The Bar Brawl – Yes we've seen the introduction of a loveable rogue in a classic western bar brawl but it worked well for the show. And frankly, while it's a standard TV Trope, it's also probably new for the younger Merlin audience and the gags worked well. Eoin Maken has excellent comic timing and sold the introduction well. Nice moment also when the bar keep Mary takes a shine to Merlin over Arthur.
Contrast between Uther and Arthur – Although Uther can come across as one-note regarding nobles and inordinate pressure on his son to perform, character consistency is sometimes a good approach. Arthur had a nice little showcase of development this episode. Like Prince Hal (Shakespeare's Henry Vth) he knows visiting the local tavern in disguise is a good way to take the measure of the people. He stands up for the locals when a bully arrives and acts honorably to a "commoner" who saved his life. When the Gwaine drinks up a big bar tab, cleaning the army boots IS a just punishment. Finally, he one again shows he knows how to reach his father by giving his word as a knight that Gwaine deserves clemency. Finally, while Uther would have fought to the end to win the melee, Arthur comfortably gives the field to the "mystery" knight who helped him out. It wasn't the "A" plot but Arthur's development is coming along nicely.
Heating up Arthur/Gwen – Arthur's little jealousy fit when Gwen is laughing with Gwaine was a cute moment. In story-time not much has happened in the past year between those two. It's good to remind Arthur that Gwen is a desirable young lady. Gwaine – Our new bad boy has an interesting back story yet to be revealed it would appear. He's clearly older and more world weary than Merlin but really takes a shine to our sweet protagonist very quickly. Merlin seems very naïve compared to Gwaine but he also seems more relaxed than around any of the other characters. It's nice to see. And frankly, the view of Gwaine is easy on the eyes with his chiseled chest and windswept locks. Also nice was how Gwaine was tempted when Merlin suggested he and Arthur fought well together and Gwaine should stick around. A lot of potential left to be explored with this character.
Merlin/Arthur – With the exception of the tiresome tankard to the head routine, the boys interaction was fairly good this week. As the most important relationship on the show, if this is in good shape then the episode fares much better. Arthur shouting a warning to Merlin, Merlin acknowledging he really understands why Arthur is fighting in the melee, and the little shoving match at the end were all nice moments. Conversely, Merlin making a crack about Arthur's intelligence and Arthur throwing things at Merlin really detracts. The Melee – Once again the French stunt horseman provide movie-quality action to the show. The melee was in fact a traditional medieval tournament and was good practice for future wars. The setup of deadly blades disguised as blunt swords was also a nice touch. But the "Arthur is going to get killed in a tournament" is now an annual plot that should be put to rest. Even worse, several of the Uther/Morgana/Gwen reaction scenes were clearly left over film from last year's "The Once and Future Queen". Katie McGrath has a terrible cold and fever during that filming and we see it again in this year's episode. The reused footage took me out of what could have otherwise been a nice action sequence.
What Didn't Work:
The Villains – The two bad guys were about as cardboard as they come. They weren't remotely entertaining and there was never a sense of real menace. Yes, they killed an old man when his back was turned, that hardly makes them a threat. If the villain is not interesting is always undermines the value of the hero's task. It was a hard sell to make these two worthy opponents for our heroes. Overall grade 8. Gwaine is a very nice addition to the recurring cast but the episode did not have any particular standout moments. It was a little too formulaic and run of the mill to get any higher rating and the villains were particularly boring.
Upon Second Review: Because we see our new buddy Gwaine three more times this year, his introduction is appreciated even more. EP4 effectively establish his patterns of behavior and we believe he'd throw his lot in with Merlin in EP8 and with Arthur in EP12/13 without hesitation. Gwaine loves a fight which again lets us know there is more brewing underneath the "devil may care" exterior. He has his own personal growth arc this year and, in context with that arc, EP4 fares a little better as a solid foundational episode. It is Gwaine's introduction that lasts and the rest of the plot for EP4 is just a showcase for the new kid in town.