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Merlin 5x02: Arthur's Bane Part 2
Gwen 1

Wow, there are so many delightful things about this episode it’s hard to know where to begin.

1. Misery and misunderstandings (or thematic coherence). Let’s start with the structure, which starts by braids together several stories of misery and misunderstanding, only to leaven them with small moments of warmth and connection between unexpected characters.

So we have Morgana and Aithusa haunted by a nightmare of imprisonment, but deeply bonded to each other; Merlin and Arthur’s imprisonment subtly countered by Mordred’s attempts to reach out; Gwaine gravely wounded but succored by the Diamari; and Sefa’s terror of execution alleviated by Gaius’s gestures of kindness and promise to advocate for her.

At the same time, a general theme of misunderstanding surfaces around Merlin’s obsession with Mordred. Arthur thinks the answer to “How did we get here?” is Merlin reaching for the rabbits, while Merlin believes it’s letting Mordred live; Ruadan thinks Merlin is staring at the food rather than Mordred; even Mordred thinks Merlin fears him because he can reveal Merlin’s magic.

The initial connections foreshadow and build to larger and less expected alliances: Guinevere trying to save Sefa despite appearances; Ruadan for once putting his daughter before his cause; Merlin and the Diarmar recognizing each other; and most dramatically, Mordred choosing Arthur over Morgana.

At the same time, we find tragic misunderstandings and the failure of expected alliances, as when Mordred turns on Morgana, or when Merlin and Aithusa cannot communicate.

2. Unexpected depth for minor characters. Despite being both villains and minor characters with clear plot function, both Sefa and Ruadan are surprisingly rounded. Ruadan does in fact care about his daughter, though his obsession has led him to use and abandon her in ways not unlike Uther himself.

Meanwhile Sefa’s desperate need to please her dad has compromised her morally and endangered her life; her line “it was the only thing he wanted from me” is terribly sad, not only for what it says about their relationship, but for the realization it suggests the not-terribly self-aware Sefa has had in prison.

While Ruadan redeems himself by rescuing Sefa, the same dynamics play out even in his death scene. Sefa seems to feel he has betrayed her by putting his cause first yet again, when she realizes the water is for a message to Morgana rather than to cure himself.

3. Reason #1038 Guinevere makes a great queen. The revelation that Guinevere is quietly waging war through Sefa’s imprisonment is an excellent twist that shows how adept Gwen is at planning, and navigating the public/private divide that defines royal life.

(Even minor scenes underline Guinevere’s excellence as queen; unlike Arthur, who often appears hunting, feasting or at other leisure activities, we always seen her working, as when the late-night jailbreak finds her doing official paperwork.)

Functioning under the Unspoken Plan Guarantee, her plan is a bit vague and confusing to the viewer, though I suppose the point was to generate suspense. But ultimately it appears to go off without a hitch, on both counts: Ruadan is not only lured away from Morgana but killed, and Sefa escapes. Both Guinevere’s investment in sparing Sefa and her deep faith in father-daughter love provide characterization as well as a plot points.

But the most interesting thing? Gwen doesn’t tell Gaius about her plan.

4. Interesting tensions between Gwen and Gaius. Now, she says that she couldn’t tell anyone, for fear of additional spies—perfectly reasonable, given that Ruadan finds out about Sefa’s sentence—but Leon clearly knows. Elyan apparently does too—why else is he looking in the wrong direction on his way to the dungeon?—and even more telling, the knight holding Sefa lets her go as soon as Ruadan is fatally wounded.

But Gaius doesn’t know, which shows a measure of suspicion on the part of the extremely cautious Guinevere, who knows (correctly) that Gaius has magical knowledge and sympathies toward magic-users. She may remember that he kept Morgana’s magic secret.

And she’s right that he harbors sympathies for Sefa: He offers her a drug to ease her execution (an ironic commentary on Gaius’s sympathetic but inadequate approach to Morgana)—and argues privately for her reprieve. The idea that Gwen doesn’t let Gaius, to whom she is so close, into her confidence until pressed, is quite intriguing.

5. An examination of magical policy. Then we have that curious autopsy scene in which Gaius denies the extent of his magical knowledge, Guinevere calls him on it (with that marvelous “please”), and Gaius explains that the outlawing of magic has generated enemies for Arthur. Afterward, Guinevere looks notably pensive.

Thus far the ultimate point of the entire Sefa plot, unless and until Sefa actually returns, is to demonstrate Gwen’s queenly competence and then lead to her having a conversation with Gaius about the pitfalls of outlawing magic.

Until signaled otherwise, I’m going to assume this plot aimed to sow a seed of doubt in Guinevere about the current policy. Which is actually the largest step toward revising the Camelot stance on sorcery (as opposed to druidry) we’ve seen since the cut scene in which Arthur and Guinevere discussed it in “The Wicked Day.”

Of course, another purpose is to introduce the prophecy that a druid will kill Arthur (which is apparently a radical revision of Kilgharrah’s claim that Mordred would in series 1) and the larger theme of magic v. Camelot. Hence the fact that this plotline is resolved so early in the episode, with the Mordred plot still unfolding—but after we learn that Mordred still identifies as a druid, despite having lost his people to Arthur’s attack in “The Nightmare Begins.”

6. The ambivalent portrait of Mordred. After the Year of the Smirk and the watchable but relatively flat Agravaine, I was expecting some moustache-twirling from Mordred, and was pleasantly surprising by the his equivocal presentation.

On the one hand, we have all of Merlin’s reasons to mistrust Mordred and then some. The adult Mordred is working as a slaver, capturing men for the mines of Ismere—a massive moral failing. (Throughout the narrative is incurious about the slaves who don’t happen to have Camelot citizenship.) He joins Morgana despite her bloodthirsty reputation, and then stabs a woman who trusts him, and to whom he arguably owes his life as much as to Arthur, in the back.

On the other hand, he seems to adhere to his own moral code, and places enormous weight on the debt he owes Arthur. He advocates for the enslaved men with Ragnor, then smuggles food to Arthur and Merlin. Moreover, in the initial capture scene, his method of persuading Ragnor not to kill the two suggests that Mordred is quite adept at “managing up” his boss, and that he might often manipulate Ragnor for the benefit of their victims.

And Mordred doesn’t seeks Morgana out, even after he’s in her own castle. She makes the first, tentative move, and his forthright confession that they had captured Arthur but let him escape shows both honesty and respect that (as he quickly learns) are wasted on his hostess.

Finally, Mordred seems completely sincere in his promise to keep Merlin’s secret, and seems to feel an instinctive need, very parallel to Merlin’s, to protect other magic-users, at least with silence. In fact, the most important thing we learn about his life since he disappeared from Alvarr’s camp and his reappearance is how harrowing his experience as a magic-user has been. Like Merlin, he seems to have internalized an ethos of extreme caution.

That attitude explains his behavior with Ragnor, and even Morgana, whom he knows a lot about via word of mouth but hasn’t yet approached. (How else does he know what she’s looking for in Ismere?) It also casts his final decision to choose Arthur over her in relief—it’s a bold choice for a cautious man to make.

My only fear about Mordred is that so far the narrative leans heavily on withholding information about him to generate suspense, which works now but could get old fast, especially if the direction continues to have him look blank and unreadable as often as Morgana smirked in a previous series. But this is a very promising start.

7. Morgana’s arc. Within the episode Morgana has five fabulous scenes that build a cohesive arc, beginning with the nightmare/flashback that reveals her imprisonment with Aithusa. Her tender, tearful scene with the dragon not only gives her a sorely missed layer of depth, but an actual reciprocal relationship.

Moreover, the sight of the mutilated Aithusa, whom we last saw young and possessed of healing magic, is deeply affecting, and provides a moment of sympathy for the two of them. It’s also a clever re-purposing of the white dragon who was the symbol of the king who murdered the previous Pendragon in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s version fo the legends.

Finally, that opening scene not only teases the audience with a number of questions about Morgana and Aithusa’s shared past, but firmly establishes Morgana’s emotional state. She seems so miserably unhappy. I particularly liked her voice breaking on “Camelot will be ours”; it shows the ambition she clings to as an empty and hollow dream.

That idea that Morgana is channeling her misery into a single-minded focus carries us through to her second scene, in which news of Sefa’s imprisonment briefly penetrates her shell of purpose. Morgana openly acknowledges Ruadan’s loss—quite the contrast with her treatment of Agravaine.

Perhaps her own imprisonment makes the idea more disturbing to her; perhaps her bond with Aithusa gives her more sympathy for seeing harm come to a child. But though visibly shaken, Morgana is quickly all business, and her main goal is to re-focus Ruadan on the cause.

This is deliberate, of course: Morgana is threatened by Ruadan’s feelings for her daughter, not simply because she can’t afford her lieutenant to be distracted, but because it raises the spectre of her own father’s abandonment. Consciously or not, she needs Ruadan to act like Uther did, because the idea of an alternative model of fatherhood is too painful. More and more Morgana’s words about the cause of magic-users seem like thin ice over her own psychological wounds.

Which is why despite Morgana’s apparent competence in the latter, these two scenes are such excellent lead-ups to the dinner in which Morgana reveals herself to Mordred as truly unhinged. We’ve already seen the depth of her damage, and the way she translates it into her hatred of Arthur; when she unwisely looses control of her façade and lashes out at one of her few allies, she not only alienates Mordred, but warns him that he too may fall victim to her rage.

Ironically, Morgana, who was so once adept at modulating her surface behavior to manipulate those around her, now drives potential allies away by revealing too much.

The last scene of the wounded Morgana limping through the snow with Aithusa serves more than simply to remind us that she’s still out there; all that we’ve seen shows that Morgana grows more dangerous as she grows more desperate, so her current dire straits bode ill for our heroes.

But first, her confrontation with Arthur in the mines (which deserves a number all to itself) is both a continuing of her dinnertime rant and a fantastic exploration of all three characters present.

8. Morgana v. Arthur Redux. The sibling confrontation here recalls their meeting in the series 4 finale—Morgana’s contradictory urges to disavow Uther and yet use him as a model are right at the surface, and Arthur is still trying to understand—but the differences are interesting.

Morgana is no longer shaken by the memory of her once-close bond with Arthur, or apt to justify her position; she’s in full-on psycho-revenge-torture-gloating mode. The blocking for the scene reverses the equality with which they met in the Camelot throne room.

Meanwhile Arthur maintains his calm and confidence even in his disastrous circumstances, intent on his loyalty to his knights. And when he recalls Morgana’s childhood self, he seems not just trying to make sense of their diverging paths, but actively trying to reach her.

Which is why he wins the confrontation. While neither sibling realizes that they are battling for Mordred’s loyalties, Arthur’s attempts to find entente with Morgana hit Mordred hard.

The difference between his and Morgana’s reactions to “I had to free my men” are particularly telling. Mordred responds to the idea of loyalty and brotherhood that Arthur has been describing and acting on for both episodes, and Arthur’s  reference to Morgana’s childhood kindness points out the difference between the young woman who saved his life as a child and the cruel ranter before him.

Mordred’s explanation to Merlin for his change in loyalties later: “The love that binds us is more important than the power that we wield” is an excellent summary of the entire scene, and a fascinating insight into our new character.

9. Merlin v. Mordred. But at the same time, it’s an implicit rebuke to Merlin, who has just dwelled on Mordred’s secret magic in masterly feat of passive aggression: “If Arthur knew you had magic things would be quite different.”

While Merlin can hardly reveal Mordred’s magic without giving away his own, this near-threat highlights his resentment of Mordred getting what he doesn’t have. The fact that Mordred has saved Arthur and been publically recognized for it rankles Merlin in a way others who followed that pattern did not, precisely because Mordred too has magic and a secret destiny. Mordred becomes Merlin’s might-have-been, even as Merlin must keep to the shadows.

And even in the caves, on the verge of saving Arthur, Mordred still draws his sword to attack Merlin and pointedly leaves him to die while rescuing Arthur. Mordred’s change in loyalties is very clearly centered in Arthur, and the mistrust between him and Merlin remains strong.

I do wonder, however, if Merlin’s presence at Arthur’s side was another part of Mordred’s calcuation in becoming a knight of Camelot; he may well read Merlin’s position as an indication that a magician can survive easily under Arthur’s nose, and he’s not wrong.

10. Aithusa. Speaking of miscommunications and failed alliances, the scene between Merlin and Aithusa was heart-wrenching. It was also a reminder that Merlin, whose human relationships (to put it mildly) have stalled, has his closest and most meaningful bonds with other magical creatures.

The look of pure joy on his face when he realizes there is a dragon in the caves—before Arthur drags him away—shows Merlin more alive than we’ve seen him in ages. So when Aithusa not only attacks him, but then reveals herself to be broken and mute, his devastation and frustation is more powerful. The loss of what might have been—to say nothing of the bright new day Aithusa symbolized—is haunting.

And note that Aithusa won’t leave Merlin until commanded—though whether because she too is interested in Merlin or because her loyalty to Morgana demands that she continue hunting down the invaders is left up in the air.

11. Magical creature bonding. The appearance of the Diamair in 5x01 was one of the most jaw-dropping moments of cognitive dissonance in the show so far. It beat anything in the troll episodes.

But just when I thought the character was yet another Magical Negro, the show gave her unexpected depth by allowing her to speak about the loss of her people, and to recognize Merlin in that wonderful wordless scene. (And if you’re going to use the Last of the Mohicans trope, you damn well better cast an actor of color.)

I also appreciated her gently reprimanding Gwaine for thinking kindness was only a human attribute, and the quiet sense that he’s learned the lesson when he vows to protect her later.

(One caveat: I realize this is a minority opinion, but as happy as I am to see Gwaine get screen-time, I’d rather have seen character exploration or development for arguably our most psychologically complex knight than a bunch of men wandering around shirtless in temperatures below the dew point.

The Diarmair hints that she knows something about Gwaine’s character or future that makes him worthy of help, but the reference is so vague it might only be that he’s a good guy. Given that traditionally Gwaine bears a lot of responsibility for Camelot’s fall, I wish there had been a more solid hint about his role this series.)

And while I think the enlarged cone head as a symbol of wisdom didn’t entirely succeed, I very much appreciated the tweak at the end that the Diamair, possessed of all knowledge, knew all along that Morgana would never find her.

And the best scene of all was Merlin expressing sympathy for the Diamair’s burden of knowledge. Beyond the compassion and recognition of the Diamair’s complex position, it shows Merlin has matured under the strain of his vision, and is reflecting both on the pain it caused him and how his fears misled him.

12. Arthur’s Bane. Of course, the Diamair’s big reveal was that not Mordred, but Arthur himself is Arthur’s bane….which is completely awesome.

This piece of knowledge complicates the “druid will kill Arthur” prophecy we heard earlier. It begs the question, if Mordred is honorable and Arthur is his own bane, will the events of Merlin’s battlefield vision occur because Arthur is in the wrong? It’s possible, as interpretations with any degree of sympathy for Mordred usually wind up critiquing Arthur, whether gently or harshly.

And the show has set up a number of possibilities for that scenario to play out, with Mordred becoming a righteous leader for those with magic being perhaps the most obvious. They could in fact make him exactly what Morgana has never been: an oppositional force motivated by the injustice of magic suppression.

But no matter how the story plays out, the news is a shock for Merlin. I love the slowly dawning horror on his face, as he realizeds that he can never protect Arthur from himself.

Lingering questions. Who on earth was able to imprison and torture a powerful sorceress and a dragon, even if the first was weak and the latter immature? Why can’t Aithusa talk?

Will Guinevere get another servant and dramatically increase the number of female characters with lines? How will she and Mordred—who have major legendary baggage, and haven’t met since she helped Morgana protect him as a child—interact? Did she ever know he had magic?

Will Merlin’s resentment and suspicions of Mordred turn out to be a greater danger than Mordred himself? Is Merlin ever going to have a relationship with a human being as close as what he feels for magical creatures? 

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Thank you for posting this !
I found the little moments between characters very moving and, as you pointed out, unexpected. The characterization has greatly improved.
You have such good points about misunderstandings and hidden character depths. I think that Merlin (the character) is a catalyst for these plots. He often fails to see what other characters feel and acts as if it doesn't really matter (I liked your post about him and Morgana's ignorance about the other's thought process, it was surprising to realize to which extent this is a problem). Merlin always spots the out-of-character/traitor antics thanks to his job, opinions, and knowledge of how others act. He doesn't seem to really have an optimal knowledge of their inner workings, even when familiarity should be helpful (Arthur, Morgana and Gaius still surprised him after years, and he thought Gwen would like to see Uther be victim of injustice for a change), unless they are in the same situation, as servants or magicians, in which case he bonds with them over their common suffering.
I think this may go hand in hand with the isolation you commented upon, and his increasing focus on the big picture over individuals. It is such a nice contrast with Guinevere, who wasn't as influential as him, nor as actively manipulative as Morgana, but has a more polished and useful knowledge and understanding of people. Maybe the show will finally call Merlin out for his sacrifice mentality by proving him wrong with Mordred, and make him reflect about how the people he is ready to cast away are important to Camelot's future, as they could have done with Morgana.
Speaking of her, you are not the only one to rejoice over the fact that the Smirk Year (I love this phrase, and from no on, this is how I will refer to series 3, if you don't mind) is officially over. Series 4 was strangely inconsistent about this.
I really liked Arthur's behavior during the confrontation. I found him so mature and compassionate. He is close from the end of his arc about growing up. I can't wait to see more about this.
Would you like to see more of Sefa ? She is such an interesting parralel to both Gwen and Morgana, and I wish they would have played on that more. Her arrival and Mordred's somehow scream "New generation coming !" and I would love to have them carry the main characters's legacy, or attempt to destroy it.
I won't spoil you anything about the addition of characters of women in the show, but there is certainly a lot of scenes between women after a certain point. I hope to see your new reviews as soon as you will upload these.

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