‘Once Upon A Time’ Review: ‘The Broken Kingdom’ Explores How Good Goes Bad
Recap and review of Once Upon A Time – Season 5 Episode 4 – The Broken Kingdom:
Once Upon A Time has organized much of the structure of this season so far on the split narrative of the missing six weeks in Camelot. However, it can be argued that the issue of greater importance is the hunt for the big MacGuffin of this story, the reforged Excalibur, which can banish the darkness, although we’re not exactly told how. “The Broken Kingdom” tells the story of people who’ve succumbed to that darkness while locked in the eternal struggle to be rid of it.
In a surprisingly refreshing departure from formula this week, we hardly spend any time in present day Storybrooke, save for the final cliffhanger at the end of the episode. Instead, we see more of what happened during the missing six weeks in Camelot, while flashing even farther back to see how King Arthur (Liam Garrigan) became so twisted and corrupt. Previously, the motivation for Arthur’s fall is centered on his desperation to keep Camelot safe, to unite his “broken kingdom” and banish the darkness forever. However, this episode implies a far simpler cause. Early in the episode, we see a young Arthur reveal to a young Guinevere that he has been prophesied by Merlin to rule the kingdom. Guinevere has faith in him, but When several boys tease Arthur about the prophecy, and how unlikely it is that a lowly stable boy could ever unite the kingdom, we get a glimpse into just how badly Arthur has been ridiculed throughout his life. It’s analogous to someone being persecuted for his beliefs. Arthur can’t prove he’s going to rule the kingdom, nor can he prove that there’s really a wizard named Merlin stuck in that tree in the village. But he holds to that faith, because to do otherwise would be to accept that he’ll never be anything more than a stable boy. Ultimately, when Arthur does come of age, he views the broken Excalibur as a symbol of the unfulfilled prophecy. In essence, Arthur ties his self-worth to the completion of the prophecy. It’s not simply that he must save the kingdom, nor only that he must prove himself to Merlin, but rather that he must prove to himself, and to all his naysayers, that he is truly the greatest king this realm has ever seen. Hell, he even says as much towards the end of the episode, stating how badly he needs to prove his doubters wrong. Arthur’s fall to darkness is basically the result of internalized anger over how he was mistreated in his youth. The bullied becomes the bully, and the cycle starts all over again.
Of course, this simplifies the concept somewhat. There really is more to it than that. One of the best things the episode does is illustrate how Arthur was once a good, idealistic man who, while always obsessed with the prophecy, still had the capacity to love things outside of it (although I suppose you could argue that Guinevere was part of the prophecy too, thus meaning that everything important in Arthur’s life is connected to this damn prophecy). We see how Arthur loved Guinevere (Joana Metrass), and how his dedication to finding the Dark One’s dagger led her astray. In a desperate attempt to win her husband back, Guinevere seeks out the dagger alongside Lancelot (Sinqua Walls). It’s a relationship that changes as their journey goes on, to the point where they wind up kissing about halfway through. And yet, the show doesn’t really judge either of them for this, even though they’re both betraying Arthur’s trust. In fact, the blossoming romance sort of gets pushed to the sidelines in order to focus more on the hunt for the dagger, and it’s a wise choice, since it keeps the pace of the story from slowing to a crawl.
Using Merlin’s gauntlet, they track down the Dark One’s dagger, only to be intercepted by Rumplestiltskin (Robert Carlyle), who refuses to let them have the dagger, although he does give them magic sand from the isle of Avalon. The magic sands fix anything that is broken, and so Guinevere could use the sand to make Excalibur appear to be whole again. Sure, it’d be a trick of the eye, but it would sate Arthur’s glory lust, and possibly save her marriage in the process. It’s an interesting dilemma, because it presents Guinevere with the same sorts of temptations facing Arthur, albeit in different forms. On the one hand, there’s the possibility of using magic to make all her problems go away, similar to how Arthur assumes that reforging Excalibur will instantly heal his kingdom and set everything right. While that could happen, for all we know, Arthur seems to be overlooking the amount of work that goes into repairing broken things, whether they’re kingdoms or marriages. Magic can’t be a balm on everything. Guinevere recognizes this, and rejects the opportunity to use the Sands of Avalon to fix Excalibur, since it wouldn’t be real anyway. What should have been a moment of realization for Arthur is instead exploited: Arthur uses the sands to fix his broken marriage, convincing Guinevere to support him in his dagger quest at all costs, while also convincing her that Lancelot attempted to prey on her. He then uses the remaining sands to change Camelot from a rundown kingdom to a glorious-looking empire, in what is basically the quickest construction process of all-time. Frankly, Arthur is lucky the sands didn’t misinterpret what he wanted and end up fixing the stomach ailment of a bird sitting outside the window from which he through the sands. Either way, Arthur doesn’t get the reforged Excalibur, but he gets a more harmonious household, along with a kingdom that views him in a better light.
This all has repercussions in the Six Weeks Ago story, as David (Josh Dallas) helps Arthur seek out the dagger, while Mary Margaret (Ginnifer Goodwin) goes on the run with Lancelot. What I liked about this story was what it told us about the Charmings. Mary Margaret telling David that his desire to be a Knight of the Round Table is a selfish attempt on his part to feel like a hero again. However, Mary Margaret proves to be far too trusting herself, putting all her stock in Lancelot without really knowing anything about him beyond what she’s heard about his affair with Guinevere. It’s telling that she backs away from him towards the end of the episode, uncertain of just who this man really is, and if she should even trust him. The Charmings have this weird tendency towards impulsiveness, and it adds a lot of drama to Charming-centric episodes, albeit at the expense of the notion that these are two wizened rulers in their own right. However, we get a reversal of expectations here, as David and Mary Margaret are able to outsmart Arthur by having led him into a trap. Sure, they quickly get outsmarted themselves when Guinevere brings Arthur’s troops to come bail him out, but this was still a wonderful plan by the Charmings, and an illustration of how effective they can be when they’re on the same page. Hell, Arthur’s plan is predicated on following Snow White straight to the dagger, yet he never realizes that they allowed this to happen in order to prove their suspicions about him. It was just a really solid plot overall.
Naturally, “The Broken Kingdom” has a considerable focus on Emma (Jennifer Morrison). In the Camelot storyline, Hook (Colin O’Donoghue) helps her banish the imaginary Rumplestiltskin from her mind by encouraging her to allow him to take on some of her burden. The episode paints an idyllic picture of the two lovebirds, with the couple kissing in a field of flowers. But the present day Storybrooke plot paints a different picture, showing that Emma has basically given in to the darkness by kidnapping Merida (Amy Manson), stealing her heart, and using it as collateral to force her to train Mr. Gold to be the hero she needs him to be, since only Merida can teach him to be “brave” (everyone knew the line was coming, after all). It feels like the story of Emma’s evil deeds in the present is slowing down a bit in order for the show to fill in the gaps in the missing six weeks, showing us what happened in Camelot in order to better inform the dark path Emma is treading. So while I’m not too amped to see a big training montage for Gold in the future, I’m still confident in the direction this story is headed, and that it’ll prove to be worthwhile. “The Broken Kingdom” is inching the overarching narrative forward for Once Upon A Time, while being fittingly entertaining in its own right. Ultimately, that’s all I really ask from an episode.
But what did you think of Once Upon A Time, “The Broken Kingdom”? Sound off in the comments!
And for more on Once Upon A Time, check out our review of last week’s intriguing episode, “Siege Perilous”!