Sunday night’s premiere of Once Upon a Time’s fifth season transported fans from the small Maine town of Storybrooke to the thick woods of the Enchanted Forest, wherein lurked the newly dubbed Dark One: Emma Swan.
These days, stories favor “grey characters”–people who weave between the boundaries of morality–like the characters of Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead. In this regard, Once Upon a Time challenged itself by abandoning typical family-friendly tropes and essentially asking the question, What happens when the world’s magical savior becomes its doom?
Emma Swan’s (Jennifer Morrison) transformation into the Dark One–or #DarkSwan, if you prefer–has been hyped since last May’s season four finale, when Emma was literally consumed by darkness. The premiere continued to tease that buildup, playing on the idea that evil isn’t born but made.
The evil within Emma was personified as an apparition of the original Dark One, Rumpelstiltskin (Robert Carlyle), who served as the devil on Emma’s shoulder. He taunted Emma’s dark side by blatantly quoting Star Wars’ Emperor Palpatine: “Do it. Give in to your anger.” The bow-wielding princess from Pixar’s animated film Brave, Merida (Amy Manson), debuted with a deadly accurate portrayal and devious agenda that further provoked Emma’s rage.
— Once Upon A Time (@OnceABC) September 28, 2015
Back in Storybrooke, Emma’s family and friends flashed their own dark sides when they resorted to questionable and perhaps extreme actions–such as Hook (Colin O’Donoghue) and Henry (Jared S. Gilmore) freeing the pregnant Wicked Witch Zelena (Rebecca Mader)–all in an effort to find and save Emma.
The characters’ internal struggles, alongside Merida’s debut and the introduction of King Arthur (Liam Garrigan) and Camelot, all were weaved nicely into an hour-long setup for the real payoff: the Dark Swan. Consequently, that climax detracted from the characters’ personal stories, touched on through small snippets of dialogue. Everything revolved around finding and saving Emma, which was understandable given the circumstances, but disappointing for fans interested in the show’s many romances.
Clothed in a black leather outfit, her blond hair slicked back in a bun, and her pale face greased with an ugly gloss, the once heroic Emma Swan claimed her new title as the Dark Swan–the highlight of the episode. The moment fans had anticipated for so long lasted minutes before finally fading into a magical black cloud.
The problem? The good guys lost their memories–again. Six weeks’ worth of memories, actually. No one can remember how Emma became evil or what caused them to lose their memories in the first place. So, the next episode–and probably the rest of the season–will explore Emma’s transformation.
While Once Upon a Time will never match the moral ambiguity of Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead, the Dark Swan exhibited enough potential to rival most stereotypical fantasy villains. ABC will likely enforce Emma’s eventual redemption, but Once Upon a Time’s premiere kindled an immoral hope that the Dark Swan shall remain or, at the very least, won’t be held back for the series’ darkest season yet.