the white hart legend. This fairy tale, which occurs in medieval romances features a hero who follows a white deer and shoots her; she is then revealed as a beautiful woman, who becomes his lover. It’s a version of the “animal wife” folktale motif, which occurs in cultures around the world.
(At least, this is what scholars speculate it was in its original form; the medieval versions are often vestigial, and the woman who appears after the deer has fled is often implied, but not confirmed, to be the same magical animal.)
Following the deer’s trail. In the Arthurian legends, the white hart is often combined with other plot elements to signal the beginning of an adventure. The knight-hero follows the deer (sometimes across a river or forest that might signal entering the Otherworld) and then meets a woman who might be the deer transformed, or otherwise begins an adventure.
Because the Arthurian woman-who-is-really-a-deer always occurs as the setup for further adventures, I took the creators’ use of the trope at the end of the episode here to indicate that this is only the beginning of Gwen and Arthur’s journey toward reunion. But a few specific Arthurian deer examples came to mind.
Chrétien de Troyes’ Erec et Enide, one of the most famous Arthurian romances, begins with Arthur re-instituting the hunt for the white stag over the advice of Gawain, who (correctly) warns that the custom—the hunter who kills the stag gets to kiss the most beautiful woman at court—will bring chaos as the knights fight over whose lady is most beautiful.
Meanwhile Guinevere and our hero, Erec, wait in another part of the forest, where the actual plot gets underway when an evil dwarf attacks the queen’s beloved maidservant. Adventures ensue, culminating with Erec meeting Enid, who solves the problem by being indisputable the most beautiful. Arthur kisses Enid before the court, Guinevere befriends her, Erec marries her, and the plot (involving their marriage problems) goes on.
The parallels here seem clear: Arthur’s idea (marriage to Mithian) is a bad one, made in spite of the advice of his best counselor (here Merlin); the hunt creates strife between Arthur and Mithian; and Gwen’s adventures elsewhere in the same wood, which ultimately dovetails with the hunt, are the more important story.
Even more relevent is Marie de France’s Guigemar. Though not technically Arthurian, the lai has become associated with the tradition through appearing in every manuscript & most printed versions with Lanval, which is about Arthur’s unfaithful, unnamed queen.
In Guigemar, the titular hero, famous for his inability to feel romantic love, hunts what can best be described as a genderqueer white deer—a hind who also antlers, accompanied by a young fawn. This combination of sex characteristics should warn him that the animal is supernatural, and hunting a nursing mother violates hunters’ ethics, but Guigemar stupidly persists.
When he shoots and wounds the animal, the arrow rebounds and wounds him in the groin, driving straight through his thigh into his horse. The dying deer then curses Guigemar never to be healed—unless by a woman who will suffer, out of love for him, pain and grief for him such as no one as felt before, and for whom Guigemar will suffer equally. (Spoiler alert: This is what happens.)
This is closely related to this episode. Arthur and Mithian hunt the deer, but in the process they are both metaphorically wounded, and their chance for love together dies. For Arthur, finding Gwen’s ring re-opens the pain of their breakup, and makes him unable to love another.
And Gwen has certainly (and will continue to) suffer more for Arthur than any woman has. Moreover, before they reunite, Arthur undergoes parallel pain and a comparable journey. Both lose themselves to a magical spell that makes them do things they would never do; both are forced against their will leave Camelot, losing not only their home but their thrones and proper roles; both suffer a severe loss of confidence; both are hunted and hounded; and both receive important help from others near the end. Finally, both of their travails are caused jointly by Morgana, who wants to destroy them, and Arthur, who unwittingly does all he can to help that aim.
But there similarities end. Gwen suffers disproportionately: Morgana’s mind-rape is several degrees worse than Merlin’s, and Gwen is much more isolated than Arthur, who has many more people helping him than Merlin and Hunith (and maybe Isold).
Moreover, unlike Arthur, whose banishes her and then refuses to listen to the warning Gwen suffers so much to bring, Gwen hasn’t done anything to create the situation in which she finds herself. She’s both innocent and without agency (in the strict sense of having the power to determine the course of the plot)—although she actively strives for to influence events, particularly in this episode.
Speaking of women who work very hard for an end they don’t achieve, let’s talk about Mithian, who also takes the Guigemar role. She’s the one who actually wounds the deer, and as an indirect result, she loses Arthur forever.
Perfect princess. Mithian falling for Arthur now is intended to demonstrate his growth as a character. Previous alternative matches for Arthur hated and planned to kill him (Sophia), disliked him until forcibly enspelled (Vivian), or felt nothing for him (Elena). Each character’s likability increases along with her tolerance for Arthur, and while the last three were foils for Gwen as his one true love, they were also progressive answers to a question posed early on: Who would want to marry Arthur?
In other words, Mithian’s sympathetic traits and sincere interest in Arthur are intended to signal to the audience that yes, Arthur actually has matured to the point that a beautiful, self-confident, charming woman would fall even love with him, even if when destiny isn’t making her do so. (Whether it actually works that way is up to the viewers.)
Likewise, Mithian’s many lovely traits point out Guinevere’s excellence, because as wonderful as she is, she’s isn’t the Once and Future Queen, and ultimately can’t compete with her. Gwen is no longer Arthur’s choice in the absence of credible alternatives—she’s the best of all possible choices, outstandingly resourceful and determined to save Camelot and Arthur, even when her exile has given her every reason to walk away.
Mithian is also the first noblewoman paired with Arthur who represents herself, rather than being presented via her relationship with her father. Her first appearance with an entourage of knights makes clear that she is the only authority among them, and their final conversation demonstrates that she has the power (and intelligence) to engage in political discussions for her kingdom. It’s delightful to see another woman with real power presented so positively.
And it’s a nice build on the sincere but skillful way she demonstrates her political chops in her handling of Merlin. Mithian not only identifies Merlin’s importance to Arthur, but has the wits to confront him directly, and figures out that the best way to reach him is to appeal to his affection for Arthur. She brings him around with a display of queenly diplomacy.
At the same time, as a foil to Gwen, Mithian is constantly presented as very much upper-class and Arthur’s social equal. Her costume, demeanor, comfort mixing personal and political aims, and above all her love of hunting all mark her as an aristocrat.
Going a-hunting. Hunting—and the fact that Arthur loves it and Merlin doesn’t—has been a recurring background since the show’s first series. Fans who transmute this dynamic into imagining Merlin as a vegetarian or animal rights activist have to ignore Merlin’s readiness to shed blood elsewhere, particularly in the early seasons; his eager consumption of meat at every opportunity and skill at cooking chicken; and the basis for his identification with the unicorn in “The Labyrinth of Gedref” as a creature of magic.
In fact, Merlin’s attitude toward hunting is first and foremost a class signal—one of show’s nods to late medieval and early modern English culture, in which hunting was the nobility’s favorite pasttime and a hated and despised symol of their abuses of power for everyone else.
A brief historical detour here: in Norman England, the nobility and particularly kings set aside large tracts of land—which could have fed many peasants—as personal hunting preserves. They also brutally punished as poachers peasants who dared hunt small game in these lands, often by losing hands, ears, noses, and the like. Such penalties were a public reminder of who held power, enacted on the bodies of those who did not.
At its most benign, this meant that peasants saw the backbreaking labor of agriculture as real work, and hunting as a frivolous pasttime. More often, noble hunting was their greatest symbol of class oppression, and it is hard to understate the depths of hatred the lower classes felt for those who participated in it. Signs of it crop up the early Robin Hood legends (in which the lower classes lay claim to the forest) and much more tragically in the history of my own country.
(Suffice to say that middle-class English colonists in what is now the Northeastern US were incapable of seeing the Algonquian-speaking peoples here, who had no domesticated meat sources and relied on hunting for protein, in anything other than very old stereotypes. Their settlers’ intense anti-hunting bias led first to misunderstandings, then stereotypes, then was marshalled in the service of what became genocide on the large scale. The oppressed becoming oppressors is not a new phenomenon.)
So generally Merlin doesn’t despise hunting because it involves killing animals, but because it is a leisure activity for nobles that underscores that they don’t need to prepare their own food, and can treat it as a game.
Moreover, Merlin’s scene with Mithian here emphasizes that what he dislikes about hunting is the power differential. His words (“What sport is it where one side has dogs and spears and crossbows and the other nothing?”) can be taken in multiple ways, but better reflect the class tensions I’ve mentioned here and the unstated contest between Mithian and Guinevere for Arthur than the persecution of magic uses (powers like Merlin’s are not nothing).
For Mithian herself is the one who has the “dogs and spears and crossbows”—her participation in the hunt is part of her courtship of Arthur—while Gwen becomes prey. The episode further underscores the class implications of hunting by making the aristocratic Leon the only named knight to take part in the hunt, and by Morgana herself, who tells Gwen, “I’ve hunted these woods since I was a child.”
Old friends. Like “Lancelot and Guinevere,” this episode makes overt references to Gwen and Morgana’s former friendship. Again, Morgana uses knowledge gained then to identify Gwen as a danger and attack her, and we see the same twisted sense that Morgana wants Gwen under her power again as much as she wants to destroy her.
She’s unquestionably pleased when she recognizes her servant outfit; but grows furious when Helios confirms that her name is Guinevere. Maybe it’s hearing the full name that underscores that Gwen is no longer the maidservant she could control. (It’s amazing how often pleasure plays across Morgana’s face as she pursues Gwen, only to be replaced with rage and fear each time, a sign of how deep these feelings go.)
Yet in some perverse way Morgana seems to want to return their relationship to its original status, where Gwen was her loyal and trusting servant. Hence her attempt to charm Gwen into listening to her in the woods, which is ridiculous in the extreme: “We were friends once, were we not? I only wish to help.”
I think this is mostly a power play on Morgana’s part—she’s motivated largely by her vision of Guinevere as queen, and there’s a snobbism aspect to it—but also on some level speaks to her sense of loss for her old role in Camelot, in which she commanded respect as charming noblewoman instead of an outcast witch. It’s a flashback to the Morgana of the first three series, who often put on pleasant and flirtatious behavior when she lied.
And of course the idea is delusional, both because Gwen not only knows Morgana’s true aims and won’t play along (no longer, in fact, is forced to feign affection as she was in 3x12), but also because Morgana’s rosy memories are fundamentally a misreading of what their series-one relationship was like.
When Morgana turns her magic on Gwen and snarls, “The truth is it doesn’t matter which way you go,” she’s recalling the basic inequality of their mistress-servant relationship; the power differential persists through Morgana’s magic.
Addicted to banishment. Meanwhile, Arthur struggles with a similar power imbalance, when he threatens to use his might to banish Merlin for speaking up for Gwen.
Personally, I always felt that we are viewers were supposed side against Arthur when banishes Guinevere, while of course understanding the intensity of his emotional distress. It’s an obvious abuse of power; it fits into the larger pattern of Arthur making the wrong decisions as king in nearly every episode; and it opposes the stated destiny of Guinevere to become Arthur’s queen. In this show, moving toward the destined outcome is generally positive—and always so when it’s Guinevere’s queenship—so for Arthur to further damage her already hurt chances is unquestionably negative.
But here, Arthur threatening to banish Merlin early in the episode drives the point home. Beyond the long-standing parallels between Merlin and Gwen, both of whom are supposed to stand at Arthur’s side, it’s clear that we are supposed to root against any attempt to divide our two heroes. Arthur is not only abusing his power of banishment, but overusing its abuse.
As if that weren’t enough, there’s a clear parallel between Arthur threatening Merlin and Morgana threatening Agravaine just two scenes later. In both a Pendragon comes down hard on their most loyal servant, who argues against their superior’s haste but is ultimately silenced. The comparison is not to Arthur’s credit.
True friends. Of course Merlin’s intense loyalty to Gwen is on display throughout this episode, from the opening moments when he opposes Arthur’s marriage to Mithian to the denouement in which he argues more successfully for the same outcome. My favorite point was his recognition of Guinevere in the deer’s guise. I love that moment, and all it suggests—that perhaps magic isn’t so much a series of flashy abilities, but, like friendship, the ability to see the truth of someone else when they most need you.
And of course the truth of Guinevere, abundantly revealed here, is that she’s intelligent, loyal, capable of duplicity but always clear on her loyalties. She resourcefully puts what she finds to her use, whether it’s the veil Helios forces her to wear, or the pond it which she hides from his soldiers.
And as her final farewell with Merlin makes clear, Guinevere does all this despite her enormous anguish over her mind-controlled actions. Her adamant refusal to return to Camelot is her own self-punishment (as perhaps mucking out the pigs was?), and a determination not to profit from her own heroism, as well as respect for the law laid down by Arthur.
This episode is all about loyalty and trust, with Merlin’s unwavering loyalty to Gwen, and Gwen’s unwavering loyalty to Camelot, serving as a centerpiece to which the other characters compare and contrast. Agravaine, as usual, betrays Arthur’s trust, while Arthur decides whether or not to be loyal to Guinevere’s memory.
Eoghan the assistant mapkeeper refuses to betray his master’s trust; meanwhile, neither Helios nor Morgana truly trusts the other’s ability to deliver their half of the bargain. (I wish the show or fanfiction had picked up on Helios having difficulty recruiting sufficient forces and needing to forcibly conscript fighters and its implications; if nothing else, it justifies the easy re-capture of Camelot in the finale.)