Beware of spoilers. Don't read if you plan to watch the episode.
WOW was this episode something. Not only is it packed full of highs and lows, but IMO, it's the single most important episode with regard to Arthur's destiny and Merlin's role in it, in a very long time, if not ever. It made me want to cry (a lot) and I have three pages of notes and quotes that I'm going to try and condense into something hopefully resembling logical thought. Apologies if it doesn't.
We open with three cloaked women, chanting a spell. They draw to mind the three witches in Macbeth, but I feel slightly blasphemous saying that. Anyway, they give a rune to a sorcerer named Osgar, with the ominous words that the "fate of Arthur Pendragon is in your hands now."
In Camelot, Mordred is flourishing. Arthur is pleased at the progress he's made and while Merlin is internally torn with the knowledge that Mordred will be the cause of Arthur's death, there's no way that he can say anything against Camelot's newest favourite knight. Gaius, too, tries to dissuade Merlin from the notion that Mordred is evil; after all, he's had ample opportunity to kill Arthur but has shown nothing but kindness.
Sir Leon returns with the news that a sorcerer called Osgar has invaded their lands and Arthur vows to lead a party to hunt him down. He invites Mordred along so that he can put to use his new skills and this provides us with the light relief for this episode. Normally Merlin is full of funny one-liners and scenes designed just to make us laugh; not this episode and I'm glad of it. As I'll describe further on, this episode is of tremendous importance to Merlin in particular and he just can't dredge up a smile or laugh. But for now while the storm has yet to hit, we see the rest of the Knights of the Round Table initiating Mordred into his first real expedition with the crew. Mordred, for his part, looks frustratingly cute and adorable and he just has such a babyface that makes you think that he couldn't possibly be the killer of our Once and Future King. If only.
They track Osgar down in the woods and all he wants to do is talk; he has a lot to say. He has been "sent from The Disir to pass judgement on Arthur Pendragon, the Once and Future King. No man is above the Disir - however Royal." He hands Arthur the rune with the words that it is "both judgement and fate. You have waged war on the people of the Old Religion. Now the ancient Gods answer you. The Disir have spoken. The circle of fate begins to close. For even as Camelot flowers, the seeds of her destruction are being sown. It is not too late, Arthur. Not too late to find the true path to redeem yourself. No further chance shall be given."
Ominous, right? Then Osgar promptly dies and we later see Merlin laying stones to mark his grave. Mordred approaches and he says that "Sorcerers are not permitted marked graves" but he would have done the same. Merlin reassures Mordred that one day, they'll be able to live in freedom without fear of discovery or persecution. Mordred is less sure, and considering the way that this episode later goes, he has every right to be.
Back in Camelot, Merlin can't just ignore Osgar's words like Arthur has so obviously done. He's morose and silent and after three days, Arthur confronts him about it. On Merlin's urging, he goes to see Gaius who sheds more light on the runemark:
"In times past, this mark aroused great fear. It was given to those found wanting by the Court of the Disir, the highest court of the Old Religion. Three women were chosen at birth to be trained as seers and soothsayers. They interpret the word of the Triple Goddess. When they sat in judgement, their word was final."Arthur might not have wanted to hear Merlin's opinions, but he can't help but ignore the words of the wise Gaius, especially when he says "I am an old man, sire. Old enough to be wary of dismissing other peoples' beliefs."
The words sink in and Arthur starts questioning himself and taking Gaius' advice and the words of Osgar seriously. Gwen, supportive wife that she is, reassures him that he is a fair and just King and that Camelot has only flourished under his rule. He's still not convinced and wakes Merlin at an ungodly hour to tell him that they'll be riding to confront the Disir at once.
Merlin goes to the Dragon for his opinion. After all, he might play a crucial role in Arthur's future, but he's still young and cannot always determine the best path. Kilgharrah's words are really Merlin's downfall in this episode. Don't get me wrong, the Dragon isn't wrong - he's never wrong. But Merlin interprets his advice very narrowly and this is his mistake. One of the Dragon's favourite lines is that "There are many paths to [fate/destiny etc]", and Merlin can't possibly be expected to plan for everything.
Back to Kilgharrah's advice:
The "Runemark predicts Arthur Pendragon's death ... [Mordred's] fate and Arthur's are bound together like ivy round a tree. There is good cause to doubt him. Sometimes ... to save the tree, the ivy must be cut." If he has the chance, Merlin "MUST NOT fail in killing Mordred."Ooh!!! Radical! What will Merlin do? Could he actively kill? I think, to protect Arthur's life and future, he just might.
Mordred petitions Arthur just as they are about to leave and asks to join them. Stupidly, the King agrees and they set off for the Grove of Brineved with about a dozen knights where "the Old Ways will be at their very strongest." Merlin has the right idea: the forest is full of hanging relics and he warns the men to enter the cave disarmed, but per usual, no one listens. For this, the wrath of the Disir is formidable. The way they talk is amazing. Each women only really ever says a sentence at a time, but they do so with such fluidity and such cohesion that it almost seems like a parlour trick. They attack Arthur for being "[arrogant, conceited and insolent]" after his flippant treatment of their sacred place and Gwaine gets very angry and draws his sword. Cue fight and magic wins out, resulting in Mordred getting almost mortally wounded with a magically poisoned spear.
They hurry back to Camelot and Gaius at Merlin's insistence but Gaius knows that only Merlin and his magic will save him. He's adamant that he won't do it and Arthur seems genuinely distraught that Mordred will die for trying to save his life. Gaius asks what happened to the boy he knew when Merlin first came to him several years ago and Merlin responds: "He grew up. And he learned the meaning of duty." So, so true. Too often, Merlin has learned the hard way what his role is in Arthur's future, and this is another of those episodes and the cruellest of blows.
In a fit of desperation, Arthur vows to return to the Disir and beg for their mercy, this time taking only Merlin with him. Heeding Merlin's previous advice, he disarms himself before entering the cave again and asks the Disir that they spare Mordred's life. They agree - but only if he embraces the Old Religion, telling him that this will be his last chance to try and change his future for the better. He has until dawn to decide.
Arthur seeks Merlin's advice out in the forest and the latter is uncharacteristically quiet. Understandably so. Does he save Mordred and in doing so, see the return of the Old Religion and magic to Camelot so that his kind is no longer persecuted or; let Mordred die as the dragon had ordered and curse his own magic in doing so, such that he'll never be able to admit his magic to Arthur? Merlin's struggle to contain his emotions and try not to cry is unbearably sweet and I literally had no idea which side he would weigh down on. When he does find the strength to speak, his words are like a stab to the heart and I have no idea how much it cost him: "There can be no place for magic in Camelot."
Back at the Disir's cave, they tell Arthur that "This is your last chance to save all that is dear to you." Arthur can't agree to their requests and they accept that this is his choice and that his fate is sealed. As they leave, one of the Disir gives Merlin a funny look that he can't decipher. The ride back to Camelot is a morose one but Merlin thinks he has done the right thing. But would Merlin finish happily with Mordred dead so that Arthur no longer has that fate hanging over him? Of course not: Mordred has miraculously lived. Because what is the true consequence of the fate that Merlin has inadvertantly bestowed on Camelot? Mordred's life as the punishment of his rejection of magic. Twisted, right?
I don't think I have ever loved Merlin more. He was forced to make the most wrong and against-the-grain choice that he's ever made, all for the sake of his duty and Arthur's life, only to have it thrown back in his face. All he's ever tried to do is his duty and this episode really shows that sometimes, it can all be for nothing. This was unbelievably painful to watch and I wonder what kind of effect it's going to have on Merlin in subsequent episodes.
With hindsight, of course Arthur had to reject the Old Religion: it would be boring if he hadn't. Nevertheless, it was the wrong decision to make. I consider The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley to be one of my favourite books in the world. In it, Arthur consigns himself to his own sorry fate because he listens to his pious wife, Gwenhwyfar and allows Christianity to triumph over the Old Religion. The book is told through the lens of half a dozen female characters in Arthur's life and it is the only positive portrayal of Morgaine/Morgana/Morgan le Fay etc that I've ever come across. Whenever I read it (not often) or even think about it, I always end up taking a very pro-High Priestess/magic/Morgaine/feminist perspective and end up totally loathing Gwenhwyfar and to a lesser extent, the rise of Christianity. Hence my support for magic and the Old Religion in Merlin. I'll be interested to see whether the Old Religion/Goddess/Disir/Arthur's fate features much in conversation and plot in later episodes.