This one moved from solid (suspenseful) character work to very near feature status in the final scene.
Morgana, angry that she's been thwarted once again by Emeris (and operating on advice from Agravaine), targets Gaius for interrogation. In order to capture him, she calls on an ancient order of monks from the old religion and offers a healing bracelet (after all, what use does an evil bitch have for something that heals people!) as payment for their help. Meanwhile, Agravaine interrogates Gaius in order to plant suspicion with Arthur that he might be back to his magical roots. When he is kidnapped, Agravaine plants evidence of magical practice in Gaius's quarters. Their two-fold plan...to get the location of Emeris from Gaius and to discredit him in the kingdom to prevent him from undermining their efforts in Camelot in the future...nearly goes off without a hitch except that Gwain believes Merlin's earnest doubt about the source of the duplicity. Gwain and Merlin thusly ride off to Gaius's rescue.
Meanwhile, Gaius is questioned under intense magical pressure and eventually reveals the true depth of Merlin's destiny and power. The trouble, for Morgana, is that priests of the old religion are far more likely to aid someone as powerful as Emeris than they are to aid a psycho mega-bitch out for petty vengeance. He refuses to tell Morgana anything and helps Merlin escape while Gwain and Agravaine (who pursued Melin out of Camelot) take Gaius to safety (Agravaine does some extremely unbelievable bullshitting to convince Gwain he's not a traitor). Arthur then apologizes to Gaius for ever doubting him and Gaius confers some of his enormous wisdom, telling Arthur that many people of many different beliefs have helped him because they all agreed that the world Arthur was trying to build would be a better one.
Alright...the ordinary good stuff first:
- This episode has an outstanding grasp of the characters and their likely reactions to Agravaine's deception. Arthur trusts Gaius, but his position requires that he take precautions to defend himself and he has a blind spot for Agravaine. Merlin knows far more about Gaius and his beliefs and loyalties than Arthur or anyone else in Camelot. And Gwain knows Merlin's secret, so it makes sense that he would be predisposed to believe Merlin over Agravaine. But it's not just the logic of the situation that works...the emotions are played correctly. Arthur is bummed at Agravaine's interrogation and the later seeming conviction of Gaius, but he's hardly as deeply stung as Merlin. And when this is all resolved, Gaius's stern words for Arthur are the ones that sting him the most. The look on his face when Gaius says "I've cared for you since you were a nursling. You should have known that I loved you too much to ever betray you." - is just awesomely crushing.
- Morgana's outright empty evil is extremely well played. Now that she's been hollowed out by her petty quest for power and vengeance, she's turning into a nasty little sociopath! Her words to Merlin before his escape were just plain old scary.
- I was expecting a cliche Hollywood rescue ending where Merlin and Gwain arrived just as Gaius was about to blurt out Merlin's secret...they went another (far more interesting) way and gave Merlin a powerful ally. Cool!
- I hope we see more of Gwain...he's just awesome. :)
But the final scene moved this one from mid-7s to upper 8s, IMHO. After Merlin's best efforts to heal Uther went so horribly wrong, Gaius demonstrated the wisest course to changing the hearts and minds of would-be enemies. He spoke truth to power and gave Arthur a kindly-worded scolding for his narrow-mindedness without offending...and he appealed to common interests, rather than focusing on the things that divide the different classes of people in Camelot. This one moment likely undid almost all of the damage caused by Morgana's sabotage of Uther's healing spell. And the way it was done was deeply moving and well-earned...which is a huge plus since many of the recent Merlin episodes have seemed rushed and a little formulaic.
The thing that brings this script back to the top of the non-feature pack is the less-formulaic, more-original storytelling and the good character work.
Along with some phenomenal acting on the part of Merlin, Gaius and Morgana. Lots to like on the acting front.
Two good points work together to elevate the message score this week. As I say above, Gauys's way of chaning Arthur into a true ally will generally work better than Merlin's youthful (and sometimes desperate) attempts to persuade by pure deeds and it was nice to see it deployed. But I wanted to also once again emphasize that the writers are doing a great job depicting the huge character flaw with Morgana - her narrow-minded focus on what is "rightfully hers"...from personal vengeance to power to respect...has led her from good intentions to bad actions to hollow and empty existence...and now it's compromising her intelligence and her judgment and causing her to underestimate her enemies in tragic ways. This is a very Christian type of villain, I must say.