Y’know, when I get so frustrated with OUAT, it’s because it sets a high bar up against itself. Like this episode, for example. It takes a classic myth, perfectly twists it into the show’s own purposes, and manages to be jaw-dropping in a single hour. I didn’t realize we were about to get so much out of “Nimue,” but I should have guessed once we found out that it was penned by Jane Espenson, who writes most of OUAT’s best episodes.

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True love aside, Nimue was problematic from the start, with all her talk of revenge on the man who destroyed her village. There were enough seemingly innocent but potent-with-meaning hints—like wanting to also be immortal like Merlin—indicating what her final fate would be. And yet it was awfully, awfully satisfying when she was revealed as the first Dark One. The removal of the mask to show Nimue’s green sparkly face was awesome, exactly what a prospective Lady Of The Lake would look like.

Sure, we’re melding some myths here: We’re melting the Holy Grail to become Excalibur, folding Arthurian legend in on itself. But unlike the plot potholes we’re so used to on this show, all this metalwork was so nicely tied together: the broken Excalibur, the spell that Merlin (Elliot Knight) puts on the Dark One’s dagger, the parallel spell on the remaining sword. And the romance here was true to Merlin and Nimue’s legendary ill-fated love story, as she was always Merlin’s ruination in the end.

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There’s even a nice nod to Greek myth, with the quest for Prometheus’ last ember as this week’s choose-your-own-adventure trek. Prometheus was also doomed by his benevolent but ultimately ill-fated acts, giving fire to man and getting chained to a rock while an eagle attacked his liver for an eternity. Emma’s not chained to a rock, but similarly, her well-meaning efforts are leading her down a dark path toward an unsavory end, even if she successfully fought off Nimue this episode.

Still, as Merlin pointed out, Emma has love on her side, in a scene that those “Captain Swan” followers were bound to love. That ring Hook gave her will undoubtedly play some major role in a future episode. We even found out why those pink flowers (they’re roses) grow in a decidedly non-rose fashion.

Any time away from Merlin just felt like a loss of Merlin, but we still have to give our Scooby-wannabes something to do, so let’s let them team up with queen-of-the-eyerolls Zelena to try to get Excalibur from now-totally over-the-edge-into-evil Arthur. Guinevere looked appropriately horrified and was probably plotting just how quickly she could find Lancelot and get the hell out of Camelot. The lunkerhead moves of the Storybrooke crowd just make me tired: You’re going to trust Zelena, even though every single time you do she screws you over? And put Snow in charge of watching her? Honestly, the only person who would be a worse choice would be Charming. Not the brightest, any of them.

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But here’s what was so interesting in that final scene at the Round Table: Zelena tethers Merlin to Excalibur, but it turns out he’s kind of on Arthur’s side anyway? Telling Arthur that Emma passed the test, and they’re on their way to forging the sword back together. Unlike writing Arthur off as truly villainous (granted, this show always gives its villains leagues more depth of character than its heroes), we see his anguish over the broken sword and what he perceives as unfulfilled promises by Merlin. For Merlin’s side, he appears more concerned with Arthur fulfilling his destiny than any simplistic definitions of what “good” or “evil” may bring us. His involvement in this is now downright intriguing.

Especially since, as we see due to the increasingly jarring timeline jumps, the Camelot crew doesn’t forge the sword, Emma does. Unfortunately not before a flashback to Merlin’s warning to her as a child, but if he can see the future, didn’t he know that his warning would eventually be fruitless? So she takes the sword—you couldn’t expect her to go through with that whole plan and then not take it—in front of an alarming crowd of all the Dark Ones that preceded her. That combination of creepy and devastating left us with a downright chilling OUAT ending: again, a thing that doesn’t happen very often.

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So very well done, especially when the focus stayed on Merlin, Emma, and Nimue. Jennifer Morrison’s delivery of “I am not nothing! I was never nothing!” might have been the best she’s ever done, as her character feverishly tries to grab onto the humanity that she knows is slipping away. We can draw a lot from this line from Merlin about the woman he lost to the Dark One: “It’s easier to live with the darkness if you can dress it as vengeance.” So far in Camelot, Emma has been convincing herself that she’s using dark magic for good reasons (like saving Robin from his stab wounds a few episodes ago), but we see from Nimue’s fate that no good can come out of the darkness.

Sure it would be nice to know what Emma’s actual plan is or why she’s so mad at all of these people, all these weeks in; luckily, it looks like next week’s two-hour episode will finally clear that up. But even that extended episode will now be judged against this one, a high bar that shows that OUAT is capable of building compelling and inventive drama on top of classic myth.

Stray observations

  • Great snide line delivery from Arthur: “Thank you, David, but… Merlin!”
  • Not-so-great from Snow: “I guess the sun’s a problem for you now that you’re not green.”
  • Next week’s two-parter is apparently not the mid-season finale, so we’ll still have a few more weeks of Dark Swan-ness.

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