The many betrayals of Merlin

The BBC’s Arthurian adventure series, Merlin, recently finished its fourth season, and the show is still going strong.

This is because the writers have managed to take one of the oldest stories in our cultural history, and transform it into something fresh and entertaining.

The most impressive example? The way the show successfully balances the over-arc with the sub-plot and episode arcs.

It’s all a solid combination of monster of the week and season line which works well – while still maintaining the development of the characters.

Many shows give up on additional character development by season 4, but Merlin continues to change-up the supporting cast, and deliver each new character in great detail.

This season, each of Arthur’s knights got a development episode to themselves, as did Gwen, yet each episode still tied in well with the main arc, and the season as a whole served as a well-paced trek from Arthur’s taking the throne to a place of real royalty. We’ve seen the character over four seasons become a better person by tiny steps, with each episode slightly more humble and caring than the one before.

Of course, we already knew that the show was willing to pull characters around by their ears. Everyone but Arthur and Merlin is liable to be killed, possessed, turned traitor, or any number of other terrible fates, at any moment, bringing a sense of real danger to the characters that most shows lack, given the immutability of the cast.

The development of Morgana is the most impressive part of this process. We’ve seen her develop from a nice girl to a malicious witch in four seasons, and she continues to get worse by degrees. She turned evil so expertly, and so slowly, that watching recent episodes, it’s difficult sometimes to remember how pleasant she once was to the other characters. Of course, having a great actress in the role helps.

Speaking of great actors, the introduction of Tristan to the story is pleasant and unexpected. The new take on the story of Tristan and Iseult, turning their time in the woods into a life of smuggling is really fun, and getting the talented Ben Daniels (you might recognize him as having played James Steel in the first two seasons of Law & Order: UK) to play Tristan is icing.

He pulls off the disillusioned former noble role well, and I hope they keep him around for the coming fifth season. There is a lot of great story that can be told with that character.

Merlin has shaped up to be my favorite contemporary depiction of the Arthurian legends, and I can’t wait to see where they go with it next.

The fifth season of Merlin begins filming March 2012 for a fall debut. If you’ve missed it so far, you can catch up on DVD or with various instant video services.