The second season of Merlin arrives with a lot of promise, but is largely a repeat of the first season. That's not a bad thing; the first season was good (if you were able to unlearn everything you ever knew about King Arthur and Camelot) and had some entertaining episodes. I was just hoping for the series to grow a bit and flesh out the characters a bit more, which really didn't happen for the most part. What we're left with is a set of 13 entertaining shows that start off a bit slow but build to an exciting climax.
The show centers around a young version of Merlin (Colin Morgan), the person who would grow to be King Arthur's most trusted advisor. In this series however, Merlin is still a young man. He travels to Camelot to be trained by the royal physician, Gaius (Richard Wilson) a man who secretly knows something about magic. Gaius soon discovers that Merlin's a very special person indeed. While all magicians have to spend years studying and must chant spells to perform the most basic incantations, Merlin can do amazing things silently, and without any training. He can slow down time with just a gesture and move objects with but a thought.
The only problem is magic is outlawed in Camelot. The King, Uther Pendragon (wonderfully portrayed by Anthony Head, best known as Giles on Buffy), fought long and hard in his youth to rid the land of black magic, as well as dragons, and now has forbidden any use of magic on pain of death. So Merlin has to hide his abilities.
Added into the mix is the King's son, the arrogant Prince Arthur (Bradley James), Uther's ward, Morgana (Katie McGrath), and Morgana's servant girl Guinevere (Angel Coulby). After saving Arthur's life, Merlin is awarded the position of being the Prince's manservant and the two slowly start to become friends.
Though magic is outlawed, that doesn't mean that it isn't practiced, and Uther has made many enemies when he cleansed the land of evil. These foes turn up on a regular basis to take their revenge on either the king or his heir, and it's up to Merlin, added by Gaius and with the cryptic advice of an ancient dragon chained up in the catacombs beneath the city, to keep them, and the kingdom, safe.
This season there is a bit more continuity to the show, which is nice. The Druids pop up again, a couple of times, and Morgana's dreams which can foretell the future become more frequent and worrisome. Over the course of this season Morgana comes to believe that she may have magic abilities and Uther's persecution of anyone with magic starts to really trouble her.
From Uther's point of view, he's fully justified in killing anyone who practices magic. Throughout this series he's attacked from every angle by evil magic and though Merlin just about always saves him by using incantations the King is unaware of it. Is it any wonder that he sees magic as only used for evil purposes?
The other big plot that winds its way through this season is the budding romance between Arthur and Guinevere. The love plot is done well, with Lancelot popping up once again too, and could really take off next season.
The biggest flaw with this season as a whole is the lack of suspense for most episodes. While the stories are entertaining, they start to fall into the same pattern: something odd happens, Gaius and Merlin discover that magic is behind the event and try to stop it, they fail, Merlin goes to the Dragon chained beneath the castle who tells him exactly how to break the spell or defeat the creature. This was fine in the first season when things were just starting, but it happens with a bit too much regularity in this set of episodes. In the shows defense however, they have set it up so that season three won't fall into this trap.
The first couple of installments of this season were just so-so, but as the year wore on the quality generally improved. Standout episodes include The Witchfinder, where Uther summons a man to root out all of the magicians in the realm. The man he hires isn't above deceit and trickery to find magicians, and he has Merlin in his sights. The last two episodes are also excellent entertainment and end the season on a high note and forever change the dynamics of the show.
Even the weak shows are fun to watch however, and that's largely due to the strong cast. Easily my favorite actor on the show is Anthony Head. He does an outstanding job as the king. He's regal but also mean and ruthless, just as a king during the dark ages would likely be. He knows he can't afford to make mistakes and that lives hang on his every decision, and some of the errors he has made come back to haunt him.
Bradley James is also excellent as the young Arthur. He has striking good looks and a cocky attitude that reminds one of the popular jocks in high school. His character grows and develops over the course of the show and James does a great job of making those changes seem natural and realistic.
The show arrives on five discs that are housed in a fold out folder with two overlapping discs per page.
This show comes with a stereo soundtrack that's pretty dynamic. While a 5.1 track would have been preferred, the show makes good use of the front soundstage and is forceful during some of the more intense battle sequences. I just wish there was a LFE channel when the dragon is around.
Like the first season, the 1.78:1 image looks pretty good, but it could be better. The picture is a soft throughout and there's some aliasing in the background that's noticeable. The colors are solid and the contrast is fine.
This set has a good amount of bonus features, most of which are found on the fifth disc. In addition to several commentary tracks on various episodes by members of the cast and crew, there are a couple of nice featurettes. First is an Introduction to Merlin Season Two, a fluff piece where the cast and producers tell everyone how exciting the new season will be and how much better it is than season one. Nothing much here, so just move on to the next bonus item. That would be 13 episodes of Secrets and Magic, a behind the scenes look at the filming of each installment of this season. The program runs between 10-14 minutes each and talks with the cast and crew about each episode as it's being filmed. A nice extra. There's also an expanded half-hour installment of Secrets and Magic that looks over the whole season (and reveals that the spells that are used are actually spoken in old English!)
The extras are rounded out with a photo gallery and a series of computer wallpapers that you can install on your Mac or PC.
The second season didn't build on the first so much as it continued the same pattern. That's not bad; it's still an enjoyable show. The characters are intriguing if a little two dimensional and the stories are fun. If you liked the first season, chances are you'll like this on too. Recommended.