Somewhere around episode 9, I found myself saying in surprise, "when did this show get good?" They seem to have figured out that the way to drive plot is not to have someone be an idiot (A Cure for All Ills being the worst example, where Uther who generally lives somewhere between canny and ragingly paranoid is easily manipulated by a random stranger walking into the court), but to realize that they all have secrets, they all are telling lies, they all have competing allegiances, and to play the various forces against each other.
1. The Dragon's Call. Mostly enjoyable for the MST3king opportunities (Me: did that _peasant_ just throw a week's worth of food at Merlin? tersa: these are richest peasants ever! zdashamber: They are throwing tomatoes! That's a new world food!") but in the immense cracky silliness of it, there's enough charm to keep you going.
2. Valiant. The actual plot was kind of cheesy -- you are going to *invoke a magic shield* in front of Uther Pendragon in the land where it is grounds for instant execution? People are watching a fight and fail to *notice* the hissing snakes? -- but the character work around it is pretty good, especially Arthur's stiff despair as he prepares to die rather than see his honor broken.
3. The Mark of Nimueh. Good in some ways; we see why Uther might fear and hate sorcerers so much, which makes his fire and sword obsession with sorcerers more understandable. Frustrating, in to make it work they have Merlin be a bit of an idiot -- "sure, I'll *leave* the glowing magic wom-wom once he's cured! Can't possibly cause any problems!". They do this a lot in the early episodes, and it's only Colin Morgan's charm that really keeps Merlin likeable when he repeatedly gets other people in trouble.
We also start to learn that Morgana is awesomely skilled at pushing people's buttons For Justice!, especially Arthur.
4. The Poisoned Chalice. Dear GOD the slashiness. We thought the first episode was slashy, and then we get to this episode, where Merlin develops a psychic bond (zdashamber: it's like he's Arthur's firelizard or something!), while Arthur risks his life to save him (via a FLOWER), while Merlin leads him out of the dark with his
5. Lancelot. The first episode that was solid all the way through. Okay, fairly lame CGI, but the writing and characterization were good. Merlin's insta-crush on Lancelot was adorable, though once again his failure of foresight and followthrough gets other people in trouble. I.e., if you can make an instacopy, why not put one in the book as well?
6. A Remedy to Cure All Ills. The lowpoint of the series. Not just Uther carrying the idiot ball, but Edwin is practically a panto villain, he's so obvious and one-dimensional. It's possible with a better actor, or better direction, they could have made him less of a cariacture -- they do put in the backstory of watching his parents burn to give him motive -- but he just mostly plays obvious villian.
We do, however, discover that despite his kindness to Merlin, Gaius is a rather weak and not entirely admirable person.
7. Gates of Avalon. This is really where things start to gel. For once, the villains aren't flat cliches. They aren't exactly deep and complex, but they get moments to be loyal and kind to each other,and the fact that they aren't human makes their indifference to Arthur's life understandable.
And the ending is... a bit chilling. Merlin does not hesitate to kill. Unarmed girl? Not even a flicker of doubt, he disintegrates her as efficiently as her father. They make a big deal about Arthur being a fighting machine, trained to kill from birth, but Arthur... Would have hesitated. I think even Uther would have hesitated,if only for a second.
I also like the way that Morgana is so visibly and precisely aware of the the boundaries of her power and influence. And angry at them. She very much wants to save Arthur, she pushes everywhere she can, she is very tempted to reveal her power, but she is bitterly aware that her foster-father does not love her enough to overlook magic. And more on Gaius is not a nice man; he'll train Merlin, but let Morgana suffer in uncertainty and drugs.
8. The Beginning of the End. This may be the best episode of the series. We get to see the full genocidal scope of Uther's ambitions; he will execute magic users not for any crime or action, but merely for existing, even the littlest child. Apparently some people were ambiguous about the ending, wanting Mordred dead, but I was not. To quote Astolat: 'if the point is to save him, then it's necessary that he be worth saving'. And people who murder children who have committed no crime are not worth saving. It plays sharply in contrast to the traditional Arthur, who had all the infants born on Mordred's prophesized May Day birth slaughtered to try to avoid his destiny.
But what holds me back from really getting *attached* to the series, is that I suspect the producers intended the message to be that they should have killed Mordred when they had the chance, that Arthur's compassion was misplaced and wrong.
9. Excalibur. Another really solid episode; I loved the conspiracy of the elders, keeping their secrets from the young. And for the first time Nimeuh is given something to do apart from sneer and lurk sorcererously in the darkness; the discovery that Uther is punishing the world for his own greedy desire for a son changes things.
10. The Moment of Truth. If you are going to steal, steal from the best! Merlin does Seven Samurai, and does it pretty well.
I really liked how they made Arthur *smart*. That when Will confronted him, he didn't get defensive or angry, he deferred to him and said "what's your plan", allowing it to be displayed that Will didn't really have one. It makes him believable as a future leader that will be able to unite Albion.
11. Labyrinth of Geldref. I have really mixed opinions on this one. The basic plot is so, so sketchy and silly. They could have put in brief references to calculating how much grain they had to weather the winter, whether they could afford to support the countryside, bringing in water from rivers (because if all of those had dried up, people wouldn't just be lining up for relief, they'd be *fleeing the country* before they died in a couple of days.) Making it a little less ridiculous; the almost *childish* plotting is frustrating.
At the same time, the character work was great. Arthur makes his own choice. We've seen him go behind his father's back to Do the Right thing, but never to his face and it has often required that Morgana or someone else push him. Here he makes his own choices unaided and publically.
It's interesting that Arthur, despite not being the lead per se, gets the real character growth moments. Merlin primarily gets dilemmas, instead. He begins the series as a basically good and concerned human being, with very little selfishness and great desire to do good. His problem is and has been learning how to when to act with his magic, and how to balance the desire to do good with not getting himself or other people killed.
12. To Kill the King. Possibly the second best episode of the series. Apparently a lot of people viewed Morgana's final choice as fail, but I was fine about it, because it was *her* decision; no one lectured her about morality, no one pushed her, she made her own moral choice and picked up a sword and did it. And because I think it would have been destructive to her. Facing Uther with a sword in her hand, yes, leading a war against him, yes, but using his affection for him to lead him into a trap, watching him butchered over her father's grave... it would have poisoned her. I think she will eventually criticize herself for not going through with it, because Uther's new found committment to listening to her will probably only last 30 seconds into his next temper fit, but I think she had to give him the chance, for the sake of her own soul.
Similiarly, even though it would cause less grief to nearly everyone if Uther was dead -- Gaius' claim that Arthur was not ready to be king came off as feeble and unconvincing, as Arthur is clearly already his father's military equal if not superior, and Uther's bouts of paranoia are probably doing more damage to the kingdom than good -- I'm glad Merlin made his choice, and it was appropriate he went to Gwen for advice, as she is the one with the most moral right to judge. However, I wish that he had pointed out that if he had let Uther die when he was ill, that many people including her father would still be alive, and if she still thought the same.
Again, like Morgana, I suspect he will *regret* not letting Uther die, but not have been wrong. He's terrifically powerful, and only going to grow more so. I much prefer that he take a careful moral stance.
13. Le Morte d'Arthur. I don't feel bad for Nimeuh; I don't quite go with the people saying that she did nothing worse than Gaius; Uther, yes, but we have yet to see Gaius randomly poison scores of people. I remember those rows of white-covered bodies. The problem was -- Merlin wasn't doing it for the innocents she killed, he wasn't doing it to protect Arthur, he wasn't even doing it to protect himself. The moment she threw her big zappy fireball and Merlin got back up, quite unhurt... you could see in her face, and in Merlin's, that she was fighting out of her weight class and was doomed. Merlin did it out of pure anger, and that's a little scary.