An analysis of “Once Upon A Time”: via music, wardrobe, specific acting choices, and character study. We, the fans, are being treated to the reign of Dark Swan. We are walking through Emma’s life and the different types of love: eros- her relationship with Killian, agape- her relationship with Storybrooke, storge- her relationship with The Charming family, and philia- her relationship with Regina, as she attempts to appeal to their conceits, and warp them the way she herself has been warped.
Mark Isham, the composer for “Once Upon A Time”, provides the audience with musical cues for Emma, as Dark Swan, and Regina. Regina, an ex-villain, retains her sense of darkness in Isham’s score, however it is a comforting familiar take on a character that we have come to trust and believe in. Examining Isham’s score during Dark Swan’s conflict with Regina in her house, reveals several changes. Regina’s cue consists of bass, and cellos-classic bad guy music except declawed of drums, or any woodwind accents to give it depth. Thus, presenting us with the aural version of a character with a dark past embracing redemption. The past doesn’t go away but it doesn’t have to hurt/harm anymore. We don’t flinch at Regina’s cue because there’s nothing threatening in it. In stark contrast we are presented with the Dark Swan cue. Dark Swan’s musical cue is familiar, eerie, and jarring. It’s supposed to be. Her cue consists of minor arpeggios played on a xylophone, evoking the sense of a creepy horror movie. It’s jarring because while Emma’s theme is sad, Dark Swan’s is ominous. It’s the aural equivalent of the scene in a movie where the character everyone trusted is revealed to be the bad guy as they turn, head tilted at an unnatural angle, gesturing with a knife still dripping blood, and assuring you that ‘they were right all along’. Or to be blunt, Anakin Skywalker trying to convince Padme that the Jedi are evil. The audience is Padme.
Where Regina’s theme sounds like an empty threat-all bark no bite, Dark Swan’s theme is in full swing immediately. Drums lend a sharp urgency to their argument, and the Dark one formerly known as Emma, has the full orchestra at her disposal. By the time Regina manages to retreat from Dark Swan’s wrath, Dark Swan has managed impress and overwhelm with her full musical expression and cue.
The moment Dark Swan slams the door in Regina’s face brings almost palpable relief.
There are so many intricacies of film and TV media. Wardrobe, for example. When Emma has a scene as Dark Swan with Regina she wears full regalia, dress, long trench-overcoat with the collar raised (by the way there have been lots of comments on YouTube complimenting her sense of style and I agree), full make-up, and bleached hair done up in an intricate design. This is armor-clothing. These are not the clothes you wear to get and be comfortable with someone, they’re the clothes you wear to protect yourself. This outfit is opposed to the Dark Swan and Killian scene, where Dark Swan appears in just the dress, the lowest level of her ensemble. That was an outfit designed to attract, not protect, repulse, or defy.
I found myself, as a viewer, frustrated with Killian for even listening to Dark Swan, no less believing her or following her inside. When he strolled into the house I felt disappointed that he fell for a smile and a sashay.
But maybe that’s the appeal of Emma’s version of the Dark one. She hooks the characters, her friends and family, in with something appealing and/or familiar, except corrupted-like biting into fake fruit. The veneer and shine are there and it’s appealing to the eye but it’s not real. The appeal she’s offering isn’t real. As a side note I find it interesting that Emma was in full wardrobe ensemble armor for her conversation with Henry. Although, maybe not so much in light of Rumplestiltskin’s conversation with Emma and the ways Dark ones get defeated. Henry definitely counts as a loved one.
Back on track.
In each conversation Dark Swan presented something familiar and desired to her family and friends. To Henry she gave him the idea that it wasn’t him it was the others. They failed her, but Henry, who I’m coming to realize may believe that he is above it all as the heart of the truest believer, didn’t fail her.
Whatever went down in Camelot, Dark Swan was quick to reassure him that he was still perfect in her eyes, and no, there was no need to fear her. But Mark Isham’s musical cues tell us otherwise, the high-pitched descending broken arpeggios reminding us that something’s not right here. The fact that the Dark Swan appeared in full costume tells us she’s protecting herself from a threat of some sort (read: Henry), and finally this second episode proves the characters need say her name only once, like Voldemort, and she’ll appear.
So why, then, did she wait until Henry called her over and over?
In conversation with Hook, she, the Dark Swan, presented herself. Killian was paranoid at first, demanding to know where she’d taken him, but Dark Swan saw through this bluster and next thing we know they’re making out in the hallway. Kudos to Killian for being willing to try True Love’s Kiss. Unfortunately, Emma already tried it back in Camelot at the beginning, and it didn’t work. What she didn’t know was that Killian knew about True Love’s Kiss, thus the mild reproach of, “You’ve been talking to Belle”. However, once she understood, Dark Swan went right back to the original game plan: seduce Killian, plant seeds of doubt, turn him against the others. Interesting to note: she referred to him as “the pirate I remember.” Perhaps the Dark one only recognizes darkness.
Also, yet another side note, I find it interesting that J.Mo. chooses to play Dark Swan as someone who craves touch. It’s as though at some point in Camelot, Emma’s friends and family stopped giving her positive feedback, especially via physical touch. And I think everyone can agree that Emma communicates with people she’s familiar with physically. The Charming family hugs, nudges, shoves, bumps, heck, there’s probably a high-five in there somewhere.
But from what we’ve seen in Storybrooke, the Dark Swan reacts to even the chance at physical touch like a woman freed from isolation. Ever notice how in movies the freed prisoner often hugs their rescuer? It’s more than a thank-you, it’s a bodily confirmation that ‘I am not alone anymore. Someone else is with me. They’re on my side.’
I get the feeling no one’s been on Emma/Dark Swan’s side for quite a while. And so she reaches out to Henry when he calls and looks dismayed when he withdraws before she can touch his hand and steal some reassurance, prompting, “You don’t have to be afraid of me”. She almost gleefully kisses Killian, sighing happily like a starving woman at a buffet. Here is someone who can not resist her and won’t deny her; even when he rushes out there’s a smirk on her face. She did what she set out to do: laid seeds of doubt. Does she have her memory? Perhaps she’s a victim too, just like the rest of them…
And she managed to soothe that gnawing hunger inside of her. Which brings us to:
The Queen formerly known as Evil. Emma, as the Dark one, has had a pretty straightforward plan: Step 1) Appeal to their conceit. Step 2) Plant seeds of doubt, Step 3) Turn them against one another.
Divide and conquer: one of the surefire plans in the book of villainous plans. There’s probably a trope about it.
Now I’m going to try to get this right.
We all know Emma and Regina’s dynamic. Something terrible happens, usually to Regina (although Emma’s not far behind on the terrible things list), Regina withdraws, making a poor decision/mess in the process, Emma pursues, cleans up mess and fixes boo-boos, Emma reassures Regina, Emma and Regina get drinks at Granny’s. Done. We’re five seasons in. This is the established dynamic. Which is why tonight’s argument was so interesting to me.
I couldn’t figure out why they both appeared to so angry. The reason being that they were both seeking and depending on that dynamic, only to find that they didn’t know the steps to the dance.
It started out right. Something terrible happened to Regina-Robin was freaking carried away (like the dude in distress he is haha) by an actual Harpy. (Which gave me pause. An underworld mythos? But I suppose Disney did make Hercules-so all’s fair.)
And here’s where the subversion happened. On any given day this is where Regina would withdraw-either to sulk in her office, scheme in her palace, or plot in her secret plotting room. Again, Regina withdraws-Emma pursues. Not this time. This time Regina came barging in unannounced, cellos a-swelling, and caught the Dark one napping. Dark Swan barely had time to fit in a clever quip before Regina was practically in the kitchen. That’s what heroes do. They barge. And Regina’s learned from the fairest bargers in the land: The Charmings.
“We need to talk.” Regina demands. A verbal thrust. Once again in full Dark one armor Dark Swan parries with snark. Except here’s yet another problem. Regina lives, and breathes, snark. Snark, sarcasm, snide remarks, any and all witty repartee are firmly Regina’s. It’s her first coping mechanism and she knows it well. This is not an area she’ll be defeated in. Regina counters.
Note: I’ve glossed over the exact dialogue but it’s important to recognize that Dark Swan is still doing the same thing she did to Henry and Killian. 1) Appealing to their conceit-purity and aloofness, love and the desire to rescue- in Henry and Killian’s cases respectively, 2) plant seeds of doubt,-“they’re” the ones who “failed” me and “I don’t remember”). 3) Turn them against one another.
Having already established the doubt that Regina could save Storybrooke during their last encounter, this time Dark Swan targeted their friendship and activities they enjoyed doing together, ie. drinking.
Dark Swan turned Emma’s offer of friendship ‘let’s get drinks at Granny’s’ into taunts, ‘yes let’s drink that rage you’re bottling instead’ and ‘usually a guest brings drinks as a gift.’
So here we have an interesting situation: two people, two friends, at odds with each other. There are moments, in relationships and dancing, that one must and does trust ones partner to respond exactly right. It’s why third parties caution addicts to avoid enablers and counsel enablers against, well, enabling. Whenever Regina made a poor decision in the past, she could trust that Emma would be there within moments to clean it up and fix boo-boos. If we look beneath the anger and snark the real conversation emerges into something like this:
Regina: Emma, I’m worried. My important person is in danger and I’m not sure how to fix it. Make this decision for me.
Here, Regina is about to make a poor decision by allowing her fear of death and loss to stop her from making the willing heroic sacrifice. No doubt (no pun intended) in the back of her mind, she hears Grumpy’s doubts mixing in with her own, and the Dark Swan’s newly planted ones.
Here is the subversion where the characters themselves knew things were different.
Emma would have grabbed her sword and her jacket and said “Let’s go. Together we can rescue Robin.” Thus enabling Regina’s hero-duties shirking by taking the onus (and blame) upon herself. Despite the earlier missteps this is what Regina was counting on. Unfortunately for them that’s not how Dark Swan reacted. Dark Swan reacted with incredulity, which quickly turned into outrage.
But back to that in a moment.
It’s important to note that Emma and Regina don’t touch. Don’t ask my why. They just don’t. And this determined exception is what I believe saved Regina’s life, because at no point does Dark Swan ever allow us to forget that she is the Dark one, with the powers and abilities inherent in that capacity. As we established earlier, Emma has no qualms about touching people and even uses it as positive reinforcement. Emma as a bounty hunter? Beats up bad guy. Emma as a mother? Hugs Henry. Emma as a lover? Kisses Killian. Emma as a newbie hero/Dark one? Chokes Regina and Merida respectively. Emma as Dark Swan? Seduces Killian (or tries to), and turns a man’s body (Sneezy the dwarf) into stone.
With regards to Sneezy. Dark Swan turned Sneezy into stone for interrupting her dramatic monologue about havoc and punishment. Something tells me her patience is not as strong as Emma’s and here we have Regina, about five inches from her face and next to no reaction. Next to because Dark Swan, for about twenty seconds lost her cool and regressed into angry Emma.
Emma and Regina continue, as Dark Swan and Regina to facilitate touch with words.
When Dark Swan failed to respond like Regina was hoping. (Read: refused to enable her.) Regina tried reaching out with a good old-fashioned ‘I know you’re in there’ speech. (The physical equivalent of grasping her shoulders). This netted her a confused, irritated look from Emma. However it also got her Emma’s line, “You understand better than anyone…” Again, much like she had Kilian before her with “There’s the pirate I remember”, recognizing Regina’s darker self, The Evil Queen.
I think Regina’s right. I think Hook is right. I think Henry’s right.
Over and over for two seasons now we’ve heard Emma defend herself as she found her powers, embraced her powers, and now as the new Dark one, utilizing her powers. The refrain has remained the same.
“I’m still me. I’m still Emma.”
But even as she acknowledged being Emma, Dark Swan refused to enable Regina. Dark Swan’s continued denial of Regina’s request for help and inherent enablement prompted the honest reaction of anger from Regina. Like anyone whose enabler refuses to “help” them, her first reaction was to strike out.
Regina lashes out, “You did this! You fix it!” Which provoked the aforementioned incredulity from Dark Swan.
“You think I did this?”
And in anger honesty, “Why else would I be here?”
Remembering that Emma and Regina use words and not physical touch to connect to one another, this was equivalent of a sharp slap from Regina to Emma.
Cue one outraged Dark Swan. And again in anger honesty. At this point the aura and composure of the pale, perennially cool as to be cold Dark Swan melts away and leaves one outraged, indignant, red-faced Emma bellowing her way to her front door, yelling secrets as she went. Anything to get Regina, and the real emotion she brought with her out of her house. And for a brief moment before the door slammed the audience could see the confusion on Regina’s face.
Why did Regina look so confused? Because essentially, Emma still helped her out, even if it was in a fit of pique. No, Emma didn’t release the Harpy. Yes, a price must be paid and yes, that responsibility rests solely on Regina’s shoulders. And oddly enough affirmation that yes, Regina has the ability if not the desire to do it. ie. “You want everyone to believe you’re the Savior? Then step up and do what needs to be done!”
Regina got the information, and help, she wanted (sort of), but the manner in which she received it was wrong. Where Emma would have, in the past, been gentle, patient, and reassuring (the next to last step in their dynamic), Dark Swan was harsh in her honesty and unabashedly angry and impatient. Something Regina, and the audience hadn’t seen since Season One when Emma had at her by the throat. Also? No invite to Granny’s. Later on in the episode we find out that Regina went anyway, and in a pleasing move she undoes Dark Swan’s handiwork with Sneezy, thus completing the full role reversal in their dynamic- Regina cleaning up Emma’s messes/poor decisions and fixing boo-boos. Emma ends up at Granny’s too.
She doesn’t go in.
I’m looking forward to seeing Emma, as the Dark Swan, interact with her parents.
In conclusion, via music, wardrobe, and specific acting choices, we, the fans, are being treated to the reign of Dark Swan. We are walking through Emma’s life and loves, represented through her relationships with the key players in her life, as she she attempts to appeal to their conceits, and warp them the way she herself has been warped. By sowing seeds of doubt, I believe that Emma, as Dark Swan, will invest the next few episodes turning the players against one another as each one fights to prove to the other that their relationship, bond, and show of love is supreme. However, in exploiting pre-existing flaws in their relationships Dark Swan will ultimately find herself surprised when these very same “weak” points,-Henry’s desire/need to be above-it-all, Killian’s desire/need to rescue, and Regina’s desire/need to prove that she’s good enough- turn out to be her saving graces.