The Year Jump: Potentially controversial, the year jump worked because while watching everyone settle into place might have been entertaining, we can absorb the net effect with the character interactions. Arthur is far more mature with the weight of Regent on his shoulders. Uther is completely addled but still holds his son's heart – second only to Gwen. The kingdom is clearly doing well, as suggested by the feast. We learn a lot by the everyday scenes and the easy interactions of the key players.
The Knights and the Boys (Arthur/Merlin) – What a joy to watch them interact. These guys are the favored few but clearly earn their keep. The pranks, the camaraderie, the acts of bravery are all on display. No two are paired up constantly with the exception of Lancelot and Merlin but that pairing is perfect. Lancelot clearly has Merlin's back and it's necessary as Arthur is tied up with affairs of state. Although the Merlin/Arthur relationship is warm and still the center of the show, it's also unambiguous that there is some distance as Agravaine is omni-present at Arthur's side and the Regent is in constant demand.
Merlin – The real story here is the lack of a story. Yes he has moved up to speech writing but Merlin is steady state as the non-warrior. He's content with his friends and Arthur's reign. While always brave, it seemed like Merlin felt he was "done" as he told Gauis of his plans to make the final sacrifice to save Arthur. Maybe it was his feeling powerless due to his loss of magic in the face of the Dorocha, maybe he's feeling like life in Camelot is on the right track, or maybe he is feeling less useful than he used to be. Since the situation has been on-going for a year, it's unlikely to be resolved that quickly. Although this is a somewhat uncomfortable place for our hero, it's a fairly sophisticated storyline.
The Production – Television doesn't get much better than this. The movie quality 35mm film, the score, the Lord of the Rings-class CGI ruins, and the eye-watering locations make Merlin must-see TV.
Morgana – The transformation from last year is astounding. Gone is Smirkaga, in her place is a far more subtle villain. Her plot is intriguing. Katie McGrath showed both her vulnerable side as she mourned Morgause and her bitterness when talking with Agravaine. If the script and performance continue along this path, Series 4 will be much better off than last year.
Tearing the Veil – The results of tearing the veil were truly frightening and the Caileach was intriguing. But why tear the veil in the first place? Did Morgause know that Morgana would have no defense? The motivation to simply cause mass murder is baffling. Uther is beyond hurting at this point so the target must have been Arthur. Perhaps Part 2 will explain this logic gap. If not, while the effects were terrifying the whole plot is undermined by the lack of understandable motivation.
The Spotlight Moments – Each of the characters was given a spotlight moment. Percival and the kids and Merlin dashing around with Arthur's shirt are two examples. While each scene endeared us to the characters and provided backstory, the spotlight moments didn't really drive the plot forward. It was almost like having the first episode of a show repeated versus the start of the fourth year. It disrupted the tempo of the story. An acceptable penalty in order to get the character moments so long as this is not repeated in future episodes.
Uther – The pathos of the proud King now a broken man was well played by Anthony Head. With just two lines, we see the power of Uther's relationship with Arthur and his desperation. But Anthony Head with his two tiny scenes made us mourn his reduced screen time. Yes, it was time for Arthur to come into his own but in that one scene we are reminded that the Arthur/Uther story is not yet complete. So long as this is eventually paid off, the limited screen time will work. If Uther just fades away then the audience will have been robbed of one of the best pairings of the show.
What Didn't Work:
Agravaine – Between the black clothing, coming to the foreground out of the shadows, and a general smarmy attitude - Agravaine seems a Pantomime-class villain. The producers must be counting on the tea time crowd shouting boo's at the TV screen. The Uncle Scar wanna-be risks becoming tiresome if he doesn't show real teeth soon. Nathanial Parker has the acting talent to pull off far more complex characters so the writers take the hit for this particular miss.
Overall grade 9.0. This was an excellent start due to the lush production, epic story, superb acting and detailed characterization. This is a darker, smarter "Merlin" brimming with potential.