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‘Once Upon A Time’ Season Premiere Review: ‘The Dark Swan’ Delivers In a Big Way

Recap and review of Once Upon A Time – Season 5 Premiere – The Dark Swan:

Once Upon A Time is a show with very loose rules about its magic. For four seasons now, the rules are whatever the story needs them to be. There’s mystery to what magic is capable of doing, and what its limits are. And while that makes many of the developments feel cheap, “The Dark Swan” actually steers into the mystery and delivers one of its best season premieres as a result.

My love for this premiere stems mostly from the big twist at the end, which subverted every single one of my expectations for how this season was going to go. The opening establishes early on that this will be a season of prophecies, as King Arthur pulls Excalibur from the stone, a prophecy he claims came from Merlin himself; in a parallel flashback, a young Emma watches Disney’s The Sword In the Stone in a movie theater, only to have a mysterious usher warn her against Excalibur and its power. Naturally, we learn that The Dark One’s dagger is made from a piece of Excalibur, indicating the potency of its power. It’s because of the power of the darkness that Emma’s friends are so desperate to reach her, since she’s essentially a ticking time bomb of darkness at this point, and she isn’t likely to be able to resist the darkness alone. Hook (Colin O’Donoghue) and Regina (Lana Parrilla) lead the charge to reach the Enchanted Forest to rescue Emma (Jennifer Morrison), who is fighting off the darkness, in the form of an imaginary Rumpelstiltskin (Robert Carlyle). And it requires a lot of effort on their part, since it involves recapturing the escaped Zelena (Rebecca Mader), creating a tornado portal to the Enchanted Forest, and riding Granny’s Diner into the storm. It’s pretty crazy stuff, and it makes for a surprisingly well-paced premiere, especially when you consider how rushed Emma’s side of things is.

Once Upon A Time - Season 5 Premiere - Recap and Review - The Dark Swan

Credit: ABC

Emma’s mission is to find Merlin so he can take away the darkness, and in the process, she meets Merida (Amy Manson), forms an alliance, breaks that alliance, and then nearly kills her when the darkness begins to consume her. It’s wild how abrupt everything feels, especially since Merida basically comes out of nowhere, complete with an exposition dump from imaginary-Rumpelstiltskin about what Will o’ the Wisps are, and why Emma needs Merida’s in order to find Merlin. There’s no reason any of this should work as well as it does, but the story ultimately pivots on Emma’s internal struggle against the darkness. And THAT is what helps this succeed, since it’s something of a universal story. We all have to fight our impulses, but we don’t always win out. At least not without help. And that’s exactly what Emma receives when Hook, Regina, her parents and Henry (Jared S. Gilmore) arrive on the scene with about half the speaking characters of Storybrooke in Granny’s Diner. She realizes that this isn’t a fight she needs to face alone. The show of support from her family and friends is what prevents Emma from crushing Merida’s heart in her hand, and it’s what sets her on the path to redemption…at least until the wild twist that put this episode over the top, for me.

Once Upon A Time - Recap and Review - Season 5 Premiere - The Dark Swan

Credit: ABC

When King Arthur arrives at the end of the episode, speaking of a prophecy that foretold that Emma would help him find Merlin, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes. I genuinely believe that a prophecy that is essentially set-in-stone (no pun intended) would rob the characters of their own agency, in a series that prevails largely on the characters’ freedom to make their own choices. Because, really, how can anyone make choices as a character when it’s already preordained that they make those choices? Does Emma ever have any choice but to embrace the darkness? Or is she destined to become The Dark One, regardless of her friends’ efforts? The presence of a prophecy had me worried about what was ahead — but then, the episode put those concerns to bed with a wonderful little twist. Long story short, King Arthur takes our gang to Camelot, only for the story to flashforward six weeks later, as Granny’s Diner returns to Storybrooke with all of our heroes inside. They have no memory of what happened over those six weeks, they only remember the journey up until the point they entered Camelot (they’re also all decked out in Renaissance finery). This would have been a cool twist by itself, but what seals it, for me, is the arrival of Emma, decked out like Maleficent. Not only is she white-haired and dark-clad, she’s downright evil, cursing her friends for failing to save her from the darkness. She even condemns Hook for failing her, and threatens Regina as well. By taking the dry inevitability of the prophecy and flashforwarding past all that, turning everything in-between Point A and Point B into a mystery, the story is essentially rescued from its by-the-numbers trappings. How did Emma come to embrace the darkness? How did her friends fail her? What the hell happened in those six weeks in Camelot? It’s a plot device I wasn’t expecting, but one I find to be rather clever. Of course, how successful this approach ends up being depends entirely on what they do with the twist, since there needs to be a compelling answer to each of the questions this mystery poses. And that means coming up with an explanation that isn’t just a hand wave. Naturally, that can be a bit of a tall order.

'Once Upon A Time' Season Premiere Review 'The Dark Swan' Delivers In a Big Way

Credit: ABC

“The Dark Swan” was a tremendous premiere for Once Upon A Time, because it played with the structure of the series to breathe new life into it. Instead of a flashback, we get a flashforward that future flashbacks will illuminate. We’ll see how Emma comes to lose her goodness, and how her humanity might be reclaimed. If nothing else, we’ll get to see evil Jennifer Morrison, which I’m more than stoked to witness, with what little we got of it tonight. In short, Once Upon A Time is back, and I couldn’t be happier.

But what did you think of the Once Upon A Time Season 5 premiere, “The Dark Swan”? Sound off in the comments!

And for more on Once Upon A Time, check out the latest Camelot casting news here!

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