Title Siege Perilous
Two-Sentence Summary Secret motivations are revealed in both Camelot and Storybrooke as Charming and Arthur team up on quests in the past and present. Meanwhile, when Hook refuses the temptation of the Dark One, Emma is forced to find someone else to pull Excalibur from its stone.
Favorite Line “I don’t want to only be remembered as the man who kissed a sleeping princess awake 30 years ago.” (Charming)
(I would also like to use this section to mention the perfection of the “Doctoberfest” pun, possibly my favorite Once Upon a Time pun ever.)
My Thoughts Before I begin this week’s episode analysis, I wanted to take a moment to discuss the environment I got to see “Siege Perilous” in. I had the pleasure of watching it in a room full of Once Upon a Time fans at New York Comic Con (NYCC) on Friday, and it was (pun intended) a truly magical experience. (If any of you reading this were there, I was the girl in the navy blue Granny’s Diner t-shirt!)
If you ever get the chance to watch an episode of your favorite show with a bunch of other fans, do it; it’s so much fun. I’ll have more to say about my whole NYCC experience later this week, but for today I’ll try include some notes about the audience reaction to particular scenes, because it’s fun to know what others experienced while watching this crazy rollercoaster of an episode unfold.
Once Upon a Time is a show about fairytales, which makes it a show about heroes and villains. While the line between those two archetypes has grown increasingly blurry over the seasons, what has grown clearer is the idea that those labels don’t define a person so much as the choices they make define them. You can call yourself a hero all you want in this show’s universe, but it ultimately won’t mean anything without making heroic choices. And on this show, a heroic choice is a choice to love others more than your own selfish desires. Darkness on Once Upon a Time comes from hurting others and closing yourself off to love for selfish reasons—whether it’s vengeance, jealousy, ambition, or lust for power. And that darkness is contrasted by those who’ve chosen to fight for the people they love, even when it gets hard—especially when it gets hard.
“Siege Perilous” provided strong examples of contrasts between people who call themselves heroes and people who are actually doing heroic things. And in no pairing of characters was that contrast clearer than it was between Charming and Arthur. Charming might be afraid that he’ll only be remembered as a man who woke a sleeping princess 30 years ago (a truly poignant line delivered perfectly by Josh Dallas), but, in truth, his legacy is about so much more than breaking one sleeping curse. If Charming is known for anything, it’s the depth and strength of his love for the two most important women in his life: his wife and his daughter. And that’s not something defined by one act 30 years ago. It’s something we’ve seen reflected in every choice he’s made since then, including his choices in this episode.
Charming is a man of action; our first impression of him was the man who fought off attackers with his baby in his arms. So it felt right that being unable to physically do anything to help his daughter—both in Camelot and in Storybrooke—would be eating away at him. Dallas was excellent in this episode; I love when he gets a chance to shine, because he’s such a good actor whose work sometimes gets overshadowed by the flashier storylines on Once Upon a Time. He made Charming’s frustration feel palpable. I loved the moment in Camelot when he was shown holding baby Neal while the women around him were hard at work because it was such a classic Once Upon a Time moment of flipping traditional gender roles. (And we all know Dallas looks even more handsome while holding a baby.) But it also highlighted the fact that Charming felt like he was useless until Arthur gave him a quest.
That same sense of frustration was prevalent in Charming’s early scenes in Storybrooke. I loved the scene between Charming and Snow in the sheriff’s office because it felt like a very real moment between a married couple whose child has chosen to go down a dark path. Dallas and Ginnifer Goodwin are such great scene partners for each other in dramatic moments, allowing each other to go to difficult places as actors. And Dallas had to go to a very difficult place in that scene, but Goodwin was there for him every step of the way, just like Snow was there for Charming.
I liked the word choice of Charming feeling “paralyzed” by what’s happened to Emma. This is a man of action who can’t figure out how to act, because the villain he needs to take action against is his daughter. In Dallas’s performance, you could see how painful it is for Charming to believe he’d failed Emma. In Season Three, we saw that Emma telling Charming he’d failed her was the stuff of nightmares for him, but it became his reality in this season’s premiere. Charming is a father who did everything in his power (including things less than heroic) to ensure that his daughter lived and lived a life of goodness. The tragedy in this story is that the one thing Charming couldn’t save his daughter from was herself. And to not even be able to remember how his failure led to her darkness makes the whole situation even more painful. That pain came through so profoundly in Dallas’s performance.
Dallas’s depiction of hopelessness was matched beautifully by Goodwin’s depiction of Snow’s steadfast faith in her husband. While we can’t just call ourselves a hero without earning it, sometimes all it takes is someone we love reminding us of our best self to help us find it again. Snow calling Charming her hero was such a lovely reminder that belief in those we love is such a critical theme on Once Upon a Time, and these two characters represent that theme better than anyone.
However, seeds were planted in this episode that this foundational relationship is about to be tested, and it’s all because of Charming’s new friendship with Arthur. In both Camelot and Storybrooke, Arthur made Charming feel useful again by giving him a quest to undertake. Those quests provided the bulk of the episode’s fun action sequences (Regenerating water zombie knights! Indiana Jones-style bridge crossings! Jousting from a truck—which got a huge reaction from the NYCC crowd!). They also gave the audience a chance to really examine Arthur as a character before the episode’s big final twist.
This show’s darkest characters know how to prey on desperate souls looking for a purpose, and that’s exactly what Arthur did with Charming. There were far too many similarities in their pasts to be true, and I think the scene where we find out Arthur took the toadstool was less about shock value than it was about allowing the audience to feel validated in our mistrust of Arthur from his first moments on the show.
The real shock came from Lancelot returning with a warning for Snow: Arthur isn’t just a suspicious character, he’s the villain in this Camelot story. I’m excited to see what happens with Lancelot coming back, but I’m even more excited to see what this means for Snow and Charming. The juxtaposition of Snow holding baby Neal—her face awash in worry—as Charming beamed from his new seat at the Round Table set up the tension for future episodes perfectly.
The next big shock came from just how right Lancelot was about Arthur being a villain. This wasn’t just about hiding a toadstool; this was about Arthur making his squire drink poison and watching him die all for his desire to create a new Camelot by overtaking Storybrooke. It caused quite a stir at NYCC, and for good reason. Arthur may have believed he was doing this for a noble reason, but there’s nothing noble about taking a life to fuel ambition. And there’s also nothing noble about hiding the fact that he seems to know things about the time in Camelot that other characters have no memory of.
Great twists on Once Upon a Time earn their greatness because they provide a surprise while also fitting perfectly into the show’s narrative and themes. In this case, the revelation of Arthur’s dark side tied perfectly into the theme of what makes someone a hero. Pulling a sword from a stone and lying about it being whole doesn’t make you a hero. What makes you a hero is choosing to help others and choosing to be honest about who you are and who you were, especially when it’s difficult. Charming deserves to sit in the Siege Perilous, reserved for the purest of knights on the most noble of quests (saving his daughter). But Arthur doesn’t seem to have done anything to earn his status as a hero. If anything, his choices so far have shown him to be more aligned with this show’s villains than its heroes, telling himself that his dark deeds are being done for the right reasons.
The true definition of heroism was also a prominent theme in this week’s “Dark Swan” story. I know I say this every week, but Jennifer Morrison’s performance as Dark One Emma is nothing short of brilliant. Getting to watch the episode twice allowed me to pick up on a bunch of subtle shifts in vocal inflection and facial expression that I would have missed with only one viewing, and it made me appreciate her work even more.
The darkness needs a hero to pull Excalibur from the stone and unite it with the dagger, and it broke my heart to see the way the darkness preyed on Emma and Hook’s relationship in its search for a worthy hero. Loving and being loved by Emma helped Hook change from someone consumed by darkness to a true hero, but now that love is being twisted by the darkness for its own evil ends.
While “Siege Perilous” had plenty of great twists and jaw-dropping scenes, it was Emma and Hook’s interactions onboard the Jolly Roger that captivated me the most. Morrison and Colin O’Donoghue were breathtaking in those moments (literally—I found myself holding my breath during that scene at the NYCC screening because it was so intense). In a few short minutes, we were given a fascinating look into the psychology of a Dark One, as well as a heartbreaking picture of what it means to love someone who can’t have any kind of healthy relationship because of the choices they’ve made.
It absolutely broke my heart to see Emma tempting Hook with a re-creation of their first date, down to her dress and ponytail. That first-date look meant so much to me that I actually wrote an entire essay about it, so it was devastating to see the darkness corrupt that moment of pure light and joy in an effort to earn Hook’s trust in order to get him to do its dark bidding. And O’Donoghue was so good in that scene because you could see all over his painfully expressive face how hard it was for Hook to see their love being used for ulterior motives. From the start, he knew it wasn’t Emma coming to him; it was the Dark One. He knew he was being toyed with, and he wasn’t going to have any of it.
No one knows the Dark One like Hook. This episode reminded us that he’s the only character who knew Rumplestiltskin both before and after he became the Dark One. And he spent centuries trying to defeat it. He knows the games it plays, and when he sees Emma trying those games on him, something inside him breaks. Because it’s not really Emma playing those mind games with him. It’s not Emma hiding the truth from him as she asks for his trust. The woman he loves would never do either of those things. Emma Swan wasn’t someone who toyed with people’s emotions; she never played games or manipulated people. I feel like this scene was the moment when it became clear to Hook that trying to simply love Emma enough to help her find her true self again wasn’t going to work. Because it was clear that the darkness makes her feel as if this new, manipulative self is her true self.
I loved the symbolic lighting in the moment in which Emma told Hook that she’s better now that she doesn’t have walls and isn’t afraid. As she talked about who she was before the darkness, she was bathed in light. And as she talked about who she’s become, she was cloaked in shadows. That moment said so much about how the darkness twists a person’s mind into thinking they need it. Emma’s strength came from the fact that she let herself be vulnerable and she let others in to help her walls come down. That’s where true strength comes from—not from eliminating all vulnerabilities and relying only on yourself. The darkness made Emma look with disdain and self-loathing on who she once was, and that gave me a much better sense of what it did to Rumplestiltskin, too.
Even in Emma’s body, the darkness spoke with disgust about Rumplestiltskin’s cowardice when he was just a man. It felt so wrong to see Emma tell Hook that embracing the darkness gave Rumplestiltskin a path to true love and a way to be his best self. But that’s where Hook’s familiarity with the Dark One came into play again. Unlike anyone else, he knew who Rumplestiltskin really was before taking on the darkness—and that was a good, frightened man who was trying to keep his family together. Hook was able to do something so profound in that moment with Emma: admit that he was the villain and also admit that he’s changed for the better. Hook’s self-awareness has always been one of my favorite things about him, but this took it to a new level. He wasn’t blaming anyone but himself for his dark deeds. He owned his dark side. But then he also put aside the inability to see himself as a hero that plagued him for much of the past two seasons. He’s finally able to see himself as someone who has changed for the better, but what’s almost unbearably sad is that he admitted all this to the one person who helped him change for the better—and she didn’t even care.
Instead of truly listening to what Hook said about his personal experience with the Dark One, Emma simply played another game, using their time in the alternate storybook—a time that was actually incredibly painful for them—to try to distract him with a kind of twisted flirting. And that game proved to be his last straw. O’Donoghue looked absolutely beside himself with anger in that moment, and you could see in his face the echo of Charming’s earlier frustration—a man who pledged to protect the heart of the woman he loves unable to do anything to save that heart from the darkness (and unable to remember what happened to turn it so dark).
While the darkness was trying to use Hook and Emma’s love as a weapon to gain strength, Hook turned the tables and tried to use their love as a weapon for good, trying to reach the woman underneath the darkness. I was floored by the sincere emotion in his voice when he told Emma that he liked who she was; he liked her walls and helping to bring them down. That was Hook trying desperately to talk to his Emma, to reassure her that she doesn’t need the darkness to be better or stronger. The things the darkness wants her to hate about who she was were things he liked; they weren’t burdens or things to be ashamed of. They were what made her Emma, a woman working to be her best self one moment of vulnerability at a time.
And for one brief, beautiful moment, Morrison showed his words reaching through the darkness to touch whatever little bit of Emma still exists. Her face softened just enough to show that his Emma is still there, and she wants to know she’s loved for who she was—not who she’s become. But in just one shift in her body language, that Emma faded away and the darkness returned with another manipulative question: “Do you love me?”
Hook knows the Dark One, and he knows Emma. He knew that wasn’t Emma asking the question; it was the Dark One. But he spoke once again to the Emma he believes is still there somewhere when he said, “I loved you.” That confession isn’t an ending; it’s a beginning of a new way of fighting for the woman he loved and still loves. He loved who Emma was—the Emma the darkness wants to erase forever. He loved the woman who asked her loved ones to get the darkness out of her, and he knows that Emma wouldn’t want him to blindly accept her darkness while she’s losing herself more and more. That Emma wouldn’t want him to lose himself, too; she would want him to be his best self to help her regain her sense of her best self.
That line doesn’t represent Hook giving up. It represents Hook fighting more fiercely than ever, using love as a weapon in his own way. By showing Emma that she can’t have both the darkness and his love, he’s giving her a choice instead of letting her believe she can have it all. And as we saw at the end of “The Price,” there’s still a part of Emma that wants to be surrounded by love. That part of her is who Hook is trying to reach, and, once again, he succeeded for a moment. After his confession, Morrison gave us that perfect moment of Emma looking down, her eyes filling with tears and her smile unable to last. Even though the Dark One got what it wanted, Emma didn’t. And her heart is breaking, which we all know means it still works. It was clear from the powerful way she told the darkness to be quiet when it belittled her love for Hook at the end of the episode; she didn’t like having to hurt him, and she doesn’t like the darkness making light of it. And that’s a reason for hope—to believe that she’ll ultimately choose his love and acceptance over the darkness.
This episode discussed the way heroes never give up—even after a loss. While Emma’s loved ones are suffering loss after loss as the darkness in her grows stronger, we know they’ll never give up; it’s one of the themes of the whole show. (“You don’t give up on the people you love.”) And if anyone knows the value of never giving up on the people you love, it’s Belle. Seeing the way the darkness kept twisting Emma and Hook’s love made me think more deeply about just how much it preyed on Rumplestiltskin’s love for Belle, especially since he started to love her after becoming the Dark One—and their love almost broke the curse. That new way of looking at him and their relationship helped me find real, sincere joy in watching Belle see the rose petals being put back on the enchanted rose. There was something so infectious about Emilie de Ravin’s happiness in that moment, and it led to the most excited audience rumblings at the entire NYCC screening.
However, Belle couldn’t find Rumplestiltskin; another woman got to him first. Watching Emma and “Dark One Rumplestiltskin” stand over his body was deliciously creepy. It was fascinating to think that the Dark One is still preying on him even now that it’s out of his body. I also have to give Robert Carlyle so much credit for immediately showing Rumplestiltskin’s fear as he woke up, returning to who he was without the Dark One in him.
As Emma said, he’s now neither hero nor villain. The Dark One intends to make him a hero, but this episode showed us that it doesn’t work that way. You can’t just anoint someone (or yourself) a hero. You have to earn it. The darkness knows nothing of heroism; that much is clear. So I’m interested to see how this plan will backfire and what will happen when it does. Because we all know that the darkness won’t ultimately win—just like we know Emma’s loved ones won’t ever give up on fighting for her to be her best self. Love is strength, and it’s finally time the Dark One learned that lesson.
• Regina didn’t have much to do in this episode, but it was puzzling to see her still refer to herself as the Evil Queen when threatening Zelena. Just as Robin and Henry bring out her best self, it’s clear Zelena still brings out her worst self. It’s going to be interesting to see her work through that dark part of herself that still rises to the surface around her sister.
• Does the sheriff’s station still have cameras? If so, I hope they’re used to show everyone exactly who Arthur is.
• Between the “Doctoberfest” pun and the truck jousting it was clear that “Siege Perilous” was a Jane Espenson episode. She has such a unique tone to her writing, and all her episodes involve a good dose of fairytale fun, even when things are emotionally heavy and thematically complex.
• I loved seeing Hook finally have someone to confide in during his scenes with Robin. It’s about time he had a friend, and I’m pretty sure everyone (including O’Donoghue and Sean Maguire) wanted that friend to be Robin. The NYCC crowd loved those scenes, too—lots of screams! It’s going to be fun to watch them team up on this mission to break into Emma’s locked room.
• At NYCC, it was revealed that someone’s heart was crushed to cast this curse. Any theories on whose it is? Is a couple (Emma and Hook?) sharing a heart now like Snow and Charming? Did Emma’s heart get crushed since she’s now immortal? Did Merlin’s heart get crushed since we haven’t seen him in Storybrooke yet (and I’m sure they freed him in Camelot)?