Hey! I’m writing essays again! (or meta if you prefer)
I am going to frame this analysis of Season 4 in a (slightly critical) review of the final episode of season 4 because, like the season enders of many shows, I went into it with a set of expectations built on my own perceptions of the season as a whole (which I enjoyed a great deal), and with some clearly-defined preferences that have developed from watching the entire four seasons through twice now.
• Okay, just to start out with, I found the titular sword-in-the-stone sequence a little lame, although less in concept than execution. I suppose, if I’d written the episode, I would have had it play out a little different. The sword has been stuck there for at least two years at this point, having last been used in the season 3 finale. So it’s possible that peasants and knights both have run across it in the forest and speculated about why it was there and tried to pull the sword out. Merlin could have used that to build up the sword’s mystique for Arthur. The way it was written, the entire burden of making pulling out the sword the sign of the True King was put entirely on Merlin’s little tale, which it was quite obvious Arthur wasn’t entirely buying.
But what if they’d stumbled upon the stone while Arthur was still in his peasant garb, and around it stood some burly locals who didn’t recognize Arthur on sight, trying to pull the sword out (and failing miserably)? The peasants could then tell Arthur themselves how no man could free it, not even a few worthy knights of Camelot who’d tried. Then Merlin could spin his tale of the first king of Camelot. At which point, Arthur could try and voila, prove he is the True King.
Alternatively, the writers could have had a few of those worthy knights attempting to pull the sword out when Arthur and Merlin happened along, just to make the ability to pull it out a Big Deal. It doesn’t take much to make the scene a little less contrived.
Also, it would have been cool if Merlin had enchanted it when he put it in there so that even if he wasn’t around at the time Arthur found it, only Arthur could release it.
• I found the demise of Isolde really unnecessary. I like that she died in battle performing a heroic deed of her own free will and receiving a mortal wound any warrior might receive, but let’s face it: she was fridged so that Arthur and Guinevere could realize the precious importance of Twu Wuv. And they’d only forgotten the importance of it because Gwen’s agency was stripped from her so she’d “cheat” on Arthur. So far, this show is batting zero with its Dead-or-Evil Tough Girl Cliche’.
• I’m not sure yet how I feel about the twist-ending appearance of Aithusa, because we are given so little to go on. What appears to have happened is that Morgana was mortally wounded and transported into the forest by who knows what means, at which point she runs into Aithusa, who performs a healing spell.
The previous times we saw a dragon do that wavy-breath thing on a human, it was Kilgharrah giving Merlin knowledge, specifically spells. We also know that Kilgharrah once healed Merlin’s wounds with magic, but we didn’t see the actual act of healing. So it’s possible Morgana wasn’t mortally wounded, and Aithusa’s magic was to give her knowledge, rather than healing.
We also don’t know precisely why Aithusa appears at that moment, or on whose motives s/he appeared. Heck, for all we know, Merlin sent him/her there, although I doubt that seriously. But it’s possible if Aithusa gave Morgana knowledge that will lead her astray. The other possibilities are that (1) it’s Mordred’s doing–(a) he sent Aithusa there to help, perhaps because (b) he’s another remaining dragon lord, or (2) Aithusa helped Morgana of its own free will, or (3) Kilgharrah sent Aithusa there, for whatever motives Kilgharrah has.
The point being, it’s not entirely clear Aithusa is up to no good, although we have plenty of reason to think s/he is.
I was frankly surprised at the ending to episode 4.4, Aithusa. The episode itself was one of the highlights of the season for me, because Merlin gets the opportunity to Get His DragonLord On. It’s the one part of his magical heritage that is his alone, and not subsumed to his destiny and service to Arthur. What surprised me was the fact that they played the find-the-dragon-egg adventure entirely without ironic twist, with Kilgharrah heralding the white dragon birth as a good omen for Merlin, Arthur, and Albion. I was warily expecting, at the end of that episode, for Merlin to present the egg to Kilgharrah and for the elder dragon to burn it to a crisp or something, because writers these days always seem to think grayer is better.
And because, let’s face it, I don’t trust the Merlinverse dragons. Kilgharrah is the Trickster of this tale, and everything he says needs to be taken with a grain of salt. He clearly has his own agenda, and we are not entirely privvy to what that is. He starts out in season one as the chained magical creature Uther has wronged, and his motives for wanting to help Merlin help Arthur achieve Albion seem obvious: Uther has chained him, a good!king Arthur will free him.
So he spends most of that season filling Merlin with wondrous stories of Merlin’s destiny, and the coming utopia of Albion that Arthur will rule over where magic is accepted. But the narrative of the season itself clearly casts doubt on Kilgharrah’s motives for saying these things when it becomes clear being freed is his top agenda.
And then, of course, he is freed before Arthur ever becomes king, and the first thing he does is attack Camelot, including giving the prince he’s been rooting for some potentially fatal blasts of his breath. One wonders how committed he really is to Albion.
After the season 2 ender The Last Dragonlord, Kilgharrah becomes bound to Merlin’s will, but that hardly puts Merlin in control of Kilgharrah. Because Kilgharrah has lived a thousand years and Merlin is a twenty-year old (at best) boy. Kilgharrah can, and does repeatedly, manipulate Merlin like a master. In the episode Aithusa, Kilgharrah convinces Merlin that he is duty-bound to birth the baby dragon rather than hide the egg where it won’t be found for another four hundred years (as Gaius suggests). It seems Kilgharrah does this for straightforward reasons–he doesn’t want to be the only one of his kind anymore–but his motives could run deeper than that.
Casting doubt on Kilgharrah makes me uneasy, because Kilgharrah is nearly the singular reason Merlin–and therefore the viewers–have to believe in Merlin’s destiny. Which makes you wonder if he really has that destiny at all, or is being played. In some way, the dragons of the Merlinverse remind me of the Vorlons of Babylon 5, an ancient species playing the younger species like puppets. Granted, there are others–Gauis, the Druids, and the Fisher King–who also espouse a belief that Merlin is the prophesied Emrys, and that Arthur is the prophesied Once and Future King, but where did they hear this prophecy to begin with?
I’m keeping an eye on those dragons.
• I’m not disappointed that Arthur didn’t find out the truth about Merlin. The writers teased us in part 1 of Sword In the Stone with some banter between Merlin and Arthur about Merlin’s apparent inability to keep secrets, but that was false foreshadowing, again, and who trusts it anymore. The plain fact is, Merlin wouldn’t be the charming character he is if he didn’t have to play the half-incompetent fool all the time. If his powers were revealed and allowed, he would be a different character.
We saw a bit of the character he would be in the cave with Agravaine. Now, suddenly, adorable Merlin is seriously formidable Emrys, and though Merlin doesn’t attack them without provocation, he also doesn’t blink an eye, or make a single charming quip after “Hello!”
That said, I really do wish Morgana would have found out the truth. It seemed to me that season 4 was building towards that, with her learning of Emrys in the season opener, and her increasing paranoia of this sorcerer who was nothing but a name to her until her dream of the battle of Camlann. Then, in A Servant of Two Masters, she finally has a confrontation with elderly!Merlin. That was one of the highlights of the season for me because it is the first time Merlin and Morgana have a knock-down drag-out where both are openly sorcerers. Morgana and Merlin have fought before, i.e., their verbal sparing in The Castle of Fyrien, and their direct face-offs in The Tears of Uther Pendragon p. 2 and The Coming of Arthur, p. 2, but in the later cases, Merlin hides his use of magic from her as they battle.
And yet, the battle in A Servant of Two Masters was still Morgana vs. Merlin-in-disguise.
What I really wanted to see in the season 4 finale was young Merlin and Morgana facing off with the powers of both out in the open. And I sort of thought that’s what I’d get the first time I was watching the episode, because I didn’t realize Merlin killed Agravaine in the caves. I was waiting throughout the remainder of the episode for Agravaine to drag himself half-dead to Camelot and tell Morgana that Merlin was Emrys, and so set the stage for an aborted confrontation between them that could then segue into Season 5.
No such luck, but now, for next season, I want My War! Not between brother and sister (although that is a core part of the conflict, and emotionally poignant), but between sorcerer and sorcerer. Despite my dislike of how Morgana was devolved as a character, I have become, for better or worse, a Merlin/Morgana ‘shipper. Not in a sex/romance way, but in a destined!enemies way. Despite their words, they were never friends. The class/gender differences between them prevented that. But they were once comrades-in-arms of a sort, both in aid of Arthur and in Morgana’s awakening as a sorcerer.
And now that they are on opposite sides, Morgana sees Merlin only as a troublesome nuisance, despite how many times she’s had to confront him and not Arthur, and he’s whupped her. It is entirely believable, IMO, that despite their history, Morgana sees Merlin through the lens of class privilege and continues to dismiss him as “only a servant,” and we know that someday, that will be her undoing. Or at least, we assume.
And I really hope that Merlin’s belief that anybody can be good is less naive than Kilgharrah believes, and that there is some sort of Darth Vadar ending for Morgana, but given this show’s track record with women characters, I’m not holding my breath.
What I do anticipate for Season 5: something else I thought might happen in Season 4, and that is an army of sorcerers coming to Arthur’s aid lead by Merlin. When the knights pointed out they were outnumbered by Morgana’s men three to one, I thought that might be how they would even the odds.
They hinted at it all season, with the Druids continuing to aid Merlin when they got the opportunity (e.g., Aithusa), Alator of the Catha discovering Merlin’s identity and swearing his allegiance and that of other sorcerers to Merlin (The Secret Sharer), Gaius assuring Arthur that there are many people in his kingdom that support him in ways he is not yet aware of (The Secret Sharer), Arthur reversing his father’s policy of genocide and persecution of the Druids (A Herald of the New Age), and Arthur openly worrying that “normal men, who can fight” have no hope of defeating a sorcerer as powerful as Morgana (The Sword in the Stone, pt 2).
I suspect that if Merlin hadn’t been renewed for a fifth season, that we might have seen that army of sorcerers in season 4. But it really is a story line for the final season of Merlin, whatever that turns out to be, as is the Merlin-is-Emrys reveal to Arthur.