We are very definitely getting into Stephen King territory with this episode with some real horrors, both physical and psychological – I’ll be very interested to see what certification this gets from the BBFC for the DVD release. This certainly isn’t an episode for younger children! The Dark Tower isn’t part of established Arthurian lore – its origins appear to be in Shakespeare’s King Lear – but it fits in well with the BBC variant, which hasn’t hesitated in the past to adopt elements from every version of the myth, and is now doffing its hat to Stephen King’s epic saga, in which Arthur-Eld is a key part of the backstory of the Dark Tower.
This is one of the first times that we see Merlin in his proper role to Arthur: he’s not just a guide in this episode, he is the one who has a lot of the solutions, and we’re seeing a gradual realisation by Arthur that this is the case. Arthur, Merlin and the knights’ quest is counterpointed with some nasty scenes for Gwen, and a more subtle play by Morgana than she’s sometimes used. We also learn more about what happened to Arthur’s nemesis during the three-year gap between series four and five, which do help to explain the changes we’ve seen in Morgana this year. Both Angel Coulby and Katie McGrath excel, making up, particularly in the former’s case, for what has seemed like a reduction in role for the character in recent weeks.
Don’t let anyone spoil the developments of the final act: it remains to be seen whether what they set up will be retreading old ground, or whether the show is willing to go even darker…
Verdict: Those who wanted a more proactive Merlin will be pleased by this. 7/10