Once Upon A Time: The Dark Swan
Overview- spoiler free
I found myself giggling in anticipation and so happy to see my fictional friends after the summer break. When it comes to moments of brilliance, my expectations were met deliciously. I just want to hug Rumple whenever I see him. He delights me. It seems that the purveyors of Emmys owe Robert Carlyle some attention. And then some.
On the subject of performances, Jennifer Morrison sold her unease with her new situation. She nailed that greasy feeling of queasy unsettledness appearing rather nauseated most of the episode. She brought me into the moment and I was right there with her with my guts twisted up, terrified and uncertain about how to proceed. She makes a great protagonist now, just as she did in Season 1. While we are busy singing Robert Carlyle and Lana Parrilla’s praises, I think sometimes Jennifer Morrison gets over looked. She has consistently carried the burden of the lead around whom the rest of the Once universe swirls. That is a ton of work and she does it, and does it well. She should have her name first on the credits. The lady is solid.
Story-wise, three quarters of the episode worked well. But then what happened?
When I finished watching I was frowning and wondering how the writers came to some of the conclusions they did. Not because I was confused, I wasn’t, but I was definitely questioning some of the writing decisions. My thoughts while I was watching the last quarter of the episode went along the lines of “slow down” and “take a breath, I’ll still be here in three episodes.” I wondered if I had habituated to Game of Thrones pacing over the summer, but I came to the conclusion that the scenes were really that short. It felt chopped up, even in the first three quarters where at least it felt cohesive, if not smooth.
Exposition is hard. This episode had the feel of an enormous effort to get as many foundational pieces in place as possible before taking a deep dive into story. For me, that is a problem. If I notice exposition is going on, that’s detrimental to my experience as a viewer. I should be so absorbed in the story that the ground work is all but invisible. I am also a believer in telling the audience as little as possible to keep them along for the ride, but not in the know. Emma doesn’t know what is happening to her, not in any kind of detail. I would prefer to avoid spoon feeding if possible. This episode just cries out to be told over the course of about three episodes. I desperately wanted to spend more time with just about every situation as it came up. This brings us into the details and choices about story telling.
Overall, the promise of this season outweighs the klutzy start. The sheer potential to take us on the ride of our lives is there, if they execute. Emotionally, these characters all have an enormous amount of work to do. The opportunity for mystery and exploration is definitely there. This season is poised for greatness in spite of a little over-exposition. I am not sure how a show could have a more solid foundation going into a new season because of the major delivery of the previous one. Season 4B left us in an ideal space to take the next leap with these characters. Once has more than earned my patience, so I am going to give them the benefit of the doubt.
Here endeth the spoiler-free review. Below there be dragons!
For an in depth review, a chronological scene-by-scene look should do the job. I like to look at form and structure as well as writing choices. Themes, plot theories and performance notes are all fair game too.
Scene 1- Emma’s trip to the movies
I just loved McKenna Grace who played little Emma. I felt her childhood movie food envy keenly and was reminded of a similar childhood experience. Except I didn’t steal any chocolate. Our movie attendant is creepy! And I wonder if he’s Merlin. While I have at times lamented the collusion with Disney, Frozen pandering comes to mind, I do love having access to references like this one, The Sword in the Stone. Because of Disneyfication, these references aren’t awkward or impossible.
Scene 2: Fairytale Land (FTL) Arthur becomes king
I love me a good chopper horse chase! This location is breathtakingly beautiful and worth the expense to show it off. The subsequent lagoon looks like Neverland’s beach where Hook and Pan meet as well as where Rumple and Regina and Rumple and Baelfire do a few scenes.
Seeds of dissent in Camelot! I predict politics. To me, this is an example of good functioning exposition in which a few words, about three lines let us know a huge amount about the state of Camelot and Merlin’s relationship to it. Speaking of moments of brilliance, Sir K (Does that stand for something?) falls victim to a classic blunder: ignoring a wizard. “Your turn,” cracked me up.
Back to excellent exposition, the reveal of Excalibur and the Dark One’s dagger being cut from the same cloth (ruby hilt and all) gets the award. This moment got a giggle from me and sent my mind in many directions. This is one of the mysteries I am most looking forward to uncovering.
One more note about Camelot before moving into the next scene. We don’t, at this point, know when Arthur pulled Excalibur from the stone. This could be happening in the past, as we are led to believe by the fact that most of the time, FTL scenes are flashbacks.
Scene 3- Scene of the crime, Emma became the Dark One, now what?
I dearly appreciate Regina telling off Mary Margaret for her unfounded optimism. This show has needed some self-awareness to do with the intellectual shortcomings of both Charmings, though at least with David, Zelena and Cruella have taken care of that oversight. I want to give Josh Dallas props for the moment David realizes that Emma can’t answer the summons. He sold grieving dad masterfully.
A note on spoon feeding the audience: we don’t need it. We knew when Emma didn’t appear that she couldn’t. We didn’t need Hook/Regina to tell us why.
Scene 4- Vault of the Dark One, FTL
I just love the black oily goo effect.
Carlyle makes me smile every time. I am thrilled to get to see yet another character out of him. The Dark One has been within Rumplestiltskin nearly all the time we’ve known him, but this is the first glimpse of the entity we get to see on its own. That part I like, especially if it means we get to see the Dark One wearing a Rumple mask, which is what this is, essentially. The implications of this reveal are many indeed.
We can now draw several conclusions, or at least, several things seem very likely:
1. Rumple had (will he still?) access to the memories of ALL the Dark Ones before him negating a lot of basic magical research I had thought he had been required to do in order to know as much as he does.
2. At least in the beginning, the Dark One acts as a voice in the head of its latest meat-sack as opposed to my prior theory which was that the darkness twisted and corrupted the barer more subtly- clouding perceptions, darkening moods, influencing decisions, stoking anger. I suspect though, that once the new Dark One accepts the power, the darkness might work exactly that way. I hope we get an answer to this. I had thought of it as a more sinister version of the corruption that comes naturally with power if the person doesn’t take care not to become corrupt.
3. Rumple is a scholar in his own right. He used all those memories toward his own ends to further his knowledge of magic, but he also continued to study and to teach, motivated as he was by the need to find Baelfire. He likely furthered the science (can I say that?) of magic greatly with that foundation.
4. That implies that Emma will know everything about Rumple, everything he knows (knew?) and has the potential to be even more of a pain in the ass. She may have all of his memories during his tenure as Dark One.
5. She might not be able to take advantage of it though because she lacks Rumple’s shrewd wit. I expect the damage a Dark One can do is limited by their own capacities as, though I don’t know for sure, I doubt Zoso was much of a scholar. And what about Gorgon the Invincible? Perhaps not a ton of research done during that era.
Now for the part I don’t like. Again with the spoon feeding. The Dark One in a Rumple mask makes it easier for the audience to see into Emma’s head, but we don’t need to be told explicitly that it will be Emma’s (our) guide. We are quite capable of seeing that for ourselves. This is also an overused device. Bring the audience into a novel situation by making the situation novel to one of the characters and providing a teacher. It is convenient and easy, but not I think, the best way.
I would have better enjoyed seeing Rumple, DO continually to creep Emma out, trick her into using magic and generally corrupting her without the guise of teacher. This dark being seems like it would be more likely to bully/manipulate Emma into its clutches than take her, and us, by the hand.
Scene 5: Hook makes demands
I appreciate that Regina fails to be able to use the Apprentice’s wand. (And Rumple passed out in the corner.) This failure gives us tangible evidence of Regina’s growth into a hero. I am not saying Regina couldn’t find her way back into the clutches of bad/selfish/easy decisions, but as ways to illustrate change go, this was a good one.
I must admit that Hook being such a jerk in these few scenes really bugged me. That usually means that it was effective. It isn’t just Emma who is threatened by darkness, but Hook too. I do think the “your Majesty,” bit is going too far with the dialogue especially when he goes on to talk about Emma’s belief that an evil queen could be good. Since Hook doesn’t think of Regina as “your Majesty,” it might have worked a little better delivered sarcastically.
Scene 6: Emma Darth Vader’s a peddler
I like the implication that the darkness takes advantage of Emma’s subconscious frustrations, inclinations. It is using her emotions against her, as I theorized above.
Scene 7: Rumbelle isn’t dead!
Somehow they found the time to evict the Apprentice from Rumple’s shop and make Rumple more comfortable. I found this scene heartwarming. Of all the love stories Once has told us, this one speaks to me the most. Perhaps because it is hard earned. Writing love is easy when both characters are written to suit one another and they are good people. But this? Belle discovers something worthwhile in a damaged human being, offers said human a way out of the darkness. She shows compassion in the face of difficulty instead of taking the lazy way out and waiting for a Prince Charming to come along.
The Belle/Rumple love story resonated with those that wonder if love is possible for them, for whatever reason. “If the Dark One can love and find love, so can I,” so to speak. The message is clear, you don’t have to be perfect to be loved and to love in return. The hope generated by this love story cannot be overstated. And I am sure I am not alone in having had my heart broken in Heroes and Villains last year. This scene, and Rumple’s changed (reformed???) heart, give us hope for these two people.
The other delightful thing about this scene is obviously the rose. I am with Rumple in thinking of Blue as a “righteous flea” because of her tendency toward black and white thinking, but this is a nice gesture and maybe a hint that she might being experiencing a moment of growth here. If Blue can begin to see the value in people who have had trouble in their lives, there might be hope for her. Up until now, she seemed only to help people she likes, people who are good enough, hero enough, for her taste.
I have heard rumblings that folks think Blue is evil. I don’t think that is the case, but I do think she is a very well done illustration of how damaging righteousness can be.
Scene 8: The price of Wicked help
Rebecca Mader is quite marvelous. I find Zelena revolting and a lot of fun. This scene is SO short, but cutting away and sparing us a rehash is worth it in this case.
Scene 9: Just Ask
And now we know how to go poof. Emma he been begging Regina to teach her and now she knows. What I love most about that scene-lette was how swept away I became by Carlyle’s performance. He asked Emma, us, to do a visualization exercise and I totally fell for it. It is amazing how susceptible we, I?, are to the invitation to imagine. In moments like this, at least for me, the suspension of disbelief becomes something more, something participatory. My conscious and aware mind goes to sleep long enough that I believe I am in the story and have a moment of genuine surprise when I wake up again later. This bit of magic only happens for me with truly engaging performances. Thank you Mr. Carlyle and Ms. Morrison! I stepped right into Emma’s head and was in the narrative.
Ideally, this should happen the moment I sit down to watch and not resolve until the episode is over. Sometimes that happens, but not this time.
Just as Rumple, DO is about to send Emma after the Whisp we see him start to touch her arm, but the next camera angle we get shows him with a hovering palm near her arm. Oops. We don’t yet know if he’s tangible to her or not.
Scene 10: Quite a mess.
I like Zelena’s perspective on her pregnancy. For her, this is her chance at a happy ending, to get the love she has been missing. That Robin tries to appeal to a sense of cosmic justice to get Zelena to help shows us how little he understands her. I would have thought he would know that wouldn’t work. Regina’s little eye-roll doesn’t bode well for the health of her relationship with Robin if she thinks he’s an idiot.
It is interesting that Zelena can figure out how the wand works by touching it, without access to her magic. What is her source of knowledge and why doesn’t Regina have it? Is it just a power differential?
Scene 11: Magical Love Tap
There was elegance in the introduction of Merida. With just a few words, we learn quite a bit about her personality, which Disney references we can expect to hear more about later and in spite of another accidental use of magic, Emma continues to try resisting the darkness.
Scene 12: Hook’s Rebellion
Henry has claimed his adulthood!! Good for him, now he’s going to need to figure out what that means.
Scene 13: Beating Canadian Shrubbery
As exposition goes, this is ok, but not great. Emma would ask Merida what her rush is and Merida would tell her. Loved the bit about men not thinking women can lead. Any chance to jab sexism where it hurts is a great opportunity in my book.
This does use the walk and talk technique to keep the scene moving instead of relying on emotion. An emotional scene drier would arguably be a better choice if at all possible. This scene falls under the exposition is hard category.
Scene 14: Strange bedfellows
Nothing like Rumple, DO appearing in your bed to startle a person half to death, eh? Poor Emma. I personally love the salacious blocking choice here. The suggestion of unwanted intimacy with the Dark One is eloquent. He wants in and she can’t get away and is trying to resist. Not a nice or pretty metaphor, but apt.
Rumple, DO is priceless in this scene, he prattles on about spinning, knitting and all the terrible things Emma is going to do. This is so reminiscent of a mind that just won’t shut up and let you go to sleep. Interesting to know that Dark Ones don’t need sleep. We’ve seen Rumple sleep before, dream before, so I have to wonder if he learned to sleep out of boredom or what exactly. Or plot hole?
I found this one of the strongest scenes this episode.
Scene 15: The Cuckoo’s Nest
I wonder if Henry is starting to display some ‘Stiltskin genes with his willingness to trick and cheat his way around rules. Inspiring. Of course, he couldn’t possibly have gotten any of that from his mother Regina.
I also love that Zelena didn’t bat an eyelash over cutting off her own arm to be rid of the cuff as opposed to Rumple, who really was afraid.
Scene 16: Hook = Moron!
The best part of this scene wasn’t actually Regina saying what has needed saying for several seasons now, it was Belle’s amazing eye-roll. I wonder if that was scripted or if they simply caught Emilie doing that and put it in. I suspect the latter.
I wasn’t a fan of the blocking in this scene though. The Charmings and Belle standing behind Regina looked like Pips singing back up.
Of note, Regina might not know it in the moment, but she also called Henry a moron.
Scene 17: Hoodwinking
I liked the Good Night Moon reference.
Scene 18: Hijacking a tornado
While I believed Zelena’s motivations, here’s an instance of a villain spilling their guts in a way no villain worth her salt would bother with. We benefit from knowing, but realistically, Zelena would have told Regina where she could stick it and to hand over the wand or Forest dies.
I do love how Regina looks over her shoulder at Hook, when telling Zelena she’s not stupid.
Scene 19: You don’t really mean that.
I love the moment we can see in Rumple, DO’s eyes when he knows he’s got her.
Scene 20: Accent’s a bit much, no?
That line makes me wonder if it’s Carlyle’s embellishment or if it was written. My guess in written, but he sells it. Of course. I do like the circular filming they do at the Hill of Stones.
Scene 21: Granny’s To-Go
Between securing the condiments and the dwarves, there were some lovely lines in this scene.
I think the decision to take Granny’s in the twister was brilliant. What a fun idea.
Scene 22: What are you waiting for?
Morrison did a wonderful job selling Emma’s slide toward temptation at Rumple, DO’s behest. This scene makes use of that circular set again, which usually doesn’t work twice in a row, but makes good sense for this scene, which is really an extension of her last one, so perhaps it gives continuity where the interjection of flying Granny’s might have otherwise been too much of a disruption.
I personally am looking forward to Emma’s first murder as the Dark One. I figured Merida was too important for it to happen here (I’m sad to be right because that would have been a bit of dark realism) but Emma killing to get what she wants will change her and I wonder what her tipping point will be. How will she fall into darkness and embrace the Dark One?
The arrival of the cavalry just in the nick of time is a bet deus ex machina for my taste, but par for the course.
Mary Margaret/Snow White shows a rare sign of intelligence here but Hook is too much of a softy to let her do what should have been done.
I love how they managed the beginning of the merge between Rumple, DO and Emma. It reminds me of how people act when someone else is using their heart to control them.
I didn’t buy Merida having her heart nearly crushed leading her to decide on a course of mercy toward her rival clans. Suddenly being charitable toward the weirdo that almost killed you is quite unlikely. I would have just run like hell the second Emma was in Hook’s arms.
This lovely SwanQueen moment is just another log on that fire. I am a huge fan of the long-earned friendship between Regina and Emma. I am also a fan of the tradition of using Slash Goggles (projecting a romantic relationship onto characters where there isn’t one in canon) to satisfy perceived gaps. The roll of fan fiction is to give the fans a space to let their imaginations run free. Shows like this one inspire people, and the imagined SwanQueen romance is an example of how a show lives outside itself in the minds and hearts of the fans. I think some of these scenes are shot specifically with that in mind.
Scene 24: Granny’s FTL branch
And Granny. Here we see Emma perceive a potential threat before everyone else. Using Dark One powers without consciously resisting. And now we know that Arthur is in fact in this time and not in a flashback.
This for me is where things started to go off the rails. Too much accomplished in a short amount of time. Cohesion started to break down here.
I do wonder if Arthur is evil. He just seems too accommodating. Prophecy about the Dark One coming to Camelot and he just welcomes them with a smile?
Scene 25: Fanfare
Big beautiful CGI set, they walk across a bridge to music and no one says anything. This is awkward.
Scene 26: The Dreaded Six Weeks Later
Sneezy for sheriff is amusing, granted.
And again with the memory stuff??? Really???
I had assured myself this was a device they couldn’t possibly use again. Surely not… I groaned aloud at this one. Not only had the episode cohesion just fallen apart, they did not come up with a new way to tell us a story. This device is old. It was plausible once in the very beginning. It even worked for Regina to give Emma and Henry new memories for New York.
But using the same device in a season premier for a show which desperately needed a ratings boost seems a questionable at best decision.
I do LOVE the Emma Dark One with the change in hair and costume. And turning Sneezy to stone made me very happy indeed. First murder? I don’t think so, but we’ll see.
Rising music and fade to black.
I think I could have forgiven/ignored the choppiness and even the rough ending except for the memory business. Of course it all might make the very best sense in the world once we know exactly what happened in Camelot, but Once needed its fans not to groan aloud at its season premiere. I know I am not alone with this complaint.
Now that I’ve taken that in depth look, I can see how much that exit misstep colored my thoughts on the episode. I liked the majority of it, but that final impression is acting like a sea anchor at this point. I still have very high hopes for this season and for the show going forward, but I really hope the writers take note of how over use of a device can sour an experience.
That said, I cannot wait to see Dark One Emma roll over Storybrooke. I am very much anticipating her interactions with Rumple, once he’s done snoozing, and even curious about how she and Lily will get on. And what about Belle? If Emma has all of Rumple’s memories, how will she feel about Belle? With so many amazing questions and possibilities, I am heartily looking forward to this season.