Arthur's Ascension – Bradley James did an excellent job of showing the impact on Arthur of taking charge. More comfortable with battle than politics, his loyalty to his father and innate understanding of the responsibilities he assumed was evident. We could see him weighing the lives lost versus long term impact on the kingdom. Little moments like steeling himself before putting on his "game face" as he encouraged the knights sold the pressure he was under. Although he made a brave face of it, his appreciation of the support offered by both Gwen and Merlin also showed he needed reassurance. As Merlin said, he made a tough call but it was impressive how he rose to the occasion. His handling of Uther when he was a distraction showed he was back into a comfort zone. Conversely, letting Leon have the battle cry charge and all the credit going to Morgana took away something from this arc. Still, this episode did a good job of showing the difference between warrior and king and that Arthur is preparing but still in development. Merlin/Morgana – Excellent final scenes between these two. Although Morgana often came across as whiny with Morgause and the smirk was overdone, her scenes with Merlin were compelling. Katie McGrath showed just a hint of doubt when Merlin appealed to her to use her magic for good. It was a shame that her rationale for rejecting this was not better explored. The final staredown between the two in the throne room was electric.
The Battle – Nicely played with multiple angles. First the defense of the lower town was given appropriate time to develop. The battle for the Citadel showed Camelot's natural defenses to best advantage. Cendred could not take the Citadel unaided. The choke points and high castle walls were too well defended. Typical battle strategy for an entrenched defense would require five to one odds. Cendred had two to one. The army of the dead was a blatant Pirates of the Caribbean ripoff but made sense – what other inside army would be available to undermine the castle? Overall, good sword fighting, special effects, and a nice diversity of locations.
Merlin/Kilgarrah – A good reunion with a nice setup of how the Dragon will continue to be involved (he will come when called). Nice sly smile on Colin Morgan's face when he explained he woudn't be walking.
Arthur/Merlin – The food gag was much better than the bucket and water for the requisite "insert light-hearted scene" but it was the serious moments that remind us why we love this bromance. For the first time, Merlin showed actual admiration for Arthur's leadership when he made the choice for a siege. He's always acknowledged Arthur's warrior prowess but this was something different. And of course Arthur was uncomfortable receiving actual praise from Merlin. The "wisdom" moment was an episode highlight.
The Old Lion – Uther dragging himself out of bed to run to the front. It's nice that the nobility of Camelot are on the front lines versus watching from a hillside like the villains. Potentially stupid, mind you, as killing the King or the Prince is a major victory for the enemy but it shows a classic leadership style which gives both men referent authority with the knights. It also shows that Uther is not willing to give Arthur the Kingdom just yet as he yells it is still his. The Uther/Arthur dynamic remains one of the best played in the series and it's a little sad that Uther shows potentially some paranoia about Arthur besting him. Anthony Head's ability to show Uther's feet of clay while acting like an old-school king is superb.
Stalemate – The idea that Merlin has to keep quiet about Morgana is obviously required to keep the plot going but the contrivance was a little obvious. Gaius is generally excellent as Merlin's sounding board but he gives a lot of bad advice. It really makes no sense for Merlin to let the castle be in danger. Isn't Merlin clever enough to make Arthur suspicious (if not Uther) about Morgana? Arthur is devoted to Morgana after failing to protect her as he promised last year, but even Arthur has to know that there is a well-place traitor in their midst. Uther's Torture – What is lurking in the dark recesses of Uther's mind is not a pretty site. His guilt and horror at the truly frightening images was palpable. On the other hand, Morgana taking pleasure in torturing Uther was a step too far. What Didn't Work:
Temporal Anomalies – Merlin is gone for two days and Arthur lets it go at "I don't have time for this?" There really was no reason to make his absence for two days either. There was a day wasted in Part 1 with the serkets approaching Merlin but not stinging him until the end of the day. The Dragon rescued him at night. Arthur apparently didn't miss Merlin for the first day but only the second. They should have had the serkets and Dragon rescue take place on the same night he was captured. They also have Merlin running around the castle and Arthur noting that again he is missing. It is a little too much like Clark and Lex in Smallville where Lex starts to notice anomalies about Clark. Stretching that out for 7 years on Smallville was terrible storytelling. If Arthur is going to start to piece thing together then he needs to move along at a faster pace. If the "Merlin goes missing" is not intended to raise Arthur's suspicions then it just makes Arthur look dumb. Another temporal nit: Merlin runs up to Arthur in the throne room like he's going to tell on Morgana. Where was he for the previous several hours while Morgana was recovering and putting on a nice frock? It seemed like too obvious of a "near miss that wasn't really near at all".
Overall grade 9. This was superior TV even with the plotholes, temporal anomalies and the Smirk of Doom. The action sequences, the pressure on Arthur, the tension between Merlin/Morgana were all compelling storytelling.
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Upon Second Review:
Having seen the entire season, this episode stands out as one of the best. It looks like they blew the special effects budget on this episode but it was truly outstanding as a major action piece backed up by compelling drama. One thing to note is this theme of Uther's mental instability. Anthony Head played it so very well in this two-parter and it had a nice bookend with the finale. Reflecting on the news that Morgana is Uther's daughter also allows one to see that she is a borderline mental case. Between torturing Uther in this episode and screaming like a banshee in the finale, it seems like Morgana is a couple slices short of a full loaf. It will be nice if the producers play that angle in Series 4.