Welcome (or welcome back) to our weekly Once Upon a Time discussions here at NGN! I can’t wait to watch this season unfold, and I especially can’t wait to talk about it with all of you! And remember, if you’re interested, this would be a great time to start writing a letter to Emma, Regina, Snow, and any other favorite female characters for my book!
Title The Dark Swan
Two-Sentence Summary As Emma struggles with fighting against the darkness she’s continually tempted by after becoming the Dark One, her loved ones search for the best way to get to her. However, even after they find her, it appears their mission to save her didn’t go as planned, since six weeks later, Emma is the only one who can remember what happened in Camelot—and whatever it was that led to her fully embracing the darkness.
Favorite Line “It has to be her choice.” (Hook)
My Thoughts Once Upon a Time has always been a show about belief. On the surface, it’s a show about believing in fairytales and magic. But it’s really about the power of knowing someone believes in you and how that helps you believe in yourself. From the pilot through this Season Five premiere, Once Upon a Time has showed us that belief is power and love is strength. Those themes have woven themselves through every storyline and every character’s journey, and they were at the heart of “The Dark Swan.” By taking the core themes of the show and bringing them to light in a fresh way, “The Dark Swan” became my favorite Once Upon a Time season premiere since the show’s pilot episode.
Fighting to be your best self when you feel like no one cares about you is exhausting. It’s easier to just give in to your darker impulses, and sometimes we just want to do what’s easy instead of what’s right. I think that’s been something Emma’s struggled with at different times in her life. It was something we saw right from this episode’s first moments—with little Emma (How is the casting department so good at casting younger versions of the show’s actors?) stealing the woman’s candy bar because it was easy. Emma has always had those darker impulses; she spent a formative portion of her life as a thief, and she never had anyone to encourage her to make better choices when she was younger. (She had Neal, who was also a thief.)
Emma has also struggled at times with doing wrong things for the right reasons. (Changing the timeline by bringing “Marian” back from the past is a prime example.) And in the opening flashback, we saw one person give Emma a very important bit of advice about the choices she’ll make in the future concerning this idea. I don’t know how many of you follow casting spoilers, but the shots to the movie screen while the usher was talking pretty much gave it away anyway: He’s Merlin, and he knew Emma was going to be tempted at some point to do something wrong for the right reason. I’m intrigued by the prophecy that she’ll want to pull Excalibur from the stone, because for all we know Excalibur is now with Arthur. However, he could be talking about the dagger as part of Excalibur and “pulling it from the stone” as willingly taking on its power. No matter what comes of this prophecy and advice he gave young Emma, it’s clear Merlin knew of her importance long before our present timeline. I liked the idea that the Apprentice went to see Lily and Merlin went to see Emma when they were young, because I was upset last season that the Apprentice never sought out Emma to help her as a child. That small flashback set up what I’m sure will be an interesting dynamic in the future between Merlin and Emma, and it further emphasized the idea that choice is going to play a huge role in this Dark Swan arc.
While I was excited to see the connection between Emma and Camelot established so early on in the episode, I was even more excited to see the connection between the Dark One mythology and Camelot mythology established right off the bat—and in such an intriguing way. I never would have guessed that the dagger was part of Excalibur, but it makes perfect sense. Both are connected to Merlin. Both hold incredible power. And now Arthur wants both in order to make Excalibur whole. (Did Merlin purposely break the dagger off the sword, or did something else happen to it? One of this episode’s many questions.) Discovering the connection between the dagger and Excalibur did more than just create the cool shot of the sword in Camelot joining with the dagger on the streets of Storybrooke. (But seriously, how cool was that shot?!) It created motivation for Arthur to seek out the Dark One and the dagger that controls whoever it is. And it made me immediately skeptical of Arthur and his intentions as far as Emma is concerned.
However, Arthur was the only person whose intentions regarding Emma I doubted. (Until the last scene, of course.) One of my favorite things about “The Dark Swan” was the fact that every main character was united in their desire to find and help Emma—even if they had different ideas for how to go about it. The way these incredibly different characters ultimately united to save one of their own reminded me in the best possible way of the “Save Henry” arc in Season Three. Every one of these characters brings different strengths and weaknesses to the table, and it’s always fun to watch them come together (and to watch them squabble along the way—because who doesn’t love some good Regina/Hook banter?)
I enjoyed the juxtaposition of Emma struggling without her loved ones and her loved ones struggling without her. Everyone was a mess throughout much of this episode, and that felt right—even if it was hard to watch at times. I don’t mind watching characters make bad choices and do dumb things if that feels consistent with who we know them to be. Regina covered up her emotions with snarky comments. Snow held Neal a little tighter and tried to convince herself that Emma would still be good. Henry was willing to go behind Regina’s back to find Emma. And Hook let his emotions cloud his judgment to the point of doing something incredibly dangerous just to feel like he was fighting for the woman he loves.
I’m pretty sure I called Hook an idiot more than once during his interactions with Zelena. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t understand and even appreciate his dumb choices. That’s who he is: He never thinks clearly when his heart is involved. Also, it was pretty gosh-darn attractive to see him so hell-bent on reaching the woman he loves that he was willing to do anything and risk anything to get to her. (Or maybe it was just his hair that was so gosh-darn attractive—if you’ll allow me one moment of shameless appreciation of Colin O’Donoghue’s looks.) O’Donoghue made Hook’s desperation palpable, which was what was needed in order to make us understand why he was willing to cross into dangerously dark territory with Zelena. I especially appreciated the parallel between Hook trying to take out Zelena’s heart because of his desperation and Emma taking Merida’s heart out as an act of desperation later on in the episode. It’s easier to let darkness in when you feel desperate and you don’t have love to draw strength from, and I think Hook’s actions were a great example of that.
While Hook was busy going off the deep end without Emma, Snow and Regina were the voices of reason. (Side note: How great was it to see Leroy pledge his allegiance to Snow again? It was another great example of someone believing in a person and a cause they care about.) While Snow delivered the kind of “leader speech” I’ve missed seeing her make, this was really Regina’s time to shine. Every one of her scenes in Storybrooke showcased how far she’s come and how important her level head and sense of “right vs. easy” and “head vs. heart” will be in the struggles ahead.
It’s always fun to watch Regina and Zelena play off each other. Rebecca Mader and Lana Parrilla are such great scene partners, because Mader’s gleefully demonic take on Zelena contrasts so well with the control Parrilla brings to Regina. I remember when I used to find Zelena annoying, but now I find her fun. She’s great when she’s not the main villain of a season. From giddily reattaching her hand in front of a man who’s been one-handed for 300 years to her comment about not enjoying conceiving a baby with Robin, there’s something to be said for a little bit of campy evil in an episode that also dealt with the very heavy reality of darkness. Also, Zelena constantly serves as a reminder of how far Regina has come, which is always a good thing to think about.
Regina’s ability to hijack Zelena’s tornado and recapture her sister spoke to the power of thinking clearly in a stressful situation. Although that doesn’t mean Regina didn’t have any feelings about Emma’s disappearance. Parrilla showed in small moments—such as her soft look when she told Snow they were going to Emma and her handling of the baby blanket—that Regina genuinely cared about saving Emma, too. It was especially touching to see Regina and Snow interact with each other in this episode, because it felt like a way for Regina to atone a little bit for being the first person to take Emma from her parents all those years ago. This was her chance to bring that family together instead of tearing it apart, and that was such a powerful sign of how much this character has grown.
Regina has been able to find her best self and hold on to it—even in the face of Zelena’s machinations—because she has people by her side now who believe in her and who help her believe in herself. This episode reminded us of Robin and Regina’s love, as well as Henry’s belief in his mother’s abilities. The power of a support system was the central theme of this episode, and Regina’s support system has helped her become a person who wants to save instead of destroy, and that says so much about the power love has over darkness.
The power of love over darkness was at the center of Emma’s journey in this episode, and I’m sure it will be at the center of her journey throughout this arc. While we watched Emma’s loved ones struggle to find her, we also watched her struggle to find Merlin and not lose herself in the process.
Before I go any further, I need to give kudos to Jennifer Morrison for her work in this episode. This story could lend itself to overacting, but Morrison made every single beat resonate with a heavy kind of realism I wasn’t expecting. I was floored by the physicality of her performance—from the way her hands shook when she was trying to control her dark magic to the way her body language changed as the episode went on and Emma descended into various states of darkness. The combination of fear and self-loathing I was expecting to some degree, but it was the exhaustion Morrison portrayed in Emma’s eyes, voice, and body language that really sucker-punched me on an emotional level.
We all have our own demons, our own darkness. And fighting darkness is draining. It’s so hard to be strong when your own mind seems to be telling you to just give up and give in to those demons. In Season One, Emma famously said that people are going to tell you who you are your whole life, but you have to punch back and say, “No, this is who I am.” But it’s exhausting to keep punching back, especially against the negative voices in your own head. The toughest battles we fight are against our own worst selves, and now it’s Emma’s turn to fight that fight. But it’s a battle that seems to be taking all she has already, and this is only Episode One. There were so many times throughout the episode when my heart broke because Morrison made me believe how hard it was for Emma to fight the darkness when it’s taking every ounce of strength she has to do so.
It’s especially hard for Emma to fight the darkness because it’s manifested itself in the form of the greatest manipulator we’ve ever seen on this show: Rumplestiltskin. While I thought that the Enchanted Rose given to Belle was a nice little Disney Easter Egg, this was the Rumplestiltskin story I cared the most about in this episode—and the most I’ve been entertained by this character in a long time. I love when Robert Carlyle gets to remind us just how talented he is. There’s a gleeful kind of freedom he brings to this part of his character that fits so well with playing the devil on Emma’s shoulder. (Or the Emperor to her Anakin/Luke. Someone please tell me they also saw the huge Star Wars parallels?) This was such a creative way to bring back a version of Rumplestiltskin that everyone can unanimously love to hate, and it also perfectly paralleled the way he taught Regina (and to an extent Cora and Zelena) to embrace her darkness. Whether he was telling Emma to take up a hobby to get her through her sleepless nights or narrowing his eyes and telling her to kill Merida, the swing between the amusing and terrifying sides of this character have never been put to better use. If this is how we’re going to continue to get exposition about Dark One mythology this season, I’m going to be a very happy girl.
Although I suppose “happy” might not be the right term, since there’s nothing happy about watching Emma be tormented by her own darkness and hurt others in the process. Everything involving Emma and Merida was perfect because it showed us a woman Emma wanted to relate to and bond with, and it used that to show us how easily she could descend into the darkness. Amy Manson is a great addition to the cast; she’s the perfect Merida. Like Rumplestiltskin said, I liked her spunk—even if it did feel a little ridiculous for her to shoot at Emma so many times, knowing it wouldn’t work. However, I understood why Merida had to shoot at Emma an unbelievable number of times; the tension had to be at an uncomfortably high point when Emma took her heart. And it was. I’m pretty sure I barely took a breath during that scene because I was so invested. It was the perfect example of a scene where I knew the character would live, but what mattered was how it got to its conclusion and the emotional ramifications of that scene.
How that scene reached its conclusion said so much about the message of Once Upon a Time as a whole and how that message is going to play out over the rest of the season. Once Emma’s loved ones reached her as she held Merida’s heart in her hands, a perfect triangle of tension was set up between Hook, Emma, and Rumplestiltskin. I found it incredibly poetic that Hook and Rumplestiltskin acted as the angel and devil on Emma’s shoulders in that scene, because those two characters have been set up as foils for each other since Hook’s first episode. This is a brilliant way for their conflict to continue—without Hook even knowing that his ultimate nemesis is the embodiment of darkness in Emma’s mind.
But this scene was ultimately about Emma’s ability to save herself, and that’s so important. When Snow wanted to use the dagger to get Emma to put Merida’s heart back, I bristled but I understood. Snow wants Emma to be good and do the right thing even if she doesn’t actually choose it; she’s felt that way since before Emma was born. However, Hook has always been a character deeply connected to Emma’s agency. He’s always respected Emma’s choices and has never tried to take her agency from her, and that extended to the moment when he told Snow it had to be Emma’s choice to give Merida her heart back.
Instead of forcing goodness on her, Hook helped Emma choose the right path instead of continuing down the dark one. And he did this by reminding her of the fact that she’s not alone. She has a group of people willing to join together to fight for her, because she’s worth fighting for. When Hook told her she can overcome her demons because she inspired them to overcome theirs, O’Donoghue made it clear Hook was talking from experience. He knows how tiring it is to fight against your worst self, and he knows how tempting darkness is. His ability to relate to Emma on that level is going to be a huge asset.
O’Donoghue was so good in that scene because he gave Hook a surprising softness mixed with the desperation he had earlier in the episode. He made it clear from his tone of voice and the way he stood so close to her that Hook wasn’t afraid of Emma’s darkness. He acknowledged her demons but also her ability to be stronger than them, which made it easier for her to believe in herself. Hook gave Emma a flicker of hope for her own heart in the middle of the darkest moment of her life, and it was incredible to see Emma take that flicker and use it to fuel her ability to fight for herself.
Hook didn’t save Emma; he encouraged Emma to save herself. He didn’t use the dagger or take the heart from her hands or manipulate her in any way. He simply made her feel supported, understood, accepted, and loved. And that allowed her to make the right choice. But it wasn’t easy; Morrison showed that in the way Emma collapsed against him after giving Merida her heart back. It’s taking all her strength to fight her demons, but I loved the visual symbolism of Hook being someone she can lean on when she feels like she can’t fight anymore. And that little bit of visual symbolism was elevated by the symbolism of Rumplestiltskin disappearing when Hook was holding her.
The same thing happened when Emma hugged Henry after he told her they would never need to destroy her; Rumplestiltskin went away. Both Henry and Hook love Emma unconditionally. They believe in her and want to help her believe in herself; they always have. And the power of that kind of love was enough to stop the darkness, at least for a little while. Could this be foreshadowing Hook joining Henry as one of Emma’s curse-breaking True Loves this season? Whatever it was, it reminded me that love is strength, and Hook and Henry’s love will be a source of strength for Emma at a time when she needs it the most.
Love is strength, but it can also be something that gets in the way of the greater good. Emma knows that, and she gave the dagger—and the power to destroy her if she falls into the darkness—to someone else who knows that: Regina. Both Emma and Regina are practical women, and Emma was right in saying Regina was the only one who could do what needed to be done if the situation called for it. In Storybrooke, we saw Hook and Henry letting their emotions and love for Emma cloud their judgment. And in the Enchanted Forest, we saw Snow ready to use the dagger right away to control Emma. Regina is the smart choice, the right choice. And it’s also a poetic choice, because years ago, she would have given everything to have the power to destroy Emma. Now she has that power, but Parrilla made it clear it’s a power Regina never wants to have to use.
At the time the flashbacks ended, it seemed Regina wouldn’t have to use that power for the foreseeable future. After watching Emma carry the weight of her darkness alone for much of the episode, it was beautiful to see her relax even a little bit with Hook—joking about not looking like a crocodile, swinging their arms like little kids, and walking hand-in-hand into Camelot. Morrison showed that Emma felt safer in her own skin once her support system was around her. For being the Dark One, there was a surprising sense of light and love radiating from her in those final moments of the Camelot scenes.
However, that light and love were obviously meant to contrast with the tone of the episode’s conclusion. While I rolled my eyes a little bit at use of memory loss as a plot device again, part of me loved it because—if Emma really was the one to wipe their memories as it seems right now—it solidifies her as a formidable female villain, since Regina and Zelena also wiped memories before taking people to Storybrooke.
The conclusion set up questions I can’t wait to spend months answering: How did Emma go from the woman we saw entering Camelot to the Dark Swan we saw at the end? How did her family fail her? How did she get the dagger back from Regina? (That’s my most burning question.)
I’m especially intrigued by the way Morrison played this dark version of Emma. There was a heaviness to her and a sense of resignation that’s so different from Rumplestiltskin’s giddy Dark One. I’m predicting that whatever happened stemmed from a failure of belief—or at least a perceived failure of belief. This might be Emma after giving up on punching back and defining herself; if people believed she was beyond saving, then she’d stop believing it, too, and would embrace what she saw as her new destiny. (I also think Arthur is involved somehow since he wanted the dagger so badly.)
This isn’t always going to be an easy arc to watch, but it’s going to be so rewarding if this season premiere is any indication. This is a show about hope, and it’s my hope that Emma will ultimately choose to save herself because she remembers that she does have people (especially Hook and Henry) who believe in her. Belief is power and love is strength, and I can’t wait to see those themes explored in even more depth this season.