Title Darkness on the Edge of Town
Two-Sentence Summary Rumplestiltskin uses Cruella and Ursula to get back into Storybrooke, while flashbacks reveal how the two women originally teamed up with Maleficent after being betrayed by Rumplestiltskin. Their entrance into the town coincides with the arrival of a new monster, which preys on the heart with the greatest potential for darkness.
Favorite Line “I suppose we should go out and see what’s killing the property values this time.” (Regina)
My Thoughts Self-awareness and what we do with it are major themes on Once Upon a Time. The only way its characters can truly become their best selves is by coming to terms with both their best and worst and choosing to be their best. The classic hero’s journey in mythology typically involves a trip to the darkest parts of the underworld, and on Once Upon a Time, that underworld is often internal—these characters face the darkness in themselves and either choose to embrace it, hide it, or work to be better than it. We all have darkness inside of us—even the most heroic—but it’s what we do with that darkness that determines who we are. “Darkness on the Edge of Town” set up a lot of things for the rest of this half-season, but perhaps the most important thing it established was this idea of knowing your darkness and choosing what to do with that knowledge of your worst self.
In an episode that dealt heavily with the idea of self-awareness, it helped to have writing that was also wonderfully self-aware. This was the funniest and most purely entertaining Once Upon a Time episode in ages. Maybe I’m just saying that because absence makes the heart grow fonder, but I honestly had so much fun watching this episode that the hour flew by. For as wonderful as Season 4A was, it was pretty heavy, with little comic relief (besides Elizabeth Lail’s Anna). Therefore, it was nice to start Season 4B with some very sharp humor from so many characters—from Hook calling the Internet a magic box and Regina wondering about property values to Rumplestiltskin eating ramen and Ursula being fed up with him mooching off of her in New York.
There was something so delightful about the “Villains: They’re Just Like Us!” angle this episode took when dealing with Rumplestiltskin, Cruella, and Ursula. It’s what makes this show so special, and it’s something I think gets lost from time to time as the plots get more complicated and dark: This is the only show on television where Rumplestiltskin, Ursula, and Cruella de Vil can take Cruella’s car through a drive-thru and order fast food. (Who caught the Lost shout-out with the franchise they visited?) It sounds like the setup for a horrible joke, but it’s that kind of multi-fairytale/real-world mash-up that made Once Upon a Time so unique in the first place. In an episode filled with highly entertaining moments, nothing could top those supervillains picking up fast food like it was the most normal thing in the world. Even Queens of Darkness need to eat.
I loved the introduction to the Queens of Darkness in the midseason finale, and I was so happy to know that my initial impressions weren’t wrong. Whether it was in the flashbacks or the present-day storyline, those fierce lady villains were my favorite things about “Darkness on the Edge of Town.” I especially loved watching Merrin Dungey (a favorite of mine from my days as an Alias fangirl) and Victoria Smurfit settle into their roles as Usrula and Cruella, respectively. I’ve always liked Kristin Bauer van Straten, but I think it’s going to take some time before I stop comparing her take on Maleficent with Angelina Jolie’s brilliant turn as that character. However, I did become more intrigued by Maleficent after discovering that she had the heart with the greatest potential for darkness out of all three of those admittedly dark women. It makes me wonder what her backstory is going to look like and how different it will be from the film.
If I’m being honest, there’s one Queen of Darkness I’m just a little more captivated by than the others—and that’s Cruella. I thought giving her the magical ability to control dogs (Or will it be all animals?) was a brilliant touch, but she could have had no magic and I still would have been intrigued by her thanks to Smurfit’s scene-stealing work. Every single time she was in the frame, my eyes were drawn to her. The way she carried herself, the way she delivered each line, and her fantastically dry sense of humor combined to create a character who’s already memorable after only two episodes. When she pulled the gun on Rumplestiltskin, it became clear that this is a woman—and really a team of women—who mean business, and I can’t wait to see more of them.
Whether it was Cruella and Ursula in the present or all three Queens of Darkness coming together in the flashbacks, it was great to watch three strong female characters form a formidable team—even if it’s a team with an evil endgame. That was another running theme in this episode: It matters who you surround yourself with. Those women were brought together because of their shared darkness, and they formed alliances within their group and with Rumplestiltskin that enabled their darkest sides instead of helping them choose to be better people.
In Storybrooke, the idea of finding support from others was there from the start of this episode. We saw glimpses of Henry hugging Regina and Emma kissing Hook (Fangirl side note: I LOVED the casual intimacy we saw from those two in this episode!), and those two character pairings were revealing. Regina and Hook are characters who are working to overcome their dark pasts to be better people, and Henry and Emma have been there to support them along the way.
It was also lovely to see Hook and Belle’s newfound friendship. Not only does it make perfect sense for the two people most damaged by Rumplestiltskin and most angry with themselves over being controlled by him to find comfort in knowing they’re not alone; it says really wonderful things about the possibility of redemption even after acts of total darkness. Hook shot Belle when he was at his lowest point. And yet there they were, sharing a moment of honesty and genuine kindness together in the library. People can grow and change, and this friendship is an example of Hook changing for the better and Belle being open enough to accept that change and forgive him. This is a friendship that I’ve been hoping to see develop for a while because these two characters have some pretty big things in common now, and they both could use some more friends. I’m so happy to see it being treated with real care and vulnerability from the writers, as well as Emilie de Ravin and Colin O’Donoghue.
It was wonderful to see Belle have so much to do in this episode, even though it broke my heart to find out that Rumplestiltskin found a way to manipulate her even outside of Storybrooke. It was a great twist, but it made it even harder for me to ever accept the idea of him finding a way back into her good graces someday. Even though Rumplestiltskin ultimately pulled the strings, it was still a victory in the moment to see Belle and Hook work together to free the fairies after both of them felt responsible for their imprisonment.
Hook’s guilt over what happened to the fairies was important when thinking about this episode in terms of characters’ self-awareness and what they choose to do with the knowledge of who they really are. Hook is one of the show’s most self-aware characters. He wants so badly to be more than who he once was, and I was thrilled to see some follow-up from last season’s attempt by Rumplestiltskin to prey on his worst self. It was beautiful to watch Emma encourage him to see himself not for the darkness he’s capable of but for the good person—the hero—he chooses to be. For so long we’ve watched Hook encourage Emma to see the best in herself, so it seemed fitting to now watch Emma encourage Hook to believe in his own goodness. These two characters have made a great team from the start of their relationship, but what makes them a stronger team now than ever before is that sense of equality—that sense that when one is struggling, the other can offer support. That ability for both of them to help the other believe in and be their best self is going to be incredibly valuable this season if Emma’s heart is really going to be put to the test.
Emma was a little bundle of emotional support in this episode, which showed just how far she’s come from the person who used to push people away if they got too close. She was there to help Hook through his moment of self-doubt, and she was consistently there for Regina throughout the episode—showing a new team in the making that has the potential to bring wonderful things out of both characters. I really liked the lame jokes (“buckle some swash!”) and slight awkwardness Jennifer Morrison brought to Emma’s attempts to cheer up both Hook and Regina because it underscored the idea that this is all new for Emma, which made the fact that she reached out to them at all feel like huge moments of growth for this character and important contrasts to the idea of her heart having a great potential for darkness.
I think anyone who saw the main promo for this episode knew that Chernabog (another great Fantasia reference!) was actually going after Emma and not Regina, but it was still interesting to watch it all unfold. I’ve always said that both women are two sides of the same coin, and Emma has as much of a villain’s backstory as any character on this show. It’s not unrealistic to think of her as having the greatest potential for evil in Storybrooke. For so long, Emma lived without any genuine self-awareness. She didn’t know the truth about her own identity; her agency was taken from her time and again. And once she became aware of her true self, she was burdened with the knowledge that she was destined to be the savior—the ultimate hero. She faced the darkest parts of her magic in Season 4A, but we’ve yet to see her really tempted by darkness in her heart. And, as this episode reminded us, we all have parts of ourselves that are dark. The key is to face them and choose to define ourselves not by our potential to do bad things but by our choices to do good things. Regina’s going through this process, Red went through this process, Hook is still going through this process—we saw even Charming and Snow have some dark skeletons in their closet. It’s time for Emma to become aware of not just who she is at her best but who she could be at her worst. Because it’s only after that trip into her underworld that she can become a true hero. (Think Luke Skywalker in the cave in The Empire Strikes Back.)
If Emma is going to be faced with the idea that she has a huge capacity for darkness, she’s going to need her team behind her—supporting her the way she’s currently supporting them. Emma’s support has helped Regina come to terms with who she was and who she can be. Regina’s growing sense of self-awareness is my favorite thing about her journey. She’s now someone who can admit she’s done terrible things and has been given a new chance to be better than who she was. It’s not easy, and I love the way Lana Parrilla is playing Regina’s acceptance of her own bad choices with simple honesty. Emma is going to need Regina to remind her that just because she knows she can be evil doesn’t mean she has to be.
You’re not defined your past deeds or by what someone says you have the potential to become in the future. You’re defined by the choices you make in the present. That’s what I found so interesting about the juxtaposition between Rumplestiltskin saying Emma’s heart has the greatest potential for darkness and Hook calling Emma an optimist during their quiet, happy moment of family time at Granny’s. There was such warmth in that moment, which contrasted so well with the foreboding nature of Rumplestiltskin’s words. Emma may say she’s an optimist just because of her parents and Henry, and that might be used to shake her. However, they’re not forcing her to choose hope; she’s finally learning to choose that for herself. Seeing Emma so happy and open, especially with Hook, reinforced the idea that, when Emma was finally given the agency to choose how to live her life, she chose to open her heart to hope and happiness—and not evil.
I firmly believe Hook and Regina are going to form the backbone of Emma’s team—her support system—as she faces the potential evil inside of her. They’ve been there, and she’s helped both of them through their darkness. Emma is going to need both Regina’s honest friendship and Hook’s steadfast love, and I’m excited to see what this storyline is going bring out of three characters and actors whom I am always eager to see more of.
But why won’t Emma’s parents play a bigger role in helping their daughter face this new challenge? They seem to have their hands full with their own brush with the dark side. I don’t know what this secret they’re hiding is, but I know I’m already enjoying this storyline’s potential because Ginnifer Goodwin was absolutely chilling in that final scene. It seems Snow and Charming have confronted their inner darkness, but instead of admitting and growing from it, they’re trying to hide it—and helping each other be less than their best selves in the process. It’s going to be heartbreaking to see Emma confront not just her own potential for darkness but her parents’ capacity for it, too. But I have a feeling all of this is going to make for great television.