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Castle Pendragon is like that really terrible beach house that families go to year after year. In between visits, your folks probably forgot how much they hate the place, only to be newly cursing its existence by the third day back. This week’s Camelot once again saw Arthur heading to Morgan’s residence, because the last visit went SO WELL for everyone involved. Luckily, tonight’s episode represented a huge improvement over last week’s low point for the series.

But Lord almighty, the show started off poorly. It’s almost like STARZ saw Guinevere’s pleas last week’s of “Can we just lay here and cuddle?” and lost their collective mind. The first ten minutes of tonight’s show screamed, “Oh right, we’re on cable: bring in the breasts!” Between the lingering shots of Morgan’s wet body (with in-show audience stand-in Harwel enjoying the view a bit too much) and the Dance of the Seven Nipples as dinnertime entertainment for Camelot’s finest, the episode screamed for attention at the outset. This only made me block my ears as well as eyes, especially after the last few weeks proved 80’s one-hit wonder Jermaine Stewart’s theory applied to this show as well as his love life: Camelot doesn’t have to take its clothes off to have a good time.

However, once Morgan and Sybil set their plan in motion, the quality of the show upticked immediately. The fiery attack on Castle Pendragon not only set the stage for the mind games to come, but managed to produce a fairly thrilling action sequence that showed Arthur’s instinctual desire to help his people. It’s one thing for Arthur to talk a good game about how he wants to rule, and another to see theory put into practice. Couple this with a truly great swordfight between Leontes and Gawain in the bottom part of the hour, and you have a show increasingly capable of producing the type of epic action that any good Arthurian tale should have.

Indeed, the middle section of the episode played in many ways like Helm’s Deep from the Lord of the Rings film trilogy. The pause before battle not only weighed heavily on the understaffed forces within. It also gave certain players nowhere to run when confronted by others. It’s a central maxim of good drama that any time one person can simply leave, there’s no tension holding the scene together. Scene after scene tonight showed people forced together thanks to the imaginary threat of Uther’s old nemesis, Aldwulf.

Now, in one respect, the hour’s goal was simple: pull a switch and substitute Ingraine the Original for Ingraine the Imposter. One could argue that the ruse concocted was far too elaborate for what could have been achieved in a myriad of easier ways. But as we started a few weeks ago, Morgan is learning that simply killing Arthur won’t do her much good. Much like Merlin used the skills of a political operative to puff up Arthur’s credentials leading up to him pulling the sword from the stone, Morgan uses the power of mythmaking to trump up her own army while simultaneously putting herself in position to undermine Arthur’s from within his own walls.

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While the fact that she plans on doing so through Arthur and Guinevere’s now-reignited feelings for each other is still a touch too melodramatic for my tastes, I think this hour went a long way towards making Leontes a three-dimensional character for the first time this season. Until now, he’s been loyal but bland, a man that Guinevere chose out of plot necessity as opposed to anything to do with him in particular. The show started down this path of character exploration for him in “Three Journeys.” But in learning the source of his faith as the unending search for atonement, we can know see Leontes as more than simply husband to Guinevere and champion to Arthur.

In fact, this episode went a long way towards finally lifting up towards, though still far from achieving, the heights of another STARZ program. The first ten minutes of tonight’s episode are what most people who have never seen Spartacus: Blood and Sand think of when that show gets mentioned. But in fleshing out Arthur’s knights, Camelot really got at what makes Spartacus truly work: taking seemingly stock characters and investing you in these specific iterations. I don’t want to do simplistic correlations here; Gawain does not equal Crixus, after all. But there’s a camaraderie building between these men that reminds me quite a bit of the interactions in Batiatus’ ludus. Kay, Leontes, Gawain, and even Brastias all have moments that give credence to their overall bonding as a unit.

Would that the same could be said for the ladies of the show. Spartacus gives both male and female characters equal weight and complexity, but Camelot isn’t quite there yet with its women. Morgan’s new approach largely works, and her scenes with Sybil have an air of evil without an overabundance of melodrama. (Even if the two have seemingly forgotten everything that happened during the trail last week.) But Guinevere and Ingraine just haven’t quite achieved liftoff yet. Two weeks ago saw a turnaround for Guinevere, who moved on from pure passive love interest to a person who could make valuable contributions as not simply a woman but a citizen of Camelot. And while “Three Journeys gave her a moment in which she could defend herself from attackers, tonight’s episode took her too fast and too hard down the road to Wonder Woman Land. I’m all for strong women, and especially a strong Guinevere. But it has to come organically within the story, not out of some wish fulfillment or episodic plot need.

As for Ingraine, it’s a classic example of a show telling us something about a character rather than actually showing it. Morgan’s switcheroo is based on this apparent truth: Ingraine has the ear and respect of everyone in Camelot, especially the women. Now, quite frankly, that was news to me. Ingraine has largely stood on the sidelines this season, with occasion scenes here and there to remind us that she’s still in the show. But of all the oft-recurring female roles, hers has been the weakest. Now, this Freaky Friday twist might actually bring some life to this character. However, in some ways, a more interesting Ingraine would probably be a dead giveaway to anyone inside Camelot. So, in a way, it will be more interesting to see if Claire Forlani can sink her teeth more into this role, rather than see how Morgan will use that visage in order to further along her own plot.

All this of course hinges on a romantic triangle that will undo Arthur’s rule more than a thousand soldiers ever could. Having that as the guillotine looming over their heads isn’t inherently a bad way to create tension. Having a central emotional core to ground the show’s sprawling action is hardly new, and often effective. But it only really works if you believe in the triangle itself. Arthur’s declaration of love this week had a touch more maturity than his protestations on the beach back in “Guinevere,” and certainly builds off the final moments of “Three Journeys,” but it’s almost undeniable that Jamie Campbell Bower is far more effective figuring out how to be a leader rather than a lover at this point. That’s not to say he can’t pull off romantic scenes. But I’d challenge any two actors to take the dialogue that he and Tamsin Egerton have been given and make those scenes work. I had hoped a few weeks back that the show had lain to rest any major romantic tension between the two for the foreseeable future, but I guess the show urinated on my head from atop the wall of Castle Pendragon in this regard.

Random observations:

  • Jesus, these opening credits are long. They are the anti-Mr. Sunshine of opening credits. They are the “In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida” of opening credits. I made a sandwich in the time it took these things to roll.
  • If you had “each time the camera pans to Morgan eavesdropping on a conversation in her own castle” in your Camelot drinking game, well, you’re not reading this review. Because you’re dead.
  • It’s good to know that Arthur’s men not only fight together, but they have sex with whores in the same room together. Bonding at its finest.
  • Also at its finest this week: Joseph Fiennes’ overacting. It somehow went all around the bend and came back as something almost natural. It’s often laughter-inducing, and sometimes it’s even MEANT to be so.
  • Given the events surrounding Osama bin Laden’s death, Merlin’s desire to see Aldwulf’s dead body sure takes on a lot more meaning this week than it would have earlier in the season, no?
  • I want a series of Gawain training videos. All that stuff about cutting the spears in half was instructive without being didactic. As soon as I get my own castle, I’m totally ordering my men to cut their spears to proper length.
  • Dear Camelot: Never ever make Arthur say “What the HELL is going on here?” again. I let most of this anachronistic dialogue slide, because I took a semester of Anglo-Saxon in college and still have nightmares about it. But at least try not to sound 90210, if possible.
  • “Knowledge is pain.” That explains why my college roommates never studied.
  • "I think every castle should have a pet nun."

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