Season finale. As the last episode suggested, Merlin is moving into a more traditional swords-and-sorcery mode of fantasy at this stage. It might be sheer coincidence, but I suspect it has something to do with the fact that they need gravitas to bring everything to an appropriately stirring crescendo. So the borrowings from Lord of the Rings become more pronounced: where last week there were knock-off Nazgûl, here we have the Budget Siege of Helm’s Deep. The Great Dragon was released at the end of the last episode, and is working through some issues via the medium of burnination. I quite like this move – sure, it’s obvious and it’s difficult not to make comparisons in which Merlin inevitably comes off second best, especially when the show stands a line of mailclad figures on the pale battlements and starts yelling at them to Stand Firm… But it’s done competently, and we haven’t had an overload of Epic Portentous Atmosphere this season, so I’m willing to go with it.
I do have one reservation, though. OK, overblown portent and an inflated sense of significance is fine as we slide towards the finale: Camelot is shaken to the very foundations, this could be the end of the kingdom, where O where will we find the strength to face this final assault. But it’s a shame Merlin assumes that existential threats and the fate of the nation is a matter for men exclusively. In this episode the women get to be the emotional breakthrough brought on by the threat of death (hugged, then hurriedly pushed aside so they don’t get in the way of destiny being faced), the image of Camelot’s vulnerability (the “women and children” shots, which in this episode’s visual language are one homogenous term) and the means by which the magical male power is transmitted through the generations (safely offstage, dead already, and an opportunity for men to bond). Merlin has shown during this season that it can provide interesting character moments for women, but when it comes to final showdowns, Angel Coulby, Katie McGrath and Emilia Fox are nowhere to be seen.
It seems that no-one can stop the dragon, not even Merlin (Colin Morgan) with a surreptitious bit of magic. Presumably he was hoping to knock it out of the sky and nonchalantly observe “Oh no, the tail fins are terribly flimsy on this kind. One decent tap and they lose all control midflight. No wonder they’re so angry – I’d breathe fire if my aerial steering was dependant on a couple of plates of chitin and an overevolved bit of batwing, amirite?!” But no luck. In order to conquer the beastie, they will need a Dragonlord, one of an ancient line of men (and I do mean men) who could control dragons. There are a distinct dearth of them around Camelot, and anyone who has been paying attention up to this point is only going to need three guesses as to why. Care to hazard a theory?
Yes, that’s right. King Uther harried them as part of his War on Magic. And by harried I mean pursued, rounded up and executed. The longer this series goes on, the more likely it seems that someone might raise a hand and suggest that this scorched earth policy on slightly enchanty locals has been the source of almost every problem for the regime in the last three series. But since that hasn’t happened yet, they need a Dragonlord. The last of the Dragonlords, feeling as persecuted as Glenn Beck (but with some empirical basis for this state of mind) has gone into exile in a neighbouring land with whom (see earlier episode about the peace conference) Camelot is technically at war. Arthur (Bradley James) and Merlin are dispatched on a secret roadtrip to persuade him to come to Camelot’s aid.
The lord in question is Balinor, played with enormous sadness and hairiness by John Lynch, who no sooner agrees that he is indeed the father Merlin never knew (and carves him a little wooden toy dragon) than he takes a sword-thrust intended for his offspring courtesy of some passing knights of ill intent. Tragically dying (you can tell from the music, which is nicked sort of from Samuel Barber and sort of from that bit after the Balrog gets Gandalf) he passes his wisdom onto Merlin, whose magic has apparently not worked on the dragon because he had yet to inherit it. All back to Camelot, in time for Arthur to persuade Uther that a final charge of his knights against the dragon, leading to almost certain death, is the only reasonable option in the face of a range of possible plans which range to reasonably certain death in the near future, to absolutely certain death in the longer term. There’s a stirring nod to the legends as Arthur asks for volunteers and all his men step one by one into a circle – no table as yet, but they’ll no doubt sort of the furniture out at some later date now the basic geometrical principles are established.
The dragon appears and wipes out the knights, leaving only Arthur and Merlin. The prince manages to prick the beastie before being knocked unconscious, and Merlin gives it all the Parselchat, pointing out that the Great Dragon is, in a very real sense, On His Lawn, and should get off it. The dragon acquiesces and Merlin lies to Arthur when we wakes up, telling him that he dealt the laithly wyrm a mortal stroke. All is reconciliation (apart from the dead knights, obviously) and slow-motion swaggering as Camelot is saved. Though Morgause is still out there somewhere, so I daresay they won’t run out of plot ideas for the next season…
 One of the best pieces of critical advice I ever got was from a friend who said he had real trouble taking the Lord of the Rings films as seriously as they wanted, because years of historical and fantasy fiction had trained him to pause once or twice during a work and ask himself one question. “Who are these very portentous people, and what are they doing with my time?” In my experience, a lot of speciously impressive stuff starts to look shoddy if you demand that.