Last week, Once Upon a Time slowed down to give Merida a chance to shine in her own episode, and it was fantastic. This week, the show slowed down to give Merlin the spotlight. We not only learned about the wizard’s background and history, but we also found out A LOT about Excalibur and the origin of the Dark One. This should’ve been an epic turning point in the show, but unfortunately, it just didn’t cut it for me. (spoilers ahead!)
Here is what we know of Merlin’s background. About 1,000 years ago, he was wandering through the desert when he came across the Holy Grail. Dying from thirst, he drank from it, which led to him gaining magical powers and immortality. Soon enough, Merlin began using his newfound powers to heal the wounded and help the downtrodden. This went on for years and years until he encountered a young woman named Nimue. She requests his help, and because Once Upon a Time loves its cutesy love stories, the two fall for each other.
Merlin reveals his immortality to Nimue, and the two hatch a plan to turn the Holy Grail into a sword, which they can use to “cut” the immortality out of him, allowing them to live as a normal couple. The two travel to Nimue’s old village to complete this ritual when the evil Vortigern shows up. Vortigern was the man who torched Nimue’s village and slaughtered her people; he was also the first wearer of that creepy mask that is part of the Dark One’s signature uniform. Vortigern seemingly kills Nimue, but it’s revealed that she drank from the Grail as well, making her immortal. She uses her new magic to pull out Vortigern’s heart and crush it, turning her over to the dark side and transforming her into – yep, you guessed it – the Dark One.
I’m a little perplexed about how this works. We now know that Nimue was the original Dark One, but what made her the first Dark One? Has nobody else before her plucked someone’s heart out before? We saw Regina do it to somebody back in Season 1 or Season 2, so why didn’t she become a Dark One? My assumption is that, since Nimue drank from the Grail, the dark magic didn’t mix well with the potion. In a way, Merlin could’ve become the Dark One if he had done any dark magic while immortal.
To make matters worse, Nimue broke Excalibur in order to protect her Dark One-ness and immortality, which is how we got the dagger and the shard of Excalibur in the current timeline. And with that, we finally understand the origin of the Dark One. My only problem is that it wasn’t such a huge reveal. We’ve been waiting for this history lesson for how long? About four seasons? You’d think that the reveal would’ve been more dramatic and more impactful. I personally thought that it would’ve been someone we had seen before. We had JUST learned who Nimue was this past episode, and now we’re supposed to be all thunderstruck that she was the original Dark One, the source of almost every conflict on Once Upon a Time? Where’s the build-up? It’d be like if we watched the entire Star Wars saga and Darth Vader wasn’t introduced until the last ten minutes of the film, and he just goes “I’m your dad, Luke.” See? There’s no build-up. Nimue could’ve been introduced long ago and given time to develop. For now, her identity as the Dark One is just pretty “meh.”
What if we discover that Nimue is an ancestor of one of the protagonists? Hell, almost any person from the main cast could be her descendent. I’m going to hazard a guess and say that it’s probably Regina, though that may be a little too predictable.
Again, Once Upon a Time goes a bit crazy with the time changes. Aside from Merlin’s whole backstory, we also have to keep up with what’s going on in Camelot AND what’s happening in the present. Back in Camelot, the Storybrooke group decides to infiltrate Arthur’s castle to get Excalibur. Meanwhile, Merlin and Emma venture out to retrieve the Flame of Prometheus, which has the power to mend the broken sword (Yay for more super-specific, convenient items!).
I hardly cared for what happened to the Storybrookers during their mission. I was just interested in Merlin and Emma’s quest. All that really mattered from the Arthur mission was that Zelena managed to capture Mary Margaret after pulling the old “I’m going to pretend to cry and when someone gets close enough, I’ll subdue them” prisoner routine. Arthur and Zelena are revealed to be in cahoots, and with their combined effort, they remove the magical spell-binding bracelet from Zelena’s wrist AND brand Merlin’s name into the shard of Excalibur, meaning that Arthur could now control him. Arthur orders Merlin to banish the Storybrookers from the castle (instead of, you know, just poofing them into the dungeon where they can’t interfere anymore). Again, it’s not a very compelling subplot, though it did succeed in making me hate Zelena even more.
Let’s go back to Merlin and Emma. The duo encounters Nimue’s Force Ghost or whatever it is, and she attempts to control Emma’s mind through her Dark One-ness. Fortunately, Emma is strong enough to resist her influence, showing that her light side is still stronger than her dark. This scene was easily the best part of the episode. The brilliant acting between Nimue (Caroline Ford), Emma (Jennifer Morrison), and Merlin (Elliot Knight) is what made the scene so believable. Throughout the whole episode, these three actors did an extraordinary job carrying their scenes, but once they were all on screen together, it was like magic (no pun intended).
There is another scene toward the end that deserves a mention: back in Storybrooke, Emma finally re-forges Excalibur with the dagger of the Dark One. As the sword floats in the air before her, Nimue and thousands of other Dark Ones appear, telling her to embrace the darkness. Emma has a flashback to her youth when she encountered Merlin in the movie theater. He reminds her not to take the sword. You’d think this would wake up the lightness in Emma’s mind and prevent her from embracing the darkness. Nope. She grabs the sword and goes all “Screw you, good guys”. Okay, she doesn’t say that out loud, but I’m convinced she was thinking it.
Perfect episode? Nah. Bad episode? No way. Typically, I think backstories should be kept to a minimum. One of the reasons I didn’t like Lost in the later seasons was because it delved too much into the mythology of the island and whatnot; I’m only hoping Once Upon a Time doesn’t fall into that same pit-trap by going overboard in its background explanations. They should leave some ambiguity so that the audience can fill in the gaps with their imagination. Not every tiny aspect has to be elaborated upon. The Dark One’s backstory wasn’t terrible; just anticlimactic. It probably could’ve been better if they just left it open-ended. Regardless, “Nimue” was a good episode that gave us some of the best acting we’ve seen all season.
Final Grade: B
+ I liked seeing Merlin’s backstory, but I feel like there’s more to it.
+ Fantastic acting between Ford, Morrison, and Knight.
+ We learned about the history of the Dark One.
– How could Mary Margaret be dumb enough to fall for Zelena’s trick?
– The reveal about Nimue being the original Dark One wasn’t too extraordinary.
– Overall, the history of the Dark One fell a little flat; it was great learning about how the Dark One came to be, but we didn’t have enough history behind Nimue to truly care.
– I can see the next season of Once Upon a Time revolving around the Flame of Prometheus and maybe the earliest days of the Enchanted Forest.
What did you think of Once Upon a Time‘s “Nimue” episode? Are you interested in learning more about the Dark One or should they just let it go? Tell us what you think in the comments or on Twitter!