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5x03 The Death Song of Uther Pendragon
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One of the benefits of falling so far behind in fandom is that I was warned ahead of time that it was a terrible episode. But as I have a pretty extensive imagination for terribility, I was pleasantly surprised to discover it was nowhere near as bad as I had feared.

The Case of the Literalization of Metaphor. Of course, it’s still a hard episode to discuss, as its main points have been made with a sledgehammer. “Arthur needs to lay Uther’s ghost to rest” could have served as a summary for 85% of series 4, but it’s hard to even comment on the concept here, so loudly has it been shouted into the metaphorical sky. What more can possibly be said?

Fortunately there are a few other metaphors. The Orpheus-and-Eurydice reversal, the idea that looking back at the dead drags them into the land of the living, is a nice touch despite its obvious symbolism. (Among other things, it raises the question of whether “I will always love you, Arthur” was in fact a trick to get Arthur to look back and allow Uther to escape. Particularly since the dead Uther twice avers that the kingdom is more important than any love.)

I also liked Uther’s ghost deliberately herding Guinevere into the kitchen and locking her in—beyond being a truly scary scene, it’s neat commentary on where Uther thinks she belongs, even before he starts the fire that recalls his previous attempts to burn her at the stake. Likewise, Arthur and Uther argue about Guinevere where they always have, in the throne room, and the location emphasizes the idea of them being stuck in a cycle that needs to end.

The departed. I also loved the absence of Morgana of this episode—a true rarity for me. But beyond the idea that her disappearance works at this point in the arc, omitting her allows Uther to step into her role as chief villain.

From series 2 Morgana’s villainy has always made Uther look softer and less dangerous in comparison. To reaffirm the dead king’s evil is an interesting and deliberate choice here, and there’s no way the show could have included Morgana in its current schema without disrupting it. (Also, given how thoroughly Uther applied denial to his relationship with Morgana and the idea that she posed a threat, it’s in character that he never brings her up.)

Furthermore, Morgana’s absence also allows Arthur to take on her traditional villainous role of unleashing the evil that will haunt the kingdom. There’s an obvious parallel between his conduct here and Sefa’s; both do great harm for love of their fathers and are in denial about their dads’ aims leading directly to the deaths of others—despite the fact that any reasonable person could deduce the same.

There was a moment in which I wondered if Morgana would be the one to misue the horn, but of course, no matter how tortured and complicated her relationship with her father, she would never consciously try to bring him back. So instead we return to the Arthur of “The Labyrinth of Gedref,” who does a selfish thing that endangers the kingdom and then worsens the situation with his denial.

(One interesting difference: here, Arthur knows it’s a bad idea before he does it—hence his decision not to tell Guinevere, who will sensibly object, and the extended scene in which he’s so ashamed that he hides the horn under the apple bowl.)

That denial is important, because just as Arthur disavowing magic except for his father parallels Uther’s “no magic except to have and protect my kids” hypocrisy, so does his denial that he’s created a dangerous situation make him most like Uther.

And in fact the best moment of the often-repetitive Merlin/Arthur scenes here comes when Merlin cries bullshit on Arthur’s usual claim about always striving for his dad’s respect. Arthur, it seems, leans heavily on the delusion that his desires to make his father proud and to be the best possible king are not mutually exclusive, and that if his father had only known what Arthur does, he would have acted the same way.

But as Merlin says, Arthur has in fact repeatedly chosen the right way over Uther’s way, and this is the first time we’ve ever seen anyone lay it out quite so bluntly to Arthur.

Unofficial advising. And there was a curious openness to Arthur and Merlin’s relationship here. Coming after “Arthur’s Bane,” in which Merlin seemed to be keeping his distance from Arthur and reached out to him only slowly and tentatively, it was surprising to see.

But of course (OBVIOUS METAPHOR ALERT!) it takes two of them to defeat Uther. And Merlin’s coming out to Uther is arguably just as important as Arthur disavowing Uther (again); it’s certainly a reminder that Merlin too has unresolved feelings about Uther’s death.

That very lack of resolution is initially what leads him to go along with Arthur’s plan. The conversation in which Arthur asks whether Merlin would seek to speak with his own father deliberately recalls a similar one in “The Wicked Day,” and works on a couple of levels.

First, it shows Arthur’s unwillingness to hear contrary advice, as he knows from history that Merlin will agree with him on this point. But from Merlin’s perspective, the conversation being recalled is one in which he manipulated Arthur into using magic, so he can hardly object to the same action now. His previous words trap him, as does the moral sense that he saddled Arthur with baggage about Uther’s death.

So Merlin’s huge moment of emotional catharsis with Uther plays out as a version of confrontation Merlin wanted to have with Arthur had his plan actually worked in “The Wicked Day.” And (thanks to some excellent acting choices by Colin Morgan), we get to see that Merlin is actually as powerfully (if differently) haunted by Uther as Arthur is.

Uther loomed as a danger over a formative period of Merlin’s life, and despite the confidence with which he first approaches in his comfortable role of protecting Arthur, he’s genuinely rattled by the dead king’s hatred. In fact, he can’t even confess his sorcery verbally, only through action, and lets Uther name the truth first.

Like much else in the episode the scene is repetitive, but I can forgive that, because the slight whine of defensiveness in “I was born with it” is interesting, and suggests a discomfort with and defensiveness about his powers that Merlin rarely shows. And line about there being magic in the heart of Camelot even in his reign is on point, and incredibly revealing of what Merlin sees as his role in this new kingdom.

Moreover the point that Uther made Merlin Arthur’s servant—that he had a role in orchestrating the Camelot of today, albeit not the one he wanted—is an excellent and rarely acknowledge truth. It also reinforces the symbol of the falling candelabra, which recalls the method Merlin used to take out Mary Collins, in the scene that led to Uther making him Arthur’s servant. Uther has become exactly what he once feared, a magical force intent on killing his son.

The faded dead. This show generally opts for the ancient Greek idea of the afterlife, in which that the dead are flattened versions of the living, lesser echoes of who they once were who have lost much of their complexity but retained old grudges and a lust for life.

The vision of Ygrain that Morgause conjured up—whose reality is further confirmed by the fact that Morgause, as a high priestess, was trained to perform the spell Arthur muffs here—was bitter over what she saw as the betrayal of one close to her.

Her grudge was much softened by her love of Arthur and what seemed a basically sweet personality, but Ygraine clearly wanted to live longer, to see her son grow, and had no forgiveness for Uther, who (apparently unintentionally) caused her death. (We also have no idea whether she loved Uther, who did after all cheat on her as well as indirectly kill, as much as he did her. But her “Your father betrayed me” is suggestive.)

The lack of affection in Uther’s reception of Arthur is all the more striking given how much Ygraine showed him in their single meeting, and might reasonably have led Arthur to expect more warmth.

And the other images we’ve seen of the dead in Merlin—shade!Lancelot and the dorocha being more extreme examples—also seem to have replaced most of the earthly personalities with unreasoning animus. The only dead person positively depicted—and who also seemed to have far greater knowledge than she did in life, unlike Uther or Ygraine—was Frida. She and Ygraine, who pointedly did not cross over to the land of the living, are the only well-intentioned dead we’ve seen.

But I still don’t believe for an instant that even Vampire!Uther would kill Arthur.

The Case of the Missing Cast. Another moment I really loved was the minor one of the feast, in which we see the sweet but worried interactions between Guinevere and Arthur as well as an intriguing moment with Elyan and Mordred.

I particularly liked Guinevere’s acute awareness of Arthur’s mental state and the cute and casual kiss between them. But given that Guinevere’s function within the narrative was largely to be fridged—Uther’s attack on her, the third, is the one that finally motivates Arthur to take action—I really felt the absence of a follow-up scene that would resolve the distance between the royal spouses created by Arthur’s inability to let go of his father.

Unfortunately, we never see Arthur interact after the climax with either Guinevere or Percival, and at the very least he owes them both a large apology for putting them in danger, and a second one to Guinevere for deliberately hiding his plans from her. The absence of such scenes was profoundly disappointing.

Likewise, I was disappointed that we didn’t get more Mordred in this episode—where we might have reasonably expected the two powerful undercover sorcerors to at least exchange notes on the supernatural happenings, and perhaps feel each other’s responses out. But I imagine Mordred will get more screen time soon.

The final tag scene was one of the weakest moments in the show, not only because of the usual unfunny slapstick between Arthur and Merlin, but because the black leather gloves used for what was presumably supposed to be comic effect are artefacts symbolic of Uther and thus muddled the entire point of the episode.

Moreover, the idea of Arthur casting off Uther’s influence actually doesn’t play out best in the context of his relationship with Merlin, but in the public sphere or with the knights and Guinevere. I personally thought the final scene would have most appropriately been a public one reinforcing Arthur’s kingly qualities, and the Round Table that Uther hates so much.

Remaining mysteries. So help me here: Where do we stand on the whole magical-use policy? Is Arthur using the horn, combined with the necessity of more forcefully rejecting all his father stood for, a move toward accepting magic? Or is it just another example of Arthur acting momentarily like dad before coming to his senses and realizing that magic is indeed dangerous and dumb to meddle with?

The witch-burning scene seems to imply that sorcery is still illegal and a capital crime, but that Arthur believes due process must be respected (which he has good cause to doubt here) and that a sick woman should be allowed to die in peace rather than tortured. At least for now, the answer is inconclusive.

Even more intriguing is the role of Gaius, who is increasingly frank about his magical past and even brews up a potion. This too could be a move toward accepting magic—or just a sign that Arthur is smarter than Uther and doesn’t refuse to use sorcery to fight sorcery.

But to my great pleasure, this episode furthers my theory that Gaius is slowly, subtly, but quite actively working to undermine the ban on magic by pointing out its absurdities to Arthur and Guinevere at every opportunity. He is emphatic about his experience with sorcery before the great purge, and Arthur reacts visibly (if inconclusively) to the pointed reminder that one of his key advisors was a sorcerer.

Whether Gaius’s plan will work is another question; the way this season is going, I’m wondering if Arthur is perhaps never going to accept magic at all, and that will be the flaw that causes his downfall at Mordred’s hands. Which is not necessarily the story I’d like to see, but could provide excellent drama.

And this episode does use a few of Uther’s angry lines as foreshadowing—particular his allegations that peace will not last because of Arthur’s lack of strength and tendency to trust others. Coming from dead murderous Uther this advice is highly suspect, but calculated to make us in the audience think twice.

Is Arthur’s flaw that he trusts too easily, or that he’s not actually taking effective action to alleviate the suffering of the anti-magic laws? Is he too like Uther or not enough? In what sense, beyond a tendency to meddle with the wrong magic, is Arthur his own bane?

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This episode disappointed as a writer and a storyteller more than anything else. Uther was emotionally abusive to Arthur, to both his children and the thing about emotional abuse is that it can be as difficult to overcome as any other form of abuse. Arthur has no other family that could have cared for him as in child in that type of situation the emotionally abused child divorces themselves from the natural feelings of anger and resentment. By the time Arthur reaches adulthood he's completely forgotten that he was ever angry at Uther in the first place, he's never realized that Uther father was a bad father.

As as adult Arthur has surrounded himself with a new family that allows him to feel good about himself, feel loved, cared for and supported, Gwen, Merlin, Elyan and the main knights Gwaine, Leon and Percival. I was disappointed that the new family wasn't given an opportunity to show its strength. Also there was an old Camelot vs new Camelot element to this story. I think Gwen more so than anyone embodies new Camelot so her disappearance from the story, her not being central to defeating old Camelot was a waste of pretty much everything the show has built over the last four years.

Edited at 2012-11-28 03:31 pm (UTC)

Merlin won't air until the spring in Canada. Reading your reviews is a fun way to let the anticipation build.

Season 5 sounds great!

I like your point about Uther being a flatened version of himself. The Arthur/Sefa paralel is nice too. This is all very interesting, as always, but I cannot wait for your next few reviews, and particularly 5x06 !

Edited at 2012-12-08 10:26 pm (UTC)

I miss your reviews ! Anyway, they are all great !

While many of its points were rather excessively blunt, I did enjoy the wordless and excellently acted little character moments of Gwen when menaced-some of my favourite kinds of writing are when they take a plot point and make some space to embroider the response with character details. That she goes back to close the shutter, but is wisely wary when approaching it the second time. That she listens to her instincts but is also practical enough not to fall prey to the movie magic of 'run in the middle of an open space' and instead clung to the walls. I have to admit I loled a little at the blatant cleavage shots. Not that I don't appreciate them-thy are fantastic-but nonetheless. OH, TV.

I've just finished reading all your Merlin entries. Lots of points I'd never noticed, many that got a "Yes, yes, yes exactly!" out of me and some "What?? No!" every now and then. Thank you so much for writing them, I can't imagine how much time and effort they must've taken. Ahhh if only you hadn't stopped here! Maybe then I would have finally finished watching season 5 (I just can't get past the Disir episode) to see everything you say in action :D

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