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Merlin “The Dark Tower” 

Photo Credit: Syfy

Following in the footsteps of Childe Roland, Merlin and Arthur head to the Dark Tower in order to rescue Queen Guinevere from yet another of Morgana’s schemes.  Morgana always seems to be lurking in the forest at just the right time. 

This week, she hides behind a tree while Gwen and her brother Elyan made their way back to Camelot after visiting their father’s grave.  To get rid of the guard of roundtable knights accompanying Gwen, Morgana turns a field of grass into a verdant snake pit.  The snakes strike and hit Percival and Leon.  Elyan sends Gwen fleeing in to the woods and the knights rush back to Camelot.

Before Gwen gets far, Morgana appears and knocks her from her horse.  While Gwen maintains a defiant spirit, it’s frustrating that she is no match physically for Morgana.  Even if Gwen could get her hands on a sword, she would still be powerless against Morgana’s magic.  It is a wonder that the king and queen of Camelot do not fear Morgana more.  She could crush them easily, especially if Merlin is not around to save the day.  The fact that Morgana hasn’t used her magic for a more direct attack on Arthur suggests that she may not be as dark as we think.  She could easily have killed Gwen in the forest.  That would have broken Arthur.  But, Morgana likes to do things with a level of unnecessary complication.

Morgana captures Gwen and leads her to the Dark Tower, a massive structure jutting out from a vast and desolate plane.  Back in Camelot, it doesn’t take long for Gaius to figure out that the snake bite venom has magical qualities.  Of course, it is not a far leap to the conclusion that Morgana is behind the attack.  Showing the depth of his friendship with Arthur and Gwen, Merlin makes Arthur a promise that they will bring her home.

The knights set out in search of Gwen.  Along the way, Percival and Leon have the same dream about the Dark Tower.  Morgana’s poison is designed to lure Arthur to her.  Between the knights and the Dark Tower lies an impenetrable forest that is confounding not just because of its tightly bound limbs, but because one can walk in circles for hours without realizing it.  Arthur only figures this out when he discovers a piece of Percival’s cape that caught on a branch.  Despair and frustration quickly overtake the company.

Photo Credit: Syfy

At the same time, Gwen is facing her own fears and desperation.  Locked in the top room of the Dark Tower, she is tormented by hallucinations.  She hears a woman screaming and sees figures moving in the dark.  Three figures manifest at various points of her confinement: Elyan, Merlin, and Arthur.  Why these three?  Is it because these are the three that Gwen would rely upon the most to save her?  The visions of Elyan and Arthur give her hope, only to turn and laugh cruelly in her face.  The apparition of Merlin, though, is something entirely different – from a crouched position he lunges out at her with a demented scream.  It is curious that her vision of Merlin would be so drastically different from that of Elyan and Arthur.  Given all of the experience she has shared with Merlin over the years, Gwen must know that he is different somehow.  Perhaps on some level, she has a sense of how powerful he is.

In response to Gwen’s screams, Morgana dramatically changes her demeanor.  When Gwen is sufficiently broken down, Morgana invites her to dinner.  She takes a soft tone and assures Gwen that she is her friend.  Morgana confesses that she too has known suffering, as she was chained to a wall in a hole for two years.  When did this happen?  Or did it?  A couple episodes back, Merlin had a vision of Morgana chained in the bottom of an oubliette with her dragon.  Looking back on the current timeline, it is unclear at what point she would have been imprisoned.  What is more likely is that Morgana has invented the story, not yet realizing that it may actually come true.  Regardless, the revelation begins to soften Gwen towards her.

In the forest, Queen Mab, a caustic faerie, appears before Merlin in the dark woods while the others sleep.  She tells Merlin that he has the power to get them out of the forest.  From this point, Merlin realizes he needs to use his magic to get them out of there.  After emerging through the woods, only desert stands between the men and the Dark Tower.  For some unknown reason, the desert is littered with bodies of knights.  There is no indication how or why they died.  There are no apparent traps or other dangers that should have caused their deaths.  An explanation on this point would have been helpful.

Gwen fights the madness as long as she can, but after seeing a phantom Arthur her spirit crumbles.  Just as she planned, Morgana is there to pick up the pieces.  Gwen embraces Morgana, who confesses that the torment Gwen has experienced is the result of the dripping mandrake roots hanging from the ceiling.  To see Gwen embrace Morgana was both touching and horrifying.  On the one hand, it feels like the friendship they initially had is still there.  On the other hand, we have seen too much of what Morgana is about.  There is no way that she cares about Gwen or wants to help her.

Upon reaching the Dark Tower, Merlin recognizes that “it’s too easy” to ascend.  Things get harder when they enter a large room rigged with a pressure rigged floor.  The wrong step causes thick darts to shoot from the walls.  Elyan makes it to the chamber on the far end where Gwen is guarded by a floating sword.  Before he defeats the mystical sword, Elyan is mortally wounded.  Gwen is devastated.  After the torment she has endured, this is the final blow from which she may not recover.  As far as obstacles to a rescue, the floating sword was a little weak.  It certainly did not feel like Morgana’s best work.

Elyan is given a water burial and as the ship carrying his body floats away, Gwen stares intently at the flames.  Her expression is pained, but also blank.  Gaius tells Merlin that the sword had certainly been intended for Arthur, but that may not be the case.  Again, the sword was not a strong manifestation of Morgana’s powers.  If she had really intended to kill Arthur, couldn’t she have made a better effort?  The answer is “no” for one very simple reason – her goal was not to kill Arthur in the tower.

Later that night, Gwen leaves her bed and goes to the woods.  Morgana is waiting for her.  It appears that Gwen has fallen under Morgana’s control and has agreed to help her bring down Camelot.  Initially, it looked like Gwen might be faking it.  But, being emotionally broken would explain Gwen’s expression at Elyan’s funeral.

This was overall a strong episode.  One of the great things about Merlin is that it gives plenty of opportunities for outside research.  This week, I went back to my literature anthology for Robert Browning, and spent some time looking at Shakespeare’s references to Queen Mab.  Even the mandrake root, which most probably associate with Harry Potter, has a strong foundation in myth and literature.  This type of literary foundation is really what gives Merlin the richness that makes it so enjoyable to watch.

However, Morgana is starting to feel a lot like Lucy trying to get into Ricky’s show every week.  She keeps trying and trying to get into Camelot.  It’s time to let her in and see what happens when she comes face to face with Mordred again.

The final season of Merlin airs Fridays at 10/9c on Syfy.

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