I’m sorry for my delay in getting this one posted, fellow Oncers. Sometimes life doesn’t understand that it needs to slow down so I can write about TV! Hopefully this post proves to be worth the wait.
Two-Sentence Summary In Camelot, Emma’s desire to get rid of the darkness in her by freeing Merlin causes her to step further into the darkness by breaking Henry’s heart. When Henry finds out the truth about what Emma did to him, it ruins the relationship they were trying to work on back in Storybrooke, while Merida works to make Rumplestiltskin brave and the heroes discover Excalibur hidden in Emma’s house.
Emma: I didn’t have a choice.
Regina: There’s always a choice, Emma. You’ve said that to me a thousand times.
My Thoughts Innocence is a precious thing, and its loss is something to be mourned. “Dreamcatcher” was all about the loss of innocence and what that does to a person. It reminded us of the intense grief we feel when first loves turn into first heartbreak, but it also touched on one of the most painful losses of innocence that comes with growing up: the discovery even the people we believe in the most are capable of letting us down and hurting us.
Henry has always been defined by his faith; he has the heart of the truest believer, after all. And that’s never been clearer than in his relationship with Emma. He was the first person to believe in her as a both a hero and a mother. He believed in her so much that he was willing to eat a poisoned apple turnover because he knew she would save him. And that act wasn’t just an act of a boy believing in a hero; it was an act of a boy believing in his mother.
But Henry isn’t a little boy anymore; he’s growing up. And—just as we saw his relationship with Regina deepen in recent seasons as he explored the complexities of his adoptive mother’s capacity for both good and evil—it was time for him to face the idea that his birth mother has both good and evil in her, too. “Dreamcatcher” brought Henry face-to-face with Emma’s dark side, and, while it devastated me, it made for incredibly compelling television.
This “Dark Swan” arc is bringing excellent performances out of all the talented members of Once Upon a Time’s cast, and now we can add Jared Gilmore to the list of actors elevated by this season’s material. It can’t be easy to essentially grow up in front of a television camera, but Gilmore has successfully gone from a cute little kid to a very realistic young teenager who managed to absolutely break my heart in this episode by showing Henry’s storm of emotions in such an unforced and honest way.
The innocence of first love and the sting of its loss were the driving forces behind much of this episode, and I loved that Emma and Regina were at the center of an episode about lost first loves. Both of Henry’s mothers were impacted in a life-altering way by their first loves, and we got to see that firsthand for both women. In case anyone had forgotten, though, this episode gave us reminders of both Regina and Emma’s first loves, just in time for their son to experience his own brush with the innocent joy of first love’s bloom—and the pain of its loss.
In Emma’s case, we were given several references to Neal. The song Henry played for Violet—Yaz’s “Only You”—was a song Neal played for Emma. (Who knew that both this show and The Americans would find Yaz to be the way to a teenage girl’s heart?) And Emma told Henry to be himself with Violet because she liked that Neal was himself with her (which initially rubbed me the wrong way because he wasn’t really himself with Emma—even his name wasn’t his real name—but I understand that she wanted to encourage Henry). And in Regina’s case, we were given that heartbreaking flashback via the dream catcher to Daniel’s death. It was beautiful to watch both Lana Parrilla and Jennifer Morrison’s performances in that scene. Both were so vulnerable, and it was such a powerful moment of empathy between those characters. However, I couldn’t have been the only person who watched that scene and knew it had to be included for more than just a reminder of Regina’s painful past. From the fact that Daniel was a stable boy and Violet has already been associated with the Camelot stables to the focus on Emma’s reaction to what Cora did, that scene left me with a feeling of dread and very genuine worry for that sweet little stable girl.
I was so worried about Violet because I have actually become quite fond of the character and her budding romance with Henry. While we watched Emma and Regina’s first loves develop with adult actors bringing those stories to life, there’s something unique about watching this kind of story play out with actual teenagers instead of adults playing teenagers. There’s a tentative, awkward, adorable charm to their interactions that feels so much closer to the actual experience of first love than anything adult actors could bring to this kind of story. And only young actors could make the “I thought we were just friends” talk feel as monumentally painful as it felt when Violet told that to Henry. I found my eyes welling up with tears during that moment because it felt so true to what it’s like to be a teenager and discover that the person you like doesn’t like you back. Both the writing and the performances came together in that moment to create something incredibly true to the experience of first heartbreak.
As we watched Henry’s heart get broken for the first time, we were also reminded through Emma and Regina that there is life after the pain of a lost first love. Regina’s tear didn’t work to free Merlin because that pain—while still very real—isn’t as strong as it was for so many years. And Emma didn’t even try to use her own tears over Neal to free Merlin, because she knew the truth: You can make the choice to let go of the pain of lost first love and let new love into your heart, and she’s done that with Killian. Regina has also done that with Robin. Both women have stopped letting the loss of their first loves define them like they did for so long. They’ve been given second chances at love, and both of them are finally in emotional places where they can take those chances to be happy again instead of mourning what they lost when they were young.
While that’s great for their characters, it’s not so great for freeing Merlin, who was imprisoned in the tree with the help of his own tear over his lost first love. (Could it be Niume, who might also be the Dark One who put him in the tree, which was why he dropped the dagger?) Emma knew that both she and Regina had moved on enough to render their tears essentially useless, but she also knew someone whose tears wouldn’t be useless: Henry.
It was beautiful at first two watch Henry’s mothers comfort him in his time of heartbreak, and it was even more beautiful to watch Henry get to be a hero and make something good come from his pain as Emma used his tears to free Merlin. But watching that scene again knowing what we know now, I was struck by the performances of both Parrilla and Morrison. They made it clear through their facial expressions and body language that one mother was simply comforting her heartbroken son, while the other was comforting her son knowing she caused his heartbreak but believing it was for the greater good.
Morrison did so many amazingly subtle things in her Camelot scenes in “Dreamcatcher” that hinted at Emma being in a far worse state than she seemed to be at the end of “Broken Kingdom.” I was especially struck by her voice, which was deeper and much closer to her tone in the current Storybrooke scenes that it had been in Camelot so far. In fact, it felt a little jarring to see Emma so much closer to her “Dark Swan” self than the version of herself we last saw in Camelot—bathed in light and wanting to fight the darkness with Killian by her side.
But Killian wasn’t by her side for much of this episode. And in his absence, the darkness grew stronger, feeding on her desire—as we saw in the last episode—to get back to a “white picket fence life” with her loved ones in Storybrooke. As Emma grew more determined to get the darkness out of her by freeing Merlin, she actually began to fall deeper into its clutches; it’s the same idea we saw in this season’s premiere: Her desperation to save herself and her loved ones from her darkness is ultimately what the darkness is feeding on.
The darkness is also feeding on her addiction to the power her new magic is giving her. The Dark One’s story has always been a story about addiction, and Emma has clearly begun to enjoy the high that using dark magic gives her. I would have liked more of her actually using the dream catchers at the start of the episode, because I feel like it would have made that point even clearer. Instead, much of the beginning of the episode felt like a big pile of telling rather than showing. (I know my parents are under a spell! I know Arthur is bad! I know how Merlin got in the tree! I’m using dark magic again!) But as the episode went on, we were able to actually see Emma exhibiting dangerous behaviors, such as claiming to be strong enough to handle using dark magic and not wanting to talk about its affects on her. Finally, when Emma actually used the fullest extent of her powers to free Merlin, it was clear that she wasn’t going to be able to easily give up that power and that ability to help people in a way she was never able to before. The seductive power of that kind of magic was written all over her face.
With Merlin freed, many pieces of the plot began to fall into place very quickly: Snow and Charming were freed from the sands’ influence (meaning we still don’t know what they did to actually “fail” Emma); Arthur and Merlin had their confrontation (I laughed at how quickly and easily Merlin shut Arthur down.); and the freeing of Emma from the darkness could begin in earnest. But Merlin (who is incredibly charming and handsome—can we keep Elliot Knight around for as long as humanly possible?) echoed what seems to be one of the most important points when it comes to the darkness: Emma has to be ready to choose to let go of it. No one can take the darkness and demons out of you; you have to choose to let them go and believe you’re better without them. And we all know Emma won’t be able to do that—no matter how much she might think that she wants to let go.
I found it interesting that Emma was able to free Merlin using both light and dark magic—because both still exist inside her; she’s both the savior and the Dark One, and neither of those things negates the other. Bringing together powerful light and dark magic also seems to be at the heart of Once Upon a Time’s take on Excalibur. Both light and darkness have to be brought together for it to work, and it can be used for both light and dark purposes. The key—once again—is choice. And for the first time, I was left wondering if maybe Emma’s choice isn’t to snuff out the light but to destroy the darkness once and for all. The Dark One never reveals their whole plan, so there has to be more to Emma’s mission than uniting the sword to destroy any last bits of light in her. There are more twists coming, and I can’t wait to see them all.
Even in Storybrooke, light and dark still exist inside Emma. There’s still a part of her that longs for the relationships she had before succumbing to the darkness; there’s still a part of her that can love. We saw those cracks in her Dark One façade with Killian, but they were even more pronounced during her “Operation Cobra” mission with Henry. Once again, Morrison’s use of her tone of voice was masterful, with her usual tone as Emma slipping through the tone she’s affected as the Dark One. It was a tangible way for us to see (or—more accurately—hear) that Henry is able to reach the Emma that exists under the darkness and bring that part of her to the surface.
However, despite Emma wanting a relationship with Henry, she is the Dark One now, and the Dark One doesn’t know how to love in a healthy way. So instead of Emma and Henry sincerely bonding, that whole “mission” was based on lies. Emma’s love for her son and her desire to make up for what happened in Camelot might not be lies, but because she’s the Dark One now, she doesn’t know how to honestly face the consequences of her actions and instead creates more manipulations to make up for her previous ones.
And those previous manipulations were incredibly sad to watch unfold through the dream catcher found in Emma’s house. (Did she want someone to find it? It seemed very convenient that it was out in the open like that after she took it down from her lair of dream catchers.) Not only did Emma take the heart of a young girl, she then manipulated her into breaking Henry’s heart so she could get his tear to free Merlin. While Morrison clearly showed that Emma was working from a place of desperation and not malice (She wasn’t enjoying it as other characters have enjoyed heart-ripping), it was still hard to watch. Was it the same was what Cora did to Daniel (as Regina later claimed)? No, because she didn’t kill Violet, and she try to help Henry and Violet reconnect in Storybrooke. But that doesn’t make it right. Could Emma justify her actions by saying Henry’s heartbreak was achieved in order to serve the greater purpose of saving everyone from the darkness? Yes. But being able to justify something as “for the greater good” doesn’t make it excusable, especially to a 13-year-old kid.
Emma knows better than anyone what losing a first love can do to a person, how it can crush their spirit and turn them into someone cold and afraid to believe again. And she did that to her son—her truest believer. Henry paid the price for Emma’s magic in this case, much like his father often paid the price when Rumplestiltskin was the Dark One. The affect dark magic has on families (once again paralleling addiction) is an important theme on this show, and it was time to see Emma and Henry learn that things can’t be the same between them until she chooses to give up being the Dark One.
As Rumplestiltskin so poignantly told Emma at the beginning of the episode, being the Dark One is a choice that will cost you everyone you love. No one knows that better than he does. I could have watched him act as Emma’s conscience (just as the Dark One version of him is acting as her dark side) forever because it’s amazing to watch this character finally have the clarity that comes from letting go of the darkness. He’s the only one who knows what’s going on in Emma’s head, and he’s the only one who can speak to her specific struggles. More than anyone, he knows that the choices she’s made won’t just affect her; they’ll poison her relationships with everyone around her. And more than anyone, he knows that the relationship she’ll hate herself the most for poisoning is the relationship she has with her son.
Two Dark Ones—both parents to sons who wanted to believe in them; both parents who let their sons down. I am in awe of the way this episode showed the sad fact that Henry is now truly walking in his father’s footsteps, and his father isn’t even there to help him through it now.
When Henry realized what Emma had done in Camelot, I understood why he wouldn’t want anything to do with her at the moment. Of course he’ll ultimately forgive her; that’s who Henry is—he forgave Regina for making him think he was crazy for 10 years. But for now, I wanted nothing more than for Henry to seek solace with the mother he truly believes will put his happiness over everything else, and right now that’s Regina. Things certainly have changed since Season One.
That was the whole point of the final scene between Emma and Regina—to show how their roles have swapped from where they were in the pilot episode. The parallels to the pilot in that scene were brilliant—from the location (Regina’s front door) to Regina’s use of “Goodbye Miss Swan.” I loved that Regina was able to acknowledge that it’s rare for her to have the moral high ground, but her past misdeeds don’t make what Emma did any less reprehensible. Because Regina isn’t that person anymore. She’s not the one making selfish choices and telling herself it’s for Henry’s best interest now; that’s Emma. She’s not the one holding secrets over people’s heads and dealing in lies and tricks now; that’s Emma. And she’s not the one Henry doesn’t want to see now; that’s Emma.
Regina—like Rumplestiltskin and Killian—is a fascinating character to watch interact with Emma as the Dark One because she speaks from a place of experience. She knows that darkness is the wrong choice, even though Emma seems to think it’s justifiable. That’s what villains do; they justify their actions. Heroes don’t make excuses; they own their mistakes and bad choices and work to be better. That’s Regina’s role now. She went from being a character who always blamed others for her lot in life and thought she had no choice in how her story was told to being a character who can say with confidence that there’s always a choice.
And that choice—the choice to continue down dark paths and deal in dark magic—always has a price. And for parents on Once Upon a Time, that price is damaging the relationship they have with their child. Regina knows that. So does Rumplestiltskin. And now Emma has to learn that, too. As Emma learned with Killian in “Siege Perilous,” she can’t have it all, and now that also includes Henry. Watching Henry turn away from the window as Emma looked up at him was such a painful pilot callback. Instead of looking at her with hope and belief, he looked at her with anger and distrust, before deciding he didn’t even want to look at her anymore.
The heart of the truest believer is broken now; the true love that was once the foundation of this show has been shaken. But all hope isn’t lost. Emma is still in there underneath the darkness, and she still loves her son with everything left in her heart. When she clutched the dream catcher to her chest and cried, Morrison made me believe that there was no Dark One to be found in that moment; it was Emma crying over what she did to her son. It was Emma crying over the lost innocence she caused. It was Emma, and the fact that Emma still exists at all gives me hope. Because without Henry by her side, she’ll know even more clearly than before that she has to make a choice: love or power. She can’t have both.
And, in the end, we all know that this show is about love being strength. We don’t know what will happen to get Emma to the point where she chooses love, but we know she will. If not, then what’s the point of this show? Even in an episode as sad as “Dreamcatcher,” we were shown in Rumplestiltskin and Merida’s interactions that love makes us our best and bravest selves, even when we don’t think we have that self in us. All Rumplestiltskin needed to stand up and fight was something to fight for, and he found that in Belle’s chipped teacup. I don’t know what it is about that cup, but it makes me an emotional wreck every time it’s used, starting all the way back in the jail cell in Season One’s “Skin Deep.”
Robert Carlyle was so good in those scenes with Rumplestiltskin fighting Merida. He made me believe Rumplestiltskin’s fear (It’s been a long time since I’ve wanted to hug that character like I did in this episode.), which, in turn, made his love for Belle and the bravery it inspired even more powerful.
Rumplestiltskin was convinced that all he could be now was a coward, but his love for Belle inspired him to believe he could be more. In the same way, Emma thinks all she can be now is the Dark One, but I think her love for her son and Killian (the two people whose loss she feels most acutely) will inspire her to believe she can be more, too. Love will inspire her to get up and fight back against the darkness inside her. And by doing that, she might be able to inspire her truest believer to believe again, which is what heroes do. And—more importantly—it’s what good mothers do.