As I’ve talked about before, and as is no surprise to those who watch the show regularly, the world of Once Upon a Time is one that constantly expands. It began with a handful of “classic” Disney characters (Disney the company that currently owns Once Upon a Time’s home network, ABC) — Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin), Little Red Riding Hood (Meghan Ory), Pinocchio (Eion Bailey)– but has over the course of its run grown to include more recent Disney properties like Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, and Frozen. Along the way it has swallowed up a whole host of other myths, legends, and tales, from Peter Pan to Frankenstein, to Camelot. But at the same time it grows outward, the world of Once Upon a Time grows inward as well, always moving just a little deeper in search of a source. Last season we were introduced to the book’s writer — who seemed, for a time, like ground zero for a story about stories. But the author was ultimately revealed as one more role to play, like the Dark One or the Savior: a fundamental piece, to be sure, but not the root of it all. Next, we learned of the magician’s apprentice, and of the magician himself. We now know this magician as Merlin, but even that is not truly the bottom of this universe, as we discovered in this week’s episode, “Nimue.”
After a brief scene in which we see Emma (Jennifer Morrison) now has both pieces of Excalibur, we begin this episode “1000 years before the Age of Arthur”, where two apparently runaway slaves wander an ancient desert. At the point of exhaustion and collapsing from thirst, they come upon a cup from which both drink. The first of the two men explodes in a cloud of smoke. The second, Merlin (Elliot Knight), asks the heavens for permission to drink and is granted not only the cooling water within this cup (the Holy Grail), but also great powers. This scene represents one root: the root of Merlin’s power, the root of the Arthurian legend, the root of Excalibur, and — if Merlin is the Sorcerer responsible for the “book” of fairy tales — the root of Storybrooke and all the rest.
But there are other “roots” here as well. We meet the title character of the episode, Nimue (Caroline Ford), for the first time here, and learn how she became the first Dark One, as well as how the first battle between light and dark, good and evil, began. Merlin takes Emma to “mankind’s first fire”, another root: this one of our own human beginnings. This fire’s the place where Excalibur is first forged, from the metal of the grail, but also where it was broken, and where Emma must now find a way to make it whole again.
The search for beginnings, for the source of who we are as human beings, fits neatly within Once Upon a Time’s overall structure. The series as a whole deals in fairy tales, legends, and myths, and what are these but the archetypes, the ur-stories by which we have tried, over the course of human history, to explain who and what we are? Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, Northrop Frye, and others have explained that “all cultures […] have grown out of myths. They are founded on myths” (Campbell, Mythology and the Individual). Every story, then, that finds its way into Once Upon a Time’s sphere offers yet one more version of our deepest psyche as a species, our earliest origins, from Arthur’s version of the hero quest, to the way Little Red Riding Hood taps into our animalism. To some extent, Once Upon a Time presents a space where all these origin stories play freely with one another, each bringing with it a particular set of rules, but each influenced by the other stories it encounters.
In terms of depth, however, we can never find the true, absolute source; it remains an ever-moving target. Last season’s focus on the book and the author made for a nice exploration of the power of the written word itself, returning us to an origin tied up with the printing press, where words on a page create our reality (a sort of postmodern meta-texualism). This season, however, we’ve moved to a deeper, more fundamental kind of reality, one not tied up with the written word but rather with talismans — Excalibur, the Holy Grail — and fundamental forms. We’ve seen the beginning of good and evil this season, and the first of mankind’s inventions: fire. We’re left to wonder what depths might be left to plumb. Who, for instance, left that grail out in the first place for Merlin to find? But, of course, that’s a problem for another season.
Other motifs to keep an eye in this episode include the doubling of rings, seen in both the woven grass ring Merlin gives to Nimue, and the ring Hook gives Emma for luck. There is doubling as well in the discussion of infants, as when Mary Margaret sarcastically suggests she and Zelena (Rebecca Mader) trade mothering tips. Zelena continues to remain relevant, now as an apparent ally of Arthur, although she has yet to really develop a compelling personality. Merida (Amy Manson) as well, continues to be a poorly developed character. In short, the long game Once Upon a Time plays remains provocative, even if sometimes this or that piece on the board doesn’t get used as skillfully as it might.