Once Upon a Time: Season 5, Episode 3 – “Siege Perilous”

As episode three suggests, Camelot might turn out to be the perfect addition to the world of worlds that is Storybrooke.

The Inglorious Side of the Quest

One of the pleasures of Once Upon a Time has always been the way it allows story worlds to mingle freely amongst one another. What began with classic Disney works — Snow White, Pinocchio, Rumpelstiltskin, Peter Pan — has expanded over the course of four seasons to include more recent Disney stories such as The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and last season, Frozen. Along the way, the show has also managed to suck in a few other “worlds” as well, including the Land of Oz, Alice’s Wonderland, and a clever one-off episode involving Frankenstein. This season we’re being treated to an exploration of Camelot (and in getting there, a rather nifty visit with Brave’s Merrida [Amy Manson]). Integrating these worlds works better in some cases than others. Last season’s Frozen plotline, for example, felt a little like forced synergy, and although the spring’s focus on the Book’s author offered some fascinating meta-textual moments, the evil triumvirate of Cruella De Vil (Victoria Smurfit), Ursula (Merrin Dungey), and Maleficent (Kristin Bauer van Straten) never really seemed to gel. When these worlds work best, they work because they add new levels of understanding to the stories and worlds we’ve already encountered. On that score, Camelot seems an inspired choice.

Once Upon a Time — and for that matter most fairy tales — always seems to revolve around magical objects. In many ways, Gold’s (Robert Carlyle) pawn shop serves as a kind of literal and metaphorical center point, a place where the detritus of all these worlds seems to wash up. There is the Book itself and the Evil One’s dagger. But virtually every episode seems to become a quest for a talisman of one sort or another — fairy dust, magic beans, hats, scarves, even people must occasionally be found and put to proper use.

This season, though, we seem to be juggling a whole host of objects at once: the sword in the stone, Excalibur, to which the Dark One’s blade fits; Merida’s Will-o-the-wisp; Merlin himself, frozen in the form of a tree. What better backstory for quests than Camelot, and the archetype of all quests: the quest for the Holy Grail. For one of the ways Once Upon a Time works its magic is by using the next story to tie everything from all the previous worlds back together in a nice neat bundle. For instance, we understand Rumpelstiltskin (Robert Carlyle) in an entirely new way when we journey to Never Never Land. Last season, Emma’s (Jennifer Morrison) past as an orphan suddenly made more sense when the world of Frozen blew into town. In a way, then, Camelot works as the kind of culmination of all those quests we’ve seen up to now, as though after playing with the motif for so long, the series has arrived at the source of the motif itself.

Episode three’s focus is precisely on this motif. We’re treated to our first view of the round table itself, as well as tales of its glory. More literally, however, Arthur (Liam Garrigan) and David (Josh Dallas) must undertake their own quest, journeying to a mysterious island and facing phantom knights in their search for a red-capped mushroom that might allow Regina (Lana Parrilla) to speak to Merlin.

The quest motif takes a definite turn, here, however, as though having reached the root of all quest stories, the producers decided to undo the motif entirely. Arthur, now in the world of Storybrooke, reports his reliquary full of found magic objects has been stolen. This in itself seems to metaphorically turn the notion of the quest in a new direction, the line between quest and theft suddenly seeming especially thin. And to reinforce this twist, David manages to recover these objects (in a move worthy of Perry Mason) with a decidedly un-magical object.

Indeed, the presence of Camelot itself calls the quest into question, which is one reason why its choice seems so perfect at this moment in the series. Beneath the apparent beauty and peacefulness in the land of Camelot has always lurked a sort of interior rot. Arthur himself alludes to his own struggles with Lancelot over Guinevere, a part of the story that reminds us that the quest can be driven by quite selfish motives and the desire for personal glory. Once Upon a Time plays with this masterfully by pushing Arthur’s jealousy to its ultimate conclusion: it turns out that jealousy masks a deeper flaw — Arthur’s inability to see women as more than objects.

Here again, Camelot serves as the perfect symbol for the show’s particular narrative moment, a moment in which the Evil Queen Regina finally seems to have found redemption, Captain Hook (Colin O’Donoghue) has become the dashing leading man, and, most importantly, the Savior (Emma) has become the Dark One. We’re used, by now, to the notion that good and evil aren’t fixed categories, and what character could they have chosen to better represent that state of affairs than King Arthur?

All fairy tales are, I suppose, archetypal in one way or another. They spring from the deepest parts of our unconscious encoded into stories long, long ago. But the tale of King Arthur is perhaps more archetypal than most, his quest the foundation for stories from The Lord of the Rings to The Lion King to Star Wars. As a result Camelot makes a nice addition to the Once Upon a Time mix, a foundational story of sorts that makes this world of worlds make sense in a new way.

RATING 7 / 10