As Emma fights against her inevitable fate, her Storybrooke family fights to bring her home. (Also, welcome Merida!)

By Andrea Towers
September 27, 2015 at 10:45 PM EDT
Credit: Jack Rowand/ABC

Hello, dearies! Just as the mantle of the Dark One has been passed from Rumple to Emma, the job of Once Upon A Time recaps has been passed to me. In Rumple’s words, “think of me as your guide” — because if the season premiere is any indication, we’re just getting started.

And that start begins where all good Once things like to start, season premiere or not: with flashbacks, and a young Emma visiting a movie theater in Minneapolis in 1989. (The movie that’s being shown? The Sword and the Stone, of course.) Emma pick-pockets an Apollo candy bar, but before she can settle in and enjoy the film, she’s interrupted by a theater employee who not only calls her by name, but also cautions her about her actions. Is he referring she might go to a magical, time-traveling island if she eats the LOST candy bar? Nope. He’s apparently giving a thinly veiled warning about her future by telling her if she does bad things, then more bad things will happen. As Arthur pulls the sword from the stone on the movie screen, the mystery man tells Emma that one day, she’ll have the opportunity to remove Excalibur — but that she shouldn’t do it.

In present day Enchanted Forest times, Lancelot and his knights ride toward their prize: the real sword in the stone. Their worries about the prophecy are forgotten when another knight who is hungry for power attempts to take it, only to get poofed away in the process, because apparently the sword is temperamental. Fortunately, it seems Arthur is the actual master, as he steps up to remove it with no problem… only to find out that he’s in possession of half of it. As for the other half… hey, anyone got a spare Dark One dagger lying around??

Back in Storybrooke, we find our intrepid group of heroes still reeling from Emma’s sacrifice and transformation. Regina’s pissed, Snow is concerned, and Hook is pretty much the embodiment of a boyfriend who has just lost his true love. He attempts to use the dagger to call her back, earning him a well-placed dose of snark from Regina (and our first beautiful jab of the season: “Put that thing down before you hurt yourself, Guyliner.” Somewhere, Richard Alpert is super jealous that his nickname was given to a pirate.) Regina smartly assesses the situation by pointing out the dagger’s rules: You can summon anyone from any corner of the world, and the fact that Emma isn’t responding means that wherever she is, she’s not in this one. Instead, she’s shockingly (okay, not so shockingly) in the Enchanted Forest. At least, that’s where we find her when she emerges from some black goo that looks like X-Files-esque black oil. Or Venom. Or maybe the smoke monster.

Anyway, because every Big Bad is born from a Cloud of Evil, Emma rises from the black tar, though she looks more like a homeless woman than the Dark One. As we’ll later learn, this is because despite giving herself over to Rumple’s power, she’s not really the Dark One. Not yet. But not to fear: Rumple is here! And it seems that this “bad angel on the shoulder” deal is how we’re going to deal with the fact that in Storybrooke, Rumple is still lying in a coma. (The Disney nerd in me did very much enjoy the Beauty and the Beast Easter egg of Belle being gifted the iconic rose in a jar, a symbol of “the Beast” and his life.)

This Rumple, however, the one that finds Emma in the forest, is apparently many things. He’s also looking less like Mr. Gold and more like his spiffy Enchanted Forest self. He tells Emma he’s here to train her. “You can’t just walk away from it!” Rumple warns her when she tries to tell him that she won’t hurt the people she loves. Emma quickly realizes that if she’s in the Enchanted Forest, it means that Merlin, a.k.a. The Sorcerer, is also here — and remembers that the Apprentice told her that Merlin can destroy the darkness. Onward!

NEXT: Storybrooke’s band of merry men (and women)

Hook visits the Apprentice, who tells him (right before he dies, obviously) that Emma’s gone where all Dark Ones go. He’s too weak to take them, but conjures up the wand he was gifted the day he became an Apprentice. In order to cross realms, it needs to be wielded as it was forged: with equal parts light and darkness.

“I guess that’s my cue,” Regina says dramatically, taking the wand. But see, four seasons of a back and forth struggle between good and evil have left Regina firmly on the good side, which means she’s pretty much useless. They have no choice except to turn to the person Regina hates most: her Wicked Witch of a sister, Zelena. Naturally, Regina is super against this, but Hook’s super into saving Emma, which is how they all end up in Zelena’s cell, where they effectively manage to ruin The Former Green One’s chi. Regina is hesitant to give over the wand for obvious reasons, even though the cuff that she’s gifted her sister prevents her from using magic. Zelena casually drops that only she can open the portal, since her sister isn’t powerful enough anymore, but Regina refuses to accept her help. What’s a lovesick pirate to do?!

Answer: get a little help from your friends. (Actual friends, because Hook is possibly the only person on this show that Henry is not related to. Technically. If you don’t count Milah a million years ago, who Hook never married. But that’s besides the point.) Hook takes measures into his own hands and enlists Henry to help him, because no one in this town goes to school, ever. After finding out that the book’s newest Author has destroyed the pen because it was simply too evil, and realizing his plan of being able to “magic” Emma back to good won’t work, he gets Henry to agree to help break out Zelena. Henry gets inside the jail pretty easily since Regina unwisely uses the same password for everything… (don’t we all?). He forges a distraction while Hook confronts Zelena and attempts to take her heart in order to gain her compliance. Turns out that he can’t do that, because Zelena cast a protection spell over her heart a long time ago, which means she’s at least smarter than Cora ever was.

But then Zelena does something even HOOK doesn’t see coming, and cuts off her own hand before re-growing it, freeing herself of the cuff. Thus, Hook’s kind of busted and Regina is understandably pissed. They have it out in front of an “over it” peanut gallery of Snow, Charming, and Belle, until Snow finally steps in and unites them again. Regina realizes that Zelena will use her newfound freedom to go to Robin first, which she does. (Do you think Zelena will pretend to be Robin, who just put his son down for a nap? Or Regina, who arrives warning him that Zelena has escaped? If you chose Regina, you’re right!) According to Zelena, Robin is “the key to everything” and while this line is never followed up on, I’m not dumb enough to throw it away. Keep it in mind, because something tells me Robin (and Robin/Regina/Zelena/Zelena’s unborn baby) will play a huge role this season. Maybe a new savior-like child in order to combat the new Dark One?

And so we find our fairytale heroes facing off against Zelena, who wants to trade Robin for the dagger, and plans to use it to return to Oz and raise her child there. To everyone’s dismay, Regina waffles for a bit on this before she gives in, but if Zelena was smarter than Cora, then Regina is smarter than both of them: allowing Zelena to open the portal weakens her enough so that Regina can put the cuff back on. And with the portal already opened, they can use it to find Emma. (It’s a twister, it’s a twister!) The group takes shelter inside Granny’s, and Regina uses Emma’s baby blanket to “channel” the cyclone that will transport them. But right before they’re about to make magic happen, the dwarves show up, complaining that they always get left out of all the adventures. It’s THEIR turn to shine, too!

And away we go.

NEXT: A wee lass named Merida

In the Enchanted Forest, Emma tries to find her way to Camelot and ends up almost killing a stranger unintentionally when he refuses to give her information. Naturally, she’s freaked out at what Rumple calls her “first taste of darkness” and continues to refuse his help, even after he shows her how to use magic to her benefit — like teleport places. But it’s okay, because she finds a Whisp! What is a Whisp? It’s apparently a kind of fairy, born in a place called “the Hill of Stone,” and they answer your question when you bring them back home. Emma finds one, chases it, and soon encounters Merida, who steals it from her. Yes, this is our first introduction to the Scottish warrior (played by the rather delightful Amy Manson). And if our first exchange is any indication, it’s clear that spunky, stubborn Merida is going to give Emma a run for her money. It’s a clashing I’m looking forward to, and not just because I’m placing bets on where Merida falls in the Charming Family Tree.

Merida is rightfully worried about Emma’s intentions, but Emma assures her she’s not evil. She’s just got a curse put on her. Merida can sympathize, because, well, at least you’re not a bear. (Small comfort, Merida — I’d take being a bear over being the Dark One.) They both realize that they need the Whisp for different reasons (Emma to get rid of the magic, Merida to save her brothers, who were kidnapped) and when Emma refuses to fight her, Merida decides she wants to join up. They can work together and journey with each other, and then once Merida takes care of her own issues, Emma can have her turn. In short: Everybody wins! Except Rumple, probably.

Thus begins the journey of Emma and Merida (Emmerida?) We learn that it’s Merida’s fault her brothers were kidnapped. We also learn that apparently the clans don’t approve of her as a queen since she’s a woman. “Not just in your land,” Emma says, speaking the truth, because it’s all about social justice here in the Enchanted Forest. (We’ll supposedly get more of Merida’s backstory later this season, so consider this just a preview.) Emma manages to convince Merida to rest for a night, which is where Rumple shows up and tries to persuade her to kill her companion. See, the way the Whisp works is that Merida can’t just give it away. It becomes property of whoever whispers to it first, so if Emma doesn’t make that happen, she’s screwed. Once again, Emma resists, and once again, Rumple throws a fit. “I want you to start behaving like a Dark One!” he all but whines.

When Emma wakes up, she finds Merida gone, and Rumple still attempting to steer her into the path of murder. Not only has Merida already started taming the Whisp, she’s wised up about her new friend and knows how dangerous she is. Shooting Emma proves to be futile, as no matter how precisely Merida aims, Emma manages to combat every single arrow until finally she’s got Merida where she wants her. And here it comes, the real test of Emma’s darkness urges, as Bad Shoulder Angel Rumple urges her to rip out Merida’s heart: Can she squeeze it and kill her, even though she’s trying so hard to resist?

Thankfully, before Emma can do anything too drastic, the Storybrooke Sheriff Squad shows up and between Hook, Snow, and Regina (okay, let’s be honest, mostly Hook) they manage to talk Emma out of it. Rumple disappears (for now), Emma realizes how she’s been acting, and Merida is saved. The archer thanks Emma for showing her own darkness, because it’s made Merida realize that she, too, has darkness in her: She was prepared to kill the people who took her brothers and forge an all-out war with the clans, but now she wants to show them mercy, instead. Emma tells her Storybrooke Saviors that they shouldn’t have come, and Snow returns the dagger to its rightful owner. Emma refuses to take it, though, knowing she doesn’t trust herself. She does trust Regina, however, and also trusts that if she fails at any point, Regina will have no problem stopping her…in any way. True friendship is obviously asking someone else to kill you if you get too powerful.

They bring Emma back to where Granny’s diner has crash landed, and are interrupted by King Arthur. See, Merlin prophesied her coming here a long time ago, so they’ve been looking for her, and Arthur is destined to reunite them. Naturally, this involves bringing everyone to Camelot — a happy ending for everyone, and one that your former recapper totally predicted last year. But remember, this is Once, where twists and turns and rugs being pulled out from underneath us are the norm. And so we find Sneezy sheriff-ing (in an Emma Swan leather jacket) and discovering that Snow, Regina, Charming, Hook, and everyone else (including the house) have arrived back in Storybrooke, with no memory of how they got there… and no idea that they’ve been gone for six weeks.

But perhaps the most disturbing thing about this whole situation, more so than the fact that they’re all wearing nifty Enchanted Forest clothes, is that Emma is there, too. And it’s a very different Emma than the one we left in Camelot. She’s dressed in black. She’s got her hair up. She’s evil. (She turns poor Sneezy into stone to prove it. These dwarves just can’t win!) Regina tries to stop her, but realizes she doesn’t have the dagger anymore… and that Emma’s taken that back, too. Now she wants to punish them for what they did to her. Why?

Well, because she’s the Dark One, of course.

Much like the first season of the fairytale show, it looks like we’ll spend most of 5A looking back at what actually happened in those missing six weeks, how Emma became the Dark One, and what it means for Storybrooke. It’ll be interesting to see where this season lands overall. Last year, we spent months entombed in a Frozen arc that seemed to stretch on for so long, it made even the warmest of fans feel icy. Putting Emma in the spotlight as the Dark One seems like an attempt to bring some focus back to the show’s themes as well as its central characters, despite the fact there are certainly going to be many new ones popping in (and out) over the season. And hey, if we learned anything from last season’s Queens of Darkness, it’s that maybe we’ll at least get some awesome wardrobe changes for Emma. Some darker eyeliner? Strappy awesome three inch stilettos? The possibilities are endless…

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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