Once Upon a Time: Season 5, Episode 4 – “The Broken Kingdom”

Many things are broken in the kingdom of Camelot. How badly do we want them to be repaired?

There’s a lot of talk about brokenness in episode four of this season’s Once Upon a Time, which might be expected give the episode’s title: “The Broken Kingdom”. And indeed, so far the motif of brokenness applies pretty well to the season as a whole: several characters are at work to repair the broken sword Excalibur, the bottom third of which was missing when Arthur (Liam Garrigan) first drew it from the stone. That piece, as we now know, became the Dark One’s dagger. But perhaps a more important motif this week is that things are not always what they seem, a motif that is admittedly well-known to regular viewers of the show, but which is taking some unusual forms this season.

In keeping with the title, we spend almost the entirety of the episode in Arthur’s “broken” Camelot, only returning to Storybrooke in the show’s final scenes. As the title implies, the sword is really but a metaphor for the brokenness of the kingdom at large. The brokenness of Camelot points us, of course, to Arthur himself, an incomplete and broken man battling to heal his own un-healable wounds (see the Fisher King archetype). But the metaphor takes many forms in this episode, most especially in regards to personal relationships. Arthur and Guinevere (Joana Metrass) are a broken couple, as are, in a slightly different way, Guinevere and Lancelot (Sinqua Walls) (and for that matter, Arthur and Lancelot). So, for a time, are David (Josh Dallas) and Mary Margaret (Ginnifer Goodwin). In fact, we’re treated to our first real argument between the latter couple, which gives us a chance to watch both of them exercise their quick wit (in general, this season has given the pair — especially Charming — a larger role than they’ve had lately, and Ginnifer Goodwin and Josh Dallas are making the most of that opportunity).

As is always the case with Once Upon a Time, where it seems like the relationship between good and evil would be simple, it never quite is. Here, what makes this motif of brokenness especially interesting is the question of whether what’s broken should always be repaired. Excalibur offers the best illustration. It would seem obvious that it should be put back together. After all, it’s Excalibur. Yet we learn in this episode that Arthur has been working feverishly for years to find the missing fragment and make the sword whole again. His mania, as Guinevere points out to him, is costing him his kingdom and his marriage. In short, in his quest to repair a sword, he breaks much more. We face a different dilemma in the present: what will happen should Emma manage to reunite the two broken pieces. What would it mean for the dark one to possess not just the dagger, but the whole of Excalibur?

Deeply connected to this question of whether it might be better to leave some things broken, however, is the issue of how brokenness is mended. In most cases, the remedy involves deception rather than true repair. In the last episode, we saw David use deception in his role as sheriff, trapping Arthur’s squire, Grif (Giacomo Baessato), into admitting he’s a thief by pretending an ordinary cup had magical powers. In this episode, Arthur pulls a similar trick, concealing that the sword’s damage by pulling it only partway out of its scabbard.

In other spots magic plays a role in creating the impression things are whole. Having failed to steal the dark one’s dagger, Guinevere instead accepts magic sand from Rumpelstiltskin (Robert Carlyle), which will make Excalibur appear whole. After Arthur catches her in her deception, he uses the sand to “repair” both his marriage and the kingdom.

As with the idea of brokenness, though, deception is not a simple matter of good and evil here. Arthur’s actions are obviously misguided. But David and Mary Margaret pretend to be angry with one another in order to uncover Arthur’s true motives; deception, in other words, can serve a positive function. Perhaps it’s only magical deception that’s evil? Yet Arthur’s original deception, convincing the people of Camelot he had the whole sword, has nothing to do with magic at all. Perhaps the deciding factor is the deception’s intent? Except Guinevere’s original attempt to use the magic sand was motivated by the best intentions — not only to make the sword appear whole, but to heal both her husband and her kingdom. In short, Once Upon a Time continues, as it has done for four seasons now, to deconstruct the fairy tales. By pushing them up against each other, it manages to demonstrate that none can truly be taken as a simple lesson in morality.

The episode ends by hinting at an important deception still to come. Emma has plans to make the coward Rumple appear a hero (an interesting twist on the dagger’s former ability to give him courage). Once again, a big moment seems to be coming, and as with so many of the show’s big moments, this one holds the potential to revise everything we’ve come to accept as true up to this point.

RATING 7 / 10