Once Upon a Time: The Dark Swan Recap


by Marianne Paluso (@Marianne_P81)

The season five premiere of Once Upon a Time proved once again that this show continues to enthrall and move, staying true to what makes it special while also continuing to allow growth and added depth to the characters and mythology. “The Dark Swan” parallels Emma’s transformation and struggles in her first moments as The Dark One with our characters in Storybrooke trying to figure out how to reach her, but not before two very intriguing flashbacks. One involves a young Emma enjoying a viewing of “The Sword in the Stone” when an usher (in truth Merlin), urges Emma to not pull Excalibur from the stone, when she is given the opportunity. Mysterious as this was, my mind was truly blown away in a scene when Arthur and his knights Lancelot and Percival arrive at the stone, knowing Arthur is the one and only one prophesized to remove it, seen clearly when another knight (Sir Kay) tries to and turns to ash. When Arthur pulls Excalibur from the stone, we see the bottom of the sword is not only missing, but that the bottom is none other than the Dark One’s dagger, showcasing an intriguing connection between the two weapons that is startling and brilliant. And if there was one word to describe this episode, from the performances and the mysteries, to the new and various character interactions it would be brilliant.

For a series so rooted in the journey of identity, self-acceptance, and redemption, it is a bold move to have your heroine, who is born of the lightest light, who is by design and through her inherent goodness and choices the Savior, to suddenly become the darkest of darks. But as we see when she emerges from the Dark One’s vault, becoming this cursed soul is not just flipping a switch and suddenly becoming evil. It is an internal struggle of facing the darkness inside of you and to either resist or embrace it. In a stroke of genius, and to employ Robert Carlyle’s talents while Gold is in a coma, Rumple appears to Emma as the essence of the Dark One inside her head, to teach and entice her into succumbing to the power. But Emma does not want to listen to him, so she sets out in search of Merlin. But she simply cannot walk away from this internal voice, and we see her deeply struggling with her new powers and dark impulses, sometimes completely floundering, other times her resolve strong, none more so than when she meets Merida (Amy Manson, who plays the brave warrior with feistiness and warmth). She and Emma both seek the will of a wisp that can lead you to what you seek. Merida offers to share it, but Emma learns that is impossible so long as Merida is alive, thanks to a sleepless conversation in her mind with Rumple that Merida overhears. And the desperation and anger mixed with tinges of her usual warmth is played brilliantly by Jennifer Morrison as Emma is faced with the darkest obstacle she has ever dealt with.

Meanwhile in Storybrooke, our characters are left in shock, staring at the place where Emma stood before she took on the darkness, the shot very symbolic of where our characters stand. Snow and David and Regina and Robin are on either side, leaning on each other, while Killian is at the center looking at the dagger with his beloved’s name now engraved upon it. The pain in his voice and eyes when he tries to summon her and she doesn’t appear is heartbreaking. Knowing that this means she is in another world, the sense of urgency to find her is strong. They seek out the Apprentice who gives them a wand that can summon a portal to her so long as it is conjured by a dark soul. And here we get a glimpse into another one of the episode’s brilliant character dynamics. Regina frustratingly tries to wield the wand, while Killian angrily tells her to stop wasting their time, for she may have fire but no longer the darkness. They need someone wicked. Regina refuses but Killian says Emma is worth it and she owes it to her for saving her life and preserving her happiness. Colin O’Donoghue and Lana Parrilla played this scene so well, and although they have shared scenes before. there was a sense of something new and fantastic in this hostility as neither are afraid of each other. Another wonderful character interaction was between Killian and Henry who go on a rogue mission together. After Henry tells him he can’t write the darkness out of Emma because he broke the quill (he shouldn’t abuse the power anyway), Killian asks if he would be okay with bending a few rules and doing something Regina would not approve of and breaking Zelena out of jail. Henry smiles and says he’s not a kid anymore and can do what he wants. Here we see a glimpse of the golden dynamic we saw in the season four finale, and I loved seeing the two of them making quite the team. I sense many step-father/step-son mischievous adventures in their future. Of course things do not go as planned and when Killian tries to make sure Zelena cannot hurt them and he attempts to take her heart, he is blasted back by a protection spell. She grabs his knife and chops off her own hand, freeing herself from the magic-diffusing cuff and reattaching her appendage as if it was as normal as day. When they tell everyone what happened, Regina is livid and again we see how intense the tension between her and Killian is. They don’t hold back and it takes an impassioned speech from Snow to calm them down and remind them that all that matters is finding Emma, employing the kind of regal wisdom that only a true leader possesses. It was also great to see new regular cast members Sean Maguire and Rebecca Mader showcase new depths to their characters. Despite not knowing Emma well, we see a genuine concern for her on Robin’s part which was lovely, as was his ability to know it was not Regina but rather Zelena in disguise that he kissed. You can see so clearly how much he loves Regina. Additionally, Mader always plays Zelena with such manic delight but in the scene where she says Regina must trade the wand for Robin, we see that underneath it all, she just wants someone who will love her. She thinks her unborn child can fill that void and plans to conjure the portal to Oz. Luckily Regina is clever and knows that Zelena would be weakened long enough to be overpowered. They hijack the twister inside Granny’s using Emma’s baby blanket as their guide to her in a really sweet moment between Regina and Snow. It was a three generational, unconventional family moment of sorts and a lovely acknowledgment that they both care and want to truly help Emma. Granny’s Diner takes them all, including some of the dwarves and Granny, to the Enchanted forest in a great Wizard of Oz nod. And it could not have come a moment sooner.

No sense of urgency was as potent as Killian’s desperation to get to Emma. Not only does he know better than anyone (besides Rumple) what the Dark One can do to someone’s soul, but Killian has always been the one who is willing to go to the end of the world for her, even before he ever knew she would feel the same way about him. Now that he knows she loves him as he loves her, his desperation to reach her is prodigious. Usually cool under pressure, he is slowly coming apart at the seams, not necessarily employing his best decision-making. O’Donoghue plays this anxiety perfectly, as well as beautifully, as it not only so closely matches the desperation Emma is plagued with, but also contrasts so much with the gentle stability he shows when they find Emma in a very pivotal scene. In the episode’s most powerful moment, Emma is also unraveling. Morrison brilliantly showcases a clear shift from the anxiety Emma was fraught with to a more stilted anguish of very dark temptations bubbling under the surface. To gain control of the wisp, she pulls out Merida’s heart, Rumple in her head telling her to crush it. She nearly does until her loved ones arrive, Killian saying, “Swan, don’t!” They all urge her not to give into the darkness, Regina saying her destroying it this way will also consume her, Snow wanting to stop her by using the dagger. But Killian says it must be her choice, such a significant thing for Emma who has so often had choices made for her. Killian, who has always respected her choices, believes she will make the right one. In this moment, we witness once again the poignancy these two characters and actors can bring to any scene. You can see the sad fear in Emma’s eyes when she tells him that she can’t let the Dark One hurt them, and the gentleness he shows her is so moving. He is witnessing the woman he loves about to perform a truly heinous act, not with fear in his eyes, but compassion. He knows what the darkness is like. But Emma brought him back to the light and he knows he must do everything he can to bring her back as well. He knows her words are not her truest self and reminds her of the good person she is – the person who united heroes and villains alike, who are all there for her, because of her. She can overcome her demons just as they all have. Killian is able to get through to Emma as she returns Merida’s heart and she falls into his arms, and he tenderly holds her. The way they hold onto to each other is moving but his look of relief is mixed with uncertainly and fear for her, which he quickly tempers to make sure she is well. Significantly, as he holds her in his arms, the image of Rumple disappears, something echoed when she also hugs Henry, demonstrating how her two true loves are the ones who help her to keep the darkness at bay. And Killian proves again that he is an anchor for Emma, supporting and loving her as she faces her darkest moment yet. After all, what does an anchor do? Whether it is for a ship or a person, an anchor provides strength and support, keeps things steady and true, and is a symbol of hope. In this moment, Killian’s love for Emma gives her the strength she needs to make the right choice. For the entire episode, it was like Emma was in the middle of the ocean, the waves pulling her every which way and threatening to drag her down into its dark depths. But his words calm the seas raging inside her, the sun peeking through the clouds once more. In the moments after, we see a weight has been lifted off her shoulders as they entwine their hands and smile, the Emma we know breaking free with her family and Killian beside her. This may be the beginning of the story, but here we see beautifully how true love is indeed more powerful than darkness and that there is always hope that they can overcome anything together.

When King Arthur and his knights arrive, we are presented with another intriguing mystery. Emma and her family were prophesized to come to Camelot, Emma destined to help them reunite with Merlin. As our characters walk into Camelot’s castle, Emma and Killian leading the way hand-in-hand with hope and love in their eyes ready to face this challenge together, all seems right with the world once again. That is what makes the next moments even more shocking. We suddenly flash to six weeks later, everyone transported back to Storybrooke in Granny’s, dressed in fairy tale regalia, with no memories of what happened after they walked into Camelot. Killian wonders where Emma is until she appears before them, icy cold in her manner, clad in black leather, and her hair white and slicked back. Morrison has always shown such depth and range when portraying Emma, and here we see another powerful demonstration of her tremendous talent. I got absolute chills from her demeanor as she so coolly tells them all they failed her and now must be punished. In the Enchanted Forest, Emma had given Regina the dagger, knowing that if they were unable to save her, she would be able to do what was needed and destroy her. But now Emma has the dagger in her possession and the sole knowledge of what happened to everyone. When Killian asks her why she is doing this she responds coldly “Because. I’m the Dark One.” The fear in his eyes and the emptiness in hers was gut-wrenching and sets up the great drama for the rest of the season. What happened in those six weeks to cause Emma to fully embrace her darkness? How did they fail her? And will they be able to bring her back to the light? One may criticize the memory loss trope, which has been done many times before, but unlike before where certain things were discernible, this presents a great mystery and amazing dynamic with Emma alone knows the truth. The Dark Swan has risen and I am thrilled to see where the season leads.

Favorite Moments: Jennifer Morrison’s astounding performance was absolutely captivating. From seeing Emma struggling and nearly succumbing to the darkness, to seeing her as someone who has truly embraced this power, she is showcasing even more layers to Emma from fear, anger, warmth, despair, and hope, to a cold and a truly chilling presence as the Dark Swan. Someone start the Emmy campaign for Miss Morrison because she is as enthralling as ever. Equally amazing was seeing the various facets to Killian’s character from his desperate attempts to reach her, to the beautiful way he was able to remind Emma of the truly good person she is and bring her back from her breaking point. He proves to be her true anchor with his love, support, and belief in her and it is so lovely. I also loved the great family-like moments between Henry and Killian and Snow and Regina, as well as seeing Leroy say they are tired of sitting on the sidelines for adventures and swears to stand by Snow again. Lastly, the many Disney references from the magical rose that is now linked to Rumple’s state, to the castle in Camelot which resembles not only Disneyland’s edifice, but the beautiful palace it is based on, the Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany, these little details are a delight and a part of what makes the show so magical.

Favorite Lines:
Emma: You don’t know what’s at stake. If I don’t find Merlin, the darkness will destroy you.
Killian: Emma, please. No.
Emma: The Dark One destroys everyone near it. Look at Gold. I can’t do that to my family. To you. She has to die.
Killian: Listen to your words. It’s not you speaking, Emma. We can find another way together. Look at us – heroes and villains together for you. Because of you. And if we can overcome…if we can overcome our demons, then so can you.

Snow: Emma kept us united and that is exactly how we are going to remain. Come hell or high water, we are going to put aside our nonsense and find my daughter.

Killian: Well, you don’t look like a crocodile.
Emma: Guess I lucked out.

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