The Poisoned Chalice
As with the last episode, the show once again opens on Nimueh standing over her stone basin and staring down into the water within it. She chants a spell and adds blood and a flower petal to the water before placing it gently within a silver chalice.
In the Camelot throne room Uther, Arthur, the knights and the rest of the court stride forward in order to greet King Bayard of Mercia, who has arrived in order to sign a peace treaty. The two kings shake hands as the rest of the court applauds, but among Bayard’s collection of retainers is Nimueh, disguised as a servant.
Whilst carrying bags for the guests Merlin is pleasantly distracted by Nimueh, who “accidentally” trips over in front of him and introduces herself as Cara. Merlin is rather flattered at her attention, and watches starry-eyed as she leaves. What he doesn’t know is that she’s heading straight for Bayard’s quarters, which she unlocks with a spell before replacing a silver goblet in a ceremonial chest with the identical one that she enchanted earlier.
Merlin helps Arthur prepare his clothing for the banquet that night, and Arthur informs him that he’s expected to attend in the capacity of a cup-bearer. He even gets to wear a special outfit for the occasions, though Merlin’s gobsmacked expression at the clothing Arthur holds up suggests that they’re not entirely to his liking. Sure enough, at the banquet that night, Merlin is forced to wear a giant feathered hat.
Guinevere joins him and has a giggle at his new outfit, but soon notices that his gaze is drawn to Nimueh across the other side of the room. As Bayard and Uther finish signing the treaty, Bayard steps forward to present two matching goblets to Arthur and Uther as a token of their newfound friendship.
At this point Nimueh rushes up to Merlin and tells him that she needs to talk to his about something serious. Merlin follows her out into the corridor where she frantically whispers that she saw Bayard poisoning Arthur’s goblet. Merlin doesn’t hesitate. Just as Bayard toasts the royal family and they raise their goblets to drink, Merlin rushes in and takes the goblet from Arthur.
He insists that the goblet is poisoned, and the knights of Mercia and Camelot instantly draw their swords. Uther reminds Bayard that he’s outnumbered and as the tension rises, Uther demands to know why Merlin thinks the goblet is poisoned. But Merlin promised “Cara” that he wouldn’t divulge her name to the king, and after both Bayard and Arthur offer to drink from it, Uther decides that Merlin should do it.
Arthur protests, but Uther is adamant: if Merlin dies, they’ll know he was telling the truth. If he lives, then he’ll get handed over to Bayard to do with him as he wills. Arthur, Gaius and Gwen watch in growing alarm as Merlin agrees to drink from the cup. Nimueh watches from the shadows, smiling in glee. Merlin carefully toasts Arthur and then downs the contents. For a moment it seems that nothing has happened, but just before Merlin is about to be handed over to Bayard, Merlin begins to choke and collapses to the ground.
Uther orders that Bayard and the knights of Mercia be arrested, as Gaius and Arthur rush up to Merlin. Arthur hoists him over his shoulder and Gwen collects the goblet as they head for Gaius’s chambers.
In the physician’s quarters Merlin is laid down upon the bed. Gwen tends to him with a cool cloth on his forehead as Gaius discovers the flower petal in the goblet and looks it up in one of his books. It is a petal from the mortaeus flower, which only grows in the caves beneath the Forest of Balor, guarded by a vicious cockatrice. Arthur takes a moment to consider, and then says:
Arthur: Sounds like fun.
Gaius warns him about going, but without the antidote Merlin will die a slow and painful death.
Nimueh smiles to herself as she takes a horse from the stables and gallops away into the night. Meanwhile, Gwen apologises to Morgana in her rooms that she hasn’t been there to attend to her, but Morgana insists that she return to Merlin. At the same time, Arthur is trying to convince his father to let him go in search of the mortaeus flower, but Uther is being grimly pragmatic about the whole situation:
Uther: What's the point of having people to taste for you if you're going to get yourself killed anyway?
Arthur: I won't fail, no matter what you think.
Uther: Arthur, you are my only son and heir. I can't risk losing you for the sake of some serving boy.
Arthur: Oh, because his life's worthless?
Uther: No, because it's worth less than yours.
Arthur: I can save him. Let me take some men.
Arthur: We'll find the antidote and bring it back.
Arthur: Why not?!
Uther: Because one day I will be dead and Camelot will need a king. I'm not going to let you jeopardise the future of this kingdom over some fool's errand.
Arthur: It's not a fool's errand. Gaius says that if we can get the antidote...
Uther: Oh, Gaius says? That's exactly what makes it so.
Arthur: Please, Father. He saved my life. I can't stand by and watch him die.
Uther: Then don't look. This boy won't be the last to die on your behalf. You're going to be King. It's something you'll have to get used to.
Uther forbids Arthur from leaving the castle, at which point Arthur storms back to his quarters where Morgana quietly joins him. She gently chides him on his reluctance to act, and when Arthur points out that it’s not just his life at stake but the future of Camelot, she presents him with his sword:
Morgana: And what kind of king would Camelot want? One that would risk his life to save that of a lowly servant? Or one who does what his father tells him to?
From her stone basin, Nimueh watches Arthur leave the castle under the cover of night, though his passage is noticed by the guards who futilely try to prevent him from leaving.
The next morning Gwen and Gaius tend to Merlin whose fever is worse and he is beginning to mutter in a strange language. Gaius notices a rash on his arm and fears that magic has increased the flower’s potency. The two realize that Bayard is no sorcerer…which means that someone else is responsible. Gaius sends Gwen down to the dungeons to search for the dark-haired girl that Merlin was speaking to right before the poison fiasco – but when Gwen looks over the servants in their cell, she is nowhere to be found.
In Morgana’s room Uther is ranting about Arthur disobeying his orders, and gradually twigs that Morgana knew all about his night time escape from the castle.
Uther: You knew about this, didn't you? Morgana...don't lie to me.
Morgana: Arthur's old enough to make decisions for himself.
Uther: He's just a boy.
Morgana: Have you seen your son recently? You have to let him make his own mind up.
Uther: Even if it means letting him go to his death?
Arthur is currently galloping through mountainous country on his horse, watched by Nimueh as she draws her hood over her head and departs for the next phase of her plan. Unbeknownst to both of them, Merlin seems to be aware of what’s going on, as he mutters Arthur’s name in warning as Arthur approaches the trap that Nimueh has set for him.
He hears crying in a forest clearing and approaching Nimueh sitting on a fallen log. Before he can ascertain if she’s alright, the cockatrice emerges from the forest and roars at him. Warning Nimueh to stay back, Arthur engages the creature in combat, and remembering that its bite is poisonous, kills it by throwing his sword into its heart. He turns to Nimueh, asking her about the bruises on her arms, and she tells him that she’s a runaway slave. She offers to guide him through the caves to the flower he seeks, and Arthur warily follows her into the darkness.
The mortaeus flowers grow on the cave wall on the other side of a deep crevasse that can be crossed by a narrow ledge. As he inches forward, Nimueh mutters a spell and the ledge collapses beneath him – though luckily he manages to jump for the other side and cling to the rock face. As Arthur demands to know who Nimueh is, she points out that they’re soon to be joined by a large collection of spiders. Telling him that it’s not his destiny to die at her hands, Nimueh turns and leaves Arthur in darkness.
Back in the physician’s chambers, Gaius has sent Gwen for some more herbs, and watches in amazement as Merlin conjures a glowing ball of light in his hand. Back at the caves, Arthur sees an identical ball of light materialize before him, urging him to climb toward the top of the cave. Despite being beset by giant spiders, and perhaps subconsciously hearing Merlin’s pleas to leave, Arthur collects a flower from the cave wall and secures it in his porch. Then he begins to climb and emerges in the forest at the top of the cave. Back at the castle, the light disappears from Merlin’s hand.
As Arthur rides into Camelot he is angry to find that the guards have been ordered to arrest him. Uther visits him in his dungeon cell.
Uther: You disobeyed me.
Arthur: Of course I did, a man's life is at stake. Do not let Merlin die because of something I did.
Uther: Why do you care so much? The boy is just a servant.
Arthur: He knew the danger he was putting himself in, and he knew what would happen if he drank from that goblet, but he did it anyway. He saved my life. There's more. There was a woman at the mountain. She knew I was there for the flower. I don't think it was Bayard who tried to poison me.
Uther: Of course it was.
Arthur pulls out the flower
Arthur: Gaius knows what to do with it.
Uther takes the flower
Arthur: Put me in the stocks for a week, a month even, I don't care. Just make sure it gets to him. I'm begging you.
Uther crushes the flower
Uther: You have to learn there's a right and a wrong way of doing things. I'll see you're let out in a week. Then you can find yourself another servant.
Uther drops the flower right outside Arthur’s cell. As soon as he’s gone Arthur reaches out to grasp it – though he still has no way of getting it to Gaius. Upstairs, Gwen and Gaius have heard about Arthur’s predicament and have no way of learning whether he has the antidote or not. Glancing down at Merlin struggling to breathe, Gwen declares that she has a plan of her own…
Gwen heads down into the dungeons with a plate of food and explains to the guards that it’s for the prisoner. Arthur glances up as she enters the cell and recognises her. He orders her to put it down on a small table, but when Arthur gets up to inspect it, he insists that he couldn’t possibly eat it. Gwen retrieves the plate, and smiles secretly to see that Arthur has placed the flower amidst the food. After a Hey, Wait!
moment with one of the guards, who is really just after a snack and doesn’t even notice the flower there on the plate, Gwen makes a bolt for it when another serving girl enters with food for Arthur.
Gwen rushes the flower back to Gaius who quickly asks her to get more water so that he can use his own magic on the antidote. A little nervously he performs a spell over the flower, pours the potion into a cup, and forces it into Merlin’s mouth. He and Gwen watch in horror as Merlin stops breathing and both blame themselves as Gaius confirms that he has no heartbeat. They are embracing each other in tears when Merlin awakes and takes in the sight of them:
Merlin: That's disgusting. You should be ashamed of yourself. You're old enough to be her grandfather.
Overcome with relief, Gwen leans down and kisses him – much to Merlin’s surprise. The last thing he can remember is drinking the wine.
Gaius enters the council chamber to speak with Uther who is preparing for war with Mercia. Gaius insists that it was Nimueh and not Bayard who tried to kill Arthur, and though Uther tries to deter him, he’s eventually forced to admit that it makes sense.
Gaius: It wasn't Bayard. The poison was magical. And I'd recognise the hand that made it anywhere: Nimueh.
Uther: You must be mistaken.
Gaius: I wish I was.
Uther: It can't have been. We'd know her. That witch's face is not easily forgotten.
Gaius: She's a powerful sorceress. She can enchant the eye that beholds her. We never knew it was her.
Uther: Have you any proof?
Gaius: The poison used against Merlin was made more potent by the use of magic.
Uther: Are you saying that she conspired with Bayard to kill Arthur?
Gaius: No, Bayard is innocent. Look at what's happening. This is what she's wanted all along. A war to bring strife and misery to Camelot.
Uther commands a halt to his soldiers, and Gaius commends him on his decision. A while later, Arthur, Morgana and Uther watch from the battlements as Bayard and his men ride away from Camelot, the situation presumably salvaged by some last-minute diplomacy.
Arthur confesses to Morgana that he was helped on his adventure by a strange guiding light that he credits with saving his life. Morgana leaves and Uther approaches to speak with his son:
Uther: Arthur? The woman you met in the forest, what did she tell you?
Arthur: Not much. She was too busy trying to get me killed. It was strange, though.
Uther: In what way?
Arthur: I was at her mercy. She could have finished me off, but she chose not to. She said it wasn't my destiny to die at her hand.
Uther: You must've been scared.
Arthur: Had its moments.
Uther: Those who practice magic know only evil. They despise and seek to destroy goodness wherever they find it. Which is why she wanted you dead. She is evil.
Arthur: Sounds as if you know her.
Uther: I do. To know the heart of one sorcerer is to know them all. You did the right thing. Even though you were disobeying me. I'm proud of you, Arthur. Never forget that.
Arthur visits the physician’s chambers in order to check on Merlin, and Merlin thanks him for fetching the antidote.
Arthur: Yeah, well, it was nothing. A half decent servant is hard to come by. I was only dropping by to make sure you're alright. I expect you to be back to work tomorrow.
Merlin: Oh yeah, yeah of course, er, bright and early.
Merlin: Arthur. Thank you.
Arthur: You too. Get some rest.
Gaius points out that there aren’t many who would have done what Arthur did to save the life of a servant. Merlin asks why Nimueh went to all the trouble of framing Bayard when she could have just kept quiet and poisoned Arthur. Gaius tells him that her plan wasn’t just to destroy Camelot – her main goal was to kill Merlin.
Gaius: Seems someone else knows you're destined for great things, Merlin.
- Abusive Parents: The way Arthur talks to Uther about putting him in the stocks suggests that it's something that has happened before.
- A Light in the Distance: Merlin conjures a ball of light to help guide Arthur out of the caves.
- Batman Gambit: Nimueh bets on Uther's short temper and Merlin's Chronic Hero Syndrome to poison the latter and start a war between Camelot and Mercia. Even if Merlin hadn't intervened, she still would have successfully poisoned Arthur and caused chaos between the two kingdoms.
- Cargo Ship: That giant feathered hat is rather popular amongst the fandom...
- Clothing Damage: Nimueh's artfully torn dress.
- Color-Coded for Your Convenience: Knights and servants of Camelot wear red; knights and servants of Mercia wear blue.
- Decoy Damsel: Nimueh in the forest.
- Distracted by the Sexy: Merlin to Nimueh when she accidentally bumps into him.
- Early Installment Weirdness: The telepathic bond that Merlin seems to have with Arthur has not been brought up again.
- Chekhov's Gun: It shows up again in The Diamond of the Day ,over four seasons later, when Merlin warns Arthur about Camlann.
- Find the Cure: Arthur's quest.
- Giant Spiders
- Kick the Dog: Uther throws away the morteus flower to teach Arthur a lesson rather than simply give it to Gaius.
- Nice Hat: Gwen utters these exact words when commenting on the feathered monstrosity on Merlin's head.
- Psychic Link: Merlin and Arthur appear to have one when Merlin sends a ball of light to guide Arthur through the caves. However, this has never been mentioned since and on waking up, Merlin doesn't even seem to be aware that it's happened at all.
- Tampering with Food and Drink: The titular chalice.
- Throwing Your Sword Always Works: Merlin may or may not have guided it, but that scene comes before it's clearly shown Merlin can affect events as well as watch.
- Too Dumb to Live: Uther, if you would like the next person who suspects a poisoning attempt against your family to tell you about it and not just let you die, you might want to reconsider making them drink the thing they said was poison.
- Villain Opening Scene: Just like the last episode, it opens with a scene of Nimueh in her cave.
- Weapon Twirling: Arthur feels the need to twirl his sword in his hand before throwing it into the cockatrice.
- Withholding the Cure: Uther refuses to take the morteus flower to Gaius in order to save Merlin's life, believing it was more important that Arthur be taught a lesson in obedience.
- Wounded Gazelle Gambit: Nimueh pulls one of these in the forest.