Merlin Re-Watch: Series 3

I am so excited to start writing about Series 3 because it was always my favourite season. I’m not sure if this is still true because every series has aspects that make it brilliant in it’s own way but Series 3 just felt like it brought the intensity to the next level when I first watched it. It really is a series of change as all the characters are expanded and developed massively. The third series is so dynamic and delves even deeper into the Arthurian legend. It always felt like the aspects of the myth that were hinted on in Series 1 and 2 were purely building up tension for the climax that is Series 3.

When I think of Series 3, I immediately think of Morgana. Although this seems strange as she is no where near the main character of the show (that’s kind of given away in the title), the show does seem to revolve around her corruption to the dark side in this season. It really is the turning point for her character, and it’s where we really begin to see her, and refer to her, as a villain. As I have said in previous posts, Series 2 Morgana seemed so completely terrified of her powers and was incredibly vulnerable, allowing renegade sorcerers and her own sister to manipulate her and tempt her towards dark magic using comfort and empathy. In Series 3, although her powers are pretty weak and only really show strength when she ties them to her emotions, her character is definitely more stable and she has a goal and a focus. I love characters who turn darker and betray those who they once loved, and this series is really interesting for Morgana as she finally begins to turn evil. She convinces everybody in Camelot that she is just an innocent young girl, whilst secretly plotting with Morgause against Uther and planning a way to take over the kingdom. The sisters actually succeed at the end of the season, breaking Uther’s spirit and stealing his crown. Merlin and Arthur are forced to save the day and the finale of Series 3 is definitely my favourite.

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In some ways I really wish the writers had stopped the show after Series 3 as the finale was just so perfect and, as the show was meant to be a prequel to the Arthurian legend, it would have been an ideal ending. In Series 4 and 5 I think that the writers do go a bit too far into the legend when I don’t believe that that was there intention. Merlin was inspired by the American sci-fi series Smallville which told the story of a young Superman before he became a superhero. Therefore, I always believed that Merlin would tell the story of King Arthur before he becomes king. Arthur actually does become King of Camelot in Series 4 and completes his destiny by the end of the show which I was really surprised by. The writers may have intended to write a prequel but kind of just kept going. I really think that Series 3 was the ending of this prequel idea and Series 4 and 5 told the rest of the legend which I didn’t think was as great as the first three seasons. The ending of Series 3 really brings everything together and gives implications to how almost every aspect of the legend develops: Merlin destroys Morgana’s army and mortally wounds Morgause, Morgana flees Camelot leaving Uther completely shattered and almost unrecognisable as the fearless, brutal King we have come to know him as, Arthur, after making some of his most loyal followers, who are not noble men, his knights, and kissing Gwen in the public courtyard, is beginning to look up for the job of King.

Series 3 truly explains how the legend begins. Morgana, up until the Series 3 finale, had only ever known royalty and privilege and hadn’t really experienced pain or despair like most sorcerers had experienced through living as outcasts and being hunted and slaughtered. However, after Morgause is injured in this season, it finally sparks for the audience just why Morgana becomes so dark and twisted, because the only person who showed her comfort and love despite her powers was her sister. Seeing Morgause on the edge of death really set things in motion for the young witch, and it’s clear that having her whole life and authority as Uther’s ward taken away from her and having to live in a hovel alone darkened her even more. There’s also Uther’s mental instability which is implied to be the reason Arthur becomes King. The Knights of the Round Table are also created as Arthur thanks his friends for fighting with him despite their chances and makes them all knights of Camelot. Excalibur also makes an appearance and the finale explains how the sword gets in the stone. It seems that the show’s entire legend (besides Mordred) is mentioned in this season and, as I said, it just feels like Series 1 and 2 were just building up to the third series. For example, the sword Excalibur is thrown into the Lake of Avalon in Series 1, and Freya becomes the Lady of the Lake in Series 2. This leads to Freya retrieving the sword from the lake and presenting it in Series 3. I just love how everything fits in perfectly in this season.

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I have been talking a lot about the finale episodes and, although I could talk about them all day and do feel that they are the pinnacle of the show, let’s talk about the other moments in the season. The first two episodes are also a highlight of the series and is the first two-parter premiere. (Series 3 began the trend on the show of having an opening two-parter and a finale two-parter which Series 4 and 5 replicated, and it definitely works to create tension, depth and suspense. ) Morgana returns to Camelot after a year and pretends that she has seen the error of her ways when it comes to the use of magic. Merlin eventually catches on that this is not true and that Morgana has turned to the dark side. It’s a very clever plot device used by the writers to continue the season after one year has passed because it makes Morgana’s betrayal more believable. Morgana was likely able to be herself in that year with Morgause, and felt comforted by being with her own kind. She probably felt completely free being away from Camelot and the prison-like fake persona of being the Kind’s ward. The opening episodes are action-packed as Morgause allies with Cenred and attacks Camelot. A full-on battle against Camelot is something we’ve never seen before so it is definitely exciting. Similarly, the finale whereby Morgana takes over Camelot is so incredibly tense because the battle that Merlin and Arthur now have to face is without doubt the biggest challenge yet and, as Arthur mentions in this season, “no army has ever taken Camelot” which makes Morgana and Morgause’s achievement so shocking and incredible to watch.

The series also has it’s fair share of comic moments. Although Merlin and Arthur are becoming more like equals, there is all the more banter between them and Series 3 also marks the first appearance of Emrys/Dragoon the Great. Merlin disguises himself as an old man, using an ageing potion, for the first time in order to save Gwen from an execution framed by Morgana. It’s an hilarious episode, as well as having a large amount of romance between Arthur and Gwen, and sparked the start of Merlin’s alter ego which becomes incredibly important in later seasons. I’m sure the writers initially wanted to create a funny episode, hinting to the typical image of the fictional Merlin (old, long beard, white hair, a bit crazy) and may not have believed the old man would return so many times in Series 4 and 5, becoming Emrys, Morgana’s arch enemy who thwarts her plans and even fights her without revealing to the witch that he is actually Merlin. It’s so great to watch the first transformation again and see where the Emrys character first originated, and Colin Morgan’s acting skills are out of this world.

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Arthur and Guinevere’s relationship grows stronger still in this series to the point where Arthur is prepared to sacrifice his destiny and withdraw his entitlement to the throne of Camelot in order to be with Gwen. Personally, I thought this was so sweet and a real development of Arthur’s character as he no longer cares about pride or authority and is not embarrassed or afraid to admit his feelings for a servant, despite knowing his feelings are unlikely to come to anything. Additionally, Morgana and Gwen’s relationship in this season is also very interesting. Prior to Series 3 Gwen and Morgana were incredibly close friends however Morgana foresees that Gwen will be crowned Queen of Camelot and turns against her maidservant, even plotting to get her killed. We have only ever seen Morgana be kind and generous to Gwen so this is another dynamic development, leading to Gwen finding out that her mistress is meddling in dark magic which is another amazing scene to watch. Furthermore, I surprisingly enjoyed watching Uther’s relationship with Morgana as we get to see a weakness in the King which we hadn’t really seen previously. Living without Morgana for a whole year took it’s toll on Uther and may have even made his love for her even stronger. We also find out that the reason he is so easily manipulated and weakened by Morgana may be because Uther is actually Morgana’s father. This sparks another great dynamic between the two and also between Morgana and Arthur which is mentioned in later seasons, particularly regarding the siblings individual similarities to their father.

Regarding returning characters, Morgause is the predominant role and I do think we get to see a lot more from her. In Series 2 she was always presented as this powerful, manipulative, mysterious sorcerer but in this season, even though her magic is still incredibly powerful, we do get to see weaknesses and strategy in her. We also see a lot more of the sister in Morgause as her bond for Morgana evolves even more. As I said in my last review, I did feel like Morgana was a little manipulated by her sister in Series 2, but in this season there is none of that as both sisters have the same goal and dark motivations. (However, it is an interesting theory that Morgana was, in fact, kidnapped by Morgause in Series 2 and Morgause corrupted her mind over the year that she was missing, leading her to turn against Uther and delve into dark magic.) The Great Dragon also continues giving Merlin advice in this season and I do love the relationship between the two of them as Merlin, now a Dragonlord who can control the dragon and is aided massively by this ability, the two of them feel more like equals which we’ve never seen before. It’s also great to see the dragon flying free and not chained up underneath Camelot, and Merlin’s dragon rides are also exciting moments.

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Finally, I really want to talk about the knights who are one of my favourite parts of the show. Although I understand why the writers didn’t go deeper into the knight’s individual back stories because it would bring the focus away from Merlin and Arthur, I would have loved to have seen more of their personalities and unique characteristics. I think that Series 3 shows the individual knights the most whereas the following seasons only really show the collective banter between all of them. This is shown most simply through their costumes as the knights are mostly dressed in their own clothing in Series 3, whereas in following seasons are shown mainly in the Camelot’s knight’s uniform which does give them less individuality. Gwaine will always be my favourite as his character is so inspiring and loyal. He is also hilarious and thrill-seeks just for the hell of it. The episode where he first appears is very well written and his morals and principles of treating everybody equally regardless of their nobility really shines through and drives the episode. Then we have Elyan who is another unique character and his relationship with Gwen, as they are brother and sister, is very nice to watch. Elyan is also inspiring as he “follows his heart wherever it takes him” and works hard at what he does. Lancelot also returns in the finale and with him comes Percival who I definitely think should have been given more depth, more lines, more screen times, more everything. I also find it strange how Arthur gives Percival the honour of knighthood after knowing him for a total of one day, and for Percival to even fight with and risk his life for Arthur, swearing allegiance to him, having only just met him. It is sad that, from the last episode of Series 3, the only thing we really find out about Percival is that he is strong, courageous and willing to fight with anyone. Obviously Sir Leon returns and makes appearances throughout Series 3 (despite the fact that it was implied that he had been killed by a dragon attack in Series 2). Overall, it is the start of the foundation of the show, in my opinion, as Merlin and Arthur turn to the knights for guidance, comfort and support in following seasons when in past seasons they could only turn to each other during quests, battles and challenges.

So, that’s Series 3, definitely a memorable one for me and almost like the end of an era in some ways. I really do feel like Series 1 to 3 were the first wave and Series 4 and 5 the second wave of Merlin. So much happens between Series 3 and 4 to change the set-up of the show. In the first three seasons Morgana is the King’s ward, Arthur is a young prince and Uther controls the kingdom whereas in Series 4 and 5, Morgana is an outlaw and a villain and Arthur becomes king. You could say that Series 4 and 5 is the reign of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. I know it’s superficial to say it but this change does reflect plainly in the costumes of the characters. Although Merlin’s outfit doesn’t change much, Morgana goes from wearing a variety of dresses fit for a princess with perfect hairstyles to wearing one black dress all of the time with matted, dread-locked hair as she lives life as a villainous outlaw. Arthur obviously transforms from wearing a prince’s attire to that of a king, Guinevere goes from a servant’s dress to a queen’s, and the knight’s bare the Camelot crest as loyal followers of Arthur. This, as well as the different set of returning characters in Series 4 and 5, really makes me nostalgic and sentimental of the brilliant Series 3: the end of King Uther, the end of Prince Arthur, the end of the King’s ward, the end of a Merlin era.

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