The true story behind the original Dark One — and the history of Excalibur — is revealed.

By Andrea Towers
November 09, 2015 at 02:51 PM EST
Credit: Jack Rowand/ABC

The moral of tonight’s Once Upon A Time might be, “Don’t play with fire.” Or perhaps it’s, “Don’t trust the man behind the curtain.” In any case, Excalibur lives! And unfortunately, so does Dark One Emma — now even more powerful and ruthless than before. For the first time since the beginning of the season, we barely spent any time in present-day Storybrooke, save for the first and last few moments of the episode. With two halves of the sword now in her possession, Emma can only see power. But Dark One Rumple claims it represents more than that — like any fairytale, it represents history. And it’s time for Excalibur’s promise, given years ago, to be fulfilled.

Because, see, like any good story, we have to start at the beginning. The very beginning, 10 years before the age of Arthur, where we find two men running through the desert (one of which is Merlin). They see a glimmer in the sand, and while Merlin’s friend thinks it’s a mirage, Merlin’s more astute and recognizes it as a goblet (with a cross on the side), which his greedy friend claims is a “gift from the gods” and picks it up…and promptly turns to dust. Not so much with those gods, then. Merlin prepares to do the same — “drink or die” — though he at least looks to the heavens and asks permission first. Regardless of whether Merlin’s worthy or manners just go a long way in fairytale land, Merlin drinks with no problem. In fact, he realizes he’s acquired magic, as the desert changes to lush greens.

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So Merlin uses his newfound magic for good, to heal people and help them, which is how he meets the former love of his life, Nimue (Caroline Ford), 200 years ago. Nimue had come to Merlin on behalf of her village, which then-Dark One, Vortigan, destroyed. Merlin falls for Nimue because, well, why wouldn’t you? (No, seriously. Why wouldn’t you? I know a few other reviews are going to liken the actress to different famous faces, and I’m throwing my hat into the ring for Jennifer Lawrence. Maybe it’s the freckles and dark hair.)

In Camelot, Merlin tells the Storybrooke gang that they can save Emma by putting the two blades back together. He finds Emma making a dream catcher and tells her that they can make Excalibur whole again…if he can get the Flame of Prometheus, which is what forged Excalibur in the first place. The problem is that the flame was technically extinguished but still exists as an ember in the possession of the first Dark One. Emma’s all for this because it means potentially getting rid of her imminent Dark One powers, but Merlin warns her that the first Dark One is powerful and has the power to kill — even when it comes to immortal people like Merlin. Before leaving on her journey, Emma shares a goodbye moment with Hook, who gives her his ring as a kind of good-luck parting gift, because “The Dark One is immortal. Emma isn’t.” We still have a few episodes to go before we fully complete this half of the season and find out the story behind Emma’s full descent into darkness, but this exchange really does feel like it’s one of the last moments where we’ll see the two being genuine and in love with each other. (Did you catch Merlin watching from a distance? Is he spying on them for good or evil?)

NEXT: Merlin and Emma’s roadtrip

Back to many, many years ago, we find Merlin and Nimue have become kind of a thing. They’re spending a lot of time in Nimue’s village, watching the flowers grow and generally being adorable. Nimue asks Merlin why he doesn’t just propose to her because clearly they’re headed in that direction. Merlin admits that he found the Holy Grail 500 years ago and it gave him magic and eternal life. If he marries Nimue, it means that he’d have to watch her die. Oh, the curse of being immortal! Something tells me the Salvatore brothers know this quite well. Merlin tells her the Grail is still there, at the bottom of a tower in Nimue’s village, and Nimue realizes if she drinks from it, they can live together forever. Which is great, as long as Nimue is worthy enough not to drink from it without turning into dust and all. The Grail is kind of temperamental. Merlin has a better idea — he proposes making the Grail into a sword, and they can use it to abolish immortality and live a life of happiness together like normal people. As if to prove his love, he takes some leaves from a flower and magics them into a ring, which he turns into gold. It’s an unorthodox proposal, but it’s one of the sweeter moments of the hour…even with the Dark One watching stealthily from the shadows, just like Merlin was watching Hook and Emma in Camelot.

The Storybrooke gang is trying to figure out how to break into the castle so they can steal the sword and dagger back, and basically coming up with no viable options because they’re not the best Scooby Gang. Zelena forces Regina to remove her mute spell, and she’s actually helpful for once, giving them a way in where they can sneak through the castle undetected. In return for helping, she wants her magic back, though Regina’s not dumb enough to agree to that right away. I’m pretty sure Regina is the only smart person in Storybrooke at the moment, which is something you couldn’t have paid me to say in the first season. Arthur, meanwhile, is making a potion that will basically disintegrate anyone that gets in close contact with it. Because “this is war, now!” Arthur is hardcore.

On their walk through the forest to find the Flame of Prometheus, Emma and Merlin have a heart-to-heart about — what else? — the darkness. Emma wants to know if there’s any hope for her, because she’s already done terrible things, and she thinks the darkness is winning. Merlin, to his credit, thinks there is some hope, and I appreciate Merlin for being optimistic. Meanwhile, back to years and years ago, Merlin and Nimue find her village and home in ruins. Nimue is inconsolable, though she channels her grief into rage and vows that if she had any power, she would use it so this couldn’t happen to anyone else. Merlin finds cups scattered along the ground and realizes the Dark One has come looking for the Grail, then has a vision of the Dark One getting closer to their location. He doesn’t want to kill him, though, because he knows if that happens, the darkness will take shape inside of him. You never really come back if you do something so terrible as taking another life.

They do manage to get the goblet to the fire, and Merlin does his Merlin magic, a.k.a. cool Scarlet Witch hand movements but without those red sparks. The Dark One shows up and attacks Nimue, who tries to fight him — which, in hindsight, is probably pretty stupid, but at least Nimue is putting up a good battle. She succeeds in getting the Dark One’s Death Eater mask off, but not before the Dark One mortally wounds her. A distraught Merlin sees her die in his arms and prepares to face off with the evil being who took the love of his life away from him. But, surprise! Nimue sneaks up from behind and snatches his heart out of his chest. Merlin is as shocked as the viewers, until we learn that Nimue drank from the Grail without Merlin knowing, in order to become immortal as well. Merlin tries to talk her out of killing the Dark One, because he knows what will happen if she does so. Nimue, however, is blinded by revenge, and all she wants is to get rid of the man who destroyed her home and family. She crushes his heart, the flame goes out, and the Dark One’s legacy is passed — to Merlin’s one true love, who becomes the first true Dark One. Talk about a relationship setback. To make matters worse, Nimue picks up the sword and breaks it in half. At least she has the courtesy to say, “I’m sorry…”

NEXT: My love’s like a red, red rose

In present-day Camelot, Merlin has brought Emma to the same structure that once housed the Flame of Prometheus. He gives Emma the dagger and tells her she needs to call on the power of the object to talk to the previous Dark Ones in order to get the ember back. Dozens of names cycle through on the dagger, notably Rumple, and then the original Dark One appears in the classic mask — Nimue. Merlin still loves her, but Nimue has long moved past that. She tries to convince Emma that love isn’t as powerful as she thinks…and that even when you love someone, you have to stop them if they don’t let you “become you.” She forces Emma to try to kill Merlin, while Merlin attempts to get Emma to think clearly. In the end, Nimue pushes a little too far, and as it turns out, Emma’s still got some fight in her. She’s not all dark, yet. She pushes Nimue away when Nimue dares to tell her she’s “nothing,” claiming she doesn’t need her power. The dagger goes back to Emma’s name, and she takes the ember, although she’s warned that all the Dark Ones will never stop being in her head, à la Rumple. Hey, Emma did a good thing! Too bad it won’t last.

When Emma asks what happened all those years ago after Nimue became the Dark One, Merlin tells her how Nimue put him in a tree. Emma asks if it’s possible for someone to have the darkness but use it for good, and Merlin’s kind of iffy about this. Maybe one day there’s someone that can hold that amount of darkness in their soul while doing good, but they’re better off destroying it altogether. They need to find the other half of Excalibur…which is with Arthur, of course.

The Storybrooke group has managed to use Zelena’s intel and sneak into the castle undetected — well, most of them. Snow has the unfortunate task of babysitting Zelena, who tricks Snow into being sympathetic when she cries about how life just isn’t fair. This whole bit feels a little annoying, especially since Snow has seemingly gone from badass bandit to gullible softie, and Snow was always one of my favorite characters because of her wit and snark and strong-willed nature. But, as Zelena says, there’s “no rest for the wicked.” After knocking Snow out and getting back into the castle, Zelena shows up in Arthur’s quarters. Apparently, Arthur has removed her cuff, allowing her to do magic again, and Zelena helps him put a spell on the half-sword so it spells out Merlin’s name. Poor Emma’s chatter about Henry gets interrupted as Merlin is summoned to Arthur, where he’s kind of like the Genie who gets trapped by Jafar once he gets the lamp: He has to do whatever Arthur says, even though he doesn’t like it, and that means keeping the Storybrooke gang away. As is custom, Merlin tries to talk sense into Arthur by saying they can reunite Excalibur and restore his legacy. Arthur’s kind of been burned one too many times to believe anything Merlin says and makes the wizard magic the Storybrooke crew away. So much for that plan.

Which brings us back to present-day Storybrooke, where, after learning the true history of Merlin and how Excalibur came to be, we’re finally ready to see the two halves reunite. It’s like the final chapter in a really long history lesson. When Rumple tells her it’s time, Nimue also shows up, along with a host of other Dark Ones. Yep, Emma’s got herself a Dark One fanclub. She uses the ember to put the sword back together and then has a flash of that fateful day at the movie theater, when Merlin warned her not to take the sword. For a moment, we think that the story will change and that maybe all of Merlin’s warnings won’t have been in vain…

But, alas. We know how this ends: Emma takes Excalibur. Uh, anyone need a new and improved Dark One?

Stray Odds & Ends:

  • Is “drink or die” the new “ride or die”? Because I’m all for that.
  • So we finally saw the original Dark One without the mask, and I think it’s interesting how everyone seems to have a specific look. The first Dark One seemed to have lots of scars and looked older than I thought he was going to be, while Rumple and Nimue both had that odd, glowing skin. Emma, obviously, is just fashionably dark, but I’d be interested in seeing what other Dark Ones looked like throughout history.
  • “You tell your timbers to stop shivering, pirate!” Even with just one line, Regina’s snark won the night.
  • Is it too much to hope that maybe Emma or SOMEONE can save Nimue and everyone can get their true love back at some point? It seems rare in Storybrooke for anyone to actually get a happy ending, but I’d like to be hopeful.

Episode Recaps


Once Upon a Time

Everything you’ve ever read about fairy tales is true—the residents of Storybrooke are living proof.

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