Two-Sentence Summary While most of the Storybrooke crew attempts to get Excalibur from Arthur in Camelot with Zelena’s help, Merlin takes Emma on a quest to face the original Dark One in order to get what’s needed to make Excalibur whole again. In flashbacks to Merlin’s past, we discover the identity of that original Dark One and her connection to Merlin.
Favorite Line “I am not nothing! I was never nothing!” (Emma)
My Thoughts Belief is everything in the world of Once Upon a Time. And most of the time, that belief is rooted in the same idea: that love is strength and that love can be enough. Those who choose a dark path don’t believe that love can be enough. They want power, too. They always want to be more powerful because they don’t love themselves for who they are—with their weaknesses, flaws, and human vulnerabilities. They believe they’re nothing without an outside source of power because they never believed they could be enough exactly as they are.
The beauty of Once Upon a Time is the way that damaging belief has been proven wrong time and time again. Love is strength. Love is power. And yes, the love of those around you can help you find that strength, but the real power comes from loving yourself and choosing to believe that you’re good enough and strong enough as you are.
“Nimue” was the best episode so far in this fifth season of Once Upon a Time (and that’s saying something because I’ve really enjoyed this season), and so much of its beauty and emotional power came from the way it wove the theme of choosing to believe you’re enough as you are through the episode’s three main stories. It came as no surprise to me that an episode as tightly written as this one was came from Jane Espenson. If you’re looking for episodes that capture the true spirit of Once Upon a Time, just pull up every episode she’s written for this show.
The B-plot of “Nimue” wasn’t exactly the high point of the episode, but it moved the plot along, added another wrinkle in the conflict with Arthur, and still managed to connect to the episode’s main theme. I think anyone watching knew that the heroes teaming up with Zelena was pretty much destined for disaster, but it allowed Rebecca Mader to gleefully steal scenes once again. I feel like the writers have finally found a way to use Zelena that highlights how much fun Mader makes the character, while not putting all the focus on her. Small doses are best; she works better as a snarky side character rather than a main villain. I think the writers have finally realized that, and the show is better for it.
Zelena is a prime example of a character whose darkness is driven by the fact that she never learned to believe she could be enough as she is. Everything she does is driven by envy and spite. She doesn’t love herself—especially not independent of her dark magic. And by teaming up with Arthur, she teamed up with another character who craves power because he never learned to accept that he could be enough without a united Excalibur and the glory it brought.
Liam Garrigan was incredible in the scene in which Arthur confronted Merlin. He plays Arthur’s desperation so well. Having someone by your side as you struggle with prophecies and power has been an important part of this arc for Emma, and that scene allowed us to see just how lost Arthur was without Merlin’s help and how much Merlin regretted not being able to help him.
Despite loving both Mader and Garrigan’s work in this episode, I had some issues with just how easy it was for their characters to control the greatest sorcerer to ever live. I just don’t like seeing Arthur continue to win so easily by controlling others (his go-to method of villainy), but this was another instance of obviously needing to advance the plot at a relatively quick pace. However, I do have to give the show credit for surprising me with that twist. I didn’t see the tethering spell on Excalibur coming at all. The lack of Merlin’s name on it in Storybrooke seems to once again hint that he didn’t made it out of Camelot alive. I also have to wonder if Emma wanted to align with Zelena in the present not to put Excalibur back together (She obviously could do that herself.) but to tether it to someone else. The question becomes: Who and for what purpose? (I know there are some spoilers out there about this, so make sure you warn about mentioning spoilers in the comments if you want to make a guess—and remember that very little on this show turns out exactly as we predict.)
Whatever Emma’s purpose with Excalibur is, I’m more convinced than ever that it’s not as simple as losing herself to the darkness and wanting to snuff out all the light. That would be too repetitive. This episode was all about bringing Emma to the brink of total darkness and having her choose to be stronger than its power. So I don’t think she fully embraced the darkness because she can’t fight it any longer and grows to love the power; that would just be a repeat of this exact conflict with a different ending. I think “Nimue” gave us some very clear hints about Emma’s motivations, but her ultimate endgame is still a fascinating (if not slightly frustrating—which it’s meant to be) mystery.
What’s no longer a mystery is the identity of the first Dark One. While I’d been anticipating the reveal of Nimue as the original Dark One, her story was still compelling, and that was because it was a perfect encapsulation of some of Once Upon a Time’s most important themes told through two actors who were excellent scene partners. The story of Merlin and Nimue reminded me of some of my favorite flashback stories from the early days of Once Upon a Time in the way it condensed an entire arc into a short span of time while never feeling like it was cheating the audience or cutting corners. It made both characters feel three-dimensional, it connected their story to the show’s ethos in an organic way, and it managed to make me care about a relationship I’d never seen onscreen before this episode.
I have to give a lot of credit to both Elliot Knight and Caroline Ford for their work in those flashbacks. Their chemistry was palpable from their first scene, and that was the key to making me feel invested in this story. Because this story was the original story of love being enough for one person but not being enough for another. It’s the story from which all other love stories between those lost to darkness and those who want them to choose the light were born. It had to feel like something special and important, and it did.
I have to admit a personal bias here: I’m a sucker for stories in which an immortal person wants to give up their immortality to live a human life with the person they love. (Arwen and Aragorn from The Lord of the Rings owned my heart in high school.) So Merlin made me swoon multiple times during this episode (and not just because of how handsome Knight is—although that certainly helped the swooning).
Merlin is basically the polar opposite of the Dark One. He drank from the Holy Grail not with lust for power in his heart but with gratitude and humility. And that goodness was reflected in his magic, which was always used to help and never to kill. And, at first, it seemed he’d found a kindred spirit in Nimue, a woman whose idea of getting back at those who’d caused her pain was to spread beauty (Middlemist flowers) and to prove that life goes on after destruction.
It was hard for me to completely lose myself in the romance of Merlin’s proposal to Nimue because I knew tragedy had to be coming, but that scene further proved why Merlin is the complete opposite of the Dark One. He was willing to give up everything—his power and his immortality—to live a mortal life with the woman he loved. Love was more than enough for him. It was easy for him to choose love over power. Knight was quite the romantic leading man in those flashbacks, easily convincing me that it was no contest for Merlin: Nimue was enough for him; he didn’t need to be a sorcerer if he could be a man who could love and be loved by this woman.
Sadly, love wasn’t enough for Nimue. The pull of immortality and power was too seductive to walk away from. While a normal life filled with lovely little moments was enough to make Merlin happy, Nimue wanted it all; she wanted to share Merlin’s power, his immortality, and his love. She thought she was doing the right thing by drinking from the Grail; she was keeping Merlin immortal and allowing them to be together. But if Once Upon a Time has taught us anything, it’s that you can’t unlimited power and true love.
Once Nimue drank from the Grail, the power began to corrupt her, and we saw the first signs of what would become hallmarks of Dark One behavior. She tried to manipulate Merlin by pretending to die in order for him to see the cost of mortality. And then she used her new power to kill. Nimue killing Vortigan was the entire realm of dark acts committed on Once Upon a Time in microcosm: It came from a place of loss (We saw her ruined village and felt the pain of her grief beforehand.), and that loss made her feel justified in causing pain and death. As Merlin said, “It’s easy to live with darkness when you dress it up as vengeance.”
Watching Merlin try to talk Nimue out of crushing Vortigan’s heart was even more painful because it so perfectly mirrored Killian trying to talk Emma out of crushing Merida’s heart in this season’s premiere. And while Emma chose to listen to the words of the man who loves her and wanted to her to make the right choice, Nimue didn’t listen to Merlin. Merlin’s first act with magic was to create (by touching the desert ground and making grass), but Nimue’s was to destroy. She chose vengeance and power over love, and thus the Dark One was born.
In Nimue’s eyes, she and Emma are sisters in darkness. All Dark Ones are the same and want the same things, right? But Nimue underestimated how the power of love and belief could work through Emma, which is a classic downfall of Dark Ones (and villains in general): mistaking love for weakness when it’s really the greatest strength anyone can possess.
Emma was facing the biggest test of her life in this episode, and Merlin didn’t make it any easier with all his talk about her potentially killing him. (I was genuinely nervous throughout most of the episode, since I still strongly believe he’s going to die.) It broke my heart to hear her talking to him in the clipped sentences and deeper tones that betray her inner battle with the darkness, and it broke my heart even more to hear her admit that it’s a battle she’s not sure she can win, especially after what she did to Violet and Henry.
However, Emma still wasn’t about to give up on herself; she wasn’t about to lose hope. And while Merlin told her that the hope she was clinging to was at the top of the hill where they’d find the ember needed to re-forge Excalibur, it was really in the ring hanging from her neck.
That ring was given to Emma by Killian as protection for her journey with Merlin. It was his way of trying to keep Emma safe since he couldn’t stand by her side as she faced this test. Colin O’Donoghue did an excellent job of showing Killian’s desperation at the start of the episode when he confronted Merlin about helping Emma. You could hear the pain in his voice when he described how Emma makes dream catchers because she’s not sleeping. Around Emma, Killian is the picture of steadfast belief that things are going to be okay, but it was interesting to see panic starting to set in during moments when he doesn’t have to be strong for her. It’s not easy to be someone’s rock when they’re dealing with their inner demons, and I loved the small moment in which Knight showed that Merlin saw a reflection of himself in Killian—another man who’d lived a long and lonely life watching as the woman he loves stands on the precipice of being lost to him forever.
I loved that Killian took Merlin’s advice to heart: Love can be of great help to Emma. So Killian did all he could to help Emma continue to choose the right path by reminding her that she’s loved for who she is. He loves Emma with all her vulnerabilities, not the Dark One with all the “strengths” it wants Emma to embrace. And to help keep the woman he loves safe, he gave her the ring he believes helped him stay alive for hundreds of years. While the mythology of this ring is still a mystery (Why does he think this? Who gave it to him?), the important thing is the connection between the ring and Merlin’s desire to give up his immortality for Nimue. Both men were willing to give up what kept them alive for so long in order to experience the possibility of one happy life with the women they love.
And while Emma might not need the ring’s protection as the Dark One, she did need it for the other reason he gave it to her: the reminder that she has a piercing-eyed, smoldering pirate who loves her. The real power of that ring wasn’t its ability to keep her from dying; it was its ability to remind her that she has someone who loves her, and that’s enough for her to be happy. One look at her face as he confessed his love said exactly that: His love is enough for her. Morrison’s smile was radiant in that moment; it’s as if you could feel Emma’s joy coming through the television screen. And it was all because she was finally able to believe someone could see all of her and still choose to love her—and openly tell her that without any fear. When Emma whispered “Thank you” after one heck of a kiss, it was for so much more than the ring and its protection. It was for his love, which was once again a light in the darkness for her. Their whole scene before her journey exuded light and warmth—from their banter about her pop culture quotes to their smiles as they kissed. And that happiness—that love—was something that made Emma stronger when she needed it the most.
I found it incredibly beautiful that Emma noticeably held Killian’s ring right before summoning Nimue. She knew she was going to need all her strength, and the love that ring represents was a huge source of strength for her. Killian gave Emma the ring to bring her home to him, and it did exactly that. It served as a reminder that she has someone who loves her for the woman she is now and not the woman she could be with all the Dark One’s power. The love it represents gave her the strength to stay true to herself—to stay Emma—when Nimue’s voice in her head wanted her to lose herself to the darkness.
There’s nothing wrong with drawing strength from those who love you. There’s nothing wrong with needing a reminder that someone else thinks you’re worth fighting for when it’s hard to fight for yourself against your own demons. That’s why Killian’s love was so important in this episode; it gave Emma the strength to love herself with enough power to turn away from the darkness.
Because in the end, the only person who could save Emma from the darkness in that moment was herself. The voices in her head were her own demons to face, and the only love that could quiet them was the love has for herself. Nimue wanted Emma to believe she needs the darkness, that she’s nothing without it. She wanted Emma to believe she wasn’t enough as she was, which is the temptation all Dark Ones fall prey to—the belief that they’re weak and need the darkness to be their strongest self.
But Emma is finally at a place in her life in which she knows her worth. She’s not a lost little girl anymore who doesn’t think she matters. She knows she matters. She knows she’s loved for who she is—not just by Killian but by her whole family. She knows she’s strong. She knows she’s a person of value not because of the power she has but because of the person she is. And her sense of self allowed her to finally use her own philosophy to fight back against the darkness:
People are going to tell you who you are your whole life. You’ve just gotta punch back and say, ‘No, this is who I am.’
When Nimue told Emma that she would go back to being nothing without the darkness and Emma told her, “I am not nothing! I was never nothing! The power you have I don’t need,” I immediately got goose bumps and tears in my eyes. Morrison’s performance in that moment was some of her best work on the show in five seasons. She made you feel the power behind every word and what they meant for Emma in that definitive moment. This was the culmination of a huge part of Emma’s character arc—because not only does she know that she’s not nothing now, she knows that even when she was a lonely kid in foster homes and a pregnant teen in jail, she was never nothing. She was always someone worth fighting for, even when she was the only one fighting for herself. And she doesn’t need the power of the Dark One; she’s strong enough without it.
Emma was done listening to those voices in that moment, because she was furious that they were trying to define her when she’s the only one who should define herself. That moment was so important, and Morrison made it resonate with a raw honesty and fierce anger that has me still struggling to find words to describe her brilliance.
The best fairytales—and the best pieces of media in general—contain lessons we can use in our lives long after we finish the story. And that’s exactly how I felt watching Emma fight back against the voice in her head that wanted her to believe she was worthless without the power of darkness. I think many of us know what it’s like to have a voice in our head that tells us we’re nothing. Not to get too personal here, but I’ve been hearing that voice a lot lately—the voice that says you’re worthless without whatever it wants you to have (success, popularity, love, or powerful dark magic in Emma’s case). So that moment really hit home for me in a way no moment on television has in years. Because I now have a moment to look back on when those voices feel overwhelming. I can tell myself that if Emma could fight back and say she’s not nothing, then I can, too. That message—of telling the negative voices in your head that you’re not nothing, that you’re enough exactly as you are—is so important. I feel profoundly grateful that I got to watch one of my favorite characters on television have that moment, because I know I’m going to be a better, stronger person because of it.
Emma loved herself enough to choose the right path in that moment, and she was rewarded with what she needed. And I loved the way Morrison played Emma’s reaction to getting the ember. She was proud of herself and a little bit in awe of what she did, and she had every right to be. Because she achieved something special—not through dark magic, but through belief in and love for herself.
After that moment of victory, I’m having a hard time believing Emma just gave in to the darkness like she almost did in this scene. But then how did she go from the woman who fought off Nimue’s voice to the woman who summoned all the past Dark Ones as she re-forged Excalibur? I think Emma’s line to Merlin about wondering if someone could wield all that power to protect others is going to be incredibly important. I think Emma fully embraced the darkness because she felt like she had no other choice; she needed it in a way she didn’t when she faced Nimue’s influence in this episode. And I think it’s all going to come down to wanting to use the dark magic for protection. My best guess is that Killian is involved somehow, since it’s clear that him giving up his ring is going to come back to haunt both of them. But it could just as likely be Henry or the entire Storybrooke group.
That’s what made me less interested in the final scene with Excalibur than I wanted to be: I still have no idea what Emma plans to do with it. Her motivations are still unknown, and that’s making it harder for me to invest in the Storybrooke stuff with each passing episode. However, I have a feeling answers will start coming fast and furious on that front soon. And I think it’s all going to boil down to the fact that Emma stopped believing she was enough as she was; she started to believe she needed the darkness in order to protect whoever needed protecting. And that’s such a tragedy because it directly contrasts the beautiful growth we saw in this episode. But no one ever said this story was going to be all rainbows and unicorn stickers…
• I found the timeline to be a little weird once again in this episode’s flashbacks. I think when it said “200 Years Ago” with Merlin and Nimue, it should have said “200 Years Later (or After)” to indicate that Merlin and Nimue met 200 years after he got his powers. Otherwise, Nimue and Rumplestiltskin were both the Dark One at the same time.
• Don’t think I didn’t notice the fact that Killian giving his ring to Emma was followed by Merlin proposing to Nimue. I also definitely caught Emma’s slightly disappointed (or “Not right now but someday…”) look when it turned out Killian wasn’t actually proposing. There’s been a lot of wedding/engagement foreshadowing with those two characters this season, so it’ll be interesting to see if anything comes of it.
• Regina’s cape was to die for. She looked stunning.
• I suppose you can just add Zelena to the list of people who’ve taken advantage of Snow’s kindness and compassion over the years. (If you didn’t already add her to the list during Season 3B.)
• The Apprentice as a little boy was adorable, and did anyone else notice that his robe looked just like Mickey Mouse’s in Fantasia?