Overall Rating: 7.7 + 1 for Princess Mithian being awesome = 8.7 Total
Good character writing, and doing a nice job building suspense for the big season ending two-parter.
Arthur strikes a deal to marry the daughter of a rival king in order to bring about peace and settle a dispute over some territory on outskirts of Camelot. Merlin tries his best to stop the wedding and remind Arthur who he really loves, but all of his efforts seem to push the newly betrothed couple closer together. Meanwhile, bigger problems for Camelot (and Merlin) are brewing as Morgana schemes to get plans to the siege tunnels beneath Camelot and mount an attack (ending, of course, in her claiming the throne as Queen, or so she hopes). Unfortunately for Morgana, her accomplice on the outside - a rival knight leading a renegade army - is a sexaholic and takes Gwen hostage following a raid on her out of the way village. She then overhears their attack plans and escapes to warn Arthur. Morgana eventually tracks her down and makes to kill her, but Arthur is out hunting and Morgana chooses instead to turn her into a dear so that Arthur might kill the one he loves instead of her. Merlin does his best to protect her (making Arthur miss), but his betrothed companion strikes a hit with her crossbow and it's only when Arthur finds Gwen's engagement ring that he calls off the hunt. Merlin then tracks her down, brings her back to health and hears of Agravaine's successful raid on the castle maps. He heads back to Camelot, but Arthur doesn't believe his story about Agravaine's treachery, especially when the map is in the right spot upon inspection (after Agravaine returned it). In the meantime, the discovery of the ring forces Arthur to confront his love for Gwen and call off his marriage. He offers up the disputed territory as repayment since he cannot marry the princess when he loves another.
There are many very good little pieces to this story. Morgana's evilness is getting scarier and scarier to watch...she is probably the best actor in the cast now that Tony Head is gone. Merlin and Arthur's relationship continues to be very attractive to watch. Arthur really does need that one person in his charge who will stand up to him and tell him he's being a prat when he starts acting on what he believes people expect of him rather than what he knows is the right thing to do - even if doing so is very risky. Arthur is, after all, the king and can banish people or have them imprisoned at his leisure. But it'll never happen with Merlin. When it comes down to it, Arthur trusts Merlin's council above anyone else in Camelot because they always know what the other one is thinking and why. The "comedy" stuff involving Merlin's attempts to make Arthur look stupid in front of the princess doesn't really ring true from Merlin's perspective (why would he think that would break up a wedding that's written into a contract?)...but it works anyway because the Mithian is such a well-written character (for a one-shot guest star). As someone in a healthy relationship, I must say that the burping scene was REALLY fun to watch. :) And made me highly respect Mithian...if I were a king, one of my rules for who I would marry would have to be that she could take me on in a belching contest (and that's no small feat!). Her skill with a crossbow ain't bad to look at either. :)
All in all, this episode isn't anything special if you look at the individual elements, but it's highly enjoyable to long-time fans of the show because they respected the characters and their unique relationships. For example, we didn't waste our time presenting Arthur with a choice between a boring, mean, spoiled, or otherwise unlikable Princess and the love of his life who he himself recently exiled. No no...we got the belching, hunting, fighting Princess who is a perfect match for Arthur in every way except that he's not Gwen. That is far better writing than I feared given the scenes from next week clips I saw last week. And we didn't spend too much time on perfunctory slapstick comedy when we could be giving Arthur a chance to honestly seek Merlin's guidance and then praise his wisdom (in a round-about way, the way he always does).
For a filler-script that sets the stage for a big two-part action story...this one packed a good punch.
Everyone was doing a very solid job, I would say...even the guest actress who played Mithian...who I found thoroughly enjoyable.
The message, such as it is, seems to be that one should trust their conscience and not make choices because one feels there is no other alternative. But this is a running theme on Merlin and this episode is not its best vehicle. It's pretty subtle, and not lingered on at any great length.