“Once Upon a Time” ’s two-part, season four finale had me clinging to the edge of my seat. Just as we were ready for the happy ending that inevitably had to follow Henry Mills’s (Jared S. Gilmore, “Mad Men”) decision to break the author’s pen in half, Emma Swan (Jennifer Morrison, “House M.D.”) tethered herself to the darkness, saving Regina Mills (Lana Parrilla, “24”) from being caught in its wrath. After facing a season-long struggle to understand her place on the good-versus-bad spectrum, Emma, in one split second of primetime television, became the untried name on the notorious Dark One’s dagger.
The series that had seemingly tried so hard to explore the depth between goodness and evil has fallen prey to pushing characters to find their place at either end of the dichotomy. In the season five premiere, Captain Killian “Hook” Jones (Colin O’Donoghue, “The Rite”) attempts to summon Emma through the Dark One’s dagger, only to realize that she’s trapped in another world. Later, it becomes clear that Emma is yet again trapped in the Enchanted Forest with an amorphous Dark One trainer, of sorts, who has taken on the form of Rumplestiltskin (Robert Carlyle, “28 Weeks Later”). As she struggles to resist magic — which, apparently, is what allows the darkness to consume her — back in Storybrooke, Regina tricks her wicked half-sister Zelena (yes, once again) into opening a portal to the Enchanted Forest that can only be harnessed by someone bred of more evil. On finding Emma, the crew takes off to Camelot to find the elusive Merlin, who is said to be the only one which powers to destroy the powers of the Dark One entirely.
Six weeks later, back in Storybrooke, the cast is transported back to the Enchanted Forest with no memories after entering Camelot to find Merlin. Emma, by this time, is seen to have embraced the darkness, and swears to take revenge against everyone in Storybrooke that betrayed her.
It’s the classic case of been-there-done-that. We have only seen memories being wiped from Storybrooke characters twice before now, and Regina’s dark humor, though often the most entertaining part of the show (”You know you can still deliver a baby without a tongue!”), makes the ease in which she admits to being the town’s savior to the Camelot empire slightly less believable. To keep the show afloat, ”Once Upon a Time” ’s writers will have to prove that they are capable of taking a set of seasoned characters and pitting them against new challenges.
Morrison’s acting, as expected, is consistently phenomenal, as her transparent struggles have kept a show buried in fantasy still rooted to segments of reality. Her depiction of a villain in the last few minutes of the premiere comes out, in some ways, more naturally than Parrilla’s version of the Evil Queen of the Enchanted Forest. The writers’ decision to foreshadow the future, rather than building plot through flashbacks, is refreshing. There is only so much of the Enchanted Forest we can see before thinking, “If I wanted to see this, I would dig out my childhood VHS tapes.” If anything, a Camelot-centered storyline seems to have far more intrigue than last year’s take on Anna and Elsa from “Frozen.”
I’m optimistic. Executive producer Adam Horowitz promised, earlier this month at a Comic-Con panel, a flashback to Hook’s childhood and upbringing is in the works, along with a two-hour, mid-season finale that will delve deeper into the relationship between Mulan, from Disney’s “Mulan,” and Ruby, from “Red Riding Hood.” “Once Upon a Time” ’s power, despite its shop-worn dialogues and often-childish plotlines, lies in its approachable acting and believable relationships. By bringing the supporting characters more into the forefront of the show — while still driving the development of its core cast — “Once Upon a Time” might just manage to keep alive a plot that has managed to keep characters which are nearly a century old in our literature fresh.