‘Once Upon A Time’ Review: Compelling ‘Dreamcatcher’ Depicts the Corruption of a Hero
Recap and review of Once Upon A Time – Season 5 Episode 5 – Dreamcatcher:
Once Upon A Time thrived for four seasons on the notion that Emma Swan (Jennifer Morrison) was the be all, end all hero of the storybook worlds, and ours. Season 5, however, is an exploration into what happens when the best of heroes turn evil, even if the intentions behind the turn were good. To this end, “Dreamcatcher” is a compelling depiction of the corruption of a hero. After all, the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.
The good intentions, in this case, are to free Merlin (Elliot Knight) and prevent Arthur (Liam Garrigan) from uniting the dagger and Excalibur. Arthur himself is a study in good intentions gone awry, since he wanted to use the reforged Excalibur to banish all darkness from Camelot, only becoming corrupted once the mission consumed him. But Emma’s story is a different one. In attempting to free Merlin, Emma isn’t consumed by the principle of her actions, but by a combination of good intentions and the lure of dark magic. Early in the episode, she uses dark magic to freeze her parents, who’ve been put under a spell by Arthur. Regina (Lana Parrilla) is unnerved that Emma has become so accustomed to using the dark magic, believing she’s using it too much. And she might be right, since we see Emma’s morality start to skew as the episode rolls on. These moments showing Emma’s gradual corruption by darkness take place in the Six Weeks Ago storyline, but it carries over into the present day, as Emma proves to be manipulative for what she perceives to be the greater good. The two storylines parallel each other, but also intersect with a pretty surprising reveal that ended up putting this episode over-the-top, for me.
So, in the past, we have Emma use a dreamcatcher that allows her to see how Merlin was placed inside a tree. Long story short, the Dark One from that era (who remains masked the entire time) used a Tear of Lost Love, stolen from Merlin’s anguish over his own lost love, to trap him inside the tree. Regina and Emma theorize that the same magic used to trap Merlin can be used to free him, and so they plan to put together a potion and use Regina’s own memories of her first love, Daniel, to retrieve a Tear of Lost Love. Unfortunately, the plan doesn’t work, since Regina’s sadness wasn’t powerful enough. Apparently, the fact that she’s moved on with Robin Hood (Sean Maguire) means she’s healed, and so her tears won’t be effective. It’s here that Plan B enters into the equation: Henry (Jared S. Gilmore) has just gotten his heart broken after getting friendzoned by Violet (Olivia Steele Falconer), and his tears ARE powerful enough to complete the potion. Conveniently enough, the parallel story in present day Storybrooke features Emma helping Henry find and retrieve Violet’s lost horse, a moment of bonding in the middle of all this darkness. That’s all well and good, but it’s almost too simplistic for this to really be the entirety of the episode. And, sure enough, we learn just how far Emma has fallen by episode’s end…
The big twist at the end of the episode turns this into something much more sinister and manipulative. In breaking into Emma’s house and finding the magic dreamcatcher, Regina and Henry witness what really happened on the night they freed Merlin using Henry’s tear: apparently, Emma ripped Violet’s heart out of her chest and used it to blackmail her into breaking Henry’s heart. Simultaneously, Regina works it out in the present that Emma was probably the one who set Violet’s horse free in the first place as a way of bonding with Henry again. In both instances, Emma has arguably good intentions. She tells Violet she’ll return her heart right away, and she seems terribly conflicted even while she’s blackmailing the young girl. And in the present, this is closest we’ve seen to the old Emma in the present day, as she finally gets to bond with her son once again after feeling like a broken person who needs to be fixed. But, in both cases, Emma’s actual actions are far from good-hearted, no matter their intentions. It reveals that, ultimately, Emma wants things to remain as they are, in some form or fashion, as we learn from Merlin that Emma can only be healed when she truly wants to be free from the Darkness. The fact that she hasn’t been healed indicates her desire, at some level, to want to remain the Dark One. This would seem to tie into her overall mission with Excalibur: while the reforged sword can be used to banish darkness, it can also be used to banish all light magic. Perhaps Emma plans to rid the world of magic altogether, to remove the need for Saviors and Dark Ones, and reduce the world to normalcy? But even if those are her intentions, she’s still going about it the wrong way. In fact, she’s growing even worse when it comes to Gold (Robert Carlyle) and Merida (Amy Manson).
This week, Emma outright taunts them both, it seems, indicating that Gold is the only one who can remove Excalibur from the stone without immediately turning to dust, while Merida is the only one who can train him. It seems like an easy enough mission, since all Merida needs to do is train the man. But Gold fights her every step of the way, insisting he’s got no aptitude for battle. Merida struggles to get Gold to become a hero, but fails to inspire even an inkling of bravery in him during their training. And so she ends up blackmailing him herself, threatening to break Belle’s chipped teacup unless he actually tries to become the man she needs him to be. And so it is that Merida ends up darkened, somewhat, by her own good intentions. She’s trying to whip Gold into shape not to actually help Emma achieve her ends, but to be freed from Emma’s grasp so she can go help her brothers. Merida is noble, in her own way, but Emma has put her in a desperate situation that leaves her little choice but to either successfully train Gold or die. In short, the entire episode is oriented around people trapped in no-win situations. Some handle it better than others, as I thought the Henry/Violet storyline is actually pretty charming, even when it appears Henry has gotten his heart broken by his first love. But I’m having trouble enjoying anything about this Gold/Merida storyline, since so much of it felt like the plot circling around itself, with Gold continually resisting training, even after Merida initially blackmails him. Hopefully, this story becomes less tiresome next week, as we’re inching closer to November sweeps, and the possibility of some major, cinematic-sized developments in the narrative.
Until then, I thought “Dreamcatcher” ultimately worked because Morrison was able to sell Emma’s gradual transformation so convincingly. Another highlight was Lana Parrilla, who’s become an adviser of sorts to Emma, since she’s been there and done all that, and knows the darkness won’t give you what you really want. It’s an interesting ideological struggle, between a reformed villain and a fallen hero, and I think the show is wise to center so much of the narrative on the conflict between these two. Dating back to the earliest days of Once Upon A Time, this was presented as a battle between the Savior and the Evil Queen. Seeing the tables flipped is not only refreshing, it’s rejuvenating for a show that could use that sort of kick.
But what did you think of Once Upon A Time, “Dreamcatcher”? Sound off in the comments!
And for more on Once Upon A Time, check out our review of last week’s tremendous episode, “The Broken Kingdom”!