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Once Upon a Time - The Dark Swan - Review

We’re back and in fine fashion as this is an excellent way to begin a season. “The Dark Swan” had it all, tension, humor, those small family moments we’ve come to love so much on Once Upon A Time. This episode was an excellent adventure and while I did find myself scoffing at a few moments that just seemed a bit too convenient, I really enjoyed this episode. Meeting new characters who melded so well into the fabric of this show was fun, as well as seeing what our old favorites are up to. And of course, meeting the Dark Swan herself, which makes me greatly look forward to what that character has in store for her friends and family, as well as the audience.

The episode begins with a flashback to Minneapolis 1989 and a theater playing Disney’s The Sword in the Stone. I’ve been outspoken before in my opinion that this show is best when it is light on the blatant Disney references, but for some reason being presented with a shout out in this way struck me as charming instead of being out of place. In the theater we see a small blonde girl, no doubt the youngest iteration of Emma Swan yet on the show, pickpocketing an Apollo bar from a nearby theater patron’s jacket. She isn’t able to enjoy her ill-gotten candy, however, as a stern usher appears, simply saying “Don’t”. Due to casting news, we know this is Merlin, even if that isn’t revealed in this episode. The biggest question here is how is he able to time travel and jumping realm, and why does he feel the need to visit this moment and give this warning? The wizard turned usher is not referring to the candy bar when he tells Emma “don’t”, he is speaking of Excalibur. One day Emma will have the opportunity to take Excalibur, but Merlin urges the young savior-to-be that she mustn’t, or else bad things will happen despite her good intentions. And in the blink of an eye the wizard disappears, leaving Emma with that cryptic warning.

A flourish of heroic music sets us off to the next scene in the Enchanted Forest. A sweeping overhead shot highlighting the landscape shows us three riders on horseback. A familiar face is among them, Sir Lancelot, who was last seen back in season two. He addresses one of the other riders as “Arthur” and they speak of a prophecy told by Merlin, though further explanation is lost as the three notice they have been beaten by another rider to whatever it is they seek.

The trio comes across a sword in a stone, THE sword in the stone, but another knight, Sir Kay, is already there. He gloats to Arthur and his fellow knights that they are too late and scoffs at the idea of Merlin’s prophecy. Kay goes to remove the sword and it won’t budge, the jewel in its hilt glowing right before Sir Kay is reduced to ashes. With slight hesitation, Arthur steps up and removes the sword with ease. As it slides from the stone, we see the end has broken off and what is lost from Excalibur looks awfully familiar. Excalibur was used to forge the Dark One’s dagger! This is a twist that I did not see coming and an excellent start to weaving the lore of Arthur and his Round Table into that of Once Upon A Time. Many fans have speculated online that the sword and the dagger were related, comparing the hilts for each, but who thought to think that the ends were the important part?

Arthur and his fellow knights are concerned that only half of Excalibur remains, but the new king vows to tell his people nothing, that he will take on the throne while they quest to make Excalibur whole. While Arthur presents himself as a good natured and honorable man, this deception right at the beginning of his reign tells me that he may not be entirely trustworthy when he encounters the rest of our Once Upon a Time heroes. It would be wise for our protagonists not to reveal all they know to the king.

The camera pans down the length of Excalibur and fades to the Dark One dagger bearing Emma’s name, a very visually interesting transition that leaves no doubt in anyone’s mind as to the relation of these two weapons. With that, the audience finds themselves back on the streets of Storybrooke, right where the season four finale left off. Hook, Robin, Henry, the Charmings, and Regina are all gaping at the dagger left in the savior’s wake and Regina seems especially irritated at Emma’s actions, perhaps due to guilt since the mayor has moved away from darkness and now one of the primary people who helped with that is consumed by it. Hook steps forward and attempts to use the dagger to summon Emma, but all he is met with is the ire of the evil queen. Regina deduces that since Emma did not appear, she is not in that world.

And Regina is right for we see Emma emerge from a stone vault similar to the one Rumpelstiltskin was reborn from in past episodes, no doubt in the Enchanted Forest. Emma’s clothes have changed as well, she is garbed in a fashion fitting the magical realm and it’s curious that her clothing is light and plain, not really reflecting an indulgent or grim demeanor as we have seen in past Dark Ones. A few bars of “Whistle While You Work” can be heard and we see Rumpelstiltskin waiting for Emma in all his sparkly glory. In actuality, this is merely a personification of the dark impulses in Emma’s head, which is a great opportunity to show the audience Emma’s struggle with her darkness rather than tell them, as well as incorporate Rumple into the season while his physical, darkness-free counterpart is still laid up in Storybrooke.

This vision of Rumple asks if Emma is ready to learn the ways of the Dark One, but the savior vows to never succumb to the temptation of her powers, even after Rumple mentions that all Dark Ones do eventually. The only way to stop is to be stopped. Now, in the past this has meant the death of the Dark One, with the powers and darkness transferring to a new host. Was Emma fated the shoulder this burden all along and end the darkness or was this what Merlin meant when he said to leave Excalibur alone? The Dark One dagger is still part of Excalibur after all. I think we need to take a close look at these prophecies of Merlin’s. Attempting to ignore her new traveling companion, Emma sets out to find Merlin, just as the Apprentice advised.

Back in Storybrooke, Hook, Regina, and the rest of the hero brigade are back at the pawn shop where Mother Blueperior is tending to the ailing Apprentice. He confirms Emma is in the Enchanted Forest, but is too weak to take the heroes there. Instead, he conjures a wand gifted to him by Merlin. In it contains all the light magic, but to cross realms it needs to be wielded by someone filled with darkness. I love that the Apprentice uses the phrase “both sides of the coin”, which I’ve always found apt when describing the dynamics of Emma and Regina, two similar women who took two different paths. Speaking of Regina, she takes the mention of darkness as her cue, but is unable to make the wand work. Without a doubt Regina is in the role of savior this season. Hook seems especially impatient due to his concern for Emma and lashes out at Regina, telling her they need someone wicked to wield the wand and her majesty no longer fits the bill. At the mention of “wicked” you can practically see Regina’s blood run cold. She knows they must seek the help of her sister Zelena, and adamantly refuses until Hook guilts her into it. Hook’s emotions in this episode prove to be his weakness as they cause him to do and say many rash things, as we will see.

Over in the Enchanted Forest, Emma comes across a rather unhelpful merchant who tries to swindle her when she asks for directions. Losing her temper, the merchant is suddenly levitated in a magical chokehold, shocking the savior. Emma’s ride-along Rumple informs her that this dubious act is her doing and Emma’s trembling hand indicates that yes, she is directing this magic. Emma gains control and the merchant scuttles off, leaving the savior shaken and without help.

In Storybrooke, Belle is at the real Rumple’s side in the pawn shop. Mother Blueperior arrives and insists Belle help the others find Emma. The librarian is hesitant to go, wanting to be at her husband’s side if he passes. The Blue Fairy thinks of everything though and conjures a rose in a bell jar just like in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. As long as the rose has its pedals, the beast will thrive. I am eternally suspicious of the Blue Fairy, as long-time readers will know, so I have to wonder why she is so keen on being alone with Rumpelstiltskin.

Cutting across town, Regina, Hook, and Robin find Zelena where they left her, in the hospital basement. Zelena is full to the brim with sass and some of the more humorous moments of this episode come from that. You can also tell Zelena is completely off her rocker at this point, seeing herself as the hero of the story in her head. Regina and company explain that they need the Wicked Witch’s help. Zelena is less than helpful, pushing all of Regina’s buttons, but Hook steps in to stop the family feud, demanding to know if Zelena will help. She says she will oblige and everyone in a three mile radius remains suspicious even after the witch mentions that she is still wearing the magical cuff that saps her powers. Zelena examines the wand and comes to the conclusion that a meaningful object is required for the it to zero in on Emma, mentioning that Regina’s magic isn’t strong enough to cast the spell. The Wicked Witch would be happy to accommodate them if only they remove that pesky cuff, but Regina flat out refuses and leaves. Hook lingers and Zelena cleverly plays into his desperation, essentially telling the pirate she is his only hope. Zelena has her own agenda here and if she is swept up in the adventures of everyone else it would be wise to keep an eye on her as she will be the most likely person to throw a wrench in the works. Zelena gains nothing from finding Emma so what lengths will she go to get her own way?

Returning to the Enchanted Forest and Emma unsuccessfully trying to ditch the voices in her head. Only she has been going around in circles and needs guidance. The savior doesn’t want to use dark magic in her quest to rid herself of dark magic, but her Rumple manages to trick her into teleporting to a place where she can find a magical force that will point Emma in the right direction, the Will o’ the Wisp. Even though this vision of Rumpelstiltskin is just a voice in her head, it’s proving to be more and more dangerous. Emma must catch the wisp in order to find Merlin.

And so Emma gives chase to the mysterious blue orb, only a cloaked figure proves to be more nimble and snatches the wisp away before Emma can. Lashing out, Emma commands the figure to stop, losing control and blasting the figure with magic. It is revealed when the mystery person turns her bow on Emma and throws of her cloak that she is a maid with fiery hair and an even fierier temper. This must be Merida from Disney’s Brave. Merida doesn’t take kindly to the magical attack and only lowers her bow when Emma explains she needs the wisp in order to rid herself of the dark magic coursing through her. Merida wants to help but she needs to wisp to save her kingdom and family. I’m surprised at how much I like Merida. She fits in with Once Upon A Time rather seamlessly for a newer story, and her energy and spunky attitude aren’t grating, nor are the references to her story discordant. I’m greatly looking forward to more of her in the season ahead. Emma refuses to fight the archer for the wisp, preferring Merida take it herself. This causes Merida to open up even more, offering to share the magical force with Emma so they both can succeed.

Back in Storybrooke, we find Hook confronting Henry at Granny’s Diner. The pirate begs Henry to use the Author’s quill to fix everything, but much to Hook’s disappointment Henry reveals he broke the quill. Henry reiterates that no one should have that much power and he’d be no better than the former Author if he uses his power to change things instead of recording them. Already we are seeing consequences of Henry’s actions. It was a noble gesture, but will it further impede our heroes in their tasks? Henry isn’t opposed to breaking rules, and a distracted Hook hatches a plan with Henry to go against Regina’s wishes and spring the Wicked Witch from her prison. Despite this being a terrible idea, I do like to see Hook and Henry having scenes together and bonding. Now that Henry has proven himself to be a hero and is able to take care of himself, seeing him on equal footing and working together with the adults will create some interesting dynamics in the future.

Quickly, Hook and Henry set their plan in action. The Truest Believer manages to distract Nurse Ratchet, who has finally be identified as such, allowing Hook to sneak away and find Zelena. The pirate asks for the witch’s help, but before he is willing to release Zelena from the cuff, Hook tries to hedge his bets by producing a potion that would allow his hook to remove a heart, thus keeping the Wicked Witch on a leash. Too bad Zelena learned well from her family and protected her heart from such meddling long ago. The magical blast that prevented her ticker from being taken knocks Hook for a loop and while he is stunned, Zelena grabs his dagger and with a crazed look in her eye, cuts off her own hand to be rid of the cuff. Once free, she is able to reattach the limb and poof herself away in a cloud of green smoke. The wild glee in her eyes as she taunts Hook before removing her hand adds to the idea that this woman, though she may be pregnant, sees that she has nothing to lose in her efforts to achieve her goals.

Back to the Enchanted Forest, we see Merida leading the way crashing through the underbrush. She’s in a hurry because her three young brothers were captured by enemy clans. Merida’s people lost faith in her as a queen, opening her lands up for attack. It’s interesting how the people on Merida’s side of the Enchanted Forest view female leaders considering queens like Show White and Regina ruled a good portion of the Enchanted Forest and Wonderland. Emma gets a fun quick aside, assuring Merida the men believing women are unable to lead isn’t exclusive to the fairy tale lands. Merida asserts herself by promising war if necessary to get her family back.

Emma gently persuades Merida to make camp and rest, but as night falls the savior can’t sleep. It doesn’t help that her Rumple pops up for another chat. Apparently Dark Ones don’t sleep and the vision of Rumple suggests that Emma take up a pastime similar to his spinning. I hope this factors in to later episodes and Emma takes up some absurd hobby to ward off the darkness. Rumple also informs Emma that the Will O’ The Wisp doesn’t really work how Merida said; it can’t be shared. Emma protests rather loudly at the idea of killing Merida for the wisp and this one sided conversation does not go unnoticed by the archer, who lies awake and wide-eyed at just how crazy her companion seems. It’s here we really realize how fractured Emma now is, struggling not with Rumple, but her own impulses.

In the Storybrooke mayor’s office, Regina is giving Hook the third degree about letting Zelena escape. Tempers are running high and the pirate accuses the queen of inaction, throwing out that perhaps she is happier with Emma out of the picture. Snow White puts her foot down, steering our band of heroes back on the right path by begging them to focus on Emma, who kept them united. There is too much that has gone on between these characters to allow that they instantly see eye to eye, but seeing how this group has grown and how they are able to snap in to focus on a common task only emphasizes how important it is to save Emma, the person who first got villain and hero to work together. Who they all are now is owed to Emma.

Regina realizes the one place her crazed sister would go to and we cut to the Charming’s loft, where the mayor rushes in right as Robin Hood has put Roland to bed. Regina is relieved to see that Robin is unharmed and at first I believed it was he who was Zelena in disguise, using her mother Cora’s old tricks, but a single kiss clues Robin in to the truth; Zelena is actually disguised as Regina. And the Wicked Witch has Robin in her sights.

We jump to the streets of Storybrooke, where Regina, clasping the wand, leads our heroes to the middle of town where Zelena waits with Robin. The trade is simple; the wand for the thief. Zelena is unhinged at this point, shrilly explaining that all she desired is to get as far away from her sister as possible. With her unborn child, Zelena plans to open a portal back to Oz. This entire speech is striking. The Wicked Witch has never had anyone to call her own, constantly rejected by those she though care for her. It’s quite heartbreaking to think that her intentions, however twisted, are for her to finally have someone to love her unconditionally. This pregnancy story line hasn’t been the most popular with some fans, but I think that as it plays out we will see Zelena at least start down the path towards a more stable mentality. I can’t wait for the child to be born just to see how actually holding an infant capable of unconditional love will affect the Wicked Witch of the West.

Regina sees no other choice but to trade the wand for her lover, despite the protests of Hook and Snow White. Gleefully, Zelena uses a trinket from Oz to activate the wand and cast a brilliant green tornado into the sky. Unfortunately for Zelena, this magical act has weakened her enough for Regina to snatch the wand away so she may direct the spell to Emma, while slapping the magical cuff on her sister’s wrist once more. One nitpick I have with this episode is there are a lot of assumptions going on. Zelena conveniently enchanted her heart so that it can’t be taken and Regina conveniently knew that casing the spell would drain Zelena’s powers. I can’t place my finger on why these things bothered me, perhaps because they cropped up as things we the audience should have already known.

With the spell cast, our heroes join together at Granny’s and prepare to be whisked away to the Enchanted Forest. It’s very poignant that Regina produced Emma’s baby blanket as a means of directing the spell and this especially touches Snow White. Even small moments between the evil queen and the fairest in the land are welcomed. Their relationship and how it has grown and evolved is one of the highlights of Once Upon A Time.

But before they leave, Grumpy, Doc, and Happy arrive. Grumpy insists on joining in the quest, commenting that he has been on the sidelines for too long. Many fans of the secondary characters would agree with Grumpy and I feel that the writers are making a distinct effort to let the viewers know that they haven’t forgotten about the more colorful denizens of Storybrooke. The wind howls and the diner shakes as it is lifted up and away in a very lovely looking bit of CGI work.

In the Enchanted Forest, Emma finds that Merida has ditched her. Panicking, desperate, and arguing with her mental demons, Emma teleports herself to Merida’s side. It seems that the savior is growing more comfortable with casually using her dark powers and even the slightest act of giving in to them spells trouble. Merida is naturally wary of a woman who was argued with herself about murder all night and is unwilling to help the savior any further, commanding Emma to leave. Emma circles Merida like a predator while the vision of Rumple taunts the savior to take drastic action.

Then Merida fires, aiming an arrow straight at the savior’s heart. Emma catches it, much to the surprise of all parties involved. Merida fires again and again while Emma deftly blocks every blow, all the while Rumpelstiltskin gleefully urges the savior to take Merida’s heart. This scene is incredibly tense as all the action builds and happens at once while the music grows more frantic. You can feel Emma becoming more and more overwhelmed as Merida fires her arrows frantically until the savior can take it no more and plucks Merida’s heart from her chest and begins to squeeze. But before Emma can do much harm, Hook arrives, bringing with him Emma’s extended family. It seems odd that they just appear in the nick of time without any preamble. One minute they are flying through the air in Granny’s Diner, the next they are already safely landed and have got their bearings. This is my only complaint with the pacing of this episode, it just seemed a bit sudden even though I know showing them landing would be a waste of screen time.

Emma tries to explain that this is the only way to find Merlin and stop her descent into darkness, but it is quickly pointed out that she will be giving in to that darkness if she acts. Snow brandishes the Dark One dagger, preparing to command Emma, but Hook points out that the savior must do this of her own free will. We see the mental apparition of Rumple feeding Emma lines and this will prove interesting in later episodes as it now brings up the question of whether or not Emma is speaking for herself every time she opens her mouth. Hook finally reaches Emma by reminding her that it was she who united them, villains and heroes, together as family. If they can overcome their differences and demons, then so can Emma. This is enough to convince Emma to return Merida’s heart to its rightful place.

Emma and Merida reconcile with the latter pointing out that she does indeed understand evil intentions as she was willing to go to war with those who took her brothers. Emma leaves Merida to chase after the Will O’ The Wisp and rejoins her family. Snow presents Emma with the dagger, but that shade of Rumpelstiltskin is still lurking the right at the edge of her vision, so the savior decides that it is safest with someone else. She chooses Regina, knowing that while their relationship has been rocky, the mayor will do what’s needed should the moment arise. There is a level of trust here that speaks of true friendship.

After that emotional decision has been made, Emma is naturally curious as to how her friends and family came to the Enchanted Forest. The hero brigade take Emma to Granny’s Diner, which has landed safely in a clearing and already we see Granny and Grumpy bustling about. I will say their addition to this adventure will bring a lot of levity to upcoming episodes. But before Emma can even catch her breath, our heroes are approached by a group of riders, led by none other than King Arthur. It seems Merlin has done more prophesizing, foretelling that Emma would arrive and help the king find his most trusted advisor. And so King Arthur bids our heroes to join him in Camelot, which is a beautiful piece of CGI work. The castle is grand and opulent and our heroes look around them in wonder as the pass over its entry way.

Jump ahead six weeks, where we see Sleepy and Sneezy, the latter sporting Emma’s iconic red leather jacket, cruising around in the sheriff’s squad car, patrolling Storybrooke on a quiet night. Quiet until a flash of light heralds the return of Granny’s Diner. The hero brigade is intact, each sporting a medieval-looking outfit. However, our heroes have no memory of the past six weeks, unaware that the time had even passed. For them, they were just crossing over Camelot’s moat not moments before. Snow White echoes my sentiments when she says “again?” in reaction to the memory loss. We’ve already seen this before in Once Upon A Time. And yet I’m not too bothered by it, mostly because I’m intrigued and eager to find out what happened to Emma, who enters the diner looking nothing like herself. Clad in black leather, the very picture of cold severe detachment, Emma stalks around, speaking in a monotone voice about how our heroes failed to remove her darkness. As this performance goes on Emma’s demeanor grows more and more creepy. I feel as if the acting choices here denote restraint. Emma is keeping both her rage and any remaining love she has for her family in check. We saw throughout the episode that whenever Emma lost her temper, the darkness flared out and the mental projection of Rumpelstiltskin disappeared when she showed affection to her family. What would happen if this new Dark One allowed herself to show either emotion, what consequences would occur?

Things have never been more serious in Storybrooke as the Dark Swan proclaims there to be no savior in this town anymore. And there’s no way to stop her because somehow, Emma has the dagger. The Dark Swan has decided to punish our heroes for what they did to her, an act we aren’t privy to yet but I’m sure will come out in the following episodes’ flashbacks. With one final declaration that she is indeed the Dark One, Emma Swan disappears in a puff of black smoke.

And there it is, our season five premiere, "The Dark Swan". What did you think, readers?

I deeply enjoyed this episode as I think it is one of the best examples we’ve seen on Once Upon A Time of weaving new legends and stories in to the mish-mashed Snow White lore at the core of this show. Camelot smoothly enters the scene and it makes sense for our characters to be there. I don’t trust anyone from Camelot however and I predict we will see many internal struggles and deceptions hiding under the gilded shell of Arthur’s realm. I certainly don’t trust Merlin. He knows so much due to his
prophecies and was there right at the beginning to influence Emma, playing a long con that would make Rumpelstiltskin blush.

I also truly am appreciating this interpretation of Merida. I admittedly haven’t see Brave, but I don’t think of that as a problem going into this season. Her character and backstory aren’t inaccessible and they don’t take away from the main focus of this season’s story, as I felt Frozen tended to do. And Merida herself is an intriguing character, her energy and fire are pleasant and not overbearing. She’s not a cartoon character brought to life, but a welcome addition to this season. I was afraid I would be annoyed with Merida but now I find myself looking forward to when she shows up next.

I realize that the structure of this season mirrors that of season 3B, what with the time jump and memory loss, but I look forward to seeing how Emma, who was so intent on fighting the darkness and seemed to actually be getting the upper hand, fell from grace. I have to admit I am also eager to see what this Dark Swan can do, what will happen once she cuts loose and unleashes the power she is holding back.

With so much to look forward to this season, don’t miss next week’s episode “The Price”!

About the Author – Ashley B
Ashley is as serious as a sleeping curse when she says television is her life. Professional event planner, avid movie viewer, convention enthusiast, and resident sass master, Ashley writes reviews for ABC's Once Upon a Time, Once Upon a Time in Wonderland, and Galavant, as well as Showtime’s Penny Dreadful. She looks forward each week to the weird and wonderful world her favorite television programs provide.
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