Any show, no matter how good, can struggle to carry on past four seasons. ABC's Once Upon a Time has been both good and bad over its four years, but if season 5 is looking to be one of their better offerings, then the series could stand to shake things up a little.
And there's definitely a sense of change in the season premiere. Instead of introducing a new big bad in the form of an old Disney villain, Once Upon a Time has taken a drastic turn, transforming its hero, the savior Emma Swan (Jennifer Morrison) into the Dark One. It's a bold move, but one that, if executed smartly, could certainly re-energize the series for another season.
Emma's dark transformation actually began last season when Mr. Gold/Rumpelstiltskin (Robert Carlyle) sought to turn the savior's heart black, allowing him (with the help of The Author) to give himself and the other villains happy endings. Gold's plan was thwarted, however, and Emma didn't turn evil and the Dark One's hold over Gold was eventually severed. But it was too dangerous having the Dark One's essence without a host, and being the hero she is, Emma sacrificed herself and took up the mantle of the Dark One.
For all the trouble Emma's parents, Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin) and Prince Charming (Josh Dallas), went through to remove Emma's potential for darkness, well, she definitely has plenty of darkness in her now. Yet her transformation from savior to Dark One is not as sudden as the show's marketing would have you believe. Emma is still trying to do the right thing, but as we saw with the poor spinner, Rumpelstiltskin, as far back as season 1, the Dark One finds a way to turn even the best intentions evil.
Emma's rebirth as the new Dark One finds her back in The Enchanted Forest, where all darkness is born (apparently). Being the Dark One requires training and in Emma's case that means allowing herself to tap into her darkness -- something she's trying desperately not to do. There to coax her along is Rumpelstiltskin... sort of. He's actually the spirit of all the Dark Ones there have ever been, but for simplicity's sake (and to avoid hiring a new actor and creating a new character) the Dark One's inner voice is appearing to Emma as Rumple. Plus, it gives Carlyle another chance to portray the delightfully wicked imp, a character that may soon be a rare occurrence given Rumpelstiltskin's now shining, white heart.
Their scenes -- especially those when Emma is talking to Dark One Rumple while others around can't see him -- are some of the best in the premiere. They build off the rapport Morrison and Carlyle already had with their characters, with Mr. Gold constantly pushing Emma to further embrace her magic, only now with an obviously more sinister edge. There's also some parallel with Rumple's training of Regina (Lana Parilla), but that isn't at all surprising when you consider how often the two female leads' journey's mirror one another.
For her part, Regina seems very comfortable on the side of good and she's having to take on Emma's role as the voice of reason among the arguing fairy tale characters. In fact, the former Evil Queen proves to be quite effective, using a touch of trickery to force her sister -- another element to look forward to this season, Rebecca Mader's return as the Wicked Witch, Zelena -- to conjure a portal that will take her, Hook (Colin O'Donoghue), and the rest to Emma's location. Regina is capable, this we already knew, but if she's to continue her hero's journey this season she'll be tested again and again. She's already off on a strong start, but with Emma slowly succumbing to the dark side, Regina will need to harness all the goodness she can to act as Storybrooke's -- and Emma's -- savior.
Though Once Upon a Time is (thankfully) erring on the side of less is more this season, choosing to focus more heavily on its core cast rather than introduce too many new faces, there's still a new Disney princess in the line-up: Brave's Merida as played by Amy Manson. Much like she is in the film, Merida is a tough, headstrong princess with impeccable aim. She now finds herself dethroned, following her father's death, and is on the hunt for her three kidnapped brothers. She crosses path with Emma as they both seek the will of the wisps and their ability to lead one towards whatever they seek, but with Emma's morality continually decaying, the two don't make easy allies.
Being on ABC allows Once to go the Disney route with their fairy tale adaptations, and while it's no longer surprising to have Mulan or Cruella De Vil make an appearance, it's hard not to feel corporate synergy at work. Merida's inclusion doesn't feel like nearly as much of a cash grab as the inclusion of the Frozen cast did last season, but her appearance still feels somewhat forced. Not so much as Belle (Emilie de Ravin) receiving a magical rose kept under glass in order to keep watch on her beloved beast while out on an adventure, but by now fans should be used to the series' ham-fisted allusions to the Disney versions of these classic tales.
By episode's end, Merida is off on her way and Emma is again reunited with her Storybrooke family after having successfully staved off the darkness -- which is surprising seeing as they easily could have strung this out for at least a couple more episodes. But if Once Upon a Time is good at one thing it's unexpected twists and turns, even when they use many of the same tricks the show has already employed in the past. In this case, it's another jump forward in time and the memories of the main cast erased.
The last thing anyone remembers before waking up in Granny's Diner is reuniting with Emma, deciding to help her control the darkness within, and heading off to Camelot with King Arthur and his knights. (The episode actually opens with a pretty strong indication that the Dark One's blade and Excalibur were at one time the same blade, so obviously Camelot has a role to play in season 5.) Then Emma arrives and somehow, within the time frame no one can remember, she gave in fully to the Dark One's power -- Emma is now the Dark Swan.
Once Upon a Time's season 5 premiere starts the season out right, delivering on an Emma gone bad but still showing her struggle to keep ahead of the darkness. Obviously she turns, but with six weeks of time left to recap, this season's flashbacks will surely reveal what it was that sent her over the edge. By doing so, we get to relish in Morrison's evil side while still rooting for Emma to eventually win out over the Dark One's power -- an interesting turn of events for a series going into its fifth season.
Once Upon a Time season 5 airs Sunday nights at 8pm/9c on ABC.