This is what I've been waiting for. After three solid but largely mediocre seasons, Merlin finally achieves its potential with season four. In this season the show becomes epic. Arthur is no longer an arrogant and unpleasant bully and Merlin stops being a buffoon (for the most part). This show about legendary heroes becomes larger than life and gains a lot in the process. This season sees the Knights of Camelot marching off to war, the death of a king, a dire prophesy being fulfilled, a full grown dragon in battle, and much more. If you've written the program off, you should give it another look.
The show centers around a young lad named Merlin (Colin Morgan), the person who would grow to be King Arthur's most trusted advisor. The teen 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 ( who betrayed the King, Morgana (Katie McGrath), and a castle 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.
At the end of season three, things really came to a head. Morgana, filled with hatred for Uther and a maniacal desire to sit on the throne of Camelot, raised an army of the undead to storm the country. She was defeated, but at a price: Uther, having been tortured by Morgana, goes mad and can no longer rule.
Nearly a year has passed since Morgana's attack and though Uther is still alive he's catatonic most of the time and just sits looking out of the window. Arthur takes over running the kingdom with the help of his uncle, Agravaine, whom Arthur trusts above all others. Unfortunately, Agravaine is not loyal to Arthur or his brother Uther, he's Morgana's servant. Having the ruler's ear, he's able to give Arthur bad advice that endangers Camelot.
Morgana is even more determined than ever to destroy the Pendragons after her sister, Morgause, became gravely injured by Merlin and Gaius while Camelot was being retaken. Disfigured and dying, Morgause offers herself up as a blood sacrifice to the Cailleach who open a rift between the land of the dead and the land of the living. During the sacrifice the Cailleach gives Morgana a prophecy: a powerful magician named Emrys would be her "destiny and doom." Unbeknownst to the evil witch, Emrys is the name that the druids have given Merlin. Fearful of this mysterious mage, Morgana tries to discover who he is so that she may kill him before he can doom her.
The episodes in this season are what I was hoping the show would be all along. When it first began, Arthur wasn't a very sympathetic character, more of a bully and a jerk than a noble leader of men, and Merlin was fairly whiny and at times came across more as a comic relief than a wise sage. Over the course of the show, that's slowly changed and in this season Merlin and Arthur are impressive characters and viewers can see that they're both destined for greatness.
The season kicks off with an impressive two-part saga where the creatures that Morgause's sacrifice unleashed plague the kingdom. It's more than a 'monster of the week' show, which both Arthur, Merlin, and the Knights of Camelot rising to the challenge of facing an enemy that can't be destroyed and willing to die to protect the country. It's a story that shows the main characters growing, and also sets in motion the events that will be played out over the rest of this season.
Just about all of the episodes in this set move the overall plot along in some way, with very few filler episodes. Merlin and Arthur have to stop a thief from obtaining the very last dragon egg, something that Merlin, being the last Dragon Lord, has an especially keen interest in doing. Arthur realizes he's in love with Guinevere but the romance doesn't go smoothly when Agravaine informs Arthur that he can never marry a serving girl, and a mistake that Arthur makes (with some goading by Agravaine) leads to a powerful neighboring kingdom declaring war on Camelot. These all pale when compared to the two-part finale where Margana once again makes a play for the kingdom and Arthur sees his darkest hour yet. The story is enticingly entitled The Sword in the Stone.
Aside from the great stories and fulfilling character development, this season also sees some of the knights taking on supporting roles. I really enjoyed the enlarged cast of characters and they worked out very well. A lot of the comic moments this season involved good-natured ribbing among the warriors, but they never became comical or goofy. Just the opposite, they came across as loyal and tough, and added to the action/adventure elements in the show very appropriately.
While I really liked this season, it's not perfect. The plot with Agravaine secretly working against Arthur was a reworking of earlier seasons where Morgana was plotting against Uther while pretending to be his loyal ward and it felt a little stale. I also had a hard time seeing Agravaine's motivation for his betrayal. It's a minor point though, and the season plays out better than I thought it would.
The show arrives on three Blu-ray discs that are housed in a single-width keepcase.
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 seasons, 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 some good bonus features scattered across the three discs, but nothing too exciting. First off are five commentary tracks on various episodes by members of the cast and crew. The video extras include a short (19-minute) making of featurette that pretty good for what it it. There also several deleted scenes, outtakes, a reel of storyboards, and a gallery of fan pictures.
The show really hits its stride with season four, by far the best season yet. Both Arthur and Merlin evolve into the heroic and legendary characters we knew they would become, and the stories are more epic in scope. The cast of supporting characters has expanded nicely, and the show is more entertaining than ever. Highly Recommended.